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A Reply To Bertrand Russell

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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  I have been reading Bertrand Russell’s essay “Philosophy and Politics” – one of the most consummate pieces of rubbish that I have read in some time. In fact, the essay belongs a few chapters further down the volume, in the one entitled “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”.

The central argument of the essay is that there is a connection between philosophy and politics – a thesis which is not as obvious as it sounds. And herein lies the interesting part of the work. It is not at all obvious how totalitarianism should be connected to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless, according to Russell, there is a connection. As a man deeply read in philosophy and history, his account of the influence of the former on the latter makes for gripping story telling.

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 The conclusion he draws is roughly this. Empiricist philosophies have had a benign effect on history; the rest malign. Empiricism is the view that knowledge is based on experience; the antithesis is the view that knowledge is available independently of experience. Clearly, the latter view can have dangerous consequences. If there is knowledge that is not verifiable by means of observation and experimentation, then who is to challenge or question such infallible wisdom? Correctly, Russell diagnoses the former Soviet Union as suffering from such philosophical indubitability. Anyone who questioned dialectical materialism was liable to be sent to Siberia.

 Correctly, too, he traces Soviet totalitarianism to its roots in Platonism and, more recently, the philosophy of Hegel. The enemies of Plato and Hegel were, of course, the empirical philosophers. Plato’s bugbear was, it seems, Democritus, the father of the atomic theory of matter. As an empiricist, Democritus receives Russell’s adulation in exact proportion as Plato his reprimand. Democritus, he observes, said: “Poverty in a democracy is as much to be preferred to what is called prosperity under despots as freedom is to slavery”. We recognise in these lines the drawing-room proclamations of the comfortable intellectual bourgeoisie of Bangladesh. India, they claim, is superior to China despite its grinding poverty because there the ragged citizens get to vote every year.

 In all this one may disagree with Russell’s viewpoint without being able to say that those views are wrong. After all, preferences in politics and ethics are not based on fact or reason, and is therefore unassailable on either ground. It is in his explanation of the roots of Liberalism – which is intertwined with empiricism - that he goes seriously astray.

 “What may be called, in a broad sense, the Liberal theory of politics is a recurrent product of commerce.” He goes on to add: “The reasons for the connection of commerce with Liberalism are obvious....The relation of buyer and seller is one of negotiation between two parties who are both free.” It is at this point that one loses all patience with Russell. Surely, he had heard of slavery, in which what was sold were people! And then : “When Athens, in the time of Pericles, became commercial, the Athenians became Liberal.” Was Russell totally oblivious to the fact that Athenian “commerce” rested to a large degree on slavery? For every two free Athenians, there were three slaves – if that’s Liberalism, what’s Illiberalism?

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In fact, much of Russell’s language can be updated to today’s diplomatic and political argot. Bill Clinton notoriously referred to ‘market-democracy’ in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.  The effects of ‘market-democracy’ on Russia and Bangladesh have been less than benign. We have just endured several weeks of hartals and blockades, which have led donors to urge the military to suspend democracy, to nation-wide acclaim.  In Russia, businessmen have to hire thugs to protect them. In Haiti, foreigners are advised to avoid taxis because the driver may take one on a permanent trip, rather than to the stated destination. In South Africa, wives and daughters of expatriate staff are given training in handling rape- and post-rape trauma. It would appear that in a market-democracy, the average citizen is never safe. In Japan, on the other hand, where they are less fixated on the market as well as on democracy, citizens routinely turn to the police – the superman in his koban – to help solve crimes as well as their financial and personal problems!

 “The only philosophy that affords a theoretical justification of democracy, and that accords with democracy in its temper of mind, is empiricism.” After this observation, Russell goes on to sing the praises of John Locke, the philosopher of liberty and toleration, the enemy of absolute monarchy. And, of course, John Locke was also the philosopher of English empiricism and enemy of continental rationalism. John Locke was also a slave-trader.

 In fact, the basis of English wealth at the time was to no inconsiderable degree the profits from slavery. Slavery, the demand for raw materials, industrialisation, the profit-motive – these components of the new economy were lovingly intertwined. The Lancashire cotton industry was built on the backs of the slaves working the Southern plantations. The greatest of the slave trading ports, Liverpool, was overlooked by Lancashire. John Locke and Samuel  Pepys were two of the many shareholders of the Royal African Company, the firm that had caused more human misery than the entire industrial revolution put together. The similarity with the Athenian Empire and the Roman Republic strikes one as more than accidental.

 The Athenian Empire, the Roman Republic, the British Empire and the American Empire – these present a continuous, uninterrupted spectacle of domination and subjection, of equal emphasis on freedom and slavery. It is reported that 1,700,000 Iraqi children have died as a direct consequence of sanctions (The Economist, September 14th 2002). And the late ruler of Iraq used to be a close buddy of the American Empire and its sidekick, Great Britain. In the Iran-Iraq war, over 300,000 people lost their lives in a conflict encouraged and engineered by America. A learned economist of the subcontinent has observed – in line with Russell and Popper – that a free press mitigates human suffering. Really? It appears, rather, that there is a close, perhaps even a necessary connection, between freedom, domination and empiricism.   
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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