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.
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?