How to Read and Understand History was originally written in 1943. My copy is from a reprint put out in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc. Russell, one of the greatest 20th century English philosophers, was a great critic of the views on history of Hegel and Marx, let us see if his views are an improvement.
Russell tells us straight away that he is only looking at history “as a pleasure,” as an enjoyable way to pass one’s free time, and that his approach is that of an “amateur.” Nevertheless, he thinks this approach will show what he has usefully derived from history and what others may also.
He divides history into two parts — the large, which leads to an understanding of how the world got the way it is, and the small, which “makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature” [supposing there is such a thing independent of culture]. He thinks we should begin the study of history not by reading about it but rather from watching “movies with explanatory talk.” I think he has very young children in mind, because even “historical” movies are more fiction than history.
Russell maintains there have been only “three great ages of progress in the world”: the first being the growth of civilization in the Near East (Egypt, Babylonia), the second being Greece (from Homer to Archimedes), and the third being from the 15th century to the present. This scheme appears to be Eurocentric.
Russell appears to credit “progress” or historical development to men of genius. He says the proof of this is that the Incas and the Maya never invented the wheel. But they certainly had men of “genius,” as they had monumental architecture and the Maya and others had invented writing. It doesn’t occur to Russell that inventions such as the wheel are called forth from certain needs within a culture. The Maya and the Inca did just fine without the wheel. What they needed was gunpowder to give a proper greeting to the Spanish.
Russell also thinks that we would still be living at the productive level of the 18th century if “by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy.” This begs the question. Do the social conditions people find themselves in call forth their ingenuity and inventiveness, thus leading to progress, or is it all due to men of genius. Russell apparently believes in the ‘great man theory of history,’ but this theory rests on the logical fallacy I mentioned above (begging the question.)
Russell does not approve of those who “desire to demonstrate some ‘philosophy’ of history,” and he singles out “Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and the interpreters of the Great Pyramid and its ‘divine message’.” When it comes to Hegel, he even maintains that his view of history “is not a whit less fantastic than the views of those who divine by the Great Pyramid.”
In all fairness to Hegel, he and Russell may share more ideas about the nature of history than the latter thinks. In a nutshell, Hegel saw history as a gradual increase in human self-consciousness of freedom, finally leading to a condition where all human beings would be equally respected and their rights recognized. Hegel also appeals to empirical evidence, i.e., history itself, to justify this conclusion.
The end which Hegel envisioned has had its ups and downs, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (part of the UN Charter) is the type of progress he had in mind, even though there must still be a long process of development for the ideals of this document to become translated into actuality.
In theory, I am sure, Russell would not disagree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite residual racist and misogynist opinions he might have shared with the people of his generation, not to mention latent eugenicist tendencies.
For instance, he believes female behavior should be “circumscribed by prudential considerations”. Women who have been free to do as they like, i.e., women who have become rulers (“empresses regnant”) have, in the main, “murdered or imprisoned their sons, and often their husbands; almost all have had innumerable lovers” (one would think Russell might have approved of this considering his private life).
“If this is what women would do if they dared,” he writes, “we ought to be thankful for social restraints.” The only example he gives is Catherine the Great. Henry VIII or Nero do not elicit similar thoughts about male behavior. We are also told that “men of supreme ability are just as congenitally different from the average as are the feeble-minded.” This is a view he shares with Nietzsche.
The following opinion, however, is more in accord with what Hegel would believe. “Although,” Russell writes, “history is full of ups and downs, there is a general trend in which it is possible to feel some satisfaction; we know more than our ancestors knew, we have more command over the forces of nature [this is highly problematic since our economic system seems to be in the process of destroying us and our natural environment], we suffer less from disease and from natural cataclysms [also problematic].” He adds that “violence is now mainly organized and governmental, and it is easier to imagine ways of ending this than of ending the sporadic unplanned violence of more primitive times.”
We must remember that Russell was writing in 1943 in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, his “general trend” is a nod to progress, and for him the founding of the UN, the growth of the concept of universal rights, and the spread of social democratic ideals are all in accord with Hegelian notions. Despite his dislike of the notion of a “philosophy of history”, Russell’s “general trend” is in accord with Hegel’s outlook.
Besides being a closet Hegelian, it is interesting to note that this essay also reveals a Platonic bent to Russell’s thought, and a decidedly non-Hegelian cyclical approach to history.
“The greatest creative ages,” Russell writes, “are those where opinion is free, but behavior is still to some extent conventional. Ultimately, however, skepticism breaks down moral tabus, society becomes impossibly anarchic, freedom is succeeded by tyranny, and a new tight tradition is gradually built up.”
What is striking about this passage, besides its mechanical way of thinking, is that it seems to be in agreement with Russell’s conservative critics. Russell, the “passionate skeptic,” was himself accused of breaking down conventional moral beliefs, and it was objected that his teachings would lead to social breakdown and anarchy, and hence he should not be teaching at the City College of New York.
On the basis of the preceding passage, it appears that Russell might have even made the following statement: “It is true that I, Russell, am a skeptic, that I do think many conventional moral tabus are nonsense, and if my views are generally adopted a tyranny will replace our freedoms, since views such as mine lead to social breakdown and anarchy. Now, how about that teaching job?”
To be fair, Russell realizes this problem, which he later calls, “the dilemma between freedom and discipline.” Russell needs a method to break the cycle described above, and he finds it in science, allied with what he calls “intelligence” (a rather amorphous concept).
“Genuine morality,” he writes, “cannot be such as intelligence would undermine, nor does intelligence necessarily promote selfishness. It only does so when unselfishness has been inculcated for the wrong reasons, and then only so long as its purview is limited. In this respect science is a useful element in culture, for it has a stability which intelligence does not shake, and it generates an impersonal habit of mind that makes it natural to accept a social rather than a purely individual ethic.”
But this cannot be right. Here are some German scientists in 1943: “Well, personal ethical considerations aside, our society has asked us to figure out how much Zyklon-B should be delivered to Auschwitz to eliminate x number of social undesirables per day, and is Zyklon-B the best chemical for the task at hand. Let us calculate together.”
The above comments and considerations seem to me to point out serious difficulties with some of Russell’s ideas about the lessons one can learn from reading history the way he recommends — as a pleasurable leisure-time activity, one that assiduously avoids any attempt to formulate a philosophy of history.
“The men who make up philosophies of history,” he writes, “may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies.” His two primary bug-a-boos here are Hegel and Marx. He sees only two functions for the study of history. First we can look “for comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history.”
This is pretty arbitrary. Why not the beginning of a philosophy as well as a science? Hegel insisted that philosophy was to be pursued as a rigorous scientific procedure, just as any other discipline claiming to arrive at knowledge. Marx also praised the scientific method and claimed his ideas were scientific.
The second function of history, according to Russell, is to seek “by the study of individuals … to combine the merits of drama or epic poetry with the merit of truth.” This is an Aristotelian approach. The first function “views man objectively, as the heavenly bodies are viewed by an astronomer; the other appeals to imagination.”
I think it safe to say that Hegel and Marx fully agree with Russell’s first function, but would object to his second function as having no place in an objective study of the historical process. In fact, the basis of Russell’s animus towards Hegel and Marx is his opinion that they mix up his own second function with the first. I would like to conclude this brief presentation with a few remarks on Russell’s criticism of Marx’s views.
After a lively survey of the development of the West and an appreciation of some of the most interesting classical historians one ought to study (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Gibbon), Russell comes to Marx, whom he, in another essay, considers a free thinker and compares to Robert Owen and Thomas Paine.
In this essay, however, Marx is credited with founding the current interest in the economic interpretation of historical events. “Modern views,” Russell says, “as to the relation of economic facts to general culture have been profoundly affected by the theory, first explicitly stated by Marx [and Engels], that the mode of production of an age (and to a lesser degree the mode of exchange) is the ultimate cause of the character of its politics, laws, literature, philosophy, and religion.” Russell fails to mention the relations of production, a factor of prime importance for Marx and Engels.
Russell then says — and this is something that Lenin would certainly have agreed with, as would all who have been influenced by the Marxist classics — that this view “is misleading if accepted as a dogma, but it is valuable if used as a means of suggesting hypothesis.” Russell adds that “It has indubitably a large measure of truth, though not so much as Marx believed.” Just what was excessive in what “Marx believed” merits its own discussion, but in Russell’s essay Marx’s faults seem to be sins of omission rather than commission.
The “most important error” in Marx’s thought, according to Russell, is that “it ignores intelligence as a cause.” It is difficult to understand this objection. Russell says that “men and apes, in the same environment, have different methods of securing food: men practice agriculture, not because of some extra-human dialectic compelling them to do so, but because intelligence shows them its advantages.”
Granted that Marx was trying to explain the development of human society and not ape society, the question becomes, where did this “intelligence” come from? It appears that it just fell from the sky into human beings. A little dose of Darwin is needed here, and if Russell had read and been influenced by Engels’ essay “The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” he would not, I think, have had such a reified notion of “intelligence.”
Russell says he does not want to imply that “intelligence is something that arises spontaneously in some mystical uncaused manner.” He grants its causes are partly social, partly biological, and partly individual, and that “Mendelianism has made a beginning” into understanding its origins.
My point is that Marx did not “ignore intelligence as a cause.” He did not single it out as a primary factor, because he saw it as part of the human condition that arises as a response to the evolution of the species and its interactions with the natural and social environment.
Russell’s concern with “intelligence” appears to be the result of the prominence of the eugenics movement in his time and is reflected in his comment, quoted above, about the differences between the feeble-minded “average” folk and people such as himself (“of supreme ability”).
How to Read and Understand History is an enjoyable introduction to some of Russell’s ideas, but although one can enjoy it, one cannot, I think, understand history from reading it. To understand history one must begin with The Communist Manifesto.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.