In 1922 Bertrand Russell, then probably the most famous living philosopher in the world, published The Problem of China [POC]. This book was the result of Russell's being invited to China to give a series of lectures and conduct meetings with leading Chinese over a period of about six months. In POC Russell diagnoses the problems facing China as a result of its semi-occupation by European and Japanese imperialism. In the course of the book he also makes several recommendations and predictions concerning the future development of China.
The future leader of China, Mao Zedong, was either present at one of Russell's lectures or read a detailed account of it in the Chinese press. The purpose of this article is to discuss Russell's blueprint for Chinese liberation and compare it to what the Chinese, under the leadership of the Communist Party, actually did. Another purpose is to point out that many of Russell's comments about the role of the United States made over 90 years ago, as well as what was needed in China, are still relevant today.
A word of caution. Russell considered himself a radical and a "socialist", perhaps even a theoretical "communist" (although he was hostile to many of the actions of the Russian Bolsheviks) at this time. After WWII and up to the late 1950s Russell was a cold war anti-Communist, though not a ridiculous mindless one a la Sidney Hook and those in his milieu, before coming to his senses in the 1960s. I am only concerned, in this article, with Russell's political statements and opinions in the early 1920s. Some of Russell's views, while commonly held in the1920s, are completely politically incorrect by today's standards-- I will note them with explanation marks (!!) but otherwise I will not address them or pass over them in silence. These are usually remarks dealing with the nature of the "Chinese mind" or "character" as if all Chinese think a certain way.
This article will deal with Chapter One of POC: "Questions.''
In trying to understand China, Russell thinks he is dealing with a totally alien culture. He is forced to ask himself what his ultimate values are, what makes one culture or society "better" than another, and what ends does he wish to see triumph in the world. He says different people have different answers to these questions and he thinks they are just subjective preferences not amenable to argument. He will merely state his own and hope his reader will agree with him. Russell is no objectivist in morals. The ends he values are: "knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship and affection." He believes in the goals, if not always the methods, of communism (although he is not a Marxist), and thinks a socialist society will best approximate the ends he wants. There are elements in Chinese culture that also reflect his ends better than they are reflected in Euro-American culture.
Russell thinks a nation should be judged not only on how its own people are treated, but also on how it treats others. He finds China, in this respect, better than the imperialist nations of the West. In the following quote Russell uses the word "our" and I want to stress that he does not intend to restrict its meaning to the British Empire but uses it inclusively to refer to the major imperialist nations of Europe and the English speaking world or even to "capitalist" nations thus including Japan.
"Our prosperity," he writes, "and most of what we endeavor to secure for ourselves, can only be obtained by widespread exploitation of weaker nations ." The Chinese, however, obtain what they have by means of their own hard work. China is radically different today but I think what Russell says about it is still basically correct and what he says about "us" hasn't changed very much at all.
What happens in China, he says, will determine the whole future course of world history. There are tremendous resources in China and whether they are to be controlled "by China, by Japan, or by the white races [!!], is a question of enormous importance, affecting not only the whole development of Chinese civilization, but the balance of power in the world, the prospects of peace, the destiny of Russia, and the chances of development toward a better economic system in the advanced nations."
This remark is as true today as it was some 100 years ago. Chinese civilization, however, is now, at least, much more in the hands of the Chinese, the world balance of power remains in flux, the destiny of Russia is still undetermined, and a better economic system for the West (i.e., socialism) is still a distant dream but may be positively influenced by the economic development of China.
I didn't mention the "prospects for peace" and that is because in the short term Russell was absolutely correct: the civil war and revolution in China, World War II (in the Pacific), the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all had China, in one way or another, as their focus and the hope of eventually controlling her resources as a backdrop. Today as well many circles in the West, associated with international finance capital, see China as a future threat and the US military has contingency plans for a war with her. So, Russell was quite prescient to see the economic resources of China as the focal point of contemporary history.
Coming up this Friday, Chapter two: "Modern China"
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.