I love reading Bertrand Russell’s works, his being a historian, political activist, philosopher, logician, mathematician and Nobel Prize for Literature winner 1950 amongst other things, he manages to combine dry wit and convey big ideas with simple language that allows the lay person to understand his arguments succinctly.
My tastefully tatty old 1919 edition is from St Anne’s College Library Oxford and sadly has no dust jacket (of which more in a later post) and there seems to be a general lack of a decent blurb available online so here are some quotes from the great man to get you in the mood:
War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Patriots always talk of dying for their country but never of killing for their country.
Hunting for a suitable cover image, I was perplexed to find that most of the modern editions are titled ‘Proposed Roads to Freedom’. I can only assume this is to differentiate it from John-Paul Sartre’s later series The Roads to Freedom which was a response to events in World War Two as Russell’s is, albeit for different reasons to World War One.
The book came about at a time of European reconstruction from the ashes of war, it was the perfect time to debate the relative strengths and deficiencies of three political systems for the good of nations. It’s an excellent overview and accessible read that despite being out of date still retains some pertinent ideas, especially with today’s global political unrest.
Part one gives the reader a history of socialism, anarchism, and syndicalism, looking at the catalysts for each philosophy and the key players in turning each into the movement that it what at the time. It acts both as a grounding for the casual reader in the pros and cons of each system (that is backed up by the history) and a handy reminder for the keener students.
Part two is a fascinating speculation on what the future could hold were these principles adhered to and what that would mean for work and pay, government and law, International relations and science and art. Russell looks on this as less of a reconstruction but more as a regeneration of society as a whole, which would be a worthy experiment these days were our leaders to have the courage to try to fix some of the creaky and aging systems we have in place.
It is refreshing to see the author advocating Anarchism as perhaps the best form of rule, The Right Honourable, The Earl Russell’s logic shows clearly his reasons why he would choose such a system and I believe this makes it doubly pertinent when looking at the propaganda that has been aimed at it, especially from parties whose own ideologies have been and still are harmful to societies and world peace. The book isn’t without its flaws, there are glossing over of technical details of making Anarchism work (but that promises to make for some interesting research for myself) and of course the world is a different place now so some of the ideas seem dated and perhaps a tad naive but this doesn’t detract from what is an interesting theoretical subject.
For people interested in the nature of ideas or like me just curious because the book was there for the reading, this is a satisfying introduction to the subject. I really enjoyed it and despite expecting a challenging read I was pleasantly surprised with the light nature and clarity with which it was presented. Understanding the thoughts of the time in the context of the monumental changes that have occurred since then not only makes for a compelling insight into the time but also allows us to understand how the past affects us today.