Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Proposed Roads to Freedom by Bertrand Russell

Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism demystified
Bertrand Russell
In Proposed Roads to Freedom, Nobel Prize-winning philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Bertrand Russell thoroughly and thoughtfully explains the political and economic systems of three potentially viable alternatives to capitalism: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism. The book was published in 1918, when these movements were likely at their height on the world political stage and in the public’s collective consciousness. At that time, all three were ambitiously active in Europe and America, but it is hard to imagine the average reader having a minute understanding of their doctrines, which is where Russell comes in, as an eloquent interpreter of political economy for the masses. Today, in the age of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when the term Socialism inspires knee-jerk anger, Anarchism inspires fear, and Syndicalism inspires a head-scratching “Huh?”, we could use a book like this now more than ever.

Russell begins by devoting a chapter to each of the movements, defining their basic premises and providing historical background for each. He then goes into exploring specific issues of government and society by comparing and contrasting the three systems, examining such questions as how many hours workers should work and how they would be paid under each system, how would a nation operating under one of these philosophies conduct itself in international relations and war, and to what degree would art and science flourish or stagnate in a Socialist, Anarchist, or Syndicalist society. Russell states honestly that he does not think capitalism is the ideal economic system under which mankind should conduct itself, and that we should be working towards an alternative system. What’s refreshing about this book, however, is that Russell is no utopian optimist. Rather, he admits that any of the three systems in question are likely to fail in the face of mankind’s inherent greed and propensity to violence. Russell doesn’t advocate any of the three as his personal preference, but rather proposes a fourth alternative, a British form of Syndicalism known as Guild Socialism, which combines some of the better elements of all three. In the final chapter he outlines what his perfect world under Guild Socialism might look like, but again he states his case in a tone more hopeful than dogmatic.

As one would expect, Russell uses the writings of Karl Marx as the basis for his explanation of Socialism. For Anarchism, his main source is Peter Kropotkin. With Syndicalism, no one sage rises to the top, so Russell draws from a variety of texts, mostly of French origin. If Russell commits one error in his writing of this book it is that he quotes too extensively from the original doctrinal texts. I’m reading this book because I don’t want to read Marx’s Das Kapital, so I prefer it when Russell explains these ideas in his own words. Those wishing to read deeper can draw a very good bibliography from his 61 footnotes. Because the book was published a century ago, it contains a few unfortunately antiquated comments on race, such as when Russell expresses concern over “the exploitation of inferior races” where we today would use the term “developing countries.”

Russell doesn’t claim to have all the answers in Proposed Roads to Freedom, but he sure does provide the reader with an in-depth education on the subjects at hand. If more philosophers could write like Russell, using clear and accessible language without insulting the reader’s intelligence, perhaps philosophy wouldn’t be so frightening to the typical nonacademic reader (in America, at least). Russell’s body of work is a treasure trove for the rationalist and freethinking reader, and I look forward to digging deeper into his extensive catalog of writings.
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