December 10, 2012

Tyrants and Revolutionaries

Bertrand Russell: Power

Naked Power

[If] human life is to be … anything better than a dull misery punctuated with moments of sharp horror, there must be as little naked power as possible.
The exercise of power, if it is to be something better than the infliction of wanton torture, must be hedged round by safeguards of law and custom, permitted only after due deliberation, and entrusted to men who are closely supervised in the interests of those who are subjected to them. …

It involves …
  • the elimination of war, for all war is an exercise of naked power. …
  • a world free from those intolerable oppressions that give rise to rebellions. …
  • the raising of the standard of life throughout the world …
  • some institution analogous to the Roman tribunes … for every section that is liable to oppression, such as minorities and criminals [and]
  • above all, a watchful public opinion, with opportunities of ascertaining the facts.

It is useless to trust in the virtue of some individual or set of individuals. …
No real solution of the problem of power is to be found in irresponsible government by a minority …
(p 71)

Revolutionary Power

A government without psychological authority must be a tyranny.
(p 80)

The decay of Liberalism has many causes, both technical and psychological.
They are to be found
  • in the technique of war,
  • in the technique of production,
  • in the increased facilities for propaganda, and
  • in nationalism, which is itself an outcome of Liberal doctrines.
All these causes, especially where the State has economic as well as political power, have immensely increased the power of governments. …
A modern community, just as much as those of the eighteenth century, requires, if it is to remain happy and prosperous, a sphere for individual initiative, but this sphere must be defined afresh, and safeguarded by new methods.
(p 81)


Naked Power

Revolutionary Power


Nobel Prize for Literature (1950).

  • Power: A New Social Analysis, George Allen & Unwin, 1938.


    [‘Naked’ power is that which] involves no acquiescence on the part of the subject. …
    The power of the Catholic Church over Catholics is traditional, but its power over heretics who are persecuted is naked.
    The power of the State over loyal citizens is traditional, but its power over rebels is naked.

    [Powerful organisations pass] through three phases …
    • fanatical [ie revolutionary] belief, leading to conquest …
    • general acquiescence [to] the new power, which rapidly becomes traditional; and …
    • [the exercise of power] against those who reject tradition [ie that which] has again become naked. …
    (p 57)

    At the point where reliable history of Greek cities begins, there was a contest between aristocracy and tyranny.
    Except in Sparta, tyranny was everywhere victorious for a time, but was succeeded either by democracy or by a restoration of aristocracy, sometimes in the form of plutocracy.
    This first age of tyranny covered the greater part of the seventh and sixth centuries BC.
    It was not an age of naked power … nevertheless, it prepared the way for the lawlessness and violence of later times.

    The word ‘tyrant’ did not, originally, imply any bad qualities in the ruler, but only an absence of legal or traditional title.
    Many of the early tyrants governed wisely, and with the consent of the majority of their subjects.
    Their only implacable enemies, as a rule, were the aristocrats.
    Most of the early tyrants were very rich men, who bought their way to power, and maintained themselves more by economic than by military means. …

    The first age of tyranny was that in which coinage first came into use …
    [This] had the same kind of effect in increasing the power of rich men as credit and paper money have had in recent times.
    (p 58)

    The use of money, when it is new, profoundly disturbs ancient customs, as may be seen in the parts of Africa which have not been long under European control.
    In the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the effect was to increase the power of commerce, and to diminish that of territorial aristocracies. …
    The circumstances were ideal for economic power, which weakened the hold of tradition in much the same way as industrialism did in the nineteenth century.

    So long as it was possible for everybody to be prosperous, the weakening of tradition did more good than harm [and] led, among the Greeks, to [a] rapid advance in civilisation …
    The freedom of Greek art and science and philosophy is that of a prosperous age unhampered by superstition.
    But the social structure had not the toughness required to resist misfortune, and individuals had not the moral standards necessary for the avoidance of disastrous crimes when virtue could no longer bring success.
    (p 59)

    The result was a universal scramble for personal power, conducted by corruption, street fighting, and assassination.

    In every city, the rich favoured oligarchy and the poor favoured democracy …
    [When] the partisans of democracy were victorious, their leader usually succeeded in making himself a tyrant.
    (p 61)

    In Africa [Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, who lived from 361 to 289 BC] was at first amazingly successful …
    [He] captured Tunis, and besieged Carthage, where the government became alarmed, and set to work to propitiate Moloch.
    It was found that aristocrats whose children ought to have been sacrificed to the god had been in the habit of purchasing poor children as substitutes …
    [The] practice was now sternly repressed, since Moloch was known to be more gratified by the sacrifice of aristocratic children.
    After this reform the fortunes of the Carthaginians began to mend. …

    He then besieged Utica, where, arriving unexpectedly, he captured three hundred prisoners in the fields …
    [These] he bound to the front of his siege engines, so that … to defend themselves, [the Uticans] had to kill their own people.
    (p 63)

    Renaissance Italy presents a very close parallel to ancient Greece, but the confusion is even greater.
    There were
    • oligarchical commercial republics,
    • tyrannies, after the Greek model,
    • principalities of feudal origin, and …
    • the States of the Church. …

    [Pope Alexander VI], except in Italy, commanded reverence, but his sons did not, and Cesare Borgia had to rely upon naked power.
    Cesare Borgia and his father … inspired Machiavelli. …

    The Colonna and Orsini had been the bane of the Popes for centuries …
    Alexander VI made a treaty with them, and invited their chief, Cardinal Orsini, to the Vatican, on hearing that Cesare had captured two important Orsini by treachery.
    Cardinal Orsini was arrested as soon as he came into the Pope’s presence …
    [Orsini's] mother paid the Pope two thousand ducats for the privilege of sending him food, and his mistress presented His Holiness with a costly pearl which he had coveted.
    Nevertheless Cardinal Orsini died in prison — of poisoned wine given by the orders of Alexander VI, it was said. … (p 72)
    Cesare Borgia:
    It is well to beguile those who have shown themselves masters of treachery. …
    In Renaissance Italy, as in ancient Greece, a very high level of civilisation was combined with a very low level of morals …
    • Leonardo erected fortifications for Cesare Borgia;
    • some of the pupils of Socrates were among the worst of the thirty tyrants;
    • Plato’s disciples were mixed up in shameful doings in Sycracuse, and
    • Aristotle married a tyrant’s niece.

    In both ages, after art, literature, and murder had flourished side by side for about a hundred and fifty years, all were extinguished together by less civilised but more cohesive nations from the West and North.
    In both cases the loss of political independence involved not only cultural decay, but loss of commercial supremacy and catastrophic impoverishment.

    Periods of naked power are usually brief [and end in one] of three ways. …
    • foreign conquest, as in the cases of Greece and Italy …
    • the establishment of a stable dictatorship, which soon becomes traditional [eg] the empire of Augustus, after the period of civil wars from Marius to the defeat of Antony [and]
    • the rise of a new religion [— such as when] Mohammed united the … warring tribes of Arabia.
    (p 65)

    [A] form of power which has been traditional becomes naked as soon as the tradition ceases to be accepted.
    It follows that periods of free thought and vigorous criticism tend to develop into periods of naked power.
    So it was in Greece [and] Renaissance Italy. …

    [Justice] is simply the interest of the stronger.
    (The Republic, Plato)
    (p 66)

    Whenever this view is generally accepted, rulers [and rebels] cease to be subject to moral restraints …
    [Where this doctrine is generally accepted] the existence of an orderly community [is] entirely dependent upon the direct physical force.
    [Military tyranny becomes] inevitable. …

    Other forms of government can only be stable where there is some widespread belief which inspires respect for the existing distribution of power.
    [Such beliefs] have usually been such as cannot stand against intellectual criticism.
    Power has at various times been limited, with general consent,
    • to royal families,
    • to aristocrats,
    • to rich men,
    • to men as opposed to women, and
    • to white men as opposed to those with other pigmentations.
    But the spread of intelligence among subjects has caused them to reject such limitations, and the holders of power have been obliged either to yield or to rely upon naked force.

    If orderly government is to command general consent, some way must be found of persuading a majority of mankind to agree upon some doctrine other than ['might makes right'. …]
    [For this to occur,] the advantages of orderly government must be generally realised …

    [This usually involves] the existence of opportunities for energetic men to become rich or powerful by constitutional means.
    Where some class containing individuals of energy and ability is debarred from desirable careers, there is an element of instability which is likely to lead to rebellion sooner or later.
    (p 67)

    [There also needs to be] some social convention deliberately adopted in the interests of order, and not so flagrantly unjust as to arouse widespread opposition.
    Such a convention, if successful for a time, will soon become traditional …

    Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ … sought to base governmental power upon a convention adopted on rational grounds, and not upon superstitious reverence for monarchs.
    The effect of Rousseau’s doctrines upon the world shows the difficulty of causing men to agree upon some non-superstitious basis for government.

    Perhaps this is not possible when superstition is swept away very suddenly …
    [Some] practice in voluntary co-operation is necessary as a preliminary training.
    The great difficulty is that respect for law is essential to social order, but is impossible under a traditional régime which no longer commands assent, and is necessarily disregarded in a revolution.
    [This problem] must be solved if the existence of orderly communities is to be compatible with the free exercise of intelligence.
    State propaganda has, in recent times, proved powerless when opposed to national feeling, as in India and … in Ireland.
    It has difficulty in prevailing against strong religious feeling.
    How far, and for how long, it can prevail against the self-interest of the majority, is still a doubtful question.
    It must be admitted, however, that State propaganda becomes steadily more effective
    [The] problem of securing acquiescence is therefore becoming easier for governments.
    (p 68)

    I have spoken hitherto of political power …
    [In] the economic sphere naked power is at least equally important.
    Marx regarded all economic relations, except in the socialist community of the future, as entirely governed by naked power. …

    In the infancy of industrialism … the relation of employer and employed was one of naked power …
    Trade unions … can be suppressed if wage-earners have no share in political power …
    [A] series of legal decisions would have crippled them in England but for the fact that, from 1868 onward, urban working men had votes.
    Given trade union organisation, wages are [determined] by bargaining, as in the purchase and sale of commodities.
    (p 69)

    A payment is extorted by naked power, if it has to be made in spite of the indignation of the person making it.
    Such indignation exists in two classes of cases:
    • where the payment is not customary, and
    • where, owing to a change of outlook, what is customary has come to be thought unjust.
    Formerly, a man had complete control of the property of his wife, but the feminist movement caused a revolt against this custom, which led to a change in the law. …

    [Every] increase of socialistic opinion makes the power of the capitalist more naked …
    [The] case is analogous to that of heresy and the power of the Catholic Church. …

    Most of the great abominations in human history are connected with naked power — not only those associated with war, but others equally terrible if less spectacular.
    (p 70)
    • Slavery and the slave trade,
    • the exploitation of the Congo,
    • the horrors of early industrialism,
    • cruelty to children,
    • judicial torture,
    • the criminal law,
    • prisons,
    • workhouses,
    • religious persecution,
    • the atrocious treatment of the Jews,
    • the merciless frivolities of despots,
    • the unbelievable iniquity of the treatment of political opponents in Germany and Russia at the present day
    — all these are examples of the use of naked power against defenceless victims.
    (p 71)


    A traditional system … may break up in two different ways.
    It may happen that the creeds and mental habits upon which the old régime was based give way to mere scepticism …
    [In] that case, social cohesion can only be preserved by the exercise of naked power.
    Or it may happen that a new creed, involving new mental habits, acquires an increasing hold over men, and at last becomes strong enough to substitute a government in harmony with the new convictions in place of the one which is felt to have become obsolete.
    In this case the new revolutionary power has characteristics which are different both from traditional and from naked power.
    It is true that, if the revolution is successful, the system which it establishes soon becomes traditional …
    [It is also true] that the revolutionary struggle, if it is severe and prolonged, often degenerates into a struggle for naked power.
    (p 72)

    I. Early Christianity. …

    Christian teaching … involved a weakening of the State, either in favour of the right of private judgement, or in favour of the Church.
    The former, theoretically, involves anarchy …
    [The] latter involves two authorities, Church and State, with no clear principle according to which their spheres are to be delimited.
    (p 73)

    While Rome was conquering, a Roman could feel strongly about the glory of the State, because it gratified his imperial pride ..
    [By] the fourth century this sentiment had been long extinct.
    Enthusiasm for the State, as a force comparable with religion, revived only with the rise of nationalism in modern times.

    Every successful revolution shakes authority and makes social cohesion more difficult.
    So it was with the revolution that gave power to the Church.
    Not only did it greatly weaken the State, but it set the pattern for subsequent revolutions.
    [The] individualism, which had been an important element of Christian teaching in its early days, remained as a dangerous source of both theological and secular rebellion. …

    The anarchic fire in Christianity remained alive, though deeply buried, throughout the Middle Ages ..
    [At] the Reformation, it suddenly shot up into a great conflagration.
    (p 75)

    II. The Reformation. …

    [On] the one hand, [the] theological anarchism [of the Reformation] weakened the Church …
    [And] on the other hand, by weakening the Church it strengthened the State.
    The Reformation [resulted in] the partial destruction of a great international organisation, which had repeatedly proved itself stronger than any secular government. …
    The Church, as an independent power, practically ceased to exist in Lutheran countries, and became part of the machinery for preaching submission to the secular government.

    In England, Henry VIII took the matter in hand with characteristic vigour and ruthlessness.
    (p 76)

    [He] wished English religion to minister to his glory rather than to the glory of God.
    By means of subservient Parliaments, he could alter dogmas as he chose; and he had no difficulty in executing those who disliked his alterations.
    The revenue gained by the dissolution of the monasteries enabled him to easily] destroy such Catholic insurrections as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
    Gunpowder and the Wars of the Roses had weakened the old feudal aristocracy, whose heads he cut off whenever he felt so disposed. …

    [His work] might not have been permanent, but for the fact that, under Elizabeth, a form of nationalism associated with Protestantism became at once necessary and lucrative.
    Self-preservation demanded the defeat of Catholic Spain, and took the pleasant form of capturing Spanish treasure-ships. …

    The Independents rejected the State and the Church equally as theological authorities, and claimed the right of private judgement, with the corollary of religious toleration.
    This point of view readily associated itself with revolt against secular despotism.
    If each individual had a right to his own theological opinions, had he not, perhaps, other rights as well?
    Were there not assignable limits to what governments might legitimately do to private citizens?
    Hence the doctrine of the Rights of Man, carried across the Atlantic by the defeated followers of Cromwell, embodied by Jefferson in the American Constitution, and brought back to Europe by the French Revolution.
    (p 77)

    III. The French Revolution and Nationalism. …

    [The doctrine of the Rights of Man] is, in origin and sentiment, anti-governmental.
    The subject of a despotic government holds that he should be free
    • to choose his religion as he pleases,
    • to exercise his business in all lawful ways without bureaucratic interference,
    • to marry where he loves, and
    • to rebel against an alien domination.

    Where governmental decisions are necessary, they should … be the decisions of a majority or of their representatives, not of an arbitrary and merely traditional authority such as that of kings and priests.
    These views gradually prevailed throughout the civilised world, and produced the peculiar mentality of Liberalism, which retains even when in power a certain suspicion of governmental action.

    Individualism has obvious logical and historical relations to Protestantism, which asserted its doctrines in the theological sphere, although it often abandoned them when it acquired power.(p 78)

    Through Protestantism, there is a connection with early Christianity, and with its hostility to the pagan State. …

    [Owing] to its concern with the individual soul … no State necessity can justify the authorities in compelling a man to perform a sinful action. …
    Kant’s principle, that each man is an end in himself, is derived from Christian teaching. …

    The revolutionary and Napoleonic armies exhibited a combination of the propagandist force of a new creed with naked power on a larger scale than had been seen before in Europe …
    Traditional power everywhere was challenged by the Jacobins, but it was Napoleon’s armies that made the challenge effective.

    Napoleon’s enemies fought in defence of ancient abuses, and established a reactionary system when they were at last victorious.
    Under their dull repression … the deadness of the Great Peace made war seem splendid and bayonets the harbingers of freedom.
    A Byronic cult of violence grew up during the years of the Holy Alliance [which] is traceable to the naked power of Napoleon, and its connection with the emancipating war-cries of the Revolution.
    Hitler and Mussolini, no less than Stalin, owe their success to Robespierre and Napoleon. …

    The clash of rival fanaticism, whether in foreign conquest, in religious persecution, or in the class war, is distinguished … from naked power by the fact that it is a group, not an individual, that seeks power, and that it seeks it, not for its own sake, but for the sake of its creed.
    [In] a long conflict the end is apt to be forgotten …
    [There] is a tendency, especially if the struggle is long and severe, for fanaticism to become gradually transformed into the mere pursuit of victory.
    (p 79)

    Only where the revolutionary faith is strong and widespread, and victory is not too long delayed, can the habit of co-operation survive the shock involved in revolution, and enable the new government to rest upon consent rather than upon mere military force.

    IV. The Russian Revolution.

    Of the importance of the Russian Revolution in the history of the world, it is as yet too soon to judge …
    Like early Christianity, it preaches doctrines which are international and even anti-national …
    [Like] Islam, but unlike Christianity, it is essentially political.
    The only part of its creed [which has] so far has proved effective is the challenge to Liberalism. …
    The Soviet Government [has] reverted to the teaching of the Catholic Church in its great days …
    [That] it is the business of Authority to propagate Truth, both by positive teaching and by the suppression of all rival doctrines. …
    What [is new is] the amalgamation of political and economic power, which made possible an enormous increase of governmental control.

    [Its] rejection of Liberalism has [achieved] extraordinary success.
    From the Rhine to the Pacific Ocean, all its chief doctrines are rejected almost everywhere …
    Italy first, and then Germany, adopted the political technique of the Bolsheviks …
    [Even] in the countries that remain democratic, the Liberal faith has lost its fervour. …
    (p 80)

    The result of such doctrines is to transform all power, first, into revolutionary power, and then, by inevitable gradations, into naked power. …
    (p 81)

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