Review: VJ McGill on Russell’s Critique of Marxism

June 11, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In the “The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell” volume in the Library of Living Philosophers (1944) VJ McGill (1897-1977) published a detailed critique of Russell’s political and economic philosophy. Russell was not pleased and made short shrift of Professor McGill’s efforts in his “Replies to Criticisms”. Russell dismisses McGill’s contribution as dealing with material “lying wholly outside philosophy” and says, in effect, that he will not even bother to argue against McGill’s positions as it would be “futile.” Seventy years later in retrospect, we might agree with Russell that his efforts to refute McGill would have been “futile.” But why would they have been? This review will attempt to answer that question by showing McGill’s critique was essentially correct and Russell simply wished to dodge the issues McGill raised.

At the time, McGill was on the faculty of Hunter College. In the 1950s he suffered a worse attack on his academic freedom than even Russell endured in the City College affair. McGill was stripped of his associate professorship and fired from Hunter for refusing to provide a list of names to the McCarthy Committee of “subversives” he had known in the 30s and 40s when he was active in progressive causes (he was a member of the Communist Party of the USA in the 1930s but resigned in 1941). The first part of McGill’s paper deals with Russell’s pessimism and theory of the passions. McGill says that the concept of “power” is basic to Russell’s political and economic philosophy– it is almost as if “the thirst for Power is the primary danger to mankind.”

In a Free Man’s Worship, Russell says perhaps we should fight against the power of a “hostile” universe but this fight against “an evil world” is itself a form of bondage, so the wise man would be better off resigning from the world and engaging in contemplation.
Russell’s pessimism as regards human nature is revealed by his attitude to war which he thinks results from “an impulse of aggression” present in human nature: “War,” he says, “grows out of ordinary human nature.” The only way to remedy this is to find an equal and opposite passion, such as “love” which represents “the instinct of constructiveness” and “the joy of life” with which to deflect the war drive.

Russell’s pessimism however, leads him to assert “all our institutions rest upon injustice” and we cannot destroy the “power of the State and private property.” There is nothing we can do about it but wait for the masses to become as educated as the elite. Not even socialism will end war. He gives an example of the ants, which he says have a socialist society, yet any strange ant that enters their society they instantly attack and kill. He concludes that human instincts are not much different from those of ants, especially when major racial differences are present “as between white men and yellow men.” He wrote this before he went to China and was not instantly set upon and killed.

Russell thinks his theory of power better explains what has happened in history than do the ideas of Marx. The major error of Marx’s economics is that Marx failed to understand “that love of power is the cause of the activities that are important in social affairs.” History cannot be understood without this knowledge. Russell wrote his book Power to show that the concept of Power is as basic to social science “in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics.” It is difficult to see how a social science concept can have the same sense as a physical concept.

Power is defined “as the production of intended effects.” Anything we do, intentionality, is the result of Power or “the love of Power.” This is rooted in our instinctual nature. McGill points out that a concept, such as Russell’s “power,” that explains all our intentional acts does not actually explain any of them. This is such an elementary and logical principle that one wonders how Russell could have been unaware of it. It is akin to saying that the Will of God explains why anything happens. It really does not explain anything.

Sometimes this Will to Power leads to good, but most of the time it leads to evil, according to Russell. The most powerful men in history, according to Russell, were Buddha, Christ, Pythagoras, and Galileo because their Will to Power led beyond their empirical selves and created types of power that set men free from power. Russell gives no explanation as to how this could happen– it is just a given!

This is asking too much and McGill suggests that Marx’s views make more sense. Rather than explaining the differences between Buddha and Caligula by two types of power seeking, “one of which sets men free whereas the other enslaves,” McGill says it makes more sense “to analyse the historical conditions and social formations.” The drive to Power thus becomes “unnecessary and supernumerary.”

The second part of McGill’s paper deals with Russell’s views on capitalism and socialism. McGill claims Russell’s social and political philosophy is founded on his idea of the will to power and the instinct of “possessiveness.” Let us now look at his theory of the State. The role of the State is to provide security for its citizens by maintaining the police and the military and enacting laws that least interfere with the activities of the citizens.

Russell appears to allocate a negative role to the State vis a vis the organisation of freedom. Russell says the state is “the most serious menace to liberty.” He maintains any positive role for the state is basically limited to the police and military functions of preserving order. It is true the state can do some good (garbage collection, education, developing science, correction of economic injustice for example) but these functions would be better performed “not by the State itself, but by independent organisations.”

McGill’s criticisms are somewhat mitigated because his counter examples are heavily influenced by the actions of the US State during WWII. The State power grew but so did the labour union movement so McGill thinks there is no contradiction between State power and private power– contra Russell. McGill says “it is clear that voluntary organisations and the state may simultaneously grow in power, while freedom of the individual is not limited but increased.”

I think McGill errs in contrasting the accidental features of any particular state with Russell’s views of the concept of the state in general derived from the study of many different states. The national security state in the US today appears to limit rather than increase the freedom of its citizens.

Here is McGill’s definition of freedom: “Freedom is the maximum degree of opportunity that an organisation can supply its members, using all the resources available to it in a given historical period.”

Under this definition, Cuba maximises freedom for its citizens more than the US does. This is because Cuba maximises its resources in favour of the majority– free health care, schooling through to university level, rationing to provide adequate nutrition for all, housing for all etc. The US, with a tremendous superiority in resources, maximises them to an economic elite even cutting the meagre amount provided in food stamps, medicare, housing allowances and unemployment insurance to millions of its less advantaged citizens.

So, while McGill erred with his particular example, I think the tenor of his argument was correct. Russell was wrong to make a generalised theory of the State the way he did– the truth is rather that it depends on the kind of State — a fully democratic or only partially democratic State (ie. one which maximises it resources for its people or one that does not) — that determines the extent of real freedom.

Russell opposes the centralisation of state power and favours the diffusion of power and its assumption by non governmental bodies. McGill maintains that history is moving in the direction of centralisation of state power and, depending on the type of State (he lists capitalist, socialist and fascist) this can bring about more or less freedom. There is no such thing as “the state” anymore than there is “the mammal” only different kinds which have developed historically and perform different functions. McGill should have said the centralisation of the capitalist state (of which the fascist state is a subclass) is the protection of private property and serves the interests of a small elite, while that of a socialist state is the protection of social property and serves the interests of the majority. This is the position that McGill ultimately holds.

Russell thinks Marx’s views on the “withering away of the state” are unclear. He does not see how you can both make the State stronger and then expect it to disappear. Especially when many of those in charge have instincts which “drive them towards tyranny” and “a natural love for power.”

It is difficult to believe that Russell read Marx’s The Civil War in France or Lenin’s State and Revolution as both works are very clear on this issue. When the socialists take power, they begin to dismantle the capitalist state and construct a new state that benefits the working people and as they learn self governance in this process, a separate state machine to enforce order becomes obsolete and over time ceases to function (withers away). This may not work in principle but the idea was certainly clearly expressed.

Russell says his antipathy towards Bolshevism is not because of its views about communism but because it supports the creation of an industrial society just as the capitalists do. It would appear he also thinks that due to his privileged background, he has values not held by working people. These values have in the past been associated with being an aristocrat. Thus Russell values, he says, “fearlessness, independence of judgment, emancipation from the herd, and leisurely culture.” I can only say that Russell has, what Americans call, a “big head” since aristocrats also have a herd mentality concerning their values.

He does say that aristocrats have some negative values as well: arrogance, lack of empathy towards the herd, and cruelty to those they consider beneath them. Despite the best efforts of Robespierre, there are still too many heads containing these vices. Anyway, Russell thinks that a future society will preserve the positive aristocratic values and eliminate, through education presumedly, the negative.

McGill also points out some very strange positions Russell articulates for someone who is devoted to logic. It seems as if knowledge of mathematical logic in no way prevents a person from thinking in terms of the most common informal fallacies that predominate in herd thinking.

For example, Russell says that one reason he turned against Bolshevism was the “widespread misery” he saw around him on his trip to Russia and he also says that the misery he saw was not caused by the Bolsheviks but by the invasion and blockade imposted by the Western nations and Japan. Go figure.

What did he see in Moscow? He said everyone was working, there was security, art was flourishing, especially opera, ballet and theatre with blocks of tickets reserved for working people so they could attend. In addition, he thought it was the safest city in the world for women to walk around. “The whole impression,” he says, “is one of virtuous, well-ordered activity.” Well, how to account for his conclusion that “The average working man, to judge by a rather hasty impression, feels himself the slave of the government, and has no sense whatever of having been liberated from tyranny.”

McGill points out that Russell’s objections to Soviet socialism are not based on an analysis of facts and figures relating to the production and distribution of goods and services, but based on his theory of the instincts and human nature. He says, quote: “political obstacles have psychological” sources for Russell. These, as instincts, are what we today would say are built into our DNA. Soviet socialism is known to be failing a priori.

So much for McGill’s views on Russell’s first impressions of Soviet socialism. That was the 1920s. He now turns to Russell’s views in the 1930s and 1940s. McGill states that the books Russell read and praised were mostly written by authors with an anti-Soviet bent. His views were thus conditioned in a one sided manner and there is no evidence he made any serious effort to study and refute pro-Soviet works by an appeal to empirical research as opposed to opinions based on impressions and feelings concerning human nature.

McGill says Russell’s “main objection” to the Soviet Union is that it restricts the freedom of individuals and minority groups. But every social system does this. This was a time of Segregation in the US, whilst British colonial policies restricted the freedom of majorities not minorities. There were laws passed in the USSR specially empowering minorities that had been oppressed under the Tsar.

Universal education and literacy did more to free the Soviet peoples than any event in the past history of Russia and the other Soviet republics.

McGill quotes from a 1942 speech from Henry Wallace, the vice-president of the U.S, who said “Russia has probably gone further than any other nation in the world in practicing ethic democracy.” McGill’s point is that Russell’s objection is just a subjective impression as “freedom” means different things to different people depending on their class orientation.

The third, and last, part of McGill’s paper is his criticism of Russell’s critique of Marx’s political economy. Russell rejects the rationalism of the Enlightenment for a voluntaristic view of how social change is brought about. He thinks nothing prevents the establishment of socialism other than men changing their attitudes so that they “preferred their own happiness to the pain of others.”

He says we could abolish poverty in twenty years if the majority of the population really wanted to do so but they will not do so due to apathy and sluggish imagination. Socialism and world peace could be established if we only had “good will, generosity [and] intelligence”. No mention here of the economic laws of capitalism, social conditioning, or historical and cultural factors. But what happened to the white and yellow men and their ant like instincts?

Russell criticises Marx yet has himself subscribed to many of Marx’s conclusions. For example he wants to abolish private property– the very basis of capitalism– because he thinks it is an obstacle to progress and “its destruction is necessary to a better world.” He opposes Stalin’s means but not his ends. He also holds that “Industrialism cannot continue efficient much longer without becoming socialistic.”

Russell seems to think Marx was an economic determinist even though Marx and Engels stressed that economic structures were the “predominant” influences but there were others as well such as religious, political and cultural. Russell himself wrote that “the economic interpretation of history ‘ seems to me very largely true, and a most important contribution to sociology.”

However, he also has outrageous examples of what he thinks are incidences of individualism trumping economic interests– he says the United States would not be in existence “if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Ann Boleyn” because this love led to his breaking with the Pope– otherwise England would have remained Catholic and, since the Pope had ruled the New World belonging to Spain and Portugal, would not have set up colonies in North America. Russell seems oblivious to the fact the Catholic France did not pay any attention to the Pope in this respect.

Much more important than Russell’s misunderstanding of Marx’s theory of history is his failure to comprehend the labour theory of value and Marx’s views on value, price and profit. Marx did not invent the labour theory of value. He refined and perfected the theory as it was articulated by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Russell points out that many commodities are sold on the market at either above or below their true value, according to the labour theory of value (eg. when there are monopoly conditions or lack of demand) and so Marx’s theory is wrong. But there are two objections to Russell’s criticism.

First, Russell ignores the fact that Marx himself makes these very points and gives the reasons why a commodity’s price is different from its intrinsic value (determined by the socially necessary labour time not the labour time embodied in it) and therefore Russell is attacking a straw man. Unfortunately many people who have read Russell on Marx, without having read Capital, go away with the mistaken impression that Russell both understood and refuted Marx when he had done neither.

Second, Russell appears to think Jevons’ theory of marginal utility superior to Marx but Marx also talked about utility, or “use value” as he called it, and the role it played, along with socially necessary labour power, in the setting of “exchange value”. More importantly, Jevons’ theory depends on free market conditions “and does not apply to monopoly conditions, which is precisely the fault he finds with Marx’s theory.” Russell’s critique of Marx is confusion worse confounded.

Russell also attributes to Marx the belief in the “Iron Law of Wages”– a theory that Marx went out his way to criticise. That is, Russell thinks Marx held that the worker’s wages must always be at subsistence level. If this were true all workers in a given country would have the same wages as subsistence would be the same. This is so absurd one must wonder how Russell ever came to think Marx held that position– it could not have resulted from reading Marx!

In Capital Voume 1, Marx says the “necessary wants”, not the “subsistence” of the workers, is a function of the history and level of civilization of a particular country and depends “on the habits and degree of comfort in which the class of free laborers has been formed.”

I am not going to address all the examples given by McGill but the upshot is that most, if not all, of the positions Russell criticises are not positions that Marx held at all. His picture of Marxism, as is his portrayal of Hegel’s thought, is erroneous, misleading, and false.

How could Russell have presented such a lopsided and incorrect presentation of Marxism? It remains a mystery to me. I cannot believe he deliberately falsified Marx’s ideas so as to easily refute them– there is no value in refuting a straw man. Nor can I believe he could not understand what Marx said. The only possibility is that he used unreliable secondary materials to arrive at his conclusions due to the pressures to get his materials ready for publication. Idleness in doing his home work is more praiseworthy than deliberate falsification or incomprehension.

A final word on McGill’s “Conclusion” to his paper before I turn to Russell’s rather feeble response. McGill says Russell maintains he refuted Marxist economic theory in his 1896 book on German Social Democracy. He appears not to have kept up with developments in economics as he restates his old arguments over and over, even though they are based on a misreading of Marx.

His major criticism of Marxism is its belief “in a strong central government in certain historical periods.” Russell holds to a theory of the human passions, or instincts, that is outmoded and has no empirical justification. He says, The “passions of acquisitiveness, vanity, rivalry and the love of power are the basic instincts” and “the prime movers of almost all that happens in politics.” It would appear that Marxism is a priori wrong since it does not appeal to these instincts to explain social reality.

Russell likes the concept of freedom expressed in Proudhon, the French syndicalists and Kropotkin (anarchism and syndicalism) but their views on human nature were the opposite of his. He did not like either Marxism or the ideas of a reformed capitalism because he thought these ideas gave too much power to the central authorities and restricted his ideas about individual freedom. “His theory of human passions,” McGill concludes, “thus left him no course but to waiver, with many fine intellectual excursions, between solutions he regarded as impractical and solutions he regarded as undesirable.”

What was Russell’s reaction to McGill’s paper? He was not impressed, to say the least. First, he says that McGill is dealing with aspects of Russell’s thought that Russell thinks are “wholly outside philosophy.” But I do not see why that should matter. The objections raised by McGill still need to be addressed.

Next, Russell says that with respect to Marxist economy and his attitudes towards the Soviet Union, “I shall not enter upon an argument on either of these matters.” He gives two reason for this– one it would be “futile” and two it would not be doing “philosophy.”

I will skip the part about the Soviet Union because that was a partisan subject then, as now, and has too many appeals to subjective factors. But Russell is trying to dodge the issue when it comes to Marxist economics. Specifically, McGill pointed out errors in Russell’s readings and interpretation of Marx’s economics which showed that Russell attributed to Marx errors he did not commit and beliefs he did not hold. Russell had created a straw man and proceeded to criticise the straw man of his own creation as if he were Marx. He notoriously did the same with Hegel’s philosophy.

Russell could easily have refuted McGill’s claims by quoting a few passages from Marx that showed that he, Russell, had not distorted Marx’s views but had accurately expressed them. Russell, however, would not have been able to do that since such passages in Marx’s works are not to be found. This is the real reason why Russell will not enter upon an argument on this issue.

Russell makes better points on some other issues. He rejects McGill’s assertion that he rejects the “rationalism” of the Bolsheviks because he does not in fact consider their views to hold due to reason but as articles of faith.

He also says he does not disagree with the usefulness of the State and the necessity for planning, as McGill implies, “provided the state is democratic.” Since “democracy” means different things in capitalist and socialist viewpoints, Russell seems justified here even though there is ambiguity regarding some of the central terms.

Russell also says that in some of his books he used “instinct” in a popular and not in a scientific sense, as books such as Social Reconstruction were not written to make a “contribution to human learning.” But certainly people would think they were going to “learn” something about the world and society if they read a book like this by Russell.

Evidently, from what he says, he wrote some books simply as personal propaganda to persuade people to adopt views held for emotive reasons. These were books that had a “practical purpose” not a purpose to teach anything. This is, I think, a terrible defense against McGill– that he took Russell seriously when in fact he was only emoting.

I conclude, therefore, that McGill’s article on Russell’s views on political and economic philosophy remains a valuable contribution to understanding Russell’s thought in the 1940s and that Russell’s response was inadequate to the challenge.

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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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