Nationalism vs. Human Development
These are passages taken from Why Men Fight, a short text written as reaction to the outbreak of the First World War. In this booklet Bertrand Russell writes also about the conditions conducive to the human development. To this end, what individuals need is "more freedom, more, self-direction, more outlet for creativeness, more opportunity for the joy of life, more voluntary cooperation, and less involuntary subservience to purposes not their own."
Nationalism, in theory, is the doctrine that men, by their sympathies and traditions, form natural groups, called “nations,” each of which ought to be united under one central Government. In the main this doctrine may be conceded. But in practice the doctrine takes a more personal form. “I belong,” the oppressed nationalist argues, “by sympathy and tradition to nation A, but I am subject to a government which is in the hands of nation B. This is an injustice, not only because of the general principle of nationalism, but because nation A is generous, progressive, and civilized, while nation B is oppressive, retrograde, and barbarous. Because this is so, nation A deserves to prosper, while nation B deserves to be abased.”
The inhabitants of nation B are naturally deaf to the claims of abstract justice, when they are accompanied by personal hostility and contempt. Presently, however, in the course of war, nation A acquires its freedom. The energy and pride which have achieved freedom generates a momentum which leads on, almost infallibly, to the attempt at foreign conquest, or to the refusal of liberty to some smaller nation. “What? You say that nation C, which forms part of our State, has the same rights against us as we had against nation A? But that is absurd. Nation C is swinish and turbulent, incapable of good government, needing a strong hand if it is not to be a menace and a disturbance to all its neighbors.”. So the English used to speak of the Irish, so the Germans and Russians speak of the Poles, so the Galician Poles speak of the Ruthenes, so the Austrians used to speak of the Magyars, so the Magyars speak of the South Slav sympathizers with Serbia, so the Serbs speak of the Macedonian Bulgars. In this way nationalism, unobjectionable in theory, leads by a natural movement to oppression and wars of conquest. No sooner was France free from the English, in the fifteenth century, than it embarked upon the conquest of Italy; no sooner was Spain freed from the Moors than it entered into more than a century of conflict with France for the supremacy in Europe.
The case of Germany is very interesting in this respect. At the beginning of the eighteenth century German culture was French: French was the language of the Courts, the language in which Leibnitz wrote his philosophy, the universal language of polite letters and learning. National consciousness hardly existed. Then a series of great men created a self-respect in Germany by their achievements in poetry, music, philosophy, and science. But politically German nationalism was only created by Napoleon's oppression and the uprising of 1813. After centuries during which every disturbance of the peace of Europe began with a French or Swedish or Russian invasion of Germany, the Germans discovered that by sufficient effort and union they could keep foreign armies off their territory. But the effort required had been too great to cease when its purely defensive purpose had been achieved by the defeat of Napoleon. Now, a hundred years later, they are still engaged in the same movement, which has become one of aggression and conquest. Whether we are now seeing the end of the movement it is not yet possible to guess.
If men had any strong sense of a community of nations, nationalism would serve to define the boundaries of the various nations. But because men only feel community within their own nation, nothing but force is able to make them respect the rights of other nations, even when they are asserting exactly similar rights on their own behalf.
Analogous development is to be expected, with the course of time, in the conflict between capital and labor which has existed since the growth of the industrial system, and in the conflict between men and women, which is still in its infancy.
What is wanted, in these various conflicts, is some principle, genuinely believed, which will have justice for its outcome. The tug of war of mutual self-assertion can only result in justice through an accidental equality of force. It is no use to attempt any bolstering up of institutions based on authority, since all such institutions involve injustice, and injustice once realized cannot be perpetuated without fundamental damage both to those who uphold it and to those who resist it. The damage consists in the hardening of the walls of the Ego, making them a prison instead of a window. Unimpeded growth in the individual depends upon many contacts with other people, which must be of the nature of free cooperation, not of enforced service.
While the belief in authority was alive, free cooperation was compatible with inequality and subjection, but now equality and mutual freedom are necessary. All institutions, if they are not to hamper individual growth, must be based as far as possible upon voluntary combination, rather than the force of the law or the traditional authority of the holders of power. None of our institutions can survive the application of this principle without great and fundamental changes; but these changes are imperatively necessary if the world is to be withheld from dissolving into hard separate units each at war with all the others.
The two chief sources of good relations between individuals are instinctive
liking and a
common purpose. Of these two, a common purpose might seem more important politically, but, in fact, it is often the outcome, not the cause, of instinctive liking, or of a common instinctive aversion. Biological groups, from the family to the nation, are constituted by a greater or less degree of instinctive liking, and build their common purposes on this foundation.
Instinctive liking is the feeling which makes us take pleasure in another person’s company, find an exhilaration in his presence, wish to talk with him, work with him, play with him. The extreme form of it is being in love, but its fainter forms, and even the very faintest, have political importance. The presence of a person who is instinctively disliked tends to make any other person more likable. An anti-Semite will love any fellow-Christian when a Jew is present. In China, or the wilds of Africa, any white man would be welcomed with joy. A common aversion is one of the most frequent causes of mild instinctive liking.
Men differ enormously in the frequency and intensity of their instinctive likings, and the same man will differ greatly at different times.
If men's natural growth is to be promoted and not hindered by the environment, if as many as possible of their desires and needs are to be satisfied, political institutions must, as far as possible, embody common purposes and foster instinctive liking. These two objects are interconnected, for nothing is so destructive of instinctive liking as thwarted purposes and unsatisfied needs, and nothing facilitates cooperation for common purposes so much as instinctive liking.
When a man's growth is unimpeded, his self-respect remains intact, and he
is not inclined to regard others as his enemies. But when, for whatever reason,
his growth is impeded, or he is compelled to grow into some twisted and unnatural
shape, his instinct presents the environment as his enemy, and he becomes filled
with hatred. The joy of life abandons him, and malevolence takes the place
of friendliness. The malevolence of hunchbacks and cripples is proverbial;
and a similar malevolence is to be found in those who have been crippled in
less obvious ways.
Real freedom, if it could be brought about, would go a long way towards destroying hatred.
There is a not uncommon belief that what is instinctive in us cannot be changed, but must be simply accepted and made the best of. This is by no means the case. No doubt we have a certain native disposition, different in different people, which cooperates with outside circumstances in producing a certain character. But even the instinctive part of our character is very malleable. It may be changed by beliefs, by material circumstances, by social circumstances, and by institutions. A Dutchman has probably much the same native disposition as a German, but his instincts in adult life are very different owing to the absence of militarism and of the pride of a Great Power. It is obvious that the instincts of celibates become profoundly different from those of other men and women. Almost any instinct is capable of many different forms according to the nature of the outlets which it finds. The same instinct which leads to artistic or intellectual creativeness may, under other circumstances, lead to love of war. The fact that an activity or belief is an outcome of instinct is therefore no reason for regarding it as unalterable.
This applies to people's instinctive likes and dislikes as well as to their other instincts. It is natural to men, as to other animals, to like some of their species and dislike others; but the proportion of like and dislike depends on circumstances, often on quite trivial circumstances. Most of Carlyle's misanthropy is attributable to dyspepsia; probably a suitable medical regimen would have given him a completely different outlook on the world. The defect of punishment, as a means of dealing with impulses which the community wishes to discourage, is that it does nothing to prevent the existence of the impulses, but merely endeavors to check their indulgence by an appeal to self-interest. This method, since it does not eradicate the impulses, probably only drives them to find other outlets even when it is successful in its immediate object; and if the impulses are strong, mere self-interest is not likely to curb them effectually, since it is not a very powerful motive except with unusually reasonable and rather passionless people. It is thought to be a stronger motive than it is, because our moods make us deceive ourselves as to our interest, and lead us to believe that it is consistent with the actions to which we are prompted by desire or impulse.
Thus the commonplace that human nature cannot be changed is untrue. We all know that our own characters and those of our acquaintance are greatly affected by circumstances; and what is true of individuals is true also of nations. The root causes of changes in average human nature are generally either purely material changes - for instance, of climate - or changes in the degree of man's control over the material world. We may ignore the purely material changes, since these do not much concern the politician. But the changes due to man’s increased control over the material world, by invention and science, are of profound present importance. Throughout the industrial revolution they have radically altered the daily lives of men; and by creating huge economic organizations, they have altered the whole structure of society.
The general beliefs of men, which are, in the main, a product of instinct
and circumstance, have become very different from what they were in the eighteenth
century. But our institutions are not yet suited either to the instincts developed
by our new circumstances, or to our real beliefs. Institutions have a life
of their own, and often outlast the circumstances which made them a fit garment
This applies, in varying degrees, to almost all the institutions which we have inherited from the past: the State, private property, the patriarchal family, the Churches, armies and navies. All of these have become in some degree oppressive, in some measures hostile to life.
In any serious attempt at political reconstruction, it is necessary to realize
what are the vital needs of ordinary men and women. It is customary, in political
thought, to assume that the only needs with which politics is concerned are
This view is quite inadequate to account for such an event as the present war, since any economic motives that may be assigned for it are to a great extent mythical, and its true causes must be sought outside the economic sphere.
Needs which are normally satisfied without conscious effort remain unrecognized, and this results in a working theory of human needs which is far too simple. Owing chiefly to industrialism, many needs which were formerly satisfied without effort now remain unsatisfied in most men and women. But the old unduly simple theory of human needs survives, making men overlook the source of the new lack of satisfaction, and invent quite false theories as to why they are dissatisfied.
Socialism as a panacea seems to me to be mistaken in this way, since it is too ready to suppose that better economic conditions will of themselves make men happy. It is not only more material goods that men need, but more freedom, more, self-direction, more outlet for creativeness, more opportunity for the joy of life, more voluntary cooperation, and less involuntary subservience to purposes not their own. All these things the institutions of the future must help to produce, if our increase of knowledge and power over Nature is to bear its full fruit in bringing about a good life.
What is wanted in order to keep men full of vitality is opportunity, not security. Security is merely a refuge from fear; opportunity is the source of hope. The chief test of an economic system is not whether it makes men prosperous, or whether it secures distributive justice (though these are both very desirable), but whether it leaves men's instinctive growth unimpeded. To achieve this purpose, there are two main conditions which it should fulfil: it should not cramp men's private affections, and it should give the greatest possible outlet to the impulse of creation. There is in most men, until it becomes atrophied by disuse, an instinct of constructiveness, a wish to make something. The men who achieve most are, as a rule, those in whom this instinct is strongest: such men become artists, men of science, statesmen, empire-builders, or captains of industry, according to the accidents of temperament and opportunity. The most beneficent and the most harmful careers are inspired by this impulse. Without it, the world would sink to the level of Tibet: it would subsist, as it is always prone to do, on the wisdom of its ancestors, and each generation would sink more deeply into a lifeless traditionalism.
But it is not only the remarkable men who have the instinct of constructiveness, though it is they who have it most strongly. It is almost universal in boys, and in men it usually survives in a greater or less degree, according to the greater or less outlet which it is able to find. Work inspired by this instinct is satisfying, even when it is irksome and difficult, because every effort is as natural as the effort of a dog pursuing a hare. The chief defect of the present capitalistic system is that work done for wages very seldom affords any outlet for the creative impulse. The man who works for wages has no choice as to what he shall make: the whole creativeness of the processes concentrate in the employer who orders the work to be done. For this reason the work becomes a merely external means to a certain result, the earning of wages. Employers grow indignant about the trade union rules for limitation of output, but they have no right to be indignant, since they do not permit the men whom they employ to have any share in the purpose for which the work is undertaken. And so the process of production, which should form one instinctive cycle, becomes divided into separate purposes, which can no longer provide any satisfaction of instinct for those who do the work.
This result is due to our industrial system, but it would not be avoided
by socialism. In a socialist community, the State would be the employer,
and the individual workman would have almost as little control over his work
as he has at present. Such control as he could exercise would be indirect,
through political channels, and would be too slight and roundabout to afford
any appreciable satisfaction.
It is to be feared that instead of an increase of self-direction, there would only be an increase of mutual interference.
The total abolition of private capitalistic enterprise, which is demanded by Marxian socialism, seems scarcely necessary. Most men who construct sweeping systems of reform, like most of those who defend the status quo, do not allow enough for the importance of exceptions and the undesirability of rigid system. Provided the sphere of capitalism is restricted, and a large proportion of the population are rescued from its dominion, there is no reason to wish it wholly abolished. As a competitor and a rival, it might serve a useful purpose in preventing more democratic enterprises from sinking into sloth and technical conservatism. But it is of the very highest importance that capitalism should become the exception rather than the rule, and that the bulk of the world's industry should be conducted on a more democratic system.
Much of what is to be said against militarism in the State is also to be said against capitalism in the economic sphere. Economic organizations, in the pursuit of efficiency, grow larger and larger, and there is no possibility of reversing this process. The causes of their growth are technical, and large organizations must be accepted as an essential part of civilized society. But there is no reason why their government should be centralized and monarchical. The present economic system, by robbing most men of initiative, is one of the causes of the universal weariness which devitalizes urban and industrial populations, making them perpetually seek excitement, and leading them to welcome even the outbreak of war as a relief from the dreary monotony of their daily lives.
Education as a political weapon could not exist if we respected the rights of children. If we respected the rights of children, we should educate them so as to give them the knowledge and the mental habits required for forming independent opinions; but education as a political institution endeavors to form habits and to circumscribe knowledge in such a way as to make one set of opinions inevitable.
The two principles of justice and liberty, which cover
a very great deal of the social reconstruction required, are not by themselves
sufficient where education is concerned. Justice, in the literal sense of
equal rights, is obviously not wholly possible as regards children. And as
for liberty, it is, to begin with, essentially negative: it condemns all
avoidable interference with freedom, without giving a positive principle
of construction. But education is essentially constructive, and requires
some positive conception of what constitutes a good life. And although liberty
is to be respected in education as much as is compatible with instruction,
and although a very great deal more liberty than it is customary can be allowed
without loss to instruction, yet it is clear that some departure from complete
liberty is unavoidable if children are to be taught anything, except in the
case of unusually intelligent children who are kept isolated from more normal
This is one reason for the great responsibility which rests upon teachers: the children must, necessarily, be more or less at the mercy of their elders, and cannot make themselves the guardians of their own interests. Authority in education is to some extent unavoidable, and those who educate have to find a way of exercising authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.
Where authority is unavoidable, what is needed is reverence. A man who is to educate really well, and, is to make the young grow and develop into their full stature, must be filled through and through with the spirit of reverence. It is reverence towards others that is lacking in those who advocate machine-made cast-iron systems: militarism, capitalism, Fabian scientific organization, and all the other prisons into which reformers and reactionaries try to force the human spirit.
In education, with its code of rules emanating from a Government office, its large classes and fixed curriculum and overworked teachers, its determination to produce a dead level of glib mediocrity, the lack of reverence for the child is all but universal. Reverence requires imagination and vital warmth; it requires most imagination in respect of those who have least actual achievement or power. The child is weak and superficially foolish, the teacher is strong, and in an every-day sense wiser than the child. The teacher without reverence, or the bureaucrat without reverence, easily despises the child for these outward inferiorities. He thinks it is his duty to “mold” the child: in imagination he is the potter with the clay. And so he gives to the child some unnatural shape, which hardens with age, producing strains and spiritual dissatisfactions, out of which grow cruelty and envy, and the belief that others must be compelled to undergo the same distortions.
The man who has reverence will not think it is his duty to “mold” the young. He feels in all that lives, but especially in human beings, and most of all in children, something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world. In the presence of a child he feels an unaccountable humility - a humility not easily defensible on any rational ground, and yet somehow nearer to wisdom than the easy self-confidence of many parents and teachers. The outward helplessness of the child and the appeal of dependence make him conscious of the responsibility of a trust. His imagination shows him what the child may become, for good or evil, how its impulses may be developed or thwarted, how its hopes must be dimmed and the life in it grow less living, how its trust will be bruised and its quick desires replaced by brooding will.
All this gives him a longing to help the child in its own battle; he would equip and strengthen it, not for some outside end proposed by the State or by any other impersonal authority, but for the ends which the child's own spirit is obscurely seeking. The man who feels this can wield the authority of an educator without infringing the principle of liberty.