Bertrand Russell on Reading and Understanding History

How to Read and Understand History was originally written in 1943. My copy is from a reprint put out in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc.

Russell tells us straight away that he is only looking at history “as a pleasure,” as an enjoyable way to pass one’s free time, and that his approach is that of an “amateur.” Nevertheless, he thinks this approach will show what he has usefully derived from history and what others may also. Let us see.

He divides history into two parts — the large, which leads to an understanding of how the world got the way it is, and the small, which “makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature” (supposing there is such a thing independent of culture). He thinks we should begin the study of history not by reading about it but rather from watching “movies with explanatory talk.” I think he has very young children in mind, because even “historical” movies are more fiction than history.

Russell maintains there have been only “three great ages of progress in the world”: the first being the growth of civilization in the Near East (Egypt, Babylonia), the second being Greece (from Homer to Archimedes), and the third being from the 15th century to the present. This scheme appears to be Eurocentric.

Russell appears to credit “progress” or historical development to men of genius. He says the proof of this is that the Incas and the Maya never invented the wheel. But they certainly had men of “genius,” as they had monumental architecture and the Maya and others had invented writing. It doesn’t occur to Russell that inventions such as the wheel are called forth from certain needs within a culture. The Maya and the Inca did just fine without the wheel. What they needed was gunpowder to give a proper greeting to the Spanish.

Russell also thinks that we would still be living at the productive level of the 18th century if “by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy.” This begs the question. Do the social conditions people find themselves in call forth their ingenuity and inventiveness, thus leading to progress, or is it all due to men of genius. Russell apparently believes in the ‘great man theory of history,’ but this theory rests on the logical fallacy I mentioned above (begging the question.)

Russell does not approve of those who “desire to demonstrate some ‘philosophy’ of history,” and he singles out “Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and the interpreters of the Great Pyramid and its ‘divine message’.” When it comes to Hegel, he even maintains that his view of history “is not a whit less fantastic than the views of those who divine by the Great Pyramid.”

In all fairness to Hegel, he and Russell may share more ideas about the nature of history than the latter thinks. In a nutshell, Hegel saw history as a gradual increase in human self-consciousness of freedom, finally leading to a condition where all human beings would be equally respected and their rights recognized. Hegel also appeals to empirical evidence, i.e., history itself, to justify this conclusion.

The end which Hegel envisioned has had its ups and downs, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (part of the UN Charter) is the type of progress he had in mind, even though there must still be a long process of development for the ideals of this document to become translated into actuality.

In theory, I am sure, Russell would not disagree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite residual racist and misogynist opinions he might have shared with the people of his generation, not to mention latent eugenicist tendencies.

For instance, he believes female behavior should be “circumscribed by prudential considerations”. Women who have been free to do as they like, i.e., women who have become rulers (“empresses regnant”) have, in the main, “murdered or imprisoned their sons, and often their husbands; almost all have had innumerable lovers” (one would think Russell might have approved of this considering his private life).

“If this is what women would do if they dared,” he writes, “we ought to be thankful for social restraints.” The only example he gives is Catherine the Great. Henry VIII or Nero do not elicit similar thoughts about male behavior. We are also told that “men of supreme ability are just as congenitally different from the average as are the feeble-minded.” This is a view he shares with Nietzsche.

The following opinion, however, is more in accord with what Hegel would believe. “Although,” Russell writes, “history is full of ups and downs, there is a general trend in which it is possible to feel some satisfaction; we know more than our ancestors knew, we have more command over the forces of nature (this is highly problematic since our economic system seems to be in the process of destroying us and our natural environment), we suffer less from disease and from natural cataclysms [also problematic].” He adds that “violence is now mainly organized and governmental, and it is easier to imagine ways of ending this than of ending the sporadic unplanned violence of more primitive times.”

We must remember that Russell was writing in 1943 in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, his “general trend” is a nod to progress, and for him the founding of the UN, the growth of the concept of universal rights, and the spread of social democratic ideals are all in accord with Hegelian notions. Despite his dislike of the notion of a “philosophy of history”, Russell’s “general trend” is in accord with Hegel’s outlook.

Besides being a closet Hegelian, it is interesting to note that this essay also reveals a Platonic bent to Russell’s thought, and a decidedly non-Hegelian cyclical approach to history.

“The greatest creative ages,” Russell writes, “are those where opinion is free, but behavior is still to some extent conventional. Ultimately, however, skepticism breaks down moral tabus, society becomes impossibly anarchic, freedom is succeeded by tyranny, and a new tight tradition is gradually built up.”

What is striking about this passage, besides its mechanical way of thinking, is that it seems to be in agreement with Russell’s conservative critics. Russell, the “passionate skeptic,” was himself accused of breaking down conventional moral beliefs, and it was objected that his teachings would lead to social breakdown and anarchy, and hence he should not be teaching at the City College of New York.

On the basis of the preceding passage, it appears that Russell might have even made the following statement: “It is true that I, Russell, am a skeptic, that I do think many conventional moral tabus are nonsense, and if my views are generally adopted a tyranny will replace our freedoms, since views such as mine lead to social breakdown and anarchy. Now, how about that teaching job?”

To be fair, Russell realizes this problem, which he later calls, “the dilemma between freedom and discipline.” Russell needs a method to break the cycle described above, and he finds it in science, allied with what he calls “intelligence” (a rather amorphous concept).

“Genuine morality,” he writes, “cannot be such as intelligence would undermine, nor does intelligence necessarily promote selfishness. It only does so when unselfishness has been inculcated for the wrong reasons, and then only so long as its purview is limited. In this respect science is a useful element in culture, for it has a stability which intelligence does not shake, and it generates an impersonal habit of mind that makes it natural to accept a social rather than a purely individual ethic.”

But this cannot be right. Here are some German scientists in 1943: “Well, personal ethical considerations aside, our society has asked us to figure our how much Zyklon-B should be delivered to Auschwitz to eliminate x number of social undesirables per day, and is Zyklon-B the best chemical for the task at hand. Let us calculate together.”

The above comments and considerations seem to me to point out serious difficulties with some of Russell’s ideas about the lessons one can learn from reading history the way he recommends — as a pleasurable leisure-time activity, one that assiduously avoids any attempt to formulate a philosophy of history.

“The men who make up philosophies of history,” he writes, “may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies.” His two primary bug-a-boos here are Hegel and Marx. He sees only two functions for the study of history. First we can look “for comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history.”

This is pretty arbitrary. Why not the beginning of a philosophy as well as a science? Hegel insisted that philosophy was to be pursued as a rigorous scientific procedure, just as any other discipline claiming to arrive at knowledge. Marx also praised the scientific method and claimed his ideas were scientific.

The second function of history, according to Russell, is to seek “by the study of individuals … to combine the merits of drama or epic poetry with the merit of truth.” This is an Aristotelian approach. The first function “views man objectively, as the heavenly bodies are viewed by an astronomer; the other appeals to imagination.”

I think it safe to say that Hegel and Marx fully agree with Russell’s first function, but would object to his second function as having no place in an objective study of the historical process. In fact, the basis of Russell’s animus towards Hegel and Marx is his opinion that they mix up his own second function with the first. I would like to conclude this brief presentation with a few remarks on Russell’s criticism of Marx’s views.

After a lively survey of the development of the West and an appreciation of some of the most interesting classical historians one ought to study (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Gibbon), Russell comes to Marx, whom he, in another essay, considers a free thinker and compares to Robert Owen and Thomas Paine.

In this essay, however, Marx is credited with founding the current interest in the economic interpretation of historical events. “Modern views,” Russell says, “as to the relation of economic facts to general culture have been profoundly affected by the theory, first explicitly stated by Marx [and Engels], that the mode of production of an age (and to a lesser degree the mode of exchange) is the ultimate cause of the character of its politics, laws, literature, philosophy, and religion.” Russell fails to mention the relations of production, a factor of prime importance for Marx and Engels.

Russell then says — and this is something that Lenin would certainly have agreed with, as would all who have been influenced by the Marxist classics — that this view “is misleading if accepted as a dogma, but it is valuable if used as a means of suggesting hypothesis.” Russell adds that “It has indubitably a large measure of truth, though not so much as Marx believed.” Just what was excessive in what “Marx believed” merits its own discussion, but in Russell’s essay Marx’s faults seem to be sins of omission rather than commission.

The “most important error” in Marx’s thought, according to Russell, is that “it ignores intelligence as a cause.” It is difficult to understand this objection. Russell says that “men and apes, in the same environment, have different methods of securing food: men practice agriculture, not because of some extra-human dialectic compelling them to do so, but because intelligence shows them its advantages.”

Granted that Marx was trying to explain the development of human society and not ape society, the question becomes, where did this “intelligence” come from? It appears that it just fell from the sky into human beings. A little dose of Darwin is needed here, and if Russell had read and been influenced by Engels’ essay “The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” he would not, I think, have had such a reified notion of “intelligence.”

Russell says he does not want to imply that “intelligence is something that arises spontaneously in some mystical uncaused manner.” He grants its causes are partly social, partly biological, and partly individual, and that “Mendelianism has made a beginning” into understanding its origins.

My point is that Marx did not “ignore intelligence as a cause.” He did not single it out as a primary factor, because he saw it as part of the human condition that arises as a response to the evolution of the species and its interactions with the natural and social environment.

Russell’s concern with “intelligence” appears to be the result of the prominence of the eugenics movement in his time and is reflected in his comment, quoted above, about the differences between the feeble-minded “average” folk and people such as himself (“of supreme ability”).

How to Read and Understand History is an enjoyable introduction to some of Russell’s ideas, but although one can enjoy it, one cannot, I think, understand history from reading it.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

25 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 12th, 2008 at 8:05am #

    What is the point of “reviewing” a book published in 1943?

  2. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 11:14am #

    “The men who make up philosophies of history,” he writes, “may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies.”

    While it’s still legal in the USA, here’s a little food for thought.
    Let the teeth gnashing begin..

  3. bozhidar balkas said on July 12th, 2008 at 11:53am #

    nature, of which we r a part, is not changing us. we, and pigs, birds, apes, snakes, trees r parts of nature; parts of one reality; the only one we have; and we may never have any other than the one we smell, touch, hear, taste, and see.
    and the nature is infinitely- valued; so r we and the apes. apes kill just like we do. apes get angry just as we do.
    what the nature has in mind for self/us/them nobody knows. we wish it wd change us so that we wd be better or much better in controlling or even preventing our anger/hate/envy/bitterness/greed, etc.
    it does seem to me that the nature had not changed us an iota in all these eons.
    we r the same as the people of babilon were. the difference is, babilonians didn’ have wmd and we do.
    the diff is also that the world pop may have been at ab 100mn people; now we have 6.5bn.
    and the nature being the same…. thank u

  4. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 12:31pm #

    Only when repeating over and over again that it is not known, is it not known.
    Like a lot of other things.

    Why would someone be sentenced to prison for saying 4-3=1?
    Yet this happens in Germany, in Austria, in France.
    It most certainly does.

    In the immortal words of P.T. Barnum…”There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.”

  5. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 12:45pm #

    Math doesn’t lie. Here are the pictures to prove it.
    How many people don’t know these facts, these truthful and absolutely mind boggling facts which smash the hypnotic aura of repeating the same lies over and over and over and over and over until they are true beyond a doubt?
    The abhorrent lies which have enabled many many other lies to follow. Lies which have resulted in every despicable crime in the book to be committed by these miscreants with impunity.
    The results take place right before the world’s face every single day the Palestinians are murdered with impunity and their stolen land occupied.
    Every time Israel lies us into war with Iraq, Iran and whom ever else they consider a threat.
    Every day Ernst Zundel and others are in prison for, in essence, saying 4-1=3.
    You want the truth, you liberal wind bags of hot air and bullshit piled a mile high? You enablers and abetters of murder, torture and virulent racism.
    You cowards to the nth degree.
    You can’t even begin to handle 4-1=3, let alone the truth.

  6. bozhidar balkas said on July 12th, 2008 at 2:38pm #

    at one time and long ago i accepted as true that 4-6mn jews perished in europe in 1940s.
    meanwhile i have learned that that there were no jews/semites in europe.
    the people in question r an admixture of europeans mainly w. little or no semitic genes.
    it even may be that most of those people who were slain were poles, romas, russians, gays, socialists/communists.
    ashkenazim, having lotsof money fled to americas.
    and as HP maintains have a big influence in US politics. thank u

  7. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 4:39pm #

    Whoever they were bozhidar, there certainly were not four million of them ‘gassed’ at Auschwitz.
    Above is proof in color, black and white, official documents and reports.
    Why then do they still insist, to the point of putting people in prison that six million were killed?
    It’s bullshit and I for one am sick of it.
    One of, if not THE biggest lie in history.
    Here it is again. Today.
    Look at the number. The insistance.
    It’s insanity.

  8. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 6:02pm #

    Here’s the last proof I’ll offer and then you all can believe it or not.
    What this is is another million right off the top.
    That’s three million “missing” from Auschwitz and now one mllion “missing” from Treblinka.
    Where I’m from, that’s four million “missing” victims. Poof!

    But if I scream at you 365 days of the year for forty or fifty years, make fools out of those who differ, ruin their lives, jail others where possible, even while offering no proof, and lie over and over and over and over again, well, you get the picture. Actually, you get everything BUT the picture, the proof, documents or anything but TV shows, movies and talk, talk, talk, from “eye witnesses” like Elie, already a proven liar and huckster, Weasel.
    And you think you’re a rational, sensible, compassionate modern person?

  9. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 6:05pm #

    Here’s another million or so right off the top.
    Science and math do not lie.
    The Treblinka liars do lie.

  10. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 12th, 2008 at 6:56pm #

    hp: Because truth, science and books are dead in USA. Haven’t you noticed that USA is not big on book-fairs. Books are are despised in totalitarian regimes. Book-reading, science, documents, statistics, facts and truths are things that are despised in America. If you tell an American citizen that according to economic statistics 1% of America is stealing 90% of America’s wealth, they will laugh at you. They’d tell you: “Move to Cuba”

    So we have a society of confusion, based on metaphysics, “trust” and authorities, but not on evidence-based truths

  11. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 7:28pm #

    Tennessee, not being called a Nazi is enough for me. I am not a Nazi.

    You have a point though. Even though Simon Wiesenthal says it himself, so-called intellectuals and academics will still scream and gnash their teeth over a lie.
    There were no fairy tale gas chambers at Dachau, you morons.

    Did Simon Wiesenthal state in writing that “there were no extermination camps on German soil”?
    Yes. The famous “Nazi hunter” wrote this in Stars and Stripes, Jan. 24, 1993. He also claimed that “gassings” of Jews took place only in Poland.

    ‘In a letter published in a January issue of The Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for US military service personnel, Simon Wiesenthal re-confirmed, in passing, that “there were no extermination camps on German soil” during the Second World War. He made the identical statement in a letter published in the April 1975 issue of the British periodical Books and Bookmen.”

    “If Dachau was in Germany, and even Wiesenthal says that it was not an extermination camp, why do many American veterans say it was an extermination camp?
    After the Allies captured Dachau, many GIs and others were led through the camp and shown a building alleged to have been a “gas chamber.” The mass media widely, but falsely, continues to assert that Dachau was a “gassing” camp. “

  12. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 7:38pm #

    “In Canada and Western Europe, Holocaust deniers have been successfully prosecuted under racial defamation or hate crimes laws.”

    “In Canada, as in Germany, revisionists are deprived of the right to defend themselves. In those countries, when a man accused of revisionism stands before a judge, the latter begins, in line with the routine, by having him swear to tell the truth. But if, in the following minute, the accused says, for example: “I affirm that the alleged Nazi gas chambers did not exist because the truth – which I can well demonstrate – is that they could not exist”, the judge will interrupt him immediately. The Canadian judge will tell him: “Before this special court [christened ‘Human rights tribunal’] truth is no defence”

    Did all you Canadians get that? Loud and clear. Your own country, your own judge. “TRUTH IS NO DEFENSE.”

    Canada is not free.
    Canada is Zionist occupied.
    What more proof do you need?

  13. hp said on July 12th, 2008 at 10:53pm #

    Here’s how much the sacred memory of the ‘Shoah” means to the Prime Minister of Israel. Hmmmmm.

  14. bozhidar balkas said on July 13th, 2008 at 6:36am #

    i have stated that i no longer evaluate as true that 4-6mn ashkenazim were slain.
    in any case, no jews perished in europe; there were at one time jews in spain/portugal
    expelled in 1492 and settled in bosnia or ottoman empire. ottomans respected religions. thank u

  15. hp said on July 13th, 2008 at 10:46am #

    And I’m saying the so-called “death camps” are a made up bunch of bullshit.
    At a minimum proof that four million did not die at Auschwitz, the un-holy grail of the holocaust fairy tale industry.
    There it is, carved in stone, in living color. No four million means no six million, the lying mantra which makes the un-holy machine run.
    Six million, six million, six million, six million, six million, six million.
    Every fucking day for fifty years. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie.
    Once people know this and say this, it will eliminate the eternal extortions and excuses for CONTINUED inhuman behavior by these psychopathic miscreants.

    Can you say HOLMODOR? A REAL holocaust, not a fake one.
    The Ukraine.
    And perpetrated by who?
    Yes, the “usual suspects.”
    The greatest mass murdering psychopaths in history.
    These monsters make Hitler look like a featherweight.
    Stalin. Yagoda. Kaganovich. Yezhov.

    “This “holocaust remembrance” recalls the murder by forced starvation of *6 million* Ukrainian Christians by the Jewish Bolsheviks. The Ukrainians call this holocaust “Holodomor” which means “Famine-Genocide.” Of course the Zionist Jews deny it. Just like they deny all of their numerous crimes against humanity.,7340,L-3342999,00.html

  16. JN said on July 13th, 2008 at 3:42pm #

    HP, you are a lying, deluded, anti-semitic ideologue fool & an apologist for Nazism.

    Yes, the Israeli government, politicians & IDF exploit the Holocaust to justify their own crimes against the Palestinians & Lebanese,
    & yes, there is a ‘Holocaust industry’ in the US & Europe.
    But to deny that it happened is absurd.

    Your evidence is a joke: internet articles referring to the ‘Prussian blue’ theory, David Irving, Niall Ferguson (an advocate of US/UK imperialism & an excuse for a historian) & other such bullshit.

    & of course, like any good apologist, you play the numbers game. How many people were murdered in Rwanda in 1994? How many starved to death in Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward?’ How many have been slaughtered in Afghanistan & Iraq? There’s always someone who’ll argue that the figure is too high (usually on the basis of dubious evidence or none), as if that excuses mass-murder.

    Your supposed revelations are statements of the blindingly obvious, blatant distortions or lies. No, there were no gas chambers in Dachau; who said that there were? It is common knowledge that the extermination camps were set up in Poland. People died in concentration & labour camps in Germany itself, not from gassing but by being shot, tortured or worked/starved to death.

    The documented TRUTH is that the Nazi regime killed millions of PEOPLE: Jews, Roma, Poles, Slavs, Communists/Socialists, other political prisoners, Soviet POWs & many others. How anyone in their right mind could seriously deny that is a mystery to me.

    By coming out with this sort of crap, all you are doing is serving the interests of the Israeli government & the Israel lobby, making their reflexive response (labelling legitimate critiscism of Israeli agression as anti-semitism) seem more plausible. That is, you’re giving the rest of us a bad name, in the same way that apologists for Stalin & Mao give Communism a bad name (Stalin & Mao were not Communist in any meaningful sense, although they may have sincerely believed that they were).

  17. hp said on July 13th, 2008 at 11:29pm #

    The usual response to 4-3=1.
    The only time the sacred six million doesn’t matter.
    When anyone points out that it is an obvious and ongoing criminal lie.

  18. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 14th, 2008 at 5:55am #

    Mathematicians and lovers of mathematics will appreciate this book review without having read it closely, and I am a member of that set. Thank you, Thomas Riggens. Also, anyone who loves deeply intelligent quotations, from an era and country that also gave us George Bernard Shaw (and only a couple of centuries before, Alexander Pope). In fact, Lord Russell was, like JBS Haldane, a rationalist socialist mathematician-scientist whom no one could accuse of being stupid, in a time and place gone stupid mad. Somewhat like our time, since Russell and Haldane blossomed in Europe before, during and after World War I.

    But I especially want to thank you Mr. Riggins for personal reasons. I more-or-less gave up writing book reviews after 9/11/2001 — radical, even communist book reviews. Reviews of books written before 9/11. Because when I tried to see them in print (other than at, I discovered that radical America, like neocon America, thinks history began with 9/11. And this failure get my reviews read has been a source of great anger as well as continuing resentment and chagrin on my part. Considering myself to be “a writer” – as I do – and not being able to get read the very writings I’m most proud of.

    Thank you, thank you very much.

    And hp. You mention an “obvious” and ongoing criminal lie. There’s a story about GH Hardy lecturing to a small class of students, and chalking up a line in the proof he was writing on the blackboard, and saying, “This follows obviously.” Then Hardy stepped away from the board and looked at the line; thought for a while; left the room for twenty minutes or so; (going into an adjacent, unoccupied room and scribbling furiously on its blackboard); and came back and said to his students, “Yes, that’s obvious.”

  19. hp said on July 14th, 2008 at 10:51am #

    Lloyd, even more obvious is an erased blackboard.

    The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.
    People are funny that way…

  20. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 14th, 2008 at 11:07am #

    And all lies are based on differences in information, ie, upon secrecy. Whereas, the “propoganda model” denies the relevance or even the importance of secrecy. Although physicists, every day, measure and construct models based on the unknown. My “secrecy model” on the other hand…


    PS. Regrettably, right after posting the preceding I realized it was not GH Hardy, of the blackboard-obviously story. It was an American mathematician famous for his public drunkeness, who helped bring “rigour” from German mathematics to America regarding infinite sets.

  21. hp said on July 14th, 2008 at 12:48pm #

    Well, I’d bet my bottom euro he could do 4-3=1 every time, Lloyd.
    No secret there.
    No confusion there.
    No propaganda there.

    On the other hand 6-5=6 or 6-4=6 or 6-3=6…… well, that’s another story.

  22. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 14th, 2008 at 6:33pm #

    The point, hp, is that Bertrand Russell was very advanced for the Late British Empire, and we should at least TRY to stand on the shoulders of giants, not wallow in the madnesses and afflictions of our times.

    Israel is bad. Israel is bad. There. Are you happy now? If so, go to CounterPunch and read the article about geography and why neither The Chimpmunk nor Israel is likely to attack Iran, WRITTEN BY AN ISRAELI.

    “On the other hand”? What, you can do modular arithmatic? And you think that’s mathematics?

  23. heike said on July 15th, 2008 at 9:16am #

    Sehr Geheerter Obersturmfuhrer!

    Vielen Danke fur ihr Beitrag zur Endlosung der judische Frage!

  24. hp said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:12pm #–l3DT8rS3w/s400/ziodrek+6.jpg

  25. hp said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:15pm #