Russell, Mao, and the Fate of China

In 1922 Bertrand Russell, then probably the most famous living philosopher in the world, published The Problem of China [POC]. This book was the result of Russell’s being invited to China to give a series of lectures and conduct meetings with leading Chinese over a period of about six months. In POC Russell diagnoses the problems facing China as a result of its semi-occupation by European and Japanese imperialism. In the course of the book he also makes several recommendations and predictions concerning the future development of China.

The future leader of China, Mao Zedong, was either present at one of Russell’s lectures or read a detailed account of it in the Chinese press. The purpose of this article is to discuss Russell’s blueprint for Chinese liberation and compare it to what the Chinese, under the leadership of the Communist Party, actually did. Another purpose is to point out that many of Russell’s comments about the role of the United States, made over 90 years ago, as well as what was needed in China, are still relevant today.

A word of caution. Russell considered himself a radical and a “socialist”, perhaps even a theoretical “communist” (although he was hostile to many of the actions of the Russian Bolsheviks) at this time. After WWII and up to the late 1950s Russell was a cold war anti-Communist, though not a ridiculous mindless one a la Sidney Hook and those in his milieu, before coming to his senses in the 1960s. I am only concerned, in this article, with Russell’s political statements and opinions in the early 1920s. Some of Russell’s views, while commonly held in the 20s, are completely politically incorrect by today’s standards — I will note them with explanation marks (!!) but otherwise I will not address them or pass over them in silence. These are usually remarks dealing with the nature of the “Chinese mind” or “character” as if all Chinese think a certain way.


This article will deal with Chapter One of POC: “Questions.”

In trying to understand China, Russell thinks he is dealing with a totally alien culture. He is forced to ask himself  what his ultimate values are, what makes one culture or society “better” than another, and what ends does he wish to see triumph in the world. He says different people have different answers to these questions and he thinks they are just subjective preferences not amenable to argument. He will merely state his own and hope his reader will agree with him.  Russell is no objectivist in morals. The ends he values are: “knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship and affection.” He believes in the goals, if not   always the methods, of communism (although he is not a Marxist), and thinks a socialist society will best approximate the ends he wants. There are elements in Chinese culture that also reflect his ends better than they are reflected in Euro-American culture.

Russell thinks a nation should be judged not only on how its own people are treated, but also on how it treats others. He finds China, in this respect, better than the imperialist nations of the West. In the following quote Russell uses the word “our” and I want to stress that he does not intend to restrict its meaning to the British Empire but uses it inclusively to refer to the major imperialist nations of Europe and the English speaking world or even to “capitalist” nations thus including Japan.

“Our prosperity,” he writes, “and most of what we endeavor to secure for ourselves, can only be obtained by widespread exploitation of weaker nations .” The Chinese, however, obtain what they have by means of their own hard work. China is radically different today but  I think what Russell says about it is still basically correct and what he says about  “us” hasn’t changed very much at all.

What happens in China, he says, will determine the whole future course of world history. There are tremendous resources in China and whether they are to be controlled “by China, by Japan, or by the white races [!!], is a question of enormous importance, affecting not only the whole development of Chinese civilization, but the balance of power in the world, the prospects of peace, the destiny of Russia, and the chances of development toward a better economic system in the advanced nations.”

This remark is as true today as it was some 90 years ago. Chinese civilization, however, is now, at least, much more in the hands of the Chinese, the world balance of power remains in flux, the destiny of Russia is still undetermined, and a better economic system for the West (i.e., socialism) is still a distant dream but may be positively influenced by the economic development of China.

I didn’t mention the “prospects for peace” and that is because in the short term Russell was absolutely  correct: the civil war and revolution in China, World War II (in the Pacific), the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all had China, in one way or another, as their focus and the hope of eventually controlling her resources as a backdrop. Today, as well, many circles in the West, associated with international finance capital, see China as a future threat and the US military has contingency plans for a war with her. So Russell was quite prescient to see the economic resources of China as the focal point of contemporary history.

“Modern China”

Russell discusses the internal state of China, as he understood it in 1920-21, in his chapter “Modern China” in “The Problem of China.” He thinks there are only two ways the Chinese can escape from imperialist domination. The first way is for China to become a strong military power. Russell thinks this would be a disaster.

However, since “the capitalist system involves in its very essence a predatory relation of the strong towards the weak [a perfectly good Leninist proposition even if clumsily expressed], internationally as well as nationally” he proposes a second way for Chinese liberation. The foreign imperialist powers will have to “become Socialistic”. Russell thinks this is the only real solution for the Chinese.

It didn’t occur to Russell that China might free itself by military means and work towards socialism at the same time. It goes without saying that the Chinese would be waiting for kingdom come to be liberated if they had taken Russell’s advice and expected Europe and America to turn socialist.

Russell, as did many in his generation, expected a major war to eventually break out between Japan and the United States over which would be top dog in the far east, but did not see that war as an opportunity for the victims of imperialism to break free and become independent. At any rate, in respect to his “only” solution to Chinese liberation, Russell was wildly off the mark — despite his Leninist grasp of the nature of capitalism.

Russell did, however, urge progressives to support the fledgling government of Sun Yat-sen which was at this time battling the war lord system. No one at that time foresaw that the Kuomintang would degenerate into a fascist despotism under Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, or that the recently founded Communist Party of China would be the eventual vehicle both for Chinese liberation and regeneration.

Russell’s next comment was completely correct and was about an issue that, after the success of the revolution, the Chinese took very seriously.  Russell wrote that “in the long run, if the birth-rate is as great as is usually supposed, no permanent cure for their poverty is possible while their families continue to be so large.”

The introduction of birth control and the one child policy, which was a drastic step and is now being reevaluated, probably helped to considerably contain the population from an unmanageable explosion (not to credit natural disasters and the unintended consequences of  policies that turned out to be mistaken with respect to premature industrial expansion and agricultural reforms in the 1950s).

Another problem the Chinese would have to overcome before they could hope to compete with the West, according to Russell, was lack of a modern educational system for the masses. This too the CPC saw as a major problem and immediately after coming to power launched a mass literacy program and built schools and institutions of higher learning throughout China.

This was a prerequisite, Russell said, as Chinese workers would need education and skills in order to command decent wages (he did not foresee a socialist revolution in China). Nevertheless, industrialization in China, as in all other countries, would begin to develop by methods that are “sordid and cruel.” Intellectuals, he remarked, “wish to be told of some less horrible method by which their country may be industrialized, but so far none is in sight.”

Whether you are capitalist or socialist, it appears,  if you are starting from a primitive economic base, the only way you can accumulate capital to make industrial advances is to take  it from the surplus value created by the working class. As we will see Russell thinks state capitalism, or state socialism (they are the same for him), would be the best way for the Chinese to go — but he doesn’t envision a revolution.

Russell now hits upon a major problem which I think was responsible for some of the major errors of the Mao era.

There is one traditional Chinese belief which dies very hard, and that is the belief that correct ethical sentiments are more important than detailed scientific knowledge. This view is, of course, derived from the Confucian tradition, and is more or less true in a pre-industrial society.

One would think that Russell, with commitments to science as the basis for correct knowledge of the world, would hold that “detailed scientific knowledge” is always to be preferred; how would a pre-industrial society ever advance to a higher level without also developing  science?

In the 1950s and 60s Mao pushed the line that politics (“correct ethical sentiments”) was the correct guide to action and could win out over any objections based on economic (scientific) considerations. This led to the twin disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. There was no basis in Marxism for the views he was espousing even though Mao used Marxist terminology to try and explain his thought. If Russell were correct, this would have been a case of the unconscious Confucian substrata in Mao’s world view manifesting itself in Marxist guise.

Mao, himself, was anti-Confucian at this time so even he was blind to the real origins of the reactionary policies he was peddling in Marxist dress. I should also point out that it was only one wing of Confucianism that held to this view — an Idealist trend that developed in the Ming Dynasty and that there were other wings of Confucianism that were materialistically motivated. Mao had indeed studied Ming Confucianism and was influenced by it in his youth, and, I think, unconsciously after he assumed power.

“Present Forces and Tendencies in the Far East”

Russell’s chapter, “Present Forces and Tendencies in the Far East” (in The Problem of China) deals with the balance of power in this region in the 1920s and focuses on China, Japan, Russia and America. I will omit his comments on Japan here and concentrate on China’s dealings with America and the influence of Russia. Russell points out that the interests of Britain are (leaving India to the side) basically the same as those of America — at least its ruling sector of finance capital and NOT “the pacifistic and agrarian tendencies of the Middle West.”

At this time Russell thought that the two most important “moral forces” in the Far East were those emanating from Russia and America. He thought the Americans to be more idealistic than the jaded imperialists running the European capitalist states. However, he thought that cynical imperialist views were an inevitability as a nation’s power increased and the Americans would abandon their idealism.

We must keep this in mind, he warns us, “when we wish to estimate the desirability of extending the influence of the United States.” Today we can see that Russell was right. The United States has evolved into the most cynical and ruthless imperial power in the world, encircling the globe with its garrisons and fleets, and subjecting whole nations and peoples to its bloody domination in search of power, wealth, and resources.

All this, however, was in the future. The benign United States that appeared to Russell was that of the Harding Administration and the Washington Naval Conference, presided over by Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes. The conference was held from late 1921 to early 1922 and was the first disarmament conference in modern history. It was designed to reign in Japanese aggression in China, limit naval construction, and keep the Open Door Policy in place in China.

Russell thought America’s policy at the conference was a liberal one, but only because the outcome of the conference was in line with American interests in the Far East. What Russell really believed was that “when American interests or prejudices are involved liberal and humanitarian principles have no weight whatever.” Have we seen anything to contradict this assessment since the days of Warren Harding (or those of George Washington for that matter)?

If American plans for the future economic development of China should be successful, Russell thought it would be disastrous for China. It would certainly be good for America and her allies, but would involve “a gradually increasing flow of wealth from China to the investing countries, the chief of which is America [the CPC appears to have reversed this flow]; the development of a sweated proletariat [still a problem]; the spread of Christianity [another great evil]; the substitution of American civilization for Chinese [not yet but McDonalds and KFC have secured beach heads];…. the gradual awakening of China to her exploitation by the foreigner [China was already awake when Russell wrote]; and one day, fifty or a hundred years hence [around 1972 or 2022], the massacre of every white man throughout the Celestial Empire at a signal from some vast secret society.”

Well, the great awakening was already at hand when Russell wrote.  He was just blind to it.  China liberated itself in a little over 25 years, despite the best actions the US and its allies could do to prevent it, and no vast secret society sprang up to threaten every “white man.” The Celestial Empire has become a People’s Republic.

Russell’s vision of the future was off, but the definition he gave of what the West considers “good” government was spot on, even today: “it is a government that yields fat dividends for capitalists.” This is still the game plan in the 21st century.

Russell now embarks on some ill founded speculations which, nevertheless, hint at a grain of truth. He predicts, for example “it is not likely that Bolshevism [as seen in Russia-tr] as a creed will make much progress in China.” He gives the following three reasons:

1) China has a decentralized state tending towards feudalism whereas Bolshevism requires a centralized state. Russell doesn’t seem to understand a successful socialist revolution would reverse this tendency.

2) China is more suitable for anarchism because the Chinese have a great sense of personal freedom and the Bolsheviks need to have (and do have) more control over individuals “than has ever been known before.” This is strange. The Chinese had just emerged from an oriental despotism under the Manchus that had regulated everything including dress and hair styles for the population, and had no tradition of anything like “personal freedom” as had developed in Europe.

3) Bolshevism opposes “private trading” which is the “breath of life to all Chinese except the literati.” But ninety percent of the Chinese at this time were basically illiterate peasants  most of whom were under the control of a feudalistic landlord class. The Chinese masses had more in common with the Russian masses than Russell seemed to realize.

The greatest appeal of Bolshevism, Russell said, was to the youth of China who wanted to develop industry by skipping the stage of capitalist development. But Russia was now engaged in the New Economic Policy and Russell thought this signaled a slow return to capitalist methods which would disillusion the Chinese.

But, Russell said, the fact that as a creed Bolshevism [i.e., Marxism] would not hold any lasting appeal, Bolshevism “as a political force” had a great future. What he meant was that Bolshevik Russia would continue to play the Great Game in Asia and follow in the footsteps of Tzarist imperialism with Bolshevik imperialism since “the Russians have an instinct for colonization” [!!].

Here is where Russell becomes very confused in his analysis. He doesn’t really define “imperialism.” Marxists at this time defined it as the international policy of monopoly capitalism based on the control of the state by  financial capital sometimes allied with industrial capital. In this sense Bolshevik imperialism was a contradiction in terms. As far as “the Russians,” lumped together without any attempt at class analysis, having an “instinct” to become colonialists — such general statements are useless in trying to describe social reality.

Regardless, Russell thinks it would not be so bad for Russia to become hegemonic in Asia. The Russians could enter into more nearly equal relations with Asian peoples because their “character” [!!]  is more “Asiatic” than that of the “English speaking-nations.”  English speaking nations would not be able to have the same understanding and ability “to enter into relations of equally” with these strange inscrutable Orientals.  As a result an Asian Block of nations would arise as a defensive block and this would be good for world peace as well as “humanity.”

Russell recommends that outside powers leave off meddling with the Chinese and attempting to impose their own values on them as the Chinese will, left to themselves, “find a solution suitable to their character” for their own political problems. This idea  of “national character” is quite unscientific and if Russell had understood what he read of Das Kapital and other Marxist writings and substituted some such phrase as “find a solution based on their own historical development and class relations”, he would have made better sense. POC would have been better understood, in fact, if “national character” had been replaced by “historical development” whenever it occurred along with a brief description of that development.

Russell goes on to predict what the future of China will most likely be. Marxists, as  great predictors of the future themselves, especially its inevitable trends and outcomes, understand what a risky business this is and should have great sympathy for Russell’s wrong headed  prognosis.

Since the US emerged unscathed from WW I it had an excess of available capital to invest  and would be the principal nation involved in China’s future development. “As the financiers are the most splendid feature of the American civilization, China must be so governed as to enrich the financiers.” The US will contribute greatly to building educational institutions in China so that Chinese intellectuals will end up serving the interests of the big Trusts just as American intellectuals do. As a result a conservative anti-radical reform system will be produced and touted as a great force for peace. But, Russell points out: “it is impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or peace and freedom out of capitalism.”

The US will encourage the growth of a stable government, foster an increase in income to build up a market for American goods, discourage other powers besides themselves from meddling in China, and look askance upon all attempts of the Chinese to control their own economy, especially the nationalization of the mines and railroads, which Russell sees as a “form of State Socialism or what Lenin calls State Capitalism.” The reference to Lenin is in respect to the New Economic Plan (NEP) in Russia.

The US would also keep lists of radical students and see to it that they would not get jobs, try to impose its puritan morality on the Chinese, and because Americans think their own country and way of life are “perfect” they will do great damage to what is best in Chinese culture in their attempts to make China as much as possible resemble what they call “God’s own country.”

As a result of all this a “Marxian class-war will break out” between Asia and the West. The Asian forces will be led by a socialist Russia and be fought for freedom from the imperialist powers and their exploitation. These views are very different from those Russell will be representing in his future Cold War phase.

Ever the pessimist, Russell sees this war as so destructive all around that probably “no civilization of any sort would survive it.” When the actual war came it was very destructive, but it was a civil war between the bourgeois democratic capitalist powers and the authoritarian fascist capitalist powers into which the Russians were drawn against their will and from which the Chinese emerged as a free and independent people determined to build socialism.

Russell ends his chapter on a socialist note about the evils of the “present” (1920s) system of world wide capitalist domination. His conclusion is almost a perfect description of the world we live in today. “The essential evil of the present system,” he says, “as Socialists have pointed out over and over again, is production for profit instead of for use.”  American power may, for a while, impose peace, but never freedom for weak countries. “Only international Socialism can secure both; and owing to the stimulation of revolt by capitalist oppression, even peace alone can never be secure until international Socialism is established throughout the world.”

“The Outlook for China”

The last chapter in Bertrand Russell’s POC is entitled “The Outlook for China”. Russell, writing in 1922, thinks that China (due to its population and resources) has the capacity to become the second greatest power in the world (after the United States). Today the US seems to be slipping economically so maybe China will become number one in the world sometime in the present century.

Three things will have to come about for China to reach its full potential. Russell lists them as: 1) The establishment of an orderly government [the CPC has accomplished this requirement]; 2) Industrial development under Chinese control [this too has been brought about by the CPC whether you call it “market socialism” or “state capitalism”]; 3) the spread of education [ditto care of the CPC].

All three prerequisites put forth by Russell have been attained if not quite in the manner he imagined in his book. Let’s look at some of Russell’s elaborations on these prerequisites.

First, the problem of orderly government. Russell says that in the 1920s China was functionally anarchic with battling warlords and weak central governments in the north and south of the country. He envisioned an eventual constitutional setup and a parliamentary form of government. But he cautioned that even so the masses of the people (Russell uses the term “public opinion”) will have to be guided by what amounts to a Leninist political party using democratic centralist methods.

Here is what Russell wrote: “It will be necessary for the genuinely progressive people throughout the country to unite in a strongly disciplined society, arriving at collective decisions and enforcing support for those decisions upon all its members.” That is just what happened under the leadership of CPC.

Second, the problem of industrial development. China, or any country for that matter, to be truly free has to also be economically free and that requires that it has control of its own railroads and natural resources. He thus thinks the Chinese government should own the railroads and the mines of China. He also thinks that state ownership of “a large amount” of the industry in China should also occur. “There are many arguments for State Socialism, or rather what Lenin calls State Capitalism, in any country which is economically but not culturally backward.”

Russell thinks that is possible for China, with a strong and honest government, to skip over the stage of capitalism and lay the foundations for socialism. This is tricky business as the Chinese would find out much later. If you skip too far and too fast you can trip and fall on your face.  With the right government “it will be possible to develop Chinese industry without, at the same time, developing the overweening power of private capitalists by which the Western nations are now both oppressed and misled.” We can only hope that China is heading in this direction.

Third, the problem of education. Russell says that “Where the bulk of the population cannot read, true democracy is impossible. Education is a good in itself, but is also essential for developing political consciousness, of which at present there is almost none in rural China.”

By “democracy” Russell then, and almost all Western governments and their intellectual tools today, mean “bourgeois democracy”; i.e., “democratic” institutions and constitutions that guarantee the government will be controlled by, for, and of one of two contending classes that exist in the modern capitalist world; i.e., the capitalist class. Russell proclaimed his belief in “socialism” (Mao even said Russell believed in “communism”) but he never transcended the bourgeois concept of “democracy” inculcated in him by the British ruling class by which he was educated.

But the wider, and I believe correct, meaning of “democracy” (rule of the “demos” or people) includes other forms of government than those proclaimed by the bourgeoisie and their lackeys.  It must refer to any form  of government that objectively rules in the interests of its people; i.e., the vast majority of its population composed of working people,  called by old time communists “the toiling masses” and historically personified by the “people’s democracies” and “people’s republics” of eastern Europe and Asia, and by the only completely democratic state in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba.

In just a few years after Russell wrote the above words, hundreds of millions of the peasants of “rural China” would develop a political consciousness that would lead to the overthrow of the rule by landlords and capitalists in China and the establishment, however flawed, of a true people’s republic. Then they learned to read.

Russell was both correct and incorrect in saying the following: “Until it has been established for some time, China must be, in fact if not in form, an oligarchy, because the uneducated masses cannot have any effective political opinion [or in the case of the US — miseducated masses]. If that “oligarchy” is a real communist party (not one in name only) it will bring to the masses the correct political opinion that they and they alone control their own destiny and can abolish their subjection to a class that only lives off of their exploitation. The one party state may be the instrument leading to this liberation and its own eventual elimination, along with the state, but it also gives to the masses “effective political opinion” and if it doesn’t, it may find itself being eliminated ahead of schedule.

Russell hoped the Chinese, by combining “Western” science with their traditional culture, would create a new civilization free of the deficiencies of the capitalist West. What we are seeing now, in the 21st century, in China is perhaps the fulfillment of Russell’s vision but it is a synthesis of Marx, left wing Confucianism, and modern science. Hopefully the coming century will see the end of Western “civilization” as we know it, a predatory war based imperialist system attempting to enchain the world, and the establishment of a real new world order. The values of Bertrand Russell will be better remembered and served in such a world.

Epilogue: What Mao thought of Russell’s Views on China ((Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, “Communism and Dictatorship”, November 1920. January 1921 [Extracted from two letters to Ts’ai Ho-sen[1895-1932 a leader of the CPC, arrested in Hong Kong by the British and turned over to the Kuomintang which killed him- tr], in November 1920 and January 1921]))

In his lecture at Changsha, Russell …. took a position in favour of communism but against the dictatorship of the workers and peasants. He said that one should employ the method of education to change the consciousness of the propertied classes, and that in this way it would not be necessary to limit freedom or to have recourse to war and bloody revolution….

My objections to Russell’s view point can be stated in a few words: ‘This is all very well as a theory, but it is unfeasible in practice’.

Education requires money, people and instruments. In today’s world money is entirely in the hands of the capitalists. Those who have charge of education are all either capitalists or wives of capitalists. In today’s world the schools and the press, the two most important instruments of education, are entirely under capitalist control. In short, education in today’s world is capitalist education. If we teach capitalism to children, these children, when they grow up will, in turn, teach capitalism to a second generation of children. Education thus remains in the hands of the capitalists.

Then the capitalists have ‘parliaments’ to pass laws protecting the capitalists and handicapping the proletariat; they have ‘governments’ to apply these laws and to enforce the advantages and the prohibitions that they contain; they have ‘armies’ and ‘police’ to defend the well-being of the capitalists and to repress the demands of the proletariat; they have ‘banks’ to serve as repositories in the circulation of their wealth ; they have ‘ factories’, which are the instruments by which they monopolize the production of goods.

Thus, if the communists do not seize political power, they will not be able to find any refuge in this world; how, under such circumstances, could they take charge of education? Thus, the capitalists will continue to control education and to praise their capitalism to the skies, so that the number of converts to the proletariat’s communist propaganda will diminish from day to day. Consequently, I believe that the method of education is unfeasible….

What I have just said constitutes the first argument.

The second argument is that, based on the principle of mental habits and on my observation of human history, I am of the opinion that one absolutely cannot expect the capitalists to become converted to communism. If one wishes to use the power of education to transform them, then since one cannot obtain control of the whole or even an important part of the two instruments of education — schools and the press — even if one has a mouth and a tongue and one or two schools and newspapers as means of propaganda…. this is really not enough to change the mentality of the adherents of capitalism even slightly; how then can one hope that the latter will repent and turn toward the good? So much from a psychological standpoint. From a historical standpoint…. one observes that no despot imperialist and militarist throughout history has ever been known to leave the stage of history of his own free will without being overthrown by the people. Napoleon I proclaimed himself emperor and failed; then there was Napoleon III. Yuan Shih-K’ai failed; then, also there was Tuan Ch’i-jui…. From what I have just said based on both psychological and a historical standpoint, it can be seen that capitalism cannot be overthrown by the force of a few feeble efforts in the domain of education. This is the second argument.

There is yet a third argument, most assuredly a very important argument, even more important in reality. If we use peaceful means to attain the goal of communism, when will we finally achieve it? Let us assume that a century will be required, a century marked by the unceasing groans of the proletariat. What position shall we adopt in the face of this situation? The proletariat is many times more numerous than the bourgeoisie; if we assume that the proletariat constitutes two-thirds of humanity, then one billion of the earth’s one billion five hundred million inhabitants are proletarians (I fear that the figure is even higher), who during this century will be cruelly exploited by the remaining third of capitalists. How can we bear this?

Furthermore, since the proletariat has already become conscious of the fact that it too should possess wealth, and of the fact that its sufferings are unnecessary, the proletarians are discontented, and a demand for communism has arisen and has already become a fact. This fact confronts us, we cannot make it disappear; when we become conscious of it we wish to act. This is why, in my opinion, the Russian revolution, as well as the radical communists in every country, will daily grow more powerful and numerous and more tightly organized. This is the natural result. This is the third argument…..

There is a further point pertaining to my doubts about anarchism. My argument pertains not merely to the impossibility of a society without power or organization. I should like to mention only the difficulties in the way of the establishment of such form of society and of its final attainment…. For all the reasons just stated, my present viewpoint on absolute liberalism, anarchism, and even democracy is that these things are fine in theory, but not feasible in practice….

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