When one looks back over centuries of Western encounters with China, self-projection is a recurring theme; a tendency to perceive the 'other' through the prism of one's own hopes, fears and anxieties.
In 1920, he spent six months travelling throughout China and lecturing on matters pertinent to national reconstruction. During his stay, he discovered "a new hope" for the future of a world devastated by war and economic chaos. Yet within a few decades China would be transformed in his imagination from a remedy for the world's ills into a showcase for its most debilitating symptoms.
The story of that reversal, and its implications for Russell's political thinking, begins during the later stages of the Russian Civil War.
Since Lenin had spearheaded the 1917 revolution under the slogan of "all power to the Soviets [workers' and soldiers' councils]", it was an open question for Russell how close the practice of Bolshevik of rule approximated his own beliefs. Upon arrival, he travelled by steamship along the Volga, held "interminable discussions on the materialistic conception of history", and met with Lenin and Trotsky.
His hour-long meeting with Lenin crystallised in Russell's mind his firm rejection of the "actually existing socialism" the Bolsheviks had created. In his autobiography, he describes Lenin as possessing an "impish cruelty" and compares his arrogance to that of "an opinionated professor."
I think this picture of Lenin meeting with H. G. Wells at around the same time conveys these qualities rather well.
It was in this disjointed frame of mind that he accepted an offer from the University of Beijing to spend a year there lecturing on various subjects.
|The New Youth|
And the faculty and students at the University of Beijing were at the epicentre of it. In 'The Search for Modern China', Prof. Jonathan D. Spence examines the central role played by four faculty members: Chen Duxiu, the dean who founded the seminal 'New Youth' journal; Li Dazhao, the head librarian who reformulated Marxism; Cai Yuanpei, the president who resigned after his students were arrested for protesting; and Hu Shi, the professor who promoted John Dewey's philosophy of pragmatism (Dewey and Russell were among many intellectuals who visited China at this time, including the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and the physicist Albert Einstein).
Here is a picture of Dewey during his tour of China:
Landing in the midst of this upheaval, Russell saw potential for great things:
He travelled around China from 1920-1 lecturing on social and technical subjects until his trip was cut short by a devastating bout of pneumonia which almost claimed his life (premature obituaries appeared in the British press). Having recovered, he recorded his response to the intellectual ferment he had witnessed in The Problem of China (1921).
However Russell was by no means a relativist - his argument is not that both cultures were equal or non-comparable, but that each cultural tradition was superior or inferior to the other in different respects and that an amalgamation of the best of each would be preferable to either.
Curiously, he revered the Chinese for the same reason that other Westerners had tended to disparage them, namely, their alleged focus on ends rather than means, and their absence of the Western "creed of efficiency for its own sake" (conversely, what critics saw as decadence, indolence and the lack of a Protestant work ethic necessary for industrialisation). It seems unlikely that Russell was impartially analysing the facts before him; the modernist writer and social critic Lu Xun remarked sharply that Russell had "praised the Chinese when some sedan chair bearers smiled at him."
In any case, to understand why Russell would have valued a culture that was more ambivalent about the value of work and industriousness, you need to understand his assessment of where Western civilisation had gone wrong, which he elaborated most clearly in his inaugural Reith Lectures in 1948.
The title of the Lectures is Authority and the Individual. The fundamental question considered is this: "How can we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with that degree of social cohesion which is necessary for survival?"
Russell argues that our inability to strike the right balance between authority and freedom is "due more than anything else to the fact that we have learned to control and understand to a terrifying extent the forces of nature outside of us, but not those embodied in ourselves." And the root of that deficiency is to be found in the ever-increasing scale of institutions that organise our daily lives, in all areas of society.
|Russell addressing a CND rally in Trafalgar Square|
He was not against large organisations per se - as the threat of nuclear war rose, he advocated a single world government, and he recognised than anarchy might be no more preferable than authoritarian government. But he believed the concentration of decision-making power in organisations beyond that which is necessary for it to fulfil their purpose undermines individual initiative by sapping people of the hope that they might make a difference - and thus erodes the principle of democratic equality in practice, if not on paper. As he puts it in his second lecture:
Without the institutional means for individual initiative, a "scarcely-conscious" fear replaced hope as people's primary feeling about politics. And politics focussed solely on means rather than ends, because ends were selected by the minority who used the power of their position to manipulate people's fears. The fixation on means meant an obsession with increasing efficiency and production rather than asking whether the methods used to do this conflicted with the reasons we had for increasing production in the first place.
Russell argued that a retreat from the precipice to which Western civilisation had stumbled blindly would involve a comprehensive rational reorganisation of its society and cultural values. By this he did not mean any grand scheme of social engineering imposed from above, but a social system that would reconcile what we regard as a civilised way of life with non-destructive outlets for our unchanging natural instincts - including the hope of working with others to change the world for the better through politics, "if life is to be saved from boredom relieved only by disaster." Organised rationally, political and social decentralisation would provide, in Russell's lovely phrase, "opportunities for hopefulness."
The alternative was that our need for "adventure" would manifest itself in ways harmful to social order and the resulting unrest would create an opening for utopian ideologies. Here is how he puts it in the third lecture:
Here is an interview with Russell on 'Face to Face' from 1959. About halfway through he opines that Bolshevism and fascism would never have taken power without the experience of the Great War.
How, then, did Russell's political beliefs shape his views about China? In 'The Problem of China' he argues that China - culturally rich but underdeveloped and politically divided, "less a political entity than a civilisation" - has the potential to blaze an entirely new path to development, combining the best of its cultural heritage with Western science and democracy. If China succeeded in this, Russell believed it would force the West to take stock of its problems - "its brutality, its restlessness, its readiness to oppress the weak, its preoccupation with purely material aims."
If the Great War had jolted Western civilisation out of its naive optimism about the "inevitability" of progress, only for a kind of pessimistic fatalism to take its place, then in the intellectual tumult of China Russell found a haven of alternative futures and open possibilities. He did not understate its importance:
As far as Russell was concerned, there were basically two possiblities: either Socialism would triumph in the West and relieve China of imperialist pressure, or China would follow the course taken by Japan - which had recovered its own Treaty Ports from the Europeans - and become another militarised society. Russell's visit to China coincided with the Washington Naval Conference, which had been convened in an effort to rein-in Japanese aggression in Asia. Of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, he wrote: "the Japanese adopted our faults and kept their own, but it is possible to hope that China will make the opposite selection."
- The establishment of an orderly government
- Industrial development under Chinese control
- The spread of education
And, he might have added, not dominating other nations in turn. Russell recognised acutely the dangers of Social Darwinism, the theory that individuals, groups, and peoples are subject to the same laws of natural selection as plants and animals. The notion of a society as articulated by Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth-century, based on "the survival of the fittest", was for Russell a grotesque rationalisation of the contingent conditions of society in a particular time and place, and could only lead to great cruelty if adopted as an actual governing philosophy.
Nevertheless it had a far-reaching influence on intellectual debates in China in the early twentieth-century - particularly on Mao's political thinking - because it seemed to make sense of a world that consisted of rich and powerful imperialists, and the poor and backwards countries that they were carving up. With these kinds of ideas the seeds were being sown for the elevation of society over the individual under the PRC.
This habit of treating a society as an entity whose welfare was separate from the welfare of all of the individuals who composed it was just what Russell warned against in his final Reith Lecture (at 12:10 - he goes on to discuss matters of scale and initiative):
Nevertheless it is perhaps at the level of ideology that Russell's predictions about the direction of China's modernisation are weakest. He worried that many of the young reformers buzzing around China had "a slavish attitude towards Western civilisation", which tended to limit their influence on national politics and channel their frustrations into subversive activities, or increasingly atavistic ideologies.
In his youth, Mao Zedong had actually received one of Russell's lectures about China, either in person or via a newspaper. In 'Communism and Dictatorship' (1921) he responded critically to Russell's priorities, especially the idea that China should aim for universal education before trying to achieve democratic socialism:
"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 can be stated in a few words: 'This is all very well as a theory, but it is unfeasible in practice.'"
And today, all we seem to talk about in the West is how scarily industrious the Chinese workforce is, and how "Asian values" make for a more efficient economy. For the man who wrote an essay 'In Praise of Idleness' and campaigned for a 3-day working week, perhaps this would have come as the final disappointment...