Wednesday, 13 June 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

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.

An exemplary case is that of the renowned philosopher and social activist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who wrote widely on logic, mathematics and political issues, and who was the only philosopher to have been awared both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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.


"It seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for only in a form which destroys their ideals..." 

In 1920 Russell travelled to Russia with a Labour Party delegation to witness firsthand the reality of the world's first Communist state.

Shortly before this visit, he had written a book called 'Paths to Freedom' (1918) expressing sympathy with the goals of a less state-heavy form of socialism called or syndicalism. Like the Bolsheviks ruling Russia, syndicalists believed in public ownership of the means of production, but they advocated decentralised institutions for workers' control as a means of regulating the enlarged powers of the state. For Russell, syndicalism applied the ethical principles of the radical liberal tradition to the conditions of the modern, mechanised world. And like Lenin, he believed that capitalism contained an inherent drive towards imperialism.

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.

What terrified Russell almost as much as the totalitarian state apparatus he saw on the horizon was the inability, or unwillingness, of the rest of his delegation to validate his apprehension. He describes being woken in the middle of the night by the sound of political prisoners being executed by firing squad, and his fellow travellers the next morning insisting it was probably just a car backfiring. It was an experience that haunted Russell:

"Our company were noisy, gay, quarrelsome, full of facile theories, with glib explanations of everything, persuaded that there is nothing they could not understand and no human destiny outside the purview of their system. And all around us lay a great silence, strong as death, unfathomable as the heavens. [...] At last I began to feel that all politics are inspired by a grinning devil, teaching the energetic and quick-witted to torture submissive populations."

Russell was a rationalist and had campaigned for all sorts of progressive causes, from free trade to women's suffrage, and yet his confidence was now blasted from all directions. His school of analytical philosophy had been assaulted by Wittgenstein, the optimism of Western liberals had been shaken by the Great War, and any optimism he might have had in the Bolshevik experiment appears to have been shattered.


"Against my will, in the course of my travels, the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off. In this respect my travels were very useful to me."


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. 

At the time of Russell's tour, China was a hive of intellectual debate about the course the new Republic ought to pursue. A violent student protest against the unfair terms of the Treaty of Versailles (which gave German concessions in China to Japan) sparked the 'May Fourth movement', a malestrom of iconoclastic social movements that promoted the use of vernacular Chinese in literature and the adoption of various aspects of Western politics and culture.

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:

"Out of the renaissance spirit now existing in China, it is possible, if foreign nations can be prevented from working havoc, to develop a new civilization better than any that the world has yet known. This is the aim which Young China should set before itself: the preservation of the urbanity and courtesy, the candour and the pacific temper, which are characteristic of the Chinese nation, together with a knowledge of Western science and an application of it to the practical problems of China."

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).

He makes some cautious introductory remarks about the difficulties of comparing such different cultures as those of China and England:

"Our civilization has been both the effect and the cause of certain more or less unconscious beliefs as to what is worth while; in China one becomes conscious of these beliefs through the spectacle of a society which challenges them by being built, just as unconsciously, upon a different standard of values. It is difficult to compare opposite achievements unless we have some standard of values in our minds; and unless it is a more or less conscious standard, we shall undervalue the less familiar civilization, because evils to which we are not accustomed always make a stronger impression than those that we have learned to take as a matter of course."

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.

Russell was a great admirer of certain features he perceived in traditional Chinese culture which he felt were sorely lacking in the West. On the front page of 'Paths to Freedom' he quotes Laotzu's description of the workings of the Tao: "creation without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination."

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:

"In national politics, where you are one of some 20,000,000 voters, your influence is infinitesimal unless you are exceptional or occupy an exceptional position. You have a twenty-millionth share in the government of others, but only a twenty-millionth share in the government of yourself. You are therefore much more conscious of being governed than of governing. [...] Your individual feeling about politics, in these circumstances, is not that intended to be brought about by democracy, but much more nearly what it would be under a dictatorship."

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.

It was this economic dynamic that had led, in Russell's view, to the First World War, as the Great Powers had scrambled for an imperial resource base. Moreover, the scale of violence unleashed was fuelled by the colision of a social system in which "everything is organised and nothing is spontaneous" and men whose basic nature requires outlets for competition and self-improvement.

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:

"Perhaps it may still be possible, even in our mechanical world, to find some real outlet for the impulses which are now confined to the realm of fantasy [ideology]. In the interests of stability it is much to be hoped that this may be possible, for if it is not, destructive philosophies will from time to time sweep away the best of human achievements."

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.

For Russell, a strictly functionalist society - in which everything was valued only insofar as it was useful for attaining some predetermined end - was a chimera. The illusion of stability it presented would always be undermined by permanent human instincts which need to be accounted for outside of any rational calculation of utility.

If our "savage" needs were not provided with outlets that would put them to constructive use, they would instead manifest themselves in destructiveness or listlessness, "either of which may cause a structure imposed by reason to break down." In this sense, it may be said that forms of 'healthy' competition - in sports, in politics, or in the arts, for instance - operate as a unifying, rather than a divisive, force; a safe outlet for our instinctive need for rivals against whom we define ourselves. Or, as Russell sees it: "the savage in each one of us must find some outlet not incompatible with a civilised way of life and the happiness of his equally savage neighbour."


"Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear."


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:

"The evils produced in China by indolence seem to me far less disastrous, from the point of view of mankind at large, than those produced throughout the world by the domineering cocksureness of Europe and America. [...] Our way of life demands strife, exploitation, restless change, discontent and destruction. Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilization is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East."

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."

It was precisely because China seemed to be on the edge of the transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial society that Russell hoped it could set an example for others to follow, including the developed nations:

"For those of us who have been accustomed to take progress for granted, it is especially interesting to visit a country like China, which has remained where we were one hundred and fifty years ago, and to ask ourselves whether, on the balance, the changes which have happened to us have brought any real improvement."
The greatest President China
never had

In a chapter of his 'Sceptical Essays' (1928) entitled 'Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness', he speculated that a time-traveller from the Age of Enlightenment would feel most at home amidst the idealism and vitality of China in the 1920s:

"When he goes to Asia he sees the past; in China he can see the eighteenth-century. If George Washington were to return to earth...he would not feel really at home until he reached China. There, for the first time in his ghostly wanderings, he would find men who still believe in 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. I think it would not be long before he became President of the Chinese Republic."

Russian-style hotel, Harbin

During his time in China Russell saw the efforts underway to modernise industry and adopt Western technology. I have included some footage below of Manchuria in the 1920s, which was the industrial heartland of the country (the "cradle of electricity").  

Manchuria was also dominated by Russia and Japan in the early twentieth-century, which helps to explain Russell's fear that China might be tempted to follow either of their paths to development if the European imperial powers prevented it from finding its own way.

In 'The Problem of China' Russell argues that there were three prerequisites to achieving anything more ambitious in China than this kind of modernisation-through-conquest, and he listed them in order of urgency:

  1. The establishment of an orderly government
  2. Industrial development under Chinese control
  3. The spread of education
Regarding the second of these, Russell thought that China, as a "country which is economically but not culturally backward", would be able to skip past capitalism and proceed to "State Socialism" - so long as it could first acquire "a vigorous and honest State."

Dam-building in Tibet, 1970s
 Yet he thought that even these things could only be achieved by a transformation in how the Chinese people saw themselves as a nation: "a patriotic spirit is absolutely necessary to the regeneration of China...the enlightened attitude which is willing to learn from other nations while not allowing them to dominate."

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.

Indeed, many of the concerns he expresses in his Reith Lectures about the disenfranchising effects of "big" issues dominating the political agenda were voiced by Hu Shi, the librarian from Beijing University, concerning dogmatic tendencies he obsered in the May Fourth movement, in a critique entitled 'Study More Problems, Talk Less of 'Isms':

"We don't study the standard of living of the rickshaw coolie but rant instead about socialism; we don't study the ways in which women can be emancipated, or the family system set right, but instead we rave about wife-sharing and free love. [...] And, moreover, we are delighed with ourselves, we congratulate ourselves, because we are talking about fundamental "solutions." Putting it bluntly, this is dream talk."

Hu Shi
Although Russell recognised that Moscow would be a key player in Chinese politics, he underestimated the importance that Marxism, as an idea, would have in the evolution of politics within China. In the same year that the first full Chinese translation of 'The Communist Manifesto' was published, he opined in 'The Problem of China' that it was "not likely that Bolshevism as a creed will make much progress in China." He did not foresee that younger intellectuals, who were the most impatient for China to achieve rapid industrialisation, would choose to devote their time and energies to indigenising Bolshevism as a creed and making it relevant to an agricultural society.

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.'"

The polarisation of the debate over China's future was being foreshadowed even at the time of Russell's visit, but rapidly took hold in the following years.

Lei Feng
To Russell, the People's Republic of China must have seemed like a cruel parody of the hopes he had expressed several decades before. He entertained no such hopes when it was founded. Shortly after delivering the Reith Lectures, he remarked that the Chinese "seem to have no alternative except to be conquered or to adopt many of the vices of their enemies." By 1956 he was even more pessimistic: "I fully expect China to be transformed into a modern industrial state as fierce and militaristic as the powers it was compelled to resist. [...] The new China will possess none of the merits of the old."

In the course of events, a country he had hoped would set the Western world free from the tyrannies of fascism, Bolshevism and all forms of faceless and unaccountable power, had itself become a new form of tyranny in its pursuit of equality. And a tyranny that held up as its role model Lei Feng - "the nail that never rusted" - a worker who never stopped working.

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...


A clue as to the subject of Sighting No. 3 - a rainy day, two cigar-case lids, and a champagne cork...

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