Proposed Roads to Freedom

Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism

by Bertrand Russell


This is an analysis and criticism of two influential strands of 20th century political economic thought: Socialism, in the Marxist sense, and Anarchism, as advocated for by Bakunin.

[Actually, this is less of review/criticism and more of “summary with weird notes and a lot of relevant quotes that might be useful, but probably not that useful to anyone who isn’t me]

Socialism, as defined by Russell, is the “advocacy of communal ownership of land and capital.” Such communal ownership can be mediated by a democratic State, but never an undemocratic one. Such communal ownership can also result from the natural self-organization of individuals without State intervention of coercion—Socialists who believe this overlap with Anarchists. But by and large Socialists lack libertarian tendencies, and are mostly content with such apparatuses to be handed off to a parliamentary state.

Russell then creates a taxonomy of the essential components of Marxist doctrine:
  1. The Materialistic Interpretation of History.— Marx holds that in the main all the phenomena of human society have their origin in material conditions, and these he takes to be embodied in economic systems. Political constitutions, laws, religions, philosophies—all these he regards as, in their broad outlines, expressions of the economic regime in the society that gives rise to them. It would be unfair to represent him as maintaining that the conscious economic motive is the only one of importance; it is rather that economics molds character and opinion, and is thus the prime source of much that appears in consciousness to have no connection with them. He applies his doctrine in particular to two revolutions, one in the past, the other in the future. The revolution in the past is that of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, which finds its expression, according to him, particularly in the French Revolutino. The one in the future is the revolution of the wage-earners, or proleteriat, against the bourgeoisie, which is to establish the Socialist Commonwealth. The whole movement of history is viewed by him as necessary, as the effect of material causes operating upon human beings. He does not so much advocate the Socialist revolution as predict it. He holds, it is true, that it will be beneficent, but he is much more concerned to prove that it must inevitably come. The same sense of necessity is visible in his exposition of the evils of the capitalist system. He does not blame capitalists for the cruelties of which he shows them to have been guilty; he merely points out that they are under an inherent necessity to behave cruelly so long as the private ownership of land and capital continues. But their tyranny will not last forever, for it generates the forces that must in the end overthrow it.

  2. The Law of the Concentration of Capital.— Marx pointed out that capitalist undertakings tend to grow larger and larger. He foresaw the substitution of trusts for free competition, and predicted that the number of capitalist enterprises must diminish as the magnitude of single enterprises increased. He supposed that this process must involve a diminution, not only in the number of businesses, but also in the number of capitalists. Indeed he usually spoke as though each business were owned by a single man. Accordingly, he expected that men would be continually driven from the ranks of the capitalists into those of the proletariat, and that the capitalists, in the course of time, would grow numerically weaker and weaker. He applied this principle not only to industry but also toa griculture. He expected to find the landowners growing fewer and fewer while their estates grew larger and larger. This process was to make more and more glaring the evils and injustices of the capitalist system, and to stimulate more and more the forces of opposition.

  3. The Class War.— Marx conceives the wage-earner and the capitalist in a sharp antithesis. He imagines that every man is, or must soon become, wholly the one or wholly the other. The wage-earner, who possesses nothing, is exploited by the capitalists, who possess everything. As the capitalist system works itself out and its nature becomes more clear, the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat becomes more and more marked. The two classes, since they have antagonistic interests, are forced into a class war which generates within the capitalistic regime internal forces of disruption. The working men learn gradually to combine against their exploiters, first locally, then nationally, and at last internationally. When they have learned to combine internationally they must be victorious. They will then decree that all land and capital shall be owned in common; exploitation will cease; the tyranny of the owners of wealth will no longer be possible; there will no longer be any division of society into classes, and all men will be free.

I will take a slight digression here to comment on the nature of the proposed Marxist class war. As we have become well aware, this has not happened yet. There are many reasons for this, but one assumption that Marxists take (and I think Marx himself took) was that class, as a signifier, would supersede race and sex as an identity, and therefore provide stronger bonds than either of the other two.

Perhaps more specifically, I claim Marxists believe something on the order of “individuals of the same class have more in common than individuals of the same race or nationality.” Firestone disagrees and substitutes sex for class in her Dialectic on Sex, and individuals such as Curtis Yarvin would cleave the global population on the basis of race. But I do suspect that a large proportion of economic leftism bottoms out in this fundamentally economic understanding of an indvidual’s experience and material reality.

Maybe calling this leftist is slightly incorrect? This seems to be a Western take as well. We see that in America (in my experience) differentiating groups on the basis of wealth is much more accepted than differentiating groups on the basis of race. And racial divides in America are some of the most explicit worldwide. But it is also emblematic of, say, the Progress Studies folk to anchor very, very heavily on ‘GDP go up’ as a metric for overall wellbeing. This seems broadly similar.

At any rate, they’re incorrect. On a national level, it (broadly) makes more sense to classify individuals on the basis of class. But on an international level, race becomes much more important, as race becomes a stronger predictor of culture, morality, values, etc. that are intangible factors not necessarily tracked by wealthy or income metrics. The Anglo-sphere (and Europe to a lesser extent) is unique in that it has managed to assimilate large proportions of immigrants of different ethnicities without resorting to explicit identification and classification of them. This is not the case in e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, India, China etc. And I think this is one of the Marxist fatal flaws.

(maybe this confuses similarity with willigness to cooperate. likely that chinese factory workers and indian factory workers are essentially substitutable but they would never be friends)

This impinges his broader point with the question of: are Marx’s laws of historical development correct? We can belabor this point for eternity, but they are obviously seriously flawed (with the 20th century as his judge). However, this is in fact a separate question from the question of the desirability of Socialism (which includes a subconsideration of feasibility, but is notably different).

Stepping back, Marx’s three points are of varying degrees of incorrect, but when contextualized to the mid-19th century… they seem astonishingly prescient? Or, the Law of the Concentration of Capital is just obviously correct, and most other intellectuals of Marx’s time would deride the idea that class could supersede nationality as a unifying factor (too many racists). But it can, and it is just today that we see the overcorrection.

And it is true that given Marx’s (or even Russell’s) vantage point, moving more in the direction of Socialism would be better for the vast majority of individuals. The baseline welfare of the individual had simiply not increased enough, and deprivation conditions were widespread. 1950s America would be considered a third-world country to us today, and in fact many pro-market individuals today would prefer a Socialist state to living conditions seventy years prior. It’s probably good to keep that in mind.

Anarchism “is the theory which is opposed to every kind of forcible government.” The only government which Anarchists can accept is “free government, not merely in the sense that it is a majority, but in the sense that it is assented to by all.” Anarchists object to the encroachment of the rights of an individual by other individuals in different parts of the community—it is for this reason that they view law enforcement as evil, and that democratic governments are no better than authoritarian ones if they have the capacity to act in a majoritiarian manner.

Russell quotes the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu to make his point:

Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow; hair, to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their heels over the champaign. Such is the real nature of horses. Palatial dwellings are of no use to them.

One day Po Lo appeared, saying: “I understand the management of horses.”

So he branded them, and clipped them, and pared their hoofs, and put halters on them, tying them up by the head and shackling them by the feet, and disposing them in stables, with the result that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and grooming, and trimming, with the misery of the tasselled bridle before and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them were dead.

The potter says: “I can do what I will with Clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square.”

The carpenter says: “I can do what I will with wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line.”

But on what grounds can we think that the natures of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, of arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Po Lo for his skill in managing horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who govern the empire make the same mistake.

Now I regard government of the empire from quite a different point of view.

The people have certain natural instincts:—to weave and clothe themselves, to till and feed themselves. These are common to all humanity, and all are agreed thereon. Such instincts are called “Heaven-sent.”

And so in the days when natural instincts prevailed, men moved quietly and gazed steadily. At that time there were no roads over mountains, nor boats, nor bridges over water. All things were produced, each for its own proper sphere. Birds and beasts multiplied, trees and shrubs grew up. The former might be led by the hand; you could climb up and peep into the raven’s nest. For then man dwelt with birds and beasts, and all creation was one. There were no distinctions of good and bad men. Being all equally without knowledge, their virtue could not go astray. Being all equally without evil desires, they were in a state of natural integrity, the perfection of human existence.

But when Sages appeared, tripping up people over charity and fettering them with duty to their neighbor, doubt found its way into the world. And then, with their gushing over music and fussing over ceremony, the empire became divided against itself.

It is important to note that anarchism does not necessarily imply communal ownership of land and capital. It just so happens that in the early 20th century, the vast majority of anarchists also happened to be communists, so Russell focuses on these anarcho-communists. But today, a significant portion of anarchists are libertarians (or even monarchist-adjacent), and do not share the past belief that “private capital is a source of tyranny by certain individuals over others.”

If Marx is the standard-bearer of socialist thought, than Michel Bakunin, Russian aristocrat, would be the standard-bearer of aristocratic thought. He was an emigre for large portions of his life, due to his native tendencies of stirring up pseudo-revolutionary behavior and subsequently incurring the ire of state authorities.

Anarcho-communism does not differ tremendously from socialism in the nature of its economic reforms, it differs from socialism on the basis of its political reforms, arguing for a self-organizing society. This as a movement did not gain much traction, but an intellectual descendant of it did—Syndicalism.

Syndicalism stands essentially for the point of view of the producer as opposed to that of the consumer; it is concerned with reforming actual work, and the organization of industry, not MERELY with securing greater rewards for work. From this point of view its vigor and its distinctive character are derived. It aims at substituting industrial for political action, and at using Trade Union organization for purposes for which orthodox Socialism would look to Parliament.

The essential doctrine of Syndicalism is the class- war, to be conducted by industrial rather than politi- cal methods. The chief industrial methods advocated are the strike, the boycott, the label and sabotage.

The doctrines of Syndicalism may be illustrated by an article introducing it to English readers in the first number of “The Syndicalist Railwayman,” September, 1911, from which the following is quoted:—

“All Syndicalism, Collectivism, Anarchism aims at abolishing the present economic status and existing private ownership of most things; but while Collectivism would substitute ownership by everybody, and Anarchism ownership by nobody, Syndicalism aims at ownership by Organized Labor. It is thus a purely Trade Union reading of the economic doctrine and the class war preached by Socialism. It vehemently repudiates Parliamentary action on which Collectivism relies; and it is, in this respect, much more closely allied to Anarchism, from which, indeed, it differs in practice only in being more limited in range of action.” (Times, Aug. 25, 1911).

One of the astute Syndicalist proposals, in my opinion, was to propose “industrial unionism”, where unions were formed on the basis of the nature of one’s work, rather than the organization they were employed by. Notably, this movement originated in America (American labor reform seemed to be more? militant than British labor reform during this time, which I suppose shouldn’t be that surprising given that three decades later we elected FDR).

Here we draw our lines, between Socialism and Anarchism (in practice Syndicalism). Russell believes that the best ideal state of the world is Anarchic, but that Socialists have better practical prescriptions, and he adheres to an ideology known as “guild socialism”, which will be discussed later. I think that these takes are understandable in the context of a world where absurd amounts of surplus have not been generated, but today? Markets creating wealth seem to be a good component of capitalistic society that Socialist ones would have to emulate.

Which, I note, Russell does account for, when considering the question of how to create a better natural order of society:
Two connected doctrines must be considered in examining this question: First, Malthus’ doctrine of population; and second, the vaguer, but very prevalent, view that any surplus above the bare necessaries of life can only be produced if most men work long hours at monotonous or painful tasks, leaving little leisure for a civilized existence or rational enjoyment. I do not believe that either of these obstacles to optimism will survive a close scrutiny. The possibility of technical improvement in the methods of production is, I believe, so great that, at any rate for centuries to come, there will be no inevitable barrier to progress in the general well-being by the simultaneous increase of commodities and diminution of hours of labor.

It is maybe for this reason that he is less of a radical than his contemporaries?

He notices one of the great cleavages between Socialists nad Anarchists:
There is a fundamental difference between Socialism and Anarchism as regards the question of distribution. Socialism, at any rate in most of its forms, would retain payment for work done or for willingness to work, and, except in the case of persons incapacitated by age or infirmity, would make willingness to work a condition of subsistence, or at any rate of subsistence above a certain very low minimum. Anarchism, on the other hand, aims at granting to everyone, without any conditions whatever, just as much of all ordinary commodities as he or she may care to consume, while the rarer com- modities, of which the supply cannot easily be indefinitely increased, would be rationed and divided equally among the population. Thus Anarchism would not impose any OBLIGATIONS of work, though Anarchists believe that the necessary work could be made sufficiently agreeable for the vast majority of the population to undertake it voluntarily. Socialists, on the other hand, would exact work. Some of them would make the incomes of all workers equal, while others would retain higher pay for the work which is considered more valuable. All these different systems are compatible with the common ownership of land and capital, though they differ greatly as regards the kind of society which they would produce.

And resolution:

Anarchism has the advantage as regards liberty, Socialism as regards the inducements to work. Can we not find a method of combining these two advantages? It seems to me that we can.

We saw that, provided most people work in moderation, and their work is rendered as productive as science and organization can make it, there is no good reason why the necessaries of life should not be supplied freely to all. Our only serious doubt was as to whether, in an Anarchist regime, the motives for work would be sufficiently powerful to prevent a dan- gerously large amount of idleness. But it would be easy to decree that, though necessaries should be free to all, whatever went beyond necessaries should only be given to those who were willing to work—not, as is usual at present, only to those in work at any moment, but also to all those who, when they happened not to be working, were idle through no fault of their own. We find at present that a man who has a small income from investments, just sufficient to keep him from actual want, almost always prefers to find some paid work in order to be able to afford luxuries. So it would be, presumably, in such a community as we are imagining. At the same time, the man who felt a vocation for some unrecognized work of art or science or thought would be free to follow his desire, provided he were willing to “scorn delights and live laborious days.” And the comparatively small number of men with an invincible horror of work—the sort of men who now become tramps— might lead a harmless existence, without any grave danger of their becoming sufficiently numerous to be a serious burden upon the more industrious. In this ways the claims of freedom could be combined with the need of some economic stimulus to work. Such a system, it seems to me, would have a far greater chance of success than either pure Anarchism or pure orthodox Socialism.

Stated in more familiar terms, the plan we are advocating amounts essentially to this: that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income, as much larger as might be warranted by the total amount of commodities produced, should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further. I do not think it is always necessary to pay more highly work which is more skilled or regarded as socially more useful, since such work is more interesting and more respected than ordinary work, and will therefore often be preferred by those who are able to do it. But we might, for instance, give an intermediate income to those who are only willing to work half the usual number of hours, and an income above that of most workers to those who choose a specially disagreeable trade. Such a system is perfectly compatible with Socialism, though perhaps hardly with Anarchism. Of its advantages we shall have more to say at a later stage. For the present I am content to urge that it combines freedom with justice, and avoids those dangers to the community which we have found to lurk both in the proposals of the Anarchists and in those of orthodox Socialists.

Question, how do Anarchists deal with crime?

The conclusion, which appears to be forced upon us, is that the Anarchist ideal of a community in which no acts are forbidden by law is not, at any rate for the present, compatible with the stability of such a world as the Anarchists desire. In order to obtain and preserve a world resembling as closely as possible that at which they aim, it will still be necessary that some acts should be forbidden by law. We may put the chief of these under three heads:

  1. Theft.

  2. Crimes of violence.

  3. The creation of organizations intended to subvert the Anarchist regime by force.

We will briefly recapitulate what has been said already as to the necessity of these prohibitions.

  1. Theft.—It is true that in an Anarchist world there will be no destitution, and therefore no thefts motivated by starvation. But such thefts are at present by no means the most considerable or the most harmful. The system of rationing, which is to be applied to luxuries, will leave many men with fewer luxuries than they might desire. It will give opportunities for peculation by those who are in control of the public stores, and it will leave the possibility of appropriating such valuable objects of art as would naturally be preserved in public museums. It may be contended that such forms of theft would be prevented by public opinion. But public opinion is not greatly operative upon an individual unless it is the opinion of his own group. A group of men combined for purposes of theft might readily defy the public opinion of the majority unless that public opinion made itself effective by the use of force against them. Probably, in fact, such force would be applied through popular indignation, but in that case we should revive the evils of the criminal law with the added evils of uncertainty, haste and passion, which are inseparable from the practice of lynching. If, as we have suggested, it were found necessary to provide an economic stimulus to work by allowing fewer luxuries to idlers, this would afford a new motive for theft on their part and a new necessity for some form of criminal law.

  2. Crimes of Violence.—Cruelty to children, crimes of jealousy, rape, and so forth, are almost certain to occur in any society to some extent. The prevention of such acts is essential to the existence of freedom for the weak. If nothing were done to hinder them, it is to be feared that the customs of a society would gradually become rougher, and that acts which are now rare would cease to be so. If Anarchists are right in maintaining that the existence of such an economic system as they desire would prevent the commission of crimes of this kind, the laws forbidding them would no longer come into operation, and would do no harm to liberty. If, on the other hand, the impulse to such actions persisted, it would be necessary that steps should be taken to restrain men from indulging it.

  3. The third class of difficulties is much the most serious and involves much the most drastic interference with liberty. I do not see how a private army could be tolerated within an Anarchist community, and I do not see how it could be prevented except by a general prohibition of carrying arms. If there were no such prohibition, rival parties would organize rival forces, and civil war would result. Yet, if there is such a prohibition, it cannot well be carried out without a very considerable interference with individual liberty. No doubt, after a time, the idea of using violence to achieve a political object might die down, as the practice of duelling has done. But such changes of habit and outlook are facilitated by legal prohibition, and would hardly come about without it. I shall not speak yet of the international aspect of this same problem, for I propose to deal with that in the next chapter, but it is clear that the same considerations apply with even greater force to the relations between nations.

& Russell argues that someting approximating a state will be necessary to enforce this.

What, I want to ask, is the fundamental evil in our modern Society which we should set out to abolish?

There are two possible answers to that question, and I am sure that very many well-meaning people would make the wrong one. They would answer POVERTY, when they ought to answer SLAVERY. Face to face every day with the shameful contrasts of riches and destitution, high dividends and low wages, and painfully conscious of the futility of trying to adjust the balance by means of charity, private or public, they would answer unhesitatingly that they stand for the ABOLITION OF POVERTY.

Well and good! On that issue every Socialist is with them. But their answer to my question is none the less wrong.

Poverty is the symptom: slavery the disease. The extremes of riches and destitution follow inevitably upon the extremes of license and bondage. The many are not enslaved because they are poor, they are poor because they are enslaved. Yet Socialists have all too often fixed their eyes upon the material misery of the poor without realizing that it rests upon the spiritual degradation of the slave.

Near the end, Russell gives a positive vision of a world that is more socialist than the one today, with compulsory education until 16 such that a society could still intellectually flourish.

Our discussion has led us to the belief that the communal ownership of land and capital, which constitutes the characteristic doctrine of Socialism and Anarchist Communism, is a necessary step toward the removal of the evils from which the world suffers at present and the creation of such a society as any humane man must wish to see realized. But, though a necessary step, Socialism alone is by no means sufficient. There are various forms of Socialism: the form in which the State is the employer, and all who work receive wages from it, involves dangers of tyranny and interference with progress which would make it, if possible, even worse than the present regime. On the other hand, Anarchism, which avoids the dangers of State Socialism, has dangers and difficulties of its own, which make it probable that, within any reasonable period of time, it could not last long even if it were established. Nevertheless, it remains an ideal to which we should wish to approach as nearly as possible, and which, in some distant age, we hope may be reached completely. Syndicalism shares many of the defects of Anarchism, and, like it, would prove unstable, since the need of a central government would make itself felt almost at once.

The system we have advocated is a form of Guild Socialism, leaning more, perhaps, towards Anarchism than the official Guildsman would wholly approve. It is in the matters that politicians usually ignore— science and art, human relations, and the joy of life —that Anarchism is strongest, and it is chiefly for the sake of these things that we included such more or less Anarchist proposals as the “vagabond’s wage.” It is by its effects outside economics and politics, at least as much as by effects inside them, that a social system should be judged. And if Socialism ever comes, it is only likely to prove beneficent if non- economic goods are valued and consciously pursued.

The world that we must seek is a world in which the creative spirit is alive, in which life is an adventure full of joy and hope, based rather upon the impulse to construct than upon the desire to retain what we possess or to seize what is possessed by others. It must be a world in which affection has free play, in which love is purged of the instinct for domination, in which cruelty and envy have been dispelled by happiness and the unfettered development of all the instincts that build up life and fill it with mental delights. Such a world is possible; it waits only for men to wish to create it.

Meantime, the world in which we exist has other aims. But it will pass away, burned up in the fire of its own hot passions; and from its ashes will spring a new and younger world, full of fresh hope, with the light of morning in its eyes.

Good! I do not have the requisite intellectual heft at the moment to properly review this, so this will at the moment stand in its sorry Frankensteined state. Apologies to any reader who made it this far!