Why Men Fight - Bertrand Russell - ebook

Written in response to the devastation of World War I, "Why Men Fight" lays out Bertrand Russell's ideas on war, pacifism, reason, impulse, and personal liberty. Russell argues that when individuals live passionately, they will have no desire for war or killing. Conversely, excessive restraint or reason causes us to live unnaturally and with hostility toward those who are unlike ourselves.

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Why Men Fight

Bertrand Russell




To all who are capable of new impressions and fresh thought, some modification of former beliefs and hopes has been brought by the war. What the modification has been has depended, in each case, upon character and circumstance; but in one form or another it has been almost universal. To me, the chief thing to be learnt through the war has been a certain view of the springs of human action, what they are, and what we may legitimately hope that they will become. This view, if it is true, seems to afford a basis for political philosophy more capable of standing erect in a time of crisis than the philosophy of traditional Liberalism has shown itself to be. The following lectures, though only one of them will deal with war, all are inspired by a view of the springs of action4 which has been suggested by the war. And all of them are informed by the hope of seeing such political institutions established in Europe as shall make men averse to war—a hope which I firmly believe to be realizable, though not without a great and fundamental reconstruction of economic and social life.

To one who stands outside the cycle of beliefs and passions which make the war seem necessary, an isolation, an almost unbearable separation from the general activity, becomes unavoidable. At the very moment when the universal disaster raises compassion in the highest degree, compassion itself compels aloofness from the impulse to self-destruction which has swept over Europe. The helpless longing to save men from the ruin towards which they are hastening makes it necessary to oppose the stream, to incur hostility, to be thought unfeeling, to lose for the moment the power of winning belief. It is impossible to prevent others from feeling hostile, but it is possible to avoid any reciprocal hostility on one’s own part, by imaginative understanding and the sympathy which grows out of it. And without understanding and sympathy it is impossible to find a cure for the evil from which the world is suffering.

5 There are two views of the war neither of which seems to me adequate. The usual view in this country is that it is due to the wickedness of the Germans; the view of most pacifists is that it is due to the diplomatic tangle and to the ambitions of Governments. I think both these views fail to realize the extent to which war grows out of ordinary human nature. Germans, and also the men who compose Governments, are on the whole average human beings, actuated by the same passions that actuate others, not differing much from the rest of the world except in their circumstances. War is accepted by men who are neither Germans nor diplomatists with a readiness, an acquiescence in untrue and inadequate reasons, which would not be possible if any deep repugnance to war were widespread in other nations or classes. The untrue things which men believe, and the true things which they disbelieve, are an index to their impulses—not necessarily to individual impulses in each case (since beliefs are contagious), but to the general impulses of the community. We all believe many things which we have no good ground for believing, because, subconsciously, our nature craves certain kinds of action which these beliefs would render reasonable6 if they were true. Unfounded beliefs are the homage which impulse pays to reason; and thus it is with the beliefs which, opposite but similar, make men here and in Germany believe it their duty to prosecute the war.

The first thought which naturally occurs to one who accepts this view is that it would be well if men were more under the dominion of reason. War, to those who see that it must necessarily do untold harm to all the combatants, seems a mere madness, a collective insanity in which all that has been known in time of peace is forgotten. If impulses were more controlled, if thought were less dominated by passion, men would guard their minds against the approaches of war fever, and disputes would be adjusted amicably. This is true, but it is not by itself sufficient. It is only those in whom the desire to think truly is itself a passion who will find this desire adequate to control the passions of war. Only passion can control passion, and only a contrary impulse or desire can check impulse. Reason, as it is preached by traditional moralists, is too negative, too little living, to make a good life. It is not by reason alone that wars can be prevented, but by a positive life of impulses and passions antagonistic to those that7 lead to war. It is the life of impulse that needs to be changed, not only the life of conscious thought.

All human activity springs from two sources: impulse and desire. The part played by desire has always been sufficiently recognized. When men find themselves not fully contented, and not able instantly to procure what will cause content, imagination brings before their minds the thought of things which they believe would make them happy. All desire involves an interval of time between the consciousness of a need and the opportunity for satisfying it. The acts inspired by desire may be in themselves painful, the time before satisfaction can be achieved may be very long, the object desired may be something outside our own lives, and even after our own death. Will, as a directing force, consists mainly in following desires for more or less distant objects, in spite of the painfulness of the acts involved and the solicitations of incompatible but more immediate desires and impulses. All this is familiar, and political philosophy hitherto has been almost entirely based upon desire as the source of human actions.

But desire governs no more than a part of8 human activity, and that not the most important but only the more conscious, explicit, and civilized part.

In all the more instinctive part of our nature we are dominated by impulses to certain kinds of activity, not by desires for certain ends. Children run and shout, not because of any good which they expect to realize, but because of a direct impulse to running and shouting. Dogs bay the moon, not because they consider that it is to their advantage to do so, but because they feel an impulse to bark. It is not any purpose, but merely an impulse, that prompts such actions as eating, drinking, love-making, quarreling, boasting. Those who believe that man is a rational animal will say that people boast in order that others may have a good opinion of them; but most of us can recall occasions when we have boasted in spite of knowing that we should be despised for it. Instinctive acts normally achieve some result which is agreeable to the natural man, but they are not performed from desire for this result. They are performed from direct impulse, and the impulse is often strong even in cases in which the normal desirable result cannot follow. Grown men like to imagine themselves more rational than children9 and dogs, and unconsciously conceal from themselves how great a part impulse plays in their lives. This unconscious concealment always follows a certain general plan. When an impulse is not indulged in the moment in which it arises, there grows up a desire for the expected consequences of indulging the impulse. If some of the consequences which are reasonably to be expected are clearly disagreeable, a conflict between foresight and impulse arises. If the impulse is weak, foresight may conquer; this is what is called acting on reason. If the impulse is strong, either foresight will be falsified, and the disagreeable consequences will be forgotten, or, in men of a heroic mold, the consequences may be recklessly accepted. When Macbeth realizes that he is doomed to defeat, he does not shrink from the fight; he exclaims:—

Lay on, Macduff,

And damned be him that first cries, Hold, enough!

But such strength and recklessness of impulse is rare. Most men, when their impulse is strong, succeed in persuading themselves, usually by a subconscious selectiveness of attention, that agreeable consequences will follow from the indulgence of their impulse.10 Whole philosophies, whole systems of ethical valuation, spring up in this way: they are the embodiment of a kind of thought which is subservient to impulse, which aims at providing a quasi-rational ground for the indulgence of impulse. The only thought which is genuine is that which springs out of the intellectual impulse of curiosity, leading to the desire to know and understand. But most of what passes for thought is inspired by some non-intellectual impulse, and is merely a means of persuading ourselves that we shall not be disappointed or do harm if we indulge this impulse.1

When an impulse is restrained, we feel discomfort or even violent pain. We may indulge the impulse in order to escape from this pain, and our action is then one which has a purpose. But the pain only exists because of the impulse, and the impulse itself is directed to an act, not to escaping from the pain of restraining the impulse. The impulse itself remains without a purpose, and the purpose of escaping from pain only arises when the impulse has been momentarily restrained.

11 Impulse is at the basis of our activity, much more than desire. Desire has its place, but not so large a place as it seemed to have. Impulses bring with them a whole train of subservient fictitious desires: they make men feel that they desire the results which will follow from indulging the impulses, and that they are acting for the sake of these results, when in fact their action has no motive outside itself. A man may write a book or paint a picture under the belief that he desires the praise which it will bring him; but as soon as it is finished, if his creative impulse is not exhausted, what he has done grows uninteresting to him, and he begins a new piece of work. What applies to artistic creation applies equally to all that is most vital in our lives: direct impulse is what moves us, and the desires which we think we have are a mere garment for the impulse.

Desire, as opposed to impulse, has, it is true, a large and increasing share in the regulation of men’s lives. Impulse is erratic and anarchical, not easily fitted into a well-regulated system; it may be tolerated in children and artists, but it is not thought proper to men who hope to be taken seriously. Almost all paid work is done from desire, not from impulse: the work itself12 is more or less irksome, but the payment for it is desired. The serious activities that fill a man’s working hours are, except in a few fortunate individuals, governed mainly by purposes, not by impulses towards those activities. In this hardly any one sees an evil, because the place of impulse in a satisfactory existence is not recognized.

An impulse, to one who does not share it actually or imaginatively, will always seem to be mad. All impulse is essentially blind, in the sense that it does not spring from any prevision of consequences. The man who does not share the impulse will form a different estimate as to what the consequences will be, and as to whether those that must ensue are desirable. This difference of opinion will seem to be ethical or intellectual, whereas its real basis is a difference of impulse. No genuine agreement will be reached, in such a case, so long as the difference of impulse persists. In all men who have any vigorous life, there are strong impulses such as may seem utterly unreasonable to others. Blind impulses sometimes lead to destruction and death, but at other times they lead to the best things the world contains. Blind impulse is the source of war, but it is also the source of13 science, and art, and love. It is not the weakening of impulse that is to be desired, but the direction of impulse towards life and growth rather than towards death and decay.

The complete control of impulse by will, which is sometimes preached by moralists, and often enforced by economic necessity, is not really desirable. A life governed by purposes and desires, to the exclusion of impulse, is a tiring life; it exhausts vitality, and leaves a man, in the end, indifferent to the very purposes which he has been trying to achieve. When a whole nation lives in this way, the whole nation tends to become feeble, without enough grasp to recognize and overcome the obstacles to its desires. Industrialism and organization are constantly forcing civilized nations to live more and more by purpose rather than impulse. In the long run such a mode of existence, if it does not dry up the springs of life, produces new impulses, not of the kind which the will has been in the habit of controlling or of which thought is conscious. These new impulses are apt to be worse in their effects than those that have been checked. Excessive discipline, especially when it is imposed from without, often issues in impulses of cruelty and destruction; this is one14 reason why militarism has a bad effect on national character. Either lack of vitality, or impulses which are oppressive and against life, will almost always result if the spontaneous impulses are not able to find an outlet. A man’s impulses are not fixed from the beginning by his native disposition: within certain wide limits, they are profoundly modified by his circumstances and his way of life. The nature of these modifications ought to be studied, and the results of such study ought to be taken account of in judging the good or harm that is done by political and social institutions.

The war has grown, in the main, out of the life of impulse, not out of reason or desire. There is an impulse of aggression, and an impulse of resistance to aggression. Either may, on occasion, be in accordance with reason, but both are operative in many cases in which they are quite contrary to reason. Each impulse produces a whole harvest of attendant beliefs. The beliefs appropriate to the impulse of aggression may be seen in Bernhardi, or in the early Mohammedan conquerors, or, in full perfection, in the Book of Joshua. There is first of all a conviction of the superior excellence of one’s own group, a certainty that they are in15 some sense the chosen people. This justifies the feeling that only the good and evil of one’s own group is of real importance, and that the rest of the world is to be regarded merely as material for the triumph or salvation of the higher race. In modern politics this attitude is embodied in imperialism. Europe as a whole has this attitude towards Asia and Africa, and many Germans have this attitude towards the rest of Europe.

Correlative to the impulse of aggression is the impulse of resistance to aggression. This impulse is exemplified in the attitude of the Israelites to the Philistines or of medieval Europe to the Mohammedans. The beliefs which it produces are beliefs in the peculiar wickedness of those whose aggression is feared, and in the immense value of national customs which they might suppress if they were victorious. When the war broke out, all the reactionaries in England and France began to speak of the danger to democracy, although until that moment they had opposed democracy with all their strength. They were not insincere in so speaking: the impulse of resistance to Germany made them value whatever was endangered by the German attack. They loved16 democracy because they hated Germany; but they thought they hated Germany because they loved democracy.

The correlative impulses of aggression and resistance to aggression have both been operative in all the countries engaged in the war. Those who have not been dominated by one or other of these impulses may be roughly divided into three classes. There are, first, men whose national sentiment is antagonistic to the State to which they are subject. This class includes some Irish, Poles, Finns, Jews, and other members of oppressed nations. From our point of view, these men may be omitted from our consideration, since they have the same impulsive nature as those who fight, and differ merely in external circumstances.

The second class of men who have not been part of the force supporting the war have been those whose impulsive nature is more or less atrophied. Opponents of pacifism suppose that all pacifists belong to this class, except when they are in German pay. It is thought that pacifists are bloodless, men without passions, men who can look on and reason with cold detachment while their brothers are giving their lives for their country. Among those who are17 merely passively pacifist, and do no more than abstain from actively taking part in the war, there may be a certain proportion of whom this is true. I think the supporters of war would be right in decrying such men. In spite of all the destruction which is wrought by the impulses that lead to war, there is more hope for a nation which has these impulses than for a nation in which all impulse is dead. Impulse is the expression of life, and while it exists there is hope of its turning towards life instead of towards death; but lack of impulse is death, and out of death no new life will come.

The active pacifists, however, are not of this class: they are not men without impulsive force but men in whom some impulse to which war is hostile is strong enough to overcome the impulses that lead to war. It is not the act of a passionless man to throw himself athwart the whole movement of the national life, to urge an outwardly hopeless cause, to incur obloquy and to resist the contagion of collective emotion. The impulse to avoid the hostility of public opinion is one of the strongest in human nature, and can only be overcome by an unusual force of direct and uncalculating impulse; it is not cold reason alone that can prompt such an act.

18 Impulses may be divided into those that make for life and those that make for death. The impulses embodied in the war are among those that make for death. Any one of the impulses that make for life, if it is strong enough, will lead a man to stand out against the war. Some of these impulses are only strong in highly civilized men; some are part of common humanity. The impulses towards art and science are among the more civilized of those that make for life. Many artists have remained wholly untouched by the passions of the war, not from feebleness of feeling, but because the creative instinct, the pursuit of a vision, makes them critical of the assaults of national passion, and not responsive to the myth in which the impulse of pugnacity clothes itself. And the few men in whom the scientific impulse is dominant have noticed the rival myths of warring groups, and have been led through understanding to neutrality. But it is not out of such refined impulses that a popular force can be generated which shall be sufficient to transform the world.

There are three forces on the side of life which require no exceptional mental endowment, which are not very rare at present, and might be very common under better social institutions.19 They are love, the instinct of constructiveness, and the joy of life. All three are checked and enfeebled at present by the conditions under which men live—not only the less outwardly fortunate, but also the majority of the well-to-do. Our institutions rest upon injustice and authority: it is only by closing our hearts against sympathy and our minds against truth that we can endure the oppressions and unfairnesses by which we profit. The conventional conception of what constitutes success leads most men to live a life in which their most vital impulses are sacrificed, and the joy of life is lost in listless weariness. Our economic system compels almost all men to carry out the purposes of others rather than their own, making them feel impotent in action and only able to secure a certain modicum of passive pleasure. All these things destroy the vigor of the community, the expansive affections of individuals, and the power of viewing the world generously. All these things are unnecessary and can be ended by wisdom and courage. If they were ended, the impulsive life of men would become wholly different, and the human race might travel towards a new happiness and a new vigor. To urge this hope is the purpose of these lectures.

20 The impulses and desires of men and women, in so far as they are of real importance in their lives, are not detached one from another, but proceed from a central principle of growth, an instinctive urgency leading them in a certain direction, as trees seek the light. So long as this instinctive movement is not thwarted, whatever misfortunes may occur are not fundamental disasters, and do not produce those distortions which result from interference with natural growth. This intimate center in each human being is what imagination must apprehend if we are to understand him intuitively. It differs from man to man, and determines for each man the type of excellence of which he is capable. The utmost that social institutions can do for a man is to make his own growth free and vigorous: they cannot force him to grow according to the pattern of another man. There are in men some impulses and desires—for example, those towards drugs—which do not grow out of the central principle; such impulses, when they become strong enough to be harmful, have to be checked by self-discipline. Other impulses, though they may grow out of the central principle in the individual, may be injurious to the growth of others, and they need to be checked in21 the interest of others. But in the main, the impulses which are injurious to others tend to result from thwarted growth, and to be least in those who have been unimpeded in their instinctive development.

Men, like trees, require for their growth the right soil and a sufficient freedom from oppression. These can be helped or hindered by political institutions. But the soil and the freedom required for a man’s growth are immeasurably more difficult to discover and to obtain than the soil and the freedom required for the growth of a tree. And the full growth which may be hoped for cannot be defined or demonstrated; it is subtle and complex, it can only be felt by a delicate intuition and dimly apprehended by imagination and respect. It depends not only or chiefly upon the physical environment, but upon beliefs and affections, upon opportunities for action, and upon the whole life of the community. The more developed and civilized the type of man the more elaborate are the conditions of his growth, and the more dependent they become upon the general state of the society in which he lives. A man’s needs and desires are not confined to his own life. If his mind is comprehensive and his imagination22 vivid, the failures of the community to which he belongs are his failures, and its successes are his successes: according as his community succeeds or fails, his own growth is nourished or impeded.

In the modern world, the principle of growth in most men and women is hampered by institutions inherited from a simpler age. By the progress of thought and knowledge, and by the increase in command over the forces of the physical world, new possibilities of growth have come into existence, and have given rise to new claims which must be satisfied if those who make them are not to be thwarted. There is less acquiescence in limitations which are no longer unavoidable, and less possibility of a good life while those limitations remain. Institutions which give much greater opportunities to some classes than to others are no longer recognized as just by the less fortunate, though the more fortunate still defend them vehemently. Hence arises a universal strife, in which tradition and authority are arrayed against liberty and justice. Our professed morality, being traditional, loses its hold upon those who are in revolt. Coöperation between the defenders of the old and the champions of the new has become almost impossible.23 An intimate disunion has entered into almost all the relations of life in continually increasing measure. In the fight for freedom, men and women become increasingly unable to break down the walls of the Ego and achieve the growth which comes from a real and vital union.

All our institutions have their historic basis in Authority. The unquestioned authority of the Oriental despot found its religious expression in the omnipotent Creator, whose glory was the sole end of man, and against whom man had no rights. This authority descended to the Emperor and Pope, to the kings of the Middle Ages, to the nobles in the feudal hierarchy, and even to every husband and father in his dealings with his wife and children. The Church was the direct embodiment of the Divine authority, the State and the law were constituted by the authority of the King, private property in land grew out of the authority of conquering barons, and the family was governed by the authority of the pater-familias.

The institutions of the Middle Ages permitted only a fortunate few to develop freely: the vast majority of mankind existed to minister to the few. But so long as authority was genuinely24 respected and acknowledged even by its least fortunate subjects, medieval society remained organic and not fundamentally hostile to life, since outward submission was compatible with inward freedom because it was voluntary. The institutions of Western Christendom embodied a theory which was really believed, as no theory by which our present institutions can be defended is now believed.

The medieval theory of life broke down through its failure to satisfy men’s demands for justice and liberty. Under the stress of oppression, when rulers exceeded their theoretical powers, the victims were forced to realize that they themselves also had rights, and need not live merely to increase the glory of the few. Gradually it came to be seen that if men have power, they are likely to abuse it, and that authority in practice means tyranny. Because the claim to justice was resisted by the holders of power, men became more and more separate units, each fighting for his own rights, not a genuine community bound together by an organic common purpose. This absence of a common purpose has become a source of unhappiness. One of the reasons which led many men to welcome the outbreak of the present war was25 that it made each nation again a whole community with a single purpose. It did this by destroying, for the present, the beginnings of a single purpose in the civilized world as a whole; but these beginnings were as yet so feeble that few were much affected by their destruction. Men rejoiced in the new sense of unity with their compatriots more than they minded the increased separation from their enemies.

The hardening and separation of the individual in the course of the fight for freedom has been inevitable, and is not likely ever to be wholly undone. What is necessary, if an organic society is to grow up, is that our institutions should be so fundamentally changed as to embody that new respect for the individual and his rights which modern feeling demands. The medieval Empire and Church swept away the individual. There were heretics, but they were massacred relentlessly, without any of the qualms aroused by later persecutions. And they, like their persecutors, were persuaded that there ought to be one universal Church: they differed only as to what its creed should be. Among a few men of art and letters, the Renaissance undermined the medieval theory, without, however, replacing it by anything but skepticism26 and confusion. The first serious breach in this medieval theory was caused by Luther’s assertion of the right of private judgment and the fallibility of General Councils. Out of this assertion grew inevitably, with time, the belief that a man’s religion could not be determined for him by authority, but must be left to the free choice of each individual. It was in matters of religion that the battle for liberty began, and it is in matters of religion that it has come nearest to a complete victory.2

The development through extreme individualism to strife, and thence, one hopes, to a new reintegration, is to be seen in almost every department of life. Claims are advanced in the name of justice, and resisted in the name of tradition and prescriptive right. Each side honestly believes that it deserves to triumph, because two theories of society exist side by side in our thought, and men choose, unconsciously, the theory which fits their case. Because the battle is long and arduous all general theory is gradually forgotten; in the end, nothing remains but self-assertion, and when the oppressed win27 freedom they are as oppressive as their former masters.

This is seen most crudely in the case of what is called nationalism. Nationalism, in theory, is the doctrine that men, by their sympathies and traditions, form natural groups, called “nations,” each of which ought to be united under one central Government. In the main this doctrine may be conceded. But in practice the doctrine takes a more personal form. “I belong,” the oppressed nationalist argues, “by sympathy and tradition to nation A, but I am subject to a government which is in the hands of nation B. This is an injustice, not only because of the general principle of nationalism, but because nation A is generous, progressive, and civilized, while nation B is oppressive, retrograde, and barbarous. Because this is so, nation A deserves to prosper, while nation B deserves to be abased.” The inhabitants of nation B are naturally deaf to the claims of abstract justice, when they are accompanied by personal hostility and contempt. Presently, however, in the course of war, nation A acquires its freedom. The energy and pride which have achieved freedom generates a momentum which leads on, almost infallibly, to the attempt at foreign conquest, or28 to the refusal of liberty to some smaller nation. “What? You say that nation C, which forms part of our State, has the same rights against us as we had against nation A? But that is absurd. Nation C is swinish and turbulent, incapable of good government, needing a strong hand if it is not to be a menace and a disturbance to all its neighbors.” So the English used to speak of the Irish, so the Germans and Russians speak of the Poles, so the Galician Poles speak of the Ruthenes, so the Austrians used to speak of the Magyars, so the Magyars speak of the South Slav sympathizers with Serbia, so the Serbs speak of the Macedonian Bulgars. In this way nationalism, unobjectionable in theory, leads by a natural movement to oppression and wars of conquest. No sooner was France free from the English, in the fifteenth century, than it embarked upon the conquest of Italy; no sooner was Spain freed from the Moors than it entered into more than a century of conflict with France for the supremacy in Europe. The case of Germany is very interesting in this respect. At the beginning of the eighteenth century German culture was French: French was the language of the Courts, the language in which Leibnitz wrote his philosophy, the universal29 language of polite letters and learning. National consciousness hardly existed. Then a series of great men created a self-respect in Germany by their achievements in poetry, music, philosophy, and science. But politically German nationalism was only created by Napoleon’s oppression and the uprising of 1813. After centuries during which every disturbance of the peace of Europe began with a French or Swedish or Russian invasion of Germany, the Germans discovered that by sufficient effort and union they could keep foreign armies off their territory. But the effort required had been too great to cease when its purely defensive purpose had been achieved by the defeat of Napoleon. Now, a hundred years later, they are still engaged in the same movement, which has become one of aggression and conquest. Whether we are now seeing the end of the movement it is not yet possible to guess.