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Proposed Roads to Freedom (the name that publishers in America chose for the book)

Sometimes I think it may not be such a bad idea to emulate the MPAA’s film rating system (responsible for the familiar ratings G, PG, PG-13, etc) in creating a rating system to indicate the quality and importance of books. If I were asked to do that, and to rate “Roads to Freedom” using my system, I would put it at the top of the scale, with the (somewhat awkward) rating of “RREHR”- Required Reading for the Entire Human Race.

I don’t doubt that many will meet the ideas developed in the book with a great deal of scepticism. I can almost hear people turning over the last page and complaining that it was all just Utopian daydreaming, with no relevance to real life and real human beings. And then they’ll roll their eyes and say, “But that’s what philosophers are for, I guess. I mean, it’s not like they have anything more useful to do, is it?” A smaller- but probably still quite significant- number of people may not even agree in spirit with Russell’s ideas, either because they feel that the status quo is preferable, or because they harbour their own alternative visions for humanity.

Regardless, I believe that it’s nearly impossible to get through “Roads to Freedom” without once stopping to think about the human condition. And that’s why it’s such an important book. Because it will force its readers to think about the ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and to assess the merits of those societies. It asks its readers to momentarily substitute their thoughts of personal happiness with thoughts about the possibility of collective happiness for all of humanity. And thoughts like that have the power to change the world for the better.

Central to the book’s subject matter is an indictment of two major institutions that are ubiquitous in the modern world. The first of these is Capitalism. If you’re familiar with that other very famous indictment of capitalism, “The Communist Manifesto”, you’ll find that Russell’s analysis, in contrast to Marx’s, is completely lacking in fire and brimstone. With equanimity and candour, he sets down his thoughts on the failings of capitalism, and details the most popular alternatives that were advocated at the time. These alternatives were: Socialism, Anarchism, Syndicalism, and Guild Socialism. He explains the basic tenets of these socio-economic systems, and gives brief, but informative details on the lives of their most important proponents. These include Marx (Socialism), Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin (Anarchism), Georges Sorel (Syndicalism) and G.D.H. Cole (Guild Socialism).

In assessing the worlds that could come about as a result of the adoption of one of the alternative systems to Capitalism, Russell makes judgements partly upon how much power they give to the other modern institution that he regards with suspicion: the State. It’s important to realize that the State, here, does not refer to quite the same thing as “government” in the general sense. “Government” is an aim, whereas “the State” is a means to that aim.

Russell’s final conclusion is that unless human instincts change significantly, Anarchism’s complete abolition of the State would lead to an unstable society, whereas State Socialism’s complete trust in the State would lead to disaster (an analysis that could be said to have been borne out by the collapse of the Soviet Union).[i] Syndicalists, too, propose abolishing the State, but they hand over so much of the State’s former responsibilities to governing trade unions that they are, in effect, creating a State under another name. It is only Guild Socialism, with its cooperative framework of a minimal State and a separate federation of trade unions that has a chance of being both stable and amenable to collective human wellbeing.

The final chapter of the book- “The World as It Could Be Made”- is, fittingly, the most inspiring. In it, Russell sets out his own version of Guild Socialism in satisfying detail. Of course, it’s not as though every question you could ask about this vision is answered here, but there is probably enough detail to convince a lot of people that this is a workable system.

As you read, you may notice that many of the contentions made in the book are basically Russell’s opinions, and are presented without supporting evidence. This is not to be regarded as a weakness, because the purpose of the book is not to inculcate facts, but to guide sceptical thought about human relations. I seriously doubt that Russell would prefer unquestioning acceptance of his ideas to healthy intellectual scepticism. Here’s an example of one of those normative passages that had the potential to be particularly controversial when the book was published, in 1917:

“If the European States became Socialistic, and refused, under a Quixotic impulse, to enrich themselves at the expense of the defenseless inhabitants of Africa, those inhabitants would not thereby gain; on the contrary, they would lose, for they would be handed over to the tender mercies of individual traders, operating with armies of reprobate bravos, and committing every atrocity to which the civilized barbarian is prone. The European governments cannot divest themselves of responsibility in regard to Africa. They must govern there, and the best that can be hoped is that they should govern with a minimum of cruelty and rapacity.”

One final note: there was one thing I that I didn’t really like about Russell’s version of Guild Socialism. He proposes that something very like the patent system in Capitalism may need to be held on to in order to preserve the incentive for technological progress in industry and science. I really don’t see why this is necessary. The question of whether anyone would do any useful work in the first place is quite ably tackled in his analysis, and I don’t really think this question- technological innovation- is really a separate question at all; if there are people willing to work in a collectivist society, there will be people willing (and eager) to engage in scientific and technological advancement of the civilization.

Russell states that the industry that comes up with a new technology should be allowed exclusive use of it for a few years before it is allowed to spread to the rest of the community. It struck me that this might be a great loss for consumers. Perhaps I’m not conceiving the issue in quite the right way, but here’s the analogy that came to my mind: if automobile companies were given the exclusive right to build seatbelts into their products for a few years after they’d invented them, wouldn’t that be a loss to airline passengers who could also have benefited from the new technology?[ii] Without question, it would be a much greater loss if no one had any incentive to create sucah an innovation; but again, I don’t think that this neo-patent system is necessary to create that incentive.

Anyways, you decide what you want to think. If anyone would like to read “Roads to Freedom”, but can’t find a copy, I suggest going to Pennsylvania State University’s Electronic Classics Site for a PDF version of the book. It’s not a particularly pretty site, but it’s got a lot of good books. Here’s the link: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/jimspdf.htm


[i]Note that State Socialism is not the only kind of Socialism, and it is probably not what Marx envisioned as the ultimate realization of the Socialist ideal.

[ii] I am quite unaware of how accurately this analogy might reflect actual history. I’m pretty sure that it was the automobile industry that first made use of seatbelts, but I’m not sure there even were commercial airlines at the time. Nonetheless, I think the point of the analogy should still get across quite well.

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