peter krey's web site

scholarship, sermons, songs, poems, weblog writing on

Our Troubled Times and the Ancestry of Fascism by Bertrand Russell

leave a comment »

Blogging my thoughts:    The Ancestry of Fascism                  28th February, 2017

I picked up Bertrand Russell’s book, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, in 1975 while traveling through India: (Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India) Private Ltd., 1935, reprinted in 1972 and 1973). What finally prompted me to read it after all these years was his essay: “The Ancestry of Fascism,” because the recent election and developments have been deeply troubling for many of us.

Before presenting my notes from Bertrand Russell’s essay, let me preface them by several considerations. First, another approach to the German fascist model might be the racist model of the Restoration. In it White supremacy after the Civil War again reared up its ugly head. After all, after Lincoln freed the slaves, Southerners refused to be Republicans and after the Democratic Kennedy-Johnson Civil Rights legislation, the Dixiecrats became Republican. If that is questioned, then remember that while signing the legislation Lyndon Johnson stated, “We [Democrats] just lost the South for a generation.” But although the pathology of racism’s center of gravity shifted in that respect, it is certainly not isolated to that party.

Secondly, never could I fathom how anti-Semitism helped absolutize the power of Hitler. But the divisiveness that it brought to the grassroots of German society made power ascend to the top. People were turning each other in, even for a distant Jewish ancestor. The campaign against immigrants functions this way as well, just like racism. Where is the outrage that our Native American interests have been trampled over with the Dakota oil pipe-line once again? When no solidarity is possible among the people, the people lose all their power. It really amounts to a variation on the theme “divide and conquer.”

Thirdly, in a very divided country, with our government in gridlock, we were caught flat-footed by Putin. Do we know how Paul Manafort came to be the Republican campaign manager, when he was also that of Victor Yanukovych, the corrupt pro-Russian President of the Ukraine, who was run out of office in 2014 because he stood for Putin and Russia against Ukrainian interests? The outcome: a civil war. Just what Putin ordered.

Isn’t it strange how Putin tries to undermine western democracy and how the Republican candidate repeatedly claimed that our election was rigged? That did not make him reject his surprise victory. He even blatantly called for the hacking of Hillary’s 30,000 deleted emails, while ongoing Russian hacking was taking place! Also, acting as if the democracy of the United States was equally as corrupt as the Russian dictatorship plays right into Putin’s interest to destabilize the E.U. and its Western Democratic values.

Finally, look at the present attack on the critical press by calling it the enemy of the people! According to Nina Khrushcheva, the great granddaughter of Khrushchev, the language of “autocracy of state nationalism is always the same regardless of country…but the formulas of insult, humiliation, domination, branding, enemy-forming, and name calling are always the same.”[1] Everybody knows that the democratic candidate was less corrupt than the republican one, but the candidate’s branding, “crooked Hillary” stuck. Then consider all the fake news launched by the Russians.

Now consider, however, the nascent Fascist, German and Italian models that dissolved their democracies into virulent Fascist regimes for our present trouble. One cannot help think of Sinclair Lewis’ warning, It Can’t Happen Here, because some of the new developments make us think, “Maybe it can.”

Bertrand Russell finds the roots of Fascism in the German philosophy that emphasize the will. I always related Schopenhauer to it, but he accuses Fichte. In such a philosophy, whatever a person desires to be true is true. With that the notion of objective truth is precluded. Russell indicates that such people are irrational. Reason, we don’t often realize, is a form of non-violence, because persuasion replaces force.

In practice, according to Russell, reason can be defined by three characteristics: first, to reiterate, it relies on persuasion rather than force. Secondly, it seeks to persuade by arguments, which the person using them believes to be completely valid. And thirdly, in forming opinions, it uses observation and induction and intuition as little as possible.[2]

The first characteristic rules out inquisition; the second rules out propaganda [today this relates to fake news]. Hitler’s ideal was that propaganda, which “could sink a deep mental grip on the masses of people.” (p. 56) Russell illustrates what the third prevents by quoting President Andrew Jackson.[3] He would be prevented from saying, “The God of the universe intended the great [Mississippi] valley to belong to one nation” and Russell states, “which was self-evident to him and his hearers, but is not easily demonstrated to one who questions it.” (56)

A CEO of a business empire turned presidential candidate can say, “I alone can fix it” and must feel he is a very great man. Nietzsche championed exceptional individuals (supermen) over the masses suffering from slave mentalities. Heraclitus felt that all the adult men among the Ephesians should hang themselves and leave only the beardless youth, because they cast out Hermodorus, the best among them saying, “We will have none who are best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere among others.”[4] For Nietzsche humankind was a means to an end rather than its people being ends in themselves. Russell remarks that the cult of the great man always has the minor premise: “I am that great man.” (58)

Bertrand Russell lists the common characteristics of fascism as follows: it seeks the good in the will rather than in feeling or cognition, it values power more than happiness, force more than argument, war to peace, aristocracy to democracy, and propaganda to scientific inquiry. Nietzsche stepped out into these positions naked and unashamed. (58)

In another place, Russell describes fascists as modern irrationalists. To their proclivity to emphasize the will as opposed to thought and feeling, he adds, that they glorify power and denigrate observation and inductive testing, rather believing in their own “prepositions.” (63)

Groups, according to Russell, vulnerable to the fascist message, were those who had no raison d’être any longer, because they had scarcely any chance of fulfilling their hopes. Back in 1932 industrialists and militarists felt that their hopes might be realized by fascism and in hardly any other way: “The fact that their hopes can only be achieved by the ruin of civilization [today, let’s say democracy] does not make them irrational, but only Satanic.” (64-65) For today this brings to mind the Faustian bargain of the Republicans. There is a psychopathology in that party, witness their obstruction of the previous administration and President Obama’s candidate for the supreme court, but they do have conservative principles and cannot be compared to Nazis, about whom Russell is writing.

He notes that Hitler accepted and rejected doctrines completely on political grounds without even bringing in the notions of truth or falsehood. The conception of objective truth was abandoned. (66) Thus, these governments debauch the mental life of their subjects. (67-68)

Russell adds that the fever of nationalism…is [also] one form of the cult of unreason. (68) I would like to quote the last sentences of his essay in full:

Reason being impersonal makes universal co-operation possible. Unreason since it represents private passions, makes strife inevitable.  It is for this reason that rationality, in the sense of an appeal to a universal and impersonal standard of truth, is of extreme importance to the well-being of the human species, not only in the ages in which it easily prevails, but also, and even more, in those less fortunate times in which it is despised and rejected as a vain dream of those who lack the virility to kill where they cannot agree. (68)

Again, Bertrand Russell underscores how reasoning is a method of non-violence, which makes the debates in our legislature and in executive consultations very important. Hopefully our democratic traditions in America are very strong. Those of the Weimar Republic in Germany were fragile and weak, so these notes from Bertrand Russell’s essay on the “Ancestry of Fascism” are warnings. But danger signals are a propagandist in the meeting of the principals, where the truth for analyzing situation of crisis and development of policies is paramount.[5] The fact that the president wants his name everywhere on his towers makes one feel he wants a cult about his personality. Calling the press an enemy of the people, is not a statement that meets argumentation with counter-arguments, but some kind of coercion. His language is not conducive to partners in adversity persuading each other about the truth. When observation makes clear that the first weeks of his administration were chaotic and disruptive, his description that they ran like a fine-tuned machine show that what he wants to be true is true. In the words of Groucho Marx: what are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

The question becomes, can this administration reset and self-correct or will we face “What Can’t Happen Here.”

Peter D. S. Krey


[1] New York Times, 02/27/2017, page A13.

[2] In Praise of Idleness, page 56. I will place the page numbers in parentheses henceforth, because these are notes mostly in his words from Bertrand Russell’s book, and more easily referenced in that way.

[3] He is responsible for the 1830’s Native American Trail of Tears, where 125,000 Indians were rounded up and evicted from the southern states and in what amounted to a death march to the West. A similarity seems to exist between the “Indian Problem” of the day and the “immigrant problem” today. Our present president resembles Jackson by calling to start “throwing them the hell out of our country” now referring to millions of immigrants.

[4] Ibid., 107-108. Sadly, Martin Luther also believed in the great man theory.

[5] He has recently been displaced from that meeting by McMasters, but he still has the president’s ear in too many places.


Written by peterkrey

April 6, 2017 at 8:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: