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Bertrand Russell on war in the future (1952)   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Bertrand Russell on war in the future (1952)
war, technology
Sunday, September 23, 2001 21:49 GMT

From a lecture entitled "Science and war" in "The Impact of Science on Society" (London: Unwin Hyman, 1952). 49 years ago.

The right to make war, like the right to strike, but in a far higher degree, is very dangerous in a world governed by scientific technique. Neither can be simply abolished, since that would open the road to tyranny. But in each case it must be recognised that groups cannot, in the name of freedom, justly claim the right to inflict great injuries upon others. As regards war, the principle of unrestricted national sovereignty, cherished by liberals in the nineteenth century and by the Kremlin in the present day, must be abandoned. Means must be found of subjecting the relations of nations to the rule of law, so that a single nation will no longer be, as at present, the judge in its own cause. If this is not done, the world will quickly return to barbarism. In that case, scientific technique will disappear along with science, and men will be able to go on being quarrelsome because their quarrels will no longer do much harm. It is, however, just possible that mankind
may prefer to survive and prosper rather than to perish in misery, and, if so, national liberty will have to be effectively restrained.


The atom bomb, and still more the hydrogen bomb, have caused new fears, involving new doubts as to the effects of science on human life. Some eminent
authorities, including Einstein, have pointed out that there is a danger of the extinction of all life on this planet. I do not myself think that this will happen in the next war, but I think it may well happen in the next but one, if that is allowed to occur. If this expectation is correct, we have to choose within the next fifty years or so between two alternatives.

Either we must allow the human race to exterminate itself, or we must forgo certain liberties which are very dear to us, more especially the liberty to kill
foreigners whenever we feel so disposed. I think it probable that mankind will choose its own extermination as the preferable alternative. The choice will be made, of course, by persuading ourselves that it is not being made, since (so
militarists on both sides will say) the victory of the right is certain without risk of universal disaster.

We are perhaps living in the last age of man, and, if so, it is to science that he will owe his extinction.

If, however, the human race decides to let itself go on living, it will have to make very drastic changes in its ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. We must learn not to say: 'Never! better death than dishonour!' We must learn to submit to law, even when imposed by aliens whom we hate and despise, and whom we believe to be blind to all considerations of righteousness. Consider some concrete examples. Jews and Arabs will have to agree to submit to arbitration; if the award goes against the Jews, the President of the United States will have to ensure the victory of the party to which he is opposed, since, if he supports the international authority, he will lose the Jewish vote in new York State. On the other hand, if
the award goes in favour of the Jews, the Mohammedan world will be indignant, and will be supported by all other malcontents. Or, to take another instance, Eire, will demand the right to oppress the Protestants of Ulster, and on this issue the United States will support Eire while Britain will support Ulster. Could an international authority survive such a dissension? Again: India and Pakistan cannot agree about Kashmir, therefore one of them must support Russia and the other the United States. It will be obvious to anyone who is an interested party in one of these disputes that the issue is far more important than the continuance of life on our planet. The hope that the human race will allow itself to survive is therefore
somewhat slender.

But if human life *is* to continue in spite of science, mankind will have to learn a discipline of the passions which, in the past, has not been necessary. Men will have to submit to the law, even when they think the law unjust and iniquitous.
Nations which are persuaded that they are only demanding the barest justice will have to acquiesce when this demand is denied the by the neutral authority. I do not say that this is easy; I do not prophesy that it will happen; I say only that if it
does not happen the human race will perish , and will perish as a result of science.

A clear choice must be made within fifty years, the choice between Reason and Death. And by 'Reason' I mean willingness to submit to law as declared by an international authority. I fear that mankind may choose Death. I hope I am mistaken.