First published in 1938, Power: A New Social Analysis is one of the few books by Russell dealing with political affairs that did not focus on questions of war and peace. Alongside a handful of other works – notably Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954) – it also represents one of his few attempts to talk about politics in a systematic and theoretical way. And like Human Society, Power is generally not judged a success in terms of its theoretical ambitions. “In the course of this book,” Russell writes in the first chapter of Power, “I shall be concerned to prove that the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.” Few would say that Russell fulfilled this ambition. He was always more successful as a political polemicist than as a political theorist, and Power reflects this. In it, Russell reflects on some of the most important issues of the time – most critically, the rise of Stalinism and fascism – with his usual clarity, intellectual independence, courage, and wit. It is this virtue of Power that George Orwell noted in his review of the book. Orwell’s review was first published in Adelphi in January 1939 and is reprinted below.
George Orwell review of Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis
If there are certain pages of Mr. Bertrand Russell’s book, Power, which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. It is not merely that at present the rule of naked force obtains almost everywhere. Probably that has always been the case. Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking. Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion, and such truism as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a “good” man is squeezing the trigger—and that in effect is what Mr. Russell is saying—have turned into heresies which is it actually becoming dangerous to utter.
The most interesting part of Mr. Russell’s book is the earlier chapters in which he analyses the various types of power—priestly, oligarchical, dictatorial, and so forth. In dealing with the contemporary situation he is less satisfactory, because like all liberals he is better at pointing out what is desirable than at explaining how to achieve it. He sees clearly enough that the essential problem of today is “the taming of power” and that no system except democracy can be trusted to save us from unspeakable horrors. Also that democracy has very little meaning without approximate economic equality and an educational system tending to promote tolerance and tough-mindedness. But unfortunately he does not tell us how we are to set about getting these things; he merely utter what amounts to a pious hope that the present state of things will not endure. He is inclined to point to the past; all tyrannies have collapsed sooner or later, and “there is no reason to suppose (Hitler) more permanent than his predecessors.”
Underlying this is the idea that common sense always wins in the end. And yet the peculiar horror of the present moment is that we cannot be sure that this is so. It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organized lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave-society at which the dictator is aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not coming into existence already? One has only to think of the sinister possibilities of the radio, state-controlled education and so forth, to realize that “the truth is great and will prevail” is a prayer rather than an axiom.
Mr. Russell is one of the most readable of living writers, and it is very reassuring to know that he exists. So long as he and a few others like him are alive and out of jail, we know that the world is still sane in parts. He has rather an eclectic mind, his is capable of saying shallow things and profoundly interesting things in alternate sentences, and sometimes, even in this book, he is less serious than his subject deserves. But he has an essentially decent intellect, a kind of intellectual chivalry which is far rarer than mere cleverness. Few people during the past thirty years have been so consistently impervious to the fashionable bunk of the moment. In a time of universal panic and lying he is a good person to make contact with. For that reason this book, though it is not as good as Freedom and Organization, is very well worth reading.Adelphi, January 1939