Bertrand Russell, 'Has Man a Future?'

IssueJune - August 2002
Review by Trevor Curnow

This book was first published in 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing. Not surprisingly, it is a product of its time. It was written with the clear conviction that a nuclear war of catastrophic proportions was highly likely within ten years unless something radical was done to prevent it. A lack of faith in most of the politicians of the day is evident throughout. Consequently, one of the principal themes of the book is that an international government of some kind is required in order to deal with the failures of national ones.

In the event, nothing radical was done, and the war did not happen. Like most people who predict the future, Russell was wrong. Those same politicians for whom he had so little regard somehow managed to get it right enough for Armageddon not to happen. The same Kennedy and Khrushchev whom he berates for their lack of sanity managed to find enough of it to extricate themselves and the world from the Cuban missile crisis of the following year (although the fact that the crisis was of their own creation suggests that Russell was not entirely wide of the mark).

However, in a way things got worse rather than better. The major powers constructed even more, and more destructive, warheads, and several more countries than he anticipated became nuclear ones. While there have been occasional moves in the direction of arms reduction, disarmament remains as distant a dream as ever. Judgements as to the success of the United Nations may remain mixed, perhaps, but it is no nearer to being any kind of world government than it ever was.

So, if Russell was so wrong, why bother to read the book? First, because intelligent people can be interesting without being right, and Russell's mistakes should make us question our own assumptions concerning the future. Secondly, and more importantly, while he may have been a poor prophet, he was also a person of principle. His insights into the deficiencies and dangers of nationalism are as appropriate now as they were then, and his observations on the morality of war and weaponry deserve to be read by anyone interested in the subject (and, arguably, everyone else, too).

In his own time, Russell stood against the establishment while being part of it, and served as a reminder that protest was not the sole prerogative of the young. More than once in his life, he was prepared to stand up and be counted, and to use his position to draw attention to his stance. One of his few speeches in the House of Lords, reproduced here, was against nuclear weapons. And Russell being Russell, his ideas are expressed with exemplary clarity and, even on this most serious of subjects, no little wit.

In addition to all this, the new edition of the book begins with a foreword by Johan Galtung, and ends with a special report prepared by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1988 on the reform of the United Nations.

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