Encyklopedi, Litteratur

In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays is a collection of essays written by Bertrand Russell. It was originally published in 1935. In the eponymous essay, Russell questions a central idea on which our society rests upon – the inherent value of work. This was a radical notion in 1935 and remains equally radical today. However, Russells argues that the way society is structured today basically is a strange remnant from a time before industrialization when we really did have to work in order to survive. This is not the case anymore. Yet we still cling to the idea that it is normal, if not natural, to work at least 40 hours per week; the virtue of work is really the virtue of duty and the conception of duty, writes Russell, “speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.” Many would still reject Russell’s arguments but it is nevertheless interesting to entertain the idea that society, as we know it, does not have to look the way it looks today; there are other alternatives, other options, other ways to organize, that rarely get a serious chance to surface in political discussions. Russell is a convincing thinker, radical in way that is difficult to fend off. So read his essays and ask – why not?


In Praise of Idleness

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilisation; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything out to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. page 11 

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever. page 15


Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism

Communism is not democratic. What it calls the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is in fact the dictatorship of a small minority, who become an oligarchic governing class. All history shows that government is always conducted in the interests of the governing class, except in so far as it is influenced by fear of losing its power. page 73

There is so much hate in Marx and in Communism that Communists can hardly be expected, when victorious, to establish a regime affording no outlet for malevolence. page 74

There are some objections – and these, to my mind, the most conclusive – which apply to Communism and Fascism equally. Both are the attempts by a minority to mould a population forcibly in accordance with a preconceived pattern. They regard a population as a man regards the materials out of which he intends to construct a machine: the materials undergo much alteration, but in accordance with his purposes, not with any law of development inherent in them. page 78


The Case for Socialism

Let us begin by a definition of Socialism. The definition must consist of two parts, economic and political. The economic part consists in State ownership of ultimate economic power, which involves, as a minimum, land and minerals, capital, banking, credit and foreign trade. The political part requires that the ultimate political power should be democratic. page 82

Economic security would do more to increase the happiness of civilised communities than any other change that can be imagined, except the prevention of war. Work – to the extent that may be socially necessary –should be legally obligatory for all healthy adults, but their income should depend only upon their willingness to work, and should not cease when, for some reason, their services are temporarily unnecessary. page 91

The world is in the condition of a drunkard anxious to reform, but surrounded by kind friends offering him drinks, and therefore perpetually relapsing. In this case, the kind friends are men who make money out of his unfortunate propensity, and the first step in his reformation must be to remove them. It is only in this sense that modern capitalism can be regarded as a cause of war: it is not the whole cause, but it provides an essential stimulus to the other causes. If it were no longer in existence, the absence of this stimulus would quickly cause men to see the absurdity of war, and to enter upon such equitable agreements as would its future occurrence improbable. page 101


On Youthful Cynicism

Causation in the modern world is more complex and remote in its ramifications than it ever was before, owing to the increase of large corporations; but those who control these large organisations are ignorant men who do not know the hundredth part of the consequences of their actions. page 128

The rulers of the world have always been stupid, but have not in the past been so powerful as they are now. page 128 f 


☞ Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, Routledge, London (2004)