Bertrand Russell : In Praise of Idleness

Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness was a surprisingly quick and easy read. It fitted in perfectly with several other things I’d read recently, and it was as obvious that Russell had read Proudhon as that Bob Black had read this essay. Basically this reads like a very condensed and simplified version of The Abolition of Work, which surprised me: I’d have expected an aristocratic English philosopher writing in 1932 to use more words and more complex ideas to make his point than an American anarchist writing in 1981, but it was exactly the opposite. Russell’s essay is amazingly sharp and to the point, almost as if he’d absorbed all of Black’s ideas, distilled the most essential elements and expressed them using as few words as possible – as if he’d taken a book and turned it into a poem.

(details below)

It was in fact the other way around and Bob Black, writing half a century later, had taken the ideas in this essay, brought them up to date and fleshed them out with evidence taken from anthropological studies of pre-industrial societies. If there was any truth in what Russell was saying, then the fifty years which had passed made it both truer and more easily demonstrable. Any attempt at a detailed analysis of In Praise of Idleness would probably end up being longer than the essay itself, so I’ll restrict myself to a few representative quotes and the occasional comment:

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.
Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.

Interesting that Russell should situate such people in Europe, but not in America. Perhaps on the other side of the ocean their function had been taken over by shareholders.

The conception of duty, 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. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.
Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist.

The last two sentences make clear that Russell saw straight through the virtual, fictional, ‘economic’ level to the real world, the underlying reality of the actual exchange of goods and services. He undoubtedly would have said the same about pension schemes where the past supposedly nourishes the present!

Although the main point of this essay is to expose the illogicalities of capitalism, Russell has no time for the Soviet system either:

From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917 [to which he adds in a footnote:] Since then, members of the Communist Party have succeeded to this privilege of the warriors and priests.
In the new creed which controls the government of Russia, while there is much that is very different from the traditional teaching of the West, there are some things that are quite unchanged. The attitude of the governing classes, and especially of those who conduct educational propaganda, on the subject of the dignity of labor, is almost exactly that which the governing classes of the world have always preached to what were called the ‘honest poor’. Industry, sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant advantages, even submissiveness to authority, all these reappear; moreover authority still represents the will of the Ruler of the Universe, Who, however, is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.

This essay was the first thing I’d ever read by Bertrand Russell, but it was enough to convince me that he was someone with original, radical and well thought out ideas, and a very good writer – and with a sense of humour into the bargain. I’d been looking forward for a long time to reading his History of Western Philosophy, but now I can hardly wait!



author Bertrand Russell
title In Praise of Idleness
written 1932
first published 1935
language English
publisher / version read HTML version downloaded from
read 14/07/2014
download / read online


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