Bertrand Russell : The Ethics of War

This essay, which was written exactly a century ago in 1915, with the First World War in full swing, asks the question whether war is ever justified, and if so under what circumstances. Knowing that Bertrand Russell’s pacifism had cost him six months in Brixton Prison in 1918, I didn’t expect any surprises here – but in that I was much mistaken. He makes it plain from the start that he does not consider the current war justified, but neither does he take “the extreme Tolstoyan view that war is under all circumstances a crime”. He is a utilitarian, and considers that war is justified if it is for the good of mankind as a whole, a viewpoint which can lead to some (for me) unexpected consequences…

(details below)

At this point, as throughout most of his life, Russell was a subjectivist/emotivist as far as ethics went, and he starts by making it clear that he claims no other justification for his views on war than his own ‘feelings’:

Opinions on such a subject as war are the outcome of feeling rather than of thought: given a man’s emotional temperament, his convictions, both on war in general, and on any particular war which may occur during his lifetime, can be predicted with tolerable certainty. The arguments used will be mere reinforcements to convictions otherwise reached. The fundamental facts in this as in all ethical questions are feelings; all that thought can do is to clarify and systematize the expression of those feelings […]

He says that wars cannot, in any case, be justified as people usually try to justify them, i.e. from a juridical standpoint: a question of the existence of some treaty or convention, or the fact that some country has broken one. He sees the juridical point of view as an illegitimate transference, to the relations between States, of principles properly applicable to the relation between individuals within a State, where we have laws, contracts and a police force to ensure that the law is applied and contracts are kept.

The chief gain derived from the law and the police is the abolition of private wars, and this gain is independent of the question whether the law as it stands is the best possible. It is therefore in the public interest that the man who goes against the law should be considered in the wrong, not because of the excellence of the law, but because of the importance of avoiding the resort to force as between individuals within the State.

(I think anyone who finds themselves the victim of an unjust law will have a very different opinion on this!)

In the interrelation of States nothing of the same sort exists. There is, it is true, a body of conventions called “international law,” and there are innumerable treaties between High Contracting Powers. But the conventions and the treaties differ from anything that could properly be called law by the absence of sanction: there is no police force able or willing to enforce their observance. It follows from this that every nation concludes multitudes of divergent and incompatible treaties, and that, in spite of the high language one sometimes hears, the main purpose of the treaties is in actual fact to afford the sort of pretext which is considered respectable for engaging in war with another Power. […] A treaty is therefore not to be regarded as a contract having the same kind of binding force as belongs to private contracts; it is to be regarded merely as a means of giving notice to rival powers that certain acts may, if the national interest so demand, form one of those reasons for war which are recognized as legitimate.

Russell was taken to task for this ‘cynical’ view of treaties and international law by the American philosopher Ralph Barton Perry in his essay Non-Resistance and the Present War—A Reply to Mr. Russell. Perry takes such things much more seriously, and pins his hopes for world peace on an ever-increasing respect for the juridical aspects of the relations between states:

Now I am willing to assume for the sake of the argument the doubtful thesis that nations do in practice universally disregard treaties at the dictation of selfish expediency. There remains the important fact, conceded by Mr. Russell, that such action is judged to be disreputable and “unscrupulous.” How is that judgment, which already impels governments to seek a “pretext,” to be so strengthened as to act as a deterrent? The analogy of law, to which Mr. Russell appeals, would suggest a resort to force. But the enforcement of international law predicates an international organization resolved to substitute arbitration for war. How is such an international organization to be brought about? Only, it would appear, by the cultivation of opinion and habit. In short, before the present sentiment for the observance of international law shall be convertible into a sanction, it must be strengthened and attain to something like unanimity. To this end it is important that no breach of such conventions as are already in existence shall be condoned. It is not by a passive admission of past and present lawlessness, but by a counsel of perfection and a stern condemnation of the common fault, that usage is to be improved. A cynical violation of treaties should to-day be denounced with a severity exceeding any judgment in the past, so that tomorrow this thing may become so damnable that no government shall dare to be found guilty.

In The War and Non-Resistance: A Rejoinder to Professor Perry Russell replies that he’s only describing reality, and that the Allies, having frequently been guilty of breaking treaties themselves, can hardly use the fact that Germany has followed their example as a justification for war:

I recognize at once that treaty-breaking is a crime, since a habit of observing treaties would further the reign of law between nations if it could be established. But all nations sin in this respect. England and France ignored the Act of Algerciras; England and Russia ignored their guarantee of the independence and integrity of Prussia; the Tsar broke his coronation oath to respect the liberties of Finland. America was only saved by the personal influence of the President from a breach of treaty as regards the Panama Canal. The nations of Europe have not the right to profess horror when one of their number follows the usual practice–not because the practice is good, but because there is hypocrisy in their horror.
The chief crime of Germany in invading Belgium lies less in the fact that a treaty was broken than in the fact that terrible cruelty was inflicted on an unoffending nation.

Russell points out how patriotism blinds people to the evils of war, which are inevitable no matter which side wins. First the immediate and most obvious evils, those suffered by the soldiers themselves and by the populations of war-torn areas. He shows how the evils of war serve as an excuse for even more war:

Of the evils of war to the non-combatant population in the regions where fighting occurs, the recent misfortunes of Belgium have afforded an example upon which it is not necessary to enlarge. It is necessary, however, to point out that the misfortunes of Belgium do not, as is commonly believed in England, afford a reason in favor of war. Hatred, by a tragic delusion, perpetuates the very evils from which it springs. The sufferings of Belgium are attributed to the Germans and not to war; and thus the very horrors of war are used to stimulate the desire to increase their area and intensity. Even assuming the utmost humanity compatible with the conduct of military operations, it cannot be doubted that, if the troops of the Allies penetrate into the industrial regions of Germany, the German population will have to suffer a great part of the misfortunes which Germany has inflicted upon Belgium. To men under the influence of hate this thought is a cause of rejoicing, but to men in whom humane feeling is not extinct it shows that our sympathy with Belgium should make us hate war rather than Germany.

He goes on to consider the wider economic consequences of war, with his usual realistic political consciousness:

[…] the extent and consequences of the economic injury inflicted by war are much greater than is usually realized. It is common to speak of economic evils as merely material, and of desire for economic progress as grovelling and uninspired. This view is perhaps natural in well-to-do people, to whom economic progress means setting up a motor car or taking holidays in Scotland instead of at the seaside. But with regard to the poorer classes of society, economic progress is the first condition of many spiritual goods and even often of life itself. An overcrowded family, living in a slum in conditions of filth and immorality, where half the children die from ignorance of hygiene and bad sanitation, and the remainder grow up stunted and ignorant–such a family can hardly make progress mentally or spiritually, except through an improvement in its economic condition. And without going to the very bottom of the social scale, economic progress is essential to the possibility of good education, of a tolerable existence for women, and of that breadth and freedom of outlook upon which any solid and national advance must be based. […] It cannot be doubted that the desire on the part of the rich to distract men’s minds from the claims of social justice has been more or less unconsciously one of the motives leading to war in modern Europe. Everywhere the well-to-do and the political parties which represent their interests have been the chief agents in stirring up international hatred and in persuading the working man that his real enemy is the foreigner. Thus war, and the fear of war, has a double effect in retarding social progress: it diminishes the resources available for improving the condition of the wage-earning classes, and it distracts men’s minds from the need and possibility of general improvement by persuading them that the way to better themselves is to injure their comrades in some other country.

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No surprises so far, but we now arrive at the central question posed by the essay: do any wars ever achieve so much for the good of mankind as to outweigh all the previously considered evils. Russell begins by dividing wars into four kinds:

For the purposes of classification we may roughly distinguish four kinds of wars, though of course in any given case a war is not likely to be quite clearly of any one of the four kinds. With this proviso we may distinguish: (1) Wars of Colonization; (2) Wars of Principle; (3) Wars of Self-defence; (4) Wars of Prestige. Of these four kinds I should say that the first and second are fairly often justified; the third seldom, except against an adversary of inferior civilization, and the fourth, which is the sort to which the present war belongs, never.

I had to read that passage several times before I’d managed to convince myself that I hadn’t misunderstood it. That certainly wouldn’t have been the judgement I would have given as to what sort of wars might be justified! When he comes to define a “war of colonization” it gets even worse:

By a “war of colonization” I mean a war whose purpose is to drive out the whole population of some territory and replace it by an invading population of a different race. Ancient wars were very largely of this kind, of which we have a good example in the Book of Joshua. In modern times the conflicts of Europeans with American-Indians, Maories, and other aborigines in temperate regions, have been of this kind. Such wars are totally devoid of technical justification, and are apt to be more ruthless than any other war. Nevertheless, if we are to judge by results, we cannot regret that such wars have taken place. They have the merit, often quite fallaciously claimed for all wars, of leading in the main to the survival of the fittest, and it is chiefly through such wars that the civilized portion of the world has been extended from the neighborhood of the Mediterranean to the greater part of the earth’s surface. […] And we cannot at this date bring ourselves to condemn the process by which the American continent has been acquired for European civilization. In order that such wars may be justified, it is necessary that there should be a very great and undeniable difference between the civilization of the colonizers and that of the dispossessed natives. […] Many humane people will object in theory to the justification of this form of robbery, but I do not think that any practical or effective objection is likely to be made.
What are nowadays called colonial wars do not aim at the complete occupation of a country by a conquering race; they aim only at securing certain governmental and trading advantages. They belong, in fact, rather with what I call wars of prestige, than with wars of colonization in the old sense.

Times have changed since 1915, and I doubt if many people today would agree with Russell’s views, even given that final exclusion of the sort of ‘colonial wars’ which the British had undertaken in, say, India or Africa. I personally find this very much a change for the better, but is this view justified? Might Russell in fact be correct?

First of all, we have to remember that when the purpose or effect of a war is to “drive out the whole population of some territory and replace it by an invading population of a different race”, the term “drive out” is almost always a euphemism for exterminate. After all, where can the original population be driven to ? When that isn’t literally into the sea, it’s generally away from whatever fertile land they’ve been living on for thousands of years and ever further into the desert to die of starvation. Or else it’s into slavery, and if they prove unsuitable for that purpose, into an early grave through over-work, disease or simple genocide. There’s plenty of evidence for the view that the enormity of the massacre of North- and South-American natives by the European colonisers far outweighs what the Nazis did to the Jews, not only in terms of absolute numbers of victims, but also regarding the effectiveness of the extermination (percentage killed, level of cultural suppression), and the general cruelty of the methods used. The colonisers of America regarded the natives as sub-human, in fact as vermin to be exterminated as quickly as possible, perhaps even more so than the Nazis did with regard to the Jews. As Russell says himself, wars of this kind “are apt to be more ruthless than any other war”, and the benefit to mankind as a whole would have to be very great indeed for them to be justified.

One of the advantages of a “war of colonization”, according to Russell, is that “they have the merit, often quite fallaciously claimed for all wars, of leading in the main to the survival of the fittest”. He seems to be confusing the concepts fittest and best, as, if we disregard the ever-present element of pure luck, the survivor in any conflict is by definition the one who is fittest in one particular respect (the only one which matters in this context), i.e. with regard to survival. Whether that means physically stronger, more intelligent, more experienced at fighting, better organised or better adapted to local conditions, will vary from one conflict to another, but the side which is better at fighting will almost certainly win. I think that simple claim can be made for all wars without any danger whatsoever of committing any sort of fallacy. Whether the winning side is the best side is quite another matter, as best is an entirely subjective concept which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with military prowess. I wouldn’t go quite so far as Lucebert and say that “alles van waarde is weerloos” (all things of value are helpless), but I would certainly say that there is no reason whatsoever to expect there to be any correlation between how strong something is and its value in any other respect. So if the concept “survival of the fittest” is relevant to warfare, it applies to all wars and not just to “wars of colonization”.

Russell seemingly regards the European civilisation which was spread by “wars of colonization” as having been sufficiently better than the civilisations which were destroyed in the process, to justify events which, in themselves, few people would describe as civilised. In 1915 even those who did not consider such wars justified will undoubtedly have at least agreed that European civilisation was better than that of the ‘savages’, but even that is an opinion which many would not share today. So, in what way would Russell have been using the term better ? Being a utilitarian he was presumably aiming for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, but it is extremely dubious whether the average American native was less happy that the average European colonist. Bob Black, in his excellent essay The Abolition of Work (which makes essentially the same points made by Russell himself in In Praise of Idleness), cites the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to paint an unexpectedly positive picture of how the life of a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer compares to that of his ‘civilised’ counterpart:

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, surveying the data on contemporary hunter-gatherers, exploded the Hobbesian myth [that human life in its natural and uncivilised state is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”] in an article entitled “The Original Affluent Society.” They work a lot less than we do, and their work is hard to distinguish from what we regard as play. Sahlins concluded that “hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.” They worked an average of four hours a day, assuming they were “working” at all. Their “labor,” as it appears to us, was skilled labor which exercised their physical and intellectual capacities; unskilled labor on any large scale, as Sahlins says, is impossible except under industrialism.
When productive technology went from hunting-gathering to agriculture and on to industry, work increased while skills and self-determination diminished. (Bob Black, The Abolition of Work, 1981)

But even if the average European colonist was no more happy, and quite possibly less so, than the average American native, we still have the numerical argument: the Europeans cultivated the land they conquered and used it more efficiently, eventually allowing a much larger population to be supported by the same area. Utilitarianism of the crudest type would simply multiply the average happiness by the number of individuals, with the result that the life of the average ‘civilised’ individual would have to be a very miserable one indeed before the sum total of happiness fell below the level of that of the original population, even were they to have led improbably idyllic lives. But this sort of utilitarianism leads straight to the mere addition paradox, and it’s difficult to imagine Bertrand Russell attaching so much importance to simple population figures. He certainly doesn’t seem to do so when, writing thirty years later in the chapter on Leibniz in his History of Western Philosophy, he says:

There is a general belief (which I have never understood) that it is better to exist than not to exist; on this ground children are exhorted to be grateful to their parents.

Knowing Bertrand Russell as well as I do, I’m absolutely certain that he wouldn’t fall for such crude quantitative utilitarian arguments. However, I’m also sure he would agree with John Stuart Mill’s statement

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

And for the Bertrand Russell of 1915 it is presumably better to be a ‘civilised’ European dissatisfied than a ‘savage’ American native satisfied. What this comes down to is that he has decided that what is really important in life is some super-human principle along the lines of ‘the progress of mankind’ or some such, and that his own type of civilisation and culture, seen in the light of this principle, is in itself so vastly superior to that of another group of human beings as to justify their annihilation. I wonder what he would think of the scenario in which vastly superior alien beings land on Earth and decide to wipe out the human race and colonise the planet with their own species – which, more or less, is how it must have felt for the victims of Russell’s ‘justified’ wars of colonisation. This all goes to show, as far as I’m concerned, that Bertrand Russell was, in this respect at least, very much a man of his time. Hopefully his ideas changed somewhat in later life.

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He moves on to consider another type of war, the ‘war of principle’, which may theoretically be justified although in practice it rarely is:

The second type of war which may sometimes be justified is what may be called “the war of principle.” To this kind belong the wars of Protestant and Catholic, and the English and American civil wars. In such cases, each side, or at least one side, is honestly convinced that the progress of mankind depends upon the adoption of certain beliefs–beliefs which, through blindness or natural depravity, mankind will not regard as reasonable, except when presented at the point of the bayonet. Such wars may be justified: for example, a nation practising religious toleration may be justified in resisting a persecuting nation holding a different creed. […] But wars of principle are much less often justified than is believed by those in whose age they occur. It is very rarely that a principle of genuine value to mankind can only be propagated by military force: as a rule, it is the bad part of men’s principles, not the good part, which makes it necessary to fight for their defence.
Men do right to desire strongly the victory of ideals which they believe to be important, but it is almost always a sign of yielding to undue impatience when men believe that what is valuable in their ideals can be furthered by the substitution of force for peaceful persuasion.

Some of his words are very relevant to certain recent wars aiming at ‘regime change’ and ostensibly inspired by a desire to spread the benefits of democracy among the downtrodden victims of some dictator or other:

There are some who maintain that the present war is a war in defence of democracy. I do not know whether this view is adopted by the Tsar, and for the sake of the stability of the Alliance I sincerely hope that it is not. I do not, however, desire to dispute the proposition that democracy in the western nations would suffer from the victory of Germany. What I do wish to dispute is the belief not infrequently entertained in England that if the Allies are victorious democracy can be forced upon a reluctant Germany as part of the conditions of peace. Men who think thus have lost sight of the spirit of democracy in worship of the letter.

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Russell’s views on the ‘war of self-defence’ surprised me at least his much as those on the ‘war of colonisation’, although he actually comes up with some pretty good arguments in their favour. The first is the entirely practical one that what is presented as a ‘war of self-defence’ very rarely is:

The next kind of war to be considered is the war of self-defence. This kind of war is almost universally admitted to be justifiable, and is condemned only by Christ and Tolstoy. The justification of wars of self-defence is very convenient, since so far as I know there has never yet been a war which was not one of self-defence. Every strategist assures us that the true defence is offence; every great nation believes that its own overwhelming strength is the only possible guarantee of the world’s peace and can only be secured by the defeat of other nations. […] The claim of each side to be fighting in self-defence appears to the other side mere wanton hypocrisy, because in each case the other side believes that self-defence is only to be achieved by conquest. So long as the principle of self-defence is recognized as affording always a sufficient justification for war, this tragic conflict of irresistible claims remains unavoidable.

Perhaps he should have made a clear distinction between genuine self-defence and the dishonest application of that label to disguise a war of some other and less respectable type. As with the matter of treaties or conventions, we see how Russell’s ‘cynical’ view of the way in which wars are justified demonstrates his sharp insight into the political realities of his day. He does admit, however, that

In certain cases, where there is a clash of differing civilizations, a war of self-defence may be justified on the same grounds as a war of principle.

His second objection to a ‘war of self-defence’ is another practical one, and would apply equally to cases of genuine self-defence such as those of Luxemburg and Belgium, which had suffered unprovoked acts of wanton aggression at the hands of Germany:

[…] even as a matter of practical politics, the principle of non-resistance contains an immense measure of wisdom if only men would have the courage to carry it out. The evils suffered during a hostile invasion are suffered because resistance is offered: the Duchy of Luxemburg, which was not in a position to offer resistance, has escaped the fate of the other regions occupied by hostile troops. What one civilized nation can achieve against another by means of conquest is very much less than is commonly supposed. It is said, both here and in Germany, that each side is fighting for its existence; but when this phrase is scrutinized, it is found to cover a great deal of confusion of thought induced by unreasoning panic. We cannot destroy Germany even by a complete military victory, nor conversely, could Germany destroy England even if our Navy were sunk and London occupied by the Prussians. English civilization, the English language, English manufactures would still exist, and as a matter of practical politics it would be totally impossible for Germany to establish a tyranny in this country. If the Germans, instead of being resisted by force of arms, had been passively permitted to establish themselves wherever they pleased, the halo of glory and courage surrounding the brutality of military success would have been absent, and public opinion in Germany itself would have rendered any oppression impossible. The history of our own dealings with our colonies affords abundant examples to show that under such circumstances the refusal of self-government is not possible. In a word, it is the means of repelling hostile aggression which make hostile aggression disastrous and which generate the fear by which hostile nations come to think aggression justified. As between civilized nations, therefore, non-resistance would seem not only a distant religious ideal, but the course of practical wisdom. Only pride and fear stand in the way of its adoption. But the pride of military glory might be overcome by a nobler pride, and the fear might be overcome by a clearer realization of the solidity and indestructibility of a modern civilized nation.

Only a few years later Ghandi would prove just how powerful a weapon non-violence can in fact be, but Russell’s ideas seem to have been almost unanimously regarded by his contemporaries as hopelessly idealistic and impractical. Whereas, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no one raised any objections whatsoever to his views on the ‘war of colonisation’, his suggestion that the best response to a German invasion might simply be to allow them in, seems to have got the whole country up in arms against him. So much so, in fact, that he was prompted to write another essay, War and Non-Resistance, specifically to defend these views and to provide more detailed guidelines as to how it might be possible to actively and effectively resist a German occupation without resorting to violence. The greater part of Ralph Barton Perry’s essay Non-Resistance and the Present War—A Reply to Mr. Russell, and Russell’s reply The War and Non-Resistance: A Rejoinder to Professor Perry, are also taken up by exactly this question.

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The last kind of war we consider is the ‘war of prestige’, which is never justified. There are no great surprises here, as Russell shows how important a role pride and the fear of humiliation play in most wars, and particularly in the current one:

Men desire the sense of triumph, and fear the sense of humiliation which they would have in yielding to the demands of another nation. Rather than forego the triumph, rather than endure the humiliation, they are willing to inflict upon the world all those disasters which it is now suffering and all that exhaustion and impoverishment which it must long continue to suffer. The willingness to inflict and endure such evils is almost universally praised; it is called high-spirited, worthy of a great nation, showing fidelity to ancestral traditions. The slightest sign of reasonableness is attributed to fear, and received with shame on the one side and with derision on the other. In private life exactly the same state of opinion existed so long as duelling was practised, and exists still in those countries in which this custom still survives. It is now recognized, at any rate in the Anglo-Saxon world, that the so called “honor” which made duelling appear inevitable was a folly and a delusion.

He finishes with the words

The objects for which men have fought in the past, whether just or unjust, are no longer to be achieved by wars amongst civilized nations. A great weight of tradition, of financial interests, of political insincerity, is bound up with the anachronism of international hostility. It is, however, perhaps not chimerical to hope that the present war, which has shocked the conscience of mankind more than any war in previous history, may produce a revulsion against antiquated methods, and may lead the exhausted nations to insist upon the brotherhood and co-operation which their rulers have hitherto denied them. There is no reason whatever against the settlement of all disputes by a Council of Powers deliberating in public. Nothing stands in its way except the pride of rulers who wish to remain uncontrolled by anything higher than their own will. When this great tragedy has worked itself out to its disastrous conclusion, when the passions of hate and self-assertion have given place to compassion with the universal misery, the nations will perhaps realize that they have fought in blindness and delusion, and that the way of mercy is the way of happiness for all.

It’s a pity his optimism wasn’t justified…

It’s also a great pity that some of his other words proved to be so prophetic. In Non-Resistance and the Present War—A Reply to Mr. Russell Ralph Barton Perry states “that Germany and Austria are the principal offenders on whom may justly be visited whatever penalty be appropriate to the crime of war”, to which Russell replies:

With what Professor Perry says in conclusion as to the relative merits of the combatants, I am largely in agreement. I think a victory for the Allies is much more desirable than a victory for Germany. I agree that “Germany and Austria are the principal offenders,” but it is not clear to me that on them “may justly be visited whatever penalty be appropriate to the crime of war.” […] the cost of punishment may well be greater than any good that punishment can do. And is it likely that punishment will weaken the hold of the military party in Germany? Is it not clear that their hold on the ordinary citizen depends upon fear, upon the feeling that the constant invasions which Germany suffered down to 1813 can only be prevented by a strong army? Will not the Germans argue, if they are invaded, that their army has not been strong enough, and that they have not paid enough respect to their militarists?

Unfortunately Perry got his way, the defeated Germany was severely punished, and the results were very much as Russell had predicted…

Having been a big fan of Bertrand Russell since reading In Praise of Idleness and (especially) A History of Western Philosophy, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from him, but he managed to surprise me here. He was certainly a very courageous man who was willing to swim against the current and to express views which made him extremely unpopular with his compatriots (and which finally landed him in prison), but in some ways he was, in 1915 at least, still very much a man of his time. In the end, excellent though his arguments are, he did not succeed in convincing me that ‘wars of colonisation’ are justified, or that those of genuine self-defence are not (even if his idea of non-violent resistance would certainly be preferable). In any case he remains someone who is very much worth getting to know, so let us be grateful that he was so prolific. He’s going to be keeping me busy for quite some time to come…

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Details:

author Bertrand Russell
title The Ethics of War
first published 1915
language English
publisher / version read HTML version downloaded from fair-use.org
read 23/04/2015
download / read online HTML version
pdf facsimile (text not selectable)

see also:

Bertrand Russell : War and Non-Resistance

Ralph Barton Perry : Non-Resistance and the Present War—A Reply to Mr. Russell

Bertrand Russell : The War and Non-Resistance: A Rejoinder to Professor Perry

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