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Bertrand Russell: “I felt at that moment the same type of passion as must have been felt by Anglo-Indians during the Mutiny, or by white men surrounded by a rebel coloured population. I realised then that the desire to protect one’s family from injury at the hands of an alien race is probably the wildest and most passionate feeling of which man is capable.”

The context was that a Japanese journalist had tripped up Russell’s partner when she was pregnant—which could have caused a miscarriage. Russell desperately wanted a child and was already in his 40s at the time. Anyway, the enraged Russell charged the gathered journalists and chased them away—in a moment of racial defensiveness.

Despite this moment of racial insight, Russell generally didn’t think in a racial way. You can see that in his wider comments on China (he’d just been in China as a visiting professor, almost died from a fever).

So, as regards the Chinese, he said: “Famine in China can be permanently cured only by better methods of agriculture combined with emigration or birth-control on a large scale. Educated Chinese realise this, and it makes them indifferent to efforts to keep the present victims alive. A great deal of Chinese callousness has a similar explanation, and is due to the perception of the vastness of the problems involved.

But there remains a residue that cannot be explained. If a dog is run over by an automobile and seriously hurt, nine out of ten passers-by will stop to laugh at the poor brute’s howls. The spectacle of suffering does not of itself rouse any sympathetic pain in the average Chinaman; in fact, he seems to find it mildly agreeable.”

What Russell didn’t realise was that the indifferent attitude of the Chinese in the first paragraph as regards their fellow countrymen who died of starvation was connected to their indifference to the suffering of their dogs (and, as his partner noted elsewhere, their neighbours).

Russell thinks it comes down to an intellectual attitude—as how he himself thinks—where you work out the problem and decide a certain amount of ruthlessness is required in the solution. In fact, the Chinese were not indifferent because they had realised that permanent solutions meant birth control or emigration but because they just didn’t care that much (about dogs or their fellow Chinamen).

This is a case where Russell is radically parochial and unable to think outside his own race and even his own thought processes (despite being highly intelligent). At one level, he accepts the “psychic unity of mankind” which means that Chinese indifference has its roots in rational social policy—at the same time he notices this “unaccountable callousness” towards animals and human beings that shocks Europeans.

Elsewhere, he praises the Chinese for their elegance and gentleness—their politeness and refinement which is pre-industrial, a quality lost in the rest of the world (certainly in China now). What Russell again misses, fails to connect, is that this very aesthetic stance, elegant and refined and contained, is linked to the callousness towards dogs and humans.

Exquisite Oriental manners go along with exquisite Oriental torture—because the same indifference to pain means that if you perform an elaborate tea ceremony despite your aching back you also don’t really notice when a car runs over your dog (or even a human being).

Indeed, Russell sees the Chinese as “unwarlike”—which really reflects the way he projects his own ideas, rationalism and pacifism, onto the Chinese. The Chinese had been very violent during the Boxer Rebellion not so long before Russell visited the country and would be violent again a few years after he left the country in their civil war (plus the Cultural Revolution later in the century).

This whole Russell episode recalls how Wittgenstein observed that there are two sets of Russell books, his works on mathematics and logic (which *everyone* should read) and his works on politics and social matters (which should be burned).

I haven’t read much about Russell, but he was actually a man with quite repressed violent tendencies—that manifested as above—and also a man who actually said that deep down he hated people but that he forced himself to be kind, to be humanitarian. I think this repression is the root of the problem with Russell—he was really a misanthropist, like Schopenhauer, but he tried to convince himself that he was a “nice guy” who “loved mankind”.

The result is that his political and social ideas seek a “secret revenge”, as Nietzsche might say, against the human race—in the guise of philanthropy and “rational humanitarianism” Russell’s hatred for the human race seeped out, leading him to suggest social and political policies that were foolish. I don’t blame him, there’s much to hate about the human race—and some races in particular. But I think he needed to be more transparent with himself about his “darkness”—so it could be turned to light.

What this episode also reveals is how race can neatly solve “puzzles”. Why are the Chinese so polite and refined, and yet also so cruel and indifferent? Because these qualities go together, go together as a racial characteristic. It’s not that the Chinese have reasoned themselves into this position, as Russell thinks.

If you think they just reasoned themselves into their indifference to their fellow countrymen then you’ll be surprised that they are indifferent to dogs on the street—Russell thought they were like him, men with certain instincts who rationalised themselves out of those. The unsophisticated man who said “it’s because that’s what the chinks are like” was closer to the mark than Russell.

This also illustrates why universal religions like Christianity and Islam (and Marxism) are ultimately null. The Chinese don’t feel caritas for their fellow man (or dog)—and they can’t just be told to do it through belief (as Russell or a missionary might think). Indeed, Christianity never really penetrated China for this reason.


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