Bertrand Russell’s Dilemma

Bertrand Russell calls himself a socialist. But whether he is or is not an anarchist may be a semantic issue.

It is a semantic issue depending on one’s understanding of the concepts of State and government. Anarchists say that a community is to be governed by rules which have been agreed to. Well, whatever these rules are, they can be considered to be the government. Now whether there are or are not selected officials for executive and judicial functions is another matter. What anarchists object to is a centralized, representative government elected by mass democracy, whereby thousands and millions vote for office holders.

However, this matter of whether Russell is or is not an anarchist is not what I mean by the Russell’s dilemma. What I have in mind is the following seeming contradiction in his writings.

In his Proposed Roads to Freedom [1918], he advocated a position in which everyone — whether he works or not — is to receive, what he called a “vagabond’s wage.” He wrote:

“The other possibility would be that the necessaries of life should be free, as Anarchists desire, to all equally, regardless of whether they work or not. Under this plan, every man could live without work: there would be what might be called a “vagabond’s wage,” sufficient for existence but not for luxury.”

We can call it, instead, a “subsistence wage” or “minimal welfare.” A vagabond is someone who roams without a permanent home. But I don’t think that Russell had that implication in mind. I think he really had in mind providing people with the means of survival, whether they wanted to roam or not.

However, in the essay “The Case for Socialism,” Russel writes:

“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.”

These two positions seem to be incompatible. Are they?

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