Why Russell Was Wrong About Power

Many fields within the sciences at some point or another produce a theorist who attempts to explain the foundations of their science through a single variable. From such types of theorists, we were given natural selection, energy, the death instinct, and supply or demand. All things biology are governed by the postulates of natural selection, all things physics are governed by the postulates of energy, and all things economic are governed by the postulates of supply or demand. And so by the same logic, all forms of social life are, for Russell, governed by power:

“In the course of this book I shall be concerned to prove that the fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics”. (Russell 4)

For Russell, he believes power explains not only human history but also individual psychology more aptly than many other frameworks. For instance, he believed marxians, psychoanalysts, and economists have been mistaken about, and as a result fail to understand, humans and their societies. In specific, Russell aimed at avoiding a world war. His book being written and published in 1938, Russell sought to explain the politics and conflicts of his time via the notion of power, which he believed to be the proper explanation, all to better avoid a world war. But, he likewise believed his analysis carries over to both future and past generations. As example, he says Marx and traditional economists are wrong about economic self-interest being the foundational notion in social sciences:

“The orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken in supposing economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in the social sciences”. (Russell 3)

“I shall have, throughout, the twofold purpose of suggesting what I believe to be a more adequate analysis of social changes in general than that which has been taught by economists, and of making the present and probable near future more intelligible than it can be to those whose imaginations are dominated by the eighteen and nineteenth centuries”. (Russell 6)

He explains that power is the only adequate way to characterize social change:

“The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power”. (Russell 4)

However, I entirely disagree. I disagree with his conclusions, and I disagree with his premises; on top of that, there are some less than pragmatic consequences within this worldview of his. Let me start with timidity first, and then from there we can unpack some of the bigger problems within the book.

For Russell, people do not actively seek out less power, they are instead “timid,” or what he called “timidity”. More explicitly, Russell states:

“Thus the love of power, as a motive, is limited by timidity”. (Russell 14)

For Russell, more power means more of a capacity for self-direction, and so power is the only means by which we can realize our desires. Yet that seems to entail that people who actively seek out less power are instead just “timid”. People who want less responsibility, people who are content, and people who want less influence are, across the board, timid, according to Russell. And as far as I can tell, Russell believes character happens to people; meaning, someone cannot choose to be brave or timid, they are born as such. He makes as much apparent when he discusses monarchy and noble lines. That all seems quite absurd.

By the ordinary meaning of timid, someone could seek less power and not be timid, and Russell does not provide us with a special definition of timid, so I will only assume the ordinary meaning. Thus, I cannot agree that those who avoid power are timid, and that those who seek power are brave.

And if power is the fundamental drive, then I am quite puzzled why he appealed to the attainment of desires via self-direction, that raises some suspicions. But let’s first try to make sense of Russell’s view.

The only way in which I can make sense of Russell’s view is if I adopt presuppositions on behalf of Russell, presuppositions which he never argues for and which there are plenty of good reasons not to adopt.

For starters, I would have to assume his claim that power is the fundamental motive is already true; that all humans seek only power, not pleasure. Second, I would have to agree that people always want to seek self-direction and influence, which I think is contentious; and third, that relativity has no sway on human motivations and choices. Let’s explain each of these in turn.

Why would we need to assume power is the fundamental motive? Because without that, Russell’s worldview seems wrong. He claims that people seek more power because they want to realize their desires. And so, even the man who wants to read a book on the beach must reach for more power, since he cannot reach said desires without power. And a failure to reach said outcomes is a result of timidity. This also entails that no man seeks less responsibility, since that would entail someone is pursuing less power; and that goes against our fundamental assumption. Timidity cannot be pursued, it can only happen to you. Elsewise, there is evidently another fundamental variable that people can pursue, and it would not be power. As Russell makes clear, we all pursue power either explicitly as leaders or implicitly as followers. So we must grant Russell’s conclusion as being true to even comprehend it – a conclusion which is riddled with absurdities and impracticalities: i.e., leaving the ordinary meaning of timidity behind, supposing people who read books on the beach are power seekers, or claiming people cannot want less power.

Next, I would have to  flip the desire-to-power worldview. Rather than say, “someone seeks power because they want power,” I instead have to say, “someone seeks power because they have wants”. Wants must not be a motive, or they must only come because people first and foremost seek power. This is an extremely non-intuitive conception of human psychology, as he has flipped what seems foundational about humans: the view that wants occur first and everything else follows from them. Russell himself reverts back to the former desire-to-power worldview in his writings, implicitly so, for the precise reason of it being so intuitive to us.


“…who like to command in some situations, but in others prefer to be subject to a leader”. (Russell 8)

“Men like power so long as they believe in their own competency to handle the business in question, but when they know themselves incompetent they prefer to follow a leader”. (Russell 9)

“..they seek a refugee where they can more or less enjoy solitary freedom”. (Russell 15)


The first quote is a great example of someone choosing one type of power over another because of a want. When given a choice between power A and power B, both of which grant equal power, then presumably a want would make the choice; and so, surely we need more than just power to explain the situation. But, Russell does us one better with his second quote, one which is particularly bad for his book.

Russell said that the power impulse takes shape in either seeking to be a leader, which he called an explicit power impulse, or seeking to be a follower, which he called an implicit power impulse. The second quote seems to suggest that a choice to follow a leader is a choice of not seeking power; for someone is, due to their own incompetency, not a man who likes power and so must seek out the natural opposite; which in this case, is being a follower. Yes, the second quote can be read as: “being a follower means not pursuing power”. But there are an infinite amount of reasons someone can make up to save Russell from that interpretation.

What is more troublesome about the second quote is Russell seemingly concedes to the desire-to-power worldview by saying someone chose, in accordance to their preferences, to seek out the opposite of power. So a choice is made without any direct causation by power

Moving onto the third quote, Russell says people can seek out solitary freedom, which goes against his notion of power as well. Russell believes power is the ability to influence others, and he believes we all have that impulse. Yet if someone wants to be solitary, they are not seeking out influence over others. So, it is not an impulse to power that drives them to be solitary, it must be exactly what he himself said in the quote, namely, an enjoyment. And as far as I can tell, we have preferences due to enjoyment of one thing over another.

So, we need to grant a worldview of desire and power that not only destroys the intuitive foundations of human psychology; that is, remove what we, independent of abstract philosophy, feel to be true; we must also adopt a worldview that Russell himself cannot even commit to in the book he wrote which advocates for the view.

Now the third presupposition we need is relativity, by which I mean quite a bit.

Modern empirical, and also theoretical, psychology has both taught and told us that humans fluctuate; meaning, our personalities and behaviors are, by no small means, determined by the environment. We all know of the stanford prison experiment wherein which ordinary people harmed others because those ordinary people were put into a situation that fostered harm; we all know of the famous Ash experiment wherein which people are, via group dynamics, made to choose a wrong answer; and we all know of the famous bystander effect. Much of what we do, what we believe, and what we feel are governed by environmental circumstances. That goes against this entire “character determines power levels” worldview Russel had built. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Russell also has built into his worldview a static notion of the mind, that the power impulse must be constant. Elsewise, how else could he so boisterously claim the falseness of fields like economics and psychology? We must at all times meaningful have a power impulse. But that is not the modern psychology I have come to understand. Modular views, epiphenomenal views, and etc., all have persuasive arguments to present. But we must, to understand Russell, ignore those views and accept his static mind worldview. The biggest problem with doing so, might I add, is he never argues for such a worldview, we must simply adopt it as a presupposition.

So, to summarize, we must presuppose the conclusion of his book before the premises are laid out; we must assume a very confusing perspective on desire and motivation; and we must assume a complete lack of relativity or dynamics. All of this we must grant to him.

Ordinarily, I am even fine with granting presuppositions, but only on grounds that someone has attempted to persuade me of the utility for those presuppositions, or at least the utility of the conclusions drawn. But Russell doesn’t address the second and third presuppositions at all within the book, and requires us to accept the first without persuasion, initially.

There is much more to be said about this book, but I will save that for a review. I want to end here by putting forward a counter-argument.

When we introspectively ask why we have done anything in life, we invariably appeal to a want or a desire. When I ask, “why did you read that book,” you will intuitively suppose, “because I wanted to”. If I ask, “why did John jump in front of a car,” we would again intuitively suppose, “because John wanted to”. Now, John might have been subject to a mental disease, and so his want might be less than healthy; or, John perhaps wanted something else and so had no choice but to jump, hoping he could have dodged the car if he was quick enough. But regardless if good or bad, wants are fundamental. 

Why does the law of supply explain anything? Because people want stuff. Why does the law of demand explain prices? Because wants vary in intensity. Why do people have economic self-interest? Because people have differing wants. Why do politicians seek power? Because they want power.

So I would propose, when we consider subjective psychology, that is, folk-psychology or phenomenology, at the foundation of it all is wants. Whereas, in comparison, if we consider a more objective psychology, that is, description and observation, then we can look at something like natural selection. But even for objective psychology, the problem of moving from subjective to objective, of moving from my thoughts to the world, still remains; and the only solution is to want. I want to believe my perceptions are of a real world, I want to believe direct-realism holds true. The point being, wants seem far more fundamental for the social sciences and philosophy than power does.

I do not think power can explain as much as Russell hoped for. Though, I will agree it is a useful concept of explanation in some cases. We cannot do away with the concept entirely, but we can apply it less zealously than Russell.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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