Power: a New Social Analysis

Bertrand Russell’s book on power has the thesis of trying to provide a new fundamental concept for the social sciences: power. For Adam smith, that fundamental concept is self-interest; for Karl Marx, that fundamental concept is wealth; and for Darwin, that fundamental concept is natural selection. For Russell, it is 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)

The book spends less time comparing this thesis to those of others, such as power compared to wealth or self-interest, and spends more time on writing about power itself.

For starters, chapter one spends a lot of time explaining how power is in fact an impulse within human psychology; that what explains human social change and the general course of history is the impulse to power. A king wages war because of a power impulse, a new law is passed because of a power impulse, and a nation state undertakes diplomacy because of a power impulse. Even when we opt to sit on a beach, we do so because we are seeking power; but Russell only cares for when the power is combined with an institution, to be clear:

“Power is dependent upon organization in the main, but not wholly. Purely psychological power, such as that of Plato or Galileo, may exist without any corresponding institution. But as a rule even such power is not important unless it is propagated by a church, a political party, or some analogous social organism”. (Russell 128)

Since humans want to do things, Russell believes we have an impulse to power since we cannot do those things which we want without exercising influence over others. Which is why he also believes no person willingly seeks out less power.

In the second chapter, Russell talks about leaders and followers. He says:

“The Power impulse has two forms: explicitly, in leaders; implicit, in their followers”. (Russell 7)

For Russell, inequalities in power have always existed, and that claim is obvious when we look at human communities. When we higher a team to build a railroad, someone must make the plans and organize the personnel, and so we have leaders and followers; when we wage war, we need generals and we need soldiers, and so we have leaders and followers; when we spread the word of a religion, we have priests and we have their believers, and so we yet again have leaders and followers. Leaders and followers, explicit and implicit; those are the fundamental ways in which power is carried out inside society.

Russell also says that what determines whether someone leads or follows is character and competency. A courageous and bold character often leads, and a timid character often does not, since timidity hampers our pursuit of power:

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

He believes men love power when they are competent, and so seek to become leaders on matters they are most competent at; whereas, conversely, they seek to become followers on matters they are not competent at.

It is also important to note that Russell believes people become followers more readily when they believe doing so confers power. People do not follow those without power, or at the very least, those without the character traits necessary to acquire power.

More interestingly, after his groundwork chapters on leaders, followers, and the impulse to power, Russell provides us with types of power found throughout human societies, and how they have contributed to the course of history. Now, he does interchangeably use the words form, source, and kind when talking about these powers, so I believe all of these powers are ones he asserts as types: economic power, hereditary power, traditional power, kingly power, priestly power, revolutionary power, and etc. In fact, for Russell, anything can be a kind of power, and we can have many types at our disposal. A king can have hereditary power and kingly power, for instance. Anything that can be used as a source or means to have influence over another person can qualify as a kind of power, according to Russell.

Russell himself, however, tends to focus on a handful of these kinds of power. For example, consider traditional power:

“Traditional power has on its side the force of habit; it does not have to justify itself at every moment, nor prove continually that the opposition is strong enough to overthrow it”. (Russell 25, 26)

Russell associates this kind of power with religious institutions. He analyzes the decline of catholicism and concludes that the decline of traditional power, in part, explains the decline of the catholic church.

He likewise associates the decline of kings and queens with the decline in hereditary power and rise of revolutionary power. Not that all hereditary power is gone, nor that all traditional power is gone. Just the institutions which strictly relied on those power types have mostly gone or diminished.

Another quite interesting yet, in my opinion, low-tier analysis the book offers is in the power philosophy section. What Russell means is there are philosophies which are entirely about power insofar as they grant the wielder power. For a pragmatist, he says, “whatever is pleasant must be true,” and so they gain power. How so? Because Russell adopts a realist worldview wherein which reality determines what is true, not the subject but the objects. We are only to discover truth in the world, not make truth. So, for Russell, a pragmatic philosophy is a power philosophy. The same holds true for solipsism. Albeit, Russell has a terrible understanding of solipsism, he believes it is a power philosophy because, according to him, solipsists place their own ego in the position of God. And he provides a great quote for us on the topic of solipsism that I must absolutely share:

“In this way it is possible for solipsism to become the basis for a certain kind of social life. A collection of lunatics, each of whom thinks he is God”. (Russell 213)

Russell does cover other topics inside the book besides those previously mentioned, such as power and ethics, what limits power, priestly power, biology of organizations, and etc., but most of that will be based on what we have so far discussed: leaders and followers, power impulses, and power kinds.

In general, there are some fun ideas and topics inside the book, but overall I would say the book is not terrific. Russell does go off into abstract tangents quite often, the book reads like a general commentary on history via anecdotal stories – he relies on anecdotes heavily – and when he does provide anecdotes they always seem insufficient: i.e. saying Caesar had naked power seems to fit yet doesn’t explain much. On top of that, we never get any detailed model about how kinds of powers relate to one another, nor any systematic analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. The book reads more like someone’s armchair speculation rather than a well thought-out system; or another way of saying it, the book seems like Russell had some notions of power, and relying on his well-read mind, applied the ill-developed notions to his personal recollections of history. And to add to all of this, there are some serious problems with the intellectual foundations of the book: i.e., contradictions and inconsistencies. (Critique of Russell)

Thus, the book, as far as I can tell, fails at reaching the thesis of developing a new fundamental concept for the social sciences. And unless you are a big Russell fan, or specifically interested in the study of power – which I was – you can ignore this book. There are better books out there for your reading pleasure!

Email Notification


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.

Leave a Reply