Mis-quoting Bertrand Russell on ‘BLACK DEATH’ from ‘The Impact of Science on Society’ By Zahir Ebrahim

Mis-quoting Bertrand Russell on ‘BLACK DEATH’ from ‘The Impact of Science on Society’

Zahir Ebrahim | Project Humanbeingsfirst.org

By omitting its intended sarcasm, the famous sentence of Bertrand Russell on “Black Death” from his book “Impact of Science on Society” is easily taken out of context: “If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full.” While Russell’s book is clearly intended as a (pseudo) scientifically argued justification by the ruling oligarchy to convince the pseudo learned people of the planet of the necessity of one-world government, which, as Russell argues on page 37: “World government could only be kept in being by force”, an accurate understanding of any text minimally requires that it be parsed accurately in full context. That it not become a Rorschach test for its readers, nor source of deliberate misquotation for its scholars – unless of course practicing deception is the intended purpose. Here, Bertrand Russell makes the argument for population reduction via birth control, the same arguments which were determined as a threat to America’s National Security in the White House’s classified memorandum of 1974 titled NSSM 200, written by its then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Bertrand Russell is quite evidently not arguing for Black Death or any form of bacteriological warfare in the passages from which his statement is often mis-quoted. He, ostensibly, intended that statement on Black Death as sarcasm for those who would oppose the rationality of birth-control in an overpopulated world – the age-old common argument of the ruling oligarchy to rid the world of its “useless eaters” and its “untermenschen”. The sentence preceding the oft mis-quoted sentence makes the intended sarcasm abundantly clear but is never reproduced when misquoting Russell: “There are others, which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would prefer. War, as I remarked a moment ago, has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full.” Below is the full contiguous quote of Bertrand Russell’s social Darwinianism laced discussion on over-population from Chapter 7 of the book.


Impact of Science on Society, 1952 Unwin, Chapter 7: Can a Scientific Society be Stable, pages 114–118

[pg. 114]

… What has science done to increase population? In the first

place, by machinery, fertilizers, and improved breeds it has

increased the yield per acre and the yield per man-hour of

labour. This is a direct effect. But there is another which is

perhaps more important, at least for the moment. By improvement

in means of transport it has become possible for

one region to produce an excess of food while another produces

an excess of industrial products or raw materials. This

makes it possible – as for instance in our own country – for a

region to contain a larger population that its own food resources

could support. Assuming free mobility of persons and

goods, it is only necessary that the whole world should produce

enough food for the population of the whole world, provided

the regions of deficient food productions have something to

offer which the regions of surplus food production are willing

to accept in exchange for foo. But this condition is apt to fail

in bad times. In Russia, after the first world war, the peasants

had just about the amount of food they wanted for

themselves, and would not willingly part with any of it for the

purchase of urban products. At that time, and again during

the famine in the early thirties, the urban population was kept

alive only by the energetic use of armed force. In the famine,

as a result of government action, millions of peasants died

of starvation; if the government had been neutral the town-dwellers

would have died.

Such considerations point to a conclusion which, it seems

to me, is too often ignored. Industry, except in so far as it

ministers directly to the needs of agriculture, is a luxory: in

[pg. 115]

bad times its products will be unsaleable, and only force

directed against food-producers can keep industrial workers

alive, and that only if many food-producers are left to die.

If bad ties becomes common, it must be inferred that industry

will dwindle and that the industrialisation characteristic of

the last 150 years will be rudely checked.

But bad times, you may say, are exceptional, and can be

dealt with by exceptional methods. This has been more or less

true during the honeymoon period of industrialism, but it will

not remain true unless the increase of population can be enormously

diminished. At present the population of the world is

increasing at about 58,000 per diem. War, so far, has had no

very great effect on this increase, which continued throughout

each of the world wars. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth

century this increase was more rapid in advanced

countries than in backward ones, but now it is almost wholly

confined to very poor countries. Of these, China and India are

numerically the most important, while Russia is the most

important in world politics. But I want, for the present, to

confine myself, so fas as I can, to biological considerations,

leaving world politics on one side.

What is the inevitable result if the increase of population is

not checked? There must be a very general lowering of the

standard of life in what are now prosperous countries. With

that lowering there must go a great diminution in the demand

for industrial products. Detroit will have to give up making

private cars, and confine itself to lorries. Such things as

books, pianos, watches will become rare luxuries of a

few exceptionally powerful men – notably those who control

the army and the police. In the end there will be a uniformity

of misery, and the Malthusian law will reign unchecked. The

[pg. 116]

world having been technically unified, population will increase

when world harvests are good, and diminish by starvation

whenever they are bad. Most of the present urban and

industrial centres will have become derelict, and their inhabitants,

if still alive, will have reverted to the peasant hardships

of their medieval ancestors. The world will have achieved a

new stability, but at the cost of everything that gives value to

human life.

Are mere numbers so important that, for their sake, we

should patiently permit such a state of affairs to come about?

Surely not. What, then, can we do? Apart from certain deep-seated

prejudices, the answer would be obvious. The nations

which are present increase rapidly should be encouraged to

adopt the methods by which, in the West, the increase of

population has been checked. Educational propaganda, with

government help, could achieve this result in a generation.

There are, however, two powerful forces opposed to such a

policy: one is religion, the other is nationalism. I think it is the

duty of all who are capable of facing facts to realize, and to

proclaim, that opposition to the spread of birth control, if

successful, must inflict upon mankind the most appalling

depth of misery and degradation, and that within another fifty

years or so.

I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which

population can be kept from increasing. There are others,

which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would

prefer. War, as I remarked a moment ago, has hitherto been

disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war

may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread

throughout the world once in every generation survivors

could procreate freely without making the world too full.

[pg. 117]

There would be nothing in this to offend the consciences of

the devout or to restrain the ambitions of nationalists. The

state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of

that? Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness,

especially other people’s. However, I am wandering from the

question of stability, to which I must return.

There are three ways of securing a society that shall be

stable as regards population. The first is that of birth control,

the second that of infanticide or really destructive wars, and

the third that of general misery except for a powerful minority.

All these methods have been practised: the first for

example, by the Australian aborigines; the second by the

Aztecs, the Spartans and the rulers of Plato’s Republic; the

third in the world as some Western internationalists hope to

make it and in Soviet Russia. (it is not to be supposed that

Indians and Chinese like starving, but thy have to endure it

because armaments of the West are too strong for them.)

Of these three, only birth control avoids extreme cruelty and

unhappiness for the majority of human beings. Meanwhile, so

long as there is not a single world government there will be

competition for power among different nations. And as

increase of population brings the threat of famine, national

power will become more and more obviously the only way of

avoiding starvation. There will there be blocs in which

the hungry nations band together against those that are well

fed. That is the explanation of the victory of communism in


These considerations prove that a scientific world society

cannot be stable unless there is world government.

It may be said, however, that these are hasty conclusions. All

that follows directly from what has been said is that, unless

[pg. 118]

there is world government which secures universal birth

control, there must from time to time be great wars, in which

the penalty of defeat is widespread death by starvation. That

is exactly the present state of the world, and some may hold

that there is no reason why it should not continue for

centuries. I do not myself believe that this is possible. The

two great wars that we have experienced have lowered the

level of civilisation in many parts of the world, and the next is

pretty sure to achieve much more in this direction. Unless, at

some stage, one power or group of powers emerges victorious

and proceeds to establish a single government of the world

with a monopoly of armed force, it is clear that the level of

civilisation must continually decline until scientific warfare

becomes impossible – that is until science is extinct. Reduced

once more to blows an arrows, Homo sapiens might breathe

again, and climb anew the dreary road to a similar futile


The need for a world government, if the population problem

is to be solved in any humane manner, is completely

evident on Darwinian principles. …


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Mis-quoting Bertrand Russell on ‘BLACK DEATH’ from ‘The Impact of Science on Society’