I 🙋☝ would 😩 never ✖🚫 die for 😶 my 🅰 beliefs because 🤓 I might 🅱🅱 be wrong. 😪🚷
The subject of this piece is not Bertrand Russell, despite the title, but about what he might think of popular HBO series Succession's James Cromwell.
Russell had any number of quotes throughout his vast body of work that apply heavily to the mission of any and all media criticism, but particularly through that of any sociopolitical lens. In particular, I want to draw attention to this conclusion, a piece of which Cromwell quotes in character during the show's first season:
People seem good while they are oppressed, but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn: life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim. The world is rushing down into barbarism, and there seems nothing to do but keep alive civilization in one’s corner...
The idea being that someone can be fundamentally just, and acknowledge an incompatible view as a necessary evil to avoid, themselves, becoming prey for all manner of existential threat. Ethical, or even particularly moral? Probably not, but pragmatic, if your goal is to potentially act as a stopgap between a media magnate like Logan Roy and controlling the entire apparatus for millions of viewers' newsgathering from top-to-bottom.
Russell's argument is practically Machiavellian (though, unlike Niccolo, seems to endorse the idea, rather than satirizing it as practical while not beneficial to society) in its reasoning; this is how you gain and wield power, not whether or not you should, in the world that is, not the world as you wish it to be. The context for the quote is the Bolsheviks, in whom Russell read good intentions until they, too, had to do what was required for their ideology to bear fruit. We could discuss the role of violence in any political revolution endlessly, so Russell, as a theorist, to hold this view is more or less immaterial in weighing the consistency of his philosophy stated above.
Ewan Roy, played by Cromwell, is invited to Thanksgiving by his brother (and founder/current Waystar head) Logan's wife, Marcia; he is estranged from Logan, but maintains his board seat in Waystar, much to the frustration of the actors, either, at Logan's behest or not, who have tasked Ewan's grandson, "Cousin Greg", with convicing him to give up the seat. This is when Ewan quotes Russell at him as reasoning for refusing to do so. To give up the seat, is to give in to Logan. He ultimately does, when broached with the possibility of a coup by Logan's sons Kendall and Roman, side with his brother, preferring the status quo to an unknown quantity in his nephews. His own grandson, Greg, is tasked with aiding Waystar in shredding documents in a massive cover-up of a scandal the conglomerate hopes to bury.
Whatever bad blood may exist, personally or ideologically, between Ewan and his brother in terms of the business, he gains nothing, and potentially is seen to fail ethically very publicly by remaining on the board out of spite. This is the level upon which Russell applies; Ewan prevents the chaos of his nephews' changing the company, amidst a scandal (that he does not know about, specifically, but knows such things exist within it– a change to jeoparodize what is effectively a known quantity of a power dynamic), and rather than allow the resulting failure be its own lesson, he preserves the status quo, saving the personal satisfaction of closure for another day. He knew, for example, that Greg (who was tasked with, among other cleaner work, convincing Ewan to either passively let Logan continue to run the show, or retire and "just chill").
A brief comment on the role of Cousin Greg, about whom I won't speak at length, another Russell quote from On Education, applies: "No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues." This is the gradient of the Greg character is set against, he's a character that eventually wields great power, but because he is perceived as a simpleton (and Ewan seems to pick up on this immediately when Greg tries to convince him to retire), he is looped into all manner of Roy family depravity, which eventually does give him substantial leverage with which to, again, as Russell puts it, "keep alive civilization in one's corner", otherwise Greg would have languished as a character in a Waystar-Royco owned theme park forever.
Not just this role, but in many others, James Cromwell seems attracted to understanding this mentality, because he, himself, knows better than most in Hollywood that corruption and amoral cloutseeking is a deadend while it's still possible to basically be a good person, or at least one concerned about society in good faith, not manipulating it against a backdrop of false scarcity. Cromwell's father, John, was blacklisted by Senator McCarthy, and helped his son begin his acting career touring a pre-Civil Rights movement South, which began James' own saga as an activist for Civil Rights. In the decades since, James has been an activist for all manner of left-adjacent political causes, while also playing all manner of corporatist on film, and once even George H.W. Bush. He's the rare example of what is often true of the American right wing: they often understand Marxism better than Marxists, because how else do you account for their success in crushing class consciousness? Cromwell seeks to understand corporatist detachment from its humanity the only way an actor can: he becomes the thing he hates the most.
His conclusion? There is no future left to win without mass anti-imperialist uprising. "People give me hope. Politicians give me no hope at all.”
In Star Trek: First Contact, he plays Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp engine, in the fallout of a third world war, in a splintered American corpse. His character, demoralized, is set back to his task after time is altered to attempt to prevent him from doing so; he comes to understand that with this accomplishment (a scientific, and therefore communally learned and built, one) not just he, but all humanity, will be uplifted into the next phase of communal growth. I've written about the Star Trek universe before, and what this, conceptually, would mean for a society; it's no model of a utopia, but an ongoing struggle to protect the revolution from those who would seek to oppress rather than uplift.
This counterexample from First Contact, and what Trek's universe becomes, is something Cromwell might suggest is well worth the effort. It is also the case where Bertrand Russell might assert the individual's desire to survive even amidst a false notion of scarcity would dictate one usurp that power in the same circumstance. Cromwell might dismiss this out of hand: Ewan Roy is no hero, even if he does, as the series progresses, prove to be a barrier to the harm of corporatist autocratic influence in the American state.
He does this character in Succession somewhat more consistently than simply understanding those who hold power, but how this dynamic is managed: He plays Roy as someone willing to adhere to the thinkng of Russell, and in his discussion of his board seat with Greg, rigidly so. However, Russell's theory is about gaining the upper hand, not protecting entrenched power; this is ultimately why he is seen as an unknown quantity, because he may simply be in agreement with Logan, when the series stands out, but only because he disapproves of the shake-up of Roman and Kendall represent. Will this always be the case? That's what the powerful fear from other unknown quantities within their ranks, and that's what Ewan represents to that entrenched power; to preserve himself, or his ideological purity in the matter, he is willing to disempower, in theory.
In the narrative, like Cromwell, Ewan is concerned about, both, the environment and corporations like Waystar's impact on it. He correctly is identifying the problem as capitalistic fallout, but his solution is to react interpersonally, as an individual. Things like trying to extract Greg from the company, trying to use his individual pull and lingering influence over his brother's decisionmaking to drive the company away from total ecological disaster, but are not sustainable as it's not systemic, as resistance. It's not possible under the paradigm to have the intended impact, even if he does succeed in stopping Logan and curbs Waystar's harmful ecological practices.
Cromwell, for his part, understands this, for in his own analysis of the world, he sees the old lies of empire, finally, beginning to fail the test of getting by in plain sight, the people know and understand too much to have genuine faith left:
“Our democracy is supposed to be one man, one vote,” he said. “Now, it never has been one man, one vote, but that’s the illusion. The Electoral College was put in for one reason only, and that was to protect the Southern states and slavery from ever being voted out of power, which ultimately led to the Civil War. We have a system that is antiquated, and there’s no hope in the system, no hope for Mr. Biden.
“And I gotta say, although I’m no expert, it doesn’t look like England’s doing very well either.”
Ewan Roy, again, might recommend that you fight only to maintain your security, even if the risk to you is always after the more vulnerable. Russell might see the value in collectivist approach if the personal incentive were obvious enough (as he initially theorized about the Bolsheviks, ignoring that strong central power is key to maintaining a hard-won revolution). However, Cromwell sees the future in the people, for whom organizing (for him, along humanist, anti-imperial lines) represents a society with a future rather than, as Murray Bookchin once put it, one without "a future left to win".
The lesson in all of this from Cromwell in particular is that, for Succession's third season (which I have not watched yet) demanded a change to the character's motivations. I think this is good, I think this is also consistent with his political expression. Cromwell says of his activism's relationship to his acting:
“As an actor, all I can do is hold the mirror. If people will look, they will see the image of who they are. Is that the image that they want — anger, fear, grief, distrust, animus? No, I don’t think so. If in any work, we can show anything that we can call and agree on as truth, that will make a difference in the world.”
In his choice to make that request, it's simply a new way of bringing attention to the mirror he's describing, now that he's got their attention. The problems he highlights in his work are ones that require sacrifice, but sufficiently organized to respond as an organized body (in this case, the audience is the public), the solutions are more and more often undermining of said system that enables these problems as a matter of course. He has been arrested countless times, he sees the consequences (fines, potential jail time, etc.) as the price one pays for attempting to do the right thing, rather than, as is so common from celebrity activists, failing to model what one possible direct action component looks like for an individual within a movement and insisting bringing awareness is merely enough. This is probably the starkest departure from Russell for Cromwell, even as Ewan Roy; they both take calculated risks that do potentially carry consequence, but none greater than that experienced by the larger oppressive body (obviously Cromwell, moreso than Roy).
The common ground is that all of this is running the complex calculus on what effectively games the power dynamic; the question is if you'd wish to use it to uplift yourself at the perceived risk of being on the losing end of an imbalance, prevent an even starker imbalance, or uplift everyone. You don't have to literally die for your beliefs to do the third one, but a willingness to accept consequences, especially if, like Cromwell, you believe the system has lost its foundational legitimacy to be in a position to punish anyone, is a key differentiator. Cromwell, for example, believes climate activism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism are cornerstones of fighting for the future, whatever that may look like ideologically– it presents an existential threat to the planet's habitibility itself, so the political system that replaces it, too, must only be those things foundationally. That much is what he is certain of, as are many others of "the people", as he says. While Russell won't run the risk of being wrong and dying anyway (a sensible response if your convictions are in doubt), there's a case to be made for inherent belief in an ideal, or at least an inherent belief that a devastating, but tolerated, status quo needs to be disempowered completely before it winds up killing you anyway.
"Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear." wrote Russell– the moderated concern for response to fear is different based on whether or not you are coerced by it, and I believe this is, again, that core question that motivates you to choose (among others, surely) one of the three above possibilities about your role in a power dynamic. Climatological devastation is a result of imperialist global terror by the West. So, if you oppose it, you can be compelled by, broadly, only two choices: a neoliberal desire to weaponize fear to mobilize masses to simply engage in harm reduction that returns less and less until the yield is zero (near-term comfort of Western liberal democracy for long-term oblivion for not just humanity, but the world), or you can take the position that the perpetuation of a habitable world is a systemic issue requiring highly organized masses willing to struggle in the near-term to survive in the long-term along anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist lines.