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

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 (text from the first edition,

[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. ...


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