After the second world war, reflecting on the rule of empiricism versus various kinds of dogmatism in political philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes (Philosophy and Politics, 1947; emphasis mine):

It is commonly urged that, in a war between Liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious.

How accurate was Russell's assessment in 1947? Has its accuracy changed since? To my naive knowledge of history, it seems particularly wrong for revolutions (I am thinking Iran, and some of the more recent ones), is that the case?

  • I am not 100% sure of the scope here, so if this question is too philosophical then I am fine to have it migrated to phil.SE. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 7:11
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    @jwenting that is true, as was the case during the French Revolution, but Russell defines Liberal with the upper case L to exclude this case. I will add a summary of Russell's definition when I am at my desktop later. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 8:57
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    I think this is incorrect and can only be made plausible by selectively choosing "important wars". The Boer War, the American Indian wars, and the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Civil War, anf the Franco-Prussian War all come to mind as rebuttals that occurred between 1700 and 1947.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 11:54
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    @Mike Good point, but I think two items on your list may be misplaced. (1) Who won the Boer War in your analysis? (2) The Franco-Prussian War was, I think, between two states that were more or less "on the same moral plane". Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 13:09
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    The more strictly you define the term 'liberal democratic state' the fewer you find. This reminds me of the "Peaceful Democracy" theory where such nations supposedly never go to war with each other. In this theory, England doesn't count as one so the War of 1812 doesn't count.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:42

5 Answers 5


Its an interesting thesis. The problem is that "important" out he left himself essentially makes it a No true Scottsman argument. In other words, it isn't really a falsifiable statement. Any counter-argument I could possibly make can be dismissed as "not really an important war" (or failing that, you could try to argue against the liberality/fanacisim of the participants. That's kind of fuzzy too).

So all a person can really do is list some actions that would cause the most work to dismiss. To my mind that would be The Spanish Civil War (which would have been quite fresh in the mind in 1947, so he must have dismissed it as "unimportant"), and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

Now admittedly it started as a war between The Prussians and their allies and The French Empire. On paper not a lot of Liberalism there. In reality, the Prussians were generally acknowledged as the least liberal state in Europe, while Napoleon III was leading a popular Monarchy (in fact, he'd been elected President initially by popular vote). However, by the end it had become a war between the new German Empire and the Third French Republic, which ought to make things a bit more clear. The liberal French got crushed.

As a thesis its interesting, and makes you think. Certainly I think any side in a war that has the fully-committed backing of its citizenry has a big advantage over a side that doesn't. This has probably been true since the era of Conscription started.

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    "Liberal" is not the modern term you may be thinking of, but rather what wikipedia calls "Classical Liberalisim", which is chiefly about having elected governments rather than absolute monarchies. Bismark, who ran Prussian politics at this time, was the leading Reactionary (anti-Liberal) figure in Europe. I've often seen liberalism of this era objectively measured by the % of the adult male population franchised (allowed to vote in elections). When Napolean III was elected, it was 100% in France. In Prussia it was effectively 0 IIRC.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:39
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    But Napoleon performed a coup d'etat in 1851 and made himself into an emperor! He destroyed the Republic in which he was elected. How exactly does his regime qualify as liberal? Sure, he was running from 1860 a milder version which he called Liberal Empire, but it was based on the same principle - the benevolent monarch grants his subjects a sort of constitution and a legislative assembly whose powers he delineates. Which was exactly the constitutional situation of Prussia! Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:47
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    a) It was a popular coup at first. (In fact, he'd tried coups twice before, so Frenchmen can't really claim they didn't know what they were getting when they voted him President). When the people didn't want him anymore (after he proved incompetent in the field), they got rid of him. b) The last 1/4 of the war, where a lot of the hard fighting was done, was under the Aegis of the French Republic.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:50
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    Well: (a) I really don't see how you can stretch Nap III into a liberal ruler. It's true that he had some progressive notions but structurally his regime was bound to be illiberal and it was. So he allowed some opposition deputies to speak against the ministry in parliament - just like in the German Empire. There were also opposition parties there who spoke against the ministries in the Reichstag. What is the difference, I beseech you to show me? Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 20:41
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    Hitler's coup was popular too - it just wasn't democratic. And Germany wasn't an Empire until after the war. So it was a French Empire vs Prussian Kingdom leading a German Federation. And the French had no choice about getting rid of Nap III. He was captured by the Prussians!
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:34


  1. Spanish Civil War: one can argue that republicans were more liberal
  2. Chinese Civil War: one can argue that kuomitang was more liberal
  3. Russian Civil War: some anti-bolshevik factions were fighting under the slogan of support of the Russian Constituent Assembly - more liberal
  4. WW2: one can easily argue that USSR was less liberal than the 3rd Reich.

In short, Russell's statement is a typical example of "if you misspell milk 4 times, you may get beer"; if he is allowed to define important, liberal, victory &c, then yes, he is certainly right.

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    I agree that the statement is problematic but the counterexamples are not quite apposite, imho: (a) civil wars are a whole different kettle of fish (b) USSR was a totalitarian regime and quite a baddie in its own right but in WWII it was definitely ranged with the good guys so it's not correct to consider it in isolation - Allies vs. Axis is the right term of reference. Unless - wink wink - we are discussing the period 17.9.1939-21.6.1941 when the USSR was actually the Nazi Reich's best friend and ally, doing its best to help it conquer Europe....... (but then still no counterexample...:) Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 20:45
  • @FelixGoldberg: here you go, No true Scotsman argument! :-)
    – sds
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 20:48
  • I think calling the Spanish Civil War 'important' is stretching it.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:21
  • The Chinese war is outside the time frame.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:21

Has its accuracy changed since?

  • North Vietnam won over South Vietnam.
  • Taliban won over Northern Alliance prior to US getting involved in 2001
  • Hezbollah effectively won against everyone (forced Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, and squeezed 'liberals' out of Lebanese politics).
  • Depending on your definition of liberal, theocrats won in Iran in 1979.
  • Palestinian terrorists won both the strategic fight AND the world opinion war against Israel (using human shields in violation of Geneva convention and aiming rockets at civilians and attacking school buses gets ignored... responses to those acts get condemned).
  • All true, but he wanted to know if this was true in 1947.
    – o0'.
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 20:15

You could make a counter-claim that the Napoleonic Wars do not fit his rules, and it certainly is in the time frame and is important. Having England mixed in with the half dozen Monarchies that had to pile on to knock out Napoleon doesn't increase the 'democratic average' much. And the French Government of the post revolution had elective parts like England did to some extent. Certainly there was less class consciousness in the Empire than before it.

In the early part of those wars, Napoleon was just a general, then "First Consul".


I beg to differ with the answers above.

If we look at the spirit of Russel's argument two things must be taken into account:

  • One side must be liberal, the other fanatical. This is important - it's not "dictatorship vs liberal", it must be "fanatical vs liberal" (for instance, Central Powers in WW1 were not liberal, but they were not fanatical either).

  • The war must be important. As in "lots of people should feel threatened by the fanatics". Then they would care enough to intervene (as opposed to some minor war in some God-forsaken third world hellhole that nobody cares about).

None of the counter-examples presented fit the conditions above. So I would guess the statement is correct?

  • Yeah! When in doubt, parse. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 22:45

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