I'm having trouble interpreting the following sentence from Bertrand Russell's "The Conquest of Happiness" (Chapter 1):

To prevent the perpetuation of poverty is necessary if the benefits of machine production are to accrue in any degree to those most in need of them; but what is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are miserable?

I have no problem with the latter part after the semicolon and the main point is the former part before the semicolon. I couldn't understand the translations of the former part into my own language (Japanese). I hope my problem is not because of my lack of Japanese skill.

The main problem I have is probably on expressions "are to" and "if" in connection with "necessary" as I made them bold in the above quotation. I understood Russell's sentence above as follows:

From the moral point of view, poverty should be removed from our society. At the same time, removing every poverty is difficult for practical reasons, e.g. our resources are limited. However, if the benefits of machine production are possible or will be possible soon to be shared by many people (which solves the resource problem), then we should stop poverty continuing to exist (by sharing the benefits of machine production).

So my main question is whether this interpretation is correct or not. However, this main question is too unfocused, so I would like to ask the following more concrete questions:

Q1. There are several ways to interpret "be to + infinitive" such as talk about future, orders, formal instructions, official rearrangements, etc. What is the meaning of the "are to" in the above sentence of Russell? Does this "are to" mean possibility?

Q2. Which one below is the role of "if" in Russell's sentence?

  1. This "if" gives a condition to make "To prevent the perpetuation of poverty" possible.
  2. This "if" gives a reason to make "To prevent the perpetuation of poverty" necessary.
  3. Others.
  • I don't care if it is Bertrand Russell! So far as I'm concerned that first sentence is syntactically invalid! I've no idea whether that initial To is supposed to be an "infinitive marker" attaching to the verb prevent, or a "preposition" representing the short form of in order to. But syntactically, neither option works for me. Either we need a "dummy" it before is necessary, OR to create a suitable subject for the verb is there we need to precede it by a true "noun phrase", such as Preventing the perpetuation of poverty, not an "infinitive clause". Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 17:00
  • (But the syntax of the example is so tortuous I'd rather simply ignore it. It's not really a useful text for learners to pore over.) Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 17:03
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Oh, do you hate Bertrand Russell personally?:p Well, I always fail to keep reading learner's books of English, I've rather chosen the one I am interested in. (I confess that I am indeed interested in Russell himself.) Though, it is quite likely Russell's book is totally inappropriate for English learners like me.
    – snufkin26
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 17:46
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Anyway, I didn't know that using "to-infinitive" as a subject is not appropriate in some strict grammar. Thanks.
    – snufkin26
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 17:50
  • The entire sentence works fine if the first two words "To prevent..." are changed to "Preventing...". It looks like a case of editing that was not quite finished. Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 22:17

2 Answers 2


Russell is using passive voice here, where the object of an action is the subject of the sentence. At the same time, he seems to be trying to make a moral statement about something that should happen, without stating who the speaker is he was making that moral "should" claim.

I think the easiest way I can demonstrate the meaning is flipping the sentence to but the "if" clause first (just because that's how people normally write "if/then" statements, reflecting how they normally think), and make the subject "one" (i.e., someone) which demonstrates the ambiguity that the passive voice creates about who is taking the action in the sentence:

If one wants to prevent the perpetuation of poverty, then it is necessary that the benefits of machine production accrue in any degree to those most in need of them

There's an implication that Russell himself is that "one", a person who takes this position, but the passive voice leaves it open for the speaker to decide for themselves as to who, exactly, takes that position.

In terms of Q1, this is a use of "are" that is formal and essentially synonymous with "should", as in, "We are to attend the show at 9 pm", instead of the more common "We should attend the show at 9pm". That to be + infinitive contruction sounds very upper-class British to me, as an American.

In terms of Q2, the passive voice makes the function of that "if" unclear. Literally read it seems conditional, just that these two positions logically entail each other. However, knowing that it's in the course of an argument, the reader gets the sense that Russell is in fact taking both of those positions himself.

Another way of putting it is that, taken literally, the sentence allows for the possibility of persons who don't want to prevent the perpetuation of poverty and don't want to make the benefits of machine production accrue to those that need them. However, you get the sense that Russell hopes the reader isn't among them. Or perhaps, he wants the reader to realize that because they are in one category ("I want to prevent poverty"), then logically they also are in the other category as well ("I think the benefits of machine production are to accrue in any degree to those most in need of them").

  • Thanks for the first constructive reaction not accusing the tangled sentence structure! Well, I'm still stuck, so I would like to ask further questions on your answer (sorry...): 1. How the sentence could be of passive voice? What are the action, the subject of the action, and the object of the action? 2. I thought that "To prevent the perpetuation of poverty" is what "is necessary" in the sentence. However, in your interpretation, the content after "if" in the original sentence seems to play this role. How could it be? (Did you replace "are to" by "is necessary"?)
    – snufkin26
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 0:09
  • 1. The passive voice is when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence, so like "an omelette was cooked". "To prevent the perpetuation of poverty" is a noun phrase that, like the omelette, is the object of an action here. But like with the omelette it's unclear who performed or should perform the action. 2. You might be right, and "if the benefits of machine production are to accrue in any degree to those most in need of them, then [preventing] the perpetuation of poverty is necessary" may be a better rephrasing. Russell's vagueness makes them both seem possible to me. Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 0:52
  • It seems like there is a logical problem with Russell's statement. I'd imagine that advanced machine production, in and of itself, does a great deal to lift people out of poverty and brings "wealth" to everyone. You can buy a t-shirt or a radio for almost nothing. He is saying the opposite. He is saying that first poverty should be prevented, so that subsequently machine production benefits can occur.
    – Sam
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:05

are to + infinitive is used for something which is expected/should/must happen in the future.

Some simpler examples

They are to be here by eight.

The prisoners are to eat bread and water from now on.

If we are to do this, we must get some help.

The prime minister is to resign tomorrow.

In the Russell example, this would imply that "are to accrue" is something which ought to or should happen, if the goal is to be met.

In your paraphrasing of the quoted text, you can't say "every poverty" in English. Poverty is usually an uncountable noun. It should be "all poverty".

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