Russell, Radicalism, and Reason

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell Volume III

by Bertrand Russell
Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $8.95

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell; drawing by David Levine

The last volume of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography received little attention when it appeared, not long before his death. Yet it raises a number of questions and doubts which are relevant to the thinking of radicals and liberals in the United States and in Western Europe today.

Covering the years 1944-1969, this third volume was principally a record of Russell’s various crusades on behalf of nuclear disarmament and civil liberties, and of his embittered opposition to American imperialism. His platform appearances on behalf of nuclear disarmament, the battles in committees, and the founding of his Peace Foundation sometimes make for dull reading now, even though they are the heroic expression of an unquiet old age. The quoted correspondence clearly shows that in this last, wholly political phase of his various life, Russell was driven forward, not only by his sympathy with suffering, but also, and increasingly, by anger: more than anger, by a generalized and philosophical rage about the human condition, and by a kind of Shakespearean disgust.

His rage was directed against the unvarying wickedness of governments and of their scientific, commercial, and bureaucratic accomplices, and, to a lesser degree, also against the docility and gullibility of a decent and deceived public. Starvation, tyranny, and wars could even now be avoided, if governments were less wickedly intent upon magnifying their own powers, and if their subjects would attend to simple arguments. If these conditions are not fulfilled, mankind will destroy itself, and will continue to suffer even worse disasters on the road to a final destruction soon to become unavoidable. These were Russell’s final beliefs, which took the place of the confident, even gay, radicalism of his middle years.

This despairing attitude of the aged Russell is one paradigm of the intellectual radical in politics: only the energy and intellectual authority were unique. Particularly exemplary are the righteous anger and the accompanying conviction that those who have power, the government and the establishment, are peculiarly corrupt in virtue of having this power; the governed, cozened and bemused, may still be open to rational persuasion from the radicals’ platforms, because they are not committed to destructive policies by purely selfish interests.

From the standpoint of this kind of intellectual radicalism, there is a natural division between the victims and their deceivers, and the shepherds always prey upon the flock, whether they be capitalist entrepreneurs and managers or commissars and party hacks. In fact the secretaries of defense and chiefs of staff of the superpowers, who are nominally enemies, are more and more united in a preconscious conspiracy to sustain their deadly international game of competitive armament and subsidized guerrilla warfare. They suppress in their own territories any radical criticism of the assumptions that justify this game, and thereby justify their personal preeminence and the exercise of their skills. They will have a common interest in suppressing dissent, student protest, the potentially subversive…

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