“First let me talk with this philosopher.—
What is the cause of thunder?”
—King Lear to Poor Tom.
There is an aged philosopher in Johnson’s Rasselas who has persuaded himself that he is personally responsible for ensuring that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. He conscientiously devotes himself to discharging this responsibility, convinced that otherwise all life on our planet will languish in darkness or wither away in perpetual sunshine. Another aged philosopher, Bertrand Russell, is an almost exactly analogous case today. If he relaxes his efforts, he appears to suppose, a nuclear war must break out, and the human race become extinct; an eventuality for which, contrary to Russell, and especially after reading him, I often feel I simply cannot wait. In Unarmed Victory he provides an account of how, in his own estimation, he prevented the Cuban crisis and the Indo-Chinese frontier dispute from developing into such a catastrophe.
In describing these transactions Russell goes to considerable lengths to profess himself not a Communist. He is, he insists, a “democratic socialist.” Nonetheless, his exchanges with Khrushchev, Chou En-Lai, Nehru, and President Kennedy have clearly shown, he considers, that the Communist side was for peace, and the American or Western side ready in both instances to countenance resort to nuclear war. This conclusion is reached early on in the proceedings.
Thus, in one of his first press statements, Russell conveyed to us, his fellow-countrymen, the cheerful tidings that “within a week you will all be dead to please American madmen.” The following day he further explained in a leaflet that we were to die “not in the course of nature, but…because rich Americans dislike the Government that Cubans prefer, and have used part of their wealth to spread lies about it.” It is rather surprising, after these early and emphatic judgments, to find him remarking later on in the narrative that up to the point when Khrushchev offered to dismantle his missile bases in Cuba “there had not been very much to choose between American and Russian policies.” No word of Russian madmen came to us from his Welsh fastness. Any suggestion of the kind might, in any case, have involved embarrassment in view of the fact that the Cuban Embassy in London had kindly taken charge of his printing arrangements.
To a non-philosophical mind, there might seem a certain bias or unreason in Russell’s attitude. American madmen there unquestionably are in plenty, but it may be doubted whether it was exclusively at their behest that Mr. Kennedy decided to institute a blockade of Cuba with a view to preventing the further installation there of nuclear missiles. Nor, come to that, have the Kremlin’s policies through the years been such as to suggest a meticulous and enduring sanity among those responsible for them.
As for Khrushchev’s alleged duplicity (“the silly outery that Russia had acted deceitfully about nuclear installations in Cuba”), Russell fastens the blame, if any, on Zorin, who had “been inadequately briefed,” and who “has since been removed from his post as Russian envoy to the U.N.” Let it be remembered, also, Russell goes on to mention darkly, “that Zorin had been a Stalinist and was probably out of sympathy with Khrushchev’s policy.” Our philosopher here might have recalled that, if Zorin had been a Stalinist, so even more so had Khrushchev himself. There is, indeed, something very diverting in Russell’s picture of the inadequately briefed Zorin insisting, in response to inner Stalinist promptings, and to spite Khrushchev, on the innocence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. His subsequent re-emergences as a leading figure in the current Moscow test-ban negotiations might seem to point to a quick reinstatement in favor which is unusual in the U.S.S.R.
Russell finds no difficulty in resolving the Cuban crisis into a sagacious, peace-loving Khrushchev confronted by a warmongering Kennedy egged on by madmen resolved at all costs to bring down the Castro regime. More surprisingly, in view of the regard in which he has hitherto held Mr. Nehru, he likewise sees the Indo-Chinese frontier conflict as one between an essentially pacific China and an aggressively nationalist India. “In the border clashes of the past year,” Chou En-Lai writes to him, “China was always the attacked party and finally, compelled by the massive attacks launched by the Indian Government, could not but act in self-defense.” Though, Russell mildly remarks, he “could not quite agree” with this preposterous statement, China alone “had offered to behave reasonably in the lamentable circumstances then prevailing.” As their correspondence proceeds he becomes “very doubtful whether the Chinese were the first aggressors,” and in any case concludes that, as they are prepared to stop fighting, they must be considered the virtuously pacific party in the dispute.
Such an attitude, if adopted by governments, would, of course, mean that aggression must always be successful. Hitler would have been delighted to stop fighting once he had gained the positions he wanted in Europe. Presumably, in Russell’s eyes, this would have constituted a valid title to be regarded as pacific, by contrast with the bellicose populations in the occupied countries who wanted to go on fighting to recover their independence.
Russell’s position on issues of this kind have never been notable for consistency, or even clarity. He considered that we should have kept out of the 1914-18 war, and went to prison as a pacifist. Up to 1936 he was urging us to treat the Nazis as tourists and load them with courtesies and kindnesses if they invaded our shores. Later, from America, he proclaimed that, if he had been young enough, he would have taken up arms against Hitler. Then, after the war, before the U.S.S.R. had begun to produce atomic weapons, he recommended using the threat of nuclear attack to get the Russians back inside their own frontiers. Subsequently, when the U.S.S.R. had become a nuclear power, he became a leading advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
There would be little point in subjecting these shifting positions to serious or sustained criticism. As has been said of the plot of Cymbeline, it is impossible to criticize unresisting imbecility. One can only regret that one of the excellent intellects of our time should come in old age to so unseemly and incoherent a pass. There would seem to be some fatality whereby enlightened minds in the twentieth century expire in fatuity. Thus the Webbs’ last ponderous tome in exaltation of Stalinism. Thus Shaw’s fulsome and credulous adulation of all the squalid dictators of our time. Thus Wells’s despairing wail in Mind At the End of Its Tether at the achievement of atomic fission, which in the light of his past pronouncements and prognostications, should have delighted his heart. And now Russell’s regurgitation, with all the authority of a Western scholar and thinker, of the poor third or fourth rinsings of a Party barrel. In the light of these gerontic buffooneries one cannot but wonder about the reliability of their earlier and more sedate works.
Russell’s dire warnings about the nuclear wrath to come are delivered to the accompaniment of a strident anti-Americanism. This has been growing upon him of late, though even some years ago he readily and cheerfully bet me twenty pounds that Senator McCarthy would become President of the United States. It was absolutely certain to happen, he insisted. Combining duty and pleasure, I punctiliously collected the twenty pounds off him when McCarthy died, totally discredited, and still only a senator.
Is Russell’s increasing hostility to America a consequence of his having taken refuge there in the War? It is possible. Benefits conferred are normally the surest way to promote dislike. Had Russell moved out of the Wehrmacht’s way eastwards instead of westwards, he might now be denouncing the U.S.S.R. instead of the U.S.A. In any case, we English will, I am sure, continue to regard him tolerantly, and even affectionately, whatever ideological and other capers he may cut. From our point of view, he has the enormous merit of having lived to a great age. Like Johnny Walker, one of our national heroes, he is still going strong. We can never resist longevity. Had Oscar Wilde lived to be eighty instead of dying in his forties, he would, I am sure, have been given the O.M., knighted, and made an honorary commissioner of scouts. Russell has the additional great merit of being a philosopher. This, to a people as instinctively unphilosophical as we English are, covers a multitude of illogicalities, irresponsibilities, vanities, senilities and inanities.
Bertrand Russell November 28, 1963