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Russell, Radicalism, and Reason

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell Volume III

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

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 freedom of writers and artists, and the demands of minorities for equal treatment.

This Russellian form of radicalism makes a very simple theory of contemporary politics; but it cannot be dismissed, as it usually is, on that ground alone, for it is certainly no vice in a theory that it is simple in relation to the complexity of the phenomena which it must explain. The first question is whether this very simple theory has yielded predictions that are more in accord with later experience than the predictions based upon rival theories.

Hardheaded liberals, who have for so long derided the simple-minded radicalism that Russell represented, would surely do well to be modest and cautious at this point. For the test is: Did their alternative theories yield predictions (say in 1965 and the two following years) which were more closely confirmed by events? Did they predict that the American government, continuously advised by university professors, would persist for several years in methods of warfare and of pacification that are criminal in international law and custom, and that are modeled on communist methods? Did they predict that the American government, in pursuit of its presumed strategic interests, would prop up, by firepower and money, any puppet, however repressive, provided only that he would not have dealings with Russia and China? Did they anticipate that the principles of the Nuremberg trials and pledges to international order would be brought into contempt so soon and by a democracy? Or did they rather predict that the phrase “American imperialism” would turn out to be a ridiculous misnomer? That the allegations of war crimes at the Stockholm Tribunals would be proved a farce, providing material only for cranks?

Having participated in, or observed, debates between radicals and liberals from 1963 onward, as an alien in the US, I have a clear memory of the correct answers to these questions. The liberal theory always was that the Vietnam war was, at the worst, a mistake, a temporary aberration and miscalculation, rather like the Suez expedition of the British; the American government was not interested in strategic bases or a prolonged presence, and would withdraw if it became clear that a sustainable democratic government, with adequate local support, was not to be found; this is what I was told by the well informed. Only the radicals predicted, in 1965 and 1966, the cost-efficiency ruthlessness, now called “Vietnamization,” the imitation of communist methods in the establishment of bases, the burning of villages, the gradual extension of the war to the whole area. I remember this balance of the argument surrounding the rhetorical phrase “American imperialism,” because in 1965 I believed in the liberal theory of the war as a mistake: the theory that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had walked into a trap, misled by their military staffs, and that, once they realized this, they would change both their policy and their military advisers.

But I gradually realized that the notion of mistake was soon playing the same role in the interpretation of American policy as that played by epicycles in Ptolemaic astronomy: as more and more “mistakes” accumulated the theory became untenable. The radicals of 1965 had been proved right. For liberals the prolonged aerial terrorism, the ever new burnt villages, the resettlement camps, the free-fire zones, and the Harvard professors calmly assessing their efficiency were a surprise, and seemed an inexplicable collapse in national decency. The radicals with whom I had argued, and who had not thought Russell, with his talk of “American imperialism,” a mere crank, nor the Stockholm Tribunal a farce, could, and did, say—“I told you so: why would you not believe that the American government, with its academic and military advisers, is ready to match atrocity with atrocity indefinitely in defense of American influence in Asian countries, no matter what the cost to the local populations?”

There is an answer to this question, and the radical versus liberal argument is certainly not closed at this point. The word “imperialism,” brandished by radicals and by Russell, has no more explanatory and predictive power than the theory of modern politics from which it originally derived its sense: the Marxist-Leninist theory, which yields predictions that have been discredited by events over and over again, more amply even than liberal theory. As used by Russellian radicals, the word “imperialism” serves only to summarize the facts and not to explain or interpret them, even in a minimal sense.

We have no tolerably precise and unrefuted theory of imperialism which points to the forces that now ensure that liberal expectations should be disappointed, and liberal principles trampled on, by successive US governments. Russell’s own explanations, which impute the organized brutalities to the egoism and stupidity of politicians and generals, depend upon ignoring the fact that the politicians and generals can count upon support for these policies from a clear majority of the voters. Chauvinism and xenophobia are likely now to be the majority attitude in any country, socialist or capitalist, and the liberal and radical opposition to them is likely to be a self-conscious minority. I doubt that Russell ever adjusted his theories to this fact, or that he ever gave Tocqueville’s predictions their due importance.

Unlike his predecessors and peers in public philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Hegel—Russell did not apply to politics the analytical methods which he called for in the theory of knowledge. He made no solid contribution to political philosophy, although he thought continuously about politics from 1914 onward. Yet the foregoing names show that there is no historical and regular connection between being a great philosopher and also an intellectual of wide range, and ignoring, or despising, the peculiar difficulties of theoretical analysis which practical politics present. The connection was rather a peculiarity of Russell’s temperament, partly an effect of that imperious rage which he first felt in 1914 and which is so vividly described in his autobiography: and perhaps partly the effect of an austere conception of reason, derived from mathematics, which stood in the way of his ever arriving at a theory of rationality in politics, or of practical reasoning in general. He therefore contributed to the modern stereotype of the intellectual in politics as always putting a simple moral disgust in the place of a slow analysis of changing possibilities.

But the fact remains that, in this last phase, he was more truly prophetic in his emotional attitudes and beliefs than either he or his liberal critics knew. A substantial minority of a new generation, particularly, but not only, in America, now shares exactly his moral disgust, and the accompanying impatience with conventional political analysis; and this post-Russell generation has made its rage, particularly in the United States, an effective political force. But, unlike Russell, they will need, and will look for, a method of political analysis—and, in this narrow sense, a theory—which is less unreliable, under contemporary conditions, than what is handed down to them either in the classics of liberalism or by Marxists. Where will this theory be found? Perhaps a dim outline can already be seen.

Their first step has been critical, rather than constructive, and has earned the label—quite mistakenly, as I think—of “irrationalism.” “Reason” is a normative and not a neutral scientific term. What counts as reason, as opposed to thought of less constructive and useful kinds, is largely a matter of judgment, at least in practical and political contexts; and this judgment must refer to a sufficient, proved consistency in obtaining results in the relevant field, results which are permanently accepted as correct, and which are obtained by constant habits of thought. The academic and near-academic experts on foreign policy, who have advised the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon governments, provide an interesting counterfeit model of rationality, with all the traditional external marks of reason, without the underlying substance; this same model of rationality was paraded by Mr. McNamara and his defense advisers.

The model is not only operative in Washington, but also in universities, where strategic studies are encouraged and potential political experts are trained. It is this simulaorum of rationality in politics that students have intelligently rejected, judging it by consistency in result: and they see that unprofitable outrages and a gross political insensitiveness flow from these habits of thought, which ought not therefore to be given the honorific title of reason. The method of thought is evidently not appropriate to its material.

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