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Engaged Philosopher

Bertrand Russell: A Political Life

by Alan Ryan
Hill and Wang, 226 pp., $19.95

International politics since about 1938 has had one feature in common with the stock market: the major events have proved to be unpredictable, or at least they have not been predicted by the experts. In guessing the future, one would have done just as well to go to a fortuneteller or to try a crystal ball. Some examples of the major turning points have been, listed in no particular order: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Erhard’s Wirtschaftswunder in West Germany, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the success of Sputnik, the Sino-Soviet split, Khrushchev’s introduction of missiles into Cuba and the ensuing crisis, the eclipse of the Communist party in France, the recent Palestinian uprising and its successful prolongation. It is not surprising that the experts and commentators are usually caught off-guard, explaining the change in retrospect in various plausible sounding styles. We have no general theory, even of the roughest kind, that might point to the mechanisms of political change, or that might pick out salient tendencies and suggest to us what we should expect in international affairs in the next year or two.

In his very pleasantly written and enjoyable book, Alan Ryan often has to say that Bertrand Russell’s analyses of international politics at particular moments, and his expectations based on the analysis, were plainly wrong, particularly during the later part of his life, in his seventies, eighties, and nineties, when he was disappointed, embittered, and angry, and when he was unwilling any longer to write in measured tones. But when they are judged by the criterion of successful prediction the wise commentators, calm editorial writers, and careful political analysts in my reading have not done much better than Bertrand Russell or Proust’s M. Norpois.

From 1914 onward, Russell immersed himself in a sea of uncertainties because the horror of the war had implanted in him an intense and unappeasable sense of public responsibility. He could not bear to think of the suffering and the immense and continuing waste of life attributable to political stupidity. Yet his autobiography shows that the search for certainties was the driving force in his intellectual experiences, and the center of some of his strongest emotions. There is therefore a strangeness in the story that Ryan has to tell of the masterful philosopher of logic who turned himself into a political commentator and militant activist.

The response of ordinary men and women to the outbreak of war in 1914 provided the dividing line in Russell’s life. Their normal response in Britain was one of resolute cheerfulness, optimism, steady loyalty, and a readiness to endure the unanticipated ghastliness of the trenches almost without comment. Even now it is difficult to read about the battles of the Somme or Nivelle’s offensive or the battle of Passchendaele without amazement, because in World War II only the battles on the Eastern front could show an equal profligacy in the waste of lives in an ocean of suffering. Privately educated among aristocratic radicals, and self-consciously the heir of a famous tradition of liberal reform, Russell had an outlook upon the world that had been set in a final mold in Cambridge; and this was the Edwardian Cambridge of Sidgwick and of G.E. Moore, which at the time seemed likely to be entirely secure in the propagation of its values far into the tranquil future, and at least as long as the British Navy policed the seas. That the great movement of democratic reform in the preceding century had led up to the catastrophe of hate, destruction, and unthinking nationalism that occurred in 1914, that the mass of the population in Britain, and particularly of the working population, accepted the facts of modern mechanized warfare without protest—both these considerations led Russell to change his way of life, and to become a permanent and active enemy of established moral values. Estranged from his friend and collaborator in the great Principia Mathematica of 1910, A.N. Whitehead, and from many of his colleagues at Trinity College, Cambridge, having lost his fellowship there, and imprisoned for his antiwar activities, he became henceforth a prophet of Enlightenment as well as a philosopher, and supported himself by his writing outside the shelter of British universities.

In explaining Russell’s public life after 1914, Ryan emphasizes the confidence, and the sense of natural leadership and political responsibility, that Russell derived, perhaps only semiconsciously, from his aristocratic birth. This is no doubt part of the truth, and Ryan cites evidence from the correspondence with Ottoline Morrell, the daughter of a duke, whom Russell had for some years loved and who was always an intimate friend. I believe that his prophetic role had another and more direct source in his intellectual formation at Cambridge. It would be an exaggeration to say that throughout his life he always found it difficult to take any man seriously who was not educated at Cambridge, but not too much of an exaggeration; Oxford University and the United States, for example, he viewed with a suspicion and distaste which sometimes were half-humorous attitudes, but also half-serious. England was the country to which he was fiercely attached, as he declared in his autobiography, and attached with an undisguised chauvinism. This left foreigners in second place, even while they conveyed their admiration of him as logician and as philosopher from all over the world. Within England Cambridge was his spiritual home, and, after his parents died early in his life, he had had no conventional home that could compete with Cambridge in his memory. He always retained the manner of one who had as a young man belonged to an intellectual elite, a manner that was characteristic of those who had belonged to the secret society of the Apostles in its heyday.

Russell’s pastoral attitude to the mass of mankind, his sense of superiority and of responsibility and his lack of shame in expressing them, seems to me to have been on the whole reasonable and not to have been at all malign in its effects. Here I am in part disagreeing with Ryan’s interpretation of Russell’s political philosophy and of some of the reasons and motives behind it. He remarks that Russell

plainly felt a contempt for uneducated people which is entirely at odds with the sentimental profession of solidarity with humanity’s offerings which opens his Autobiography. The assertion that Darwin was worth thirty million ordinary men is not easy to reconcile with the claim that “Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart.”

I believe that there are two misunderstandings here. First, there is a confusion between, on the one hand, allegiance to liberal and socialist values and, on the other, a respect for the voice of the people and for the opinions of the majority. There generally is not in fact any correlation between these two attitudes, and I cannot see why such a correlation should be expected. Secondly, there is, I believe, a misunderstanding of Russell.

Russell early in his life experienced an intense response to the beauty of intellectual order. He found that he was happiest when he could discern hard, rock-like patterns of thought that stand out distinctly and unmistakably in a rarefied air, at a great height of abstraction and away from ordinary objects, and from their casual associations. The Autobiography describes his joy in following Euclid as a child. This joy in intellectual order permeated his whole life and it could be heard in the accents of his speech and in the shape of his sentences. When he gave the first, and easily the best, set of Reith lectures on a public theme on the BBC, under the title Authority and the Individual (1949), a very large audience listened with pleasure to the flow of abstract argument. His own love of clarity and order, alive in his sentences and in his voice, made the logical abstractions seem as concrete as chairs and tables. It was a feat of popularizing argument unequaled in my experience, because it was so evidently spontaneous. From childhood to old age, chairs and tables, the actual or apparent furniture of the world, were never as real for him as logical structures, and in these broadcasts he was just opening a corner of his private world to the public.

A passion for intellectual order, and an emotional response to the beauty of abstract ideas, ranked and linked together, is one possible model of a philosopher, the model that Plato promoted as his ideal. Perhaps Plato himself half conformed naturally to this ideal, and half felt contrary temptations, temptations to diversions and digressions, to the play of imagery and to literary experiment and to storytelling. The wholehearted Platonic philosopher, like Russell, is unavoidably aristocratic in his attitudes, because he rejects received opinions and unexamined prejudices, and, above all, he hates demagogy. Hating demagogues and bad arguments, he is unlikely to show respect for their victims in the populace at large, who perpetually ensure by their credulity that specious arguments are profitable. In oligarchic societies, as in Plato’s Greece, or in mid-nineteenth-century England, it was unnecessary to pretend to respect the opinions and judgments of the majority, and Macaulay and Matthew Arnold, for example, were in this respect Russell’s companions in making no pretense of admiring ordinary men, as opposed to arguing against the social system that oppressed them. But since 1918 in Britain, and in the age of Lloyd George and of H.G. Wells, liberalism and populism became increasingly associated as naturally marching together. Following the successes of popular conservatism in the US, Britain, Israel, and elsewhere, we now know that vox populi only rarely and in exceptional circumstances—after a war, for instance—proclaims the supremacy of liberal values. Russell certainly looked down on the majority of his compatriots as the largely helpless victims of hired opinion makers and Establishment hacks. This did not prevent him from feeling agonized by the waste of lives through wars and through avoidable poverty.

In 1896 six witty and clear lectures delivered at the recently founded London School of Economics were published under the title German Social Democracy. This was Russell’s first entry into social philosophy. He rejected Marx’s labor theory of value and he was shrewd and amusing in his assessment of Ferdinand Lassalle’s leadership of the Socialist party in Germany. The years of great philosophical achievement followed: Principia Mathematica, written with Whitehead (1910, 1912, 1913), and The Problems of Philosophy (1912), a small masterpiece. His practical radicalism and militancy began with the No-Conscription Fellowship in 1915. He was never to look back and to recapture the comparative calm and philosophical detachment of his late Victorian and Edwardian years. Immediately after the war he published some philosophical work of permanent value, for instance, “The Notion of Cause,” a chapter in Mysticism and Logic (1918), and An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), and he returned to thinking about philosophy in the late Thirties. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), the outcome of this late thought, has passages that are still of great interest to philosophers.

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