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.

From 1918 until Russell’s death in his nineties, there is a continuous flow of books and articles and lectures on every aspect of public policy: on education, peace, and armaments, on marriage and sexual morality, on the future of science and its social effects, and on the nature of happiness. The orderly and elegant sentences, and the even pace of the arguments, never fail and the occasional cackle of wit, so characteristic of the man, at intervals relieves the prose. Written in ink to the accompaniment of many cups of tea, Russell’s manuscripts, at least in this later period, have very few erasures. He wrote, as he talked, within an iron frame of rational order. Unexplained uncertainty, muddle, and ambiguity are nowhere to be found. As a matter of taste, they were an offense to him when he observed them in public institutions and he could not tolerate them in his own thought. Precisely this splendid virtue was often in the long run a defect in his political writing, because it seemed that many of the uncertain features of the real world, muddled as it is, had slipped through the silken net of his lucid prose, as he reflected on education or on international relations or on monogamy and sexuality. Even many of his admiring readers felt that they were often presented with an idealized, Platonic equivalent of life in place of life as it is actually and confusingly lived. But this is certainly not true of The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920), which is a masterly anticipation of the evils to come in the Soviet Union, based on a visit there; nor is it true of Freedom and Organisation (1934), an original survey of ideas and personalities between 1815 and 1914, written with the aid of his third wife, “Peter” Spence.

Ryan reviews these popular writings of Russell’s middle period, before the Second World War, with a light touch, half admiring, half critically detached, which seems entirely just and in harmony with the material. A free-ranging intellectual certainly had a role to play in those years of Stanley Baldwin’s rule in Britain, alongside Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and, rather earlier, G. K. Chesterton. Russell’s strength was that, unlike the other three, he had a fully articulated and coherent philosophy to support his wit and his iconoclasm. He was not merely teasing the bourgeoisie with Irish mockery, as Shaw was, or playing with the paradoxes of religious conversion and of rationality, as Chesterton genially liked to do. He did not flirt with his public, and he did not try to be genial, which are strategies for concealing the operations of the intellect from a population that will otherwise resent these operations. He had a defined philosophical position, and a largely unchanging one, and everything that he wrote flowed, directly and without concealment, from the central tenets of his philosophy, which was a theory of knowledge developed early in his life while he was working on the foundations of mathematics. A decent human being is a person who discards or suspends all accepted opinions that, when examined, are seen to have no tested and secure foundations, either in logic or in empirical evidence. The search for secure foundations of knowledge is the first duty of man, and it is the only way to approach any serious issue, whether of public policy or of private happiness. Once the limits of human knowledge concerning an issue are fixed and clear, love and loyalty and kindness should then hold sway.

Russell had abandoned the rigorous study of philosophy because Wittgenstein told him in Cambridge after the war and the Armistice that his search for the foundations of knowledge, whether mathematical or empirical, was a mistake, a misconception of the nature of knowledge, which did not have foundations. Wittgenstein was later to show that knowledge grew in a less clearly marked and a more untidy way, and nothing could be done to make it more tidy. Russell was so impressed by the evidence of Wittgenstein’s genius that he thought that he was probably right, and he preferred not to start to think about philosophy all over again. This would be painfully to repudiate his own past and to disavow his own most steady commitments. Much later, in Human Knowledge, its Scope and Limits (1948), he returned to his old epistemological habits, and there were several occasions when he fiercely denounced the influence of Wittgenstein within philosophy. Wittgenstein by his example had converted many analytical philosophers, particularly in Britain, from the pursuit of logical rigor to the recognition of the value in philosophy of informality, of inconclusiveness, of respect for the idioms of common speech. In Russell’s philosophy the idioms of common speech deserved no respect, because they embodied only the people’s ancient and prescientific ignorance, “the metaphysics of the Stone Age.” Russell was probably as much disappointed by the eclipse of “scientific philosophy,” as he had conceived it long ago, as by the survival of national ambitions in politics. He was lonely in his last decades, his visions rejected as unreal and his hopes as unrealizable, both in philosophy and in politics.

Ryan gives a stirring account of Russell’s determined reentry into platform politics after World War II. “During the 1940s,” Ryan writes, “he was almost isolated…in his insistence that America must use her monopoly of nuclear weapons to create a world government armed with the power to destroy any country which tried to create nuclear weapons of its own,” even if this meant war with the USSR. The bombs would fall on Leningrad and Moscow in the cause of perpetual peace. This was the low point of Russell’s political thought, the consequence of his habit of abstract calculation without any concrete imagination of people walking on the earth and soon to be burned alive. After the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons, he was a leader in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and of the campaign of protest against the Vietnam War.

Ryan does not conceal or defend the injustice and the violence of language of some of Russell’s anti-American utterances. Like Freud, Russell often felt an intense antipathy to American civilization and to the forms that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth had taken in the US. When the US embarked on a cruel war that could not be seen as a defense of a vital national interest, he ceased to be just in his calls for justice, and he talked nonsense about the nature and intentions of the Viet Cong.

Finally, Ryan gives an admirably balanced account of the Cuban missile crisis and of the extraordinary historical moment in which Khrushchev and Kennedy, replying to telegrams from Russell urging a compromise, presented their arguments to the world “through the sitting-room of a ninety-year-old philosopher.” Ryan remarks that Russell knew that his role in the episode was almost accidental, but that he enjoyed the feeling of being at the heart of events. He then states the moral that the whole book skillfully conveys: the significance today of Russell’s sustained efforts to provoke thought on public issues, and particularly on the issues of war and peace; Russell’s involvement and participation, in spite of all the hostility and derision that he aroused.

Democracy has its overriding virtues, first of all, the virtue of preventing an oligarchy or dictatorship from monopolizing, or nearly monopolizing, power over a long period of time without the majority of the population endorsing this monopoly; and power here includes the power to make war. This primary virtue brings with it a secondary virtue, that of comparative efficiency in government, because the government has periodically to satisfy the voters in some essential respects, which include at least seeming efficient; and this is not true of oligarchies and dictatorships. On the other hand, democratic institutions are often praised for virtues that they manifestly do not possess. There is an ideology of democracy that is as deceiving as the ideologies of capitalism and of communism. This ideology suggests that, given democratic institutions, the people as a whole, through their representatives in the Congress, and perhaps also through public opinion polls, are able to make their wishes known on the acceptability of any specific risk of war when it arises.

In a slowly unfolding war, such as the war in Vietnam, this may not be a wholly unrealistic suggestion; even if the publicly available information is deceptive, public opinion can still have a substantial effect, and in fact it did so in that case. But there is at present no certain way in which the popular will can be brought to bear through a democratic process on a decision between peace and war, if that issue arises unpredictably from a confrontation of armed forces in the field, in the air, or at sea. There has not so far been a debate in the political arena to determine why US administrations have been unwilling to accept a no first-strike policy, and on the dangers of confrontation without such a policy. From the standpoint of the safety of the US population, and with all the risks and probabilities computed, this caution about adopting a policy of no first use may be the right policy. But also it may be wrong, and the risk of wholesale destruction of most of the population and its habitat are at issue.

The recent presidential election could not allow a question of this gravity to come up for debate, if only because the candidates could not afford to seem “soft on defense”; and most voters recognize constraints such as this in a spirit of controlled contempt for such democratic elections. Demogogy rules at that time and will continue to rule. Who then will raise the issue of first strike if not lone and obstinate intellectuals, not ashamed of their obstinacy, such as Russell and Sakharov (who has taken a clear position against first use)?

Conservatives in the US and in Britain and in the Soviet Union will of course continue to call these interventions ignorant and unrealistic, and then will go on to denounce the interference of intellectuals in politics. It is true that dissident intellectuals, doing what Russell did and Sakharov still does, do not have access to the information that the government and the chiefs of staff possess, and that their protests must be to this extent ignorant and unrealistic. But they raise the questions, and without them there would be little or no public questioning of the wisdom of the elected administrations and their chiefs of staff. This is surely an uncomfortable thought when the survival of many nations, and also of future generations, is at stake: not only uncomfortable but contrary to the intentions embodied in the American Constitution.

The intention of the Founding Fathers was that the decision to declare war should always be part of a democratic process and should be taken by the elected representatives of the people. If the modern technology of war makes this utopian and impractical, as it probably does, at least the delegations of the power to respond to attack should be made matters for public discussion. For example can the commanders of submarines with nuclear weapons maintain communications with Washington in an accidental confrontation, or must they be given unchecked responsibility? One thinks of the Vincennes incident in the Persian Gulf, when an Iranian civil aircraft was shot down by an American cruiser by mistake. It is not only the superpowers who will be at sea and in the air with nuclear weapons.

Ryan ends his book with a retort to those who are inclined to sneer at Russell’s protests against the war in Vietnam when he was ninety-three years old. Let them ask themselves, he writes, how well they have lived up to the injunction not to follow a multitude in assenting to evil. Russell was a philosopher and, like Plato and Spinoza, he never had the slightest inclination to follow the multitude in any direction; this was part of his strength and contributed to the exemplary value of his life. But the key word in Ryan’s retort is “assent.” Russell and Sakharov belong to the rare type of intellectual who does not just acquire a scientific or scholarly reputation, and then, pleading lack of expert knowledge, leave the future of the species to be decided by their rulers without their unscholarly questionings and protests; they did not passively assent, either in their earlier creative scientific careers or later as responsible human beings. However one judges relevance, Ryan’s story is relevant to the political dilemmas facing us now.

This Issue

February 2, 1989