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…

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