The moral revolutionary

Issue 

Bertrand Russell
By Caroline Moorehead
Sinclair Stevenson, 1993. 596 pp. $26.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Though born in 1872, Bertrand Russell — philosopher and outspoken political dissenter — can still satisfy the sceptical and rebellious mind. "Why I Am Not a Christian" is still grist for doubting teenagers. His History of Western Philosophy is one of the best of its kind for accessibility and its treatment of philosophical ideas not as "speculations of isolated individuals" but as organic elements of their social and economic context. For the more hardy, his Principia Mathematica promises a mind-expanding experience.

Caroline Moorehead's biography attempts to unravel Russell's idiosyncratic amalgam of genius, queer contradictions, jarring prejudices, abundant humanity and ordinary human failings.

Russell's background did not suggest a future reputation as an enemy of the establishment, one whom the US right were later to castigate for "moral degeneracy, deviousness, notorious foreign atheism, the corruption of pure American youth, barnyard morality and crypto-communism".

He was by birth "an aristocratic Whig", born into a world of privilege, a childhood of croquet with the servants, pony riding and an inheritance of œ20,000 at age 21. Yet it was one of those families of renegades from the leisured class who asked troublesome questions, sympathised with the plight of the less fortunate and espoused "radical liberal" politics.

In this tradition, Russell at age 11 discovers Euclid (a moment "as dazzling as first love"), sides with science and Shelley against religion from age 14 and continues his "mental adventure" at Cambridge, by now a firm believer in the rightness of progress, reason, education and science against superstition, mysticism, ignorance, fear, intolerance and the unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom.

He was one of those refreshing philosophers who believed that the table in his room was really a table and not a hippopotamus. He believed that philosophy should be used to try to understand the world, not to befuddle it.

Russell moved ever leftwards, from the Liberal Party to the Fabians to the Labour Party, from which he resigned in 1965, but he remained an "old-fashioned liberal at heart". Influencing government was his aim rather than the governed themselves taking control. His feeling of intellectual superiority and the lasting remnants of his early "disdain for other classes" predisposed him to a belief that good men and true in a world government would see the world aright. As one of his four wives, Dora, wrote to him: "Aristocracy is in your bones".

Not many of his vast audience minded too much, however. In a long career as a popular writer, lecturer and radio broadcaster, he earned his popularity by attacking the "wickedness" of capitalist institutions and leaders — "the destructive properties of war, wealth, marriage, education and religion".

The dean of Saint Pauls was censorious about Russell for his "socialism run mad: No God. No country. No family. Refusal to serve in war. Free love. More play. Less work. No punishments. Go as you please." That was a good enough summary of why Russell was so popular.

Russell actively opposed the violence, injustice and repression of capitalism, beginning with World War I. He opposed the framing of Sacco and Vanzetti in the US, supported women's suffrage and the general strike of 1926 in England, opposed McCarthyism, and helped establish the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When that organisation became sluggish, he injected the more radical tactics of civil disobedience into it. His revulsion and fury with the US war against Vietnam summoned his last energies in his 90s to oppose the "horrible slaughter".

He was arrested, imprisoned, banned from speaking tours, witch-hunted from an academic post and pilloried by press and pulpit. This made him even more popular. During his tour of Australia in 1950, he spoke to vast crowds, packing out a South Perth meeting with 1800 listeners.

Yet he was burdened by prejudices from his past and social position. Some of his early beliefs were that homosexuals were "diseased and unnatural", "women are on average stupider than men", and US Blacks have "something of a dog's liking for the white man — the same kind of trust and ungrudging sense of inferiority". Fortunately he changed his mind on these issues, and was to dump his "casual anti-Semitism", as he grew older and more radical.

What he didn't reconsider was his rejection of the Bolsheviks and socialist revolution. The non-Marxist libertarian Russell could not distinguish between Stalinism and the early hopes and achievements of the Russian Revolution in the way that libertarian Marxist critics like Victor Serge could.

His preference for the easy answer of the Original Sin of Bolshevism was a blind spot derived from his old elitism (Lenin and Trotsky were "disagreeably reminiscent of Cromwell's Levellers"). His writings on Bolshevism are full of airy, high-handed generalities about all power corrupting and such like.

During the Cold War went on missions for the British government denouncing the communist virus, but he later realised he had been used by the very the people he had spent his days upsetting. "Now that I yield to no one in my desire to slaughter Russians, I have become respectable", he wrote regretfully.

Russell's rejection of socialist revolution and the oppressed taking power led him to strategies to bring about the "fundamental restructuring of society" which were always going to miss the mark. He would blast asunder all the fortresses and props that capitalism finds useful — religion, the family, sexual repression, war, censorship — but his missiles missed the HQ itself.

As a believer in undermining capitalism through sexual permissiveness, Bertrand and Dora Russell publicly advocated extramarital relations, yet their own "companionate marriage" was blown apart by these very sexual infidelities.

Similarly, Russell set up an alternative school, aiming to encourage children "to question everything", but this school resulted in financial ruin and the discovery that discipline was necessary after all. These experiments were valuable but could never have succeeded in the face of the subtle but pervasive influence that capitalism exerts for hierarchy, obedience to authority and possessiveness in human relationships.

Moorehead's book provides abundant material on these issues and offers wonderful vignettes of the life of Bertrand Russell. He encouraged his children to "lean out of the car and shout to pedestrians 'Your father was a monkey' to convince them of the correctness of Darwin's theory of evolution".

These colourful snaps, however, are often buried in a minor rock slide of detail — the social comings and amorous goings of the Bloomsbury group and famous novelists, who dined with whom and what they ate, and a lot of frankly tedious Platonic love-making by letter.

Russell was not a man of the people, but he was a man for the people, which was enough to bring him into conflict with capitalism. He remained a moral revolutionary rather than a political one, but an effective one for all that.

We might still cringe with embarrassment at some of his prejudices, regret his predilection for windy abstractions and become frustrated with his political blind spots, but what he has left 24 years after his death is a testament to his great intelligence, his passionate commitment to freedom and justice, an uncowed sense of moral right and wrong and an enormous heart.

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