Commentary Magazine

Bertrand Russell the Man

The publication of three books on Bertrand Russell1—one by his second wife, one by their daughter, and one by an admiring but honest biographer—hard on the appearance of Russell’s three-volume Autobiography gives us more details about Russell’s life and loves than about any philosopher who has ever lived. And it is still not the whole story. What Russell’s own account has lacked in candor, Ronald Clark has made up in large part. Those who are concerned about Russell’s image might well hope we will be spared further revelations about the events and intimacies of his life.

This profusion of biographical detail is rather puzzling if we think of Russell’s achievement as a professional philosopher. Neither the validity of his ideas nor even their significance depends in any way upon the startling details of his domestic and public life, and the bizarre record, both comic and cruel, of his multiple extramarital adventures. Russell’s place in the history of philosophy is secure just as much as is Wagner’s in the history of music. But anyone who expects to learn why, or to deepen his insight into Russell’s contributions by reading these biographies, will be disappointed. Only Clark’s book makes passing references to Russell’s work in philosophy but hardly attempts to do it justice. A dozen other volumes are available for its critical assessment, and happily they ignore biographical details.

Why, then, should these volumes, each in its own way, have such a disillusioning effect upon those who, for all their philosophical and political differences with Russell, have admired his intellectual brilliance, his expository clarity, and his critical gifts? These gifts were in evidence not only in the assessment of the doctrines of other thinkers but in his readiness to abandon one philosophical position after another in his own quest for a set of basic ideas that would make sense of human experience, the place of scientific knowledge in it, and the nature of the good life in the good society. No matter what the character of Russell’s life, why should it make a difference to our evaluation of any of the views he professed?

The reason, it seems to me, is this: Russell set himself up in the public eye as more than a professional philosopher concerned with the solution of technical problems, some of which had come down from antiquity. For the greater part of his adult life, he played and enjoyed the role of a moral teacher, of a sage passionately concerned with the fate and sufferings of his fellow man, of an enlightened dispenser of wisdom about human freedom, peace, love, education, and the upbringing of children. The discovery that the moralist has failed to live up to his own precepts destroys faith in his sincerity, creates doubt about the principles he offers as guides, and deprives him of the authenticity—and the moral authority—that accrues to any person who seems willing to stake his life or reputation on his beliefs.

Who would have imagined, for example, that Bertrand Russell could have been touched by anti-Semitism? Writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell, one of his mistresses, about the social hardships he endured being lionized during one of his very profitable lecture tours in the United States, he confides: “I can’t imagine how I survived. In New York I stayed with a philosopher, Kallen, a Jew, whose friends are all Jews. All were kind, but I began to long for the uncircumcised. New York is mainly Jewish.”

When he makes derogatory references to millionaires, it is always to “Jewish millionaires”—never to English or American or Indian millionaires who are much more numerous. Earlier, in writing to Lady Ottoline about his disillusionment with Bolshevism, he refers to its tyrannical bureaucracy, “with a spy system more elaborate and terrible than the Czar’s, and an aristocracy as insolent and unfeeling, composed of Americanized Jews [sic!] . . . Imagine yourself governed in every detail by a mixture of Sidney Webb and Rufus Isaacs.” (The mention of “Americanized Jews” is characteristically inaccurate. By stretching, it could only fit one man in Russia at the time—Boris Reinstein, whom Russell did not meet.)

Clark is obviously embarrassed by passages of this kind. After citing Leonard Woolf’s caustic remark that in such sentences Russell enjoyed “the best of all his worlds—dislike and hatred of Americans, Jews, and even his personal friends,” Clark adds: “The accusation is less unfair than it sounds. In no sense an anti-Semite . . . Russell nevertheless sometimes exhibited a personal allergy to Jews which is betrayed in his private correspondence from time to time, lasted until the 1930’s, and should not be brushed under the carpet”—which he promptly proceeds to do by calling attention to the fact that after Hitler, Russell’s personal allergy to Jews was kept in check and that he approved the creation of a Jewish state. Three hundred pages, and twenty-two years later (1970), in the last political statement of his life, Russell delivered himself of a blistering attack against Israel for its “aggression” against Egypt. Clark refers to it with characteristic distress and understatement as “in some ways the most remarkable of his many statements”—remarkable for faulty judgment and irresponsibility.



But this streak of anti-Semitism in Russell is far from the most surprising blemish revealed in Clark’s biography. To me his most shattering pages are the account of Russell’s jail sentence during World War I. It was the news of his imprisonment and the reading of his Justice in War Times, while I was a high-school student, that inspired in me the beginning of a lifelong interest in Russell’s thought. His behavior seemed a matchless act of intellectual and moral courage. Although not a principled pacifist, Russell staunchly defended the rights of conscientious objectors. The British government, recognizing their scruples, had offered them alternative service in a peaceful non-military pursuit of national importance. Those who refused to compromise in any way, and rejected all forms of alternative service, were called Absolutists and were jailed. Russell was a strong supporter of the Absolutist position.

In 1918 Russell was convicted by a foolish English court for making some foolish remarks about the possible use of American expeditionary forces to break strikes and “shoot down strikers.” He was sentenced to six months in the Second Division—where ordinary prisoners were sent. In an effort to escape his prison sentence, he proposed that Gilbert Murray and other friends approach the Tribunal and in his behalf plead that his work in philosophy be regarded as alternative service in the national interest, thus giving him exemption from a jail sentence.

Such a proposal, coming from one who had urged the Absolutists to refuse any alternative service of national importance and insist upon serving jail terms—in those days under conditions extremely prejudicial to their health—was an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy. Nothing came of it. Russell then proceeded to pull strings—which every truly conscientious objector would have scorned to do—to arrange that he should serve his sentence, not in the Second Division, which was organized on a very harsh regimen, but in the First. The aid of Lord Haldane, Lord Balfour, and Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary—all of whom he personally despised—was invoked, together with that of his blustering brother, Frank, the then Lord Russell. The consequence was that, as Clark puts it, Russell “served his sentence as an aristocrat of the prison world.” It was more like living in a hotel than a jail—he was allowed his own food, the opportunity to do his own work, special visits, the services of another prisoner as servant to relieve him “from the performance of unaccustomed tasks or offices.” There were hardships, to be sure. “He was worried by the ban on smoking, but agreed to settle for chocolate as compensation.”

The simple truth is that Russell enjoyed the appearance of martyrdom but suffered hardly more than he did fifty years later when he again defied the law under the glare of a stage-managed publicity that cost him nothing. In the 1960’s he was treated by the authorities as a national treasure. His defiance was much more a form of theater for ego satisfaction than a rational and effective means of furthering a cause. In 1918 he took a taxi to Brixton prison, annoyed that the authorities had not arranged for a Black Maria which would have been a grand occasion for massive press coverage. Under the circumstances, many persons with a cause would have been happy to pay the authorities considerable money for this kind of martyrdom. Thought of his own comfort was rarely absent from his plans. “When Russell protest sat,” Clark tells us, “he insured that there was an ingenious air-cushion in his trousers.”



In the complex entanglement of social and political affairs, to hold to a particular policy regardless of consequences and the unexpected development of events is a mark of fanaticism. It betokens a religious rather than a rational or scientific approach to politics. And like other thinkers who refused to make a religion out of their politics, Russell changed his views on important matters of public policy often.

But in contradistinction to his change of mind on philosophical questions, he had a tendency to personalize the political positions he abandoned and to heap unmeasured abuse upon those who advocated views not far removed from those he himself had once advanced. They were not honestly mistaken but evil, cruel, corrupt men. Russell himself had gone from imperialism to pacifism to a defense of just war but was mordant about those who did not share his views when he held them. The earliest and most ruthless advocate of a preventive war against the Soviet Union, he was prepared to sacrifice all of Western Europe and almost a half-billion lives for Communist defeat. But at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, because they stood up to Khrushchev, he denounced Kennedy and Macmillan as “wicked and abominable . . . much more wicked than Hitler . . . the wickedest people that ever lived on earth.”

When this absurd comparison backfired and the noise of indignation it provoked made him appear ridiculous even to some of his own supporters, he claimed he had been quoted out of context. This, as Clark painfully documents, was not the only untruth of which he was guilty. For a period of a decade, whenever it served his purpose, he denied that he had ever supported a preventive war against Russia—“The story . . . is a Communist invention”; then, confronted by the evidence, compelled to admit it, he blurted, “It’s entirely true and I don’t repent of it”; yet some years after, he pleaded with a correspondent to give “the lie to the fiction that I advocated war against the Soviet Union.” As sympathetic as Clark is to Russell, he is aghast at Russell’s tergiversations for the good of the cause: “If the suggestion that he deliberately tried to conceal his earlier version is repugnant, the record does not really allow any other conclusion to be drawn.”

“A man’s inconsistencies,” Russell was fond of saying, “are the clues to his passions.” What passions are here at work? Here the good Clark for all his remarkable industry fails us. It is not love of power in the ordinary sense. Although in one of his letters Russell writes that “the love of power is terribly strong in me,” the context shows that it was a power to influence people and to make them notice him. But he could have exercised this power without becoming a spokesman for appeasement and surrender to Communism. It cannot be his pacifism, which was never principled with him, as is indicated by his support of the war against Hitler and his willingness to sacrifice a half-billion lives to insure Stalin’s downfall. Nor was it his anti-Americanism, a passion which, indeed, ran very deep within him.

The passion that underlay Russell’s political inconsistencies and led him not only to hail the ruthless Leninist, Ho Chi Minh, as a fighter for human freedom, but to a stoical resignation to the triumph of Communism on a world scale, was stronger than anti-Americanism. Surprising as it may sound in the light of his fervent expression of love of humanity, it was his hatred of mankind, of its stupidity and viciousness, of its persistent refusal to listen and follow the counsels of wisdom he had offered it throughout his life. This mood is not far below the surface of his emotions when he comments on the ordinary run of political events, and it sometimes bursts forth in letters to his intimates: “I hate the world and above all the people in it . . . I hate the planet and the human race. . . .” More than once he confessed himself ashamed to belong to the human race. No one who felt so keenly about intellectual freedom, human dignity, and the glory of untrammeled inquiry and the right to dissent could have been so calmly resigned to the victory of Communism except as a punishment for a world whose policies had contributed to that victory.



Despite its limitations, it will be a long time before Clark’s biography will be superseded. There probably will be many more discoveries of episodes in Russell’s transatlantic love life—upstairs and downstairs. But they will add little to our understanding either of his philosophy or politics.

Something must be said of the biographies of Russell by his second wife and their daughter. Dora Black Russell seems to have been the least attractive in every way of Russell’s wives and of the other women in his life. Her book is really an apologia, a reply to Russell’s own disparaging comments in later life about her mind, character, and political morals. It throws some light on why he was originally drawn to her. She seems to have been his first encounter with the radical chic that put free sex at the center of the life of freedom—including intellectual and cultural freedom. The book also confirms in some measure the account Russell gives of why she became progressively distasteful to him. It is full of boring inconsequential details about her own activities as a feminist and Communist fellow-traveler in order to create the impression that she led an independent life of her own. She is the ideal type of what in the 30’s used to be called a “totalitarian liberal.” Speaking of her propaganda for feminism, which was more Bohemian than proletarian, she writes with the typical condescension of the middle-class socialist dependent on servants: “As a socialist, I felt that we were a bit too middle class and ought to be doing something to help those proletarians about their sex.”



A refreshingly different book from that of her mother is Katharine Tait’s My Father Bertrand Russell. It is painstakingly honest, very well written, and full of psychological insight born of suffering and a sense of being unloved. The author was burdened at an early age by the agonizing feeling that she could not live up to the abstract moralistic pieties of her father, whom she adored. At the same time she had an unerring sense for the hollowness of his words and his complete obliviousness to her needs, her fears, and her hopes. She probably expected too much of her parents, but if only a fraction of her story is true, it makes one wonder about their psychological fitness as enlightened school reformers. What they could not give their own children, they probably could not give other children.

Katharine Tait intuitively sensed the fact that for all his generous help to her and her family, Russell was emotionally detached from them. He could not live up to his own ideals of human relationship because he lacked the capacity for empathetic identification. She was spared the hurt of knowing that, according to one of Patricia Russell’s letters to Freda Utley, her father found her “repulsive,” but it was his insensitiveness to her ordinary feelings that disillusioned her in his grand words about reforming man and society. She claims to have been cured in consequence, even as a child, of belief in utopian projects and abstract visions of progress. Having lost her faith in her father, she became convinced that there was a Heavenly Father and accepted the vocation of a Christian missionary to spread the glad news of His existence. There is a certain irony, not lost on Russell, in the fact that the author of Why I Am Not a Christian should have indirectly contributed to his daughter’s conversion to Christianity. That she could not bring herself to explain to Russell the need or the grounds for her belief in something so central to her life, or even to discuss it with him, indicates how great was the failure of communication between them.

Russell once remarked that Socrates was even more lucky than wise in picking the right time and the right way to die. The world cheated Russell out of his martyrdom. In his eightieth year he had become a pillar of the establishment and was rather unhappy about it. Although he did his best soon after to collapse it on its foundations, he escaped the fate of either Socrates or Samson. During the last ten years of his life he appeared in the public eye as a vain and crotchety figure, often manipulated by others. No one knows how posterity will regard him as a social and political thinker. My guess is that whatever the judgment will be, had he not lived so long, it would have been kinder.


1 The Life of Bertrand Russell, by Ronald W. Clark, Knopf, 766 pp., $15.00; The Tamarisk Tree, by Dora Russell, Putnam, 304 pp., $9.95; My Father Bertrand Russell, by Katherine Tait, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 211 pp., $8.95.

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