Illustration by Martin Nicolausson

This article is a preview from the Summer 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Bertrand Russell must be one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of all time. Early in the 20th century he won international fame for his contributions to mathematical logic and advocacy of “scientific method in philosophy”. Later he stirred up storms of controversy with pamphlets denouncing Christianity and traditional sexual morality. But in the 1960s he became even more famous on account of his activism in the cause of nuclear disarmament and peace: the issue, as far as he was concerned, was not just human welfare, but “has man a future?” Right at the end of his life (he died in 1970, at the age of 97) he described his philosophical legacy as “trivial” and unworthy of scholarly attention, “at least”, as he put it, “compared with the continued existence of the human race”.

Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, but resigned two years later in order to preside over the Committee of 100, which promised to be more militant than CND, using any means necessary to get the British government to ban the bomb.

“There is,” he wrote,

a very widespread feeling that however bad their policies may be, there is nothing that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join massive demonstrations of civil disobedience they could render government folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible.

The impact of Russell’s rhetoric – his arch sarcasms, unflappable certainties and stark antitheses – was enhanced by images of a dapper old gentleman sitting down in the street with fellow protestors and getting himself arrested in 1961 for breach of the peace. When asked by the magistrate whether he promised to be of good behaviour he said, “No, I do not” and was sentenced to seven days in Brixton prison.

Even to those who disagreed with him, the elderly Russell became an emblem of moral uprightness allied with preternatural intelligence. But there were some who had their doubts, both about his analysis of war and violence and about his charismatic style of leadership. Was he not a little too eager to play the part of an angelic saviour? A little too keen to present himself as a prodigious intellect, graciously descending from his Olympian heights to sort out the mess that we foolish earthlings have got ourselves into? Was he perhaps a little too comfortable with his image as a person of impeccable principle standing alone against the wickedness of politicians? And for those with a sense of history there was also a suspicion that he was reverting in old age to a role he had created for himself as a peace campaigner in the First World War, and that instead of learning from his past he was simply repeating it.

There had always been a certain loftiness about Russell, both as thinker and as activist. He was born into the top aristocracy, and received his education from private tutors in the palatial home of his grandfather, Earl Russell, who had served as prime minister under Queen Victoria. He then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and after graduating in 1895 he came into a vast inheritance and embarked on the life of a gentleman of independent means. He started to dabble in politics by agitating for free trade, publishing a study of the socialist movement in Germany and standing for parliament in 1907 in the interest of women’s suffrage. But he also had a hankering for the certainties of pure reason, and set himself the task of reforming mathematics by providing it with logical foundations of a kind it had never had before. In 1903 he set out his vision of transcendent certainty in a little book called Principles of Mathematics, and over the next decade he explored its implications in three vast volumes of Principia Mathematica, written with the help of the logician A.N. Whitehead, and left incomplete in 1913.

Russell then returned to Trinity College to give lectures on his research, but his confidence was shattered when a young Austrian engineer called Ludwig Wittgenstein turned up and started asking awkward questions about the supposed reality of the objects of logic and mathematics. Soon afterwards the Great War broke out, and Wittgenstein went off to fight for his country. Russell was appalled – not because Wittgenstein was fighting on the wrong side, but because he was fighting at all – and he announced that he was now going to “agitate for peace”, and that he would be “giving up philosophy” in order to do so. In August 1914 he joined various friends – notably Lady Ottoline Morrell (“utterly immoral Ottoline Morrell” as some people called her) – in creating an anti-war organisation known as the Union of Democratic Control. Mathematical logic now struck him as “a somewhat futile occupation”, and he started addressing protest meetings where he struck out at the injustice of the war and the deceitfulness of the British state.

But he found the work frustrating. His audience consisted of wealthy young romantics in modish loose-fitting garments who enjoyed having their rebelliousness endorsed by a famous philosopher, even if his work was, as they admitted, “entirely beyond our comprehension”. Russell was determined to reach out to a wider public – to the young men of all classes who were by then eagerly volunteering for military service – and Lady Ottoline offered to help. In February 1915 she took Russell to a cottage in Sussex to meet her young friend D.H. Lawrence, who was already notorious for his portrayal of working-class life in Sons and Lovers. Lawrence shared Russell’s contempt for the politics of war, but did not believe that peace could be brought about by abstract appeals to probity, reason and progress. After a long conversation Russell was converted. “He is amazing,” he said to Morrell as they made their way back to London; “he is infallible ... he sees everything and is always right.” Within a few days he agreed to collaborate with Lawrence in constructing a new theory of politics based on the idea that human lives are shaped by irrational impulse rather than conscious calculation. “There must be a revolution in the state,” Lawrence told him; “it shall begin with nationalising of all ... industries and means of communication, and of the land – in one fell blow,” and it would move on to “marriage and love and all ... then, and then only, shall we begin living.”

Russell was entranced, and Lawrence reciprocated by confessing a “real hastening of love” towards him. He felt “frightfully important” when he was invited to meet Russell’s clever friends in Cambridge, and dreamed of making a splash by proclaiming that “the great living experience for every man is his adventure into the woman.” But he soon discovered that the members of Russell’s circle, with their facetious nicknames and superior voices, were not interested in that sort of thing, and he started to hate them “beyond expression”. Russell was inclined to agree. He decided to join Lawrence in forming a “little society” to propagate the politics of peace, and proposed to launch it with a joint series of public lectures in London in the autumn.

Russell promptly produced a synopsis for his lectures, basing his argument on Lawrence’s contrast between “possessive” impulses, which lead to violence and war, and “creative” ones, which blossom into love and true democracy. Lawrence was not impressed. Russell must ditch “mental consciousness”, he said, in favour of the “blood knowledge that comes either through the mother or through sex”. Russell was not prepared to go quite so far. “Lawrence is just as ferocious a critic as Wittgenstein,” he confided to Morrell, “but I thought W. right and I think L. wrong.” Lawrence retaliated with brio (“I would rather have the German soldiers with rapine and cruelty, than you with your words of goodness”), and from then on their paths diverged.

Undeterred, Russell delivered his lectures at Caxton Hall, Westminster in the spring of 1916, just as the government was legislating to bring in conscription. His audience included a group of friends who were said to be planning to get him appointed as Prime Minister – his grandfather had been one, after all, and he was a proper aristocrat, and the coup could surely be accomplished with a word in the ear of the right people. There was also a band of young admirers, “dazzled”, as one of them put it, by the prospect of “an intellect of terrifying analytic power ... exposing and disintegrating the illusions of war-time patriotism”. Morrell’s response was more measured.

“It was a rather comic occasion,” she wrote,

all the cranks who attend lectures on any subject were there, and amongst them was a Captain White, who was slightly crazy, and would make a long speech about sex and free love, pointing out that if children were born from parents who were in love with each other they would never want to fight ... Then Vernon Lee got up and made a long speech about a cigarette-case, waving her hands about, with her pince-nez dangling ...; and of course, a representative of Arts and Crafts made an impassioned harangue – saying that Arts and Crafts alone would cure any tendency to war. Bertie sat looking miserable on the platform. At last he had to ask them to sit down.

Russell received a letter from Lawrence telling him that his lectures were bound to be useless, but by this time he was no longer interested; he had come to the conclusion that Lawrence was a monstrous egotist, with “no real wish to make the world better, but only to indulge in eloquent soliloquy about how bad it was”.

In the matter of eloquent self-indulgence, however, it was beginning to look as if Russell might be just as bad as Lawrence. “I long to stump the country on a stop-the-war campaign,” he said, and he certainly found the activity gratifying; Lytton Strachey noted that his famously joyless friend was “at last perfectly happy – gloating over all the horrors and the moral lessons”. Russell was not disappointed when, at the end of May, the War Office proceeded against him for “making statements likely to prejudice the recruiting discipline of His Majesty’s forces”. He was annoyed when Trinity College stripped him of his post and expelled him from his rooms, but he was delighted when an alliance of distinguished colleagues – including some who disagreed with him about the war – protested at the government’s disrespectful treatment of the renowned aristocratic philosopher. He looked forward to serving his sentence of two months in prison, calculating that it would generate further sympathy for his cause, but the plan was thwarted when the contents of his rooms were impounded and auctioned off to pay his fine. Instead of going to prison he set off on a speaking tour of South Wales, where he was buoyed up by the enthusiasm of his working-class audiences.

On his return he prepared a set of speeches on “Political Ideals” for delivery in various industrial centres in the autumn, only to find that the War Office had forbidden him to visit “prohibited areas” such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle, for fear that his “vicious tenets” might spread to key industrial workers. (In the event he managed to deliver his speeches in Manchester and Birmingham, and they were promptly published in America, though they were banned in Britain.) His case was repeatedly raised in parliament, to widespread annoyance: “Would it not save the time of the House and be for the benefit of the country,” as one Tory member asked, “if this man was locked up or sent to Germany?”

Russell’s Caxton Hall lectures were published as Principles of Social Reconstruction at the end of the year, and the elderly Earl of Cromer condemned them as “thoroughly mischievous”. Cromer conceded that Russell was a “cultivated man” and “a superior – indeed, a very superior – person”, but his theory of “creative” and “possessive” impulses was clearly “an incentive to class hatred”, and he seemed to be transfixed by a yearning for “mental martyrdom”. The accusation of self-glorification was endorsed, from a different angle, by Lawrence: Russell and his friends were, he said, “fusty, fuzzy peace-cranks and lovers of humanity” – in short, “our disease, not our hope”.

The book sold well, and Russell found himself “the object of hero-worship”, as one observer put it; “his outspoken intransigence gave courage to lesser objectors against the war”, and he became “the sign and symbol of their faith in reason and tolerance”. When a valiant young officer called Siegfried Sassoon started losing faith in the war, Russell received him in his London flat with patient kindness. “His austere scientific intellect was far beyond my reach,” as Sassoon would recall, but when Russell told him he could be “serving the world by thinking independently”, he made up his mind to proclaim his opposition to the war, and “let the consequences take care of themselves”.

Russell was glad to have helped Sassoon and a few others like him, but by 1917 he was coming to the conclusion that his attempts to curb the mayhem of war had been entirely fruitless. He therefore decided to retreat from activism and make a comeback as a philosopher. He had lost confidence in his capacity for original work – “chiefly through Wittgenstein” as he told Morrell – but he was ready to relaunch himself as a popular writer and freelance teacher, while keeping up a stream of dissident political commentary. Then in January 1918 he published a hasty criticism of the US army, which led to a charge of obstructing international diplomacy and a sentence of six months in Brixton prison.

The prospect of imprisonment was not unwelcome to Russell: apart from political publicity, it would provide him with perfect conditions for philosophical writing. On appeal he had been assigned to “First Division”, which meant he would be treated in a manner suited to his social standing: allowed to wear his own clothes, rent a private room equipped with his own books and furniture, eat his own food and employ other prisoners as servants. (The option had been abolished by the time he returned to Brixton more than forty years later.) “Life here is like life on an Ocean liner,” he said, and he was able to follow the protracted endgames of the war while getting back into his old routine and writing a breezy book called Mathematical Philosophy.

In the summer of 1919 he received a message from Wittgenstein, who had survived the hazards of front-line service and was now awaiting release from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. Wittgenstein hoped they could revive their philosophical relationship, and Russell, with his usual generosity, arranged to meet him in the Hague in December. When Wittgenstein showed him a draft of what would become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Russell declared it to be a “really great book”, but Wittgenstein was not able to return the compliment: he considered Russell’s Mathematical Philosophy superficial, wrong-headed and unregenerate. Russell did not attempt to defend it (it was only a “popular textbook”, he said) and anyway he had other things on his mind. Soon afterwards he was being lionised in Barcelona, not only as a logician but as a heroic campaigner for world peace, and then he went on a tour through Soviet Russia, securing audiences with Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionary leaders, before spending a joyous year in China, where he preached the virtues of modern scientific thought to audiences that included the young Mao.

Despite all these adventures – and also getting divorced and remarried and becoming a father – Russell did not forget about Wittgenstein, who was now teaching at an elementary school in the Austrian Alps. In August 1922 Russell happened to be passing through Austria on his way to an Italian summer school of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and he arranged to meet up with Wittgenstein again. The encounter was not a success. Wittgenstein found Russell’s philosophical work silly and glib, and he ridiculed the very idea of a League for Peace and Freedom. “I suppose you would prefer a League for War and Slavery,” Russell retorted, and Wittgenstein replied “eher noch!” – “much rather, much rather!” He was not entirely serious, of course: it is blindingly obvious that peace is better than war, and freedom preferable to slavery, just as health is better than disease, and happiness preferable to depression. But he was not joking either: genuine political differences, he thought, are not going to be resolved by statements of the obvious. In any case he respected the virtues of old-fashioned statesmanship: circumspection, diplomacy and proper caution about the unintended consequences of political action. Presenting oneself as a supporter of “Peace and Freedom” was an exercise in smugness and self-advertisement rather than a heroic act of moral or political virtue, or a substantial contribution to the common good. Russell might be an atheist in theory, but he seemed to be conducting himself like a self-righteous parson. “Russell and the parsons,” as Wittgenstein would put it, “have done infinite harm, infinite harm.”

It seems to me that Wittgenstein had a point. The peace agenda of Russell and his followers was always based on the assumption that war is simply a euphemism for the madness of state-sponsored mass murder, and that we could prevent it by standing up for moral and political sanity – by committing ourselves to global justice and the relief of poverty, for instance, or social and sexual equality, or common ownership, or world government, or a Lawrentian explosion of creativity and sex. But the paths to war are paved not with malice but with righteous self-certainty. People who choose to participate in military action are more likely to be altruists than egotists: they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of something that transcends them, such as their country or their religion, or socialism, secularism or democracy, or a world where peace and tolerance will reign in perpetuity. Of course they are liable, like the rest of us, to be seriously mistaken in countless ways: they probably have an inconsistent scale of values, a shaky grasp of facts and a faulty sense of proportion. They may, just possibly, be open to persuasion through tactful argumentation, subtle negotiation and ingenious rhetoric, but nothing will be gained by accusing them of selfishness, nihilism or moral idiocy, or delivering lectures about self-sacrifice, high principle and the future of humanity.

Different threats to peace, like different threats to health, require different precautions and different interventions, depending on the individual case, and success in averting war is going to depend on luck as much as judgement. If the prospect of nuclear extermination has receded since the time when Russell was prophesying it, the explanation lies less in campaigns for peace and freedom than in the unexpected consequences of developments that no one could have foreseen – the calculations and miscalculations of Mikhail Gorbachev, for instance, or the accidental canniness of Ronald Reagan. Irony is a force of history as well as a figure of speech, and in politics you need to be prepared for surprises, even if you are as clever as Bertrand Russell.