In memory of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, we republish Michael Foot’s tribute to ‘the incorrigible dissenter, the foremost sceptic and exponent of free thought throughout the last half-dozen decades.’
Portrait of British philosopher and social activist Bertrand Russell smoking his pipe as he looks out to sea, circa 1960. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“He was a warm friend, not to liberty merely, but to English liberty.”
– Lord John Russell, grandfather of Bertrand Russell, writing of his ancestor, William Lord Russell, executed by Charles II on 21 July 1683
My first introduction to Bertrand Russell occurred when someone at Oxford gave me a copy of his book, The Conquest of Happiness. Then, a few weeks later, he turned up in person for a University meeting of some sort, spreading his own special blend of wit and wisdom and beaming with happiness. Who could resist so radiant a practitioner of his own theories?
I reread that volume recently, exactly fifty years after its first publication, and, amid the modern Muggeridgean gloom, it is a light from another world. Bertrand Russell himself acknowledged that the light of nature shone more brightly in a past age, and in almost everything he ever wrote he strove to recover that particular translucent quality. It is the liberal glow of the eighteenth-century enlightenment which he transmuted into twentieth-century terms more intrepidly than anyone else: the spirit which Thomas Jefferson, with the assistance of Thomas Paine, instilled into the American Declaration of Independence, and which provoked Saint-Just, the twenty-four year old French revolutionary, to declare: ‘Happiness is a new idea in Europe.’ But it is Bertrand Russell who gave, and can still give, to the word its special English accent. The Conquest of Happiness itself was little more than a footnote to his larger Philosophical theses, a practical manual not merely worth reading but ready for immediate application in everyday life. It works; contrary to Shakespeare’s verdict, here at last a philosopher had appeared who could cure the toothache or at least the slightly less formidable ailments with which psychoanalysts claim to contend.
However, both before and after that little textbook was published, the conquest was carried into many other territories, by taunts, witticisms, light-hearted forays and full-scale philosophical assaults. ‘Really high-minded people’, he said, ‘are indifferent to happiness, especially other people’s.’ Or again, ‘if you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy’ Or more aggressively:
There have been morbid miseries fostered by gloomy creeds, which led men into profound inner discords that made all outward prosperity of no avail. All these are unnecessary. In regard to all of them, means known by which they can be overcome. In the modern world, if communities are unhappy, it is because they choose to be so. Or, to speak more precisely, because they have ignorances, habits, beliefs, passions, which are dearer to them than happiness or even life. I find many men in our dangerous age who seem to be in love with misery and death, and who grow angry when hopes are suggested to them.
That is an extract from Portraits from Memory, published nearly thirty years after The Conquest of Happiness. It was not, heaven forgive us for even mentioning the term in such a connection, consistency of a feeble mind. It was all part of the spacious liberal doctrine of one who—more than any great man of his century, as I shall try to hint later—never sought to dodge the realities, bitter, tragic or whatever else they might be, which most directly challenged his creed. He could, after all, put Malcolm Muggeridgism, Christopher Bookerism or Bernard Levinism or whatever label may be attached to the latest outbursts of mystical reaction in some perspective. He wrote in that same Portraits from Memory:
For over two thousand years it has been the custom among earnest moralists to decry happiness as something degraded and unworthy. The Stoics, for centuries, attacked Epicurus who preached happiness; they said that his was a pig’s philosophy, and showed their superior virtue by inventing scandalous lies about him. One of them, Cleanthes, wanted Aristarchus persecuted for advocating the Copernican system of astronomy; another, Marcus Aurelius, persecuted the Christians; one of the must famous of them, Seneca, abetted Nero’s abominations, amassed a vast fortune, and lent money to Boadicea at such an exorbitant rate of interest that she was driven to rebellion.
Our English Epicurus was the target, throughout most of his life, of lies hardly less scandalous, but fortunately he devised for himself a shield which will never be penetrated. He translated the word freedom from Greek and Roman and any other language into the purest English, or rather he saw how the English people and so many English writers had been engaged in this work before him, and not merely those directly in the liberal or revolutionary tradition but, hardly less, men like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume; all these too are enfolded into the great Bertrand Russell synthesis and help to make that shield irrefragable.
One part of the debt, his and ours, must be accorded to an English phenomenon, the Whig aristocracy which somehow made a most appealing virtue of not caring a damn for anybody. Hard, self-centred, materialist, pleasure-loving, it still offered, against all the odds, and in contra-distinction to what was happening in almost every other country at the time, the essential protection for scepticism and the thought of the future. Bertrand Russell was born into the bosom of it and never wanted to disown his heritage, although he came to appreciate its insufficiency. Daring and eccentric thought was encouraged at his fearless old grandmother’s knee. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil’ was her favourite text. At the age of two, young Bertie rebuked a garrulous Robert Browning: ‘I do wish that man would stop talking.’ And the famous poet did. He could remember his grandfather recalling a visit to Napoleon in exile on Elba and a niece of Talleyrand giving him chocolates. He went to church with Sir Charles Dilke and often wondered what the Liberal statesman’s thought must have been when he heard the Seventh Commandment. He shook hands with Parnell and Michael Davitt, and recollected, still with a tremor, how the hawk’s eye of Mr. Gladstone had quelled even his formidable grandparents. He wrote a loving essay on that grandfather, one which can help us to understand better than the historians why Lord John Russell had such a hold on the affections of his countrymen, yet the essay too has its hints of criticism:
My grandfather belonged to a type which is now extinct, the type of the aristocratic reformer whose zeal is derived from the classics, from Demosthenes and Tacitus, rather than from any more recent source. They worshipped a goddess called Liberty, but her lineaments were rather vague.
But was that quite fair to one who, after the true English style, battled for so many particular liberties? Moreover, Lord John Russell was more fascinated by the name and superscription of his ancestor Lord William Russell than by any Roman–the same of whom Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘Of remote ancestors I can only discover one who did not live to a great age, and he died of a disease which is now rare, namely having his head cut off.’ No other family can claim to have worshipped the Whig goddess so long and so nobly, and in the process they reshaped her limbs to match the modern age.
But it was achieved, in Bertie’s own case, without much pain and trial. Due perhaps to the death of his mother and father in his infancy, he was inexpressibly lonely and shy and awkward. He was blessed or cursed by a Puritan soul, weighed down by a sense of sin and the wickedness of sex. To achieve his own liberation from this encircling darkness was a Herculean labour, and doubtless this is the reason why in his books he could so well strike off the chains of others. But the feat in his own case was accomplished by the most original means. His introduction to Euclid—at the age of eleven—was ‘one of the great events in my life, as dazzling as first love’. He rejected suicide ‘because I wished to know more of mathematics’. And scarcely less excruciating was the story of the young man who fell disastrously in love with the Quaker girl, who thought sex was not merely wicked but beastly: the two condemned by the general ignorance of the time to endure the most haunting Victorian terrors. Poor Bertie had indeed to find his own way to the conquest of each particular happiness—even drink:
I did not take to drink until the king took the pledge during the first war. His motive was to facilitate the killing of Germans, and it therefore seemed as if there must be some connection between pacifism and alcohol.
As usual, he saw the comedy of his situation, but he could, without histrionics, be truly noble too. The picture of what Bertrand Russell meant to those, young and old, who refused to fight in the 1914-1918 war is presented best of all by Lytton Strachey. Lord Russell, on the scaffold in 1683, could not offer a braver example:
Bertie’s lectures help one. They are a wonderful solace and refreshment. One hangs upon his words, and looks forward to them from week to week, and I can’t bear the idea of missing one. I dragged myself to that ghastly Caxton Hall yesterday… It is splendid the way he sticks at nothing—governments, religions, laws, property, even Good Form itself—down they go like ninepins—it is a charming sight! And then his constructive ideas are very grand; one feels one has always thought something like that—but vaguely and inconclusively; and he puts it all together and builds it up, and plants it down solid and shining before one’s mind. I don’t believe there’s anyone quite so formidable to be found just now upon this earth.
That was in February 1916. Throughout the war, he hurled his whole fragile frame against established institutions until, happily, they put him safely behind bars and lifted the anxiety that he might not be resisting ardently enough. (Prison has some of the advantages of the Catholic Church.’)
Yet if any might consider that his finest hour, a finer one quickly followed. The months which marked the ending of that war and the year or two which followed were among the most tumultuous and seminal in the history of modern Socialism. They were the years of the Russian revolution, of a moment of European opportunity which was lost, of a moment for England too. Bertrand Russell wrote in March 1918, while the tumult was all around him, a book, Roads to Freedom, which showed how deep were the sources of his democratic Socialism, how much he respected the Marxist tradition but how much he feared and hated its totalitarian potentialities. What other Socialist, writing at that hour, could so readily and appositely see his books republished today? And it was not merely his deliberate, published works. ‘I am troubled at every moment by fundamental questions, the terrible, insoluble questions that wise-men never ask’—so he wrote from Petrograd in May 1920, but the place and time could be endlessly multiplied. He was always ready to pose the truly awkward dilemmas, and time and again he swam against the stream, risked reputation and livelihood to state and act upon his arduously-discovered opinions. Few figures in history can match his persistent intellectual courage. He was the twentieth-century Voltaire, and one, moreover, who never bowed to any power and Principality whatever. Here again, just to select one glance from a hundred equally penetrating, is his 1920 view of the world, on the eve of his departure for revolutionary Russia. How freshly the words still read; how closely interwoven his story appears to be with that of the human race itself:
Reason and emotion fight a deadly war within me, and leave me no energy for outward action. I know that no good thing is achieved without fighting, without ruthlessness and organisation and discipline. I know that for collective action the individual must be turned into a machine. But in these things, though my reason may force me to believe them, I can find no inspiration. It is the individual human soul that I love, in its loneliness, its hopes and fears, its quick impulses and sudden devotions, It is such a long journey from this to armies and states and officials, and yet it is only by making this long journey that one can avoid a useless sentimentalism.
That was Bertrand Russell in 1920; he kept his balance, amid all the storms that blew. Thanks to his scepticism about the Soviet revolution, thanks to his boldness in declaring his doubts, it might have been expected that the Establishment would rush to embrace him. But no; he was more untouchable than ever. For it was during the twenties and early thirties that he expounded his views on marriage and morals in a manner which outraged Christian and kindred orthodoxies. He did it with a ferocious deliberation. Nothing angered him more than the way the English law or legal system seemed to operate. Books about sex which could be understood only by the middle or upper classes were not prosecuted; books about sex which could be understood by working people and which might spare them endless, needless misery, were to be tracked down and suppressed by policemen who did not know what they were doing and magistrates and legislators who presumably did. Marriage and Morals, published in 1929, contained pages of a rather, I suppose we should better call it, human, fury. It was written in a language every single word of which could be understood by everybody; it is, I suppose, the book which more than any other opened the gates to the truly liberating aspects of the permissive age which came two or three generations later. He said what others said, but he said it more gaily, more mercilessly, as well as more clearly. I once wrote to him, as editor of Tribune, asking him to review a book on the subject and received in reply this treasure:
Dear Michael Foot,
I have read the document on Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment with great interest and surprised approval. I should be very glad if homosexuality between adults ceased to be a crime, and if I thought that I could hasten reform in this matter by expressing approval of the report, I would certainly do so. But, in view of the fact that. I have been judicially pronounced ‘lewd, lecherous, lascivious and obscene’, I fear that my support might do more harm than good. The comment on my book Marriage and Morals which is made in the report concerns only sacred prostitution in antiquity, and does not seem to me sufficiently important to need a reply.
But let me set beside that masterpiece another burst of astringency. Just after that visit to Oxford recorded earlier I was engaged in organising an all-party anti-Nazi demonstration, and received the following from the Deudraeth Castle Hotel, in North Wales, on 14 November 1933:
I am sorry to inconvenience you in arranging your meeting, but I can’t speak with Pollitt. I was at an anti-Fascist meeting in London when, after Ellen Wilkinson had shown implements of torture used by the Nazis, Pollitt made a speech saying ‘we’ would do all the same things to them when ‘our’ turn came. One was forced to consider that if he had his way he would be just as bad as they are. I know and admire Tolley, and I know Pollitt.
Yours very truly.
The reference to judicial proceedings was to the New York Court where the pronouncement of prosecuting counsel was indeed even more elaborate than this letter records. He called Russell’s writings as a whole ‘lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venereous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrowminded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre’, to which Russell modestly retorted that the point was somewhat simpler. ‘It is’, he said, ‘the principle of free speech. It appears to be little known. If therefore anyone should require any further information about it I refer him to the United States Constitution and to the works of the founders thereof.’ No one was better qualified than himself to make that reference, and especially to Thomas Jefferson, the nearest thing to an English Whig who had ever held high office beyond our English shores, one qualified to take his place at the side of the Russells and one of whom Bertrand Russell had taken the precaution of writing a suitable encomium.
Sometimes friends would plead with the philosopher-Englishman to return to the academic studies from which he had been expelled by universities on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘The fact is’, he replied once, ‘I am too busy to have any ideas worth having, like Mrs. Eddy who told a friend of mine that she was too busy to become the second incarnation.’ Or he would offer his view on philosophers generally and their chronic timidity or their particular vices, ‘I disapprove of Plato because he wanted to prohibit all music except Rule Britannia and The British Grenadiers. Moreover, he invented the Pecksniffian style of The Times leading articles.’ At that, one can perhaps hear from many quarters the rising mutter of protest against the 1914 pacifist, the 1940 emigre, the father of our permissive, decadent society, the friend of every country but his own, the scoffer at every British institution, not to mention still more heavenly bodies. How swiftly the features can be twisted to fit the caricature which made him so often the butt of respectable, diehard xenophobic fury. But how sure, if unexpected, was his own answer to all such slanders. ‘Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess . . the history of England for the last four hundred years is in my blood. I simply cannot bear to think that England is entering on its autumn of life—it is too much anguish.’ It was in such a mood that he returned to England having barely survived years of suffocating exile in the United States. Not merely did he rejoice in the feeling of home; not merely was it agreeable no longer to be treated as a malefactor. Not so long afterwards, honours were on the way, and the only one worth having and probably the only one he would ever have accepted. Thanks to his opposition to communism, maybe, or thanks to some ill-advised but much-misinterpreted words about dropping the atom-bomb on Russia, the English Establishment felt the time had come to fold this eighty-year old rebel to its bosom. Anyhow, a scene of matchless combined irony and comedy followed. Bertrand Russell went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Order of Merit from an affable but somewhat embarrassed George VI. How could the King behave towards ‘so queer a fellow, a convict to boot’? In fact, he remarked: ‘You have sometimes behaved in a way which would not do if generally adopted.’ The instant reply which sprang to Russell’s mind was: ‘Like your brother.’ But he refrained from uttering the words and was always glad that he did so. Instead, knowing that the King must be referring to such matters as his record as a conscientious objector and feeling that the remark could not be left to pass in silence, he said: ‘How a man should behave depends upon his profession. A postman, for instance, should knock at all the doors in a street at which he has letters to deliver, but if anyone else knocked on all doors, he would be considered a public nuisance.’ It is not clear whether the point was appreciated and, in any case, everyone probably thought that Bertrand Russell’s ‘public nuisance’ days were over. Receiving a Nobel Prize to set alongside his OM, he himself felt the onset of an incipient mellow orthodoxy. ‘I have always held that no one can be respectable without being wicked, but so blunted was my moral sense that I could not see in what way I had sinned.’
But in fact he was just stopping to get his iconoclastic breath back in the exhilarating English air. Ahead of him was another lifetime, another marriage, nearly two more decades of campaigning in which he would become the great prophet of the nuclear age, with his gospel that life and joy are better than dusty death. I had the good luck to be present at the meeting in Canon Collins’ home in 2 Amen Court when the effective decision which launched the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was taken. Bertrand Russell and J. B. Priestley were the two men who above all others gave to the movement its imaginative appeal, its passionate impetus, its intellectual distinction and force. Russell himself had not come to the meeting prepared to advocate a British unilateral repudiation of nuclear weapons. He had just written a most powerful declaration—Commonsense about Nuclear Weapons—which advocated multi-national nuclear disarmament as the only safe and proper course for mankind as a whole, but he had also just written a scarcely less powerful article which condemned the British bomb as ‘a frivolous exercise in national prestige’. It was the decision to demand unilateral action by Britain which gave to the Campaign its originality, its fire, its inspiration. Gradually at that meeting, he concurred with the majority opinion, and became the most passionate advocate of the lot. In that very same year when he staked the prestige of his life afresh in such a cause, the Bishop of Rochester was telling him how, in his book Marriage and Morals, ‘the cloven hoof of the lecher cannot be disguised; it is lechery that has been your Achilles heel’. Things were back to normal.
Of course, the old man was not deterred. He was not cowed by the epoch of the Cold War when freedom came to be thought of as weakness, and tolerance was compelled to wear the garb of treachery. He continued to rephrase his old liberal creed in a new idiom:
There are certain things that an age needs, and certain things that it should avoid. It needs compassion and a wish that mankind should be happy; it needs the desire for knowledge and the determination to eschew pleasant myths; it needs, above all, courageous hope and the impulse to creativeness. The things that it must avoid and that have brought it to the brink of catastrophe are cruelty, envy, greed, competitiveness, search for irrational subjective certainty, and what Freudians call the death wish.
Occasionally he did despair and would announce his shame at belonging to the species Homo Sapiens, and yet it was at those moments in particular, surely, that his English pride, his love of England’s literature, history, language and beauty helped him to recover; helped him to proclaim at the end of his autobiography, one of the truly great autobiographies of all time: ‘These things I believe, and the world, for all its terrors, has left me unshaken.’ He became one of the chief glories of our nation and people, and I defy anyone who loves the English language and the English heritage to think of him without a glow of patriotism. The world-famous philosopher, the international publicist, the critic of all principalities and powers, the incorrigible dissenter, the foremost sceptic and exponent of free thought throughout the last half-dozen decades was English to the core, as uniquely English as the free-thinking Whiggery in which he was reared and against whose complacencies and limitations he revolted.
Yet the old Whig or the young Whig, whichever he was, should not quite have the last word. One of his last writings was an article which appeared in The Times a few days before men landed on the moon. He argued the issue of whether it was right and intelligent for us to seek to do so with his usual fairness and readiness to see both sides of the question. But there could be little doubt about his verdict, and in the course of the article, which bears the stamp of Bertrand Russell at his greatest, comes the sentence which nobody else could have written: ‘It is not by bustle that men become enlightened. Spinoza was content with The Hague, Kant, who is generally regarded as the wisest of Germans, never travelled more than ten miles from Konigsberg.’ Our philosopher loved his home and his country too. He was a passionate patriot. In his nineties, he had caught the ear of the whole wide world as well as his country-men, and my guess is that his last, almost his everlasting, service to the British people will be that, now and hereafter, countless millions of the world’s inhabitants will learn to speak the international language in the pure English of Bertrand Russell.Original post