Bertrand Russell: A Political Life 
by Alan Ryan.
Allen Lane, 226 pp., £16.95, June 1988, 0 7139 9005 8
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It is only necessary to cite the cases of Gwilym and Megan Lloyd George to show that a politician’s biological heirs are not necessarily the infallible custodians of his or her political legacy. The fact that Alan Ryan’s view of Bertrand Russell and my own are very closely similar is not, therefore, proof that we are both right. It is merely proof that our perceptions are compatible with a thorough knowledge of the evidence, and perhaps reason for suspecting that he and I view the evidence from fairly similar political standpoints.

It is particularly hard to have an authoritative grasp of a political legacy if that legacy meets either of two conditions, both amply fulfilled here. One is a very long life: much of the key part of the story we are here considering happened between twenty and thirty years before I was born, and on that, my view is inevitably second-hand and ex parte. Alan Ryan’s search for consistency between Bertrand Russell’s reactions to the First World War and his reactions to the Vietnam War seems to me entirely admirable and in the middle of the bat, but he and I must both allow for the fact that a book written, for example, by Lord Fenner-Brockway might have found a consistency of a different kind. In a political life of eighty years, the search for underlying consistency puts heavy pressure on the skill of selection, and the selection must in some degree reflect the prejudices of the selector.

The other condition which makes authoritative grasp of a political life difficult is if that life is lived in the light of the British liberal tradition, and extends through the hammer-blows inflicted on that tradition in August 1914 and October 1917. That condition also is abundantly fulfilled here. Winston Churchill, in 1900, shrewdly observed that ‘war is always bad for Liberals.’ The fact that issues of war, defence and foreign policy tend to create confusion in the anti-Conservative opposition is not a new fact of the 1980s: it extends right back into the Liberal Party of the 19th century: it can be seen in the disputes of the last Gladstone cabinet about Dreadnoughts, and in Gladstone’s correspondence with Granville about the future of Cyprus. The disputes the war created between Asquith and Lloyd George could have been foreseen in a party which combined the inheritances of Bright’s Quaker Pacifism and Palmerston’s imperial jingoism. It is more important still that the intellectual inheritance of liberalism, as developed by J.S. Mill, depended on a doctrine of progress which came perilously close to a belief in the perfectibility of man. It was this sort of moral optimism, a crucial element in Gladstonian Liberalism, which, along with innumerable soldiers, was machine-gunned at Passchendaele and gassed at Ypres.

Bertrand Russell never believed in the perfectibility of man: a Victorian religious upbringing left roots which went too deep for that. Yet most of his politics, and a very large amount of his writing, depended on a belief in the potential for moral improvement of the human being – a belief on which the First World War inflicted an almost mortal injury. Alan Ryan understands this very well, and some of the most perceptive passages in the book deal with the way these nightmares were revived by the conduct of the Vietnam War in the Sixties. Everything he says on this subject is right, and yet, as a child of the post-Hiroshima age, Dr Ryan can never quite understand the depth of the faith which was threatened in August 1914.

It was in this wilderness that the ideals of socialism came to offer temptation: where men saw demons, Marxian Socialism offered a neatly-organised demonology. It is no coincidence that my father’s ‘Socialist phase’ came in the decade after the First World War. The extent to which he did, and the extent to which he did not, succumb to this temptation provide some of the very best writing in the book. The answers, of course, vary sharply according to the date under consideration, and none of them are simple. Alan Ryan, discussing the difficulties of liberals in deciding what concessions were to be made to socialist critics, rightly says that ‘Russell was never entirely sure what he thought about this.’ He is also right in seeing the variations as being influenced by the extent of the current threat to pre-war liberal optimism: he is right in saying that in the Sixties, ‘casting his mind back to 1914, he surely felt that the war in Vietnam was proof that western, civilised, rational, liberal, scientific man had reverted to something lower than the beasts.’ This revived the sense of betrayal which August 1914 had created: I can remember him, I think in 1968, shifting from a denunciation of the Vietnam War to the remark that he could never again vote for the Liberals, because they were the party of Sir Edward Grey. That remark surely indicates what had been, in the technical sense, a traumatic experience.

One of the key temptations of socialism, to a former liberal optimist, was the belief that, as Dr Ryan puts it, ‘only socialism could avert another war.’ Marx, in his attempts to link war to the development of capitalism, provided a generation with a way of explaining war without wholly abandoning the faith in human nature by which they had previously lived. The temptation was a very powerful one, and it is one to which Dora Russell, among others, seems to have succumbed. Yet Bertrand Russell could never entirely fall for this temptation, since he had seen through the intellectual pretensions of Marxism, and had published the results as early as 1896. Attitudes to his German Social Democracy are one of the litmus tests which sort one type of Russell admirer from another. To those who are devoutly of ‘the left’, it is one of his juvenilia, a work to be passed over in silence if possible. To Dr Ryan, it is ‘neither stale nor out of date even now’. To my father himself, it was a verdict he could never forget, but whose comparative importance in his scheme of things varied almost infinitely according to the urgency of the dangers he saw from other quarters. Dr Ryan’s understanding of this ambivalence runs all through his book: he says at one point that Bertrand Russell ‘remained a liberal of a very recognisable kind’, and at another, describes him as holding to ‘traditional Lib-Lab ideas’. These statements are not identical, but both are correct in their contexts, and they describe the ambivalences, not only of one man, but of a very large proportion of a generation. These tensions were, of course, particularly acute in a man who was the godson of J.S. Mill, and had been brought up by a former Liberal prime minister on the belief that the word ‘history’ stood for ‘hiss-Tory’, but the recent work of Peter Clarke, for example, has shown how much these difficulties were part of the central experience of a generation.

The other great refuge of liberal optimism, in 1914 as in 1867, was education. It is hard to read Russell On Education without seeing that the subject was carrying a misplaced faith: education is a fine means of intellectual development, but he might more often have remembered when working on education his own Humean belief that ‘reason is and ever must be the slave of the passions.’ Education is a way of enabling us to justify things well: it is not a way of ensuring that we justify good things. It is well worth encouraging for what it does do, not least for my father’s deep (and justified) conviction that it can be fun, but some of the reaction against our educational system now in progress is the result of its failure to satisfy hopes which should never have been placed upon it. Education is no more able to make a reality of the perfectibility of man than the churches have been. Among all his many ventures, the attempt to run a school seems to have been one of the least successful.

Dr Ryan remembers very well that in discussing a ‘political life’ he is only discussing one among many lives. He is aware of the philosopher and of the mathematician, and of the constant cyclical progression between quiet work and reflection in his study, on the one hand, and vigorous public utterance, on the other. In choosing to write about one part of this combination, he has well understood the combination itself, and has never lost sight of the other half. Dr Ryan stresses that ‘before 1914, politics was not his ruling passion.’ Dr Ryan is also aware of the constant pressure to write for money, a pressure which accounted for a very large proportion of the output here discussed. Here, as with the impact of August 1914, Ryan is entirely correct in what he says, but perhaps has not imagined the full urgency of the situation as it appeared at the time. My father’s situation in 1918 was not an enviable one: he was 46, and had just lost his job, suffered imprisonment and social disgrace, and was facing the failure of his marriage. He had, in effect, no inherited money left, and, it must have seemed, a very bleak future indeed. Many men have broken under stresses no greater than this, and that the writing which came out of it should sometimes have been done for effect is no more than, reasonably, we should have expected. His situation in 1941 was no more enviable: he was trapped in the United States by the outbreak of war, unable to get himself into England or his money out of it, again dismissed from an academic job in disgrace, and in difficulties even for money to pay the fare into New York to meet a publisher. I can still remember the day when Simon and Schuster came to lunch (and my own bewilderment that they turned out to be a single person), and the overwhelming relief in the household when they happily departed. The result was The History of Western Philosophy. The tension, and the urgency, which such recurrent situations gave to the act of writing are accurately described here, but their contribution to the strident note which sometimes appeared in his writing is even bigger than Dr Ryan suggests.

Yet this is not the whole story. It could be said of him, as was said of his grandfather, that ‘politics was his life-blood, and yet he was entirely unpolitical.’ Dr Ryan’s comment on Bertrand Russell, that he ‘was an apolitical liberal, perhaps even an anti-political liberal’, is very close to a repetition of Dr Prest’s judgment on his grandfather. He was, as Dr Ryan remarks, ‘not an organisation man’. His one attempt at serious work inside an organisation, for the No Conscription Fellowship, was, perhaps, not as disastrous as he believed it, but it was not a conspicuous success. Some of the difficulty arose from the intensity of his conviction that ‘thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil’: such a conviction, held strongly, does not make a committee man. In fact, the experience of joining the majority could alone be enough to make him uneasy: finding himself, in the late Forties, both famous and respectable, ‘I began to feel slightly uneasy, fearing that this might be the onset of blind 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.’ The choice of the verb ‘sinned’ here should provoke thought on the experience of growing up a non-Christian in a devout Victorian household.

Yet there is more to it than this: he did not find committees exciting. He also held a different picture of political power from that of the classic committee man: his interest was always in changing the way people thought. To an active politician, the current stock of ideas provides the straw out of which he must make his bricks, and therefore is an important part of the constraints within which he operates. Bertrand Russell was always interested in changing basic ideas, rather than in the nuts and bolts of how ideas could be translated into action. He was to some extent right that the two tasks are not easy to double, but they were perhaps not quite as difficult to combine as a nonconformist conscience would have liked to think they were. Intellectual puddings have their proof in the compromising, and it is perhaps not quite fair to leave all the proof of one’s own pudding to others.

These reflections are relevant to the final stage of his career, devoted to the issue of nuclear disarmament. Here his contribution was more that of a prophet than a politician: the basic insight was that nuclear weapons had so changed the nature of war that it could never again be used as an instrument of policy. This simple insight was one which changed the whole nature of foreign and defence policy, and at first it was very widely resisted indeed. It is now generally accepted, save by a few dissidents such as George Bush, and it is not easily remembered now quite how controversial this view was in the years up to about 1964. Securing general acceptance for this view was his major, and significant, success. A second insight was that, because of the risk of error, panic, pre-emptive strike and the called bluff, if nuclear weapons were kept, they would sooner or later be used. On this, Bertrand Russell would have been entitled to use the argument he used against the Christians: that it was unfair that if they were right, they would be able to say, ‘I told you so,’ but if he were right, he would never be able to say: ‘I told you so.’ The difficulty of this argument was and is that it remains conjectural on both sides, and only a nuclear war or the disappearance of nuclear weapons can ever make it anything else. A third insight was that the nature of the political process was such that disarmament by multilateral agreement would simply never happen. On this, the record has so far borne him out, but it was here that the bulk of the argument should have been concentrated, and it was here that he did not succeed in understanding his opponents well enough to enter into a serious dialogue with them. Instead he was left with the Committee of 100, a classic case of ‘the medium is the message.’ Twenty-eight years after that Committee was formed, it is painfully clear that it has done more to publicise the cause of civil disobedience than it ever did to publicise the cause of nuclear disarmament.

In discussing these issues, Dr Ryan is particulary good at setting them in a long-term context of Bertrand Russell’s thinking, rightly stressing that his attitude to war was always consequentialist rather than straight pacifist: war was wrong because, and in so far as, it increased the sum of human misery. Dr Ryan also stresses the underlying belief in world government as the only possible remedy for a state of war of every nation against every nation. With these points, Dr Ryan brings out a good deal of underlying consistency which is very well presented. He devotes less effort to understanding Edith Russell, a person who deserves more admiration and respect than she has yet been given.

The Eighties are ideally the wrong decade to see the Sixties in perspective, and in another twenty years (if we are still alive), it will be much easier to assess the implications of the campaign against nuclear weapons than it is now. On other issues, 116 years after a man’s birth is perhaps soon enough to begin an assessment of his achievements. The first thought to strike me here is the obvious paradox that his biggest achievements are those which, because of his success, we can now afford to regard as unimportant. That, of course, is not good for his reputation, and it is part of the explanation of why a prophet tends to be without honour.

One of the biggest changes of his lifetime, a change to which he made a very large contribution indeed, is that the world has become safe for non-Christians. This is an area in which we easily forget the magnitude of change during his lifetime. The debate in which Randolph Churchill accused Gladstone of being an atheist for arguing that Bradlaugh, although an atheist, should be allowed to sit in the House of Commons was within my father’s memory. Today, on the other hand, the right to affirm instead of taking an oath is so casually regarded that many unbelievers do not even feel the need to take advantage of it. We do not easily understand the fear attached to not being a Christian, even as recently as forty years ago. The issue is not dead, as this summer’s debates in the House of Lords have shown extremely clearly. Yet, when I found that I was able to put a non-Christian case in those debates and emerge with a whole skin, I was aware that I was deeply in my father’s debt.

The other area in which change has been so big that we tend to forget it is that of sexual morals. It is not easy now to remember the fear which, even very recently, was attached to any admitted departure from sexual regularity. The fact that Richard Crossman lost an Oxford fellowship for having a divorce, and was not the last fellow to do so, is one which is now received with general incredulity. The fact that it is now perfectly safe, for example, for a couple to admit that they live together when they have not gone through a ceremony of marriage is something for which my father deserves a great deal of credit. The fact that such couples, having established their right, so regularly live exactly like any other married couple merely makes the irony more pleasing. The coming of contraception, an issue which interested my grandfather before my father was even born, is something which can compete with industrialisation for the title of the biggest change in the social history of the past two thousand years. That a change so great should not always be met quite in the middle of the bat is no more than we should expect, but my father’s contribution to freedom from fear in this area remains one to which the 20th century has a profound cause to be grateful.

The parallel concern with the emancipation of women, with which my grandparents were involved before my father was born, also deserves a mention. That issue is one which shows the strengths and weaknesses of the old liberal tradition. On the issues on which that tradition was strong, which are essentially those of rights, the battle has been fought and won. Women are now eligible for all the major political prizes, up to and including 10 Downing Street, and on that front a former Women’s Suffragist candidate could afford to be well content. Yet the success of the tradition has served to expose its incompleteness: the key issues which now affect women’s status in the world are the complex of economic issues associated with equal pay and with child care, and these were the sort of issues on which neither my father nor the old liberal tradition had very much to offer.

At this point, some reflection is in order on the rival liberal and socialist claims to the radical inheritance. It is an inheritance my father made a large contribution to keeping alive, but I must take strong exception to Alan Ryan’s description of him as ‘one of the last great radicals’. Such a claim is ‘grossly exaggerated’, and will remain so unless or until nuclear war brings all our traditions to an end. The great weakness of the old liberal tradition was its excessive indifference to practical economic issues. This, as Peter Clarke has shown, was a weakness the ‘new Liberalism’ of the years before the First World War had almost got over when the war rudely interrupted the process, and the post-war realignment drained the Party of many of those who had learnt the necessary lessons. In the past thirty years, the Party has re-learnt those lessons all over again, and the infusion of Labour-trained politicians from the SDP has fixed a change which was already substantially complete.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, is tied to a set of egalitarian assumptions which, in their extreme forms, have already proved unpalatable, and is wedged in the cleft stick of being able neither to deny them nor to assert them. It is wedded, by the basic notion that there is a thing called ‘socialism’, to ideas of class solidarity which have been empirically falsified, and to ideas of class hostility which have not increased the sum of human happiness. It has absorbed a large amount of the old radical tradition, and often represents it effectively. Yet, however little many of its members may be affected by them, it cannot, by the very existence of its socialist label, entirely extricate itself from that colossal wrong turning in the intellectual history of Europe which is represented by the body of ideas associated with Karl Marx. Over the past ninety years or so, the body of ideals that bear the label ‘socialist’ has shown far less potential for growth than those with the label ‘liberal’. When that is recognised, my father’s German Social Democracy may get the credit it deserves, and Alan Ryan’s description of him as ‘one of the last great radicals’ be seen as being as premature as it really is.

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Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988

Of all the reviews which I have read of Dr Ryan’s Life of Bertrand Russell I found the one by his son (LRB, 1 September) the most interesting. But how deeply ingrained even yet is our English parochialism when such a man as Conrad Russell can write that his father helped the change ‘by which the world has become safe for non-Christians’. The world? I should have thought that for a very long time it has been ‘safe to be a non-Christian’ in Soviet Russia – in China – in all the lands dominated by Islam … But no, as long as one can ‘put a non-Christian case’ in a House of Lords debate with impunity the world has been changed for the better. It is pleasing to know that there are some good old intellectual traditions that continue to stand the test of time.

William Fryer
Cirencester, Gloucester

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