Radical Heritage

Conrad Russell

  • Bertrand Russell: A Political Life by Alan Ryan
    Allen Lane, 226 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9005 8

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.

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