Source – skeptic.ca
– “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair”
The years 1945–48 are not at all well known in Russell’s career, although they will become much better understood once volume 24 of the Russell Collected papers, which covers 1945–47, has been completed. Its diligent editor, Dr Kenneth Blackwell, has brought much new material to light, some of which has just been cited above.
This period offers several clues to both questions posed above. On the external question, concerning Russell’s high status from the mid 1950s onwards, historically these years saw him come onto the international stage as a political commentator, a status that he had not really enjoyed before. As well as his own activities and his connections with the New Commonwealth Society, he was also used by the Attlee government as a kind of international envoy on world affairs, speaking especially on the need for world government, until its fall from power in 1951. The link between Russell and Clement Attlee in this context dates from Russell’s paper of October 1945, when he sent Attlee a carbon copy of the manuscript.40 (Churchill did not use Russell during his second premiership, from 1951 to 1954.) Russell’s reputation was enhanced nationally and internationally by other events: the publication of his widely read A history of Western philosophy in 1945 and the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature five years later, his appointment to the Order of Merit, and the delivery of the first Reith Lectures for the BBC in 1949.
Russell’s advocacy of nuclear disarmament during his period of fame, especially in his joint letter with Albert Einstein in 1955 and his involvement in the Committee of 100 from 1960 onwards, is relatively well known, and so is not described here.41 However, some comments on his change of attitudes are in order. It does not suggest a second Russell paradox, for the conditions for nuclear war had greatly altered. After World War II there were only atomic bombs (forgive the word ‘only’) and the USA as the sole producer, but especially after the Bikini Atoll tests of 1954 the hydrogen bomb that he had envisaged in 1945 had become an American reality and doubtless would soon be produced also by the Soviet Union, which had possessed its own atomic bomb since 1949. Other countries might also be aspiring; so let us ban nuclear weapons for everybody. More logically worrying are two occasions, in September 1945 and November 1948, when he denied having advocated the use of bombs against the Soviet Union in August 1945 and November 1948!,42
In contrast, the scale of the change is, shall we say, rather breathtaking. Russell’s acceptance of the USA as the sole manufacturer of atomic bombs in 1945 gradually altered to, for example, ‘Kennedy and Macmillan were worse than Hitler’ in 1961.43 By contrast, his hate function for the Soviet Union decreased from bombing the Soviets if needs be in 1945 to sympathy for their situation in 1962. For example, concerning the Cuba crisis, he sent a telegram to Kennedy: ‘Your action desperate. Threat to human survival. No conceivable justification. […] End this madness’, whereas to Krushchev he wrote, ‘I appeal to you not to be provoked by the unjustified action of the United States in Cuba’.,44
Because Russell did not go senile, other explanations for the change are needed. His account in the autobiography is brief;45 the confession in Black Dwarf is revealing only at the level of fact. His claim to emulate the rigour of mathematical demonstrations in his argument reveals his political inexperience. Perhaps those around him from the early 1950s onwards, and especially in the 1960s, formed a caucus of like opinion with which he concurred too uncritically. But to me the scale of his change is a mystery. By contrast, his readiness to utter his positions publicly is clearly the action of an ambitious and obligated Victorian aristocrat.
Two passages in Russell’s autobiography exhibit self-awareness. The first shows the magnitude of his ambition; he recalled that in Berlin in 1895, during his neo-Hegelian phase, he
made projects of future work. I thought that I would write one series of books on the philosophy of the sciences from pure mathematics to physiology, and another series of books on social questions. I hoped that the two series might ultimately meet in a synthesis at once scientific and practical. My scheme was largely inspired by Hegelian ideas. … I have to some extent followed it in later years …. The moment was an important and formative one as regards my purposes.46
As for his obligation, he noted of his own generation:
The tone of the generation some ten years junior to my own was set mainly by Lytton Strachey and [John Maynard] Keynes. It is surprising how great a change in mental climate those ten years had brought. We were still Victorian; they were Edwardian. We believed in ordered progress by means of politics and free discussion. The more self-confident among us may have hoped to be leaders of the multitude, but none of us wished to be divorced from it.47
The responsibility was important and unavoidable; and for the Honourable Bertrand Arthur William Russell, the Third Earl Russell, it led to a great deal of dissent.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), eminent mathematician, philosopher, intellectual, social critic, author of over 70 books and hundreds of essays. Russell won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and was the co-author with Alfred North Whitehead of Principia Mathematica. He was married four times, intervened personally in the First World War, Cuban missile crisis and the Sino-Indian border war, survived a plane crash at the age of 71, and was an active protestor against nuclear weapons well into his 80’s. He died at he age of 98. His 3 volume autobiography published in 1967 is a fascinating read.