I have begun to read a book that I think I have had in my library for some years without reading it, and have, not unexpectedly, been completely gripped by it. The book is called Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, published in 1927 (incidentally, the year before my birth), when this great man, one of the seminal intellectuals of my time on Earth, was 53, and had already published 26 books on, it seemed, almost every subject under the sun.
I have always considered Russell to have been one of the greatest writers ever of the English language, for the bell-like clarity of his prose. But I have an even more personal connection with him, for I will never forget the day in October of 1962, when I stood in Trafalgar square clutching the hand of my two-and-a-half year old son, wondering, like everyone else in the huge crowd, whether in the coming week we would be incinerated by a nuclear bomb, as this ancient philosopher, 91 years of age, as thin as a rake, was carefully handled up on to the plinth to make a speech denouncing the suicidal stand-off between Kennedy and Khruschev. These two men were madmen, he proclaimed in his high-pitched, squeaky voice. I had to rub my eyes to actually believe that I was listening to this intellectual giant who had many years before transformed the field of mathematics, and had since gone on to emerge from the stuffy halls of academia to urge on his fellow citizens policies that he said would lead human society into new realms of happiness and co-operation. So little was he confined to the halls of academe that as early as 1920, only three years after the Soviet revolution, he went to Russia with a group of intellectuals, travelled extensively, had a one-hour interview with Lenin, and returned with a generally unfavorable view of their determination to follow the Western path of industrialization, in contrast to his travelling companions, who returned with as much more favorable atttitude towards what was underway. Then he went to China for a year, returned wth as much more favorable attitude, realized they were in many ways superior to the /western model, and wrote extensively about it, insisting that they had retained human characteristics in their society that the Western model was in process of killing. His idea was that both Russia and China were what he called "artist" countries, in that they had preserved more traditional values, rather than allowing their cultures to be sublimated to money, as had happened in the Western world.
Of course after the Great War, none of the policies towards an ideal world had come about, and certainly we are further from them than ever nowadays. In other words, though he had high hopes for human societies of the future, his trust in the commonsense of humans has been betrayed. But surely no one could fault his many years of dedication to the ideals of pacifism during the destructive wars through which he lived. I have always remembered one fact from his superb autobiography, published in three volumes during the 1960s. where he described during the Second World War having to borrow the money for his bus fare to get him to a lecture he was scheduled to give at the City College of New York. Later, that appointment was annulled by a court judgment that found him morally unfit to teach because of his opinions on sexual morality. I thought: what a remarkable comment on human society that such a man had become so strapped for money as to not even have the bus fare. Whatever else might be said of him, he could never be accused of enriching himself unduly: at his death in 1970 he was declared to have an estate of 69,000 pounds.
In recent years he had not let his advanced age bring his agitations for peace to a halt; he was at first active in the mass-movement Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But when it showed signs of faltering before the implacable opposition of the State, he had formed a smaller movement, the Committee of 100, which entered into non-violent civil disobedience. I remember being present as an observer in Whitehall on the occasion on which he sat down before the War Department, from which position he was gingerly lifted by police officers who deposited him into the paddy wagon, and thus to jail.
The book I have started to read is full of remarkable descriptions of society, and I have already been stopped short by ideas that have made me examine my own opinions. On an essay on The State, for example, he broadly approves of the internal powers exercised by the State, but inveighs heartily against the primitivism of the State’s external power, and against the conditioning that prepares citizens to go to war against foreign countries whenever told to by the State. Personally I have for many years defended the existence of strong government because I realize that it is the only authority that can equalize income and wealth, which, I suppose is the primary reason that strong government is opposed by the oligarchs who now control our societies. Russell also sees that as a virtue, along with compulsory education, and other essential services.
His opinion of the intense dangers of government are illustrated by indirection in a strange article called The World As It Could Be Made, which he wrote in 1918, presumably under the influence of the Great War, which showed that all his hopes for a bright peaceful future for human society had been exploded by the greatest war ever fought to that time. This article is simply a dream of a human society organized according to the principles of anarchism, as espoused by Kropotkin, mixed with Guild syndicalism, which is still defined as “a movement that advocates direct action by the working class to abolish the capitalist order, including the State, and to establish in its place a social order based on workers organized in production units.”
In other words, capitalism, the economic system that turns one man against another, one class against another, one country against another, would be abolished and replaced by a free system of worker control of industry. All this would only be possible if man’s preconceptions could be entirely transformed through an education system that would be entirely free, compulsory to the age of 16, followed thereafter at the desire of the pupil, and which would have been free of all persuasion directed to produce aggressive people ready to go to war at the drop of a hat.
This prescription for a utopian society provided that women’s work in the home should be paid, since “this will secure the complete economic independence of wives, which is difficult to achieve in any other way, since mothers of young children ought not to be expected to work outside the home.”
He adds: “Government and law will still exist in our community, but both will be reduced to a minimum. There will still be acts which will be forbidden --- for example, murder. But very nearly the whole of that part of the criminal law which deals with property will have become obsolete, and many of the motives which now produce murders will be no longer operative.” Economic fear and most economic hope in such a society “will be alike removed out of life. No one will be haunted by the dread of poverty or driven into ruthlessness by the hope of wealth.”
Nor does he shrink from rewriting the rules about marriage. “One of the most horrible things about commercialism is the way in which it poisons the relations between men and women.” He says that the effect of economic conditions on marriage seem to him even worse than prostitution, since there is not infrequently in marriage ”a suggestion of purchase, of acquiring a woman on condition of keeping her in a certain standard of material comfort.” Thus, very often a marriage differs from prostitution only in that it is harder to escape from. ”Economic causes make marriage a matter of bargain and contract, in which affection is quite secondary, and the introduction of the law requires that each submit to some loss of his or her liberty, for the pleasure of curtailing the liberty of the other. When he wrote this he had already been married once, and eventually he had four marriages: each lasted many years, and when he felt he no longer loved his wife he had no hesitation in telling her so and moving on.
He allows himself to wonder whether a League of Nations might be created after the war, and one can only sympathize with the man when he was confronted by the rise of Nazism. Although it is not mentioned in this book, published in 1927, he at first apparently opposed rearmament, but he changed his mind as Hitler swept across Europe.
In the light of man’s subsequent descent into the unimaginable slaughter of World War II, his article reads more like a sophomoric dream of Utopia, than the work of one of the great minds of our time. But the man wrote 60 books, thousands of articles, and countless pamphlets, and gave advice on every aspect of human life, so I guess the odd miss can be excused. With the war ended, he lost no time in using his undoubted authority to harass and harangue the world’s statesmen with advice to come together instead of falling apart. He does pose in his article a desideratum-world which would be as far as one can imagine from the current world situation in which the so-called world’s greatest democracy appears to have fallen under the control of hugely wealthy industrial-military entrepreneurs, and has greater military force than the rest of the world combined, with the apparent intention to ensure the obedience of all nations to its will.