A philosopher’s letters
Jul 19th 2001 | From the print edition
The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970.
Edited by Nicholas Griffin.
Routledge; 680 pages; $35 and £25
“A GREAT deal of work has come upon me, neglect of some of which might jeopardise the continuation of the human race,” wrote Bertrand Russell in a letter in 1967, explaining why he did not have time to comment in detail on a philosophical manuscript. Few dons could carry off such an excuse. Russell was, in his final decade, concentrating on three large campaigns: helping Soviet Jews, opposing the Vietnam war and crusading for nuclear disarmament. The excuse might at first seem to be evidence of lunatic self-importance, or maybe senility (he was 95 at the time). But those who knew him would recognise its characteristic mix of a melodramatic, gently ironic style together with a profound commitment to public benevolence and political action. Activism ran in the family. A 17th-century ancestor was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Charles II, and Russell's grandfather introduced the first reform bill and was twice prime minister.
In this section
Digging for truth
The way we fly now
Treachery, egotism or bravery?
Two kinds of heroism
Government and politics
Anybody who reads this splendid and revealing selection of letters will soon feel that he knows Russell—though not, of course, as well as its editor, Nicholas Griffin, does. Mr Griffin is director of the Bertrand Russell Research Centre at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which has over 40,000 letters by Russell—estimated at between a quarter and a half of the total number he wrote—and is also editor of Russell's “Collected Papers”, of which 14 volumes have been published so far, with another 17 or so to come. “When I am out I see such millions of people, and do so much altogether—no one has the least idea how much I get into a day,” Russell wrote from prison to Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1918, bemoaning the fact that he would have less time for long letters when he was released from his sentence for pacifist activities. Mr Griffin, for one, knows all too well what Russell packed into a day.
With this volume of 388 letters covering the years 1914-70, Mr Griffin completes a two-volume epistolary biography unrivalled for its scholarship in the over-populated world of Russell studies. He adds linking commentary between the letters that would amount to a book in itself, and which clarifies many points, small and large, about Russell's eventful and controversial life. He scotches, for example, the often repeated claim that Russell once advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Mr Griffin also provides copious and often pleasingly discursive footnotes to identify the allusions and people in the letters. There is plenty of incidental knowledge to be gleaned from these—concerning, for example, the Utraquist doctrine of the Eucharist, which makes an appearance in a hilarious reply to a spoof agony aunt letter that Russell received from a colleague at the school he founded after he had published his popular tract on “Marriage and Morals” and was being deluged with requests for sex advice.
The selection includes relatively few replies to letters from members of the public—always a large part of Russell's mailbag. Faced with an appalling task of sifting, Mr Griffin has chosen to focus on a handful of topics and follow them through, rather than provide a sample that is even-handedly representative of Russell's interests, which, Mr Griffin notes, included “everything under the sun, and a good deal else besides”. Few of the letters he has picked have been previously published.
What comes across most powerfully from this selection is Russell's passion, his benevolence, and—perhaps most welcome—his humour. “I went all over southern California debating with a rabbi on the question ‘Is monogamy doomed?' He argued in favour of monogamy, in the hope of getting enough money to leave his wife,” Russell writes, describing a lecture tour to Lady Ottoline. To which Mr Griffin typically adds a wry footnote: “Newspaper reports from California reveal that Russell debated this topic with two rabbis—fortunately, we do not know which one is referred to here.”
Bertie and the bomb
The following letters to the editor have been published in The Economist:
SIR – Your review of “The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell” (“Love, Bertie ”, July 21st) states that the book's editor, Nicholas Griffin, “scotches, for example, the often repeated claim that Russell once advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. ” Let me unscotch it. I was in the audience at the public meeting at which Russell advocated precisely this, and it made a big impression on me at the time. The occasion was a gathering organised by some peace-loving foundation whose name I forget (my records are in store at present), held in 1948 or thereabouts, in the still roofless hall of Westminster School, of which I was then a pupil. When, some 20 years later, I recalled the event in the Spectator, which I then edited, I received (and published) a letter from the man who had organised the meeting. He corroborated my account and added how surprised and shocked he had been at Russell's proposal.
Needless to say, Russell advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike on strictly humanitarian grounds. In a nutshell, he pointed out that at the time the Soviet Union did not yet possess a nuclear capability but that it would very soon do so, after which all history made it clear that sooner or later there would be a nuclear war between the two superpowers that would be infinitely more devastating than either of the two world wars through which he had lived. The only sure way of preventing this Armageddon, he concluded with remorseless if unpalatable logic, was for America to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union before it acquired the bomb: after that it would be too late.
Lord Lawson, London
SIR – Lord Lawson (Letters, August 4th) is not alone in believing that Bertrand Russell advocated a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union in his 1948 speech at Westminster School: the Daily Worker headlined its report “Earl Russell calls for atom war.” Russell himself denied this interpretation in letters to the press immediately after the talk and was apt to blame a communist reporter in the audience for putting the story about for political ends. A transcript of the talk reveals that what he advocated was not a pre-emptive strike but “the line of policy which the western nations are now pursuing”, namely, “to make it obvious to the Russians that they can't make war successfully.”
The real trouble, however, came in reply to a question about the fate of Britain in a nuclear war. Russell said there were three alternatives, “if the present aggressive Russian policy was persisted in”, (emphasis in the original) “:(a) war with Russia before she has the atomic bombs, ending fairly swiftly and inevitably in a western victory; (b) war with Russia after she has the atomic bombs, ending again in western victory, but after frightful carnage, destruction, and suffering; (c) submission. ” He made it clear that he regarded each alternative as more catastrophic than the one before. But he did not advocate immediate nuclear war with Russia, because he obviously hoped that “the line of policy” which the western nations were pursuing would deter “the present aggressive Russian policy.” I cannot say I approve of the policy Russell did advocate on this occasion, but (press reports to the contrary notwithstanding) it clearly fell short of a pre-emptive nuclear strike. All the relevant texts will eventually be published in “The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell”.
Nicholas Griffin, McMaster University,
SIR – We are getting there. Nicholas Griffin (Letters, August 11th) now concedes that, at his 1948 meeting at Westminster School, Bertrand Russell advocated an early pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union, before the Russians acquired their own atomic bomb. But he adds that Russell made it clear that this drastic action should take place “if the present aggressive Russian policy was persisted in.” Mr Griffin insists, however, that Russell “obviously hoped” that this policy would not be persisted in. What in fact was “obvious”—and one of Russell's chief characteristics was his clarity—was that he expected that it would be, and was clear that we could not simply wait and see, as this would give the Russians time to acquire their own atomic bomb.
I was there when Russell spoke: Mr Griffin was not.
Lord Lawson, London
SIR – I certainly do not concede that Bertrand Russell advocated “an early pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union”, as Lord Lawson claims (Letters, August 18th). What he advocated was a continuation of the West's policy of containment from a position of strength. In answer to a question as to what would happen in the event that the policy failed, Russell said that a war before Russia had nuclear weapons would be less disastrous than one after she had them—he did not infer from this that a war should be started straightaway. The policy of containment was, of course, backed by the threat of war, but Russell's clarity of thought (which Lord Lawson praises) enabled him to see that this was quite different from advocating a pre-emptive strike.
Lord Lawson may have been present when Russell spoke but I have a verbatim transcript of what he said.
Nicholas Griffin McMaster University
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