On the 2nd of February 1970, after a long life in which he travelled far and wide, Bertrand Russell died less than a hundred miles from his Welsh birthplace. To some he was the most important philosopher of the 20th century… a Nobel-Laureate who produced seminal works in the areas of logic, mathematics, political philosophy, the philosophy of language, moral philosophy and more. Others saw him first and foremost as an heroic champion of peace, justice and liberal ideals… a tireless campaigner and activist; a pragmatist who never lost hold of his ideals. Unsurprisingly though, there were many who viewed him as a dangerous radical and a threat to the established order. So much so that he was ostracised by academia during the First World War, losing his job and eventually his liberty, ending up in Brixton Prison for several months as punishment for his tireless peace activism.
It was a cause that he would remain dedicated to his entire life, even as he produced some of the most important works of philosophy in the English language. For although he acknowledged — with great sadness — that the march of fascism had to be opposed, even if it be by force, Russell spent much of the final years of his life working to ensure that the horrors of World War Two would never be repeated. He became a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where he constantly derided the notion that the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent – a strategy that came to be known as “mutually assured destruction” – was in any sense a rational policy.
And if there was ever an authority on rationalism, it was Bertrand Russell. Between 1910 and 1913 Russell, in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, published the three volumes of Principia Mathematica, which even its critics acknowledge is one of the landmark texts in the history of philosophy. Within Principia Mathematica can be found, according to Russell, the logical foundation of all mathematical propositions. Building on the earlier work of Frege, Russell linked set theory, logic and number theory in a manner that seemed to transfer to rationalism the absolute certainty of mathematics, and to mathematics a clarity grounded in reality. Indeed, none other than Albert Einstein would write to Russell,
The clarity, certainty, and impartiality you apply to logical, philosophical, and human issues [...] are unparalleled in our generation
High praise indeed.
Indeed, a week before his death in 1955 Einstein would call on Russell to co-author his final public message – such was his deep respect for the man. It would conclude thus:
There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.
Although Principia Mathematica has its critics, it propelled Russell into the public eye in a manner that few philosophers have ever enjoyed. And while he would later admit that being a public figure was rarely enjoyable, he made better use of his celebrity status than most. Back when he was writing Principia Mathematica in 1910 he was already an activist in the Suffragette movement and in his late 90s was still campaigning for peace and justice, lighting up the anti-Vietnam movement with plans to set up a court in Sweden to place members of the US government on trial for crimes against humanity — up to and including President Johnson.
Politically Russell was a liberal socialist verging on the anarcho-syndicalist. Disillusioned with the imperialism of the western powers and the emerging commodity capitalism which he railed against, much to the annoyance of many of his colleagues, he travelled first to the Soviet Union and then later to China in search of a better model. In both places he was dismayed to discover systems predicated upon violence and oppression and was compelled to reject the State Socialism in which he had initially placed so much hope, falling back on a kind of liberal anarchism that he acknowledged was so fragile a flower that it was likely to be crushed underfoot wherever it took root. Likening State Socialism to a religious dogma, Russell was one of the few prominent left wing intellectuals in the west who dismissed the rise of communism in the east just as vociferously as he did the rise of capitalism in the west.
For although he was in favour of free trade, it was not free trade within a capitalist paradigm. He saw the capitalist system as oppressive and barbaric, and believed the very things that made human life valuable – “science and art, human relations, and the joy of life” – were soiled by the touch of capitalists and their ceaseless attempts to commodify them.
Russell never stopped campaigning for what he believed to be right. Even in his later years when cynicism crept into his writing, he never lost hold of his vision of a better society. A society described at the end of his wonderful book, Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism when he looked towards a post-capitalist world…
… in which the creative spirit is alive, in which life is an adventure full of joy and hope, based rather upon the impulse to construct than upon the desire to retain what we possess or to seize what is possessed by others. It must be a world in which affection has free play, in which love is purged of the instinct for domination, in which cruelty and envy have been dispelled by happiness and the unfettered development of all the instincts that build up life and fill it with mental delights. Such a world is possible; it waits only for men to wish to create it.
Meantime, the world in which we exist has other aims. But it will pass away, burned up in the fire of its own hot passions; and from its ashes will spring a new and younger world, full of fresh hope, with the light of morning in its eyes.
[Written by Jim Bliss]