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Russell’s Life

A Short Biography

Bertrand Russell, the third Earl Russell, is the twentieth century’s most important liberal thinker, one of two or three of its major philosophers, and a prophet for millions of the creative and rational life. He was born in 1872, at the height of Britain’s economic and political ascendancy, and died in 1970 when Britain’s empire had all but vanished and her power had been drained in two victorious but debilitating world wars. At his death, however, his voice still carried moral authority, for he was one of the world’s most influential critics of nuclear weapons and the American war in Vietnam.

Although born into one of Britain’s most distinguished aristocratic Whig families, he became a persistent advocate of social democracy and other progressive causes, such as women’s rights, peace among nations and a scientific approach to eradicate personal and public irrationality.

His grandfather as Lord John Russell had been the architect of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the franchise peacefully to many in the middle classes. Orphaned before he was four years old, Bertrand Russell was brought up by his grandmother who tried to train him to become Prime Minister in the tradition of his grandfather.

Russell had little idea of his abilities until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1890, for he was educated in virtual isolation while bearing painful if hidden psychic scars from his early bereavement. There his talents in philosophy and mathematics blossomed and until 1914 he devoted most of his time to these pursuits, becoming a world authority, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1908 and publishing, with Alfred Whitehead, Principia Mathematica between 1910 and 1913. Russell’s work on the foundations of mathematics, on logic and epistemology, set English philosophy in a new direction. Russell sought to bring philosophy into closer alliance with science. His views were challenged by Wittgenstein, but remain critical as the founding texts of analytic philosophy. Even with this concentrated work he still found time to engage in political campaigns, notably those in favour of Free Trade during 1903-04 and Women’s Suffrage from 1906 to 1910.

Appalled by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Russell devoted his energies to agitating for a negotiated peace, fearful that a long struggle could permanently impair European civilization. For his efforts he was dismissed from Trinity College, forbidden to go to America, subjected to restrictions on his freedom of movement in Britain and in 1918 imprisoned for five months. Shocked by the xenophobic nationalism displayed throughout the war, Russell wrote some of his most important books on political behaviour and philosophy. He became a staunch advocate of Guild Socialism, by which he hoped society would gain significant control over the economy while at the same time preserving the traditional liberal value of liberty. He also became an extremely effective speaker on public issues.

Russell remained a public figure with the coming of peace, but resumed his philosophical writing. Looking for societies that transcended the warlike flaws of the west, he visited Russia in 1920 eager to support the Bolsheviks only to come away repelled by the brutality, lack of liberty and similarities to fanatical religions that he found there. In 1920 and much of 1921 he visited China, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of that ancient civilization attempting to industrialize, and warned of the dangers of imperial powers interfering in China’s affairs.

Married in 1921 for the second time, he became the father of two children, a son and a daughter. He and Dora Russell started a model school at Beacon Hill in an attempt to transform education so as to eradicate possessiveness and warlike psychology. To finance this experiment, Russell then often went on fund-raising tours in America — a society he on the whole respected but also feared for its dogmatic capitalism and popular materialism.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, as his marriage to Dora broke down and as he lost faith in Beacon Hill, Russell continued to write books intended to emancipate readers from what he saw as the fetters of outmoded religious belief, restrictive marriages, repressed attitudes towards human sexuality and authoritarian education practices. In the realm of politics, Russell persistently criticized the Bolshevik experiment in Russia while analyzing the irrational savagery of Fascism. Along with George Orwell, Russell was one of the few Western intellectuals on the Left not to be seduced by the claims of Marxist theory and Bolshevik practice in Russia, nor was he beguiled by Fascism. Russell retained his beliefs “developed during the Great War” in non-violent resistance to wars until the aggressive expansionism of Hitler in Poland in 1939 compelled him to abandon his peace advocacy. He spent the Second World War in America where he wrote his popular History of Western Philosophy but remained unhappy away from a Britain fighting for her life against Hitler.

Russell returned to Britain in 1944, becoming almost an establishment figure after the war in warning of the dangers to civilization posed by Russia developing atomic weapons. These fears of Russia, dating from his 1920 visit, led him before Russia exploded an atom bomb in 1949, to contemplate coercing the Soviets into accepting the international control of atomic energy resources and production. Thereafter, however, Russell began to shift to warning about the danger of nuclear catastrophe whether precipitated by accident, derangement within the Great Powers’ leadership or imperialist miscalculation. This fear for civilization led him in the late 1950s and early 1960s into his last great crusade, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He believed that Britain, by unilateral disarmament, could set an example to the world, leading to gradual Great Power disarmament.

By the late 1960s, not long before his death, Russell turned decisively against the United States. He was convinced that their war in Vietnam was immoral and dangerous to civilization. Some of his last actions were plans to set up a war crimes tribunal in Sweden to try American policy-makers from the Johnson Administration. Such actions turned this man, then in his nineties, into a guru for many of the youth of the ‘sixties who looked to him for moral leadership.

Russell’s personal life was marred by some unhappy marriages and tragedy for his eldest son. Russell fell out of love with his first wife, the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith in 1901, and they separated in 1911, although there was no divorce until 1921 after which he married Dora Black. She bore him two children, John Conrad (1921) and Katharine (1923). John became increasingly ill from his late twenties and in the last years of his life was irrevocably schizophrenic. The marriage ended in mutual and lasting bitterness in the early 1930s. Russell’s third marriage, to Patricia Spence, led to the birth of Conrad Russell, the fifth Earl Russell, who was a distinguished historian and an active, progressive member of the House of Lords. His last marriage when over eighty, to the American Edith Finch, provided with him much happiness.

Russell in 1911 threw off his inhibitions and began a long affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, throwing aside his puritan upbringing. As their passion waned she became a lifelong confidante. Rebelling against what he saw as Victorian repressiveness, Russell conducted many affairs from 1914 on, arguing for the liberation of men and women from sexual repression. This approach to human relations helps account for his mass popularity not just during the 1960s but earlier. Russell himself believed near the end of his life that the freedoms in personal behaviour that he advocated had some pernicious and unanticipated effects. Yet, to the end he remained an apostle of political and personal freedom against oppression, whether by the state, public opinion or education.

For synopses of Russell’s life and philosophy, see the entry by Andrew Irvine in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and (for those signed on to campus access or with hard copy) the entry by Nicholas Griffin in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.