Peter Sedgwick

Russell – the eagle

(12 February 1970)

From Socialist Worker, 12 February 1970.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, London 1993, p.42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

BERTRAND RUSSELL was by temperament and, in the field of mathematics, by achievement, a revolutionary. He was also, for most of his life, a socialist. But it is quite clear that he was never a revolutionary socialist.

The extraordinary courage and strength of the political position he adopted in his last dozen years did not proceed from any general militant philosophy about capitalism or how to change it.

Russell became a man of the Left as the result of a mystical experience he underwent in 1901 when the sight of a friend’s wife suffering the agonies of a painful illness caused him to reflect for the first time on the miseries of human existence. While remaining a convinced Liberal, he broke away from the conventional imperialism of his Edwardian circle of friends and resigned from the elite pro-imperialist clique of ‘The Co-efficients’.

Following the war, he became a socialist as well as a pacifist. The essentials of his position at this time were argued in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, which he published in 1920 after a visit he paid to Soviet Russia with a Labour Party delegation. While admiring the aims of the Russian Revolution, Russell felt that the certain destruction and bloodshed entailed by civil war are far too high a price to pay for the uncertain benefits of revolution.

He advocated a gradual approach to socialism through parliamentary elections and workers’ co-operatives in industry.

Much of the rest of Russell’s public life was spent in fighting moral causes (on education, sex and marriage) whose importance is easy to underestimate now in today’s more open-minded climate. He remained a pacifist until the advent of Nazism convinced him otherwise.

He took no personal part in the class struggle; the battles of the working class seemed alien to him. During the early days of the Cold War, he even advocated the use of the United States’ monopoly of the atomic bomb to force Russia to submit to a world authority.

Then came the astounding, golden years of Russell’s campaigning life. The austere detachment and futuristic focus, which in previous decades had barred him from any grip upon on-going politics, suddenly became priceless assets. He pioneered the rejection of the power-crazed nuclear alliances of Washington and Moscow, and personally headed the first mass demonstration of organised civil disobedience that horrified the respectable leadership of CND. How isolated, how rash Russell seemed to be when in 1965 he tore up his Labour Party card: yet here, as so often in these last years, he was the standard-bearer of a new consciousness.

The peak of Russell’s prophetic militancy can perhaps be symbolised in the moment in 1966 when he went from the inauguration of the Vietnam solidarity movement straight down to the striking seamen’s mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, giving a message of homage that linked the anti-imperialist struggle abroad with the class-war against Wilson at home.

But otherwise, he never drew the threads together. Militant demonstration alternated with telegram diplomacy to distinguished statesmen. He saw no inconsistency between his support for the NLF and his opposition to Mossadeq’s nationalisation of Persian oil in 1951.

In his very last years he tended to shun support for street demonstrations as these became more militant, and the unseemly intrigues of certain sections of the Left for ‘the Russell gold’ were resolved in favour of expenditure on glossy publications rather than on public action.

Still, what a man, and what a vision. Constantly in Russell’s writing we get the gleam of full human possibility, the affirmation that a sane society of warm, reasonable, co-operative relationships can be built:

‘I see, in my mind’s eye, a world of glory and joy, a world where minds expand, where hope remains undimmed, and where what is noble is no longer condemned as treachery to this or that paltry aim. All this can happen if we will let it happen.’

Bertrand Russell’s life, a life of unflinching reason, is itself a vindication of this hope.


Last updated on 10.11.2004