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Poor Bertie

Poor Bertie
Jonathan Rée

In the dark midwinter of 1916, Londoners had an
unusual opportunity to see radical philosophical principles applied to the urgent issues of the day. The peace
campaigner and feminist C.K. Ogden had hired the
Caxton Hall for a series of eight weekly lectures on
politics, to be given by Bertrand Russell. It was a risky
venture, both financially and intellectually. Russell
was a small-voiced weedy-looking man; although he
was still in his early forties, he was grey-faced and
grey-haired, and wore old-fashioned dark clothes. The
fact that he was also a philosopher and mathematical
logician and Fellow of the Royal Society was not
guaranteed to compensate for his inexperience as a
public lecturer on politics.

The monumental Principia Mathematica (written
with A.N. Whitehead) had been published in three
huge volumes between 1910 and 1913, but, as Russell
knew, very few people could understand it, and most
of them lived in France, Poland or Germany anyway.

On the other hand, its sheer impenetrability could
give Russell (like Einstein a little later) a bankable
reputation as a symbol of absolute braininess. Russell
himself, though, was haunted by doubts (he had been
shaken by Wittgensteinʼs criticisms); and in any case
he thought he had lost his capacity for doing original
work in logic. So with Ogdenʼs help, he was going to
launch himself on a new career, earning his living
as a freelance political commentator rather than a
mathematician and fellow of a Cambridge college.

He had dabbled in politics before of course; indeed
he had been brought up political, in the home of the
great Victorian reforming prime minister, Lord John
Russell, who was his grandfather. And in 1896, when
he was 24, he had published a book about revolutionary socialism called German Social Democracy.

His experiences as a political tourist in Germany and
his interviews with Liebknecht and Bebel had led
him to fear that the nascent Marxist movement might
eventually prove as violent, repressive and illiberal

as the Bismarckian state itself, and the young Russellʼs conclusion was that the only hope for ʻcommon
justice and common humanityʼ was some kind of
synthesis between liberalism and socialism.

Just a century later, the young Russellʼs view of the
prospects of Marxist politics may appear far-sighted;
but it was not deeply considered and he attached
little importance to it. He was determined to devote
his attention to mathematical logic instead, and to
founding a British tradition of ʻlogical analysisʼ which
would at last bring ʻscientific methodʼ to bear on
the problems of philosophy. He interrupted himself
briefly in 1907, to stand for the National Union of
Womenʼs Suffrage Societies in a parliamentary byelection in Wimbledon. (He won a remarkable 3,000
votes, compared with 10,000 for the Tory.) He also
took an interest in Fabian and Liberal affairs, though
his involvement took the form of supper parties with
Beatrice and Sidney Webb or the philosophical prime
minister Arthur Balfour, rather than rubbing shoulders
with a broad political public.

But by the end of 1914, apart from feeling burnt-out
as a logician, Russell was galvanized into action by the
Great War – or rather, not so much by the war itself as
by the bloodthirsty relish with which it was welcomed
by the people of Britain. He soon became an activist
in the Union for Democratic Control and the No-Conscription Fellowship, and in 1915 took a period of leave
from Cambridge to pursue his political activities, and
prepare for the Caxton Hall lectures in January 1916.

ʻI have something important to say on the philosophy of life and politics,ʼ Russell thought; ʻsomething appropriate to the times.ʼ He needed to present
an account of the origins of war in general, an attack
on the war then being waged against Germany, and
a sketch of the prospects of socialism, liberalism and
feminism; and it all had to be permeated by the authority of a great logician. Russell was naturally nervous;
but in the event he was pleased with the response:

Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)


My lectures are a great success – they are a rallying-ground for the intellectuals, who are coming
daily more to my way of thinking.… All sorts of
literary and artistic people who formerly despised
politics are being driven to action, as they were
in France by the Dreyfus case.… In philosophy,
when I was young, my views were as unpopular
& strange as they could be; yet I have had a very
great measure of success. Now I have started on a
new career, & if I live & keep my faculties, I shall
probably be equally successful.

The audience included nearly all the members of
the Bloomsbury group. Even Lytton Strachey – who
had long ago come to the conclusion that Russell was a
ridiculous threadbare remnant of Victorian worthiness,
and a ʻpoor manʼ who ʻlooks about 96ʼ – described
the lectures as ʻa wonderful solace and refreshmentʼ.

Although feeling ʻnearer the grave than usualʼ, Strachey
would drag himself to the ʻghastly Caxton Hallʼ every
Tuesday afternoon, to hear what Russell had to say.

ʻOne hangs upon his wordsʼ, he wrote; ʻit is splendid
the way he sticks at nothing – Governments, religions,
laws, property, even Good Form itself – down they go
like ninepins – it is a charming sight!ʼ
The ʻutterly immoralʼ Ottoline Morrell was
impressed as well, though her sense of the ridiculous did not desert her.

All the cranks who attend lectures on any
subject were there, and amongst them was a
Captain White, who was slightly crazy, and
would make a long speech about sex and free
love, pointing out that if children were born
from parents who were in love with each other
they would never want to fight.… Then Vernon
Lee got up and made a long speech about a
cigarette case, waving her hands about …; and
of course, a representative of Arts and Crafts
made an impassioned harangue. Bertie sat looking miserable on the platform. At last he had to
ask them to sit down.

Altogether, Lady Ottoline found the lectures
ʻrather a comic occasionʼ. But about a hundred
people turned up to each one, paying three shillings a lecture, or one guinea for the whole course.

Russell and Ogden both scooped a satisfactory
profit, and by the end of it Russell had settled
his destiny as the most celebrated public British
intellectual of the twentieth century. (Only four
years later, he would be welcomed in China as
ʻthe greatest social philosopher of the worldʼ;
even Mao Tse-Tung, in his mid-twenties, turned
up to admire him.)
The lectures themselves were published a few
months later as Principles of Social Reconstruc-


Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)

tion, and Russell came to regard them as the ʻleast
unsatisfactoryʼ of all his political works. But it is quite
hard to see, reading them today, what all the excitement was about. Political problems of all kinds, as
Russell saw it, sprang from a single conflict: the battle
between ʻthe impulses that make for lifeʼ and those
that ʻmake for deathʼ. His main argument was that
ʻtraditional Liberalismʼ was breaking down because
it lacked a proper appreciation of psychology, and
could not comprehend the fact that social processes
are governed not so much by rational calculation as
by ʻthe instinctive part of our natureʼ. In particular, it
could not see that war was an outgrowth of ʻordinary
human natureʼ, or that the only way to prevent it in
future was to engineer a ʻfundamental reconstruction
of economic and social lifeʼ.

The social revolution proposed by Russell was to
be grounded in the principles of syndicalism and
co-operation, combining all the benefits of socialist
equality, industrial prosperity, and liberal freedom.

But Russell did not enter into any analysis of political or economic trends, because so far as he was

concerned the key obstacles to progress were not faulty
social structures, or the vested interests of those who
benefited from them, but the outmoded superstitions
and irrational beliefs that still gave sustenance to the
instincts of death and destruction.

Religion, for instance, despite its incidental beauties, always ʻsteels the hearts of men against mercy
and their minds against truthʼ, so what was needed was
not so much economists as atheistic iconoclasts, who
could destroy the last vestiges of belief. Nationalism,
too, was ʻnoble, primitive, brutal and madʼ, and what
was needed was not sociologists but forthright rational
humanitarians, who could face down the primitive
instincts of the herd. What was needed, in short,
was logicians, but logicians who also understood the
ʻinsinctiveʼ side of life. What was needed, for example,
was Bertrand Russell.

Philip Ironsideʼs The Social and Political Thought of
Bertrand Russell* is a work of contextualizing intellectual history which explains many of the peculiarities of Russellʼs conception of politics. Ironside charts,
for instance, his fluctuating estimate of the relative
importance of ʻreasonʼ and ʻinstinctʼ, connecting it
with his wish to ingratiate himself with an artistic elite
– Berenson, the Cambridge Apostles and Bloomsbury.

He also highlights some more surprising elements in
Russellʼs political complexion – his ferocious support
of British imperialism in the Boer War, his indifference to New Liberalism, and his standing obsession
with racial degeneration – which now make him seem
far more reactionary than he appeared to his audience
at the Caxton Hall.

But Russellʼs converts in 1916 were utterly enchanted
by his insouciant philosophical way with politics.

Some of the younger ones, according to Ironside,
ʻseriously discussed the possibility of making him
Prime Ministerʼ – which suggests that they shared
Russellʼs rather sketchy approach to the machinery
of political power. Ironside also explains a range of
other influences, from the British Idealistsʼ conception
of the state as a moral force, which he found utterly
repellent, to the theory of instinct as elaborated in
the early stages of English Freudianism, which he
found attractive, and the wild irrationalism of D.H.

Lawrence, about which he came to have reservations.

In the 1920s, though, he ran out of steam and began

to follow the agenda set by Wallas, Cole, Laski and
Wells, concerning eugenics, land tax and guild socialism, though he also had a very congenial proposal of
his own, for what he called a ʻvagabondʼs wageʼ – a
basic income to be paid to all who chose to sacrifice
the comforts of social respectability and lead a bohemian life of philosophy, art and innovation, thereby
sustaining ʻa much-needed element of light heartedness
which our sober, serious civilisation tends to killʼ. In
1931, though, Russell gave up on vagabonds: on the
death of his brother, he became an earl – and a very
sober and serious Labour peer. As Beatrice Webb said
after she heard the news: ʻpoor Bertie; he has made a
miserable mess of his life and he knows it.ʼ
Ironside seeks for some consistent doctrine at the
heart of Russellʼs political thought, and comes up
with the surprising but – when you think about it
– quite plausible suggestion that, with his constant
harping on ʻlifeʼ and ʻcreativityʼ, Russell belongs ʻin
that line of English cultural criticism which extends
forward through the influence of Leavis and Scrutiny
and backward to Arnoldʼ. But so far as Russellʼs concrete political views are concerned, Ironside concludes
that they were in a permanent muddle. He oscillated
between dull Fabian gradualism and crazy bohemian
impossibilism: as Ironside perceptively puts it, Beatrice Webb and D.H. Lawrence marked ʻthe boundaries
of Russellʼs eclecticism in much the same way as
Bentham and Coleridge had provided Millʼsʼ.

There are plenty of gaps in this account, however,
and Ray Monkʼs excellent biography** does a lot to
fill them. Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude is
an attempt to repeat the success of Monkʼs marvellous
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990),
which managed to integrate lucid explanations of the
philosophical issues that troubled Wittgenstein into
a fascinating account of his daily life. Russell poses
a far bigger problem for his biographer, however.

Wittgenstein – as Monk showed – concentrated all his
energy on making himself into a supremely fastidious
genius: writing was a slow torture for him, and he
was assiduous in destroying all traces of imperfection. Russellʼs life, by contrast, was determinedly
multi-track, and he never threw things away. And
his literary productivity is one of the wonders of the
world: he published seventy books or more, including
a three-volume Autobiography. Monk calculates that

*Philip Ironside, The Social and Political Thought of Bertrand Russell: The Development of an Aristocratic
Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995. 280 pp., £30.00 hb., 0 521 47383 7.

**Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, Jonathan Cape, London, 1996. xx + 695 pp., £25.00
hb., 0 224 03026 4.

Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)


he wrote an average of two or three thousand words
a day, throughout his ninety-seven years. He worked,
it seems, all the time: sometimes on pure philosophy;
sometimes on political theory and agitation; and sometimes – rather a lot of the time, in fact – on himself
and his affairs with women.

Faced with these mounds of Russelliana, a biographer might be tempted to recount Russellʼs activities
in a multiple narrative, like Doris Lessingʼs Golden
Notebook perhaps: a red book for politics, a white
book for philosophy, and a blue one for sex. But it
would be hard to cap them all with a golden book that
would bring his lives together: they were essentially
separate, it seems, and Russell never threw himself
wholeheartedly into one field of activity unless he
was in full flight from the other two. So Monk has
taken the sensible course of presenting Russellʼs activities side-by-side in an episodic day-to-day story. And
although he has kept his focus quite narrow – most
of his sources are Russellʼs own writings, or those of
Russellʼs friends – this volume, though it looks like a
doorstep, only gets up to 1920: the forests must still
be saplings that will bring us Russellʼs remaining half
century in the second volume.

Monk has been extremely selective all the same. He
gives far less attention to philosophy than he did in
his book on Wittgenstein, and within Russellʼs strictly
philosophical output he ignores most of the work on
knowledge, sense-data and reality – issues that bulked
large in works like D.F. Pearsʼs Bertrand Russell and
the British Tradition in Philosophy or A.J. Ayerʼs
Russell. (It would be interesting to know whether
Monk would accept that Russellʼs epistemology is so
hopelessly misconceived as to hold no interest at all.)
But Monk gives beautiful explanations of Russellʼs
logical achievements in Principia Mathematica and
the 1905 essay ʻOn Denotingʼ, which he regards as ʻhis
undoubted philosophical masterpieceʼ. (This leaves
Russell sixty-five years in which to go downhill, and
Monk understandably avoids the question as to whether
there is anything worth preserving in Russellʼs logic
that had not been done already, and rather better, by
But the ordinary sensual reader cannot put up with
very much mathematical logic. Like Russell himself,
in fact, we are glad to take a break after a few pages,
and Monk, a gifted storyteller, unfailingly gives us
what we want. After learning a bit about Russellʼs
stupendous cruelty to his first wife, however, or the
clumsy manipulativeness of his intrigues with Ottoline
Morrell (who could look after herself) and of numerous insignificant others (who unluckily could not) we


Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)

are glad to turn away again – as Russell did too – with
a rekindled passion for logic.

Monk is unable to find much connection between
the logic and the love in Russellʼs daily life, except
that each had the attraction of not being the other.

But when it comes to Russellʼs political evolution,
the integrated biographical approach becomes more
illuminating. Ironside has expounded Russellʼs belief
that political questions are basically a matter of psychology, especially the psychology of ʻlife instinctsʼ and
ʻdeath instinctsʼ, and he follows the Autobiography
in describing how, in the period just before he wrote
Principles of Social Reconstruction, Russell discussed
these matters with D.H. Lawrence, and even contemplated some literary collaboration with him.

But as Monk shows, in the most gripping section
of his book, there was rather more to it than that.

Lawrence had met Ottoline Morrell early in January
1915, responding to a fan letter which had delighted
him as coming from an ʻaristocratʼ. At that time he
was elaborating a ʻgospelʼ – a Germanic ʻphilosophyʼ,
he hoped – which was going to escape from the past
and institute a ʻnew lifeʼ on earth. Lawrence told
Lady Ottoline that ʻevery strong soul must put off
its connection with this society, its vanity and chiefly
its fear, and go naked with its fellows, weaponless,
armourless, without shield or spear.ʼ She was mildly
entertained by such talk, until Lawrence announced
that she herself was to become the ʻnucleusʼ of a
prefigurative community of love, and indeed that it
should be established at once in her estate at Garsington, just outside Oxford. Perhaps it was sheer mischief
on her part, but she then told Lawrence that she knew
a man who would be interested in helping him with
his schemes: Bertrand Russell.

Lawrence was excited by the thought of collaborating with Russell (ʻthe Philosophic – and Mathematics
man,ʼ he mused, ʻa Fellow of Cambridge University
– F.R.S. – Earl Russellʼs brotherʼ), and when they met
he immediately won the heart of the great logician.

ʻHe is infallibleʼ, Russell said after their first meeting;
ʻhe sees everything and is always right.ʼ Lawrence
sent him a long letter proposing a socialist revolution,
starting with ʻthe nationalising of all industries and
means of communciation, & of the land, in one fell
blow.ʼ (That should ʻsolve the whole economic questionʼ, he said.) He was under the impression that he
and Russell had sworn Blutbrüderschaft in the name
of the new order, and by May they were planning to
give a joint lecture series, Russell dealing with ʻEthicsʼ,
Lawrence with ʻImmortalityʼ. Russell said that the
unifying theme of the series would be the idea that

existing institutions are ʻa prison for the infinite in usʼ,
and Lawrence envisaged the lectures being presided
over by Ottoline Morrell, whose task would be to
keep him and Russell striving ʻtowards the Eternal
thingʼ. After all, as Lawrence observed with entreating
urgency, ʻWe mustnʼt lapse into temporality.ʼ
No indeed. By July, Lawrence was spelling out
the details of socialism to his philosophical bloodbrother. The state must be all-powerful; in fact it
ought to become an object of worship; and of course
ʻthere must be a ruler: a Kaiser: no Presidents &
democracies.ʼ There should also be a clear political division between the sexes, with a ʻDictatorʼ to
control the ʻindustrial side of the national lifeʼ, and
a ʻDictatrixʼ to command ʻthings relating to private
lifeʼ. When, after a few months, Russell at last began
to quibble with some of these opinions, Lawrence
savaged him in a monstrously wounding letter, and
abandoned him and Ottoline Morrell as ʻtraitorsʼ. It
was then that the unhappy Russell started work on
the Caxton Hall lectures, whose emphasis on a timeless psychology of instincts, we can now see, was a
response to Lawrenceʼs precocious National Socialism,
as well as to the horrors of the Great War and Russellʼs
need for a role.

But the main thing in this biography is the sex, or
rather the business surrounding it. Monkʼs life of Wittgenstein has been praised for the restraint and delicacy
with which it described Wittgensteinʼs intimate life;
but then, Wittgenstein left his biographer with practi-

cally no material to be indelicate with. The Russell
archives, carefully tended at McMaster University in
Ontario, are a very different matter, and the result
is that Monk has had to spend a lot of time sorting
out the ups and downs of Russellʼs well-documented
penile career. But even those who dote on revelations
about illicit love affairs will be slightly disappointed
by this saga. We may experience a little elation the
first few times Russell is exposed as a self-righteous
old goat, a liar and two-timer; but the pleasure does
not increase with repetition. Compared with other
earls or other logicians, Russellʼs sexual experience
may have been quite wide; but compared with most
ordinary human beings, it was numbingly boring. It
is not just that he was more interested in the hunt, so
to speak, than the kill, but that his top priority always
seems to have been to give it verbal expression, so as
to avoid at all costs the prudish secretiveness associated with ʻVictorianismʼ. His obsession with putting
sex into words – plain ones or flowery, and many
of them – is a striking confirmation of Foucaultʼs
famous paradox: that the advocates of free love and
libidinal liberation were prisoners of the ʻrepressedʼ
conceptions of sexuality from which they imagined
they had escaped. Sex, in Russellʼs opinion, was an
ʻinstinctive impulseʼ, a base bodily function which,
unluckily, may sometimes pester us importunately, like
a raging tooth or a bursting bladder. It never seems
to have occurred to him that sexual experience might
focus on the bodies of other people instead of the
efficient gratification of oneʼs own needs. As
the inexhaustible Ottoline Morrell noted, he
habitually complained that his lovers were
selfish, because they would not sacrifice
themselves entirely to him: ʻHe is intensely
self-centred, poor man.ʼ
What Russell sought in his sexual encounters, it seems, was simply a helping hand.

In 1920, for instance, when he was inveigling Dora Black into becoming his second
wife, he forestalled any misunderstanding
by explaining that ʻI must find a place for
sex with the smallest possible damage to
work.ʼ And she had already written to him
on the same lines: sex, for a modern girl
like her, was ʻa need, to be satisified now
& then as it presents itself, like hunger and
thirstʼ. ʻI am all for triviality in sexʼ, she
announced; and in Bertrand Russell she had
found her man.

There is something quite disconcerting
about the way Russell related to his ʻneedʼ

Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)


for love. It was as if he simply glanced inside himself
to observe a set of libidinal traffic signals alternating,
sometimes rather rapidly, between three blunt messages: Halt, Caution and Go. Although he was often
baffled by what his ʻemotionsʼ were telling him, he
never seems to have realized that it might be in their
very nature to be ambiguous, and always capable of
absorbing new interpretations. And, come to think of
it, the same is true of his attitude to language and
philosophy as well. Disciples like A.J. Ayer used to
refer to the ʻpower and elegance of his literary styleʼ,
but what is really striking in Russellʼs writings is that
they show absolutely no talent or care for overall composition. They contain points, sharply made, but never
lines, firmly drawn: the result is always disjointed and
unsustained, with punctual clarity in the details but
obscurity and fudge on the whole.

It may be true that Russell never wrote a really
duff sentence; but surely he never wrote a fine and
memorable one either. True, there are his celebrated
quips, like the one in ʻOn Denotingʼ about the baldness of the present King of France. There is no King
of France, of course, so, as Russell pointed out, ʻif
we enumerated the things that are bald, and then the
things that are not bald, we should not find the present
King of France in either list.ʼ But in that case, how
could it be meaningful to say that the King of France
is bald? Before giving his solution to the conundrum,
Russell makes a characteristic joke: ʻHegelians, who
love a synthesis, will probably conclude that he wears
a wig.ʼ
The one about the King of Franceʼs wig is the
paradigm joke of British analytic philosophy, still
much imitated by the kind of philosophers who fancy
themselves as wits. But it is a rotten joke. It is neither
accurate nor funny; and it is both showy and beside the
point. What is more, it is exultantly complacent: not
only conceited, but pleased with its conceit as well.

The same unhappy clever-dick style is to be found
in another typical sentence of Russellʼs, from the
Lectures on Logical Atomism: ʻI think an almost
unbelievable amount of false philosophy has arisen
through not realising what “existence” means,ʼ Russell
says. You can hear the prose pausing to allow readers
to applaud the great logicianʼs audacity in suggesting that philosophers have overlooked something so
elementary as the meaning of ʻexistenceʼ. But the
invitation is quite fraudulent. It may well be true that
past philosophers have all been wrong about existence,
but that ought surely to inspire a little humility in us,


Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)

some attention to the reasons for their difficulties, and
a lot of severe circumspection if we imagine we have
finally come up with The Answer. Instead, Russell
comes on all cocky, assured, and tendentious: as blind,
it seems, to the layered ambiguities of philosophy as
to those of either politics or love.

And there is another side to Russellʼs vaunted
ʻstyleʼ. He combined a rhetoric of self-admiring cleverness with a surprising weakness for purple platitudes
about how – to quote the peroration of his History of
Western Philosophy – philosophy can ʻsuggest and
inspire a way of lifeʼ. It is to these sentiments, indeed,
that Monk has traced the force that drove Russellʼs
astonishing productivity. Russell, like the rest of us,
suffered from a recurrent sense of cosmic loneliness.

But he sought his solace amongst impersonal things,
ʻabstract and remoteʼ, such as mathematics and especially philosophy. Traditional philosophy could not
delight him, though: he dismissed it as unscientific,
and we may also suspect that it was too probing and
personal for his comfort – not remote and abstract
enough. So he sought a new theoretical dispensation,
as immaculate as the Lawrentian state: a perfect philosophical science, isolated from the past and untouched
by superstition, grief or love. He was intent, in other
words, on annihilating everything in philosophy that
might remind him of contingency; but in the end,
inevitably, he could never find any that did not.

Monk evidently came to his biographical task with
the intention of praising Russell. He hoped to find
– as he had with Wittgenstein – a deep unity between
the life and the work, a single passion that would
vindicate and redeem them both. By the end of the
book, though – and this is only volume one – Russell is
almost buried. Against the odds, Monk has succeeded
in unifying the life, by elaborating on the theme of
Russellʼs solitude, and his quest for security in philosophy as in politics and sex. Russell wanted to exist
in an unequivocal world where his intellect would
reign supreme. But the biography shows – as biographies will – that he kept falling back into another
world, the only world there is; and it is enigmatic
through and through. When Monk demonstrated the
unity of Wittgensteinʼs life, he portrayed an astonishing and touching philosophical hero; but when the
same service is performed for Russell, he appears as
superficial, mediocre and unwise: exceptional only
in his productivity, and his titanic imperceptiveness
about others and about himself. Poor old Bertie. Poor
old us.

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