Liberty's neglected friend

The Social and Political Thought of Bertrand Russell
January 19, 1996

When Bertrand Russell visited China in 1920, he received a letter from a student in Shanghai welcoming him as "the greatest social philosopher of the world". Though apparently widespread among the young Chinese intelligentsia then, it is not a view of his importance that has stood the test of time. Today the prevalent view among philosophers is closer to that of Wittgenstein, who once commented that, though all students of philosophy should read Russell's work on logic and mathematics, his work on morals and politics ought to remain entirely ignored (Wittgenstein implied it ought to be prohibited, but that, surely, is going too far). Among the general public, on the other hand, Russell's books on social and political themes - Principles of Social Reconstruction; Political Ideals; Marriage and Morals; The Scientific Outlook, Power; Authority and the Individual - still command a large and enthusiastic readership. Unlike superficially similar works by Russell's contemporaries, such as Graham Wallas, G. D. H. Cole, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, Russell's books remain in print and sell surprisingly well. Many people, it seems, still regard Russell as having something important to say outside his specialist field of the philosophy of mathematics.

Is this gulf between the academic and popular reception of Russell's work bridgeable? Is it possible for the academy to regard Russell as an important social and political philosopher? One barrier to this was erected by Russell himself, who generally (but not universally) insisted on a strict demarcation between his "technical" and his "popular" work, reserving the title "philosophy" only for the former. In his intellectual autobiography, My Philosophical Development, for example, he passes over in complete silence his contributions to social and political thought, and when, in 1944, he was asked to respond to an essay by V. J. McGill entitled "Russell's political and social philosophy", he commented that it dealt "mainly with matters which I should regard as lying wholly outside philosophy", adding: "I did not write Social Reconstruction in my capacity as a 'philosopher'; I wrote it as a human being who suffered from the state of the world, wished to find some way of improving it, and was anxious to speak in plain terms to others who had similar feelings."

This attitude did not, however, prevent him from feeling that his work on political and social theory had been unduly neglected. In his Autobiography, he presents Power as an important contribution to the foundations of social theory, one that refuted both Marx and classical economics, and regrets that it "fell rather flat", since: "what it has to say is of very great importance if the evils of totalitarianism are to be avoided, particularly under a socialist regime".

The task of according to Russell's social and political thinking the importance he felt it deserved is probably a lost cause, and Philip Ironside's book, by far the most detailed study of Russell's social and political thought yet published, is unlikely to reverse the trend. The theme of Ironside's book is that Russell, throughout the twists and turns of his political opinions, remained faithful to a kind of "aristocratic liberalism" that grew increasingly anachronistic as the 20th century developed, and which is best approached for its historical interest as an example of "the experience of a late-Victorian/Edwardian intellectual". It is a dispiriting thesis for anyone inclined to take Russell seriously as a political thinker, and Ironside's conclusion that "Russell's achievement was to remain obdurately anachronistic without seeming so" is hardly calculated to establish Russell's place in the canon of political theory.

Despite the wealth of scholarship on show, and the occasional shaft of psychological insight into Russell's complex personality, Ironside's book has many faults, not least his odd decision to end his study in 1938, with the publication of Power. He justifies this on the grounds that after 1938, Russell's work became "less interesting" and "detached from its origins", but, as his central point is that Russell's thought is best understood in the light of its "origins", he ought really to have resisted the temptation to make his task easier in this way. Can Authority and the Individual (1949), The Impact of Science on Society (1952), Human Society and its Origins (1954), Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and War Crimes in Vietnam (1967) be understood as the work of an "aristocratic liberal"? And, if not, what becomes of Ironside's thesis?

An even bigger failing is Ironside's analysis of "aristocratic liberalism" itself, which he wishes to see as a tradition that begins with Matthew Arnold and ends with F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot, but which, especially in relation to Russell's thought, is more profitably understood as the Whig tradition into which Russell was born; a tradition that begins with John Locke and Russell's ancestor, Lord William Russell, the ideology of which was fixed by Russell's grandfather, Lord John and his political mentor, Charles James Fox (of whom, incredibly, there is no mention in Ironside's book).

Related to these failings is Ironside's persistent refusal to link Russell's thought with the political events that formed its context. Ironside's intention is to "place" Russell historically, but in this he writes too much as an intellectual historian and too little as a political one. Thus, while he is good on the connections between Russell's thinking and the Fabianism of the Webbs and the guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole, he massively underestimates the effect, for example, of the first world war, and rather bizarrely interprets Russell's refusal to embrace either communism or fascism in the 1930s as a sign of his "increasing indifference to politics", an indication of Russell's lack of understanding of an age in which "irrationalism had invaded political life to an unprecedented degree". But, to oppose irrationalism is not the same thing as to misunderstand it, and, in his determination to demonstrate Russell's anachronism, Ironside misses the thing for which Russell's work in the 1930s (and later) can properly be celebrated: its steadfast insistence that the growth of the state must proceed hand in hand with a regard for individual liberties. There is, contra Ironside, nothing inherently "aristocratic" about this insistence, and the "liberalism" that lies at its root, far from being outdated, has, fortunately, become the accepted wisdom of our age.

Ray Monk teaches philosophy at Southampton University; the first part of his biography of Bertrand Russell will be published in April.

The Social and Political Thought of Bertrand Russell: The Development of an Aristocratic Liberalism

Author - Philip Ironside
ISBN - 0 521 47383 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 280

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