Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
The principal theme of this study of Bertrand Russell is that from his unique position as the last of a notable line of English Whig reformers and as the "godson" of John Stuart Mill, "the saint of rationalism", he attempted to make a unique contribution to political philosophy―and failed. Half of the seventy books Russell wrote were concerned with political and social questions, and of these all but those written during his last years combine the best values of English Whiggery with nineteenth century liberal humanism and reflect Russell's endeavour to adjust to the complexities of the twentieth century. Liberal humanism permeates Russell's views concerning human nature and education, and I hope to show that these views provide unsatisfactory and ineffectual solutions to the problems Russell tackles. It is, however, when Russell considers the reconstruction of society that he is confronted with his greatest dilemma. Too wise and too honest to equate Fabian reforms and welfare programmes with socialism, his individualism and Whig background obscured the one fact which he could never bring himself truly to face: the fact of the class struggle, the irreconcilable interests of the employers and the employed. Russell's dilemma was that he had a traditional dislike of popular movements and yet knew that the effective socialist reconstruction of society would take place only through the successful outcome of the class struggle. For a brief period, he embraced the cause of revolutionary socialism, but this was primarily an emotional response, one of many political attitudes which were to conflict throughout his life with his fundamental liberalism. The result was pessimism and despair, conditions which plagued Russell and which, I believe, could have been avoided, in his politics at least, were it not for his misunderstanding of Marxism. Russell, although motivated by considerations of the highest ideals for the betterment of humanity, was essentially an individualist who increasingly despaired of mankind. Confidence in ordinary men and women, and in the justification and efficacy of mass action, may have liberated him from this dilemma. In what follows I draw attention to the enthusiasm, Vigour, and the obvious zest which Russell displayed in his periods of political activism during the First World War and during his campaigns for nuclear disarmament and civil disobedience. It was, I suggest, no coincidence that, arising from these periods of intense political activity in a popular movement of protest, Russell was to embrace, albeit briefly, the Marxist theory of class struggle and revolutionary action. Indeed, it will be maintained in this study that the lasting monument to Russell will be neither his political philosophy, nor even his work in logic and mathematics, -but -his passionate sense of commitment, and especially the activity of his last years, when he placed his entire energies and reputation in the service of the quest for a peaceful world. While most philosophers have been content to tell us what we ought to do to achieve the good, Russell, by the example of his sense of commitment, demonstrated how necessary it is to combine theory with practice. There are weaknesses in Russell's approaches, for he was a most human being, and I hope to establish that when applied to social problems his celebrated logic was often faulty, his politics naive, his individualism and emotionalism damaging to the causes he had taken up. Nevertheless, he was, indeed, "the last of the Europeans whom Socrates and Spinoza would have acknowledged as their countryman", for his compassion lights up the frequent gloom of his analysis of the human condition.
It was Russell's misfortune to witness the defeat of liberal-humanist ideas and the perversion and sacrifice of socialist ideals, to live through a period of social disintegration rather than social reconstruction based on humanist principles. All the major issues of his youth that touched his compassion―oppression, intolerance, in-equality of opportunity, imperialism, and war―had in many respects intensified during his lifetime. His political mentors―Locke , Mill, and William Morris―could expect the future to justify their hopeful view of man, but it was Russell's fate to see state education at work as state indoctrination, to note with despair that enfranchised women were as unenlightened and powerless as men, and that the exploited, if given the chance, would become exploiters. "People seem good while they are oppressed but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn . . . life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim."
These were powerful factors in the life of Bertrand Russell,which when combined with his class outlook, always at variance with his socialist humanitarianism, help us understand his essentially pessimistic view of man and his failure to adjust the liberal humanism of Mill to the realities of the twentieth century.
Goldstein, Ron, "Crusader and Cassandra: The Politics of Bertrand Russell" (1977). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 4856.
McMaster University Library