The Love of Liberty and the Impulse to Coercion: Bertrand Russell Revisited

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”

~ William Shakespeare Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1601) Act II, Scene 2

Can a true love of liberty exist alongside a compulsion to use force in order to ensure its perpetuation? I instinctively feel the correct answer, the libertarian answer, is "generally not," but that does not mean that libertarians are necessarily pacifists: I have argued previously that true libertarians are anti-war, but there are a few situations, rare in history, in which libertarians accept the need for force to be used — usually to repel an aggressor or expel a tyrant who is oppressing us in our own back yard.

What we are living with today, unfortunately, is the propaganda variety of liberty, under which the memory of such legitimate uses of force, and the noble ideals and vocabulary of liberation which went with them, have been perverted to serve the ends of crony capitalist empire-building, buttressed by the raw fear engendered in the people through clever use of all the instruments available for triggering mass psychosis and delusion, not least of which is the endless u2018war on tear-ism.’

Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) was a master at seeing and cutting through this sort of humbug and hypocrisy, and was a relentless seeker after truth. In his 1962 collection of essays entitled, Fact and Fiction he wrote, "It is not by delusion, however exalted, that mankind can prosper, but only by unswerving courage in the pursuit of truth," and in his classic and highly readable Autobiography he reproduced what he had originally set out in 1951 as his u2018Ten Precepts for Freedom of Thought’:

  • Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  • Do not think it is worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  • Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  • When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your partner or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  • Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  • Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  • Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  • Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  • Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  • Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Russell was educated in the classical English liberal tradition, and he was later an unabashed admirer of the Constitution of the United States. He described his early education in the 1880s thus:

"History, or at least English history, was part of my education, from a very early age. Constitutional history especially was implanted in me before I was ten years old…. I was taught as a matter of course that the Americans were right in the war of independence, and although I was allowed a childish pleasure in the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, I was told to deplore the British Empire and abhor the makers of the Afghan and Zulu wars which occurred when I was beginning to be politically conscious."

~ Fact and Fiction, part 1, chapter 5: An Education in History

He viewed the US Constitution as the summit of humanity’s achievement in defining a nation-state’s rules of government, reconciling better than anything which had gone before the need for human liberty with vital limitations on the exercise and abuse of power.

And yet, frustrated by the manifest savageries and dangerous posturings of nation-states in two world wars in his life-time, he saw the next step up from that Constitution as world government, in the process succumbing to the dangerous fallacy of advocating the use of pre-emptive force to impose ideas or values in whose absolute virtue he believed. He was also partial to the perceived benefits of being able to persuade and influence a world-wide audience through mass communication. This has meant that, while he is revered by many an idealist for his passionate commitment to truth, every bizarre practical suggestion he ever floated still tarnishes his memory.

At the end of World War II, the US had for a short time a world monopoly of nuclear weapons. In 1946 Russell advocated the pre-emptive nuclear bombing of cities of Soviet Union, a collectivist totalitarian society and regime which he abhorred, in order to prevent the realization of what he saw as Joseph Stalin’s ambition of world domination. Later in life he would apparently deny that he had ever advocated such a thing.

Change the names of the players around a bit, add "WMD," adjust the quantities, and stir. Contemplate the twisted logic of bombing a people in order to liberate them. Does this recipe not begin to sound familiar in our own time?

The 1946 episode, together with his stated beliefs in world government, population control, and the egalitarian redistribution of global wealth1, have got Russell into no end of trouble with posterity, managing to offend both the politically correct and the politically incorrect. How could such an acute mind, so aware of the historical importance of liberty to humanity’s development, and possessed of a keen ability to identify the hypocrisy of imperialist adventure and the false posturing of the rival states in the Cold War, advocate measures which go in the entirely opposite direction, the direction of coercion? To this day his long life and the paradoxical, even muddled impact of his ideas on social and political issues inspire reactions of vitriolic hatred and contempt, while at the same time many feel in sympathy with him and sincerely admire his writing and his politics. The difference is as between night and day.

On the dark side, he is denounced variously as a "prophet of the New World Order" and a neo-pagan2, as being possessed by Satan3, as a particularly nasty (because clever and intellectually influential) member of the ruling Anglo-American oligarchic elite, and lately by Jeffrey Steinberg and Lyndon Larouche4 as the ideological precursor of the Cheney-Rumsfeld "utopian cabal" which has developed the arguments for pre-emptive self-defense contained in the Project for a New American Century and the National Security Strategy. Now implemented in the US foreign policy of global military omnipresence and perpetual war.

Actually I rather doubt that the ruling post-Trotskyist neocon cabal in the US would want to claim Russell as one of their gurus: the American security establishment in the late 1960s saw him as a crackpot, and the anti-war and campaign for nuclear disarmament activities of his later life as a nuisance, so they allegedly had him u2018neutralized’ — whatever that may mean. At heart Russell, unlike them, was also quintessentially anti-authoritarian. Nevertheless the fact remains that the zany Strangelovean similarities between them are striking.

Others, however, with no such axe to grind, but perhaps having different, sulkier demons lurking in their psyches, have expressed extreme contempt for the man: Ray Monk5, professor of Philosophy at Southampton University in England, admitted that his dislike of Russell strongly coloured the second volume of his biography, published in 2001, while eminent Australian conservative Rob Stove, in a review of Monk’s book6, implied that Russell did not actually have much idea about anything. One is even left with the uncomfortable feeling, after reading this review, that perhaps it would have been a humane thing to have had Russell put down long before he actually died in 1970, at the ripe old age of 97. Similar regret at the Russell’s unusual longevity is expressed by the anonymous writer7 who feels that he was a "Satanic Malthusian" and "a master of policy-making for the evil elites of the world."

There is no doubt also that Russell greatly upset the men and women of religion with his atheism, which caused him to be barred from teaching at the City University of New York in the 1940s, and for a time to face not inconsiderable financial hardship.

However, if we move out of the darkness into the light for a moment, at least two distinguished critics8 are in agreement that Ray Monk should perhaps not have written his biography if he found the subject-matter as distasteful as he evidently did. These and many others feel that the personal failures of a man in life, and even gross errors of judgment, should not be allowed to detract from the value of his work, and they are prepared to give Russell the benefit of the doubt by seeing the positive as well as the negative side.

Thomas Nagel for example, professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University and author of the highly readable essay "Concealment and Exposure," which discusses the destruction of the conventions of privacy which the advent of the intrusive society has brought about, comments that "Monk’s relentless censoriousness about Russell’s personal troubles seems uncalled for; things can go badly wrong in any family, even that of a tireless social commentator" and that Russell "gave incomparably more to the world than he took from it," while Sylvia Nasar of the Columbia School of Journalism, author of the life of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, concludes in her New York Times review of Monk that "unfortunately, Monk’s dislike of Russell — which he says is based largely on the fate of Russell’s son and granddaughters — and his seeming ignorance of the most basic facts about mental illness, have skewed his judgment badly. Biographers who despise their subjects are evidently just as much at risk of getting the story wrong as those who worship blindly."

So it is that different people find in Russell’s life and person those u2018express and admirable’ qualities side by side with the u2018quintessence of dust’ which Hamlet sees when contemplating his fellow human beings. Alongside optimistic moods and hope, there are dark episodes of despair and disgust. Loving humanity, he often hated people. Such duality is not far removed from schizophrenia, which indeed ran in his family.

I believe it is possible to understand the light and dark sides of Russell’s personality, and the chemistry of people’s polarized reactions to him, by examining his genetic inheritance and his upbringing, and placing them in their social and historical context (or, as conventional usage has it, the differential impact of nature and nurture). This is a fascinating task, one which is properly the job of the sympathetic but discriminating biographer. An essay such as this cannot hope to do justice to it, but Russell himself in his huge written legacy, and particularly in his Autobiography, goes a long way to doing what is needed. He writes in the Preface:

u2018Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither … over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.’

I also believe the morally right attitude to personal struggles like these is that we should be compassionate in relation to such evidence of human suffering and uncertainty. The fact is that when any individual in a position of eminence or power takes the battle with his personal demons into the public arena, any innocent party who is anywhere within range when the firing starts and the bombs start to fall risks getting wiped out in the ensuing conflagration. Similar dualities to those which afflicted Russell are not uncommon in many human beings and, in practice, the two sides are not mutually exclusive.

It is even commonly argued that for creative purposes, the struggle between them is actually necessary: the art of writing, for example, involves coercing words and phrases into a coherent and hopefully rational whole, while the search for truth can lead one into all sorts of chaotic dark alleys of irrationality (and yes, on occasion, even into conspiracy theories).

If the reader does allow him- or herself actually to enjoy the duality, he or she will find that there is no need to accept that what the writer says is all true, or that one is necessarily guided into suitable or appropriate action on the issues he is writing about. Historian-philosopher Theodore Zeldin, author of the fascinating book An Intimate History of Humanity, has said that u2018all the greatest books have been self-help books,’ and u2018a book from which you get nothing is a failure.’9 While there is a sense with many of Russell’s books that they are indeed didactic, and often very effectively so, it is a mistake to think that all readers should necessarily be looking for a prescription to remedy all their ills universally and for all time, even — or perhaps especially — from one who is renowned as a philosopher.

Thomas Nagel again: "Though it is popularly and journalistically thought to be central to the job description of a philosopher to discover how we should live, and then to reveal the secret to the rest of us, it is in fact rare for philosophers to set themselves this audacious task. Most of the major philosophers of the past have concentrated their efforts on trying to understand the nature of reality, truth and knowledge. While this includes ethical theory, that is not the same thing as knowing how to live, since one cannot live merely by not doing what is wrong" (my emphasis).

It is also all too easy to analyze a situation correctly, and then not know what to do about it, or give plainly wrong and counterproductive advice. Nagel concludes Russell was u2018fearless, outspoken and eloquent’ in his analysis of things, and "while his judgement was sometimes egregiously wrong, for someone who spoke out so continually on so many subjects he had a pretty good record."

A disposition to compassionate understanding does not prevent any one of us from still making his or her own critical judgements about the work of the man, and I for one will readily admit that I do not agree with everything that Russell believed in or wrote. Fascinated by the history and significance of liberty, yet he was certainly no libertarian, having twice stood as a socialist party candidate for Parliament and having had the gall (!) to write this heresy:

"In the modern world very few individuals can have much influence except as members of organisations, and therefore the question of freedom for organisations is becoming more important than that of freedom for individuals."

~ Fact and Fiction, 1962, part 2, chapter 1 What is Freedom?

Yet it is typical of Russell that in the very next paragraph he pulls himself back, stressing the importance of individual freedom in history, and the harm done by persecution of individuals whose views are unpopular.

Oscar Wilde labelled consistency u2018the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ and said that diversity of opinion about a work of art indicated that it was u2018new, complex and vital.’ I venture to say the same of Russell, whom I see as an essentially artistic personality, with all the schizoid flaws which that entails, especially the potential for wild fluctuation between the elation experienced in moments of pure joy and the deep despair when confronted by the failure to vanquish his own demons. In such moments he hates everyone in sight, and, like Hamlet, feels there is no way out of the pit of despair in which he finds himself. Is it any surprise that such a personality should breed inconsistency, yet at the same time have the ability to stimulate the grandest flights of the philosophical imagination in others?

J.M. Keynes remarked that Russell trusted too much in the power of reason to solve the problems of irrationality, and Thomas Nagel comments, "irrationality is not in most cases a failure of understanding, so it will not be put right by patient instruction." In other words, the demons within us often make us carry on doing things even when we know, and others have convinced us rationally, that those things are not good for ourselves or for others. There is no ready solution to this, other than perpetual vigilance, an open mind, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and from others. As Russell himself said, in Fact and Fiction, "The ultimate basis of liberty…lies not merely in political institutions, but in the general diffusion of a conviction that all opinions have their rights, and that however convinced you may be it is nevertheless possible that you may be mistaken."

It is more productive, as well as more charitable, for the reader to try to derive positive benefits from the manifest struggle between reason and chaos in Russell’s life and work, and to take what is best from it. As a rule he is, like most of us, better at diagnosing and pointing out what is wrong than in his often wayward prescriptions for making the world a better place. The fact that he does this diagnosis so well, forging an incisive analysis out of his passionate search for truth, gives his writing a tantalizing, catalytic and stimulating quality, and this in turn is what has made his written legacy so eminently quotable.

As with so much in life, getting the best out of someone or something can only be done by sympathetic understanding coupled with critical discrimination, all based on coherent ethical principles and a commitment to individual liberty consistent with the recognition of identical rights for others.

No-one ever said it would be easy.


  1. Philip Hamburger, in a May 1952 review of Romney Wheeler’s NBC TV interview with Bertrand Russell, Television Quarterly, undated.
  2. David J. Peterson, "Bertrand Russell: Prophet of the New World Order" in New Oxford Review, June 2000.
  3. Anonymous, "Was Bertrand Russell possessed?" in Global Economic Crisis, undated.
  4. Jeffrey Steinberg, "The Ghost of Bertrand Russell stalks Cheney-Rumsfeld Pentagon" in Economic Intelligence Review, March 7, 2003.
  5. Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921—1970 (Vintage Books, October 2001).
  6. R J Stove, review of Ray Monk’s "Bertrand Russell, The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970" in News Weekly (Australia), Issue 2 – June 2001.
  7. Anonymous, "Lord Bertrand Russell — The Satanic Malthusian" in, undated.
  8. (1) Thomas Nagel, "Bertrand Russell — A Life" — in The New Republic, May 7, 2001. (2) Sylvia Nasar in The New York Times/Book Review section — April 29, 2001.
  9. Daniel Snowman interviews Theodore Zeldin, History Today, July 1999.

Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal.

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