The Final Passion
by David Horowitz
By permission of BRPF
David Horowitz, who works for Ramparts magazine, to whom we are indebted for this article, was a director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation for a number of years.
David Horowitz later did something of a U-turn in some of his views; cf. e.g. remarks on him by Noam Chomsky - Rae West
Towards the end of his life, Bertrand Russell spent most of his time in Plas Penrhyn, Wales, in an ample but not opulent house set high on a cliff, with a spectacular view of the Glaslyn estuary below. He came down to London rarely, the wearying six-hour trip and the pressure of appointments presenting hardships he could bear less and less as time went on. Because of a kink in his throat, and the inadvisability of an operation at his advanced age, he was already living on a wholly liquid diet, which he roguishly supplemented with seven Red Hackle scotches a day.
I met Lord Russell on one of the increasingly rare occasions when he was spending a few months in London in his Chelsea flat. It was on a crisply clear day early in the fall of 1965, and I remember feeling anxiety and agitation as I searched out the number I had been given among a row of indistinguishable and modest red brick houses. A compulsive early-arriver, I walked around the block several times after locating his flat in the hopes that others would have arrived by the time I got there, and I could slip in unnoticed. Finally, I knocked weakly on the door.
It was opened by a diminutive, incredibly frail and fragile-looking white-haired old man. A mixture of feelings came up like a blush: awe, humility, admiration, and most of all, a sense of unbridgeable distance. He smiled, amused at my confusion but also so warm and friendly that he had already overcome the worst of it, although I never did manage to conquer that sense of being where I didnt belong, of not being remotely capable of stepping across that awesome gap - a gap created by time, by culture and by forces of history that I could only dimly imagine.
I followed Lord Russells slow steps down the corridor, past the portraits of his ancestors: Lord John Russell, his grandfather, who presided over the famous Reform Act of 1832 ; William Russell, who, as he pointed out later with a puckish twinkle in his eye, had opposed authority and had his head cut off. The short walk was obviously a great burden on him, and it alerted a Bellowesque guilt in me. (Jesus, Lord Russell, you didnt have to come all the way to the door just for me.)
Later, when I got used to Russell and his routine, I was to realise that these efforts - the arduous trek down that short but seemingly endless hall, the pouring of tea for everyone from what appeared more a cauldron than a teapot in those frail, bony hands were, for him, part of a fierce struggle against the failing of the life force, against time which had not beaten him over all the generations, although it had beaten down those he had known, loved and fought. (I believe, he had written, that when I die I shall rot and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their values because they are not everlasting.) On that first day, however, after we got settled and began talking, one thing quickly became clear: the physical decline was deceptive; the mind which peered out through those at once sad and twinkling eyes was keen and resilient.
The gathering which I had come to attend was a meeting of the members of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation to discuss plans for setting up an International War Crimes Tribunal to investigate Americas war in Vietnam. The room was filled with people who were under thirty, and more likely under twenty-five all born after Russell had attained more than twice that age. In the political actions in which he engaged during the last years it was always thus: we who served him and laid plans with him always looked at him across a full lifetime.
A memoir by Ralph Schoenman, his one-time secretary, captures it well: We are separated by sixty-four years. His talk is studded with Lenin, Victoria, Poincaré, Mill, Browning, Wilde How close were you to Bakunin, Bertie? Not that close, but then I wasnt well acquainted with Methuselah either.
The meeting itself was one of those interminably windy sessions familiar to anyone who has been in on the organising of anything. It veered off on a dozen tangents, all the time increasing for me the incongruity of the afternoon the legendary Lord Russell, godson of John Stuart Mill, holding court with these youthful activists and entering their circumambulatory discussions about organisational details and structures of the forthcoming Tribunal. Russell was concerned that the plans should not be too grandiose and appear ridiculous in the outcome. One long digression of the afternoon concerned possible sites for the Tribunal, and elaborate speculation as to whether any government would allow it. Russell was heavily inclined to doubt the will or ability of any officials Russian, Swiss or Third World to be hospitable to a project which they wouldnt control and which would undoubtedly get them into hot water with the United States.
This scepticism which turned out to be simple realism was a feature of Russells intellect that was to impress me again and again in the brief period in which I was a director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Russells incapacity for illusion that ingrained sense of doubt which was his inheritance from the age of Victoria was an essential characteristic of his being. In a B.B.C. interview on his 94th birthday, Russell had been reminded that many of his critics were claiming that the youngsters who had followed him in his nuclear protests were just young and irresponsible, and that when they got to be over thirty, they would become conservative and respectable and abandon him. What did he think? Russell, whose actions had foreshadowed and inspired the upsurge of mass protest in the 60s, replied: Yes, thats probably true. Could I, I would ask myself many times after hearing this story, put my life energies into the political struggle if I did not really believe I was helping to shape a future majority, if I was not confident of the ultimate triumph of reason and justice?
There was on the other side of Russells profound scepticism, however, an equally profound romanticism. Among his books was a whimsical one-sentence work which he had written in his 89th year, called History of the World in Epitome. It began with a picture of Adam and Eve and ended with a photograph of the atomic bomb. Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, read the text, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable. He had a passionate love for this same wicked, folly-ridden creature, man. Some called it quixotic but Russell was well aware of the monstrous cruelties his passion encompassed. He was like those favoured figures of Shakespeares imagination, romantic sceptics who, like Hamlet, were disgusted by the animal in man and the vanity in his works, yet recognised him as the noblest of creations. It was in this ability to embrace antitheses that the compelling magnetism of Russell lay. You had in Russells presence at once awesome tradition, genius and age, and from the very centre of all these humbling radiances, a ninety-year-old imp who would puncture the illusion, the pomp and the heroic vision with a deflating barb. As his old friend Leonard Woolf once remarked of Russell, It is very rare to be a Socrates and a Puck at the same time.
Nothing was more alien to Russell than posturing, and nothing more devastating to pretension than his own searing vision: if there is a lesson in his life, it is that in the last analysis, the truly heroic can arise only on the ground of the relentlessly real.
In his youth he did work of importance in mathematical logic, but his eccentric attitude toward the First World War revealed a lack of balanced judgment, which increasingly infected his later writings. So Russell wrote of himself in a mock obituary which he composed in 1937. But this whimsy became, in the eyes of editorial writers in the great Western newspapers, reality, and their abuse of the political writings and activities of his last years was unstinting. These culminated in an incredible viciousness directed against the last great effort of his life the pitting of his intellect and final energies against the American destruction of Vietnam.
From the editorial page of the New York Times, under the headline Corpse on Horseback, C. L. Sulzberger informed readers that Russell had outlived his own conscious ideas and become clay in unscrupulous hands. The tragedy of the War Crimes Tribunal, Sulzberger continued, cannot fairly be laid at the door of the wasted peer whose bodily endurance outpaced his brain. ... This was written in May, 1967, a week before Russells 95th birthday, when the Tribunal was in session, and while Lyndon Johnson was still President of the United States. It was written before the revelations about the massacres at My Lai and elsewhere, and before the great revulsion against the war which broke forth in the massive Moratorium demonstrations. Even now, however, the consensus of obituaries on Russell is that this last gesture (referred to variously as a mock trial or the notorious trial) was something to be ashamed of, a final unfortunate surrender to the naivete, caprice and inconsistency which characterised his involvement in social affairs.
Such a distortion is easily conjured out of the press symbols of Russells career. To see Russell clearly across the near century of his life, however, is to comprehend the inner consistency of his stance, from his resistance to World War I, through his nuclear protests, to his last defence of Vietnams revolutionary peasants this final act, the hardest, the most courageous, the most important gesture of them all.
Russells very first book was a critical account of German Marxism (with an appendix by his wife Alys on Marxism and the woman question). His first venture into politics saw him stand unsuccessfully as a candidate for Parliament with womens suffrage as one of his main planks.
In Roads to Freedom (1918), Russell outlined a programme of guild socialism and laid down the two principles of reform in international relations which became the all-consuming cause of the last decade-and-a-half of his life: First, the avoidance of wars, and, second, the prevention of the oppression of weak nations by strong ones
It was the Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920), written on his return from a trip to revolutionary Russia where he met Lenin and Trotsky, that established Russells reputation as an early anti-communist. What he had written about this crisis in world history, however, was something quite different from what his reputation as a liberal anti-communist might suggest. I believe, Russell declared at the outset, that Communism is necessary to the world, and believe that the heroism of Russia has fired mens hopes in a way which was essential to the realisation of Communism in the future. Regarded as a splendid attempt, without which ultimate success would have been very improbable, Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind.
It was the method by which the Bolsheviks were attempting to establish Socialism that caused Russells doubts. What he reacted to most negatively in this method was its fanatical intolerance and its welcoming of class war and its hatreds which the counter-revolution had, he conceded, made necessary. With the advent of Stalin came the institutionalisation of the worst elements and tendencies in Bolshevism as he had witnessed them in 1920. It was only after Stalins death, and the subsequent changes in Soviet policy, that Russells view of Russian Communism became less censorious. In this he was greatly influenced, as were many other socialists, by the writings of the Marxist biographer of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, whom he later chose to serve on the War Crimes Tribunal. [Footnote: In fact Russell had been in touch with Deutscher throughout the 50s, and Deutscher used to visit him at his house in Richmond in the early 50s.]
Prior to Russells invitation, Deutscher had not participated in a political action since the 1930s, when he had been expelled from the Polish Communist Party (whose entire Central Committee later perished at Stalins hands) for exaggerating the dangers of Nazism and similar Trotskyist sins. Denounced as a Marxist revolutionary by the right, as a spokesman for Wall Street by the Communists, and as a Stalinist apologist by the Trotskyists, Deutscher had lived the last thirty years of his life in political isolation for his principles, a situation which Russell understood well.
I remember how moved Deutscher was when we brought him the invitation from Russell, and how deep was the respect which this classical European Marxist expressed for the English empiricists life and work. The Russell-Deutscher relationship subsequently provided one of the most touching and fulfilling moments in the Tribunal proceedings. On November 13, 1966, the Tribunal met for the first time in closed session in London. Russell appeared and read a brief statement asserting the need for such a Tribunal composed of men eminent, not through their power, but through their intellectual and moral contribution to what we optimistically call human civilisation. When he finished, there was a respectful silence as he turned, and with his usual slight annoyance at the hands that went out to help him, began the slow, aching, proud steps that would take him to the door. I understood the silence again that awesome gap between the figure and his audience, though this was a group considerably closer in age and in distinction than most but I felt it still and especially inadequate. And then Deutscher rose and addressed him for all the others, for the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for the Yugoslav historian Vladimir Dedijer, for the eminent mathematician Laurent Schwartz and the rest. Deutscher, who orally dictated his epic historical works, had the most literary and finely-architected speaking style of anyone I have ever heard, and now his central European accents filled the room as he told Russell what a magnificent and courageous task he had undertaken, what a beacon of hope he was to the young, what a light to the oppressed, and what a debt of gratitude was owed to him. The old man nodded, visibly moved, and then turned again to make his slow way out.
Each of the principal Tribunal figures was, like Russell, one of those displaced intellects that had been cast into the twilight zones of politics because of his commitment to the Enlightenment. ideals that capitalism and imperialism had made impossible, and that the Stalinist revolutions had betrayed. There was Sartre, the President of the Tribunal, who had travelled from Existentialism to Marxism, but because of his fierce and principled independence had been compelled to live a political career under attack from Communists and liberals alike. And there was Dedijer, the Chairman, a thrice-wounded Communist partisan, once one of the four top leaders in Yugoslavia who had been cast into internal exile for defending Milovan Djilas, even though he did not share Djilas views.
These men, and most of the other Tribunal members, were Marxists, it is true, albeit independent ones. Russells intellectual distance from Marxism, however, has been exaggerated (on occasion even by himself). Where the basic divergence really lay was in Russells stress on psychological factors as motive forces in history, and even more profoundly in his sceptical outlook, which was both philosophical and constitutional: Throughout my life, he wrote in the second volume of his Autobiography, I have longed to feel that oneness with large bodies of human beings that is experienced by the members of enthusiastic crowds. The longing has often been strong enough to lead me into self-deception. I have imagined myself in turn a Liberal, a Socialist, or a Pacifist, but I have never been any of these things, in any profound sense. Always the sceptical intellect, when I have most wished it silent, has whispered doubts to me, has cut me off from the facile enthusiasms of others, and has transported me into a desolate solitude. These lines were written a propos his anti-war activities during the First World War, when he worked with Quakers, non-resisters and Socialists as an ally, but not a comrade. He would tell the Quakers that some wars were justified, and the Socialists that he opposed the tyranny of the state, and get suspicious looks from both.
World War I and its aftermath had deepened Russells scepticism to the point of despair. The optimist now, he wrote in 1948, is the man who thinks it possible to hope that the world will not get worse; to suppose that it may get better in any near future is scarcely possible except through wilful blindness. In the two decades that Russell lived after these words were written, and especially after the development of the hydrogen bomb in 1953, he dedicated his political energies not only to the end that the world should not become a worse place to live, but that it should not cease to be a place to live altogether. In 1954, he concluded a radio broadcast on the hydrogen bomb by saying, I appeal as a human being to human beings: remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot, nothing lies before you but universal death. In 1955 he initiated a joint manifesto of scientists from both East and West (a radical departure for the times) warning against the dangers of nuclear annihilation. From that time on he became the intellectual symbol of the struggle against the bomb.
In 1957 he launched the Pugwash conferences of East-West nuclear scientists, which had an important influence on the subsequent development of the nuclear test ban, and in 1958 helped to found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.), which he served as president. In 1960 when the C.N.D. and its Aldermaston marches were at the height of their popularity, he resigned as president to lead a campaign of mass civil disobedience under the auspices of a Committee of 100. Early in 1961, Russell led a sitdown of 5,000 people at the Ministry of Defence. Later in the year he addressed a meeting in Hyde Park, which was stopped by the police. Russell was arraigned with other members of the Committee for inciting civil disobedience and was sent to Brixton prison for seven days. (He had previously spent six months there for his opposition to World War I.)
This frail eighty-nine-year-old had replied with a firm No I wont when the magistrate offered to exempt him from jail if he pledged himself to good behaviour. When the sentence was pronounced, cries of protest went up from the onlookers. This gesture of concern wounded the old mans pride. It angered me, he said. I knew that it was well-meant, but I had deliberately incurred the punishment and, in any case, I could not see that age had anything to do with guilt. If anything, it made me the more guilty. The Magistrate seemed to me nearer the mark in observing that, from his point of view, I was old enough to know better.
In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought mankind to the brink of the disaster that Russell had fought so long. The crisis over Americas former neocolonial dependency, coupled with the steady escalation of U.S. intervention in Indo-China, brought to a climax a change in Russells sense of the priorities involved in mankinds survival. In many ways this change represented a return for him to his perspective when he first raised his voice in rebellion during the 1914 War which, he noted wryly on his ninetieth birthday that year, had been the war to end peace.
Nineteen-fourteen marked for him a dividing line not only between eras, but between worlds. A phrase in a diary note he set down a week before his birthday in 1950 expresses the almost preternatural significance of that date for him. Writing of the marital difficulties of his children he says: They were born after 1914, and are therefore incapable of happiness.
During the years of his opposition to the First World War and his consequent isolation, there was one figure who stood out above all the rest in Russells admiration and foreshadowed his own future course. E. D. Morel was a liberal crusader against the atrocities being committed by white Europeans in Africa, particularly the Belgian Congo, and was the founder of the Congo Reform Association. A major theme of Morels work was that the bestiality, violence and aggression of European imperialism in Africa had come home to roost in the European conflict. For this, he was (in Russells words) more than any other opponent of the war ... attacked by politicians and the press, and was eventually thrown in jail, where he suffered an injury to his health from which he never recovered, dying in 1922.
Russell himself recognised the economic, as well as the moral and political interaction between imperialism and the World War, and in 1934 finished his book Freedom and Organisation with the following admonition: The same causes that produced war in 1914 are still operative, and, unless checked by international control of investment and of raw material, they will inevitably produce the same effect, but on a larger scale. It is not by pacifist sentiment, but by world-wide economic organisation, that civilised mankind is to be saved from collective suicide.
For a considerable period, coinciding with the early Cold War, Russell had thought that Stalins tyranny was taking an expansionist turn, patterned on the Napoleonic episode after the French Revolution. Since the mid-fifties, however, like many others, he had changed his views and recognised the essential conservatism of Stalins foreign policy. Nuclear weapons had made the ambition of global empire a possibility, but it was the free world empire of the United States, with its thousands of overseas bases, and property rights to most of the worlds natural resources, that was expanding across continents and oceans, intervening in underdeveloped countries and raising threats to world peace. As my researches into the origins and circumstances of the war in Vietnam showed, the United States was embarking upon military adventures which increasingly replaced war with Russia as the chief threat to the world. The fanaticism of Americas anti-Communism, combined with its constant search for markets and raw materials, made it impossible for any serious neutral to regard America and Russia as equally dangerous to the world. So Russell wrote at the end of volume three of his Autobiography, adding that, For people in the West, this was most difficult to admit, and again I experienced the silence or opposition of those who had come to accept my views of the previous decade.
There is a control in these words, a suppression of personal bitterness and pain wholly characteristic of the man, which gives no hint of the vicious weapons of attack that were wielded against him in his last years, the wounds he suffered, or the anguish of the battle he fought. Even now, one can only guess at their measure. To attend the press conference announcing the War Crimes Tribunal, for example, Russell, now a few months shy of ninety-five, undertook the long trip to London in the dead of winter. Caxton Hall, where the conference was held, has a winding staircase which must have seemed interminable to the old man as he mounted them at snails pace to confront the glaring inquisitorial klieglights and the hatchet faces of the worlds press jammed in intimidating, hostile numbers in the inadequate room. For his attempt to lend an aged hand to the Vietnamese, the most distinguished living philosopher in the West was featured in the august New York Times Magazine, which described his entry thus: A stir, a bustle, a craning of necks; he comes! He comes? Say rather, without disrespect, it comes... . The man who has now become the holiest relic the international left possesses is to be unwrapped and shown to the populace.
It was not only the West that dealt blows to Russell at this hour. Because it was independent and because the uncompromising terms of its mandate would make co-operation with the United States more difficult, the Communist countries had disapproved of the Tribunal from the outset. By their silence, the Soviet and East European press assured a minimal awareness of the Tribunals findings in the white sectors of the world where that awareness was needed most.
From its inception, the Tribunal had had no real base of support, beyond the agreement of the Vietnamese to co-operate. The money to finance its $200,000 costs came almost entirely from Russell himself, who had only a modest annual income from books. As a young man he had given away his inheritance, and the controversies which arose over his antiwar activities and liberated views on sex made university appointments scarce. Readers of the Autobiography know what a struggle it was for him for decades to live on royalties from his books, so that it was a poignant and touching irony that when the advances on the Autobiography brought him a small fortune for the second time in his life, he gave it all to the War Crimes Tribunal.
It is difficult to know how deeply the unscrupulous reporting of the prestige press in the West, along with the lack of immediate success of the Tribunal, affected Russell. His ninety-fifth birthday took place just after the first Tribunal session. In contrast to his ninetieth, where an orchestra had played in his honour and he had been toasted by lords, ladies, old distinguished friends and celebrated intellects, this one saw him once again isolated, probably more than he had ever been. The Tribunal had deprived him of being regarded affectionately as a remarkable antique from the Victorian era, to be trotted out for annual celebrations. He had done something that old men arent supposed to do: he had rebelled against the respectability his age and achievements guaranteed him. As a younger man, he had raised his voice against the bourgeois morality that stifled sex, and now he protested against the morality that sanctified official murder.
The battle which Russell had chosen to enter in his last years was infinitely bloodier and dirtier than the previous ones he had come through so well. In part this was in the nature of the contest. It was as though a revered prince of the Philistines had taken his stance by the side of David and slung verbal thunderbolts at the giant. To oppose in its own citadel white western civilisation, to take up the cause of the niggers of the earth, to lay the finger of blame on the technological Goliath, the last best hope of liberal democracy, as it committed mass murder in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia this was to court devastation. And thus, the media of the Western world entered a loose conspiracy to take revenge against Russell by portraying him as a senescent, bird-like and wrinkled creature who should have done himself the favour of dying when his reputation as a humanist and philosopher was unsullied by such follies as intruding in global politics on the side of the weak and oppressed.
But there was another more personal cross which Russell had to bear into the conflict. In his last triumphant battle as the head and inspirer of the Committee of 100, he had stood forth as advocate and antagonist and led his troops in his own person into the fray. Between then and the Tribunal the body had begun to give up. No longer could he speak extemporaneously before the public: the eyes had weakened, and read only with immense effort under the television lights; the voice was thinner and seemed at times ready to disappear forever; the dignified stride had collapsed into an unseemly shuffle; and the face often became slack, giving a false impression of vacuity that the incomparably quick mind still burning inside must have found especially painful to bear.
History has already vindicated the public acts of Lord Russells last years: the historical record will show that the War Crimes Tribunal the climax of what began as a lonely crusade correctly characterised and identified a war of atrocity, a war conducted to maintain imperial dominance in Southeast Asia, a war representing the archetypal conflict of the age and the chief threat to mankinds future survival. But history will not show the inner struggle of the man who initiated this Tribunal. It will not record the triumph of an heroic will that could not hear the cry of suffering without attempting to answer, or the passionate concern for human survival that moved an old man to put himself in an international pillory before the greatest power in the world as the defender of a peasant people and its struggle to be free.
For most, Lord Russell will be remembered as the great mathematician and philosopher, the man whose life encompassed the transition from Victorianism to the modern world, the friend of men as various as Alfred North Whitehead and D. H. Lawrence. But for me, the image was formed on that first day in Chelsea: the arduous shuffle, the pixy smile, the brittle bowed movements, the kind, wise face which hid the anguish of its own struggle.
To have known him is always to be humbled by the courage, the immense guts of the old man, and the sustaining calm of the inner vision: An individual human existence should be like a river, he had written, small at first, narrowly confined within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. ... I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.
Endnote: A 650-page account of the proceedings of the Tribunal, called Against the Crime of Silence, is available for 72/6 hardback and 50/- [i.e. 50 shillings, now obsolete coinage - RW] flexiback from B.R.P.F. Publications, 45 Gamble Street, Forest Road West, Nottingham NG7 4ET [This is a similar volume, but with rather more personal accounts, to Prevent the Crime of Silence which I scanned in - RW]
Click here to return to selection of Russell Foundation articles
Click here for index to whole of Rae West's website
HTML Rae West First uploaded 98-01-21 This revn 98-06-27