Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970), was a British philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, and pacifist. Although usually regarded as English, as he spent the majority of his life in England, he was born and raised in Wales.
A prolific writer, Russell was a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. He wrote the essay "On Denoting" and was co-author (with Alfred North Whitehead) of Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics on the laws of logic. Both works have had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics and analytic philosophy.
Russell was born at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy. When he died almost a century later, the British Empire had all but vanished; its power had been dissipated by two world wars and its imperial system had been brought to an end. Among his post–Second World War political activities, Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament, antagonist to Soviet totalitarianism and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Previously he had been imprisoned and deprived of his position at Trinity College, Cambridge because of his activity as a vigorous peace campaigner and opponent of conscription during the First World War. In 1920, Russell visited the emerging Soviet Union which subsequently met with his disapproval, but he also campaigned vigorously against Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.
The Russells had been prominent in Britain for several centuries before this, coming to power and the peerage with the rise of the Tudor dynasty. They established themselves as one of Britain's leading Whig (Liberal) families, and participated in every great political event from the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-40 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89 to the Great Reform Act in 1832.
Russell's parents were quite radical for their times—Russell's father, Viscount Amberley, was an atheist and consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding. Both were early advocates of birth control at a time when this was considered scandalous.
The countess was from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and successfully petitioned a British court to set aside a provision in Amberley's will requiring the children to be raised as agnostics. Despite her religious conservatism, she held progressive views in other areas (accepting Darwinism and supporting Irish Home Rule), and her influence on Bertrand Russell's outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life — her favourite Bible verse, 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' (Exodus 23:2), became his mantra. However, the atmosphere at Pembroke Lodge was one of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality; Frank reacted to this with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings.
Russell's adolescence was thus very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in sex, religion and mathematics, and that only the wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide. He was educated at home by a series of tutors, and he spent countless hours in his grandfather's library.
His brother Frank introduced him to the work of Euclid, which transformed Russell's life.
Russell first met the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith when he was seventeen years old. He became a friend of the Pearsall Smith family—they knew him primarily as 'Lord John's grandson' and enjoyed showing him off—and travelled with them to the continent; it was in their company that Russell visited the Paris Exhibition of 1889 and was able to climb the Eiffel Tower soon after it was completed.
He soon fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, who was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, and, contrary to his grandmother's wishes, he married her on 13 December 1894. Their marriage began to fall apart in 1901 when it occurred to Russell, while he was out on his bicycle, that he no longer loved her. She asked him if he loved her and he replied that he didn't. Russell also disliked Alys's mother, finding her controlling and cruel. It was to be a hollow shell of a marriage and they finally divorced in 1921, after a lengthy period of separation. During this period, Russell had passionate (and often simultaneous) affairs with a number of women, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress Lady Constance Malleson.
In 1905 he wrote the essay "On Denoting", which was published in the philosophical journal Mind. Russell became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. The first of three volumes of Principia Mathematica, written with Whitehead, was published in 1910, which, along with the earlier The Principles of Mathematics, soon made Russell world famous in his field. In 1911, he became acquainted with the Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he viewed as a genius and a successor who would continue his work on logic. He spent hours dealing with Wittgenstein's various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair. The latter was often a drain on Russell's energy, but he continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, including the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922.
Russell subsequently lectured in Beijing on philosophy for one year, accompanied by Dora. While in China, Russell became gravely ill with pneumonia, and incorrect reports of his death were published in the Japanese press. When the couple visited Japan on their return journey, Dora notified the world that "Mr. Bertrand Russell, having died according to the Japanese press, is unable to give interviews to Japanese journalists." The press were not amused and did not appreciate the sarcasm.
On the couple's return to England on 26 August 1921, Dora was six months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised, on 27 September 1921. Their children were John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell, born on 16 November 1921 and Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine Tait) born on 29 December 1923. Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics, and education to the layman. Some scholars have suggested that at this point he had an affair with Vivien Eliot, wife of T. S. Eliot.
Together with Dora, he also founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927. After he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.
Russell's marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her having two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry. They separated in 1932 and finally divorced. On 18 January 1936, Russell married his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence, who had been his children's governess since the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, 5th Earl Russell, who became a prominent historian and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.
In an exchange of letters in The Economist magazine in 2001, Nigel Lawson, the former British Chancellor, and Nicholas Griffin, of McMaster University, discussed a speech given in 1948 at Westminster School by the celebrated philosopher Bertrand Russell. In answer to a question from the audience, Bertrand Russell said that if the USSR's aggression continued, it would be morally worse to go to war after the USSR possessed an atomic bomb than before they possessed one, because if the USSR had no bomb the West's victory would come more swiftly and with fewer casualties than if there were atom bombs on both sides. To put this into context, only the USA possessed an atomic bomb at that time, and the USSR was pursuing an extremely aggressive policy towards the countries in Eastern Europe which it was absorbing into its sphere of influence. Many understood Russell's comments to mean that Russell approved of a first strike in a war with the USSR, including Lawson, who was present when Russell spoke. Others, including Griffin who obtained a transcript of the speech, have argued that he was merely explaining the usefulness of America's atomic arsenal in deterring the USSR from continuing its domination of Eastern Europe.
In the King's Birthday Honours of 9 June 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. When he was given the Order of Merit, King George VI was affable but slightly embarrassed at decorating a former jailbird, saying that "You have sometimes behaved in a manner that would not do if otherwise adopted." Russell merely smiled, but afterwards claimed that the reply "That's right, just like your brother" immediately came to mind.
In 1952, Russell was divorced by Peter, with whom he had been very unhappy. Conrad, Russell's son by Peter, did not see his father between the time of the divorce and 1968 (at which time his decision to meet his father caused a permanent breach with his mother).
Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, soon after the divorce, on 15 December 1952. They had known each other since 1925, and Edith had taught English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a house for twenty years with Russell's old friend Lucy Donnelly. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their marriage was a happy, close, and loving one. Russell's eldest son, John, suffered from serious mental illness, which was the source of ongoing disputes between Russell and John's mother, Russell's former wife, Dora. John's wife Susan was also mentally ill, and eventually Russell and Edith became the legal guardians of their three daughters (two of whom were later diagnosed with schizophrenia).
On 31 January 1970, Russell issued a statement which condemned Israeli aggression in the Middle East and called for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in 1967. The statement said that:
The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was "given" by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homeland is an essential ingredient of any genuine settlement in the Middle East. We are frequently told that we must sympathise with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. […] What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy.|Bertrand Russell|31 January 1970This was Russell's final ever political statement or act. It was read out at the International Conference of Parliamentarians in Cairo on 3 February 1970, the day after his death.
The next day, 1 February, he spent at his home, Plas Penrhyn, in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales quietly. However, on the morning of 2 February Russell said he didn't feel well and remained in bed until just before noon. That evening, whilst reading, he suddenly fell ill. His wife and nurse, after calling his doctor, got him to bed and gave him oxygen, but it was to no avail. Russell died of influenza before the doctor arrived.
Upon his death, his peerage descended on his eldest son, John, Viscount Amberley, who thence became the fourth Earl.
Russell was cremated at Colwyn Bay on 5 February 1970. There was no religious ceremony, as Russell had dictated there shouldn't be in his will. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains later that year.
Russell and Moore strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent assertions in philosophy. They sought clarity and precision in argument by the use of exact language and by breaking down philosophical propositions into their simplest grammatical components. Russell, in particular, saw formal logic and science as the principal tools of the philosopher. Indeed, unlike most philosophers who preceded him and his early contemporaries, Russell did not believe there was a separate method for philosophy. He believed that the main task of the philosopher was to illuminate the most general propositions about the world and to eliminate confusion. In particular, he wanted to end what he saw as the excesses of metaphysics. Russell adopted William of Ockham's principle against multiplying unnecessary entities, Occam's Razor, as a central part of the method of analysis.
Russell's first mathematical book, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, was published in 1897. This work was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant. Russell soon realized that the conception it laid out would have made Albert Einstein's schema of space-time impossible, which he understood to be superior to his own system. Thenceforth, he rejected the entire Kantian program as it related to mathematics and geometry, and he maintained that his own earliest work on the subject was nearly without value.
Interested in the definition of number, Russell studied the work of George Boole, Georg Cantor, and Augustus De Morgan, while materials in the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University include notes of his reading in algebraic logic by Charles S. Peirce and Ernst Schröder. He became convinced that the foundations of mathematics were to be found in logic, and following Gottlob Frege took an logicist approach in which logic was in turn based upon set theory. In 1900 he attended the first International Congress of Philosophy in Paris, where he became familiar with the work of the Italian mathematician, Giuseppe Peano. He mastered Peano's new symbolism and his set of axioms for arithmetic. Peano defined logically all of the terms of these axioms with the exception of 0, number, successor, and the singular term, the, which were the primitives of his system. Russell took it upon himself to find logical definitions for each of these. Between 1897 and 1903 he published several articles applying Peano's notation to the classical Boole-Schröder algebra of relations, among them On the Notion of Order, Sur la logique des relations avec les applications à la théorie des séries, and On Cardinal Numbers.
Russell eventually discovered that Gottlob Frege had independently arrived at equivalent definitions for 0, successor, and number, and the definition of number is now usually referred to as the Frege-Russell definition. It was largely Russell who brought Frege to the attention of the English-speaking world. He did this in 1903, when he published The Principles of Mathematics, in which the concept of class is inextricably tied to the definition of number. The appendix to this work detailed a paradox arising in Frege's application of second- and higher-order functions which took first-order functions as their arguments, and he offered his first effort to resolve what would henceforth come to be known as the Russell Paradox. Before writing Principles, Russell became aware of Cantor's proof that there was no greatest cardinal number, which Russell believed was mistaken. The Cantor Paradox in turn was shown (for example by Crossley) to be a special case of the Russell Paradox. This caused Russell to analyze classes, for it was known that given any number of elements, the number of classes they result in is greater than their number. This in turn led to the discovery of a very interesting class, namely, the class of all classes. It contains two kinds of classes: those classes that contain themselves, and those that do not. Consideration of this class led him to find a fatal flaw in the so-called principle of comprehension, which had been taken for granted by logicians of the time. He showed that it resulted in a contradiction, whereby Y is a member of Y, if and only if, Y is not a member of Y. This has become known as Russell's paradox, the solution to which he outlined in an appendix to Principles, and which he later developed into a complete theory, the Theory of types. Aside from exposing a major inconsistency in naive set theory, Russell's work led directly to the creation of modern axiomatic set theory. It also crippled Frege's project of reducing arithmetic to logic. The Theory of Types and much of Russell's subsequent work have also found practical applications with computer science and information technology.
Russell continued to defend logicism, the view that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to logic, and along with his former teacher, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the monumental Principia Mathematica, an axiomatic system on which all of mathematics can be built. The first volume of the Principia was published in 1910, and is largely ascribed to Russell. More than any other single work, it established the specialty of mathematical or symbolic logic. Two more volumes were published, but their original plan to incorporate geometry in a fourth volume was never realized, and Russell never felt up to improving the original works, though he referenced new developments and problems in his preface to the second edition. Upon completing the Principia, three volumes of extraordinarily abstract and complex reasoning, Russell was exhausted, and he felt his intellectual faculties never fully recovered from the effort. Although the Principia did not fall prey to the paradoxes in Frege's approach, it was later proven by Kurt Gödel that neither Principia Mathematica, nor any other consistent system of primitive recursive arithmetic, could, within that system, determine that every proposition that could be formulated within that system was decidable, i.e. could decide whether that proposition or its negation was provable within the system (See: Gödel's incompleteness theorem).
Russell's last significant work in mathematics and logic, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, was written by hand while he was in jail for his anti-war activities during World War I. This was largely an explication of his previous work and its philosophical significance.
Perhaps Russell's most significant contribution to philosophy of language is his theory of descriptions, as presented in his seminal essay, On Denoting, first published in 1905 in the Mind philosophical journal, which the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey described as "a paradigm of philosophy." The theory is normally illustrated using the phrase "the present King of France," as in "The present king of France is bald." What object is this proposition about, given that there is not, at present, a king of France? (Roughly the same problem would arise if there were two kings of France at present: which of them does "the king of France" denote?) Alexius Meinong had suggested that we must posit a realm of "nonexistent entities" that we can suppose we are referring to when we use expressions such as this; but this would be a strange theory, to say the least. Frege, employing his distinction between sense and reference, suggested that such sentences, although meaningful, were neither true nor false. But some such propositions, such as "If the present king of France is bald, then the present king of France has no hair on his head," seem not only truth-valuable but indeed obviously true.
The problem is general to what are called "definite descriptions." Normally this includes all terms beginning with "the," and sometimes includes names, like "Walter Scott." (This point is quite contentious: Russell sometimes thought that the latter terms shouldn't be called names at all, but only "disguised definite descriptions," but much subsequent work has treated them as altogether different things.) What is the "logical form" of definite descriptions: how, in Frege's terms, could we paraphrase them in order to show how the truth of the whole depends on the truths of the parts? Definite descriptions appear to be like names that by their very nature denote exactly one thing, neither more or less. What, then, are we to say about the proposition as a whole if one of its parts apparently isn't functioning correctly?
Russell's solution was, first of all, to analyze not the term alone but the entire proposition that contained a definite description. "The present king of France is bald," he then suggested, can be reworded to "There is an x such that x is a present king of France, nothing other than x is a present king of France, and x is bald." Russell claimed that each definite description in fact contains a claim of existence and a claim of uniqueness which give this appearance, but these can be broken apart and treated separately from the predication that is the obvious content of the proposition. The proposition as a whole then says three things about some object: the definite description contains two of them, and the rest of the sentence contains the other. If the object does not exist, or if it is not unique, then the whole sentence turns out to be false, not meaningless.
One of the major complaints against Russell's theory, due originally to Strawson, is that definite descriptions do not claim that their object exists, they merely presuppose that it does.
Wittgenstein, Russell's student, achieved considerable prominence in the philosophy of language after the posthumous publication of the Philosophical Investigations. In Russell's opinion, Wittgenstein's later work was misguided, and he decried its influence and that of its followers (especially members of the so-called "Oxford school" of ordinary language philosophy, whom he believed were promoting a kind of mysticism). However, Russell still held Wittgenstein and his early work in high regard, he thought of him as, "perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." Russell's belief that philosophy's task is not limited to examining ordinary language is once again widely accepted in philosophy.
In his later philosophy, Russell subscribed to a kind of neutral monism, maintaining that the distinctions between the material and mental worlds, in the final analysis, were arbitrary, and that both can be reduced to a neutral property—a view similar to one held by the American philosopher/psychologist, William James, and one that was first formulated by Baruch Spinoza, whom Russell greatly admired. Instead of James' "pure experience," however, Russell characterised the stuff of our initial states of perception as "events," a stance which is curiously akin to his old teacher Whitehead's process philosophy.
The fact that Russell made science a central part of his method and of philosophy was instrumental in making the philosophy of science a full-blooded, separate branch of philosophy and an area in which subsequent philosophers specialised. Much of Russell's thinking about science is expressed in his 1914 book, Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. Among the several schools that were influenced by Russell were the logical positivists, particularly Rudolph Carnap, who maintained that the distinguishing feature of scientific propositions was their verifiability. This contrasted with the theory of Karl Popper, also greatly influenced by Russell, who believed that their importance rested in the fact that they were potentially falsifiable.
It is worth noting that outside of his strictly philosophical pursuits, Russell was always fascinated by science, particularly physics, and he even wrote several popular science books, The ABC of Atoms (1923) and The ABC of Relativity (1925).
Coupled with Russell's other doctrines, this influenced the logical positivists, who formulated the theory of emotivism or non-cognitivism, which states that ethical propositions (along with those of metaphysics) were essentially meaningless and nonsensical or, at best, little more than expressions of attitudes and preferences. Notwithstanding his influence on them, Russell himself did not construe ethical propositions as narrowly as the positivists, for he believed that ethical considerations are not only meaningful, but that they are a vital subject matter for civil discourse. Indeed, though Russell was often characterised as the patron saint of rationality, he agreed with Hume, who said that reason ought to be subordinate to ethical considerations.
As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.|Bertrand Russell|Collected Papers, vol. 11, p. 91
For two or three years…I was a Hegelian. I remember the exact moment during my fourth year [in 1894] when I became one. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed: "Great God in Boots! -- the ontological argument is sound!"|Bertrand Russell|Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, pg. 60This quote has been used by many theologians over the years, such as by Louis Pojman in his Philosophy of Religion, who wish for readers to believe that even a well-known atheist-philosopher supported this particular argument for God's existence. However, elsewhere in his autobiography, Russell also mentions:
About two years later, I became convinced that there is no life after death, but I still believed in God, because the "First Cause" argument appeared to be irrefutable. At the age of eighteen, however, shortly before I went to Cambridge, I read Mill's Autobiography, where I found a sentence to the effect that his father taught him the question "Who made me?" cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question "Who made God?" This led me to abandon the "First Cause" argument, and to become an atheist.|Bertrand Russell|Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, pg. 36
Russell made an influential analysis of the omphalos hypothesis enunciated by Philip Henry Gosse—that any argument suggesting that the world was created as if it were already in motion could just as easily make it a few minutes old as a few thousand years:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.|Bertrand Russell|The Analysis of Mind, 1921, pp. 159–60; cf. Philosophy, Norton, 1927, p. 7, where Russell acknowledges Gosse's paternity of this anti-evolutionary argument.
As a young man, Russell had a decidedly religious bent, himself, as is evident in his early Platonism. He longed for eternal truths, as he makes clear in his famous essay, "A Free Man's Worship", widely regarded as a masterpiece of prose, but a work that Russell came to dislike. While he rejected the supernatural, he freely admitted that he yearned for a deeper meaning to life.
Russell's views on religion can be found in his popular book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. Its title essay was a talk given on 6 March 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, UK, and published later that year as a pamphlet. The book also contains other essays in which Russell considers a number of logical arguments for the existence of God, including the first cause argument, the natural-law argument, the argument from design, and moral arguments. He also discusses specifics about Christian theology.
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. […] A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.|Bertrand Russell|Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
Russell's influence on individual philosophers is singular, perhaps most notably in the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was his student between 1911 and 1914.
Wittgenstein's own influence on Russell, for example, in leading him to conclude, much to his regret, that mathematical truths were purely tautological truths, is a matter of debate. What is certain is that in 1901 Russell's own reflections on the issues raised by the paradox that takes his name Russell's Paradox, formalised 30 years later by Kurt Gödel's 'Undecidability' Theorems, led him to doubt the certainty of mathematics. This doubt was perhaps Russell's most important 'influence' on mathematics, and was spread throughout the European universities, even as Russell himself laboured (with Alfred North Whitehead) in a futile attempt to solve the Paradox.
Russell wrote (in Portraits from Memory, 1956) of his reaction to Gödel's 'Theorems of Undecidability':
Evidence of Russell's influence on Wittgenstein can be seen throughout the Tractatus, which Russell was instrumental in having published. Russell also helped to secure Wittgenstein's doctorate and a faculty position at Cambridge, along with several fellowships along the way. However, as previously stated, he came to disagree with Wittgenstein's later linguistic and analytic approach to philosophy dismissing it as "trivial", while Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as "superficial and glib", particularly in his popular writings. Russell's influence is also evident in the work of Alfred J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, David Kaplan, Saul Kripke, Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, John R. Searle, and a number of other philosophers and logicians.
Some see Russell's influence as mostly negative, primarily those who have criticized Russell's emphasis on science and logic. Russell often characterized his moral and political writings as lying outside the scope of philosophy, but Russell's admirers and detractors are often more acquainted with his pronouncements on social and political matters, or what some (e.g., biographer Ray Monk) have called his "journalism," than they are with his technical, philosophical work. There is a marked tendency to conflate these matters, and to judge Russell the philosopher on what he himself would certainly consider to be his non-philosophical opinions. Russell often cautioned people to make this distinction. Beginning in the 1920s, Russell wrote frequently for The Nation on changing morals, disarmament and literature. In 1965, he wrote that the magazine "...has been one of the few voices which has been heard on behalf of individual liberty and social justice consistently throughout its existence.
Russell left a large assortment of writing. From his adolescent years, he wrote about 3,000 words a day, with relatively few corrections; his first draft nearly always was his last, even on the most complex, technical matters. His previously unpublished work is an immense treasure trove, and scholars continue to gain new insights into Russell's thought.
Russell remained politically active to almost literally the end of his life, writing to and exhorting world leaders and lending his name to various causes. Some maintain that during his last few years he gave his youthful followers too much license and that they used his name for some outlandish purposes that a more attentive Russell would not have approved. There is evidence to show that he became aware of this when he fired his private secretary, Ralph Schoenman, then a young firebrand of the radical left.
Russell's activism against British participation in World War I led to fines, a loss of freedom of travel within Britain, and the non-renewal of his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was attacked as a 'traitor' in the press, treated like a security risk by his own government, and many of his closest friends deserted him. He was eventually sentenced to prison in 1918 on the tenuous grounds that he had interfered in British Foreign Policy — he had argued that British workers should be wary of the United States Army, for it had experience in strike-breaking. He was released after serving six months, but was still closely supervised until the end of the war.
In 1943 Russell called his stance towards warfare "relative political pacifism"—he held that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances (such as when Adolf Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser of multiple evils. In the years leading to World War II, he supported the policy of appeasement; but by 1940 he acknowledged that in order to preserve democracy, Hitler had to be defeated. This same reluctant value compromise was shared by his acquaintance A.A. Milne.
Russell was fairly consistently opposed to the continued existence of nuclear weapons from the time of their first use. However, on 20 November 1948, in a public speech at Westminster School, addressing a gathering arranged by the New Commonwealth, Russell shocked some observers with comments that seemed to suggest a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union might be justified. Russell apparently argued that the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would enable the United States to force the Soviet Union to accept the Baruch Plan for international atomic energy control. (Earlier in the year he had written in the same vein to Walter W. Marseille.) Russell felt this plan "had very great merits and showed considerable generosity, when it is remembered that America still had an unbroken nuclear monopoly." (Has Man a Future?, 1961). However Nicholas Griffin of McMaster University, in his book The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970, has claimed (after obtaining a transcript of the speech) that Russell's wording implies he didn't advocate the actual use of the atom bomb, but merely its diplomatic use as a massive source of leverage over the actions of the Soviets. Griffin's interpretation was disputed by Nigel Lawson, the former British Chancellor, who was present at the speech, claims it was quite clear that Russell was advocating an actual First Strike. Whichever interpretation is correct, Russell later relented, instead arguing for mutual disarmament by the nuclear powers, possibly linked to some form of world government.
In 1955, Russell released the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, co-signed by Albert Einstein and nine other leading scientists and intellectuals, a document which led to the first of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957. In 1958, Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He resigned two years later when the CND would not support civil disobedience, and formed the Committee of 100. In September 1961 he was imprisoned for a week for inciting civil disobedience, when he took part in a huge ban-the-bomb demonstration at the Ministry of Defence but the sentence was quashed on account of his age.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Russell sent telegrams to Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, the UN Secretary-General U Thant and British prime minister Harold Macmillan, which may have helped to prevent further escalation and a possible nuclear war. Khrushchev replied with a long letter, published by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, which was mainly addressed to Kennedy and the Western world.
Increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from nuclear weapons and other scientific discoveries, he also joined with Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Joseph Rotblat and other eminent scientists of the day to establish the World Academy of Art and Science which was formally constituted in 1960.
The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and its publishing imprint Spokesman Books began work in 1963 to carry forward Russell's work for peace, human rights and social justice. He began public opposition to US policy in Vietnam with a letter to the New York Times dated 28 March 1963. By the autumn of 1966, he had completed the manuscript ''War Crimes in Vietnam. Then, using the American justifications for the Nuremberg Trials, Russell, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, organised what he called an international War Crimes Tribunal, the Russell Tribunal.
Russell was an early critic of the official story in the assasination of John F. Kennedy; his "16 Questions on the Assassination" from 1964 is still considered a good summary of the apparent inconsistencies in that case.
In the 1922 and 1923 general elections Russell stood as a Labour Party candidate in the Chelsea constituency, but only on the basis that he knew he was extremely unlikely to be elected in such a safe Conservative seat, and he was not on either occasion.
Politically, Russell envisioned a kind of benevolent, libertarian socialism, similar in some ways to, yet having important differences from, the conception promoted by the Fabian Society. He was strongly critical of Stalin's regime, and of the practices of states proclaiming Marxism and Communism generally. Russell was a consistent enthusiast for democracy and world government, and advocated the establishment of a democratic international government in some of the essays collected in In Praise of Idleness (1935), and also in Has Man a Future? (1961).
One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.|Bertrand Russell|The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920, pg. 118
For my part, while I am as convinced a Socialist as the most ardent Marxian, I do not regard Socialism as a gospel of proletarian revenge, nor even, primarily, as a means of securing economic justice. I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race.|Bertrand Russell|"The Case for Socialism" (In Praise of Idleness, 1935, pg. 81)
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.|Bertrand Russell|In Praise of Idleness, 1935, pg. 15
Russell was also active within the Homosexual Law Reform Society, being one of the signatories of Anthony Edward Dyson's letter calling for a change in the law regarding homosexual practices, which were legalised in 1967, when Russell was still alive.
It is sometimes maintained that racial mixture is biologically undesirable. There is no evidence whatever for this view. Nor is there, apparently, any reason to think that Negroes are congenitally less intelligent than white people, but as to that it will be difficult to judge until they have equal scope and equally good social conditions.|Bertrand Russell|New Hopes for a Changing World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1951, p. 108)
Passages in some of his early writings support birth control. On 16 November 1922, for instance, he gave a lecture to the General Meeting of Dr. Marie Stopes's Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress on "Birth Control and International Relations," in which he described the importance of extending Western birth control worldwide; his remarks anticipated the population control movement of the 1960s and the role of the United Nations.
This policy may last some time, but in the end under it we shall have to give way--we are only putting off the evil day; the one real remedy is birth control, that is getting the people of the world to limit themselves to those numbers which they can keep upon their own soil… I do not see how we can hope permanently to be strong enough to keep the coloured races out; sooner or later they are bound to overflow, so the best we can do is to hope that those nations will see the wisdom of Birth Control…. We need a strong international authority.|"Lecture by the Hon. Bertrand Russell"|Birth Control News, vol 1, no. 8 (December 1922), p.2
Another passage from early editions of his book Marriage and Morals (1929), which Russell later clarified as referring only to the situation as resulting from environmental conditioning, and which he had removed from later editions, reads:
In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race to another…. There is no sound reason to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men, although for work in the tropics they are indispensable, so that their extermination (apart from questions of humanity) would be highly undesirable.|Bertrand Russell|Marriage and Morals, pg. 266 (1929)
Russell later criticized eugenic programs for their vulnerability to corruption, and, in 1932, he condemned the "unwarranted assumption" that "Negroes are congenitally inferior to white men" (Education and the Social Order, Chap. 3).
Responding in 1964 to a correspondent's enquiry, "do you still consider the Negroes an inferior race, as you did when you wrote Marriage and Morals?", Russell replied:
I never held Negroes to be inherently inferior. The statement in Marriage and Morals refers to environmental conditioning. I have had it withdrawn from subsequent editions because it is clearly ambiguous.|Bertrand Russell|letter dated 17 March 1964 in Dear Bertrand Russell… a selection of his correspondence with the general public, 1950-1968. edited by Barry Feinberg and Ronald Kasrils.(London: Allen & Unwin, 1969, p. 146)
Note: This is a mere sampling, for Russell also wrote many pamphlets, introductions, articles and letters to the editor. His works also can be found in any number of anthologies and collections, perhaps most notably The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, which McMaster University began publishing in 1983. This collection of his shorter and previously unpublished works is now up to 16 volumes, and many more are forthcoming. An additional three volumes catalogue just his bibliography. The Russell Archives at McMaster University also have more than 30,000 letters that he wrote.
B. Secondary references: