Bertrand Russell 1921-1970: The Ghost of Madness by Ray Monk - review by Raymond Carr

Raymond Carr

Perils of Old Age

Bertrand Russell 1921-1970: The Ghost of Madness


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This is the most distressing work that I have reviewed in the last half-century. Yet Ray Monk has written a fine book, mastering a daunting mass of material; it is written forcefully and with great clarity. But it is the history of the tragedy of a man haunted since childhood by a fear of the family madness and possessed of ‘a quite colossal vanity’.

If Russell had died in 1920, his work on logic and the philosophy of mathematics would have given him a secure place as one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century. But with no academic career in sight, he had needed the money earned by freelance journalism and lecture tours in America to support his second wife Dora and their son, John. In the process he had become, he confessed, ‘a species of mental male prostitute’. Russell could dash off 2,000 words on any topic. Fluency can be a poisoned gift, especially if accompanied by a tendency to simplify complex issues and a conviction that those whose opinions differ from one’s own are either fools or knaves.

John, born in 1921, became the centre of his life. ‘I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other I have experienced.’ Unfortunately, Russell fell under the spell of the writings on childhood by the behaviourist J B Watson. Put crudely, a child could be ‘conditioned’ to become a free, rational adult if one denied his or her demands for attention. Irrational behaviour, Russell consistently maintained, was rooted in fear. To cure John’s fear of the sea, Russell plunged him into it up to his neck; this may have cured his irrational fear of the sea but it seems to have left the child with a rational fear of his parents.

Dora and Russell shared the ‘New Philosophy’ (cooked up by a gathering of progressives in, of all places, Lynton), which would free humanity from the crippling bonds of conventional, Christian morality. They set up a school that would bring up children according to its tenets. In 1932 Russell published Marriage and Morals as the New Philosophy’s manifesto on sexual morality. Widely regarded as a manifesto endorsing adultery, it was nothing of the sort. Since children were the sole purpose of marriage, occasional infidelities should not be grounds for divorce and the consequent break-up of the family. In fact, Russell’s own marriage was falling apart. He did not share Dora’s gusto for left-wing politics or her genuine sympathy for the working class. Hurt by her infidelities, he remained trapped in the mockery of his marriage by his concern for his children, John and Kate, continuing to profess his ‘deep and indestructible affection’ for Dora when he had come to hate her.

Hence his decision to divorce came to her as a shock and she made pathetic efforts to patch things up; but so great was his determination to avoid any personal contact with Dora that Russell would only communicate with her via his lawyers. The divorce, as revealed in the extensive correspondence quoted here, was exceptionally bitter and the later disputes over the custody of the children even bitterer. Russell himself admitted that the disputes of parents were the ‘very frequent cause of nervous disorders in children’. John became seriously disturbed. Dora believed that he would be better off living at home with her; Russell was determined at all costs to have him certified as insane and confined in an institution, out of sight and mind. His conduct can only be explained by his fears of the family insanity and his aversion to any contact with Dora. The painful catalogue of mutual recrimination is documented in great detail by Monk. The reader may conclude that Dora, irritating though she frequently was, emerges as the more concerned parent.

Freed from Dora and married to Patricia Spence, whose lover he had become while she was still an undergraduate at Oxford, Russell set off to return to academic life after thirty years as a freelance writer. Given a professorship at City College, New York, which was proud to enlist so famous a philosopher, he was immediately attacked by the New York Catholic mafia as an atheistic lecher and subsequently dismissed. His battle for reinstatement became a cause célèbre of freedom of thought against blind intolerance. Having lost the battle, he was saved by the Barnes Foundation, set up by a retired pharmaceutical millionaire who saw himself as the champion of the underprivileged and denied the privileged any access to his wonderful collection of pictures. Russell had no burning concern for the underprivileged and refused to grant Barnes the friendship he hoped to enjoy with great men who shared his enthusiasm. Russell was now heir to an earldom and Patricia’s aristocratic pretensions riled Barnes. Again Russell was dismissed. He was rescued in 1944 by a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. By this time his marriage with Patricia was in tatters. What he wanted was a wife who would put out his slippers and support him as a great man. What Patricia could not provide was granted by his marriage to Edith Finch in 1952.

As a fellow of Trinity, Russell could still write interesting articles on the philosophical debates of the 1930s and 1940s. But he made no strikingly original contribution of his own. He now saw himself less as a philosopher than as a public figure who would put his prestige at the service of mankind. Just as men turned to Einstein for solutions to the troubles of the world, so the public would pay attention to Russell. His genuine and permanent concern was that science, in the hands of powerful and sexually frustrated politicians, would plunge Europe into another war that would destroy civilisation. This descent into barbarism could only be prevented by world government. This might be provided by international socialism if America became socialist! With the rise of Hitler, Russell argued that it might be better to submit to Germany than risk a world war, a position he abandoned only in 1940. The atomic bomb turned his fear of the total destruction of civilisation into a real possibility. The pacifist of the 1930s now turned into a Cold Warrior. If the Soviet Union resisted pressure to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons then America should use its monopoly of atomic weapons to bomb the Soviet Union before it could become itself an atomic power.

All this was to change. The Cold Warrior of the late 1940s, his broadcasts welcomed by the Establishment, became the troublemaker of the 1950s and 1960s. The man who had set his hopes on America became a sworn enemy of American imperialism. Monk describes at length Russell’s involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, his contempt for his allies and the ‘yearly picnic’ of the Aldermaston march. His tone became strident and absurd. Gaitskell’s defeat of unilateral disarmament made him, in Russell’s judgement, a worse criminal than Hitler. Russell had fallen under the influence of Ralph Schoenman, an American radical who had become a prominent member of the British New Left. He saw him as an ersatz son, while Schoenman flattered him to the hilt in order to use his prestige for his own purposes. CND had proved to be a damp squib. Direct action, in the form of demonstrations which would force the police to employ violence and land hundreds of prominent intellectuals in prison, would force the murderers in government to alter their course. It too proved a damp squib. The government was not cowed by the spectacle of Arnold Wesker, George Melly, John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave or Russell himself languishing, for short periods, in prison.

But it turned a white-haired man in his eighties into the lay saint of the young. In what Monk calls his ‘Guevarist years’, Russell, the one-time pacifist, became, under Schoenman’s guidance, the proponent of a world-wide guerrilla war against American imperialism, financed by the Russell Foundation. This is the most controversial contribution of Monk’s book. To Russell’s eternal credit, he, like Malcolm Muggeridge, had never shared the left’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, which he saw as a naked tyranny; but now he was an instrument of Soviet policy. Loaded with honours, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, he saw himself as a world statesman. He believed that his letter to Khrushchev enabled the Soviet leader to climb down in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, thus saving the world from nuclear destruction.

Perhaps the fame that tickled his vanity may also have compensated Russell for his failure as a parent. His children lived in a no-man’s-land between the battle lines of their warring parents. Russell wrote to his daughter Kate in 1950, ‘I grow morbid and reflect what a failure I have made of my life as a husband and as a father. I have tried to think the fault was other people’s but the repetition seems to show it can’t be.’ After his death, his granddaughter Lucy, to whom he had been a ‘great great man’, doused herself in paraffin and burnt herself to death in a Cornish churchyard. In his final sentence, Monk writes: ‘her suicide strikes one as the final visitation of the ghosts that have haunted Russell throughout his life’.

Like Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, this book is a considerable achievement. After ten years of research, its author is distressed that Russell, the rationalist who seemed to embody the best values of the eighteenth-century philosophers, turns out to have been emotionally maimed. If one is over eighty, as Monk trails through the emotional wreckage it makes one reflect on one’s own failures as a parent and husband, and conclude that, since old men’s brains grow soft, it is better not to write any more ill-considered reviews.

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