Sunday, February 19, 2006

BOOK: Bertrand Russell, "Autobiography" (cont.)

Bertrand Russell: Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 041522862X. xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)

[Continued from last week.]

In the post-WW2 years, most of his work was dedicated to various efforts to prevent further wars, especially wars with nuclear weapons. This is the subject of much of the last third of his autobiography; for me, this was perhaps the least interesting part of his autobiography. I guess I'll never be able to truly appreciate how it must have felt in the cold war years when many people genuinely worried about the possibility that a nuclear world war might erupt and bring about the extinction of the vast majority of people in the world. One of the earliest memories from my childhood is hearing news on the radio about one of the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations to curtail the nuclear arms race. By then, the mid-80s, the threat of nuclear war seemed so remote as to be of no consequence. MAD may sound insane, but I really think it worked jolly well. And yet it seems clear that for many people in the 50s, 60, perhaps 70s, nuclear war was an entirely realistic concern.

Russell felt that, now that the major powers are in possession of nuclear weapons, any large-scale war between them would be disastrous for the whole world; therefore, wars must be prevented altogether. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is also the possibility of a nuclear war being started by accident or mistake; therefore, we should try to decrease the amount of nuclear weapons in existence as much as possible. In the long term, there should be a world government with, of course, sufficient power on its side as to be able to act like a world policeman and force individual countries to abandon wars.

Of course he was aware that there are many obstacles to this idea of a world government. For example, people are still often taught to be ‘patriots’: “At present, children are taught to love their country to the exclusion of other countries, and among their countrymen in history those whom they are specially taught to admire are usually those who have shown most skill in killing foreigners.” (P. 680.)

Regarding a world government, there is a very interesting remark on p. 681: “Every technical advance in armaments has involved an increase in the size of States. [. . .] weapons of mass destruction have made even the greatest States liable to complete destruction.” But I doubt if this fact alone will be sufficient to encourage the individual states to accept a world-government above them. In the past, the reason why advances in military technology led to increases in the size of states was because there were many states that competed against each other, and those that weren't large enough to keep up with the technical development of armaments would eventually lose in this struggle and would be swallowed by other states. But now a superpower can in principle always defend itself from attack by other superpowers, at least by destroying the whole world with nuclear weapons. Therefore there is nothing to really encourage the next step in the growth of states, namely to a world-state. Either one state would have to become so much stronger and more advanced than others as to be able to conquer and occupy them despite the fact that they have nuclear weapons (which, of course, just might happen, given that the U.S. spends more money on its army than the next twenty countries put together); or there would have to be some external enemy (e.g. Martians :-)), which would enable the states to step together and form some kind of federation.

He also wrote some fiction in this period. “The writing of these stories was a great release of my hitherto unexpressed feelings and of thoughts which could not be stated without mention of fears that had no rational basis.” (P. 525.)

He visited Greece in 1952. “At Tiryns, the guardian of the ancient citadel bemoaned the fact that it had been very badly restored. Upon being asked when this distressing renovation had taken place, he replied, ‘During the Mycenaean times’.” (P. 560.)

“I realised then that the Christian outlook had a firmer hold upon me than I had imagined. The hold was not upon my beliefs, but upon my feelings. It seemed to me that where the Greeks differed from the modern world it was chiefly through the absence of a sense of sin, and I realised with some astonishment that I, myself, am powerfully affected by this sense in my feelings though not in my beliefs.” (P. 561.)

His various anti-nuclear efforts in the post-war decades included, for example, preparing various broadcasts on this subject for the BBC (p. 564); he prepared a manifesto against nuclear weapons and got a number of eminent scientists, from both East and West, to sign it (pp. 566–71; Einstein was among the signatories as well; he signed it mere days before his death, p. 567); attended numerous conferences and meetings; wrote an open letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev (addressing them as “Most Potent Sirs”, p. 596); participated in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (which advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain; p. 596); as well as in the Direct Action Committee (which tried to bring these issues to the notice of the public through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience; p. 597; e.g. a large sit-down in Trafalgar Square on February 18, 1961; p. 607), and later the Committee of 100 (pp. 605, 632); he wrote a book titled Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (pp. 598–9); he wrote a letter to U Thant with suggestions on organizing a ‘Balancing Committee’ to mediate East-West problems (p. 647); letters to Nehru and Chou En-Lai, encouraging a peaceful settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute (pp. 648–51); etc. He also made efforts to help people who are unjustly imprisoned (p. 653). Finally the work and expenses grew beyond what he could personally handle, so he established two non-profit foundations to carry on the work (the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and the Atlantic Peace Foundation; pp. 656–8).

Here's a curious observation he wrote in 1950, living in the same house as his son John and John's wife Susan: “I suffer also from entering into the lives of John and Susan. They were born after 1914, and are therefore incapable of happiness.” (P. 582.) Of course, if taken literally, such a statement is ridiculous. But what he means, I guess, is that he feels the first world war brought a major and fundamental change in the outlook of the people; that there was a really important difference between the optimistic belief in progress that characterized much of the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way up to the WW1, and the post-WW1 period, where any such optimism was impossible after the war(s) showed all too clearly how great is the risk that human civilization will eventually destroy itself. We often imagine that there must have been such a change in outlook; but it's a rare instance that I see someone describe it so explicitly as to say that people born after 1914 are incapable of happiness. Of course, we must admit that this is far from the first instance in history when many people felt that everything is going irremediably down the drain. After all, we know the famous sentence of Talleyrand: “He who has not lived in the years before the revolution [of 1789] cannot know what the sweetness of living is.” And undoubtedly the Romans were saying the same things after being overrun by the barbarians in the fifth century.

Here's a comment in a similar vein, on the pre-WW1 period: “When I was young, Victorian optimism was taken for granted. It was thought that freedom and prosperity would spread gradually throughout the worl dby an orderly process, and it was hoped that cruelty, tyranny, and injustice would countinually diminish. Hardly anyone was haunted by the fear of great wars.” (P. 726.)

He briefly mentions that he had supported eugenics at some point but doesn't give any details (p. 595). Given how notorious eugenics became later, it would be interesting to know more about this.

An interesting observation from his article Pros and Cons of Reaching Ninety, published in The Observer (May 13, 1962): “It is a curious sensation to read the journalistic clichés which come to be fastened on past periods that one remembers, such as the ‘naughty nineties’ and the ‘riotous twenties’. Those decades did not seem, at the time, at all ‘naughty’ or ‘riotous’. The habit of affixing easy labels is convenient to those who wish to seem clever without having to think, but it has very little relation to reality.” (P. 628.) I guess that with these stereotypes, there's usually a small grain of truth at the core, but it's then blown out of all proportion by journalists, memoirists, and other similar people. This reminds me of the well-known Italian proverb: “even if it isn't true, at least it's a story well told”. In these circumstances, truth usually succumbs easily and without putting up much of a fight.

Another interesting passage from the same article: he comments that many people become mellow and acquiescing as they grow older. But not he: “Serenity, in the present world, can only be achieved through blindness or brutality. [. . .] I become gradually more and more of a rebel. [. . .] Until 1914, I fitted more or less comfortably into the world as I found it. [. . .] Without having the temperament of a rebel, the course of events has made me gradually less and less able to acquiesce patiently in what is happening.” (P. 629.) This is the sort of thing that I find really admirable about Russell. Most people are perhaps rebellious in youth but become conventional or even conservative in old age. He, however, was willing to insist on what he felt was right, and to argue incessantly in its favour, no matter what the conventions or prevalent opinions thought of it at the time.

A splendid passage from a 1961 anti-nuclear speech, which, as he says, the media have delighted in taking out of context ever since (pp. 640–1): “We used to think that Hitler was wicked when he wanted to kill all the Jews, but Kennedy and Macmillan and others both in the East and in the West pursue policies which will probably lead to killing not only all the Jews but all the rest of us too. [. . .] I will not pretend to obey a government which is organising the massacre of the whole of mankind. [. . .] We cannot obey these murderers. They are wicked and abominable. They are the wickedest people that ever lived in the history of man and it is our duty to do what we can.” (However, this passage is now somewhat marred by the unfortunate fact that ‘wicked’ is more and more often used with a positive connotation, at least in some parts of the English-speaking world.)

One Lord Gladwyn wrote to Russell, commenting on his plans to set up a foundation: “I should hope that you would one day be prepared to advance your proposals in the House of Lords where they could be subjected to intelligent scrutiny.” (P. 694.) Russell comments (p. 659): “I refrained, in my reply, from remarking that on the occasions when I had advanced proposals in the House of Lords, I had never perceived that my audience, with a few exceptions, showed any peculiar degree of intelligence”.

On the war in Indo-China: “The pretexts for the ‘escalation’, particularly the attack upon North Vietnam, reminded me of nothing less than those offered a quarter of a century earlier for Hitler's adventures in Europe.” (P. 667.) In response to the atrocities being perpetrated in Vietnam, he “wrote to a number of people around the world, inviting them to join an International War Crimes Tribunal” (ibid.). The idea was to investigate the atrocities and conduct hearings. Although the tribunal of course had no formal authority, its composition (see the list of members at its Wikipedia page) and methods of work certainly gave it great moral weight. Incidentally, the tribunal also included the Yugoslav historian Vladimir Dedijer; a couple of years ago I've read his exhaustive (and exhausting) book The Road to Sarajevo on the background of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

[To be continued in a few days.]


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