Bertrand Russell was born in Wales in 1872. His parents were John and Catherine Russell (Lord and Lady Amberly), and his godfather was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mills. His grandfather, Lord John Russell (1804 – 1874) was Prime Minister of Great Britain on two separate occasions. Tragically, Russell’s parents and younger sister died when he was three years old. He subsequently lived with his paternal grandparents in England.
As a young man, he studied in Cambridge and was friends with such notables as Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, GE Moore and John Maynard Keyes. Philosophically, Russell broke away from Hegelian Idealism and shifted his emphasis to logical and linguistic analysis.
He is renowned for his works in technical philosophy and mathematics. In 1910, he published the Principia Mathematica with his colleague, Alfred North Whitehead; this work is considered to be one of the most profound academic treatises of the twentieth century. An integral part of this master work was the concept of logicism, which holds that mathematics could be reduced to a few basic ideas and principles of logic. He is also famous for the so-called Russell’s’ Paradox or the theory of types.
What is not so well known is his lifelong battled against social injustice and state-sponsored violence. He was profoundly sensitive to the suffering of mankind. His definition of the good life is one, “Inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” In his lifetime, Russell combined his impassioned and unassailable logic with political action in defense of reason and human happiness. He was so ardent in his convictions that he was imprisoned twice by the British government.
In his working lifetime, he wrote some four hundred letters to the editor between 1904 and 1969 regarding such topics as World War II, Fascism, McCarthyism, the Cold War and the threat of Nuclear Annihilation. In addition he wrote eighty books and several thousand articles. He had a lifelong interest in the areas of social conscience and human rights. According to Russell, “Three passions simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
In regards to his politics, Russell supported the principles of socialism in his book, German Social Democracy, but took issue with Marx’s idea regarding the necessity for violent revolution to supplant the status quo. In 1906, he ran for Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party and lost the election.
In 1914, he went to Harvard to teach and there he met TS Eliot, the famous poet. During his stay at Harvard, he wrote Our Knowledge of the External World, a collection of lectures published in 1914. In this book, Russell struggles with the difficulty that the individual has in comprehending the external world. He was an empiricist who incorporated the logic of mathematics into his thinking.
Russell joined the pacifist cause during World War I and was an adamant opponent of military conscription. In 1916 he was fined for pamphleteering on behalf of conscientious objectors and was dismissed from his lectureship at Cambridge. His opposition was seen as so threatening that by 1917 the government forbade him to travel abroad, and in 1918 he spent 6 months in prison for his anti-war writing; notable among these are – Why Men Fight (1916) and Justice in War Time (1917).
In the years leading up to World War II, Russell foresaw the approaching calamity in Europe. He was a strong advocate of pacifism and urged pacifism as an alternative should war come. He detailed his views in his books, Which Way to Peace published in 1936 and Power: A New Social Analysis published in 1938. In this latter work one of his conclusions was that military force or “naked power” is a fundamental aspect of human history, and is at the foundation of the monopoly of violence which we call the State. Furthermore, in his analysis, he determined that military force is used predominantly for the control of territory.
In his work entitled, Religion and Science, Russell compared the extremist and fanatical views of those who aligned themselves with communism and fascism to the religious fanaticism that retarded scientific and human progress some 300 years after Copernicus. His prescription for an escape from this mindset was individual free thought and a balance of scientific rationality and compassion. On account of his controversial views and influence, he was blacklisted and was unable to find work or publish his views. This would haunt him throughout the war.
Following the Second World War, the prospect of annihilation of human civilization with the advent of the atomic bomb and Cold War politics dominated his writing and thinking for the remainder of his life. He collaborated with Einstein and together they issued the Russell-Einstein Manifesto on July 9, 1955. In it they state,
“In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft.
We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt. The world is full of conflicts; and, overshadowing all minor conflicts, the titanic struggle between Communism and anti-Communism.
Almost everybody who is politically conscious has strong feelings about one or more of these issues; but we want you, if you can, to set aside such feelings and consider yourselves only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.
We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.
We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?”
Russell was also the President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Committee of 100. He both advocated and practiced civil disobedience, and as a consequence of his activism was arrested at the age of 89. During the Cuban missile crisis that nearly resulted in nuclear Armageddon, Russell exchanged telegrams with Premier Khrushchev and President Kennedy pleading that they step back from the brink of nuclear war.
Even at the age of 91 (1963), he remained active and founded the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation advocating world peace and human rights. Nine heads of state were sponsors of this foundation including Prime Minister Nehru of India. He was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and initiated an International War Crimes Tribunal in accordance with the principles set down by the Allies at Nuremburg.
He died in 1970. Bertrand Russell was both a renowned man of letters (he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950) and a man of conscience and deep moral conviction. He left a remarkable legacy of thought and action that remains relevant to this day.