Swans Commentary » swans.com January 3, 2005  



Ray Monk's Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970, Free Press, March 2001, ISBN 0-74321-215-0, 592 pages, cloth, $40.00.


(Swans - January 3, 2005)   In the sixties, when political zealousness was chic and occasionally even sincere, I saw Bertrand Russell address a great horde of demonstrators in London's Trafalgar Square. He was a short, erect, hawk-like man with hair that seemed to be consumed in great white flames and, in the midst of a wildly excitable throng, the calmest person in the square.

In clipped, aristocratic tones, he warned of the impending end of the world due to American foreign policy, particularly in Vietnam, the nuclear holocaust that threatened the demise of Europe and the need to turn hawks into doves; a transformation which seemed to be exemplified by the very tranquility encased within his own hawk-like countenance.

At the time, Lord Russell was the inspirational, radical saint of the extreme Left, a bitter critic of the Labor Party and the darling of those "beautiful people" that one pictured inserting long-stemmed roses into the barrels of national guardsmen's rifles. The spectacle of an internationally-respected mathematician and philosopher opposing the cant of the entire British Establishment was a sight that made the blood bubble and the spirit soar. Who knew then that this fertile mind and eloquent voice belonged to a man that was spouting simplistic solutions to complex problems which were beyond his grasp or, that a mere thirty years later, both his doctrines and his persona would be thoroughly repudiated.

The great lesson of Ray Monk's Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, the second volume of his comprehensive Russell biography, is that one can be possessed of a brilliant mind, a fastidious commitment to logic and a love of rationality and still fall into tautology and speciousness; or, what is worse, become exploited by sycophants and adventurers into causing harm to those very principles one holds most dear.

Initially a driving force behind the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, Russell, spurred on by his "greasy eminence" Ralph Schoenman, broke from CND to create the Committee of 100, a more radical group committed to direct action. The new group, which boasted adherents such as John Osborne, Lindsey Anderson and Arnold Wesker, proposed disrupting public functions -- viz. the State Opening of Parliament and Trooping the Color -- or jamming the BBC. There was even one suggestion that they kidnap the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget Day. (Clearly, the more histrionic personalities in their cadre influenced the group's political tactics.) By the early l960s during the Cuban missile crisis, the organization committed to eliminating nuclear weapons found itself championing Fidel Castro's right to maintain missiles on its mainland; an irony that was not lost on many of its rapidly defecting members. This was followed by Russell's love affair with Che Guevara -- another infatuation fostered by the volatile Schoenman, and one that soon became another of Russell's pet passions.

To fully fathom the wrongheadedness of his later politics, it is instructive to examine some of Russell's earliest enthusiasms.

After the birth of his son John in 1921, Russell began applying Spartan ideas about educating the young, inspired mainly by the stoic theories of John B. Watson, who was a strong advocate of "conditioning" the emotional reactions of children.

"...if the baby cries when there is no adequate physical cause," wrote Russell, "it must be left to cry; if not, it will quickly develop into a tyrant. When it is attended to, there should not be too much fuss: what is necessary must be done, but without excessive expressions of sympathy."

Describing how he developed "character" in his own son then barely three, Russell wrote: "When he showed cowardice, we made him feel that we were ashamed of him; when he showed courage, we praised him warmly. Every day for about a fortnight, we plunged him up to the neck in the sea, in spite of his struggles and cries. Every day they grew less; before they ceased, he began to be asked to be put in. At the end of a fortnight, the desired result had been achieved: he no longer feared the sea."

Monk aptly remarks: "Thus, was John's 'irrational' fear of the sea replaced by an entirely rational fear of his parents." John, who succeeded his father as the 4th Earl Russell was mentally disturbed throughout his life. He became a regular spectator of -- and occasional participant in -- the debates in the House of Lords, but never fully regained his sanity.

Granddaughter Lucy Russell, who, through much of her life was desperately seeking love and approval from her grandfather, became schizophrenic and in 1975 poured paraffin over herself in a Penzance churchyard and set herself alight. At the end of his book, Monk sums up the Russell legacy. "At his death," he writes, "Russell left two embittered ex-wives, an estranged schizophrenic son and three granddaughters who felt themselves to be haunted by the "ghosts of maniacs," the words which, in 1893, Russell himself had used to describe his family circle.

Just as Russell was seduced by the hard-hearted Victorian ideas of John B. Watson and later the politically paranoid theories of Ralph Schoenman, his amanuensis (or as others called him, "the Russell viper"), so the Great Philosopher gravitated to positions that, depending on your viewpoint, were provocatively independent or simply barmy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was nothing particularly nutty in believing staunchly in nuclear disarmament, but Russell's view on this, as with everything else, shifted according to the intellectual breezes that wafted through the higher reaches of the lunatic fringe. Initially, arguing that Britain should give up its independent nuclear deterrent, he then came to believe that the Americans were only concerned about themselves and would never truly come to Europe's defense in the event of war and so fiercely opposed NATO and every aspect of American foreign policy. Like the neurotic who believes that at any moment a great cataclysm may suddenly end the human race, he based his political positions on apocalyptic expectations of imminent disaster and labyrinthine conspiracy theories.

He was rapidly abandoned by The Labor Party and soon became merely a figurehead in the Peace Movement permitting his evil genie Schoenman to write many of his articles and speeches. It is clear that what mattered most to Russell was his position as an international seer and political pundit. (He genuinely believed it was his personal intercession with Khrushchev that averted war during the Cuban missile stand-off.) Anything that enhanced his international reputation and fed his personal vanity became grist for the mill. His views were contradictory; his remedies extreme and never bolstered by elucidated reasoning. His specialty was sweeping statements that inspired fear among the ignorant and mockery among the learned. Essentially, he was a lapsed mathematician who developed into a sophistic moral philosopher. A man so encased in his super-ego, he couldn't see it was corroding his id.

Monk's biography -- lucid, painstaking, thorough and whizzingly readable -- is a devastating deracination of the Russell myth. Only the earliest works like "Principia Mathematica," "Essays on Language," and "Mind and Matter" manage to survive the later excesses that were so heedlessly worshipped by the young and disparaged by wiser heads. Many of the later works, which began around the late-1920s, were popularizing tomes on philosophy, morality and science that he hacked out for money and which progressively diminished his powers of ratiocination.

It is dispiriting for me to read my own summation of Russell's character when I recall the iconic significance he possessed in the mid-60s. And what is even more distressing is that it makes one feel that almost every contemporary hero of that period (Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman) has become more than a little mildewed with the passage of time.

"Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero" says Andrea in Brecht's "Galileo," "No, Andrea" replies the great scientist, "unhappy is the land that needs a hero."


· · · · · ·
Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970, Free Press, March 2001, ISBN 0-74321-215-0, 592 pages, cloth, $40.00.

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About the Author

Charles Marowitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The NY Village Voice, The New York Times, L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly, Sunday Telegraph (UK), London Times (UK), The Observer (UK), Sunday Times (UK), and many other newspapers and magazines. He has written over two dozen books, the most recent being The Other Chekhov, the first English-language biography of the actor-director and theorist, Michael Chekhov, published by Applause Books, NYC.



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Published January 3, 2005