Acknowledgements are due to the following for permission to include certain letters. In Part I: the letters from Joseph Conrad are included by permission of J. M. Dent Ltd and the Trustees of the Joseph Conrad Estate. In Part II: Les Amis d'Henri Barbusse; Margaret Cole, for the letters of Beatrice Webb; Joseph Conrad through J. M. Dent Ltd, for the letters of Joseph Conrad; Valerie Eliot, for the letters of T. S. Eliot; the Estate of Albert Einstein; the Executors of the H. G. Wells Estate (© 1968 George Philip Wells and Frank Wells); Pearn, Pollinger & High am, with the concurrence of William Heinemann Ltd, for passages from the letters of D. H. Lawrence; the Public Trustee and the Society of Authors, for the letters of Bernard Shaw; the Trustees of the Will of Mrs Bernard Shaw; and the Council of Trinity College, Cambridge. Facsimilies of Crown-copyright records in the Public Record Office appear by permission of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office. The above list includes only those who requested formal acknowledgement; many others have kindly granted permission to publish letters.

Acknowledgements are also due to the following for permission to include certain letters and articles in Part III: Baron Cecil Anrep, for the letters of Bernard Berenson; the Estate of Albert Einstein; Valerie Eliot, for the letters of T. S. Eliot; Dorelia John, for the letter of Augustus John; The New York Times Company, for 'The Best Answer to Fanaticism-Liberalism' (© 1951); The Observer, for 'Pros and Cons of Reaching Ninety'. The above list includes only those who requested formal acknowledgement; many others have kindly granted permission to publish letters.


A particular, persistent reason why Bertrand Russell had such appeal, throughout his ninety odd years, especially to the young, was the trouble he took to write plain English. Considering how complicated or ratified were the subjects he started writing about in his own youth or early manhood, it is all the more instructive to see how he shaped his own style for his own purpose. Was it just a gift from the gods in whom he never believed, or was it not rather a deliberate design to carry forward the tradition of intellectual integrity in which he was reared? The plainer the style, the less likely it could be used to tell lies. He would stake everything to tell the truth. The century he loved best and the language he came to love offered the best exemplars. Jonathan Swift and David Hume aimed to secure an absolute clarity and they seldom failed. Yet they continued to be read thanks to the enduring individual resonance in their writing which they also achieved.

All through his life and increasingly in the later years, as many of us believed, Bertrand Russell was given credit for a comparable combination of qualities. And yet the claim has been challenged, and the point should be disposed of at once. Ray Monk, himself a philosopher, has written a new biography of Russell in which he insists that he is dealing with the philosophical questions overlooked or bowdlerized by previous biographers or by Russell himself. His first volume, subtitled The Spirit of Solitude, takes the record from Russell's birth in 1872 until 1921. In the light of his actual text, the title might be regarded as satisfactorily restrained. What he is examining more specifically, as he indicates in an epigraph from Dostoevsky, is how nearly and constantly Russell himself trembled on the edge of despair and madness. It is indeed a very different portrait from the one drawn by the man himself who believed that he derived at least part of his inspiration from the fountain of eighteenth-century rationalism and who so often, when he was on the 'verge of despair', could still find the honest words to restore his faith in the human race. Mr Monk is a skilful operator, and his assault on Bertrand Russell's reputation responds to all those wretched instincts in the human condition which like to see great men reduced in their status. Devout Christians especially seem to be happier when free-thinkers of one breed or another are exposed as victims of the same fate as the rest of humanity. Such was the kind of venom which Dr Johnson unleashed on Jonathan Swift, Something of the same order Ray Monk has unleashed against Bertrand Russell, and there is still more to come. He himself has many qualities as a writer but not enough to stem the flow of malevolence which poisons the whole book. However, Russell did take the precaution of speaking for himself, and we are especially entitled to note how and why he did it.

Autobiography is the most risky and arduous of all the writer's arts, although the claim may be questioned, judging by the numbers who have not been deterred from the attempt. To tell the whole truth about oneself without inflicting gratuitous injury on the people we love or the causes we espouse looks an impossible task, and yet constantly these objections are set aside. An unwillingness to let others tell the tale, a knowledge that they are certain to get some essential strands of the story wrong, and that these misconceptions will remain inscribed in the public mind for ever, a driving, inner egotism which disperses all these other considerations takes command. All the greatest autobiographers have been egotists - Montaigne, Rousseau, Benvenuto Cellini - but Russell, we may honestly remind ourselves, found good reasons to quarrel with all of these, chiefly on account of their too intrusive egos. For his taste, Montaigne was too placid, Rousseau too hysterical, Cellini a hopeless egotistical case. His own model was Voltaire, and had he not denounced all the Rousseauite outbursts, whether novelettish or autobiographical, as the ravings of a larger lunacy quite foreign to the eighteenth-century enlightenment in which they were both born and bred? If Bertrand Russell had listened only to these ancestral voices, he would never have embarked on his own bravest odyssey.

Russell studied, with a special insight, one other figure sometimes damned for his incorrigible egotism, and he maybe offered the essential spur for Russell to proceed with his own work. In his History of Western Philosophy, published in 1945, Russell devoted a whole chapter to someone who was never considered to be a philosopher at all. His chapter on Byron explains the matter with admirable, indisputable assurance. In glaring contrast with the cool eighteenth-century temper which Russell had drunk in with his mother's milk, Byron's expression took the form, in Russell's own words, 'of Titanic cosmic self-assertion or, in those who retain some superstition, of Satanism'. Russell himself of course had taken special precautions to forswear all forms of superstition, Satanic or otherwise, but this made his understanding of Byron's titanic qualities all the more remarkable. By the end of the chapter he is using Byron's own language to describe the essence of Rousseau's revolutionary message, and much else besides. Man may bleed to death through the truth that he recognizes. Byron, says Russell, expressed this in 'immortal lines':

Sorrow is knowledge; they who know the most

Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth.

The tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

Byron's Don Juan indeed was no self-indulgent essay in egotism; it was the revolutionary epic which the whole age cried out for. It had the same spacious qualities which Russell himself sought and found.

Two considerable writers of our century - George Orwell and H. G. Wells - faced the same dilemma in their writing careers and seemingly reached a different conclusion. Each understood the temptations to which autobiographers might be exposed and how little credence should be accorded to anything they said, except in the rare instances where they might be offering damning evidence against themselves. Orwell indeed embraced biographers of all breeds along with autobiographers in his sweeping anathema. He was constantly on guard to subdue his own egotism and indeed to remove all traces of it from his style of writing. No one who read what he wrote could doubt that he was completely honest in these professions; to conclude otherwise would be to convict him of an hypocrisy totally absent from his nature. Yet some of his very best writings were autobiographical - Homage to Catalonia, for example - and he wanted to make sure that no blundering biographical hand would be allowed to appear later to wreck his design.

H. G. Wells once wrote a polemical essay attacking both biographers and autobiographers in a manner no less comprehensive than Orwell's. His primary aim had been to extol the novel as the vehicle for truth-telling but the rest of the argument rang with such power that it looked as if he would never wish to escape from it. 'All biography has something of that post-mortem coldness and respect, and, as for autobiography, a man may show his soul in a thousand, half-conscious ways, but to turn on oneself to explain oneself is given to no one. It is the natural resort of liars and braggarts. Your Cellinis and Casanovas, men with the habit of regarding themselves with a kind of objective admiration do best in autobiography.' Thus he argued in his 1911 essay that the task was wellnigh impossible.

Yet, twenty odd years later, he changed his mind or had it changed for him by publishers and friends. He did it only after much heart-searching or head-searching. The volume was called Experiment in Autobiography, since he knew how tentative or incomplete the volume or two volumes were bound to be. Moreover, he sought to complete at the same time a third volume which could not be published while he or his friends and lovers were still alive. He was no Casanova wishing to make a parade of his conquests. He had described all those perils and temptations in his 1911 essay. His 1935 Experiment could not do more than tell a part of the story. And yet, even more amazing, was the high proportion of the truth he did tell. André Manrois, no mean judge in these matters who could transfer into his English essays the more liberal oudook permitted in France, concluded that 'Wells's Experiment in Autobiography was so frank that Rousseau's Confessions looks cautious or maidenly by comparison' - and that was the Experiment without the much more explicit sequel.

No evidence exists to prove that Wells's Experiment paved the way for Russell's even braver one; we would cite it if we could. Often their political paths crossed or recrossed, but sympathy between them remained obstinately imperfect. They were regarded by their contemporaries as the foremost exponents of liberal doctrines in the best sense of the term, yet they often found themselves engaged in furious quarrele. Looking back now, however, we can see that there were three great matters on which they fought together and should share the victor's crown - the fight for women's rights, the fight for democratic socialism, and the fight to forbid world-wide nuclear destruction.

All these seemingly distinct issues were involved in their first encounter in which, however, neither seemed to appreciate to the full the virtues of the other. Russell had just read Wells's In the Days of the Comet (published in 1906) and had been more impressed by the hostility which it aroused in some quarters than by its intrinsic virtues. It was the most radical work, using that word in its proper political sense, which Wells had written. He described how the socialist dawn could open a new world for men and women in their sexual relations; how working people, men and women, could experience a new democracy, which they had never even tasted before; how the new awakening in Britain could forbid the plunge into a continental war with Germany. Russell shared all these aspirations or expectations, especially the last. He thought that all other kinds of social advance could be destroyed if the drift to continental war was not stopped, and his sympathies were especially enlisted on Wells's behalf when he noted that he was most viciously denounced for his alleged advocacy of free love. Russell invited Wells and his young wife Jane to Oxford with the kindly intention of offering support in all his campaigns. But each had a different approach, even if they shared the same destination. The upstart Wells informed the aristocratic Russell that he did not as yet possess the independent income which would enable him to advocate free love from the roof-tops. Russell professed himself 'displeased' by this show of reticence. Later, he was displeased by his own displeasure.

In The Days of the Comet was one of the first trumpet blasts which prepared the way for the sexual revolution of the century and in which, from first to last, Russell played such an honourable role. He had been taught by the best masters and mistresses, with his own family in the lead and with John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women as his bible. He never ceased to be amazed how slow the world at large had been in recognizing women's rights and never lost a chance to help those who were best serving them. His ancestors showed him how to fight this fight, as they did so many others. I pause here to note how absurdly this respect for his ancestors seems to irritate his new biographer, Ray Monk; 'One might have expected Russell, on occasions at least', he writes in a footnote on page 48, 'to have expressed some irritation at being regarded wherever he went as "Lord John's grandson", but, if he did, there is no sign of it either in the surviving correspondence or in any of the vast number of autobiographical writings he produced throughout his life.' But surely it is Mr Monk's irritation which is more remarkable than Russell's lack of it. He was proud of his family but most especially of his ancestor, William Lord Russell executed by Charles II on 21 July 1683: 'He was a warm friend not to liberty merely but to English liberty.' His own special education on the question of women's rights came not directly from Lord John, although it might have done. Who is this fellow Monk descended from, we may be provoked at last to ask. The only one who achieved real fame was the general who helped to restore the Stuarts who in turn started the wretched practice of persecuting the Russells. But we must not get sidetracked. The new Mr Monk is a philosopher who too frequently parades himself as an expert on Russell's ancestry or his love life.

However, the cause which bound Russell and wells together most closely in the end was the greatest which ever faced humankind: how to stop the atomic and nuclear discoveries achieving the final result of total extinction; how to develop the world authority which alone could banish the final threat. At some particular moments throughout the century they seemed to be offering sharply contradictory advice, but the appearance was deceptive. They each spoke the truth that was within them, on this subject more forcefully than upon any other, and joined forces to win the final intellectual argument. The climax is reached in the third volume of Russell's Autobiography. To complete his presentation of this part of the picture we should also note here what he emphasized in his most important booklet on the subject, Commonsense and Nuclear War, published in 1959. He tackles there, quite fairly, the charge that he had once advocated the threat or the use of the atomic weapon against the Soviet Union, to stop them embarking on the race. However, the test which he faced quite fairly and openly, in the 1960s, the last decade of his life, was the challenge where many more countries would soon possess the capacity to destroy the world.

H. G. Wells had been the first to discern these perils in full imaginative detail; he did so in his book The World Set Free, published in 1914. He had seized upon some recent highly tentative revelations about the splitting of the atom and transformed them into a full-scale description of what an atom bomb war might entail: first and foremost, a shattering exposure of what would be the scale of the disaster with the addition of such niceties as the warning that, fearful as the explosions might be, the subsequent ineradicable effects of radiation might be even more fearful; and some discussion about whether the debate would become specially dangerous when terrorists could carry their world-destructive potions in suitcases. So remote were these possibilities from the actual terrors which crowded upon one another that few would take him seriously. Moreover, he seemed to add to his own intellectual self-doubt by suggestions that, faced with these realities, these new forms of terror, the world would, at the relevant minute of the last minutes of the eleventh hour, come to its senses. He prophesied a war starting with a German invasion of France by way of Belgium, but then he prophesied also that 'a wave of sanity' might take command - 'the disposition to believe in these spontaneous waves of sanity may be one of my besetting weaknesses'. At which, casual readers may pause to wonder whether the quotations come from Wells or Russell. Each as they tried to grasp the reality of atomic horror might find himself plunged into hope or despair. Without the despair, Homo sapiens would not be facing the reality. Without the hope, he would forfeit the fighting spirit and the comradeship of men and women needed for their salvation.

Throughout the century, the paths of political action each man chose with such care crossed and re-crossed. Each might enrage the other when he seemed to be adopting extreme political positions at the very moment when balancing restraints were necessary to preserve humankind's sanity. The fiercest of all these clashes, one which threatened to forbid any future civilized exchange between them, was the argument about the outbreak of the 1914-1916 war. Russell accused Wells of having deserted their previous common stand about an anti-German war to become the most raucous of the warmongers; Wells insisted that Russell's brand of pacifism, however justified in some circumstances, would not face the question of the German conquest of Europe. For years thereafter, each furiously rejected the arguments of the other and yet could not fail to be impressed by the persistent passion with which the case was presented. Each knew well enough how such passions could be mobilized for the worst causes; the new curse was threatening humankind. And yet if the good causes were to triumph, they must be no less passionately supported. Here was one letter, appealing for common action, which Wells wrote:

My dear Russell... In these days of revolutionary crisis it is incumbent upon all of us who are in any measure influential in left thought to dispel the tendency to waste energy in minor dissentions.... I get more and more anarchistic and ultra left as I grow older.... We must certainly get together to talk (and perhaps conspire) and that soon.

(see p. 535 below)

The date was 20 May 1945, a few months before the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few months later, Wells was dead and had to leave his fresh essays in conspiracy to Russell alone. How much he would have approved the whole autobiographical exertion.

The first volume of Russell's autobiography was published in 1967 and the third in 1970, just before he died at the age of 93 in 1970. It might be thought that such an old man's judgements lose their potency or their relevance. No honest reader of these pages can reach that conclusion. Whatever else it is, it is one of the truly great autobiographies in our language. The poets have stopped writing epics, he himself had written. Well here is an epic, written with all the combined passion and clarity of which he was the master. And if anyone doubts the combination, let him turn to the Prologue - 'What I have Lived for' - at the start of the first volume or the Postscript which concludes the final one. Along with his simplicity he had an eloquence all his own. Both the warnings of calamity and the recoveries of hope may ring across the intervening years. Thanks to his whole life, he had a special right to be heard.

I may be permitted to add a personal postscript, nothing like so eloquent as any of Russell's own, but one which may help to clinch the case for his veracity. My first introduction to him occurred when someone at Oxford gave me a copy of his book The Conquest of Happiness. Then, two years later, he turned up in person for a university meeting of some sort, spreading his own special brand of wit and wisdom and beaming with happiness. Who could resist so radiant a practitioner of his own theories?

One particular cause of that happiness for sure was his affair with 'Peter' Spence which was suddenly blossoming into the happiest of his whole lifetime. She already had young Oxford at her feet but when Bertrand Russell appeared and carried her off with such grace and ease, it was truly a conquest to write home about.

Michael Foot

Hampstead, July 1998



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