One litmus test for a successful public intellectual is an indelible YouTube presence. The late Christopher Hitchens passes this test. As do Noam Chomsky and Jordan Peterson. Of course, it helps if you were alive within the past 50 years, which makes it all the more extraordinary that someone born in 1872 and died in 1970 passes too: Bertrand Russell.
There is a 1952 video of Russell, in his gentlemanly pomp, being interviewed in his home by an American journalist. There is a 1961 audio interview with John Chandos that lasts for nearly two hours, in which Russell calls DH Lawrence a “fascist”, describes George Bernard Shaw as a “very cruel man” and unfavourably compares Vladimir Lenin to Oliver Cromwell. Aside from Cromwell, of course, Russell had met and spoken to all these men.
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In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, the sociologist William Davies wrote: “The period of human history when European people could confidently characterise themselves as ‘modern’ lasted barely 100 years, from the upheavals of the 1870s to those of the 1970s.” Those 100 years roughly encompassed the life of Russell – philosopher, mathematician, social activist and public intellectual – and he embodied the modern in all its fascinating complexity. “I try…” he said in later life, “to get used to a world of atom bombs; a world where ancient empires vanish like morning mist.”
May 2022 marked the 150th anniversary of Russell’s birth, and there was barely a mention in the mainstream media – even as he continues to accumulate views on YouTube. He was a member of extremely exclusive sets, from the Cambridge Apostles to the Bloomsbury group. Nevertheless, he wrote many books for a mass audience, such as his History of Western Philosophy and Why I am Not a Christian.
Russell came from one of the great Whig aristocratic families. His ancestor Lord William Russell took a stand against the accession of James II to the throne, and is considered by family folklore to be one of the founders of the Whig tradition of political thought. Russell’s grandfather, John Russell, played a pivotal role in the Great Reform Act of 1832 – one of the first steps towards democracy in Britain – and was made an earl in 1861. And his father, who was titled Viscount Amberley, was also a progressive: as a Liberal Party MP, he supported birth control and women’s suffrage and, with his wife, Kate, was friends with John Stuart Mill and his stepdaughter Helen Taylor. Mill and Taylor became Russell’s secular godparents.
Despite this esteemed lineage, Russell was haunted by loss as a child. His mother and older sister died of diphtheria when he was two. His father died when he was three and his grandfather died when he was six.
Unlike his older brother Frank, Russell wasn’t educated at boarding school, but at home by private tutors. The first lines of his autobiography are instructive in appreciating not just his isolated childhood but his entire life: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” These passions showed that Russell, later famous as a critic of religion and a free thinker, was not reconciled to a world that was emotionally, intellectually and morally confusing: he craved certainty wherever he could find it.
Two key moments shaped his youth: his introduction to Euclid’s geometry at 11 by his brother, and his discovery of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. Both reflected his intense search for the truth. While geometry represented truth as knowledge – what can absolutely be shown to be true about the world – Shelley’s works presented truth as beauty: the emotional or spiritual truth that literature, or romantic love, can give us. The two interests seem different, but they both betrayed the same sensibility in Russell: a desire to escape the self and the limitations of the world, either through the abstractions of maths or the ecstasies of love or art. In fact, Russell uses language associated with art or romance to describe his first encounter with geometry: the experience of discovering Euclid was “delicious” and as “dazzling as first love”.
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Russell wanted to get to the root of things – he treated the world like a maths equation. “I have… a passion,” he once said, “for clarity and exactness and sharp outlines.” The economist and fellow Bloomsbury group member John Maynard Keynes once complained that Russell “held two ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand, he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally”.
Russell wanted Britain out of Nato and to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and he supported the creation of a federal world government that would abolish war. He believed we can reason our way out of the baleful deficiencies of humanity. Such ideas might seem impractical now, but to him they had a blinding logical clarity. He hoped, he once wrote, that “there would be a mathematics of human behaviour as precise as the mathematics of machines”.
The appeal of the public intellectual is to provide reassuring lucidity in a world marked by confusion. This is as true of Russell as it is of Hitchens, Chomsky and Peterson. And this is why all of them are especially popular with today’s Gen-Zers, the people who hunger most voraciously for truth and certainty – and the people who most love using YouTube.
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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party