Gladstone and Lenin

“Lenin thought that the world was governed by the dialectic, whose instrument he was; just as much as Gladstone, he conceived of himself as the human agent of a superhuman Power.” In developing the dissimilarities and the points of resemblance in these two great leaders, BERTRAND RUSSELL demonstrates that power of perception and skill in writing which qualified him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This paper is drawn from his forthcoming hook, Unpopular Essays, which Simon and Schuster will publish in late February.



Tennyson, whom I also saw frequently, was always acting the poet, and incurred my adolescent scorn on that account. He used to stalk about the countryside in a flowing Italian cloak, very emphatically not seeing the people he happened to meet, and displaying the behavior appropriate to poetic, abstraction. Of the other poets I have met, I think the most unforgettable was Ernst Toller, chiefly through his capacity for intense impersonal suffering. Rupert Brooke, whom I knew fairly well, was beautiful and vital, but the impression was marred by a touch of Byronic insincerity and by a certain flamboyance.

Among eminent philosophers, excluding men still alive, the most personally impressive, to me, was William James. This was in spite of a complete naturalness and absence of all apparent consciousness of being a great man. No degree of democratic feeling and of desire to identify himself with the common herd could make him anything but a natural aristocrat, a man whose personal distinction commanded respect. Some philosophers — not necessarily the ablest — are impressive through their quality of intellectual honesty. Of these a very good example was Henry Sidgwick, who was my teacher in ethics. In his youth fellowships at Cambridge were only open to those who would sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Years after he had signed them, he developed doubts, and, though not expected to affirm that his beliefs remained unchanged, decided that it was his duty to resign. This action hastened the change in the law which put an end to the old theological restrictions. As a teacher, he showed the same honesty, and considered objections by pupils as courteously and carefully as if they had been made by colleagues. This made his teaching more fruitful than that of many abler men.

Men of science, at their best, have a special kind of impressiveness, resulting from the combination of great intellect with childlike simplicity. When I say “simplicity,” I do not mean anything involving lack of cleverness; I mean the habit of thinking impersonally, without regard for the worldly advantage or disadvantage of an opinion or an action. Among the men of science I have known, Einstein is a supreme example of ihis quality.

Coming to politicians, I have known seven Prime Ministers, from my grandfather (who was Prime Minister in 1846) to Mr. Attlee. Far the most unforgettable of those was Gladstone, whom those who knew him always alluded to as “Mr. Gladstone. The only other man known to me in public life that I could regard as his equal in personal impressiveness was Lenin. Mr. Gladstone was embodied Victorianism; Lenin was embodied Marxian formulas neither quite human, but each with the power of a natural force.

Mr. Gladstone, in private life, dominated by the power of his eye, which was quick and piercing, and calculated to inspire terror. One felt, like a small boy in the presence of an old-fashioned schoolmaster, a constant impulse to say, “Please, sir. it wasn’t me.” Everybody felt like this. I cannot imagine a human being who would have ventured to tell him a story even in the faintest degree risque; bis moral horror would have frozen the narrator to stone. I had a grandmother who was the most formidable woman I have ever known; other eminent men invariably quailed before her. Hut once, when Mr. Gladstone was coming to tea, she told us all in advance that she was going to set him right on his Irish policy, of which she strongly disapproved. He came, and I was present throughout, wailing breathlessly for the expected clash. Alas! my grandmother was all softness, and said not a syllable to start the Lion roaring; no one could have guessed that she disagreed with him about anything.

Far the most terrifying experience of my life was connected with Mr. Gladstone. When I was seventeen, a very shy and awkward youth, he came to stay with my family for the week-end. I was the only “man” in the house, and after dinner, when the ladies retired, I was left tete-a-tete with the ogre. I was too petrified to perform my duties as a host, and he did nothing to help me out. For a long time we sat in silence; at last, in his booming bass voice, he condescended to make his one and only remark: “This is very good port they’ve given me, but why have they given it me in a claret glass?” Since then I have faced infuriated mobs, angry judges, and hostile governments, but never again have I felt such terror as in that searing moment.

Profound moral conviction was the basis of Mr. Gladstone’s political influence. He had all the skill of a clever politician, but was sincerely convinced that every one of his maneuvers was inspired by 1 lie most noble purposes. Labouehere, who was a cynic, summed him up in the saying: “bike every politician, he always has a card up bis sleeve; but unlike the others, he thinks the Lord put it there.” Invariably he earnestly consulted his conscience, and invariably his conscience earnestly gave him the convenient answer.

The force of his personality is illustrated by the story — true or false — of his encounter with a drunken man at a meeting. Phis man, it appears, was of the opposite political party, and interrupted frequently. At last Mr. Gladstone fixed him with his eye, and spake these words: “May I request the gentleman who has, not once but repeatedly, interrupted mg observations by his interjections, to extend to me that large measure of courtesy which, were I in his place and he in mine, I should most unhesitatingly extend to him.” It is said — and I can well believe it — that the man was sobered by the shock, and remained silent the rest of the evening.

Oddly enough, about half of his compatriots, ineluding a great ma jority of the well-to-do, regarded him as either mad or wicked or both. When I was a child, most of the children I knew were Conservatives, and they solemnly assured me, as a wellknown fact, that Mr. Gladstone ordered twenty top hats from various hatters every morning, and that Mrs. Gladstone had to go round after him and “disorder” them. (This was before the days of telephones.) Protestants supposed him secretly in league with the Vatican; the rich regarded him (with few exceptions) as Mr. Roosevelt was regarded by the most reactionary of the American rich. But he remained serene, because he never doubted that the Lord was on his side. And to half the nation he was almost a god.


LENIN, with whom I bad a long conversation in Moscow in 1920, was, superficially, very unlike Gladstone, and yet, allowing for the difference of time and place and creed, the two men had much in common. To begin with the differences: Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not; Lenin had no respect for tradition, whereas Gladstone had a great deal; Lenin considered all means legitimate for securing the victory of his party, whereas for Gladstone politics was a game with certain rules that must be observed. All these differences, to my mind, are to the advantage of Gladstone, and accordingly Gladstone on the whole had beneficent effects, while Lenin’s effects were disastrous.

In spite of all these dissimilarities, however, the points of resemblance were quite as profound. Lenin supposed himself to be an atheist, but in this he was mistaken. He thought that the world was governed by the dialectic, whose instrument lie was; just as much as Gladstone, he conceived of himself as the human agent of a superhuman Power. His ruthlessness and unscrupulousncss were only as to means, not as to ends; he would not have been willing to purchase personal power at the expense of apostasy. Both men derived their personal force from this unshakable conviction of their own rectitude. Both men, in support of their respective faiths, ventured into realms in which, from ignorance, they could only cover themselves with ridicule — Gladstone in Biblical criticism, Lenin in philosophy.

Of the two, I should say that Gladstone was the more unforgettable as a personality. I take as the test what one would have thought of each if one bad met him in a train without knowing who lie was. In such circumstances Gladstone, I am convinced, would have struck me as one of the most remarkable men I had ever met, and would have soon reduced me to a speechless semblance of agreement. Lenin, on the contrary, might, I think, have seemed to me at once a narrow-minded fanatic and a cheap cynic. I do not say that this judgment would have been just; it would have been unjust not positively, but by what it would have omitted. When I met Lenin, I had much less impression of a great man than I had expected; my most vivid impressions were of bigotry and Mongolian cruelty. When I put a question to him about socialism in agriculture, he explained with glee how he had incited the poorer peasants against the richer ones, “and they soon hanged ihem from the nearest tree — ha! ha! ha!” His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.

The qualities which make a political leader were less obvious in Lenin than in Gladstone. I doubt whether he could have become a leader in quieter times. His power depended upon the fact that, in a bewildered and defeated nation, he, almost alone, had no doubt, and held out hopes of a new sort of victory in spite of military disaster. He seemed to demonstrate his gospel by cold reasoning, which invoked logic as his ally. In this way the passion of his followers came to appear, to them as to him, to have the sanction of science, and to be the very means by which the world was to be saved. Robespierre must have had something of the same quality.

I have spoken of men who were eminent in one way or another. But in actual fact I have been quite as often impressed by men and women of no eminence. What I have found most unforgettable is a certain kind of moral quality, a quality of selfforgetfulness, whether in private life, in public affairs, or in the pursuit of truth. I had at one time a gardener who could neither read nor write, but was a perfect type of simple goodness, such as Tolstoy loved to depict among peasants.

A man whom, on account of his purity of heart, I shall never forget, was E. D. Morel. As a shipping clerk in Liverpool, he became aware of the horrors in King Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo. In order to make his knowledge public, he had to sacrifice his position and means of livelihood. Singlehanded at first, he gradually, in spile of opposition from all the governments of Europe, roused public opinion and compelled reform. The new consideration which he had thus won for himself he sacrificed to pacifism in the war, during the course of which he was sent to prison. He lived until shortly after the formation of the first Labor Government, from which Ramsay MacDonald excluded him in the hope of causing his own pacifist past to be overlooked. Worldly success seldom comes to such men, but they inspire love and admiration, in those who know them, surpassing what is given to those who are less pure of heart.