A Life of Disagreement
Of all the television programs in recent months, few attracted such widespread praise as the half-hour conversation by BERTRAND RUSSELL with Romney Wheeler, filmed in London by the National Broadcasting Company and shown over the NBC network and BBC-TV on the occasion of Earl Russell’s eightieth birthday. Author, philosopher, mathematician, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Earl Russell believes that mankind will yet “emerge into some world that will be happier than any world that has existed in the past.” We feel sure Atlantic readers trill enjoy this complete transcript of the interview.
An Interview with Bertrand Russell
WHEELER. — Lord Russell, as you celebrate your eightieth birthday, we’d like you to tell us what you think you have learned and what you think you will never learn in your career as a philosopher.
RUSSELL. — Well, there are some things that I don’t think I shall ever learn and indeed I hope I shall never learn. I don’t wish to learn to change my hopes for the world. I am prepared to change my beliefs about the state of the world, but not my hopes. About that I wish to remain constant. I think we might call the subject of our talk “Eighty years of changing beliefs and unchanging hopes.”
It’s very difficult for anybody born since 1914 to realize how profoundly different the world is now from what it was when I was a child. The change has been almost unbelievable. I try as best I can, despite my years, to get used to living in a world of atom bombs; a world where ancient empires vanish like morning mist, where we have to accustom ourselves to Asiatic self-assertion, the Communist menace. The world is altogether different from what it was when I was young. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing for an old man to live in such a world. I was born in 1872. My parents died when I was still an infant. And so I was brought up by my grandparents.
WHEELER. — Can you tell us something about your grandfather?
RUSSELL. — Yes. He was born in the early years of the French Revolution. He was a member of Parliament while Napoleon was on the throne. In common with Fox, he thought English hostility to Napoleon was excessive, and he visited Napoleon in Elba. It was he who introduced the reform in 1832 which started England on the road towards democracy. He was Prime Minister during the Mexican War, during the Revolutions of 1848. I remember him quite well. But as you can see, he belonged to an age that now seems rather remote.
The world in which I was young was a solid world, a world where all kinds of things that have now disappeared were thought to be going to last forever. It didn’t dawn on people that they might cease. English people have certainly regarded English naval supremacy as a law of nature. Britannia ruled the waves. It didn’t occur to us that that might stop.
WHEELER. —Even with Bismarck?
RUSSELL. — Bismarck was regarded as a rascal and we thought of him as .a sort of uneducated farmer. But it was assumed that the influence of Goethe and Schiller would gradually bring Germany back to a more civilized point of view. Moreover, we thought of Germany as only a land power — it had no navy; and in fact we weren’t at all afraid of Germany. Political opinion was more favorable to Germany than it was to France at that time. Bismarck himself compared Germany and England to an elephant and a whale, each formidable in its own element but no danger to each other. That was how we felt. We were not afraid of Bismarck at all. It was thought that there was going to be ordered progress throughout the world. Gradually every country was going to take to parliaments. There was going to be a bicameral legislature and two parties and it was all going to be exactly like England everywhere all over the world.
My grandmother used to laugh because one time she said to the Russian Ambassador, “Perhaps some day you will have a parliament in Russia.” He said, “God forbid, my dear Lady Russell.” Except for the first word, the Russian Ambassador of the present day might give the same answer. But that was the assumption. It was all going to be orderly and all quite nice.
The atmosphere, apart from politics, was one of puritan piety — very great piety, very great austerity. We always had family prayers at eight, and before family prayers I had to do half an hour s practice at the piano, which I hated. Although there were eight servants in the house, the food was always of the utmost simplicity, and if there was anything at all nice, I was not allowed to have it because it was not good for children to eat nice things. For instance, there would be rice pudding and apple tart. The grownups had the apple tart and I had the rice pudding. There was extreme austerity in all those ways. My grandmother, until she was over seventy, would never sit in an armchair until after dinner. Never. It has almost gone out, that sort of austere living by well-to-do people, which in those days was very common.
WHEELER. —When did you get to Cambridge?
RUSSELL. — I got to Cambridge when I was eighteen, and that of course was a new world to me completely. I for the first time met people who, when I said anything that I really thought, didn’t think il absurd. I had learned at home to say almost nothing aboul what I really thought. My people had a horror of philosophy which interested me, and they would say every time philosophy was mentioned: “Philosophy is summed up completely in these two questions. What is matter? Never mind. What is mind? No matter.” And at about the sixtieth repetition of this remark I ceased to be amused by it. When I got to Cambridge it was a great comfort to me to find people who didn’t regard philosophy as absurd, so that I was very, very happy when I first got to Cambridge. I quickly got to know a great many people who became my lifelong friends. Most of them, I am sorry to say, are dead now, but. those who are still alive are still my friends.
WHEELER. — You started with mathematics, didn’t you, and then moved to philosophy?
RUSSELL.—That is so, yes. I did three years’ mathematics and one year’s philosophy at Cambridge. I had done only mathematics before going to Cambridge.
WHEELER. — What caused your interest in philosophy?
RUSSELL. — Well, two things — two very different things caused my interest in philosophy. On the one hand, I wanted to understand the principles of mathematics. I observed that all the proofs of mathematical propositions that were taught me were obviously fallacious. They didn’t really prove what they said they did, and I wanted to know whether there is any truth in the world that is known. I thought, “If there is any, it probably is in mathematics, but not in mathematics as I have been taught it.” So I tried to find out some truth there. The other thing that made me interested in philosophy was the hope I might find some basis for religious belief.
WHEELER. — And did you find it
RUSSELL. No. In the mathematical part of my hopes I was fairly satisfied, but in the other part no, not at all. For a time I found certain satisfaction in the Platonic eternal world of ideas, which has a sort of religious flavor, but then I came to the conclusion that that was nonsense and I was left without any satisfaction, except for my desires. It remains so. So that as far as that goes, philosophy proved a washout to me, but not as a technical basis for mathematics.
WHEELER. — Wasn’t it about here that you entered into what you call a life of disagreements?
RUSSELL. — Yes. I disagreed first with my people both about mathematics and about philosophy. They cared only about virtue. Virtue, they said, was the only thing of importance in the world. Mathematics was unimportant because it had no ethical content, and philosophy was positively pernicious because they thought il undermined virtue. So that on that point I had a strong disagreement with my people. It was solved by my living among academic people who did not take that view, so that I got again into a circle of people among whom I was quite at home.
But that was brought to an end by the first World War, when I took a pacifist line. I was against, the first war. I was not against the second. Some people think that this is an inconsistency, but it isn’t. I never, during the first war, said that I was against all war. I said I was against that war. And I still hold that view. I think the first war was a mistake. I think if that hadn’t happened, you would not have had Communists, you would not have had the Nazis, you would not have had the second World War, you would not have had the threat of the third. The world would have been a very much better place, I think. Germany at the time of the Kaiser was not uncivilized. There was a certain amount, of suppression of opinion, but less than there now is everywhere except in England and Scandinavia. So it really wasn’t very bad. For propaganda purposes the Kaiser’s government was represented as dreadful, but that was only talk. It wasn’t really true.
WHEELER. — Your opinions today in regard to Russia are not altogether friendly. Did you always feel that way about the Bolsheviks?
RUSSELL. — Yes, and that caused another violent, disagreement. Owing to my pacifism during the first war, I had became estranged from what you might call conventional people, and then I went to Russia in 1920 and found that I abominated the Soviet government. They were dreadful people — dreadful people already and becoming more so. I then had to break with all people who had endured my pacifism who liked Russia, or thought they did, so that I was left in a great isolation at that time. However, I escaped some of the pain of it by going to China, where I spent a very happy year. I liked the Chinese very much, and there I found people that I could agree with, that I could like.
WHEELER. —Any conclusions about China?
RUSSELL. —Oh, I don’t know about conclusions. I don’t think I came to any particular conclusions. I continued to think as I had thought before, that, democracy is the best form of government w here it will work. It didn’t work very well in China. It wasn’t working at all. And one could see that it wouldn’t work there. They hadn’t the political experience. But I thought it would work there in time and I dare say it would have if circumstances had been a little more propitious.
WHEELER. —On your return, the focus of your interest changed, did it not ?
RUSSELL. — Yes, owing to the birth of my two elder children, I became very much interested in education — especially, at first, education in the very early years. I didn’t altogether like the progressive schools, though in some respects I thought them much better than the older ones. But there are some things about progressive schools, at least about most progressive schools, that I didn’t feel were right. I thought they didn’t pay enough attention to instruction. It seems to me that in our technically complex world you cannot play any important part unless you have a very considerable amount of actual knowledge, and I don’t think that most children will acquire much knowledge unless there is a certain amount of discipline in the school. I think the real discipline required for acquiring knowledge ought to be insisted upon and isn’t sufficiently insisted upon in a good many modern schools that I know.
WHEELER. — Did you change any of your opinions in that regard?
Russell.— I suppose to some degree. I tried running a school of my own because J wasn’t satisfied with other schools. I haven’t the talents of an administrator and I wasn’t satisfied with the school that I tried to run. Fortunately just about that time a certain modern school that I was interested in became, I thought, quite good enough, and I was satisfied with that. I have, I suppose, changed my opinions, not only about education, but about many things, as a result of seeing what people do.
I think that freedom is not a panacea for all things. I think there are a good many matters in which freedom should be restrained, some of them matters in which it is not sufficiently restrained at present. In the relations between nations there ought to be less freedom than there is. To some degree this applies to modern education too. I think that some progressive schools certainly have more freedom than they ought to have. There are some freedoms that I think are desirable in education. Now in the old-fashioned school, if a child uses a swear word, it is thought worse than if he commits an unkind action, and that seems absurd. I think that the unkind action matters more. In that sort of way I don’t like the old-fashioned way. I also think that children should be free to explore the facts of life to a degree that they’re not allowed in an old-fashioned way. I think there should be free speech. There are a number of things that I like very much about modern education; but both in education and in other matters, I think freedom must have very definite limitations—for example, when things that are definitely harmful to other people are involved, or things, such as lack of knowledge, that prevent you yourself from being useful. Those are respects in which I suppose I should lay less stress on freedom than in former times.
WHEELER. —Do you still believe in the importance of abstract philosophy?
RUSSELL.—That’s a very difficult question. I have myself a passion for clarity and exactness and sharp outlines. For some reason that I never understood, that makes people think that I have no passions, that I am a cold fish. I don’t know why. but it does cause people to think so. I don’t myself think that’s altogether just. That’s neither here nor there. But I do like clarity and exact thinking and I believe they are very important to mankind, because when you allow yourself to think inexactly, your prejudices, your bias, your self-interest, come in in ways you don’t notice, and you can do had tilings without knowing that you’re doing them. Self-deception is very easy. For that reason, I do think clear thinking is immensely important. But I don’t think philosophy in the old-fashioned sense is quite the thing the world needs nowadays. I think the needs of the world are different.
WHEELER. —Just what do you feel today’s needs are?
RUSSELL. — Needs depend, of course, on what a person’s capacities are. But if I were now at this moment a young man, whether in England or in America, I should not take to philosophy. I should think there were other things better to take to. If I had the necessary capacity, I think I would be a physicist. If my capacities didn’t run in that direction, I should think that history, psychology mass psychology especially — theory of politics, things of that sort, would be much better to work at than pure philosophy. And it’s that sort of thing that I should take to if I were now young.
WHEELER. — Lord Russell, what do you think the world needs to reach this happier state?
RUSSELL.— I think there are three tilings that are needed if the world is to adapt itself to the industrial revolution. The troubles we are suffering now are essentially troubles due to adapting ourselves to a new phase of human life - namely, the industrial phase; and I think three things are necessary if people are to live happily in the industrial phase. One of these is world government. The second is an approximate economic equality between different parts of the world. And the third is a nearly stationary population. I’d like to say a little about each of those.
As to world government. The world government should be, of course, a federal government, leaving a very great deal of freedom to the individual national governments, with only those things controlled by the world government which are absolutely necessary for the avoidance of war. The most important and the most difficult of these is armed forces. All the important weapons of war will have to be in the hands of the international government and of it alone. When that happens, war will become practically impossible; and if war were impossible, mankind could go ahead. If war is not impossible, every advance in scientific technique means an advance in mass murder and is therefore undesirable. But if world peace were once achieved, the situation would be just the opposite.
Now I come on to the question of approximate economic equality. As things stand at present, Western Europe and still more the United States of America have high standards of life. On the whole, the great majority of their people live fairly comfortably from the material point of view. Asia, on the other hand, lives in very great poverty. So does most of Africa. And the moment people are sufficiently educated to be aware of these facts, the inevitable result is a great development of envy in the poorer parts of the world. That envy is the cause of unrest and inevitably makes world peace precarious. The only way of dealing with it is to produce approximate economic equality. Of course it’s a long story, but it can be done.
The third point, about population, is very vital indeed. The food supply of the world tends at present to diminish through the denudation of the soil. It also tends to increase through various technical advances; but those two about balance, so that on the whole food produce, as it were, does not increase appreciably. That means that unless everybody is to be very poor, there must be not more people to be fed, not many more, than there are now, and therefore you have got to get approximate equality of population and approximately stationary population. Otherwise those parts of the world where the population increases fast will want to go to war with those where it increases slowly.
WHEELER.—That raises the problem of Asia.
RUSSELL. — Well, Asia first of all has risen to the point of education — some Asians have — where it is not prepared any longer to be subservient to the white man. It hasn’t noticed that Russians are white. If it had, it would have taken a different line, but it seems to think that Russians are yellow or black or some other color, and I think our propaganda ought to be mainly devoted to saying only Russians also are white. I believe that would be the effective propaganda to use in Asia, but I’ll pass that point by. Asia clearly is going to claim equality with the white man, and it’s perfectly futile, absolutely futile, for the white man to resist that game. It will infallibly win — infallibly — and we ought to concede it graciously at once before we are driven to it to concede complete equality to Asia. But if Asia is not to overwhelm the rest of the world with a vast flood of population and poverty, Asia must live up to its responsibilities and must learn the sort of thing we have learned in the West, which is how to maintain a roughly stationary population. If they can’t learn that (and I fully believe they can learn and learn quickly, much more quickly than people think) they will not have won their claim to equality.
WHEELER. — Lord Russell, speaking as of today, can you see the influence of any one philosopher more than any other one?
RUSSELL. — I suppose in recent years the most important influence has been Marx — if you can dignify him with the name of philosopher. I should hardly like to dignify him so myself, but I suppose he must count in the list and he certainly has had more influence than anybody else.
WHEELER.—For those of us who reject Marx, can you offer any positive philosophy to help us toward a more hopeful future?
RUSSELL. — Well, you see, I think one of the troubles of the world has been the habit of dogmatically believing something or other, and I think all these matters are full of doubt and the rational man will not be too sure that he is right. I think that we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine. No, I think that we should accept our philosophies with a measure of doubt. What I do think is this: that if a philosophy is to bring happiness, it should be inspired by kindly feeling. Marx pretended that he wanted the happiness of the proletariat. What he really wanted was the unhappiness of the bourgeois, and it was because of that negative element, because of that hate clement, that his philosophy produced disaster. A philosophy which is to do good must be one inspired by kindly feeling and not by unkindly feeling.
WHEELER. — Summing up, Lord Russell, do you feel there is hope for the world today?
RUSSELL. — Yes, I do. I feel it very strongly, but how far that is a rational conviction, if one is temperamental, I can’t say. I do most strongly feel that there is hope. There may be very dreadful times ahead of us, I dare say there are, but I still believe, I believe most firmly, that through whatever pain and suffering, mankind will emerge from these dreadful things and will emerge into some world that will be happier than any world that has existed in the past. I am firmly persuaded of that. What I don’t know is how long it will take.