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15 April 2014

Bertrand Russell and the wee guy with the short name who is supposed to be our hero these days

Reading in bed this morning with my tea, while a grey dawn broke over the grey rooftops of Flotskaya Ulitsa, I came upon a strangely prescient passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy—the wonderful book, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
     Though it was written in 1946 (or at least published then—I am adopting Russell’s habit of extreme precision!), it somehow seems to foresee the development of Russian political culture in the second decade of the twenty-first century, seventy years after the time he wrote. Was the man clairvoyant?
     Certainly Russell was a sex maniac, or something close to it. Perhaps that helps one see into the future. I must try it one day and see if I can read the markets, or predict how far the current Russian fad for campy, gun-toting, post-modern fashism is likely to go. All reasonable offers considered.
     Russell was raised by his grandmother, a ferocious Scottish Presbyterian who specialized in emotional repression and religious fanaticism. Russell, perhaps predictably, turned out to be a libertine atheist. But he was also a gifted mathematician, whose theories are still influential today—or so I am told by people who understand these matters.
     What I do know about him is that he was the first of the Western intellectuals to visit the Soviet Union and see it for what it was—a brutal, blood-thirsty dictatorship, completely devoid of the spirit of tolerance. Since tolerance (especially of failure) is necessary for experiment and creativity, the three year-old regime, he thought, was doomed to ultimate failure. He published The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (which I have here in Moscow) in 1920, when people like H.G. Wells were still enthusing over their latest interview with Lenin. And that was ten years or more before Bernard Shaw and the Webbs returned from Moscow to pronounce socialism the wave of the future. So it was not only in pure mathematics and number theory that Russell saw straight to the heart of things.
     Here he is in his History describing the semi-philosophical force which emerged in eighteenth century Europe in opposition to the Protestant liberalism which had taken root in England and Holland in the seventeenth century, and to which we owe the modern commercial world. (I have abridged it slightly for clarity.)
“A new movement, which has gradually developed into the antithesis of liberalism, begins with
Rousseau, and acquires strength from the romantic movement and the principle of nationality. In
this movement, individualism is extended from the intellectual sphere to that of the passions, and
the anarchic aspects of individualism are made explicit. The cult of the hero, as developed by
Carlyle and Nietzsche, is typical of this philosophy. Various elements were combined in it. There was dislike of early industrialism [and] a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, which were idealized owing to hatred of the modern world… There was vehement assertion of the right of rebellion in the name of nationalism, and of the splendour of war in defence of ‘liberty’. Byron was the poet of this movement; Fichte, Carlyle, and Nietzsche were its philosophers.
     “But since we cannot all have the career of heroic leaders, and cannot all make our individual will prevail, this philosophy, like all other forms of anarchism, inevitably leads, when adopted, to the despotic government of the most successful ‘hero’. And when his tyranny is established, he will suppress in others the self-assertive ethic by which he has risen to power. This whole theory of life, therefore, is self-refuting, in the sense that its adoption in practice leads to the realization of something utterly different: a dictatorial State in which the individual is severely repressed.”
     For anyone wanting to understand how the English language can be written with both wit and clarity, I could not recommend Russell’s book too highly. It has the additional benefit today that, due to liberal commercial internationalism, it is available (free) in pdf form on the internet. Download it now, before the wee guy we now think of as the local hero stops tolerating public access to such examples of literary creativity.

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