Bertrand Russell’s lofty pacifism

Jonathan Ree in The New Humanist:

BertrandBertrand Russell must be one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of all time. Early in the 20th century he won international fame for his contributions to mathematical logic and advocacy of “scientific method in philosophy”. Later he stirred up storms of controversy with pamphlets denouncing Christianity and traditional sexual morality. But in the 1960s he became even more famous on account of his activism in the cause of nuclear disarmament and peace: the issue, as far as he was concerned, was not just human welfare, but “has man a future?” Right at the end of his life (he died in 1970, at the age of 97) he described his philosophical legacy as “trivial” and unworthy of scholarly attention, “at least”, as he put it, “compared with the continued existence of the human race”. Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, but resigned two years later in order to preside over the Committee of 100, which promised to be more militant than CND, using any means necessary to get the British government to ban the bomb. “There is,” he wrote,

a very widespread feeling that however bad their policies may be, there is nothing that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join massive demonstrations of civil disobedience they could render government folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible.

The impact of Russell’s rhetoric – his arch sarcasms, unflappable certainties and stark antitheses – was enhanced by images of a dapper old gentleman sitting down in the street with fellow protestors and getting himself arrested in 1961 for breach of the peace. When asked by the magistrate whether he promised to be of good behaviour he said, “No, I do not” and was sentenced to seven days in Brixton prison.

More here.