John Gray at Literary Review:
Corresponding with Bertrand Russell in 1922, Joseph Conrad confessed: ‘I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.’ Conrad was responding to Russell’s book The Problem of China, published in the same year, in which Russell had pinned his hopes for China and the world on ‘international socialism’ – ‘the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any sort of definite meaning’, Conrad observed. International socialism, he continued, was ‘but a system, not very recondite and not very plausible … and I know you wouldn’t expect me to put faith in any system’.
Conrad was a sceptic who believed that the human world was fuelled by illusions. He felt strongly about a number of the political issues of his day, such as the threat posed to Europe by Russian autocracy, and was horrified by the rapacity he witnessed being inflicted on the local population when he travelled through the Belgian Congo in 1890. But nothing could have been further from his way of thinking than high-minded dreams of a world without tyranny or empire. In his view, no change in political systems could eradicate the universal human propensity for savagery. He was suspicious of all large schemes of improvement.