Nicholas Griffin (ed), 'The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: the public years, 1914-1970'

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Review by Trevor Curnow

In September 1961, at the age o f89, Bertrand Russell was sent to prison. He had been prosecuted for his involvement in the demonstrations against nuclear weapons organised by the Committee of 100. If a sentence of one week (reduced from two months on health grounds) was scarcely sufficient to make him a martyr, it was enough to cement his international reputation as a crusader for peace.

That crusade had begun for him as early as the First World War, when he had been a conscientious objector. His pacifist activities then had also led to imprisonment (for several months in 1918). As he served both terms in Brixton, he was welcomed on his second visit as an old friend!

Russell led a remarkably full life, as these letters make abundantly clear. He was a prolific writer, whose works ranged from abstruse discourses on logic to popular journalism. He was an inspirational teacher, although his views sometimes made it difficult for him to find work. He was an inveterate traveller, nearly dying in China in 1921, and surviving a plane crash in Norway in 1949. He was an ardent lover, whose passions found their outlets in a string of marriages and a host of affairs. And, as this book makes clear, he was an almost compulsive writer of letters. Peace News readers will find most to interest them in the first and last sections of the book (helpfully entitled “War” and “Peace” respectively!) which between them occupy roughly half its pages. “War (1914-1918)” contains valuable insights into both the public and the private dimensions of pacifism during the First World War. Russell was an active member of the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF), which had been founded in November 1914 by Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen. The NCF was the principal organisation serving to support conscientious objectors during the war, and Russell's correspondence details its operations and inner conflicts.

What emerges very clearly is that, for Russell, it was always important to be not only opposed to the war, but also effectively opposed to it. This led him, then as later, to change his position from time to time in line with changing circumstances. What also emerges very clearly is the extent to which his objections to the war put many personal friendships under considerable strain.

In “Peace (1955-1970)” there are fascinating revelations of the ways in which Russell worked tirelessly for peace across a number of fronts.

Most astonishing of all, perhaps, is his correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En Lai during the 1962/3 Sino-Indian border dispute. At a time when the gung-ho pro-American popular press was dismissing him as senile, Russell was not only writing personally to both of the premiers, but also receiving visits at his Welsh home from their London representatives! His own representatives travelled on his behalf with quasi-diplomatic status. His name was sufficient reason to treat them seriously and with respect.

This book is a valuable resource, and Nicholas Griffin's running commentary on the letters helps immeasurably to place them in their appropriate contexts. However, his intentions are primarily biographical, and perhaps only those with a particular interest in Russell as an individual will be sufficiently tempted to buy it.

Topics: Radical lives
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