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Bertrand Russell – “A Wild Beast in Philosopher’s Robes”
In a weekend spanning the end of June and the beginning of July in Oxford 1951 the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell gave a talk as part of a British Foreign Office symposium on Communism at Jesus College. Speakers over that week-end also included Isaiah Berlin and the biologist and geneticist C.D. Darlington who was to talk on “Science in the Soviet Union”.
The context was the subjugation by the Russian Soviet Union of the people of eastern Germany, of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Albania and Rumania. Meanwhile the Labour Government of the time had secretly committed millions to developing a British atomic bomb, the American’s were already working on the hydrogen bomb, whilst the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea with the support of the Soviet Union and Communist China. Also attending that weekend was Robert Bruce Lockhart.
The former head of the wartime British Political Warfare Executive and liaison office to the Czechoslovak Government in Exile during the Second World War Robert Bruce Lockhart had already had an interesting past.
Robert Bruce Lockhart’s Diaries, published in two volumes after his death, give an extraordinarily intimate insight into men and women who were prominent on the world stage from the time of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution through to the immediate post Second World War period. They include writers and dramatists – H.G.Welles, Arnold Bennett, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward – politicians: Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Ramsay Macdonald, Oswald Mosley, Nye Bevan, Anthony Eden, the Czech President Tomáš Masaryk, his son Jan Masaryk, Edward Beneš and Klement Gottwald; Bolshevik revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky, Menshevik exile Kerensky, the newspaper proprietor Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, (the largest selling daily in Britain in the 1930s), Kaiser Wilhelm II in Dutch exile, and many, many others.
He came to prominence when as a young man representing the British Government in revolutionary Bolshevik Russia he was arrested in September 1918 for allegedly being involved in an “Allied Plot” against the Bolshevik Government. His background was Scottish: Highlander and Lowlander and he had a love for many aspects of the Russian character, particularly their gypsy music and heavy drinking. He was clear-sighted about the stupidity of allied intervention and allied support of the White Russians during the Civil War.
Imprisoned in Moscow for a month he was released in an exchange deal involving Maxim Litvinov, the unofficial Bolshevik ambassador in London. He was politically insightful, occupying a centre ground. When asked by the British Foreign Office he usually gave startlingly (in hindsight) good summaries of the political situation in the Soviet Union and Central European countries, even though the Foreign Office rarely acted on them. Besides aspects of Russian culture he had a love of Czechs and the Czech nation. He somehow balanced his keen, clear, informed political insights and predictions and his prolific diary writing and work for the London Evening Standard in the 1930s with lunchtimes and evenings of heavy drinking, and was usually in debt. He wrote fourteen books, including a standard work on Scottish Whisky, Scotch, which is still in print. He also loved fly fishing, and wrote My Rod My Comfort. He was sympathetic to the 1940s Scottish Covenant movement for devolution.
In his Diary for Sunday, 1 July, 1951, Robert Bruce Lockhart wrote:
“…. In the evening about 5.30 p.m. arrived Bertrand Russell by train from London and was taken to his room in Staircase No. XIII where John Richard Green, the historian and writer, and T.E.Lawrence, Jesus’s most famous alumnus, lived.
At 6 p.m I took the chair at his lecture on ‘Democracy’s Defence Against Communism’. All members of the course had expected this to be the highlight and, indeed, I had led them to believe so. The old gentlemen however was not at his brilliant best. He had tried to do something that was not quite in his line; viz. to give a Foreign Office tour d’horizon. He had, too, a script to which he referred occasionally. (Script is perhaps the wrong word; the document was, in fact, two pages of closely typed notes.) Nearly always he had to make an awkward pause before he found his place.
The material was good enough. He was violently, or shall I say strongly, anti-communist: insisted that on our side military strength and rearmament took precedence over all other matters including schemes of world government, etc. He was quite confident that Communism could not and would not last and that things would change in Russian where he believed the regime was more deeply detested than we realised. Made a strong case for anti-Russian sentiment in satellite countries. On our side he said we must do more for the underprivileged and backward races in the East which was fertile ground for communism. We must abandon all imperialism and, above all, we must get rid of the colour bar. He made a strong attack on the policy of the Malan (1) government in South Africa and expressed the hope that South Africa would leave the Commonwealth as soon as possible – the sooner the better, in fact!...(1. Dr.D.F.Malan (1874 – 1959) was Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, South Africa 1948 – 1954. Footnote by Editor Kenneth Young.)
He was fairly, but not very, good in answering questions and was handicapped by the stupidity of some of the questioners, some of whom wanted to know how soon the changes which Russell expected in the U.S.S.R would take place and just what form world government would take and how soon it could be expected. However he stood up fairly well to a long ordeal which began at 6 p.m. and with an hour’s break for dinner, lasted till 10 p.m.
I had two long talks with him alone, and then he was at his best, his eyes twinkling, his huge head resting rather heavily as it seemed on his lean, spare, lithe figure, and his smile lighting up his face. When you ask what is a superior man, the answer is not a Churchill or a Beaverbrook but men like Bertie Russell, Thomas Masaryk and Charles Richet. (2. Charles Richet, French physiologist (1850 – 1935) and Nobel prizewinner. Footnote by editor Kenneth Young.)
Russell very human, had two sherries plus half a pint of beer at dinner, laughed heartily when I asked him what was the secret of his perennial youth. ‘Glands, I suppose, glands. But I hope I’ll live till ninety so that I can say all the wrong things.Shaw had a field day when he was ninety. Ascribed his great age to vegetarianism, teetotalism, non-smoking and goodness knows what other forms of self-discipline. I shall say that I have done everything that doctors think wrong: I’ve drunk, I’ve smoked (he is a great pipe-smoker), I’ve eaten what I liked and I’ve enjoyed myself in every way….’
…… He was also to my surprise anti-Labour – at least he predicted with great assurance that they would be heavily beaten at the next election and seemed to desire this defeat. (The Labour Government called a snap election later that year, in October. They lost the election but were not heavily beaten. They won more individual votes than the Conservative Party but lost parliamentary constituency seats to the Conservatives, who ended up with a majority of 20 seats. Footnote Pete Grafton). Indeed, he wanted to make a bet with me there and then. Told me with great glee how he had won a bet off Culbertson, the U.S. bridge expert who also considered himself an authority on foreign affairs. (3. Ely Culbertson (1891 – 1955) author and pacifist, who created the Culbertson System for bridge in 1930. Footnote by editor Kenneth Younger). Russell bet him early in 1941 that Japan would be in the war before the end of the year and that this would bring the U.S. in. Russell had a narrow squeak – 7 December – but he won.
He was also very interesting on Darlington’s view on Lysenko. (Bruce Lockhart had already written in his diary the previous day about the talk by Darlington: “Lysenko’s theory. Heredity is merely development. enviroment can change development. Therefore environment can change heredity. In Darlington’s opinion Lysenko is a charlatan. His experiments have produced no results. The Russian scientists know this… Under Stalin no room for argument.. The Russian scientists who were prepared to argue have been ‘liquidated’. ) He told me that the whole theory of heredity and that character could be changed by environment (the Lysenko and Stalin theory) was started by Samuel Butler, in hatred of Darwin who he detested. The theory was carried on by Bernard Shaw. (Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and polemicist, who was an early admirer of the Italian fascist Mussolini, and then the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. He was an advocate of the cleansing of class enemies, amongst others, suggesting in 1934 a “humane killing gas”. Footnote by Pete Grafton.)
His saddest story was his loneliness after his return from his first visit (probably only visit) to Russia in 1921. He disliked the Communist regime very much after he had seen it. He was then very much to the Left himself, and his comment on his return from the Bolshevik paradise displeased very much his left-wing friends who had not seen Russia and therefore loved it. As during the First World War he had been a pacifist, he not only lost his Cambridge fellowship but also his right-wing and indeed centre friends. After his return from Russia he was, therefore, completely friendless.
Saddest thing of all was when I took him after our longish talk after the lecture to his rooms to go to bed. I knew he had a weak bladder, because I had been forced to take him to the ‘loo’ both before and immediately after his lecture. When I took him to the John Richard Green staircase, I found that his rooms were on the ground floor, that they had no running water and that the nearest ‘loo’ was three floors of steep stairs up, and then along a winding corridor which few young men could have found at night, let alone an octogenarian. (Russell was not in his 80s in June/July 1951, he was 79. Footnote Pete Grafton). He was in quite a fuss and suddenly looked old and tired and I felt sorry for him. He wanted a chamber pot and, above all, a cup of tea first thing in the morning without which he said he was lost. I saw that there was a chamber pot for him and I was lucky enough to catch the head steward by knocking at the locked buttery door and arranged for a cup of tea to be sent to the old boy – tea without sugar or milk!
When I returned from my rounds to see if he was all right, I found him quite quiet, sitting in an easy chair, smoking his pipe and reading his book. He was most grateful.
Later I ran into a member of the course who told me that the room he was occupying belonged to a Communist undergraduate, for the shelves were filled with copies of the Daily Worker and Communist books published by Lawrence and Wishart.
– from The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, 1939 – 1965, edited by Kenneth Young, Macmillan, London, 1980.
Two and a half years before Russel’s talk at Oxford the writer George Orwell was reading his Human Knowledge: It’s Scope and Limits, at the Cotswold Sanatorium in Gloucestershire. Often in poor health he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis at Hairmyers Hospital, East Kilbride in Lanarkshire, in December, 1947. Despite this he was to write Ninety Eighty Four on Jura, in the Inner Hebrides during 1948. His tuberculosis became worse and he had been helped to travel to the Cotswold Sanatorium by his friend Richard Rees, in January, 1949. Richard Rees had encouraged Orwell’s writing since the early 1930s, and was to be his literary executor. Orwell was writing to him in early February, 1949.
The Cotswold Sanatorium, Cranham, Glos.
4 February 1949
“…. I am reading B.Russell’s latest book, about human knowledge. He quotes Shakespeare, ‘Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the earth doth move’ (it goes on I think ‘Doubt truth be a liar , But never doubt I love.’) But he makes it ‘Doubt that the sun doth move’, and uses this as an instance of S’s ignorance. Is that right? I had an idea it was ‘the earth’. But I haven’t got a Shakespeare here and I can’t even remember where the lines come from (must be one of his comedies I think). I wish you’d verify this for me if you can remember where it comes. I see by the way that the Russian press has just described B.R. as a wolf in a dinner-jacket and a wild beast in philosopher’s robes.”
– Source: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 4, edited by Sonia Orwell, and Ian Angus. The editors footnote that Russell was right, and that the quotation is from Hamlet.
It was be a further 38 years of Soviet Communist occupation before Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany had a freedom that West European countries took for granted. During that time the USSR, directly and then under the umbrella of the “Warsaw Pact” crushed, usually with tanks, all demonstrations against Communist rule. The USSR itself lasted until 1992.
East Germany 1953
In a scenario that even George Orwell hadn’t thought of for his Animal Farm, the Communist dictatorship of East Germany (DDR) demanded in 1953 that the already over-worked and undernourished workers increase production.
Poland, December, 1970.
Bertrand Russell outlived George Bernard Shaw by 3 years, dying at the age of 97 in February 1970. Robert Bruce Lockhart, curiously, died on the same month and the same year, February 1970 aged 82. George Orwell died from a burst TB lung on 21 January, 1950 at the age of 46. His novel Animal Farm was banned by the Soviet Communists from its 1945 publication until 1988. His Ninety Eighty Four was banned in the USSR from 1950 until 1990. It is not clear if any works of Bertrand Russell were also banned in the USSR.
At present, Marxist Communism still imprisons, in the name of “The People”, the populations of Vietnam, North Korea and China.
George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, four volumes, London 1968.
Robert Bruce Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, 1915 – 1938, London, 1973; The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, 1939 – 1965, London, 1980.
John Wheeler-Bennett and Anthony Nicholls, The Semblance of Peace: The Political Settlement after the Second World War, London, 1972.