Sunday reading: Bertrand Russell

We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.

This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.

Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on libcom.org), but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.

From his article on meeting Lenin:

Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

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