Bertrand Russell and World War I

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Lecture date: Tue, 7th Oct, 2014
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Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 into the Liberal aristocracy; his grandfather had twice been prime minister, and it is said that his grandmother, who brought him up after his parents’ early death, wished to groom him to one day become her husband’s successor.

Instead, Bertie, once at Cambridge, became seized by the great issues of philosophy and mathematics, and lived off a relatively modest inheritance to labour for a decade to produce Principia Mathematica in 1910, upon which he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and granted a five year lectureship – but not fellowship – to teach the new mathematical logic. He had found time to engage in politics: he regularly participated in pre-war elections – but he was not a party politician as we have, unfortunately, come to know them; his main cause in the pre-war period was women’s suffrage.

Before war was declared, he had no doubt whatsoever that it was his duty to oppose it. He organised a petition, signed by over 60 Cambridge dons, expressing “their conviction of the supreme importance of preserving England’s neutrality .. considering .. no vital interest of this country is endangered such as would justify our participation in a war.” This appeared in the Guardian and Daily News on 3 August 1914, the day that Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, carried the House of Commons in support of a declaration of war, duly made the following day. That day, Russell had the enthusiastic support of the editor of the Liberal paper, the Nation, to publish the following letter, only for agreement to be withdrawn. After vehement protests, it was printed on 15 August, and later in New York. Here is an extract:

“Sir – Against the vast majority of my countrymen, in the name of humanity and civilization, I protest against our share in the destruction of Germany. A month ago, Europe was a peaceful comity of nations; if an Englishman killed a German, he was hanged. Now .. he is a patriot. We rejoice when we read of innocent young men, blindly obedient to the word of command, mown down in thousands by the machine guns of Liege.

Those who saw the London crowds, during the nights leading up to the Declaration of War, saw a whole population, hitherto peaceable and humane, letting loose, in a moment, instincts of hatred and blood lust .. Dim abstractions of unimaginable wickedness conceal the fact that the enemy are men like ourselves, neither better nor worse – men who love their homes and the sunshine, and all the simple pleasures of common lives.. And all this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and its hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, have chosen that it should occur, rather than any of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country’s pride…

The diplomatists … restrained by punctilio from making or accepting the small concessions that might have saved the world, hurried on [in] blind fear to loose the armies for the work of mutual butchery. And behind them, stand vast forces of national greed and hatred .. fostered by the upper class as a distraction from social discontent, artificially nourished by the sinister influence of the makers of armaments, encouraged by a whole foul literature of ‘glory, and by every text-book of history by which the minds of children are polluted. Our diplomacy has not been guiltless. Sir Edward Grey refused, down to the last moment, to inform Germany of the conditions of our neutrality or our intervention…”

It is hardly surprising that mainstream newspapers were henceforth closed to Russell.

The Rules of War and Dead Babies

Here is extract from his September 1914 article in the Labour Leader, War, the Cause and the Cure: Rulers cannot be trusted with Peace negotiations (I exclude his extensive excoriation of the latter and analysis of the steps to war) “ … The business of war, like a ghastly game, is nominally subject to certain arbitrary rules. In the absence of an umpire, each side accuses the other of infractions, which are called “atrocities”. The rules are roughly these: A man must only fight if he belongs to a regular army, and must confine himself, in the main, to fighting people who belong to another regular army, and who are called the “enemy” [NB These rules are nowadays relaxed], and he must only kill them so long as they are still fighting; but if a man who is not in a regular army attempts to defend his home, he may be legitimately be shot .. It inevitably happens that each side disregards the rules when there is any military advantage in doing so.

Disregard by one’s own side is concealed, whilst disregard by the other side is at once reported and magnified. When an army succeeds in inflicting greater losses upon another army than it suffers, there are rejoicings, and thanks are given to God. But when it kills men not belonging to an army, no one rejoices, and it is not suggested that the Deity has any share in the matter.”

Why the Labour Leader? Battle lines were being drawn. The Labour party and TUC had declared its support for the war on 24 August, and only the I L P had come out against it on 13 August, and its paper, the Labour Leader, edited by young Fenner Brockway, was the only UK one to entertain Russell’s pieces. These two encapsulate two strands of Russell’s crusade.

The criticism of Sir Edward Grey was expanded into a 100 page tract, the policy of the entente, 1904 – 14, a reply to Professor Gilbert Murray, analysing the diplomatic errors that led to war. (Murray’s July 1915 pamphlet in support of the war was one of 87 such published by the Oxford Clarendon Press, and 50,000 copies of it had been distributed secretly by the Government to those it considered opinion makers) Russell’s reply, written through 1915, was published early that December by the National Labour Press (and praised in glowing terms by Ramsey MacDonald in the Labour Leader), and is the major component of Russell’s collection of anti-war essays, Justice in Wartime.

That book also contains his Nov 1914 article Why Nations love War – Russell’s analysis of the second reason for “all this madness, all this rage” – atavistic nationalism. He expanded this, and sought answers to it, in lectures delivered in 1916, published as Principles of Social Reconstruction (‘Why Men Fight – a method of abolishing the International Duel’, in the USA). Much of it is a critique of the state, property relations and war as an institution, and – which will echo with you – the religious element in patriotism. (His qualified advocacy of socialism was published as Political Ideals.)

Russell energetically replied to fellow academics (such as, here, the Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge, in the Cambridge Review of Feb 1915), who objected to what they regarded as his descent into unseemliness:

“Professor Sorley’s main argument is that, though we do not hate the Germans, we ought not to attempt a reconciliation, because they are in the habit of bayonetting children in trenches. If Prof. Sorley believes this, it seems surprising that he should not hate them; but it is not surprising that they should hate us, if we believe such things. … How many instances does he know of “bayoneted children found in the German trenches” established on such evidence as would convince him if alleged against English soldiers? … Professor Sorley must have read the accounts of the Christmas Truce, and of the great difficulty found on both sides in compelling the soldiers to cease fraternising. Does he really think that our soldiers would have been so ready to be friends with men who bayoneted children? Apparently he has a lower opinion than I have of our soldiers’ humanity…”

For Conscience Sake

Russell, right from the start, was active in the No Conscription Fellowship of conscientious objectors. He edited their journal. Tribunals hearing their appeals against conscription usually, if at all, exempted them only from combatant duties. Refusal to serve predictably led to court martial. The first contingent of war resisters arrived in France on 8 May 1916, with a real likelihood of being shot. MPs Philip Morrell and Philip Snowdon asked Russell to join them in a private deputation to Asquith on 11 May, “to supply any ginger that may be lacking”.

Russell was successful: on condition of secrecy from the delegation, Haig was told that day that “no conscientious objector in France is to be shot for refusal to obey orders”: although 34 men were sentenced to death, the sentence was commuted to prison once it was read out, and then reduced on return to Britain and civilian authority.

One of the first prosecutions in Britain (April 1916) was of a school teacher called Everett, who said in his defence: “I am prepared to do work of national importance which does not include military service, so long as I do not thereby release some other man to do what I am not prepared to do myself”. He was sentenced to two years hard labour. Russell wrote a leaflet for the Fellowship setting out the facts, which ended “Everett is now suffering this savage punishment solely for refusal to go against his conscience. He is fighting the old fight for liberty and against religious persecution. Will you join the persecutors..?”

The consequences are set out in For Conscience Sake, an article published, again in America, in January 1917: “A quarter of a million copies of the leaflet were distributed. I do not think any ofus imagined that the leaflet could be regarded as illegal. In this, however, we were mistaken. Men engaged in distributing the leaflet were prosecuted and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment with hard labour. As soon as I found out, I wrote to The Times to state I was the author of the leaflet. I was charged with contravening the regulation that ‘no person shall in writing .. make statements likely to prejudice the recruitment and discipline of HM forces’. I was fined £100 on 5 June (1916).”

Shooting Themselves in the Foot

On conviction, the Government refused him a passport to fulfil a pre-war lecturing engagement at Harvard, and Trinity College dismissed him from his lectureship. Russell’s flat (sub-let: he was reduced to living on the charity of his brother, and friends) was searched repeatedly by Scotland Yard in September to unavailingly locate a pamphlet outlining the trial: he told his lover, Ottoline Morrell “there is a lot of sport to be got out of the matter – I am enjoying it”. He promptly advised in the Labour Leader: “Domiciliary visits from the police are one of the customs of the country. If you desire less interference with personal liberty I should advise you to emigrate to Russia.” The result, as Russell mischievously remarked, freed him from preparing and delivering lectures on Ethics and Mathematical Logic, so enabling him to hold public meetings around the country in support of the NCF and a start to peace negotiations. The Government then banned him from entering ‘prohibited areas’.

“The power was given them for the purpose of dealing with spies. They included the whole coast, and a good many counties abutting on it, to prevent suspicious characters from being able to signal to German submarines. .. Some amusing results followed from this prohibition. I had arranged (mainly for the innocent purpose of earning my living) to give a course of six lectures on the philosophical principles of politics in various large towns … The result of the War Office prohibition has been, of course, to afford an immense advertisement to my lectures … In prohibited areas, they have been read by friends to crowded audiences. The first lecture, on ‘Political Ideals’ [the series eventually published in 1917 under that title], was read before one thousand people in Glasgow by Robert Smillie, president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, a person whom the Government dare not offend … So much for the wisdom of interference with free speech. The authorities have recently made repeated offers to withdraw all orders against me if I will cease to agitate for better treatment of conscientious objectors. But this I cannot do. I have never urged anyone not to enlist, though the authorities say and most people believe I have done so. The principle for which I stand is liberty of conscience – a principle universally accepted before the war, even by those who attack me.”

The German Peace Offer

By 1917, war-weariness was endemic. Then came the Bolshevik triumph that led to negotiations with Germany, and the German Peace offer – the title of Russell’s article on 3 January 1918 in the journal of the No Conscription Fellowship that brought about his imprisonment. Here is part of it: “The German and Austrian Governments have officially announced that they are prepared to conclude a peace on the Russian basis of no annexations and no indemnities, providing there is a general peace, and they have invited the Western Powers to agree to those terms. [the Germans would make a separate peace]

This action has placed [them] in a most cruel dilemma. If they refuse the German offer .. they make it clear they are continuing the war for purposes of territorial aggrandisement. If they accept the offer, they afford a triumph to the hated Bolsheviks and an object lesson to democratic revolutionaries everywhere as to the way to treat with capitalists, imperialists and warmongers. .. It is known that unless peace comes soon, there will be starvation throughout Europe. Men will fight each other for the bare necessities of life.” “The American garrison which will by that time be occupying England and France, whether or not they will prove efficient against the Germans, will no doubt be capable of intimidating strikers, an occupation to which the American army is accustomed when at home. I do not say that these thoughts are in the mind of the Government. All the evidence is that there are no thoughts whatsoever in their mind, and that they live from hand to mouth consoling themselves with ignorance and sentimental twaddle.”

Russell ended by calling on the Labour Party to use its “enormous power” to compel a peace negotiation and prevent a bloody revolution. Russell was prosecuted for making a statement ‘intended and likely’ to prejudice the relations with the United States. According to the draft of his defence in court, preserved by Ottoline Morrell “one phrase in my article has been distorted into a criticism of the military excellence of the American army. Earlier in the article I agreed with Lloyd George that the Western Front constituted an impenetrable barrier, and that where the British Army had failed, there was no reason to suppose that the American army would succeed. By ‘efficient’ I meant ‘efficient for the purposes of breaking through’. I did not mean to suggest any less efficiency than has been shown by our troops; and surely it is not illegal to regard the troops of one’s own country as no less efficient as those of an ally.”

Once again, Russell claimed in court that the government had shot itself in the foot: “if I had not been prosecuted, my words would not have been heard across the Atlantic”, where he made out he felt the best hope of sanity lay. (In December 1916, when the Germans had put out peace feelers, he had had a letter advocating a peace conference smuggled to President Wilson, the contents of which was widely reported in the US press.)

Russell Sent To Prison

He was sentenced to six months in Brixton in the so-called second division prison regime, where books were not permitted, and endless sewing of mailbagswas in prospect. This was altered on appeal in May 1918 to the first division, where prisoners were still banned tobacco but were able to carry on their profession: in the first fortnight he had written 20,000 words of his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, when not reading and writing forbidden letters put in the pages of uncut books carried in by his visitors. These included a letter to his fellow campaigner and earlier imprisoned ‘conchie’, Clifford Allen, late in June: “The end will come – might come tomorrow – but not through us. If we have any effect on posterity, it will be owing to what we have done together with what we shall do after the war. At present, the thing is, so far as is compatible with not helping them [the Government], to avoid their ruining our capacity for work afterwards. If we could get the men out on condition they abstain from propaganda, I should advise them to promise .. Our political duty, now, is entirely to be in readiness for after the war ..”

I quote this, because the principal disseminator of the letters, NCF organiser Gladys Rinder, replied to him: “You have put into words what many of us have been groping for. Even people like Mr Bracher (sic) – devotees of the self-destruction cult – are wavering; he is no longer certain that going to prison always helps a movement”. I couldn’t possibly comment.

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