Russell, Bertrand (1872–1970)

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English mathematician, philosopher, and peace activist.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Born to an aristocratic family in 1872, he was orphaned at the age of two. Raised by his grandmother, he was educated by private tutors and studied mathematics and philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. A brilliant academic performance led to his election as a fellow of his college in 1895.

Russell was thoroughly immersed in European life and thought. In 1894 he served as attachéto the British embassy in Paris and spent considerable time in Germany studying social democracy. In 1900 he attended the Mathematical Congress at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. There he engaged in the study of mathematical logic, arising from the work of the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano. This led to his first major publication, entitled The Principles of Mathematics (1903), and to his celebrated work, jointly written with Alfred North Whitehead, Principia Mathematica (1910–1913). Among his fundamental claims was the view that all of mathematics could be deduced from a relatively small set of logical axioms. A popular version of this argument was published as An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy in 1919. Russell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908.

After the outbreak of the World War I, Russell's politics did not sit well in the environment of Trinity College, where he was fellow and lecturer. Russell opposed the war, the extension in the powers of the state, and the harsh treatment of conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the army after the imposition of compulsory military service in 1916. He wrote indignantly about the fate of men who refused to fight and clearly offended many of his colleagues whose sons were in uniform or had already been killed in action. In 1916 Trinity College did not renew his lectureship. The following year, the British government denied him a passport to take up a post at Harvard University. Later in 1917 he wrote an article in an antiwar journal stating that U.S. troops coming to Europe were more likely to be used as strikebreakers than as combatants. That statement led to six months in prison. As the son of an earl, he was given relatively comfortable quarters, but he was a prisoner of conscience nonetheless. Both in and out of prison, he proceeded to develop his political outlook and took up guild socialism, a libertarian theory that emphasized the power of trade unions to organize social life at the point of production, so that the state and its coercive powers would not be necessary. Here was a set of ideas that pointed toward a decentralized social order at a moment when war had centralized virtually everything. Russell's suspicion of centralized authority was at the heart of his political thinking, as is evident in his 1918 lectures published as Roads to Freedom. Guild socialism faded away, but not the distrust of the state and the military that in Russell's mind lay behind it.

In 1920 he went on a political voyage first to Soviet Russia, to study bolshevism, and then to China. His distrust of the centralized state made the Bolshevik experiment appear dangerous to Russell. On his return, he turned his mind to educational experimentation. He and his second wife, Dora Black, opened a libertarian school in London. In 1927 he published one of his most celebrated and controversial essays, "Why I Am Not a Christian." In 1929 he wrote Marriage and Morals, a powerful attack on conventional sexual morality. His work as a philosopher gained increasing international recognition, though in 1940 his appointment to teach at City College of New York was blocked on the grounds that he did not believe in morality. The Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia offered him an alternative five-year post, but after taking up this post in 1940, he was dismissed by Barnes himself three years later. In 1944 his old college, Trinity, reelected him as a fellow, righting a wrong of the previous war.

In 1945 Russell published his most widely read book, A History of Western Philosophy, taking the view that a proper understanding of philosophy could help resolve the disputes that had cost millions of lives in the two world wars. In the 1950s Russell was an outspoken opponent of the development and use of nuclear weapons. In the 1960s Russell was a leading figure in the movement against the Vietnam War, convening an unofficial war crimes tribunal in London. His standing as a political maverick in Britain was unique. The grandson of a prime minister and a peer of the realm, he represented the freethinking element of British intellectual life. His two-volume Autobiography (1967–1969) is one of the classics of the English language.

See alsoPacifism; Socialism; Vietnam War.


Ayer, A. J. Bertrand Russell. New York, 1972.

Griffin, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bertrand Russell. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Klemke, E. D., ed. Essays on Bertrand Russell. Urbana, Ill., 1971.

Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell. New York, 1999.

Ryan, Alan. Bertrand Russell: A Political Life. New York, 1993.

Jay Winter

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Russell, Bertrand (1872–1970)

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