Review of a Biography of Bertrand Russell

The Thought of Bertrand Russell.  (Book Review)[1]

By Gwydion M. Williams

There has been a regrettable trend over recent years for biographies to become a sort of soft-core pornography, with the sex lives of the famous – real or imagined – obscuring the original things that they were famous for.

Thankfully, not everyone writes biographies like that.  This book mentions briefly the various loves of Russell’s life, but concentrates on the important matters, the ideas he had. As far as I can judge, it is a very fair summary of what he thought and said at various stages in his life. Even the tricky matter of his opinion after 1945 that the USA should use its temporary nuclear monopoly to impose its will on the USSR is dealt with quite reasonably.

Alan Ryan clearly understands political in the better and broader sense of the term. Russell was more or less separate from party politics, but had great influence in the wider political sphere, human beings operating within and continuously changing a society. Marriage and Morals, published in 1929, played a large role in changing people’s attitudes to sex. (It didn’t all begin in the 1960s, as some people seem to think these days.)

There are some points I would disagree with. Ryan explains how Russell “really belonged to two aristocracies… Besides being a member of the aristocracy of birth, he was a member of the aristocracy of exceptional talent” (p2). This is a point that needs to be made, in these days when even the Tory Party is run by people who can’t really be said to be members of either sort of aristocracy. And he’s right to mention how dedicated these strata used to be to public service. But I think he’s wrong when he cites the Bloomsbury Group and the Apostles/MIS spies as exceptions to this pattern. They were in fact examples of exactly the same thing, unorthodox and perhaps quite mistaken, but no less sincere than their more conventional rivals. And Russell, though much closer to the conventional view than Bloomsbury or the Apostles, was always working quietly and effectively to change the existing order of society.

There were also some things that were new to me. I was interested to learn that Huxley’s Brave New World was based on a pamphlet by Russell, in which Russell outlines a seemingly rational world order and then at the end “confesses that it is all a waking nightmare .. ” (p135).

Anyway, if you want to know the worthwhile things about Russell, get the book.



This article appeared in July 1990, in Issue 18 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] Bertrand Russell A Political Life by Alan Ryan.  Penguin May 1990. 226pp. £5.99.