Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Opinionated Professors: Lenin and Russell

Bertrand Russell
Paul Johnson, in his essay “Bertrand Russell: A Case of Logical Fiddlesticks’,” (Chapter 8; Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky), notes that Bertrand Russell was as opinionated as Lenin, and that both were blind to human nature and had contempt for the people. Here’s an excerpt:
The curious thing is that Russell was quite capable of detecting-and deploring-in others the same dangerous combination of theoretical knowledge and practical ignorance of how people felt and what they wanted. In 1920 he visited Bolshevist Russia and on 19 May had an interview with Lenin. He found him ‘an embodied theory’. ‘I got the impression,’ he wrote, ‘that he despises the populace and is an intellectual aristocrat.’ Russell saw perfectly well how such a combination disqualified a man from ruling wisely; indeed, he added, ‘if I had met [Lenin] without knowing who he was I should not have guessed that he was a great man but should have thought him an opinionated professor.’ He could not or would not see that his description of Lenin applied in some degree to himself. He too was an intellectual aristocrat who despised, and sometimes pitied, the people.  
Moreover, Russell was not merely ignorant of how most people actually behave; he had a profound lack of self-awareness too. He could not see his own traits mirrored in Lenin. Even more seriously he did not perceive that he himself was exposed to the forces of unreason and emotion that he deplored in common people. It was Russell’s general position that the ills of the world could be largely solved by logic, reason and moderation. If men and women followed their reason rather than their emotions, argued logically instead of intuitively, and exercised moderation instead of indulging in extremes, then war would become impossible, human relationships would be harmonious and the condition of mankind could be steadily improved.  
It was Russell’s view, as a mathematician, that pure mathematics had no concept which could not be defined in terms of logic and no problem which could not be solved by the application of reasoning. He was not so foolish as to suppose that human problems could be solved like mathematical equations but he nonetheless believed that given time, patience, method and moderation, reason could supply the answers to most of our difficulties, public and private. He was convinced it was possible to approach them in a spirit of philosophical detachment. Above all, he thought that, given the right framework of reason and logic, the great majority of human beings were capable of behaving decently. 
In my opinion, the politicians and intellectuals who are convinced that they are men of reason and logic are generally unreasonable, illogical and dictatorial. I am wary of all those who pugnaciously claim to be the fount of reason and logic. 

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