Odyssey of a Liberal
By Freda Utley
The strongest influence which held me back for a time from joining the Communist party was that of Bertrand Russell. I met him first when he came to speak for the King’s College Socialist Society in 1924. Subsequently he invited me to tea at his home in Chelsea. Thus began a friendship which has been one of the precious things in my life. In the Easter vacation of 1926 I spent a month with him and his wife, Dora, at Porthcurno in Cornwall,
teaching their young son John in the mornings, walking, talking, and bathing in the afternoons, reading aloud in the evenings.
“Bertie” as I already called him tried hard to convince me that the Marxist theory was untenable in the light of modern physics. I wrote to Mother in April 1926: “Tell Temple I have been driven to try to understand relativity in order to understand what Russell thinks about Russia: I am reading the A.B.C. of Relativity,* with Russell sitting near me to explain what I don’t understand. He is most awfully kind to me.”
Unfortunately, I never understood the theory of relativity. In spite of Russell’s patience and the time he spent on my education, my mind could not grasp the basic connection between Marxism and Newton’s theory of gravity. Nor could I as yet accept the truth of Russell’s Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.
Written in 1920, this book was uncannily prophetic of the Russia I was soon to know. Bertrand Russell was one of the very few who, in those early days of the Revolution, was able to perceive what manner of tree would grow from the seed which Lenin planted.
Others have appreciated the truth expressed by Lord Acton that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But it took such a rare philosopher as Bertrand Russell, who had the faculty of seeing things writ small as well as large, to appreciate the significance of such incidents as his witnessing Kameniev smuggling milk for his children in his Commissar’s car during the famine in Russia in 1920. As Russell endeavored to impress on me, the instinct to provide for one’s own family would bring to naught all Communism’s fine promises of equality and brotherhood. Forty years before Djilas wrote his famous book, Conversations with Stalin Russell foresaw that the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat meant that of a Communist party elite which could not but lead to the establishment of a new privileged class.
I can of course no longer recall many details of our conversation during the memorable and most happy days I spent with Bertrand and Dora Russell in Cornwall long ago when, as I wrote to Temple, “We talk and discuss everything under the sun.” But I well remember how Bertie, one of the very few people who has actually read Das Kapital from beginning to end, endeavored to convince me that Marx’s philosophy was bound to produce bad results because he was motivated by hate – by hatred of the rich, not sympathy for the poor, by the desire to punish the exploiters rather than by compassion for the exploited.
I, who had read and thought I understood Anatole France’s Les Dieux Ont Soif about the French Revolution, as well as his Révolte des Anges, failed to heed Russell’s warnings concerning the inevitable corruption of the Bolshevik Revolution with its built-in despotism. So true it is that one learns only by experience. I had to find out for myself the hard way that even if Lenin had envisaged human freedom as the goal of the class war, by inflaming the hatreds of mankind he laid the foundations for a more total tyranny than the world had yet known.
One windy afternoon as we walked together on the Cornish cliffs above a turbulent sea, Bertie remarked that since no one can ever be sure of the ultimate result of his actions, one should be guided by realization of their immediate effects, and never inflict a certain present evil for the sake of a doubtful future good. A principle which Russell himself has not always observed, since he came to support the Second World War after it began, and is today aligned with those who are helping to sustain the immediate evil of Communist tyranny for the sake of a doubtful future peace to be achieved by the unilateral atomic disarmament of the West. As Russell himself has written, empiricists should never hold any principle absolutely because there are occasions when the future consequences of failure to act may be predictably worse than the consequences of taking action, however bad or dangerous its immediate consequences. None of us are always logical, or consistent in our beliefs, not even Bertrand Russell, the greatest man I ever knew.
Life in Porthcurno with the Russells that April long ago was like a brief return to my happy childhood. Writing to Mother and Temple during those halcyon days in Cornwall in the springtime, I said: “I like him better and better and feel a little bit like I used to feel about Dada.”
My father, as I remember him before his last sad years of illness and hapless poverty, had the same capacity as Bertrand Russell for enjoyment of life and laughter, work and play, strenuous exercise followed by relaxed ease, good conversation and good argument, appreciation of poetry and music and beauty in all its forms, and above all such delight in the company of his children and such an intimate and understanding relationship with them.
Remembering both Bertie and my father, I call to mind lines from Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Choruses in Euripides’ Bacchae, learned long ago and still remembered:
A God of Heaven is he,
And born in majesty;
Yet hath he mirth in the joy of the Earth,
And he loveth constantly
Her who brings increase,
The Feeder of Children, Peace.
No grudge hath he of the great;
No scorn of the mean estate;
But to all that liveth His wine he giveth,
Only on them that spurn
Joy, may his anger burn.
Whoever has read, and felt his courage revived by reading Russell’s incomparable expression of his stoic philosophy in the essay called A Freeman’s Worship, must feel how apposite are other verses written by the greatest of the Greek dramatists more than two milleniums ago. Such lines as:
What else is wisdom? What of man’s endeavor?
Or God’s high grace, so lovely and so great?
To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait
To hold a hand uplifted over Hate
And shall not loveliness be loved forever?
Bertie loved his children far more than any of the many women in his life, continuing to enjoy through his extraordinarily long life the simple pleasures of humanity which many other philosophers have failed to appreciate. He shared their pleasures and romped with them and played with them like a young man, besides talking to them as if they were adults.
When grown to manhood, Bertie’s first-born son, John, gave me great pleasure in recalling the impression made on him when he was not yet six years old. by my vivid account of Columbus dreaming as a boy in Genoa of the vast seas he would traverse as a man searching for a Westward route to the East Indies and accidentally discovering the New World.
I myself remember best the remark John made while Bertie was reading the Bluebeard story to him and his four year old sister Kate. At the point in the narrative when Bluebeard’s wife, terrified at the prospect of having her head cut off unless her brother arrives in time to rescue her, calls again and again to her sister watching on the castle battlements: “Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?” John interrupted his father’s dramatic rendering of her anguished tones by remarking: “Wasn’t she a fuss pot.”
During that month in Cornwall Bertie taught me far more than I taught John or four year old Kate whom he was paying me to teach. What I learned from seeing how he was bringing up his own children was to prove important to me a decade later when I had a son of my own to rear without father, husband or brother to help me. Bertie believed that parents must be careful not to impair a child’s nerve by letting him know one is fearful for him. He would watch John climbing dangerously on the rocky Cornish coast with anxiety, but determined not to let his son know how fearful he was. Years later in Moscow I was to have arguments with my husband who was all too prone to pick up our baby son from the floor to save him from bumps and scratches or a bad fall when he was showing himself too adventurous in his explorations of the world. And later on in England and America I had to contend with my mother’s nervous exhortations to her grandson to “be careful” as against my endeavors never to arouse fear in his heart.
My father’s training of Temple and me had been like Russell’s treatment of his children. I became a fearless swimmer in my early childhood because my father used to take me far out of my depth when I barely knew how to swim, but trusted him completely. And, when I was ten or eleven years old I had climbed quite high mountains in Switzerland with my brother and a guide, besides being one of the crew in bobsled races along fast courses in competition with adults in the Engadine.
In bringing up my own son I tried to follow the example set me by Bertrand Russell and my father, and was greatly pleased when on his 27th birthday in 1961, Jon wrote me that I had “taught me to live so that I am not afraid to die.”
Without courage there can be no virtue, as the Romans, who had the same word virtus for both, knew.
Although Bertrand Russell failed to save me from myself by stopping me from joining the Communist party, his influence remained potent.
When I came back to England from Russia in 1931 for a brief visit and stayed with the Russells in Hampshire I believed that the horrible society I was living in was Stalin’s creation and that if Lenin had lived or if Trotsky’s policies had been followed, all would have been well. Bertie would bang his fist on the table and say “No! Freda, can’t you understand even now, that the conditions you describe followed naturally from Lenin’s premises and Lenin’s acts? Will you never learn and stop being romantic about politics?”
Some of my best friends still like to quote this Russell remark against me, although I think it is no longer true with regard to my political outlook. But if it be “romantic” to believe that man, by exercise of his reason and critical faculties, and by fostering his creative instead of his destructive instincts, could if he would, create a world nearer to the heart’s desire, then Bertrand Russell has been the greatest romantic of us all.
The word “romantic” with its connotation of disregard for realities is not the right adjective to describe those who realize that there is an impulse within us, unexplained by the instinct for survival, to seek for truth and justice. It may be an illusion to believe that man has the capacity to attain to stature of the gods in whose existence he has longed to believe since he first came out of brutishness, but if this be romanticism let no one be ashamed of the appellation.
The poems Bertie loved best reveal that despite all his analytical, aseptic or “scientific” dissertations about sex, marriage, morality and libido in his popular books or pot boilers, he was at heart as old fashioned and romantic about love as any Victorian novelist or Elizabethan poets. Remembering his favorite poem, read to me long ago in Cornwall, as “Lady of Walsingham,” which is not its title, I have now found it by searching diligently in the Oxford Book of English Verse. Included among anonymous 16th century poems, it is so beautiful, so little known, and so evocative of the tender and romantic side of Bertrand Russell’s nature that I here reproduce it in full.
As ye came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
How should I know your true love,
That have met many a one
As I came from the holy land,
That have come, that have gone?
She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair;
There is none hath her form divine
In the earth or the air.
Such a one did I meet, good sir,
Such an angelic face,
Who like a nymph, like a queen, did appear
In her gait, in her grace.
She hath left me here alone
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometime did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.
What’s the cause that she leaves you alone
And a new way doth take,
That sometime did love you as her own,
And her joy did you make?
I have loved her all my youth,
But now am old, as you see:
Love likes not the falling fruit,
Nor the withered tree.
Know that Love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past:
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.
His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy;
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.
Of womenkind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abused,
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excused.
But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never dead, never cold,
From itself never turning.
Bertie, for all his many love affairs and four marriages, never did find in the words of his favorite poem the “durable fire” of true love, “in the mind ever burning.” This failure was not, I think to be ascribed simply to his inability to restrain the abnormally strong sexual urges which were the accompaniment of his great physical and mental vigor rendering him incapable of monogamy. His marriage failures were also due, as it seems to me, who knew two of his wives well, to his longing to mate with an equal. This led him to ascribe greater human qualities and mental capacities to the women he married than they possessed, or could long continue to pretend to have.
Since he was seeking for an impossible combination of Cleopatra and Aspasia, Hypatia and St. Theresa, Boadicea and Joan of Arc, and was also drawn to Quakers and other Puritan types as shown by his first and last choice of wives*- his quest for enduring love was abortive. But he would not have made so much trouble for himself had he not so puffed up his wives that they became difficult to live with. Convinced by Bertie that they actually were his equals and collaborators, they acquired an undue influence over him which led him to great follies. As when he let Dora “inspire” him to write several rather silly books about free love which did great harm to his reputation, expressing views which he was to find untenable after she foisted two bastard children upon him. Or when, as today in his 90’s he is married to a woman of Bryn Mawr who has no more understanding or knowledge of Communism than a nun in a convent insulated against evil has about the world, the flesh and the devil. I surmise from my memory of a talk with them in London in 1954 that the last Lady Russell bears considerable responsibility for the fact that Bertie in his last decade came to ignore his original acute perception of the nature and aims of the Soviet Power.
Influenced as he was by Dora’s free love theories as well as by his own polygamous inclinations, Russell remained impervious to her arguments in favor of the Soviet dictatorship. He relates in his autobiography that she viewed his revulsion to the “cruelty, poverty, suspicion and persecution in Russia” as “bourgeois, senile and sentimental” while he regarded her liking for the Bolsheviks “with bewildered horror.”
I confess that I do not remember much about Dora’s political views in 1926 in Cornwall. I must have been too enthralled by Bertie to take note of them, much as they no doubt resembled my own at this time. I remember her as an attractive buxom fresh faced and energetic woman and recall Bertie’s remark that living with her was as relaxing as travelling on an express train bearing one to one’s destination without effort on one’s own part. Dora’s main interest in the mid-20’s was in birth control and her campaign to induce the Labor Party to go all out for it. One remark of hers stuck in my mind. Telling about a textile trade union worker she had stayed with in Lancashire, Dora, instead of being repelled by her dirty house and unkempt personal appearance had understood that a woman in her circumstances could not possibly do a day’s work in the mills and be active politically, unless she neglected her household chores and herself.
Writing to Mother I described Dora as “about the most able all around woman I have ever met.” She seemed able to do everything, “is a perfect mother and she writes and runs birth control propaganda” and she was “awfully nice to me.”
A decade later I was to accept, all too uncritically, Bertie’s charges against Dora. I did not come to realize until the 50’s, after his break with his third wife Patricia, Russell’s capacity to erase from the tablet of his mind the true record of loves and friendships turned sour.
Today finding a letter I wrote on March 7, 1926, I am amazed to recall that, honored and pleased as I had been, by the Russell’s invitation to spend the summer as well as the Easter vacation with them in Cornwall, I hesitated to commit myself to acceptance of an opportunity which many people would have jumped at then as well as today. Not because I did not revere Bertie or was not delighted at the prospect of enjoying the privilege and pleasure of his company. But on account of overriding concern for my lonely mother temporarily “exiled” in Devonshire as a paying guest with our friends Kathie and Stanley Harris.
Because while I was in residence at Westfield College and Temple living with his wife in Hampstead, neither of us could contribute sufficient funds to Mother’s support and she had sublet the Jessel House apartment.
“Dear Mother,” I wrote, “I want especially to tell you about an offer I have had from the Russells, I enclose his letter which you might read first. I had dinner with them last night and said then I should love to come at Easter but did not like to promise anything definite about the summer, though I thought I could come for a month if I could arrange for you to come to Mousehole so that I could see you often. Today Mrs. Russell rang up and said she and Bertie did not want at this stage of my career to persuade me into anything but I have been round again this afternoon and have promised to come for April and for July. I saw Temple in the meantime and he seemed to think I ought to go as it is rather an opportunity, isn’t it? I like the children and shall, I think, enjoy teaching them. Also, Porthcurno is quite near Mousehole and you thought, dear, that you would like to go to Mousehole in the summer and if you came for July I could see you nearly every day. Let me know what you think, dear? I think really I ought to feel honored.
As it turned out, by the summer of 1926 I was too actively involved in the long losing struggle of the British miners – which followed the collapse of the Genera] Strike-to indulge myself again with the Russells in Cornwall as tutor to their children. I visited them only briefly that summer while accompanying A.J. Cook, Secretary of the Miner’s Union, on a speaking tour through the Western Shires to raise funds for the striking miners.
Arthur Cook, who died not long afterwards as the result of his exertions, or perhaps because his heart was broken by his failure to save his people, was a type of labor leader practically unknown in this day and age when high-ranking trade union officials in England as well as America have become indistinguishable in income, mode of living and “status” from the executives of big corporations. A tall, rangy sandy-haired blue-eyed man with a great heart and fighting spirit, he lived almost as poorly as the miners he represented and never spared himself even when sick in his desperate efforts to save his people from destitution.
When we reached Cornwall on Arthur Cook’s strenuous speaking tour, during which I occasionally spoke myself but was mainly instrumental in putting him in touch with my fishermen and other “proletarian” friends in Devonshire and Cornwall. I took the Miner’s Union leader and his retinue to visit Bertrand Russell at Porthcurno, a small village in a cove some miles beyond Penzance on the way to Land’s End. It was an occasion which illustrates Russell’s kindness and concern for the practical needs ignored by most philosophers.
It had been raining all day and Arthur Cook was wet and exhausted and so hoarse that he was almost unable to speak after having addressed many small open-air meetings in spite of suffering from a bad cold. While the rest of us chattered excitedly downstairs, Bertie, infuriated by the indifference shown to the Mine Union leader’s physical condition by his secretary, who was a hard-boiled left-winger, himself escorted Cook upstairs, carrying a can of hot water, and insisting that his guest change his sodden clothing, put on dry socks and take some rest.
This is one among many small incidents I recall which show Russell’s concern for human ills, both great and small. In particular he was always prone to worry about people catching cold through getting their feet wet. At the progressive school which he and Dora established in England in the 30’s, it was Bertie who insisted that the children change their socks when they came in out of the rain. And it was Bertie, not Dora, who saw to it that the groceries were ordered and the children properly fed.
How-Well-I-Remember-Bertie could be the title of a book I am unlikely ever to write. His kindness and his naughtiness; his wit and his courtesy and his weaknesses; his enjoyment of family life and his terrific sexual urges which led him to the pursuit of women until long past threescore years and ten. His boyish delight in shocking people by stating his views in the most exaggerated or provocative way possible. His joyful chuckles and the wicked gleam in his eye after making some particularly outrageous statement. The pleasure he took in reducing the sublime to the ridiculous even to the extent of making fun of his own cherished beliefs. His delight in paradox and his facial resemblance to the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. His logical mind which led him to say B.C.D. down even as far as X, after having once said A, even if the end result was absurd. His courage and integrity, his passionate hatred of cruelty and injustice and his burning sympathy for the injured and oppressed. All his great qualities of mind and heart and spirit uniquely combined with compassion and understanding.
As also the defects which are the reverse side of Russell’s genius and humanity. His exaggerated, sometimes ridiculous, overstatements when he refused to make any distinction between the trees and the wood, or to admit that a difference in degree makes a difference in kind. The contrast between his skeptical and stoic philosophy and his behavior when he became a none-too-scrupulous propagandist for a cause in which he passionately believed. His propensity in the heat of controversy to ignore his own precept that one should always be aware that one may be mistaken.
The occasions when his judgment has been warped by some particular personal experience, as when he came to conceive an enduring resentment against America because Catholic pressures in 1940 forced the cancellation of his appointment as Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York on account of his “immoral” views on sex and marriage. His pride and prejudices as an Englishman and an aristocrat and his fears for his own country which eventually led him to take positions inconsistent with his basic views. His tendency to forget in the heat of controversy his own warning that “opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.”
Nor can Bertrand Russell be held guiltless of sometimes shifting the original premise of his arguments without admitting he has done so after his heart or his hopes or his fears had, in fact caused him to change his mind.
Russell’s liking for me and my deep affection and admiration for him were perhaps due to some basic affinity in our minds, characters and ideals. I do not. of course, pretend to be in any way his intellectual equal. But both of us had the mentality which pursues beliefs or theories to their logical conclusion, and the temperament which impelled us to commit ourselves unreservedly in defense of our convictions. Neither of us ever paid much attention to Goethe’s dictum that the essence of wisdom is to know when to stop. Lord Russell is an aristocrat by temperament as well as by birth, and, above all. an Englishman who instinctively reacts as such to the crises of our time. I, on the contrary, was to become a citizen of the United States by choice while remaining an internationalist at heart, and am perhaps also, as Bertie used to tell me in explaining my predilection for America, a ‘social outcast by nature.’ But we shared the same basic values and esteemed the same virtues: courage, honesty, clarity of mind, and the toughness of moral and mental fibre to face reality, acknowledge error, cast illusions aside and yet continue on the quest for truth and justice.
The inexcusable crimes in Bertie’s view were cruelty and lying in either great or small matters. Thus, for instance, he broke off relations with Arthur Koestler, who was his neighbor in Wales after the Second World War, because Koestler was unkind to his wife, Mamime, and had lied to Russell on some small matter. And as I shall relate in a later chapter Russell was to sever his long friendship with George Bernard Shaw, over me in 1937, when he found Shaw to be cruel and deceitful as well as very silly about the Soviet Union.
I, too, am all too prone to break off relations with friends who disappoint me by not living up to my expectations of their integrity or courage. I can like and respect people who disagree with me and remain friends with them if they seem to be honest, but I hate hypocrites, humbugs and prevaricators, and despise those who seem to share my convictions but lack the courage to stand up and be counted when it comes to a showdown. Like Dante, I think those who are so indifferent or “tolerant” or cowardly as to have no opinion, deserve to be consigned to Hell’s anteroom.
In a word, in my judgement of people I share to some extent Bertie’s aristocratic prejudices.
The original Greek meaning of the word aristocrat was “the best”; and the term noblesse oblige reminds us that there was a time when the nobility was expected to behave nobly. The aristocratic principle, even if more honored in the breach than in observance by men of high degree, is the antithesis of the “bourgeois” passion for security, and the deification of private property rights.
There could be no greater contrast between an aristocrat in the original meaning of the word and the type of ‘conservative’ whose main concern is the preservation of wealth, incomes or security. Indeed, as it seems to me, the basic weakness of the so-called ‘Right’ in America today is its lack of ‘virtue’ – in the Roman sense of the word, meaning both courage and integrity and a measure of generosity.
This similarity in our temperaments, values, and behavior may account for the fact that my friendship with Bertrand Russell stood the test of time, despite some fierce altercations and temporary estrangements. As also because of his generosity of mind and heart. During the early 40’s in America, after Bertie had abandoned his pacifism to support the war against Germany, he was to become infuriated by my arguments which echoed his own former belief that the Second World War would have even worse consequences than the first one. Yet, on one occasion, after we had parted in anger, he told his third wife, Peter, that I had the quality of greatness.
The real greatness was in Russell, who saw his own qualities reflected in his friends and in the women he loved or liked.
I am one of the few, if not the only, woman who enjoyed Russell’s friendship for many years who did not have an affair with him. Although he wanted to make love to me, as was his nature, and laughed at my ‘Puritan prejudices,’ he understood me and helped me to understand myself. And it was at least partially thanks to him that when I fell in love with Arcadi, some six months after my vacation with the Russell’s in Cornwall, I did not hesitate to consummate our love.
Through the years I was occasionally to be appalled when Bertie’s terrific sexual urges, which were the accompaniment of his genius, caused him to assume the repulsive expression of a lustful satyr. My reverence for him as philosopher and humanitarian enabled me to dismiss these recollections from my mind. But buried in my subconscious they can still evoke an all too vivid vision of his hungry lips and avid eyes momentarily blotting out the image of philosopher and friend which mattered most.
I shall have much more to relate about Bertrand Russell in later chapters. At this point I am remembering through the mist of the years the wonderful month I spent with him in Cornwall in the springtime of my life when, if only I had heeded his teaching I would never have become a Communist, and might have saved my husband from being engulfed ten years later by the Red Tide which swept him to death and me to loneliness for the rest of my life.
After my month with the Russells in Cornwall I returned to Westfield College and my usual practical concerns. With work still to be done on my M.A. thesis I was looking around for a job in the fall, as also endeavoring to raise some cash to continue paying for the patent fees on my father’s invention which we still hoped would eventually secure an income for mother. Temple was in a worse situation than myself since I was getting free board and lodging and £100 a year from Westfield College and earning some money by articles and book reviews and lectures for the Workers Educational Association.
Writing to Mother in Devonshire from London that spring I say:
Very sorry you feel so lonely and sad. Shall come and see you soon.
Cannot come this weekend because going Cambridge for University Labor Federation meeting.
I can’t see how Temple can manage to come. He has absolutely no money at all and is worried about it. Perhaps soon you will be getting money from the pump and will be able to come back, darling. I will look this week for a jumper suit for you.
In another letter concerning her forthcoming visit to London to stay with Temple, I wrote:
I got your letter last night although not posted by 9:30! Today and yesterday I have been chasing round for testimonials for a job advertised in the D. Herald for someone to do Research in a Trade Union Office (£300- £350 pa.). I am afraid though, that there are heaps of people in for it – I have met several – and I don’t stand much chance without an Economics degree. Baynes has given me a wonderful testimonial; I enclose a copy. Archie (Henderson, Transport Workers Union Secretary) has too, and his may count most. He is still terribly busy and looking absolutely fagged out but he asked after you very particularly.
As it turned out I was soon to be relieved of worry about jobs and money by being appointed to a fellowship at the London School of Economics and Political Science.