Bertrand Russell: Playboy Interview (1963)

If the long and stormy life of Bertrand Arthur Russell can be said to possess any unifying thread, it is an enduring attitude of passionate skepticism, a lifelong refusal to accept any truth as immutable, any law as infallible or any faith as sacred.
Bertrand Russell

by Norman MacKenzie

The impact of the Cold War on American culture was enormous. Widespread fear of domestic, as well as foreign, enemies stands as a defining characteristic of the era. Playboy interviews were one platform that gave these feared enemies opportunities to explain their views to American audiences and present overt critiques of US foreign policy. The first interviewee in the magazine to comment on foreign political tension was British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was interviewed in its March 1963 issue (41-52), only a few months after the dangerous escalation during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Russell, known as an antimilitarism activist, served as a forceful intermediary between the opposing parties at the time of the missile crisis. In the Playboy interview, Russell criticized both the Soviet and US governments and called for neutral third-party countries to solve the conflict and neutralize the East-West opposition. In addition, Russell gave credit to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for showing himself to be “less belligerent” than Kennedy and, thus, responsible for avoiding a war of nuclear devastation.

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If the long and stormy life of Bertrand Arthur Russell can be said to possess any unifying thread, it is an enduring attitude of passionate skepticism, a lifelong refusal to accept any truth as immutable, any law as infallible or any faith as sacred. During the nine decades of his dedication to dissent, the erudite Earl Russell, a member of the House of Lords, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of his pioneering research in mathematical philosophy and symbolic logic, and honored with Britain s distinguished Order of Merit for service to his country. But he has also been reviled as an enemy of religion and the flag; jailed for his ringleadership of passively nonviolent demonstrations against nuclear armament; and variously extolled and execrated for his contentious convictions on free love, women’s suffrage, sex education, pacifism and preventive war.

As the London Times wrote last May on the occasion of Lord Russell’s 90th birthday, “for every one who grasps even the outline of his contribution to mathematical logic, 10,000 wear the little button that he wears.” The button is the badge of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a militantly antimilitary movement of which he is the combative champion. As spiritual leader of the famed Committee of 100, a ban-the-bomb group that commands widespread popular support in Britain, he has also earned international eminence—and a brief prison term for civil disobedience—as the most articulate agitator for the controversial cause of unilateral disarmament.

In October 1961—after a decade of mounting personal outcry against the unabating arms race—Russell warned his uneasy listeners at a ban-the-bomb rally in London’s Trafalgar Square that they would be lucky if any of them were alive in a year’s time. That year has passed, and nuclear holocaust has not yet overtaken us. We began our interview by reminding Lord Russell of this prophetic miscalculation.

PLAYBOY: Inasmuch as the world has successfully survived the year since your Trafalgar Square address, Lord Russell, would you care to revise your estimate of the likelihood of an atomic war?

RUSSELL: I said at Trafalgar Square that we would need luck as things were, and we have been extremely lucky so far. But I don’t see any reason to be optimistic. I still feel that the human race may well become extinct before the end of the present century. Speaking as a mathematician, I should say that the odds are about three to one against survival. The risk of war by accident—an unintended war triggered by an explosive situation such as that in Cuba—remains and indeed grows greater all the time. For every day we continue to live, remain able to act, we must be profoundly grateful.

PLAYBOY: In a scathing reference to President Kennedy, Premier Khru­shchev and Prime Minister Macmillan, you said in 1961 that “they are the wickedest people who have ever lived in the history of man, and it is our duty to do what we can against them.” Did you actually mean to say that Kennedy, Khrushchev and Macmillan are the worst of a gallery of villains which includes Hitler and Attila?

RUSSELL: That was an arithmetical statement. Just as it is a wicked thing for one man to murder another, it is 10 times as wicked to murder 10 others, and 1,000,000 times more wicked to be responsible for the death of 1,000,000 men. No man in history has ever had the chance to murder on such a scale. In the past there have been long and bitter wars that caused appalling destruction, but at the end there were still people who could build again. Today we face the prospect of total obliteration in a single day. If mankind is to survive at all, intelligent people must learn to think and act in a less provocative manner than in former times.

PLAYBOY: Did not the avoidance of nuclear war over Cuba last October reassure you about the prudence and restraint of both Kennedy and Khrushchev?

RUSSELL: There are signs that the politicians are beginning to realize the implications of the power they wield. But they have not fully assimilated them. So much seems to depend on very personal factors with politicians— even on what they have had for breakfast and whether they have indigestion when they have to make some important decision. What I am saying is this: When two great powers disagree about anything—it doesn’t matter what—they must find a way to settle it somehow by arbitration or by negotiation, not by war or threat of war. We know only too well that if you threaten someone with war and he doesn’t give way, then you may find yourself committed either to war or to backing down—and that choice has almost always been resolved by war. The Berlin crisis is a case in point. Here the Russians have been somewhat aggressive; they are trying to secure a change in the status of West Berlin by what amounts to threats of war. In the case of the Cuban crisis, on the other hand, Khrushchev has shown himself to be less belligerent than Kennedy, and in effect, at a crucial moment last October, was responsible for avoiding a war of nuclear devastation. Full credit must be given to him for this. He acted with great restraint in a crisis of the first magnitude. I hope it may presage similar responses should the Berlin question reach a comparable peak of crisis. The essential thing to understand is that no conceivable solution to any problem is worse than a nuclear war. It is necessary to realize before it is too late that any act—whatever its motive or rationale—is to be considered wicked if the consequence is an atomic holocaust.

PLAYBOY: What do you believe was the effect of your own personal intervention with Khrushchev—via your much publicized cable appealing for Russian prudence in responding to the American blockade of Cuba?

RUSSELL: He carried out the promise he made in the letter replying to my cable—the promise to do nothing rash that would risk conflict. Within hours of my communication, 12 Soviet ships had turned back from their Cuban destination and Khrushchev had stopped further shipment. This left Cuba illegally blockaded in violation of international law. I believe that if a blockade is defensible when applied to Cuba, then the precedent can be applied also to Berlin and even to Britain, which is an advanced American nuclear base. America should remember the War of 1812 when the United States would not tolerate a British blockade. This is the very heart of what I have been saying for years: If nuclear bases are intolerable in Cuba, then they are intolerable anywhere in the world. Nuclear bases threaten the survival of mankind and the Cuban crisis has shown us how very close we are to annihilation.

PLAYBOY: Do you think the Russian position on Berlin may bring us closer still?

RUSSELL: I can’t tell. There are all these different possibilities. There is intended war, resorted to when one side really thinks it can win. That is the least likely cause in this case. Then there is escalation—a little war growing into a big one. There is also threat and counter-threat, where each side hopes the other will give way—a course inevitably bringing such dangerous factors as prestige and national pride into play. But what is most likely in Berlin or elsewhere is simply war by misinterpretation. You may get a meteor or something like that showing up on a radar screen, and someone will press the button. There is no time to consider. It could so easily happen, in a day, in a moment . . .

PLAYBOY: Can you make any estimate of the destructive consequences of such a disastrous “misinterpretation”?

RUSSELL: This is a question for experts, though all experts are biased. For an uninformed person such as me, it is very difficult to make any precise forecast. But I could give you a minimum estimate. I believe you must generally estimate that, at the very least, the price of nuclear war would be that half the population of both America and Russia, plus the whole of the population of Western Europe and Britain, would be wiped out.
Fear is very much a part of the incentive for armaments. If the fear were removed, each side would be more reasonable. I think that if the West were to voluntarily divest itself of nuclear weapons as a token of its peaceful intentions—this would greatly impress the Russians. They would then feel that they had nothing to fear and that they could enormously reduce their own expenditure on armaments. They would spend their money on consumer goods instead.

PLAYBOY: Does your disarmament plan involve also the abandonment of conventional weapons?

RUSSELL: We should not interfere with conventional weapons unless there is general nuclear disarmament. We would then discard all but a very small number of conventional weapons.

PLAYBOY: It has been said by some political observers that this eventuality will remain entirely academic as long as the U.S. continues to insist on inspection without disarmament, and the U.S.S.R. on disarmament without inspection. Would you agree or disagree with this appraisal?

RUSSELL: It does rather look that way. One side says that America is to blame for the stalemate and the other says Russia is responsible. You get the same sort of explanation in both countries. That, roughly speaking, has been the excuse for not reaching agreement. But I think the true explanation lies deeper than that. Neither side wants agreement, and they have to have something plausible to disagree about. You must realize that in both countries there are political and military factions—lobbies, if you like— which exert powerful pressure for extremist policies. On both sides they consist of people with interests in armaments and all the apparatus of preparation for war. There are military commanders in power on both sides, and their vested interest is in exercising that power. In fact, military people carry much more weight in the making of policy than does public opinion.

PLAYBOY: Would you say, then, considering this climate of opinion within as well as between Russia and America, that there is any realistic hope of drafting a global disarmament plan which would be acceptable to both sides?

RUSSELL: No, not at present. There is no possibility of attaining or sustaining general disarmament until East-West tension has lessened.

PLAYBOY: In 1957 you wrote in The New Statesman, the liberal British journal, an appeal to Premier Khrushchev and then-President Eisenhower for just such a lessening of world tension, to which both the Russian leader and John Foster Dulles responded with public reassurances. Six years have elapsed since then without a noticeable decline in global strife and division. At this critical moment in the cold war, would you care to make another such appeal—perhaps suggesting specific ways in which relations can be improved—to Khrushchev and President Kennedy?

RUSSELL: If I were to make another such appeal, I would have to begin by repeating what I said in 1957. I should say simply to both men: “You seem anxious to destroy the world, to create vast misery and total destruction. All this preparation for war is childish—and suicidal. If you could only begin to tolerate each other, you would be perfectly happy.” I would go on to suggest that the overridingly urgent necessity is to come to an agreement; this is far more important than the precise form the agreement takes. Last summer I sent a message to Moscow in which I expressed the wish that in all negotiations between East and West, the negotiator for the Communists should begin by saying that the universal victory of capitalism would be less disastrous than nuclear war. At the same time, the Western spokesman should start by admitting that the universal victory of communism would be preferable to the destruction of mankind. In a speech last July, Khrushchev singled out this suggestion and said that he entirely agreed. I was rather pleased. I would suggest further that the likelihood of war could be lessened immeasurably if both sides would place a great deal more emphasis on the ghastly destructiveness of war. At present the major organs of publicity in both East and West are inclined to make the public believe that nuclear war wouldn’t really be so terrible after all. That is why I am opposed to Civil Defense preparations. They are diabolical inventions calculated to tell lies and to deceive. Everyone who knows anything knows that.
People may think themselves safe in their deep shelters—but they will roast. Governments must be made to give up the habit of lying in order to persuade people to die quietly. Thirdly, I would strongly recommend an agreement on both sides not to teach that the other side is wicked. For Americans, communism is the Devil; for the Russians, capitalism is the Devil. The truth is that neither is wickeder than the other. They are both wicked.

PLAYBOY: Do you see no difference between the moral positions of America and Russia?

RUSSELL: No. They both have abominable systems. I am inclined to prefer the American system, but only because it is more allied with what I am used to. If I had been born a Russian, probably I should prefer the Russian system.

PLAYBOY: Have your views changed since you returned from a trip to Russia in 1920 to write one of the earliest and sharpest criticisms of the Soviet regime?

RUSSELL: I still take exactly the same view. Up to the time of Stalin’s death, it was really quite horrible. Since then, I think, things have not been quite so bad—though I still don’t care for the Soviet system at all. I just don’t happen to like the American system either. The Americans tell you they stand for freedom: What they mean is that you must be quite willing to perish in order to be free in hell. In Russia they punish you if you espouse capitalism; in America they punish you if you espouse communism. What is the difference? But it is not worthwhile for us to go into the question of whether Russia or America has the better system. There are merits and demerits on both sides. The only important matter is to find some way of compromise between them which will avoid war. At present each has an entirely melodramatic conception of the other, and I think that the Russian Government in particular encourages this view by not allowing Russian tourists to visit other countries except in small organized groups. The same applies to Western visitors in Russia. This is a great pity. But there also seems to be some kind of fear in the West that if you get to know Communists, you will begin to admire them and finally be won over by them. Not a bit of it. There is simply no other way to achieve on each side an understanding of the real nature of the other.

PLAYBOY: Do you consider it possible to strive for these same aims without waiting a century—by relying on the UN?

RUSSELL: It can’t be done through the UN as it is now, because the UN does not embrace China. Its exclusion is a colossal stupidity. The veto also is an absurdity. Some nations, moreover, are very much more powerful and populous than others, and you cannot invest a little nation with the same weight as a big nation. What you will have to do is divide the world into regions. You might, for example, have North America as one group, Europe as another, Russia as a third, China as a fourth, and so on. You would have to work it out with a view to making it more or less equally balanced in population. And the various regions ought to be so constituted that their internal relations would be foremost in importance and their relations to the outer world secondary in importance. I would leave each region complete autonomy for its own affairs. The world government would become involved only when there were contests or disputes with other regions. We shall not long survive without some such system.

PLAYBOY: On a personal level, why have you chosen to adopt a policy of civil disobedience as a means of promoting the cause of peace?

RUSSELL: Purely to get attention. All the major organs of publicity are against us. It was extremely difficult to get any attention at all until we resorted to it. I have no views in principle either for or against civil disobedience. It has always been practiced at different times and places. With me it is purely a practical question of whether to do it or not, a method of propaganda.

PLAYBOY: Do you feel that the authorities have the moral right to prosecute and imprison those involved in such nonviolent demonstrations for peace— as they have done to you?

RUSSELL: I have no right to complain about being punished for breaking the law. I complain only if I am not permitted to break it. I recognize that if you go outside the law you cannot complain if it is made a little awkward for you, but it ought to be possible to do so. If I suddenly took it into my head that I wanted to assassinate the Queen, then I should expect to be punished. You do that sort of thing with full foreknowledge of the consequences.

PLAYBOY: You were recently threatened with expulsion from the Labor Party for urging Western representatives to attend a Moscow “peace” conference and state their views. Aren’t such occasions always turned to their own advantage by the Communists?

RUSSELL: On the contrary. Members of the Committee of 100 went to Moscow last summer and presented their point of view very effectively indeed. They got publicity both inside and outside of Russia. Many Americans have asked me why I don’t preach my ideas to the Russians as well as to the West, and the answer is that I do. Certainly the Russians disagree with much of what I say, but I have found it just as easy—or as difficult— to get publicity for my views in the Soviet press as in the English press. The question I wondered about was whether they had bowdlerized what I said. I have taken the trouble to get translations of what they printed and found that they have been completely faithful. They have not altered a scrap.

PLAYBOY: In addition to disseminating your views personally on both sides of the Iron Curtain, you were the initiator of a series of peace conferences, of which the first was held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, between groups of scientists from East and West. What positive results do you feel have emerged from these symposia?

RUSSELL: They have made a contribution toward informed opinion. For one thing, as a result, the test-ban negotiations came very much closer to success than they would otherwise have done. But the Pugwash meetings have not accomplished as much as one might have hoped. There was a lack of effective publicity. The public won’t listen to informed opinion. They want uninformed opinion.

PLAYBOY: In 1916, you were fined £-100 by the Lord Mayor of London for circulating a pacifist leaflet which the law deemed “likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s Forces.” Your intention, you said then, “was to procure, if possible, a change in the law, or failing that, to secure a change in administration.” Does the same intention motivate your current antiwar activities?

RUSSELL: Yes. Then, of course, I was defending the rights of conscientious objectors in World War I. I do not wholly share their views, but I felt, and still feel, that one should respect their convictions. They believe what I do not believe: that it is wicked to take part in any war, however righteous the cause. I supported the war against Hitler, and have become a pacifist today largely because of the destructiveness of nuclear warfare.

PLAYBOY: Even if a nuclear conflict is avoided, either through disarmament or a continuing balance of power, Khrushchev has made it clear that future “peaceful co-existence” will entail a continuing nonviolent struggle on the ideological front and an intensified campaign of economic competition which he predicts will eventually “bury” us. What posture do you feel the West should adopt in combating this threat?

RUSSELL: Neither of these conflicting interests will be arbitrated equitably and amicably until we have a truly representative and authoritative world government. In the absence of one, it will be a tug-of-war, a question of who is stronger. A continued program of economic and educational aid to underdeveloped countries, meanwhile, would be a significant means of strengthening the Western position. It would be better, of course, if such aid were given cooperatively by both sides, but I don’t think that this is practical politics at the moment. In either case, it should be given not on cold war grounds, but simply because these people need help.

PLAYBOY: Do you share the apprehension of leading sociologists and economists concerning the implications of unchecked population growth in such overcrowded and underproductive areas as Africa, China, India and parts of Latin America?

RUSSELL: The population problem has, in my opinion, been rather exaggerated. It can be solved by adequate birth control, and I don’t think that Catholic objections will prevent the increasingly widespread use and acceptance of contraceptives. After all, Roman Catholics represent only a small segment of the world’s population. India and China are the really big problem areas, and both are inclined to favor birth control.

PLAYBOY: Do you agree with many historians and social scientists who foresee that the next century will witness “an inexorable economic and social evolution,” as one commentator has expressed it, “from the tradition of individual enterprise to the psychology of mass man”?

RUSSELL: Societies comprised of small farmers, merchants and artisans will soon be anachronistic. Almost everybody is already part of something big. If we are to preserve individual liberty in this new world of huge firms and institutions, we must begin thinking in different terms from the tenets of classical liberalism. We will be able to deal with the “curse of bigness,” as Justice Brandeis called it, only by democratizing industry. I would like, for example, to see rules providing for the popular election of directors and managers in each industry. The important thing is to ensure the limitation and equitable division of power. At present economic power is too much concentrated in the hands of a few big men who control the lives of others to an undesirable degree. The Russians—in fact, socialists of all countries—make the cardinal error of believing that if you have a democratic state running industry, then it automatically follows that the industries themselves will be democratic. But to put state officials in place of capitalist officials changes nothing; they are still men, still wielding the same power. Unless state officials are made responsible to all us underlings, nothing will ever be achieved by nationalization.

PLAYBOY: So far we have been talking mainly of the issues which have preoccupied you during the last half-dozen years. But your life’s work has encompassed a multitude of causes. Which of them has mattered most to you?

RUSSELL: Though they have mattered differently at different times, the question of international peace certainly transcends any I have ever been concerned with or any issue that previously excited me. But I have derived great satisfaction from many of my interests—matters of the mind more than anything else. Mathematical logic has been the source of perhaps my deepest intellectual gratification. It has given me very great pleasure to feel, in an important field of human knowledge, that I may have made some lasting contribution to man’s understanding of things which were once beyond his grasp, but which can now be comprehended and manipulated. I am also pleased with the aftermath of my campaign for women’s suffrage and my efforts to secure a more enlightened sexual morality and behavior. They have gone almost as well as I would have liked them to go. When I was young, one talked to a woman in a different language than when talking to a man. There was a cultivated unreality in intercourse between men and women which I thought was very bad indeed. Today things are utterly different. Young people don’t realize how much change there has been. But we still need much more freedom and frankness in sexual instruction. Another matter to which I have always attached great importance in education is that schools ought not to teach nationalism. Every school, with hardly any exception, has as one of its objects the deception of children. They teach them patriotism, to salute the flag. But the flag is a murder symbol, and the state is a pirate ship, a gang of murderers come together. When they salute the flag, they salute the symbol of bloody murder. All this is perfectly clear, valid psychology.

PLAYBOY: On the occasion of your 90th birthday, Lord Russell, you said, “In old age, one becomes aware of what has, and of what has not been achieved.” Did you mean this observation to apply to the fruits of your own efforts in behalf of the various causes you’ve espoused?

RUSSELL: Let me reply this way. Contrary to the customary pattern, I have gradually become more and more of a rebel as I have grown older. Since boyhood, my life has been devoted to two different objectives which for a long time remained separate. It’s only in comparatively recent years that they have come together. One has been to discover whether anything could actually be known; this was a matter of philosophical inquiry. The other has been to do whatever I could to help create a happier world. I cannot claim that what I have written, said and done about social and political problems has had any great importance. It is easy to have an immense effect if you dogmatically preach a precise gospel such as communism. But I do not believe that mankind needs anything dogmatic. I think it essential to teach a certain hesitancy about dogma. Whatever you believe, you must have reservations. You must envisage the possibility that you may be wrong. I want to see individuals retain the kind of personal flexibility and initiative that they ought to have. This means that they cannot and must not be forced into a rigid mold. In my lifetime, freedom—which once seemed to be gaining ground—has come to be regarded as weakness. When I was young, I thought the battle for tolerance had been won. But more recently we have reverted back to the intolerance of the great religious wars. And when I was young, I set out with the belief that love—free and courageous love—could conquer the world. I perhaps thought that the road to a free and happy world would be shorter than it has turned out to be.

PLAYBOY: Do you feel now that this dream of a free and happy world was perhaps little more than the kind of utopian vision which has always inspired man in youth—and so often disenchanted him in maturity?

RUSSELL: It is something more. There is not anything to stop it from coming to pass except our own silliness—a silliness forced upon us by an education which teaches us that our country is vastly better than any other, and that in all respects it is always in the right. It would not be difficult to build a peaceful world if people really wanted it. It is certainly worthwhile to live and act and do what one can to bring it about. I haven’t changed my earlier views in that respect. I still believe exactly what I said when I was 80, when people were asking me much the same question. I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social: personal, to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle, to allow moments of insight to impart wisdom in mundane times; social, to envision in imagination an attainable society in which the individual can grow freely, in which hate and greed and envy will die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I still believe. So you can see that the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.

SOURCE: Playboy, March 1963; pp. 41-52


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