On The 39th Anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death


In 2005, the great Noam Chomsky whose contributions, essays and talks, grace our bookshops, libraries, and indeed this website was voted “the leading living public intellectual by the ‘Global Intellectuals Poll’ conducted by the British magazine Prospect. Little has changed in the last four years. Chomsky’s opinions are still among the most widely respected and most keenly anticipated of all, with regards to most things, most of all perhaps with regards to American foreign policy.

 
It is one of the rare blessings of our time that we have someone of such intellectual rigor and academic brilliance defending the Palestinians and exposing the Zionist enterprise. Since the death of his friend, the great Edward Said, the greatest Palestinian since Jesus Christ, no one has spoken with such rigor, and such care and meticulous attention to detail, about the Palestinian cause, than Noam Chomsky. Whenever one reads his works, even his critics admit, one is "struck by a sense of great intellectual power; one knows one is encountering an extraordinary mind, whose virtues included originality and scorn for the faddish and superficial", as Guardian journalist Maya Jaggi writes in an article on him written a few years ago, aptly entitled, ‘Conscience of a Nation’.
 
Most people who care about humanity, who know about Chomsky, are full of praise for him, but possibly the most outstanding comment one has made about his work must be that of Edward Said himself, stating in his foreword to perhaps the only must-have- book on the Palestinian cause in my opinion, ‘Fateful Triangle’:
 
“There is something profoundly moving about a mind of such noble ideals repeatedly stirred on behalf of human suffering and injustice. One thinks here of Voltaire, of Benda, or Russell, although more than any one of them, Chomsky commands what he calls “reality”—facts—over a breathtaking range”
 
It is very interesting that Said made this comparison with Russell – the great Bertrand Russell. And it is something that is worth exploring, for, while many people are aware of Chomsky’s magnificent contributions to the Palestinian cause (least of all, his incredible aforementioned book, regarded by Said as “the most ambitious book ever attempted on the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians viewed as centrally involving the United States”) there is very little known about Russell’s.
 
This is a big shame, for I believe we are missing out on something major here. If it were known that undoubtedly the greatest thinker of the 20th century, and arguably, as Karl Popper described him in his autobiography, “the greatest philosopher since Kant”, supported the Palestinian cause, and opposed Israel, and indeed American foreign policy, it will bring a lot of credit to our attempts to convince people of the justice of our cause.
 
This is not a new tactic, and indeed, the Zionists have used it (quite inappropriately I hasten to add) to justify their case, by using the great Albert Einstein as an example of a supporter of their case.
 
Listen to Isaiah Berlin, the British political philosopher, who wrote in an essay, ‘Einstein and Israel’ (1979):
 
“I am, as you must know, no expert on any of Einstein’s most important attributes or achievements. But I should like to return for one more moment to the state of Israel. The Zionist movement, like the state of Israel, has often been attacked, today more than ever, both by countries outside its borders and from within; sometimes with, more often without, reason or justice. That Einstein, who tolerated no deviation from human decency, above all on the part of his own people – that he believed in this movement and this state and stood by it through thick and thin, to the end of his life, however critical he was at times of particular men or policies – this fact is perhaps among the highest moral testimonials on which any state or any movement in this century can pride itself. Unswerving public support by an utterly good (and reasonably well-informed) man, against a virtually complete lack of sympathy for it on the part of the members of his social and intellectual milieu (whose general moral and political views he largely shared) may not by itself be enough to justify a doctrine or a policy, but neither can it be dismissed; it counts for something; in this case for a great deal.”
 
This is no place to show the falsity of those claims (I devote a separate essay to the subject later). But it is the place to show what Russell has said about our cause. There can be no harm in showing his solidarity with us, just like the Zionists used Einstein for their case, with the only difference being that we are not falsifying what the great man believed.  
 
It is interesting in this context to know a few facts – that both Chomsky and Russell are first-rate philosophers, and moreover, share the same specialty interest – logic and linguistics. They’re both prolific writers and speakers, and indeed, because of their interests rubbed shoulders at several points. He wrote the introduction to Russell’s ‘War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam’ and in January 1970, a month before Russell’s death, delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at the University of Cambridge. Chomsky has always regarded Russell, as among his two most important intellectual influences (the other is the American philosopher John Dewey), a man who he keeps a very large black and white photograph of in the hallway next to his door in the MIT where he works, who he says, “had a lot of very good characteristics and did a lot of things that I admire”, as he told interviewer David Barsamian in 1994.
 
Thus, one can see the ties between Chomsky and Russell. But, it is interesting to note what Edward Said said when he compared Chomsky to the others “More than any one of them, Chomsky commands what he calls “reality”—facts—over a breathtaking range”.
 
This is probably true, but, in my opinion it is perhaps also one of Chomsky’s weaknesses, and one of the things that, paradoxically places Russell above Chomsky. Russell wrote beautifully, Chomsky – perhaps because of his keen desire to state all the facts – does not. Despite a love for his work, I have to agree with Professor Cosma Shalizi, when he writes,
 
“His grammar is unexceptionable, nor is he obscure in the manner of Kant and Hegel and their all-too-numerous spawn. He seems to try hard. But his writing remains heavy, ineloquent, monotonous, dull. Scientists have become resigned to a very low level of prose from their fellows, but it is expected that one will do better when addressing a lay audience. Chomsky does not; he lacks utterly the happy gift for exposition possessed by, say, J. B. S. Haldane, Peter Medawar or Steven Weinberg – to say nothing of any number of science writers”    
 
One can read virtually any of Russell’s works for entertainment as well as educational and serious purposes, but not Chomsky. And in my opinion, Russell’s is a much more favourable approach for the education and addressing of future generations of defendants of the Palestinian cause – for most people will not have the opportunity to invest the time and energy required of a work of a man like Chomsky, but will be more than happy to hear from Russell. To quote Shalizi again:
 
“When Chomsky writes about politics, he writes only about politics, usually the (real enough) horrors attending US foreign policy, and quickly drowns one in a mass of factual details and ponderous denunciations. When Russell writes about politics, he writes about architecture, the Chinese mandarinate and the effects of the airplane on the imagination, and aptly illustrates the devastation of modern war with a poem by Leopardi. Russell’s work is like a scientific instrument from the Enlightenment, whose craftsmanship and decoration make it beautiful, if not quite a work of art; Chomsky’s, a clanking, thudding mass of valves and wires and metal boxes painted grey, nursed through the night in the basement of the physics building by an attentive graduate student.”
 
While I think it is too harsh an assessment, I can see what Shalizi is
trying to say.
 
That perhaps is the first lesson one can learn from Russell – a lesson applicable to all areas; how to present oneself and how to write. Fortunately, for those who want things clarified to them in black-and-white, Russell did not leave them in the darkness – he wrote an essay in jest in 1956, ‘How I Write’, published in the collection, ‘Portraits From Memory’!
 
But what can one learn from the great man with regards to the Palestinian cause itself? What can we learn from him?
 
It is one of the most beautiful things I have known about Russell that I always talk about, that, only two days before his death, he decided to devote his last message to the Palestinian cause. A statement on the Middle East dated 31st January 1970, which was read on the 3rd of February, the day after his death, to an International Conference of Parliamentarians meeting in Cairo. I do wish to believe, however, that my love for him does not stem from knowledge of this fact – a fact that I admit I got to know early on in my encounter with his work.
 
And because it is not familiar to many, I quote it in full:
 
“The latest phase of the undeclared war in the Middle East is based upon a profound miscalculation. The bombing raids deep into Egyptian territory will not persuade the civilian population to surrender, but will stiffen their resolve to resist. This is the lesson of all aerial bombardment.
 
The Vietnamese who have endured years of American heavy bombing have responded not by capitulation but by shooting down more enemy aircraft. In 1940 my own fellow countrymen resisted Hitler’s bombing raids with unprecedented unity and determination. For this reason, the present Israeli attacks will fail in their essential purpose, but at the same time they must be condemned vigorously throughout the world.
 
The development of the crisis in the Middle East is both dangerous and instructive. For over 20 years Israel has expanded by force of arms. After every stage in this expansion Israel has appealed to “reason” and has suggested “negotiations”. This is the traditional role of the imperial power, because it wishes to consolidate with the least difficulty what it has already taken by violence. Every new conquest becomes the new basis of the proposed negotiation from strength, which ignores the injustice of the previous aggression. The aggression committed by Israel must be condemned, not only because no state has the right to annexe foreign territory, but because every expansion is an experiment to discover how much more aggression the world will tolerate.
 
The refugees who surround Palestine in their hundreds of thousands were described recently by the Washington journalist I.F. Stone as “the moral millstone around the neck of world Jewry.” Many of the refugees are now well into the third decade of their precarious existence in temporary settlements. The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign Power to another people for the creation of a new State. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their number have increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homeland is an essential ingredient of any genuine settlement in the Middle East.
 
We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate any suffering. What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy. Not only does Israel condemn a vast number. of refugees to misery; not only are many Arabs under occupation condemned to military rule; but also Israel condemns the Arab nations only recently emerging from colonial status, to continued impoverishment as military demands take precedence over national development.
 
All who want to see an end to bloodshed in the Middle East must ensure that any settlement does not contain the seeds of future conflict. Justice requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June, 1967. A new world campaign is needed to help bring justice to the long-suffering people of the Middle East.”
 
However, one can learn a lot more from Russell than from this piece. One will do well to substitute the word ‘Palestine’ for the word ‘Vietnam’ in his speeches in the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1967; it would apply so perfectly to the current Gaza Crisis.
 
Also one can learn a lot from his outlook on history – which I have outlined in my first essay on ‘Philosophy and the Problem of Palestine’, and also from his critique of religion, particularly ‘Why I am not a Christian’ – which I believe to be essential to the demise of the critical evangelical Christian support of the state of Israel. Thirty years ago, with the ascent of the Marxist wave, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which “sought a transformation to Marxism” and is regarded as “a Marxist-Leninist, secular, nationalist Palestinian political and military organization”, his numerous writings, exposing the poverty of communism, would have been invaluable. But, as everyone save a few unenlightened individuals would now admit, communism is a clear failure.
 
Most importantly perhaps, one can learn from Russell to view humanity as an integrated whole, and develop the conception “of the human race as a whole, fighting against chaos without and darkness within, the little tiny lamp of reason growing gradually into a great light by which the night is dispelled. The divisions between races, nations, and creeds should be treated as follies distracting us in the battle between Chaos and Old Night, which is our one truly human activity”.
 
With this kind of outlook, the bitterness and racism of Zionism will decay, and the free Palestinian people will make the greatest contributions to humanity, which we all hope for and anticipate.
 
Bertrand Russell may have died thirty nine years ago this day, but he will forever be remembered as a hero of humanity, in a time humanity needs heroes like that most desperately. I leave the kind reader with my favourite quote for the great man, advice for people of all ages, in all places, in all times.
 
The good life is that inspired by love, and guided by knowledge”.
 
 Can anyone better that?
 
 
 

Leave a comment