100 years ago, philosopher Bertrand Russell was prosecuted for an editorial he wrote. In February 1918 he was sentenced to six months in Brixton Prison.
100 years ago the philosopher Bertrand Russell was prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for an editorial written for the weekly paper of the pacifist organization with which he was closely involved. The offending passage was hardly the most provocative, defiant or impassioned statement of protest about the First World War, which Russell’s “whole nature was involved” in opposing for more than four years (Auto. 2: 18). Nevertheless, in February 1918 a London magistrate found Russell guilty of the trumped-up charge and sentenced him to six months in prison.
This was not the first time Russell had fallen afoul of emergency powers enacted by Britain’s wartime state. Dissenting voices were deeply unpopular during the First World War; not only were they hounded by laws riding roughshod over civil liberties, they were also scorned by a patriotic public and pilloried in the popular press. In June 1916 Russell was handed a stiff £100 fine after admitting his authorship of a leaflet attacking the harsh treatment of British conscientious objectors. Russell’s legal troubles also resulted in the loss of his lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had built his formidable reputation as a philosopher and logician and coauthor of Principia Mathematica.
In 1916 Russell had goaded the authorities into acting against him, anticipating (correctly) that he would be able to transform the courtroom into a platform of protest. Eighteen months later he had no such confrontational agenda. Exhausted by, and disillusioned with, peace campaigning, he was planning to return wholeheartedly to philosophy and had already taken steps in that direction.
The decision to prosecute Russell for a second time, therefore, appears to have been vindictive. The magistrate certainly exhibited that spirit in sentencing him to the second division of the British penal system. Russell was far more concerned about the harsh conditions of confinement as a prisoner of that class than by the loss of his liberty. When his conviction was under appeal, he encouraged his academic supporters to petition the Home Secretary for him to be incarcerated as a first-division prisoner and thereby entitled to privileged treatment. His most influential philosophical protector, Arthur Balfour, also happened to be Foreign Secretary in a government strenuously opposed to Russell’s pacifist politics. On 1 May, the appeal court magistrate upheld the guilty verdict but ordered that his sentence be served in the first division of Brixton Prison.
This ruling was a huge relief. Russell was now spared from the strict discipline, petty cruelties, and arduous labour of the second division. He was allowed to furnish his cell, wear civilian clothes, purchase catered food, and most importantly, be exempted from prison work while he pursued his profession as an author. While hardly jubilant at the prospect of six months behind bars, he viewed his punishment with a strange equanimity and actually welcomed a “holiday from responsibility” — as he put it to his brother in Letter 2, written on 5 May, four days after his sentence started.
Russell quickly formulated an exacting programme of philosophical writing for the months ahead. Indeed, in an astonishing burst of productivity, he all but completed the manuscript of a book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), before the end of May. A handful of scholarly reviews followed, and from his extensive prison reading he made copious notes for what became The Analysis of Mind (1921), and a still more ambitious undertaking on logic which, unfortunately, never crystallized.
However impressive, these philosophical fruits of Russell’s prison experience are not the primary focus of this digital project, which is to assemble and publish a unique correspondence. In four-and-a-half months, Russell wrote at least 104 prison letters. There were certainly other letters, now missing. The last one in our collection dates from a second, much shorter sentence that Russell the octogenarian anti-nuclear campaigner served in the same prison 43 years later.
We can thank Russell for the scale of this editorial enterprise. At the start of his sentence he petitioned successfully for additional mail privileges. But even in more ordinary circumstances he was an irrepressible letter-writer. Deprived of regular human contact inside Brixton, imprisonment only increased his epistolary cravings. Russell’s lobbying of prison officials, his routine requests and instructions to editors and publishers, and the weekly approved letter (sometimes written on prison stationery and usually containing multiple messages to different parties) comprise only a fraction of his prison correspondence. Abetted by visitors who were permitted under prison regulations to spend 30 minutes with him each week in groups of three, Russell also started a thriving illicit correspondence with his family, friends, and lovers past and present. Letters were smuggled in and out of Brixton in cloak-and-dagger fashion, usually inside the uncut pages of books that came and went from Russell’s cell.
The Brixton letters are of enormous historical interest, and recipients attested immediately to their literary quality. Some passages have become almost famous. Russell was not the first distinguished thinker to produce writing of lasting value under conditions of some duress. He was conscious of his place in that unhappy but venerable tradition of political persecution. His letters provide revealing autobiographical insights and illuminate a state of mind that veered from boundless hope about his future intellectual and personal life to listless anguish and jealous recriminations.
Prison was a transitional interlude in Russell’s philosophical development, and new preoccupations surface in his correspondence as well as in his manuscript notes and writings prepared for publication. In his cell Russell read extensively in history and fiction as well as philosophy. He cultivated a particular interest in memoirs of the French Revolution — not to seek solace from the past but because he was struck by the parallels between those turbulent times and his own. A remarkable cast of characters from contemporary British intellectual and literary life appears in the prison correspondence; although confined to Brixton, Russell still managed to participate more than vicariously in their conversations and debates. Even his humdrum entreaties to prison authorities retain a certain curiosity for shedding light on British penal practice.
Always intruding was the war, which Russell gloomily foresaw continuing even as German military resistance was starting to crumble during the final weeks of his sentence (which ended, suddenly and six weeks early, on 14 September). Although he continued to extend moral support to the conscientious objector movement, and tried to ensure that he himself would not be called up for military service after his release, Russell exhibited little interest in shaping pacifist political strategy from inside Brixton. Above all, perhaps, many of the prison letters are exceedingly intimate, as Russell revisited the failures of his past romance with Lady Ottoline Morrell and keenly anticipated an idyllic post-Brixton future (which eluded him) with his current lover, Lady Constance Malleson.