Bertrand Russell Writes an Artful Letter, Stating His Refusal to Debate British Fascist Leader Oswald Mosley (1962)

Image by Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Chang­ing the minds of oth­ers has nev­er count­ed among human­i­ty’s eas­i­est tasks, and it seems only to have become an ever-stiffer chal­lenge as his­to­ry has ground along. Increas­ing­ly many, as Yale pro­fes­sor David Bromwich recent­ly argued in the Lon­don Review of Bookshave had no prac­tice in using words to influ­ence peo­ple unlike them­selves. That is an art that can be lost. It depends on a quan­tum of acci­den­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is miss­ing in a life of organ­ised con­tacts.” We might find our­selves in rea­son­ably fruit­ful debates with basi­cal­ly like-mind­ed friends, acquain­tances, and strangers on the inter­net, but can we ever con­vince, or be con­vinced by, some­one tru­ly dif­fer­ent from us?

Bertrand Rus­sell doubt­ed it. In 1962, long before the struc­tures of the inter­net allowed us to build tighter echo cham­bers than ever before, the Nobel-win­ning philoso­pher “received a series of let­ters from an unlike­ly cor­re­spon­dent — Sir Oswald Mosley, who had found­ed the British Union of Fas­cists thir­ty years ear­li­er,” writes Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va.

“Mosley was invit­ing — or, rather, pro­vok­ing — Rus­sell to engage in a debate, in which he could per­suade the moral philoso­pher of the mer­its of fas­cism.” Even at the age of 89, with lit­tle time and much else to do, Rus­sell declined with the utmost force and clar­i­ty in a piece of cor­re­spon­dence fea­tured on Let­ters of Note:

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your let­ter and for your enclo­sures. I have giv­en some thought to our recent cor­re­spon­dence. It is always dif­fi­cult to decide on how to respond to peo­ple whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repel­lent to one’s own. It is not that I take excep­tion to the gen­er­al points made by you but that every ounce of my ener­gy has been devot­ed to an active oppo­si­tion to cru­el big­otry, com­pul­sive vio­lence, and the sadis­tic per­se­cu­tion which has char­ac­terised the phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice of fas­cism.

I feel oblig­ed to say that the emo­tion­al uni­vers­es we inhab­it are so dis­tinct, and in deep­est ways opposed, that noth­ing fruit­ful or sin­cere could ever emerge from asso­ci­a­tion between us.

I should like you to under­stand the inten­si­ty of this con­vic­tion on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I val­ue in human expe­ri­ence and human achieve­ment.

Yours sin­cere­ly,

Bertrand Rus­sell

Rus­sell passed on eight years lat­er, in 1970, and Mosley a decade there­after. “His final mes­sage to the British peo­ple appeared in a let­ter to the New States­man writ­ten only a week ear­li­er,” remem­bers jour­nal­ist Hugh Pur­cell in that news­pa­per. It con­cerned an arti­cle’s descrip­tion of the “Olympia ral­ly,” the 1934 deba­cle that lost the British Union of Fas­cists much of what pub­lic sup­port it enjoyed. “The largest audi­ence ever seen at that time assem­bled to fill the Olympia hall and hear the speech,” Mosley insist­ed. “A small minor­i­ty deter­mined by con­tin­u­ous shout­ing to pre­vent my speech being heard. After due warn­ing our stew­ards removed with their bare hands men among whom were some armed with such weapons as razors and knives. The audi­ence were then able to lis­ten to a speech which last­ed for near­ly two hours.”

The New States­men, print­ing Mosley’s let­ter posthu­mous­ly, ran it under this intro­duc­tion: “Through­out his life he was intent on per­suad­ing peo­ple that their view of his­to­ry was mis­tak­en.” Despite his unceas­ing efforts, he ulti­mate­ly per­suad­ed few — and it would hard­ly have required as keen an observ­er as Rus­sell to see that some­one like Mosley cer­tain­ly was­n’t about to let him­self be per­suad­ed by any­one else.

via Let­ters of Note/Brain Pick­ings and The Bertrand Rus­sell Archives, McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Library

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Lis­ten to ‘Why I Am Not a Chris­t­ian,’ Bertrand Russell’s Pow­er­ful Cri­tique of Reli­gion (1927)

Bertrand Rus­sell and F.C. Cople­ston Debate the Exis­tence of God, 1948

Face to Face with Bertrand Rus­sell: ‘Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish’

How Bertrand Rus­sell Turned The Bea­t­les Against the Viet­nam War

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • David Rose says:

    “cru­el big­otry, com­pul­sive vio­lence, and the sadis­tic per­se­cu­tion which has char­ac­terised the phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice of fas­cism”

    Make no mis­take, these are not philoso­phies of fas­cism. To assume so would mean if it reared its head with­out these occur­rences com­mon to most polit­i­cal philoso­phies that the philos­phy might not be rec­og­nized. Fas­cism is, in fact, a sys­tem that stress­es the impor­tance of the state over the indi­vid­ual.

    So while we must be vig­i­lant on pre­vent­ing these efforts, and cer­tain­ly so in pre­vent­ing the fur­ther­ance of the state over the indi­vid­ual we must not con­fuse the issues or mud­dy the waters with dis­trac­tions (yes, I chose that word care­ful­ly in this instance) that pre­vent us from see­ing the real prob­lems.

    For instance, I have noticed a strong bias towards Open Cul­ture being in fact not very open. It tends to push left­ist issues and when I write to the authors or edi­tors with ques­tions they go unan­swered.

    THAT is the prob­lem: pow­ers that be think­ing their answer is the only answer, and that there is no room for dis­agree­ment. After all, how can we know that fas­cism, or the far right or the far left are not where we want to be if we don’t hash out the issues?

    Long Live Free Speech.

  • H.Ge says:

    “Fas­cism is, in fact, a sys­tem that stress­es the impor­tance of the state over the indi­vid­ual.”
    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, democ­ra­cy became a sys­tem that does the same, but sub­tly.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    First, won­der­ful let­ter. Sec­ond, the author might take the line about the inter­net era build­ing bet­ter echo cham­bers to heart. It seems that if you dis­agree with the assump­tions of some of his con­tent, i.e. You don’t think the USA is head­ed for an apoc­a­lypse under Pres­i­dent Trump, you’re told in no uncer­tain terms to piss off. Talk about an echo cham­ber!

  • Joshua May says:

    Some opin­ions are bet­ter left to the com­ments sec­tions of blogs, Mr. Rose.

  • I have the hots for Britt Ekland says:

    The sur­prise is that Oswald Mosley ever con­sid­ered debat­ing with Bertrand Rus­sell. Right-wing whack-jobs don’t usu­al­ly want to have their opin­ions chal­lenged.

  • Rastapopolos says:

    Fas­cism isnt far right or far left its far cen­trist

  • Organon says:

    Where is Sir Mosley’s let­ter to Rus­sell? A bil­lion sites have repro­duced Rus­sel­l’s let­ter, but not a sin­gle one has both­ered to pro­duce Sir Mosley’s.

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