Bertrand Russell? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent intellectual Bertrand Russell apparently expressed in a private letter a deeply cynical viewpoint about humanity. He suggested that the oppressed simply wished to become the oppressors, and the populace competed to become criminals instead of victims. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: On December 17, 1920 Bertrand Russell sent a letter to his lover Ottoline Morrell. He was dispirited because the recent independence of Poland achieved via the Versailles Treaty had been followed by warfare between Polish and Ukrainian forces. In addition, his opinion of Bolsheviks and other groups had soured. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
But I think all mankind utterly vile. The Bolsheviks, till I knew them, seemed better; now they don’t.
Russell’s dejection facilitated a belief that the moral distinctions between groups were transitory and illusory:
People seem good while they are oppressed, but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn: life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim. The world is rushing down into barbarism, and there seems nothing to do but keep alive civilization in one’s corner, as the Irish did in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The 1976 biography “The Life of Bertrand Russell” by Ronald W. Clark printed an excerpt from the letter that included the quotation under examination: 2
Russell was a man of moods, giving in China a hint of the weathercock judgment that in later years was sometimes to cause confusion. News of the Irish troubles caused him to long for even deeper retreat from the world. “People seem good while they are oppressed, but they only wish to become oppressors in their turn,” he said; “life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim. . . .”
In 1987 Jon Winokur published the compilation titled “The Portable Curmudgeon”, and the following two quotations were listed under the topic “Life”: 3
Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep. Fran Lebowitz
Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim. Bertrand Russell
In conclusion, the statement in the 1920 letter is properly ascribed to Bertrand Russell. He was communicating privately and candidly to his lover, and his words reflected his somber mood at that time. His public pronouncement were not usually cynical and defeatist regarding mankind.
(Great thanks to Wang Wei whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Wei located the book containing Russell’s letter.)
- 2002, The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Volume 2: Public Years 1914-1970, Letter To: Ottoline Morrell, Letter From: Bertrand Russell, Letter Date: December 17, 1920, Start Page 213, Quote Page 214, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York. (Verified with Kindle Edition) ↩
- 1976, The Life of Bertrand Russell by Ronald W. Clark, Part: The New Romantic, Chapter 14: Turning-Point, Quote Page 390, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Topic: Life, Quote Page 173, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩