More on Russell and Lawrence


by Mark English

In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote of the “devastating effect” certain criticisms which D.H. Lawrence once made of his social and political views had on him. These events occurred in 1915.

“I was inclined to believe that he had some insight denied to me,” Russell wrote, “and when he said that my pacifism was rooted in blood-lust I supposed he must be right. For twenty-four hours I thought that I was not fit to live and contemplated suicide.”

In his account of his relations with Lawrence, Russell mentions more than once that he felt that Lawrence was possessed of a kind of insight into human nature deeper than his own logical mind would allow. There may be something in this. Lawrence had some very weird ideas, but his writing displays a deep understanding of human relationships and the emotional side of life.

Though unquestionably a very influential and successful thinker, Russell had nagging doubts about the nature of his general outlook and particularly about the limitations of his fundamentally intellectual perspective. He aspired to do significant work in science, but he also had literary ambitions. As things turned out, he made his mark in logic and philosophy rather than science, and though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was awarded for his historical and discursive writing rather than for imaginative work. All too aware of his intellectualism, Russell looked to Lawrence to articulate “a vivifying dose of unreason.” And Lawrence duly obliged.

The specific trigger for Lawrence’s criticisms was Russell’s ostensibly sane and reasonable essay, “The danger to civilization”. Lawrence reacted against Russell’s moralizing tone. He saw something sinister lurking beneath the surface.

Your basic desire is the maximum of war, you are really the super-war-spirit […] It isn’t in the least true that you, in your basic self, want ultimate peace. You are satisfying in an indirect, false way your lust to jab and strike […]. You are simply full of repressed desires, which have become savage and anti-social […]. It is not the hatred of falsehood which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood. It is a perverted, mental blood-lust. (1)

It’s hard to know what to make of this. According to Ray Monk, Lawrence’s response, in part, can be understood in light of the fact that in the essay “Russell seems to argue precisely for the repression [of bodily life in favor of mental life] that Lawrence takes to be the cause of the trouble.” Luke Ferretter sees this as an overly charitable explanation, claiming that the conclusions Lawrence draws cannot be read out of Russell’s essay and need to be understood in the context of Lawrence’s increasingly angry expressions of disagreement with Russell in the weeks leading up to their break.

“Russell’s practical proposals to reform democratic institutions,” Ferretter writes, “were, for Lawrence, an ultimately unforgivable refusal in Russell to move beyond democracy, and the Christian world-view which underlies it, which brought about the war in the first place.”

In order to understand this idea you need to be acquainted with Lawrence’s peculiar form of historicism. He believed (rightly) that all but the most abstract ideas are inextricably linked to and only work (or work properly) within particular social and cultural contexts. But he took this approach to what I see as being relativistic extremes.

In the novel, Kangaroo, the main character, reflecting on the Great War, thinks: “When the idea is really dead, and still man persists in following it, then he is the unwilling man whom the Fates destroy… ” The war was fought, he reflects, for the ultimately Christian idea, or ideal, “of Love, Self-Sacrifice, Humanity united in love, in brotherhood, in peace”; but this idea is dead in the sense that it no longer expresses most people’s thoughts or emotions or instincts.

“Lawrence,” writes Ferretter, “sees Russell … to be a man who persists in arguing for dead ideals, in Russell’s case […] the ultimately Christian ideals on which contemporary democratic institutions are based. His thought, therefore, can only continue to harm, rather than to help, as he claims, a society which those very ideals have led to war.”

Lawrence’s perceptions of Russell are also elucidated via the character of an “elderly” (50 years old!) sociologist, Sir Joshua Malleson, in Women in Love. He is presented as the epitome of a certain kind brittle, shallow thinking. The wider circle of which he is a part, who meet at a large country house (the model for which was Philip and Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor), is also satirized. The character Rupert Birkin is based on Lawrence, Hermione on Ottoline Morrell, and Ursula on Lawrence’s wife, Frieda. Here are a few extracts from Lawrence’s fictionalized account of his relations with the Garsington circle:

… [A] learned, dry Baronet of fifty … was always making witticisms and laughing at them heartily in a harsh, horse-laugh… The attitude was mental and very wearying. Only the elderly sociologist, whose mental fibre was so tough as to be insentient, seemed to be thoroughly happy. Birkin was down in the mouth. Hermione appeared, with amazing persistence, to wish to ridicule him and make him look ignominious in the eyes of everybody… (2)

Lawrence is at once critical and respectful of this world. The conversations are characterized as excessively critical and general. There is a forced flippancy, a sententiousness and artificiality about them. Lawrence uses a striking image: “a canal of a conversation rather than a stream.”

But when the conversation turns to political and social questions it sometimes comes alive in surprising ways:

The talk was very often political or sociological, and interesting, curiously anarchistic. There was an accumulation of powerful force in the room, powerful and destructive. Everything seemed to be thrown into the melting-pot, and it seemed to Ursula they were all witches, helping the pot to bubble. There was an elation and a satisfaction in it all, but it was cruelly exhausting for the new-comers, this ruthless mental pressure, this powerful, consuming, destructive mentality that emanated from Joshua and Hermione and Birkin and dominated the rest.

Ferretter notes that Birkin’s first criticism of Sir Joshua is an explicit version of Lawrence’s criticism of Russell, that Russell was interested only in attempting to reform existing institutions. Sir Joshua, as seen through Birkin’s consciousness, always has “a strong mentality working,” is “always interesting,” but everything he says is always “known beforehand, however novel it was, and clever.”

This seems to me very 18th century. It brings to mind Alexander Pope’s line: “What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.” The Romantic movement, of which Lawrence is a product and archetypal 20th-century exemplar, was first and foremost an attempt to realign culture with our deep and genuine thoughts and feelings and, as such, represented a clean break with 18th-century ways of thinking. The clash between Russell and Lawrence reflects these broader historical trends.

“The conversation,” Ferretter’s summary continues, “is as familiar as a game of chess, with the same figures, “the same now as they were hundreds of years ago,” “moving round in one of the innumerable permutations that make up the game.” To Birkin, the continuation of this game is “like a madness, it is so exhausted.””

Certainly these criticisms echo the critiques of Russell which Lawrence made in 1915, and which I have already discussed (i.e. that he persists in thinking in terms of “dead” ideas, ultimately Christian and democratic). And, significantly, the discussions in Women in Love lead up to the topic around which the 1915 discussions were largely based: namely a vision of “a new state, a new world of man.”

Russell came to reject Lawrence’s views unequivocally. Some of Lawrence’s views were indeed beyond the pale, but Russell’s ultimate assessment of Lawrence, is (in my opinion) just a little too neat and facile. It is revealing nonetheless.

“We both imagined,” Russell wrote, “that there was something important to be said about the reform of human relations, and we did not at first realise that we took diametrically opposite views as to the kind of reform that was needed. My acquaintance with Lawrence was brief and hectic, lasting altogether about a year. We were brought together by Ottoline, who admired us both and made us think that we ought to admire each other. Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion, and I found Lawrence equally full of rebellion. This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement between us…”

This proved, however, not to be the case. Russell alludes (apparently disapprovingly) to Lawrence’s lack of patriotism, and claims that he had such “a hatred of mankind that he tended to think both sides [in the War] must be right in so far as they hated each other.” There is more than a suggestion here of the forced flippancy of Sir Joshua Malleson.

“Awareness of our differences, however, was gradual on both sides,” Russell continues, “at first all went merry as a marriage bell. I invited him to visit me at Cambridge and introduced him to Keynes and a number of other people. He hated them all with a passionate hatred and said they were ‘dead, dead, dead’. For a time I thought he might be right. I liked Lawrence’s fire, I liked the energy and passion of his feelings, I liked his belief that something very fundamental was needed to put the world right. I agreed with him that politics could not be divorced from individual psychology. I felt him to be a man with a certain imaginative genius, and, at first, when I felt disinclined to disagree with him, I thought that perhaps his insight into human nature was deeper than mine. It was only gradually that I came to feel him a positive force for evil and that he came to have the same feeling about me.”

At the time of their meetings Russell was preparing the course of lectures which would be published as Principles of Social Reconstruction. There was talk of a real collaboration on the lecture project. Many letters were written, but only Lawrence’s survive.

“In his letters,” writes Russell, “the gradual awareness of the consciousness of our fundamental disagreements can be traced. I was a firm believer in democracy, whereas he had developed the whole philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it. “I don’t believe”, he wrote, “in democratic control. I think the working man is fit to elect governors or overseers for his immediate circumstances, but for no more. You must utterly revise the electorate. The working man shall elect superiors for the things that concern him immediately, no more. From the other classes, as they rise, shall be elected the higher governors. The thing must culminate in one real head, as every organic thing must – no foolish republic with foolish presidents, but an elected King, something like Julius Caesar …”

Lawrence’s letters gradually became more hostile: “What’s the good of living as you do anyway? I don’t believe your lectures are good. They are nearly over, aren’t they? What’s the good of sticking in the damned ship and haranguing the merchant pilgrims in their own language? Why don’t you drop overboard? Why don’t you clear out of the whole show? One must be an outlaw these days, not a teacher or a preacher.”

Russell comments: “This seemed to me mere rhetoric. I was becoming more of an outlaw than he ever was and I could not quite see his ground of complaint against me… He phrased his complaint in different ways at different times. On another occasion he wrote: “do stop working and writing altogether and become a creature instead of a mechanical instrument. Do clear out of the whole social ship. Do for your very pride’s sake become a mere nothing, a mole, a creature that feels its way and doesn’t think. Do for heaven’s sake be a baby, and not a savant any more… [S]tart at the very beginning and be a perfect baby: in the name of courage.””

Russell sums up what he sees as the heart of their disagreement:

“He had a mystical philosophy of “blood” which I disliked. “There is”, he said, “another seat of consciousness than the brain and nerves. There is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness. One lives, knows and has one’s being in the blood, without any reference to nerves and brain. This is one half of life belonging to the darkness. When I take a woman, then the blood-precept is supreme. My blood-knowing is overwhelming. We should realise that we have a blood-being, a blood consciousness, a blood-soul complete and apart from a mental and nerve consciousness.” This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently, though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz…”

Lawrence was always in delicate health, but he travelled widely and worked continuously. Right up to his death, in fact. After spending time in a sanatorium, Lawrence died in France in 1930 from complications arising from tuberculosis. He was only 44.

Generally at the time of his death he was not highly regarded. But he had some significant defenders, including E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and, later, F.R. Leavis.


  1. I am drawing here on a paper by Luke Ferretter published in Etudes Lawrenciennes (46, 2015).
  2. See this article by Tony Simpson (which is full of long quotations from primary sources and mercifully free of literary jargon):


  1. From what you say above, I imagine that in the 60’s Lawrence would have been a hippie and Russell a student radical.
    I was a radical myself, and the hippies were always pointing out how I lacked that mystical “something” which they had. Just as Russell took Lawrence seriously and wondered whether there wasn’t something wrong with him because he lacked that “something”, I took the hippies seriously and felt very inadequate as a human being and in fact, one of the motives behind my decision to drop out of graduate school was due to that sense that as a budding intellectual, I was on a “head trip”, as the hippies claimed and as Lawrence said about Russell, and that I needed to get in touch with that special hippie “something” within me. After a while, I realized that the whole way the hippies treated me was just a way of making me feel bad about myself, partially, I’m sure, based on the fact that they felt envious of my superior rational skills, which probably was a motive for Lawrence to do his best to make Russell feel bad.

    With the years you learn that the negative things that people say about you often tell you more about them than they do about yourself.

    • s. wallerstein

      “From what you say above, I imagine that in the 60’s Lawrence would have been a hippie and Russell a student radical.”

      The funny thing is, Russell *was* a (ninety-something) radical in the 1960s, closely associated with student radicals.

      The Lawrence/hippy link I am less comfortable with. Certainly he was mixed up with esoteric groups and ideas but so were many other literary people, W.B. Yeats, for example.

      Aldous Huxley prefigured hippies on the drug front. Not in all ways however. Lawrence, maybe, in some respects. Come to think of it, that “be a baby” stuff may tie in with “rebirthing” etc..

      And the term “head trip” certainly fits.

      “With the years you learn that the negative things that people say about you often tell you more about them than they do about yourself.”

      Yes, and you also become more aware of the manipulations of which you speak.

  2. Once again, Mark, this is great stuff. My mind has gone into a tumultuous overdrive as I try to work out the implications of the thoughts expressed so capably in this essay. I will need to go for a long walk to try to clarify my thinking!

  3. Let me at least make a start.

    “He had a mystical philosophy of “blood” which I disliked. “There is”, he said, “another seat of consciousness than the brain and nerves. There is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness. One lives, knows and has one’s being in the blood, without any reference to nerves and brain. This is one half of life belonging to the darkness. When I take a woman, then the blood-precept is supreme. My blood-knowing is overwhelming. We should realise that we have a blood-being, a blood consciousness, a blood-soul complete and apart from a mental and nerve consciousness.” This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently, though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz…”

    I think this is a crude expression of something quite defining and deep within us and it is hopelessly confused by the repetitive use of the word ‘blood‘. Referring to Auschwitz was a crude, demeaning smear completely unworthy of a great mind. For all his intelligence, Russell’s insights were tainted by prejudice.

    I think of it rather as a ‘peak moment‘ or ‘peak experience‘. It is not something cognitive or rational, though rationality may be the groundwork for it. This has variously been defined as:

    … a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience.
    …a highly valued experience which is characterized by such intensity of perception, depth of feeling, or sense of profound significance as to cause it to stand out, in the subject’s mind, in more or less permanent contrast to the experiences that surround it in time and space.

    Peak experiences often arise out of an intense struggle. This may be a struggle against one’s own limits, against the environment, against society, institutions or other people. This struggle is a clarifying, refining and purifying force that fundamentally changes oneself. Carlin Barton expresses this beautifully in her article ‘The “Moment of Truth” in Ancient Rome: Honor and Embodiment in a Contest Culture‘.

    This was the Roman discrimen, the “Moment of Truth,” the equivocal and ardent moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the agon, the contest when truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.


    Virtus and the honores won in the contest were shining and volatile; competition produced a heightened sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence

    To have a glowing spirit one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous series of ordeals. Labor, industria and disciplina were, for the Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the trial and in shouldering the heavy burden. In labores and pericula one demonstrated effective energy, virtus. There was no virtus, in the republic, without the demonstration of will. The absence of energy (inertia, desidia, ignavia, socordia) was non­being. In inactivity the spirit froze.

    Your moments of truth, your discrimen, your agon, are the resplendent pearls on the necklace of your life.

    The dry, sterile “head trips” of a Russell can never apprehend this. The hedonistic self-absorption of the hippy is even further from this. That steaming stew of resentment embodied in the radical is also far from it.

    • Thanks labnut.

      I agree with you that Lawrence was getting at something quite other than what Russell suggests. And your reference to the ancient world fits nicely: Lawrence was drawn in particular to the pre-Socratics.

  4. Hi Mark: Thanks, that is a fascinating piece. What a contrast of personalities linked so closely for a short time.

    Russell says plainly that Lawrence’s ideas “led straight to Auschwitz”. Do you agree? Was there anything in Lawrence that would have held him back from endorsing the German cult of blood and soil?

    John Carey quotes this strange passage from 1908:

    If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.


    • In 1924 DHL dismissed fascism as “the mere worship of force”.

      Here is Boyd Tonkin, reviewing a biography: “To anyone who has swallowed the post-1970s academic verdict on Lawrence as a patriarchal beast who took time out from literal and literary wife-beating to hymn the savage gods of blood and race, uncovering the witty, mercurial and generous reality ought to offer a mind-shifting encounter.”

      I only know Lawrence from a few of his main novels and bits and pieces of his other writing, but I know enough to be confident that those who condemn him as some kind of monster are wildly mistaken.

      • I’m not proposing that Lawrence was “some kind of monster” or that he was a “patriarchal beast”. Nor that he favoured “the mere worship of force”. (In 1924 “fascism” would have referred to Italian fascism.) He was seeking something emotionally authentic, and he denied that it could be found in Christian ideals, in democracy, in “merchant pilgrims” (capitalism?), in science and, more generally, in the Enlightenment. So, if not to the Germanic counterpart of his philosophy of authenticity, where else could he go? You, I think, don’t tell us where you think he was going.

        • I realize, Alan, that you don’t indulge in the sort of group-think which Boyd Tonkin was alluding to.

          “You, I think, don’t tell us where you think he was going.”

          I am deliberately trying not to overreach or indulge in unnecessary speculation. I presented the two figures mostly in their own words, throwing in a few casual observations of my own, based mainly on a close reading of what was being said and my background knowledge. You can see that certain statements or texts have certain features or parallels. In particular, Lawrence’s implied critique in Women in Love of the style of discourse engaged in by Russell and his friends rings true (I think) and reflects the reported reactions of others. You can even see elements of what Lawrence is criticizing in Russell’s prose at times. I know what I am saying is subjective, but it is not *entirely* subjective. You can provide evidence: textual and the testimony of other observers.

          “In 1924 “fascism” would have referred to Italian fascism.”

          I realize this but I thought his reaction to Mussolini would give an indication of how he might have reacted to Hitler had he lived a bit longer.

          “He was seeking something emotionally authentic, and he denied that it could be found in Christian ideals, in democracy, in “merchant pilgrims” (capitalism?), in science and, more generally, in the Enlightenment. So, if not to the Germanic counterpart of his philosophy of authenticity, where else could he go?”

          Science doesn’t have anything much to do with our quest for emotional authenticity (which traditionally is the realm of interpersonal relations, mysticism, religion, ideology, etc.).

          “So, if not to the Germanic counterpart of his philosophy of authenticity, where else could he go?”

          I’m not sure what you mean by “the German counterpart…”. You can’t be suggesting that if you reject Christianity (and its secular manifestations) you end up a Nazi!

          The obvious place to go (within the Western tradition) is the classical tradition, Greek and Roman philosophy and history, etc.. I quoted an allusion by Lawrence to Roman history in the OP, and mentioned his interest in the pre-Socratics in a reply to Labnut.

          • Thanks, that’s a good reply. Hundreds of Romantic intellectuals looking for a “third way” were sucked into the vortex created by Hitler. See for example Fritz Stern, “The Politics of Cultural Despair”, George Mosse, “The Crisis of German Ideology”, and much else. Some classical training might work as against this pull, but love of the pre-Socratics is a different thing. In the case of Heidegger, he read the pre-Socratics as underwriting his anti-modernism.

  5. Incidentally, my wife’s grandmother had afternoon tea with Lawrence when he was in Western Australia in 1922. She said he was “a funny little man”.

  6. I know Mosse only for his analysis of fascism as an ideology (The Fascist Revolution) which was written just before his death. He was a progressive liberal, of course, but he seemed to have a genuine intellectual interest in the far right.

  7. The divergence between Lawrence and Russell illustrates something quite profound, as does our different understandings of the origins of WWII. Truth is an elusive and slippery concept. We all value it highly. We all, quite stubbornly, claim to have it. Those who profess epistemic humility are least likely to display it! For all our truths are different, in small ways and in large ways. How can that be? And whose truth can you trust? We do know that our understandings of truth are anchored somehow in our cultures and our sense of identity. Perhaps that is the explanation. But what kind of explanation is that when our understanding of culture is so poor?

    Michele Gelfand, in her recent book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers said this:
    We rightly celebrate diversity and condemn division, yet we’re shockingly ignorant of what underlies both of these things: culture. Culture is a stubborn mystery of our experience and one of the last uncharted frontiers.

    She has her own explanation. Another approach comes from Francis Fukuyama in his book Identity, the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

    As for me, I am just confused. I hope I will be less confused when I finish reading these two books.

  8. An interesting example of differing truths concerned Bertrand Russell, Massimo Pigliucci and Stoicism. I referred to Russell’s famous work, History of Western Philosophy, which contained a critical assessment of Stoicism. Massimo, naturally, did not agree with it and wrote a rebuttal. So who was right? Who possessed the truth? Can the question even be answered?

    • Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is very witty, but it has been criticized by many scholars for its erroneous portrayals of philosophers such as Marx and Nietzsche. Massimo, who has spent years studying Stoicism and is recognized as an expert on the subject, probably knows much more about Stoicism than Russell, who, it is said, wrote his History in a hurry without fully studying many of the philosophers.

      • I don’t know about Russell, but Massimo has also taken issue with serious classical scholars on the subject of Stoicism. (I’ve had exchanges with him about this, on his old blog.) And yes, while he has studied it, as an educated person, he has not been educated in it in the manner of a Martha Nussbaum or others whom I’ve seen him go up against on the subject, nor has he done the sort of technical, peer-reviewed work on the subject that we commonly expect from those we deem experts on this subject or that. That he is a practitioner — that it is, in a sense, his religion — may also mean that he lacks the sort of critical distance that we also commonly require of those we deem expert in a subject.

        So, I would highly doubt that any serious, credentialed classical scholar would deem Massimo an expert on Stoicism. What he *is* an expert on is the philosophy of science and of course, biology.

  9. Like labnut, I think that “the divergence between Lawrence and Russell illustrates something quite profound”, but I’m not sure quite what.

    Here’s another snippet from one of them:

    “The centre of me is always and eternally in terrible pain, a curious, wild pain, a searching for something, beyond what the world contains, something transfiguring and infinite – the beatific vision – God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be
    found – but the love of it is my life – it’s like a passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair, it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work, it fills every passion that I have – it is the actual spring of life within me.”

    This may sound like Lawrence, but it is actually Russell. It was written to one of his lovers, an actress, Lady Constance Malleson, sometime between 1916 and 1920.

    Clearly he was not the dry old rationalist we tend to suppose.

    • Yes, Russell was certainly a restless spirit.

      Elements of his cultural background (notably Christian Platonism) seem to be showing in that quote.

      Lawrence didn’t have the same deep connection to Christian Platonism. He encountered philosophical ideas initially from books; the young Russell would have absorbed them from the culture he grew up in.

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