Bertrand Russell’s Scientific Outlook, The CIA, & Social Engineering

(Jasun Horsley) The Congress for Cultural Freedom was an anti-communist advocacy group created by the CIA in 1950, via the Ford Foundation. The CCF had a magazine called Encounter, which attracted some of the leading intellectuals of the period and beyond. It’s been only half-jokingly called “some of the best money the CIA ever spent.” Bertrand Russell was one of the CCF’s chairmen during the early years. Since Russell was viewed as a great philosopher and humanitarian, it’s easy to see how the CIA would want someone of his caliber to lend credibility to their cultural battleship. On the other hand, a chairman has power to steer the ship, so it seems unlikely the CIA would take a chance on someone not already in intelligence employ—or perhaps that of a higher governance body? While trying to ascertain Russell’s possible intelligence connections, I ended up reading online passages from Russell’s 1931 work, The Scientific Outlook (Routledge, 2009). I was somewhat taken aback to see that it reads like a manual for totalitarian control.

“[T]the scientific rulers will provide one kind of education for ordinary men and women, and another for those who are to become holders of scientific power. Ordinary men and women will be expected to be docile, industrious, punctual, thoughtless, and contented. Of these qualities, probably contentment will be considered the most important. In order to produce it, all the researches of psycho-analysis, behaviourism, and biochemistry will be brought into play. . . . All the boys and girls will learn from an early age to be what is called ‘co-operative,’ i.e., to do exactly what everybody is doing. Initiative will be discouraged in these children, and insubordination, without being punished, will be scientifically trained out of them. . . . Except for the one matter of loyalty to the world State and to their own order, members of the governing class will be encouraged to be adventurous and full of initiative. It will be recognized that it is their business to improve scientific technique, and to keep the manual workers contented by means of continual new amusements. . . . In normal cases, children of sufficient heredity will be admitted to the governing class from the moment of conception. I start with this moment rather than birth since it is from this moment and not merely the moment of birth that the treatment of the two classes will be different. If, however, by the time the child reaches the age of three it is fairly clear that he does not attain the required standard, he will be degraded at that point. [T]here would be a very strong tendency for the governing classes to become hereditary, and that after a few generations not many children would be moved from either class into the other. This is especially likely to be the case if embryological methods of improving the breed are applied to the governing class, but not to the others. In this way the gulf between the two classes as regards native intelligence will become continually wider and wider. . . . Assuming that both kinds of breeding are scientifically carried out, there will come to be an increasing divergence between the two types, making them in the end almost different species.”

Russell was my grandfather’s colleague, correspondent, and fellow Fabian and they collaborated on several progressive Leftist causes (such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). So where exactly does socialism or the avowed concern for the rights of “the common man” fit into Russell’s plan for a scientifically engineered society in which the division between classes would—as in an H. G. Wells novel—eventually become a species divide?

Roughly as a sheep’s clothing fits into the strategy of wolves?

Russell is also attributed with introducing the possibility of peaceful protest in the 1950s and 1960s, for example with CND’s sit-downs against nuclear weapons, thereby setting the template (one he learned from Oxford-alumni Mahatma Gandhi) for non-violent resistance ever since. While it might be argued that violent resistance is easier for the ruling classes to deal with because they can meet it with greater force, there is a degree of social chaos that results from such open conflict that may interfere with business. It also forces the iron fist of government to remove its velvet glove, thereby alerting the public to the exact nature of the oppression they are under and sowing the seeds of future revolt. It’s possible, then, that Russell (and by extension my grandfather), by rechanneling social unrest into peaceful forms of expression, was, in the long run, serving the interests of State and not the people.

Returning briefly to Robert Graves: according to The Birth of New Criticism by Donald J. Childs, Graves was the unacknowledged father of what’s known as “New Criticism”: a formalist movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century.[2] The movement derived its name from John Crowe Ransom’s 1941 book The New Criticism, and its early practitioners formed a loose-knit community sometimes referred to (because of a literary magazine that featured much of their work) as the Fugitives, and also as the Agrarian poets (linking them up loosely with the camping movement of Glaister, Byngham, and co). Primary influences were the critical essays of T. S. Eliot and the work of English scholar I. A. Richards, especially his Practical Criticism and The Meaning of Meaning, which offered what was claimed to be an empirical scientific approach to poetry and literature. In a similar way, Eliot had argued that “the study of literature ought to strive towards scientific objectivity” (Childs). A scientific outlook.

Perhaps the key player in this movement was my grandfather’s friend and fellow Yorkshireman, William Empson. Empson is one major cultural influence known by Alec Horsley but not named by him. (This would suggest that, despite his proclivity for name-dropping, there may be others.). In fact, the only reason I found out about their friendship was via a book called Hetta and William: A Memoir of a Bohemian Marriage (AuthorHouse, 2012, p. 97), by Jacob Empson (William’s son). In it, Jacob writes how his father was living in London in 1953, having enjoyed some success as a critic, and due to travel to the US, looking for a permanent job, specifically, a Chair in English Literature. “He had applied to Hull University, giving his old friend Alec Horsley as a reference (Alec was a hugely successful Hull businessman with a dairy and a brewery to his name, who was to found the multinational Northern Foods).” Apparently, Alec’s influence was insufficient to land Empson the job, however, and he ended up taking the Chair at Sheffield.

Childs describes Robert Graves as being “the first to practice what is known as close reading . . . . Even New Critics who did not know Graves’ early work directly nonetheless, by mid-century, knew it indirectly through the work of two major influences on New Criticism most influenced by him: [I. A] Richards and [William] Empson.” The New Criticism movement, like the other cultural movements I have stumbled upon while looking into my family history, seems not to have come about purely through the natural evolution of ideas, but also with a degree of social, shall we say, facilitation. In the late 1940s and early 1950s (i.e., just before he showed up on my grandfather’s doorstep), Empson taught a summer course for the intensive study of literature at the Kenyon School of English, at Kenyon College in Ohio. According to Newsweek, “The roster of instructors was enough to pop the eyes of any major in English.” In addition to Empson, the faculty included the members of the Vanderbilt Fugitive set, such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate.

In American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s (Routledge, 2009), Vincent B. Leitch writes that the major development in the history of academic criticism, post-Great Depression, was the overwhelming success of the “New Critics” in pioneering and institutionalizing formalist concepts and methods. He describes four stages of this development. The first occurred during the 1920s, with T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and William Empson in England, and the Fugitives and Agrarians (especially John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate) in America. The second stage occurred during the 1930s and 1940s when “the number of critics sympathetic to this emerging formalism increased, and the New Critics spread their beliefs effectively into literary quarterlies, university literature departments, and college textbooks and curricula” (emphasis added). The third stage of development occurred from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, when the movement lost its “‘revolutionary’ aura and occupied the mainstream, its followers produced intricate canonical statements of its theories.”

“That the New Criticism was over by the late 1950s as an innovative and original School was clear to both adherents and opponents. Nevertheless, after that time the New Criticism served for growing numbers of academic critics and scholars as ‘normal criticism’ or simply as ‘criticism.’ This transformation of a particular school into a cultural status quo distinguished New Criticism from all other competing schools, marking a special—a fourth—stage of development. Often critics practicing New Criticism during this phase were unaware that they were doing so: the ideas and methods of the School had become so deeply embedded and broadly generalized among critics as to form the very essence of ‘criticism.’” (p. 21-3).

Leitch quotes William Cain, writing in 1984:

“The New Criticism appears powerless, lacking in supporters, declining, or on the verge of being so. No one speaks on behalf of the New Criticism as such today . . . . But the truth is that the New Criticism survives and is prospering, and it seems to be powerless only because its power is so pervasive that we are ordinarily not even aware of it. So deeply ingrained in English studies are New Critical attitudes, values, and emphases that we do not even perceive them as the legacy of a particular movement. On the contrary we feel them to be the natural and definitive conditions for criticism in general.”

According to this view, the “‘death’ of New Criticism in the 1950s signaled a kind of normalized ‘immortality’—a strange feat which no other critical school in this era was able to accomplish.”

Strange feat indeed. It is also curious that I myself, whose first published work was a work of film criticism, had never heard of the New Criticism until I was working on this piece. I have included so much about it, partly out of personal interest, but also because I think it serves as an example of how the Fabian eel proceeds to worm its way through culture and transform it. Russell’s “scientific outlook” was extending itself into modern culture and thought in more ways than one, via the work of individuals and groups who were both openly and discreetly affiliated. The ways in which these memeplexes embed themselves into the culture and transform it may not be as apparent as we think—or even apparent at all.

Ellis’ and Shaw’s and Wells’ and Russell’s and Glaister’s and Huxley’s vision for a brave new world may seem to be one that never quite took. But, like the school of New Criticism, it may be that the reverse is in fact true, and that it so effectively insinuated itself into modern society that, like fish in water, we are entirely unaware of its having done so. We have been engineered.


[1] This first came out in 1962, via the World Marxist Review. Four years later, the New York Times ran an article about how the CIA secretly funded the CCF’s British magazine Encounter; soon after (also in 1966) it revealed that the CIA had been instrumental in creating the group.

[2] The full title is The Birth of New Criticism: Conflict and Conciliation in the Early Work of William Empson, I. A. Richards, Robert Graves, and Laura Riding. New Criticism emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. This is the equivalent to removing a literary work from its context. Teaching people to think in boxes (separate compartments that have no need of any deeper context to be understood) is a way to get them to live in boxes, and eventually to become likeboxes: separate, isolate individuals. “Every man is an island” becomes the truth of the modern mindset, and plays into the (entirely false) notions of the “self-made man” and the “meritocracy.” Compartmentalization or boxing was also key to the Prussian education system, the breaking up of learning into arbitrary “classes” separated by the ringing of a bell. It’s also central to the shaping of information in TV (and even newspaper) media, each show or article boxed off from the others via commercial breaks (or margins on the page). All of this might well lead to an internal state, that of the “objective”—i.e., decontextualized—experience of self and world: a self-objectification.

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