Ludwig Wittgenstein’s person and life have on the whole been sedulously shrouded in obscurity by his admirers and devotees. Much less is known about his biography and character than that of most of the philosophers who were his predecessors or contemporaries. In part, this has doubtless been due in England to a throttled puritanism, fearful of disclosures of heterodoxy in Wittgenstein’s personal relationships. But in the main, the atmosphere of mystery officially entertained about Wittgenstein has had a more positive function: to inculcate reverence for the legendary thinker, and insulate his work from all profane associations with the material and cultural conditions in which it was produced. John Moran’s painstaking and scrupulous attempt to probe the question of Wittgenstein’s political beliefs—if any—must therefore be welcomed, as a refreshing break with the piety of the established cult of the philosopher in the Anglo-Saxon world, and its officiants. It is a straightforward and honest investigation of the evidence for Wittgenstein’s political outlook, which does not conceal the contradictions and incoherences in the testimony of those who knew him, and were willing to speak on the topic. As such, it is a document of obvious interest to anyone concerned with contemporary positivist philosophy.
However, a caution is necessary in considering this account. Moran’s final implication seems to be that Wittgenstein was by private conviction in some sense a socialist, and that the evidence for this is provided both by his renunciation of his inherited wealth and his benevolence towards the ussr in the thirties. Moran further argues that Wittgenstein’s early philosophy was ‘rebellious’ in aspiration, and his later philosophy ‘social’ in focus—both consistent with the political attitudes that can be glimpsed from his conversations and acts in the pre-war years. In fact, however, it will be noticed that the evidence carefully assembled by Moran permits a very different conclusion. It is clear that Wittgenstein had strong ‘ethical’ aversions to the formality of academic life and the corruption of material property. But his renunciation of his worldly goods—it need hardly be added—had nothing specifically socialist about it at all: such gestures have been made from Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Schweitzer, without the slightest understanding of the capitalist mode of production or commitment to a communist future beyond it. Extreme personal asceticism, and fixed
Similarly, Wittgenstein’s leanings towards Russia in the thirties are scarcely proof of any comprehension of Marxism. If anything, they show rather that Wittgenstein shared the vague and maudlin ignorance of those ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’ whom Trotsky so mercilessly pilloried in The Revolution Betrayed—written in Norway in the same year (1935) that the Austrian philosopher was inspecting the ussr, apparently to his satisfaction. Uncritical admiration of Stalin’s Russia, a year after the Kirov assassination had unleashed an inferno in which millions of socialist revolutionaries were being systematically murdered, was by no means a rare phenomenon in bourgeois circles in the West: Beatrice Webb, Leon Feuchtwanger and Romain Rolland are notorious examples. Wittgenstein’s knowledge of Russia may have been even less than that displayed in these cases, his illusions perhaps more excusable. Without further information, it would be difficult to judge this. What is certain, however, is that the vaunted ‘therapeutic’ powers of his philosophy proved—predictably—of no value whatever in protecting him from the most vulgar and humdrum confusions of the bien-pensant literati of the time. His cousin Von Hayek—a militant and consistent reactionary ideologue—was probably right in implying that the Cold War would have blown away this fragile pre-war Russophilism, as it did that of so many other intellectuals in the West, with notorious results. Wittgenstein’s personal yearnings for an ethical world and a religious beyond were very distant from the combative counter-revolutionary liberalism of Von Hayek. But as a philosopher, he appears to have been innocent of any minimal historical or political culture, lost in a time which needed more than ‘uncramped thinking’ to be understood, and much more than ascetic charity to be changed.