In 1922 Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to a friend that he was haunted by the possibility of an eventual flight to Russia. About two years later he sent the same friend some newspaper clippings of prize-winning poems by workers, urging him to preserve them. In 1937 he wrote him again that he might go to Russia.footnote1 In the interim he had spent a short time there. G. H. von Wright, one of his literary executors,footnote2 writes that in 1935 Wittgenstein ‘had plans for settling in the Soviet Union. He visited the country with a friend and apparently was pleased with the visit. That nothing came of his plans was due, partly at least, to the harshening of conditions in Russia in the middle thirties.’footnote3 Wolfe Mays, a former student, writes that in the early forties Wittgenstein gave the impression in his classes of being ‘distinctively apolitical, despite his desire to live in Russia’.footnote4
Such is the meagre sum of information pertinent to Wittgenstein’s interest in either Marxism–Leninism or the ussr that has surfaced in readily accessible sources. Nor does the literature contain much that directly conflicts with Mays’s
Obviously no philosopher’s thoughts and feelings on such matters are irrelevant to his philosophy. Even to ignore them would be a highly significant omission for a serious philosopher. Wittgenstein himself emphasized that he saw no value in a study of philosophy that merely enabled one ‘to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc,’ without improving one’s thought about ‘the important questions of everyday life’. He adds that thinking honestly about people’s lives is ‘if possible, still more difficult’ than thinking about the usual more technical dimensions of philosophy.footnote5 Now, if Marxist criticism of existing institutionalized ways of life is not among ‘the important questions of everyday life’, it is difficult to conceive what might be described by that phrase. Further, the widely seminal role played by Wittgenstein’s thought, particularly in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ philosophy, is grounds for public interest in where he stood on such issues.
There is reliable evidence that the current version of Wittgenstein’s views and attitudes on these topics is somewhat distorted. However ‘apolitical’ he may have appeared to his students, it seems clear he was not politically indifferent but sensitive to large political issues and deeply concerned about them. His attitude might be described more accurately as ‘anti-political’ rather than ‘apolitical’, for he seems clearly to have been drawn to the ussr mainly by its avowed advocacy of a classless society.
This conclusion, which need not surprise careful readers of his published writings, is the most significant result of recent attempts to amplify von Wright’s brief mention of the 1935 trip. To satisfy my own curiosity and that of students with whom I have discussed Wittgentein’s philosophy, I sent letters of inquiry to people whose names were publicly associated with that of Wittgenstein, including his executors, his translators, persons generally known to have influenced his thinking and persons who have written on him or his ideas. I also tried, again through correspondence, and with limited success, to pick up the Soviet end of the thread.
Replies included a variety of perspectives and impressions ranging from serious doubt that Wittgenstein ever went to Russia (and that he had any sympathy for either the ussr or Marxism) to the belief that he was regarded as a ‘Stalinist’ by those who knew him well. Nearly all who were asked for information did reply, some very patiently to several requests.
When one considers that a number of peoplefootnote6 were able to provide little or no relevant information despite acquaintance with Wittgenstein and keen interest in his views, it would seem that some rather important, hitherto unpublicized facts were established.