E.M. Forster was not the only well-known writer among Russell’s friends and acquaintances who wrote to him in support after his conviction in February 1918 for his opposition to the First World War (see the introduction to the Forster letter for background). Another was the eminent playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw’s letter of 29 April was written as Russell’s appeal against the conviction was about to be heard. It contains the celebrated Shaw wit as he tells Russell he will “lose nothing by remembering that a cat may look at a king, and, à fortiori, a philosopher at a judge.” Russell’s appeal was denied and he would serve just over four months of his six-month sentence.
Russell and Shaw were both well-known public figures at this time. Though long a writer and critic, Shaw’s fame rose in the first fifteen years of the 20th century with plays such as Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Pygmallion. Russell first heard of Shaw when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge but did not meet him until 1896 when both attended an International Socialist Congress in London. They also would have met at Friday’s Hill, the family home of Russell’s first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith. Other like-minded visitors at Friday’s Hill were Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter (who later married Webb). Shaw and the Webbs were prominent members of the socialist Fabian Society, of which Russell was briefly a member.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Russell and Shaw, at least initially, shared some points of view. Shaw published Common Sense About the War which placed blame for the conflict on both sides, a point with which Russell could agree. As Russell observed in Portraits from Memory, Shaw “infuriated most patriotic people by refusing to acquiesce in the hypocritical moral tone of the Government and its followers.” Their views would diverge drastically in the decades after the War. Shaw was an early admirer of Mussolini and Hitler—he would later change his mind—and an even greater admirer of Stalin. Russell commented: “he fell a victim to adulation of the Soviet Government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing through humbug if it came from Moscow.”
Five of the Shaw letters found in the Russell archives—including the one displayed here—are published in Russell’s Autobiography.
Sources: (1) Bertrand Russell. Portraits From Memory and Other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956. (2) Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944 (Volume II). London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1968.
29th April 1917.
AYOT ST LAWRENCE, WELWYN, HERTS.
STATION: WHEATHAMPSTEAD, G.N.R. 2 ¼ MILES. 10 ADELPHI TERRACE. W.C.2.
TELEGRAMS: BERNARD SHAW, CODICOTE.
Dear Bertrand Russell
I have an uneasy feeling that you will take legal advice on Wednesday, and go into prison for six months for the sake of allowing your advocate to make a favorable impression on the bench by advancing some ingenious defence, long since worn out in the service of innumerable pickpockets, which they will be able to dismiss (with a compliment to the bar) with owl-like gravity.
I see nothing for it but to make a scene by refusing indignantly to offer any defence at all of a statement that any man in a free country has a perfect right to make, and declaring that as you are not an unknown person, and your case will be reported in every capital from San Francisco east to Tokyo, and will be taken as the measure of England’s notion of the liberty she professes to be fighting for, you leave it to the good sense of the bench to save the reputation of the country from the folly of its discredited and panic stricken Government. Or words to that effect. You will gain nothing by being considerate, and (unlike a barrister) lose nothing by remembering that a cat may look at a king, and, à fortiori, a philosopher at a judge.
 The year was actually 1918.