In a two part series for Rebel, Paul O’Brien looks back at the political impact of the playwriting and activism of socialist dramatist Bernard Shaw.
Part 1 can be found here.
Henry George, the American economist, is best known for his book Progress and Poverty, which in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century sold over four million copies. Bernard Shaw first encountered Henry George in 1882 when he attended a lecture in London following the furore caused by his arrest in Ireland as a Fenian suspect.
Progress and Poverty presented an explanation as to why increasing economic expansion brought increasing poverty for the mass of the people. Drawing on the theories of James Fintan Lalor in The Nation, the newspaper of the Young Irelanders from 1848, George concluded that private property in land stands in the way of advancing civilisation. Like Lalor, he demanded the nationalisation of land to eliminate poverty and inequality. Given his experience in Ireland of the land question Progress and Poverty opened Shaw’s eyes to the material or economic basis of class society and transformed his thinking on social issues.
H.M. Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation told Shaw to ignore Henry George and to read Marx. Having read Das Kapital, Shaw was convinced that Marx was an intellectual giant whose ideas would change the world. Progress and Poverty was cast aside and Shaw spent the next four years studying Marx. He was attracted by the intellectual rigour of Marx’s ideas but he did share Marx’s faith in the masses – the ‘agents of change’ in Marx’s doctrine. In 1884 he joined the Fabien Society; a discussion group that contained the leading left intellectuals of the day, such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, and W.H. Wells. Shaw drafted a treatise which in effect became the manifesto of the Fabien Society. But this caused some concern to the middle-of-the-road Fabians and Shaw had to reassure them that his revolutionary conclusion: ‘that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been’, was only a proposition for debate and not a call to action – reflecting perhaps, both the symbol – a tortoise, and the slogan – ‘make haste slowly’, of the Fabians.1 Shaw remained a Fabien and a socialist for the rest of his life. But he was always a maverick cutting against the political grain.
Shaw’s career as a Marxist was short lived. In late 1884 Shaw set out to defend Marx from an attack by the Unitarian Minister, Philip Wickstead, a supporter of William Jevons, who had published The Theory of Political Economy in 1871. Jevons was one of the first economists to challenge Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’. Jevons maintained that the value of any commodity depends on its ‘use value’ or utility. An obscure argument perhaps! But one that goes to the heart of Marx’s system. Take away Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’ and the philosophical basis of Marxism collapses. Shaw did not have a good grasp of abstract economics, in fact, as he acknowledged, he was in ‘total ignorance’ of the subject, as Wickstead exposed in the course of the debate. The upshot was that he abandoned Marx for Jevons. Shaw always referred to himself as a socialist and on occasions as a Marxist, while rejecting the economic basis of Marxism. But this reduces Marxism to a moral argument, and crucially, removes the working class as the agent of change. Instead, intellectuals, natural leaders, clever men and women – Shaw’s type of people – are needed to lead the masses to the Promised Land.
Shaw was a thoroughgoing intellectual and having thrown over Marx, he set about Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He developed a modified form of evolutionary theory based on the ideas of the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which he called creative evolution. At its simplest creative evolution postulates that organisms can evolve by force of will, and they can pass on these changes to their offspring. He believed that society needed to be improved, and this could only happen by genetically improving the human race. Society needed philosophers; men and women like Shaw and the Fabians for intellectual improvement and biological progress. He set out his philosophy of creative evolution in both the preface, and the play, Man and Superman in 1903, and in his immense cycle of five plays, Back to Methuselah, with its extensive preface and postscript, which was published in 1921. He insisted on cheap editions of Back to Methuselah in the hope that his ideas would be widely understood. All of this had profound consequences for Shaw’s politics. The need for a strong leader whose personality and willpower could transform the world over time led to his short-lived illusions in the Italian Fascist, Benito Mussolini, in the 1920s, much to the consternation of his friends and admirers in the socialist and Fabien circles. The fact that the Fascists were based on a group of ex-service men who acted as strike-breakers, who tried to destroy the trade union movement, and who murdered and intimidated socialists and communists did not seem to deter Shaw. He insisted Mussolini was doing a good job and had the support of the Italian people and that he would continue to support Mussolini ‘until he goes wrong’. By the late nineteen-twenties even Shaw had to admit that Mussolini had gone drastically wrong. But a new superman, Joseph Stalin, was available and this time one that was acceptable to his left-wing friends. For Shaw, the Soviet Union’s five-year plan in 1928 for economic development represented the triumph of Fabien planning. Stalin was the embodiment of the benevolent dictator of Man and Superman.
Socialism in One Country
Shaw visited Russia in 1931. As was usual in Shaw’s life, the visit was riddled with contradictions. The travelling party consisted of the most reactionary elements of the British ruling class – Lord and Lady Astor, their son David, and the Marquis of Lothian, a coal-mine owner and prominent appeaser of Nazi Germany. They were given the full treatment, a visit to the opera, followed by a visit to a kindergarten, and a tour of a model factory where the ‘shock brigades’ had completed the five year plan in two and a half years. The visit was crowned by an audience with Joseph Stalin. They saw and heard what their hosts wanted them to see.
Following his trip Shaw put together a series of notes which he had provisionally titled The Rationalization of Russia, but he put his notes aside and never completed or published it in his lifetime. This could have been an important work and his most formidable attempt to explain and theorise the Russian Revolution and its implications for the West. Instead the job was left to his friends and colleagues from the Fabien Society, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who subsequent to their visit to The USSR in 1934 published their monumental study Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935) and The Truth about Soviet Russia (1942), that gave a very positive assessment of Stalin’s Russia. They are crammed full of official statistics, but devoid of any critical assessment of the Soviet Union. They are unreadable today, and serve as an example of the worst kind of propaganda produced by the legion of Soviet fellow-travellers in the 1930s.
Weeding the Garden
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was an admirer of Shaw, though he expressed the wish that ‘the Fabian that ran in [Shaw’s] veins might have been strengthened by even as much as five percent of the blood of Jonathon Swift’.2 However, Shaw did not return the complement – he accepted that the elimination of the old Bolshevik leadership was necessary, or as he put it more politely the ‘necessity for weeding the garden’ from time to time to eliminate the enemies of the state.3 Shaw was an admirer of Djerjinsky, the head of the Soviet secret police, and refers to him as ‘gentle Djerjinsky’ in the preface to The Simpleton of the Isles.4 What may have been intellectually or politically possible to defend in 1931 before the onslaught of the purges that eliminated the entire revolutionary leadership of the Soviet Union, with the exception of Stalin, could not be sustained by 1939. The evidence was overwhelming for those who wished to see. The revolutionary ideals of 1917 had been betrayed by the Stalinist clique who controlled every aspect of life in the USSR. This was not just ‘weeding the garden’ but a counter revolution in which millions paid with their lives.
Bernard Shaw was a founder member of the Fabien Society. He was a vigorous political agitator and organiser, and the finest platform speaker of his age. Despite his prodigious pamphleteering on behalf of the Fabien Society, all the contradictions in the world can be found in his political writings. In the preface to Major Barbara, Shaw stated that he was, and always will be, ‘a revolutionary writer’. He was a Marxist and an anti-Marxist, a revolutionary and a reformer, a Fabien and a despiser of Fabianism. In his dramas he loved to set up his upper-class characters as likable and intellectual, only to undercut them using irony and comedy to expose their lack of humanity. These contradictory ideas or paradoxes play out wonderfully on the stage, but don’t really work in his political essays. In 1903 he wrote an extended essay, The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion as a postscript to Man and Superman. The introduction ends on this note, and whether Shaw is being serious or ironic is almost impossible to discern:
Any person under the age of thirty who, having any knowledge of the existing social order, is not a revolutionist, is an inferior – AND YET – revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.5
The theatre became a platform for his political views and he deliberately set out to provoke a response from his audience. His plays will outlive the pamphlets and the prefaces, where at great length he outlined his views on the world. Despite the vagaries of his theories and day-to-day politics, Shaw was an artist whose humanity and social feeling never wavered or never weakened. He hated capitalist society. He hated the sham, hypocrisy, and cruelty that debased mankind. His plays are dialectical satires, witty and combative, that exposed capitalism with a passionate intensity that has rarely been equalled by any writer in the English language.
Shaw never adapted to the dramatic innovations unleashed by the Russian revolution. The experimental work of Berthold Brecht, Ernst Toller, and German political theatre in the 1920s seem to have made little impact on him. He remained a lone voice trapped in a world that war and revolution had swept aside.
By 1925, Shaw had reached the pinnacle of his career, culturally and politically. That year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and Saint Joan was produced on the London stage. He was known throughout the world and in dramatic terms he was widely regarded as being on a par with Shakespeare. He was one of the few intellectuals of the period to have an –ism attached to his name. He staked his genius and reputation by shaping his art into a weapon to transform the world. Shavianism, as the world came to know it, was a combination of a social, ethical and artistic philosophy that informed the totality of Shaw’s work. Shavianism is largely forgotten today, because it was abstract, unoriginal, and was incapable of addressing the problems that faced humanity in the aftermath of the Great War. Shaw’s philosophy started from a world as he wished it to be – not from the world as it was. Shaw had no concept of a political programme or what demands should be put forward in order to move the political agenda forward in a progressive way.
By the 1930s Shaw was a spent force; he amused audiences rather than troubled them. Shaw’s plays are not self-evidently those of a socialist. However, four or five of the plays that deal directly with the economic, social and class questions reveal the tension between Shaw’s socialism and his dramatic vision.
His strength as a socialist lay in his incomparable style and wit as almost single-handedly he set out to awaken the masses from their slumbers and inculcate a civilised socialist outlook. He transformed the ideas of politics into the language of life. In his soul he was a socialist, but he wrote alone, in splendid isolation. He had no confidence in, or political connection with the mass-movement; despite the pamphlets, the meetings and the lectures he remained a lonely preacher on the fringes of the working-class movement.
Shaw spent almost seventy years of his life fighting for social justice, against war, for women’s suffrage, and supporting independence for Ireland. He delivered well over a thousand public lectures and a voluminous output of essays and pamphlets. In 1930 he published the Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, where he set out his views in great detail on socialism and capitalism. Yet today, nobody reads Shaw for his political ideas; he has joined his friends Lamarck, Jevons and George as the forgotten men in politics, economics and science.
Shaw and his Critics
Shaw had his critics in both the literary and political arena. The Communist Party literary critics in the 1930s and 40s were prepared to laud Shaw’s support for the Soviet Union, but were more hesitant about his drama. They suggested that Shaw’s plays had betrayed his own best instincts and were a retreat from the socialist principles that he had supported in the 1880s.
In the post-war period Shaw had few friends in the new left that had emerged after the trauma and revelations that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. The most influential new left critic Raymond Williams, one of the founding fathers of British cultural materialism had little time for Shaw, and believed that in the years to come Shaw would not survive as a major force in English drama.
The first coherent attempt to put together an Irish Marxist critique of culture centered on those associated with the journal, The Crane Bag. The 1983 issue was devoted to exploring the relationship between ‘Socialism and Culture’.6 Then, it was taken for granted that Bernard Shaw would be included in any study of the way in which Irish writers responded to the challenge of developing a specific socialist aesthetic. But Bernard Shaw is now the forgotten man of Irish literature, and not only on the left; his standing has fallen to such an extent that not even the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth in 2006 could persuade the Abbey Theatre in Dublin or the National Theatre in London, both of whom Shaw supported and championed, to revive even one of his plays.
Shaw’s unflagging support for the Soviet Union in the Stalinist period may diminish the man in many people’s opinion, but it does not diminish his work. Nor does it diminish his considerable contribution in building the early socialist movement in Britain, or his contribution to the changes that took place in social values, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. In much of his work the conventional roles of men and women are reversed and he redefined sexual stereotypes and boundaries.
Lenin called Shaw ‘a good man fallen among Fabians’, and that was his tragedy, but he remained a fighter to the end. He was never afraid to take an unpopular stand and for this he earned the hatred of the authorities. He was a wonderful playwright, a humanist, and a great artist who put politics at the centre of his work.
- George Bernard Shaw, Fabian Tract No. 2 (Fabian Society, London, 1885.
- Leon Trotsky quoted in Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt (Little Brown, Boston, 1962), p. 207.
- Bernard Shaw, The Rationalization of Russia, p. 73.
- Bernard Shaw, The Rationalization of Russia, note 60, p. 132.
- Bernard Shaw, ‘The Revolutionist’s Handbook’, Man and Superman (Constable, London, 1925), p.180.
- The Crane Bag vol. 7, No. 1, 1983