Death of a “Superman”

That George Bernard Shaw succeeded in living to 94 years of age might be looked upon as a minor Shavian achievement. During that time he gained eminence as a playwright. As such he may rank with Marlowe, Ben Johnson or Moliere. As a writer of English he may challenge comparison with that master of supple and virile prose, Jonathan Swift. Be that as it may. Our purpose is to evaluate his claims to be a socialist (or, as he later called himself, a communist), and to be regarded by many as the accredited spokesman of socialism. Of all Shavian legends this is the most grotesque.

Shaw combined in his one person many creeds; anti-vivisectionist, anti-romanticist, non-smoker, alcoholic abstainer and vegetarian. Philosophically he subscribed to a belief in creative evolution. In politics he was first an anarchist then a Fabian and later a fascist.

It has been claimed that his “socialism” was designed for the educated. That he could pass off his particular brand of blatant totalitarianism as socialism only shows how much the “educated” need educating.

Shaw is one reported to have said “Marx made a man of me.” It need not be taken seriously. Shaw and the early Fabians never honoured the world with any systematic exposition of Marxism or for that matter any systematic rejection of it. Instead they chose to by-pass it.

His first Fabian essay (1889) is proof enough of his own confession in the Fabian tract 41 that “he and the early Fabians had no true knowledge of socialism.” There was little of socialism in it but much of Henry George combined with Jevons’ economic theory of final utility and a sprinkling of John Stuart Mill’s humanitarianism.

Even this early pamphlet revealed incipient elements of a later Shavian “philosophy.” There is no recognition in it that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class. Instead the wealthy are asked to change their hearts and renounce their wicked ways. Later came the contention that only through Fabian bureaucracy could capitalist society be regenerated.

Shaw’s Fabianism finally hardened into a belief that only in a planned utopia imposed from above by an elite was there any hope for the world. It would consist of a communist priesthood with unlimited powers. Rulers would be removable on grounds of inefficiency. There would be only one crime in society, that of disobedience, with death as the penalty. He approved the Russian method of liquidating those who show any sign of working against state authority. In an article in “The Labour Monthly” (15.10.21) he condemned British miners for striking but praised the Russian Government for shooting men for slacking and shirking at their work. Thus we have the paradox of the anti-vivisectionist who, according to Chesterton, “would wear himself to a shadow to save a shark in an aquarium from inconvenience or add any little comforts to the life of a carrion crow,” and the social theorist who could dismiss the enormous human costs involved in “the Russian experiment” as of little account.

Because Shaw and Fabians had no knowledge of the laws of capitalist development the “major events” of capitalism often caught the Fabians on the wrong foot. On the first world war Mr. Pease the Fabian historian writing in 1915 could say “The Fabian Society has made no pronouncement and adopted no policy.” Shaw supported the war, declaring that “England is a guardian of the world’s liberty.”

He had also supported the Boer War. He made up the mind of the Fabians who were at sixes and sevens over it by writing for them a pamphlet “Fabianism and the Empire.” It advocated the right of a capitalist state to acquire territory which it may consider backward, in the name of efficiency.

He constantly beat the imperialist drum for bigger armaments; advocated a large army and military conscription. He lived to see the last put into effect by a party he and his Fabian colleagues had not inconsiderably inspired and helped. In the Daily Herald (7th and 8th April, 1941) appeared instalments of an article in which he advocated industrial conscription; but this advocate of military and industrial conscription was opposed in 1919 to “conscription of capital” in a current advocacy of a “capital levy.” In the Times (1.2.44) he wrote complaining of the excessive taxation of the rich of whom he was one.

Because Shaw had identified himself politically and socially with capitalism he refused to believe it would pass. He took refuge in the belief that the vast mass of people were political nit-wits incapable of controlling their own destiny. He believed the capitalist class were also incompetent. So he invented a compromise by which a political elite would impose its will on workers and capitalist alike.

Because he isolated himself in theory as one of the privileged few he isolated himself in practice from concrete social activity and shut himself up in the ivory tower of absolute categories and lifeless abstractions. This could only lead to a sense of false detachment and disillusionment.

It was this false detachment perhaps that forced him to bolster up his belief in great men as the engines of social progress. For “the Materialist Conception of History” he offered a crude metaphysical substitute called “The Life Force.” This Life Force was pure energy which activated matter. One day it would dissolve matter or cast it aside and emerge as pure thought. The only object in life then will apparently be contemplation. Although what it will contemplate Shaw does not explicitise.

In the meantime great men and supermen are the instruments which serve the Life Force’s end.

Two of Shaw’s great men were Caesar and Napoleon, both military adventurers. Two more to whom he extended his welcome in that role were Mussolini and Hitler whom he regarded as a born leader. These men, he argued, were more efficient. They got things done. They certainly did but it was of no benefit to the majority of the population. They were as powerless in preventing their respective capitalist countries from going to was as were a Chamberlain and Roosevelt. When they left the political scene they left capitalism basically the same as the parliamentary politicians—whom Shaw despised —and whom the dictators had replaced. Stalin, whom Shaw honoured by the title of the arch-Fabian, was another of his supermen. In spite of his long term of dictatorial power he has not only been unable to realise Lenin’s dictum of approximate equal wages for all sections of society but has been unable to prevent the growing inequalities of wealth in Russia which is a characteristic of capitalism.

It might be said that Shaw did at least expose much of the hollowness and sham of capitalist conventions and institutions. But because he had no real alternative to offer his criticisms are negative and sterile.

The British ruling class never viewed him in the light of a social revolutionary but rather as a clown and court jester. They could treat him with indulgence because they found him eccentric and amusing.

Shaw as a political thinker failed to have any real impact on those who came to maturity after the first world war. Like many other advocates of reforms he lived to see many of his own taken by capitalism in its stride and none the worse for it. His championing of votes for women, Irish self-government, nationalisation and municipal enterprise have come to pass. Many of Shaw’s and his fellow Fabians’ proposals have long been on the statute book. Some of them provide the furnishings for Labour’s utility utopia. Even his daring attacks on conventions would, if uttered now, be regarded as commonplaces. Before World War No. 1 he had something to write about so far as capitalism was concerned. After the war he was mostly reduced to an attempt to write about something.

Shaw is known to millions; not as a social thinker, because he had no message for them, but as a playwright and somewhat eccentric old gentleman who gave interviews in which he sometimes said humorous and preposterous things.

As a playwright his lively humour and paradox may enliven and illumine the theatre for many years. As a social theorist, however, it is case of “out out brief candle.”

Ted Wilmott

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