Beware of Bernards

Today nothing is heard of George Bernard Shaw as a political “thinker”, though his plays are still performed. When he was alive, people of the New Statesman type sought copies of the plays to read the long prefaces in which he expounded his ideas. These were supposed to be “socialist”; Shaw was a publicist for the Fabian Society and an admirer of Russia.


One of the things he advocated was that people should take an examination before they were allowed to vote. In Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944) he wrote:


And until popular choice is constitutionally guided and limited, political ignorance and idolatry will produce not only Hitleresque dictatorships but stampedes led by liars or lunatics like Titus Oates and Lord George Gordon. The choice should therefore be limited to panels of persons who have passed such tests as we can devise of their wisdom, comprehension, knowledge and energy. For legislative purposes adult suffrage is out of the question, as only a small percentage of any population has either the requisite faculty or knowledge.


The journalist Bernard Levin has just revived Shaw’s argument. In The Times of 18th October, under the heading “It’s the fools, not the Don’t Knows who scare the daylights out of me”, he drew attention to an opinion poll which found “that 8 per cent o the presumably representative sample believe that the Conservative Party’s present policy includes the introduction of a wealth tax, two per cent believe that the Tories propose to abolish the House of Lords, and four per cent believe that Mrs. Thatcher, if elected, intends to nationalize the banks”. Estimating that the percentages cover about three million of the electorate, Levin concluded:


That, if I may say so, is too many fools for comfort. And it is the incidence of folly, thus revealed, which worries me. If there are three million people as stupid as that in the country, only think of the havoc they could cause . . .


The flaw in this plausible-sounding harangue is the phrase “present policy”. Levin says the notion that the Tory Party proposes the reforms named is “ridiculous” and indicates “a wall of ignorance so thick and high that trying to surmount or demolish it would be a waste of time”. Oh, really? The Tories have been responsible for more nationalization than the Labour Party; there is no reason at all for supposing they would not nationalize the banks — or introduce some form of wealth tax — if it was in the interests of important sections of the capitalist class. The possibility Levin has evidently not considered is that many voters know this in broad terms, and don’t think it worth while to pick carefully over exchangeable party policies whose implementation is going to make no difference to them.


But what of Levin’s own “present policy”? It is what Shaw talked about as an example of his “socialism” i.e. the utopia of a planned and rational capitalism. Shaw’s Fabian argument was that an accumulation of reforms would build it; instead of having to establish this “socialism” we should be overtaken by it. Many of the proposals made in Everybody’s Political What’s What and Shaw’s 1928 work The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism are now accepted by Conservatives as what they always were, modern capitalist practice. And Levin is in the curious position of putting forward an argument he would have denounced in 1944 because it came from the (so-called) socialist Bernard Shaw. Would he call worker’s “fools” and “stupid” for being unable to distinguish between the two?


What both these pundits assert is that is is “dangerous” to have a part of the electorate who have not learned capitalist doctrines by heart. One answer is that state education under Tories and Labour alike has produced a large section of workers—recently estimated as 15 per cent of school leavers—who are not well enough equipped with literacy to study the party conference reports in The Times; and this belongs to the social system which Levin defends. But to whom or what is it dangerous? The value of the voting system to the capitalist class is that it gives them the explicit support of the working class. Workers are asked at intervals to choose a programme for running capitalism and stand by their choice for a period. If they are apathetic or erratic in doing that, it means that the nature of the support is not readily ascertainable. A compliant electorate is one which thinks it really does matter if Thatcher nationalizes the banks.


Socialists certainly do not recommend workers to be negligent towards political matters. First, they should reject the suggestion of Shaw and Levin, which in effect urges some workers to treat others as inferior. Second, they should cease to concern themselves with who runs capitalism, and see that the measures Levin is so anxious to have correctly identified—and all other programmes of reform—will not alter their own position. Third, they must understand the vote as the weapon for their emancipation. Shaw specified “wisdom, comprehension, knowledge and energy” as the conditions for its use. “Wisdom” is a value-judgement, the attribute of whoever agrees with the speaker. The other three are possessed in abundance by the working class. They need only to be allied with class-consciousness, and the “foolish”, “stupid” electorate will demonstrate that it knows what it wants—Socialism.


Pat Deutz