1990s >> 1990 >> no-1030-june-1990

Book Review: ‘The Socialism of Bernard Shaw’

A conceited Fabian

‘The Socialism of Bernard Shaw’, by Harry Morrison, McFarland, Box 611, Jefferson, NC, USA, 1989.

Some readers may be surprised by the title, particularly if they realise that at no time in his long life did Shaw seem to have grasped the concept of socialism as a classless, moneyless society which has been the object of the Socialist Party throughout its existence. In this work the author, although a lifelong socialist himself, has used the word socialism in a wider sense to include individuals and ideas popularly believed to be socialist.

Recalling that Shaw’s involvement in politics began over a hundred years ago, to talk of his “socialism” has a justification which would be absent in the case of those putting forward similar views today. Despite his lack of consistency, and what the author calls “extreme volubility to the point of literary diarrhoea”, Shaw was often, through his plays and other works, an effective propagandist against the cruelties and absurdities of the capitalist system. Also, at least in Shaw’s earlier years, the panaceas of the left, such as nationalisation, could not be answered convincingly by contrary example, unlike today. Thus most of those who advocated short cuts to socialism were perfectly sincere, had a good understanding of the nature of capitalism, and were often effective propagandists against it. Even Engels, though realising that state capitalism remained capitalism, wrote in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific of the state becoming “the national capitalist”, following which the capitalist relationship would “topple over.”

What comes out clearly from this book is Shaw’s own conceit, his total inability to accept that the so-called “common working man” could play a constructive part in the establishment and operation of the future society. This inevitably led him to take up a similar position to Lenin who, as is well known to our regular readers, believed that the working class could not rise above a trade union level of consciousness. This trait was shared by many of Shaw’s associates in the early days of the Fabian Society, including Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Shaw’s elitism led him in due course to support, with some enthusiasm, dictatorships in Russia (after initial doubts, he and the Webbs were “converted” on a visit in 1931), Italy and Germany. This concurrent admiration for both Fascist and “Communist” tyranny in fact showed perfect consistency. This point is emphasised by the details given of Mussolini’s years in the so-called Socialist Party of Italy. Shaw’s own elitism led him to admire the operation of dictatorships in which the chosen few organise the many and heaven help those foolish enough to kick against the pricks. Shaw did not go so far as to support the Holocaust, but he did support the practice by dictatorships of liquidating active political opponents, as for instance in the preface to his play On the Rocks.

The author tries to determine how much Shaw absorbed of Marx’s writings from his personal reading of them. Clearly something stuck, but Shaw was always a hedger of bets. He also appears to have lacked the degree of application required to master Marxist theory. However the main obstacle was again Shaw’s conceit, which made it impossible for him to accept the democratic concept that all able-bodied citizens can and must take hold of society and shape it in their own interests.

The last chapters of this readable book deal with Shaw’s views on religion, Darwinism and patriotism, followed by the relationship between Marxism, Fabianism and Shaw’s views. The question is posed as to whether Shaw was an echo or caricature of Marx. We won’t spoil the game by giving the answer, but can offer no prizes for a successful guess.

In an Appendix two articles are reprinted from the pen of Socialist Party member Clifford Allen, these having appeared in the Western Socialist in 1943. The first replies to a review by Shaw of a new edition of Marx’s selected works, this review having been published in the Daily Herald that year. The second answers a letter written by Shaw to the Western Socialist in reply to Allen. In this letter, reprinted on pp. 70-71 of this book, Shaw unwittingly summed up the political futility of his long life.

E. C. Edge

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