A. V. Lunacharsky 1931
Translator: Y. Ganuskin;
Source: A. Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art Progress Publishers, 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.
We may hail in George Bernard Shaw one of the most brilliant master wits in the history of art.
When you read Shaw you are assumed, you find yourself constantly smiling or laughing. But, at the same time, you are horrified. A reader who is the target of Shaw’s arrows of mirth way well be horrified, a sympathetic reader will also be awe-struck when Shaw unmasks the gloomy essence of capitalist reality.
Shaw had a wonderful predecessor, a powerful and gloomy genius, whose humour reached the same virtuoso heights but was of a darker cast. He was a master wit like Shaw, though circumstances and the time in which he lived made him more morbid. This was the great satirist Jonathan Swift.
Swift knew how to laugh in a merry, graceful, tinkling way. His Gulliver’s Travels has long been a favourite of bourgeois and proletarian children alike, yet the very same Jonathan Swift proposed with frightening humour that the English bourgeoisie should consume infants born in such great numbers into the families of the Irish poor, and suggested ways of salting and curing their flesh and of preparing dainty dishes so as to turn the misfortune of over-population into a source of food.
If we compare the laughter of Swift with the laughter of Shaw we shall arrive at some very interesting conclusions. In general, a man laughs when he is victorious. Physiological laughter is the release of psychological and physiological tensions which we let go when we find that a seemingly insurmountable problem can be easily dealt with. When we laugh we are reflecting the nervous activity of the brain; we are converting it into movements of our face and muscles, thus relaxing our control.
Laughter is a magnificent instance of the body demobilising; when mobilisation is suddenly proved unnecessary, we burst into joyous laughter. Laughter is victory.
But we know that laughter does not always come from above, from the heights of victory, crashing down upon the heads of a vanquished enemy. It can come from below, aimed at the ruling countries, the ruling class, the ruling power.
But if laughter is a banner of victory, how can it emanate from classes and groups that are still oppressed?
Russian literature has a great satirist who can justly take his place beside Swift and Shaw – Saltykov-Shchedrin. Saltykov-Shchedrin is an unusually gay writer. You will laugh unceasingly as you read his works, but, as in Swift, there will be dark clouds threatening the bright sunshine of his laughter. You will find a terrible combination of laughter and wrath, hatred, loathing, calls to action; you will see him close to tears and sense the lump in his throat when he is laughing. How is such a mixture possible? You will hear such laughter when the oppressed individual has long since vanquished his oppressors morally and intellectually, when he regards them as fools, when he despises their principles, when the morality of the ruling class is no more than a conglomeration of absurdities to him, when he considers his own class a generation of giants compared with the Lilliputians (when he knows that lightning will strike the doomed), but when he is still politically weak, when he is not mature enough to bring the imminent economic upheaval to a head. At such moments he will experience this terrible churning.
If we compare Shaw with our own gloomy-jolly Saltykov-Shchedrin or with the eighteenth-century satirist, Swift, we shall find Shaw to be much gayer than they. Shaw senses the closeness of victory, he is confident that the absurdity of the bourgeois system cannot last long. He can even laugh lightly. He spends more time laughing graciously, teasing his enemies while his predecessors Swift and Saltykov-Shchedrin launched out at their enemies with a contempt that was nearly a torture.
A very talented American journalist who visited Lenin later wrote an interesting account of the interview. Part of it reads: “When I spoke to Lenin I was most amazed to see him laughing continuously, laughing ironically and merrily. It made me wonder. Why was this man, whose country was stricken by famine (as was the case at the time), who was surrounded by enemies and was in the position that might very well have seemed hopeless, why was he smiling and joking? I realised that this was Marxist laughter, the laughter of a man who was convinced that the social laws would bring him victory, this was laughter peculiar to people who are gently tolerant of children that have not yet perceived the significance of phenomena which are quite clear to adults.”
We find something akin to Lenin’s victorious laughter in Shaw’s works. However, we must not overlook Shaw’s poison. He laughs, but he knows full well that far from everything is funny: he laughs to burn out human failings with his laughter. He laughs venomously, cunningly, ironically, sarcastically. These are not innocent buds of humour. He is using a subtle and magnificent weapon of the new world aimed at the old.
During his stay here, George Bernard Shaw called himself an old revolutionary. It was he who wrote A Rebel’s Catechism, which is full of pointed, unusually sharp and direct attacks on our enemies. Some of these aphorisms were recently published in Literaturnaya Gazeta and anyone can see how truly revolutionary they are in spirit. However, Shaw’s chief satirical and revolutionary work is to be found in his plays.
Shaw has written an extensive series of plays, a great number of articles and many aphorisms, all of which give him the right to the attention of our countrymen and to a long life in the literature of the future.
George Bernard Shaw is seventy-five years old, he is entering the later period of his life at a time when capitalism, which he has so abhorred and censured, is entering its final stage. Never before have the very foundations of capitalist society been shaken as they are being shaken today. Its walls are shaking, they are crooked and cracked.
At a time when the adherents of the old world must tremble, for Judgment day has come for the sins and crimes of capitalism, George Bernard Shaw believes it is only natural for an intelligent, educated person to be a socialist, and that he who is not a socialist, no matter how intelligent and educated he be, is an odd being.
However, it is one thing to be a socialist by conviction, and quite another to contribute actively to the advent of socialism. The destruction of the capitalist world is not in itself socialism. The capitalist world might have crumbled not left an heir. In a speech in honour of Lenin, which Shaw delivered for a sound film in Leningrad, he said that quite a number of civilisations had crumbled with no one to save them, but now Lenin’s way promises salvation and a transition to higher forms.
You will understand why the seventy-five-year-old writer who has noticed dangerous ruts on the road he is following asks himself: Is there not something positive that can take the place of the crumbling old world? And he turns his gaze to the East, he comes to us, because he is seeking that change here. That is why when Shaw says that should the great socialist experiment of the U.S.S.R. prove hopeless or doubtful he would have to leave this world in sorrow, his words sound so solemn. Shaw must be confident that mankind is young, that the future les before it.