G.B. Shaw

Note on Bax’s Letter

(November 1902)

Reply by Shaw, Wilshires Magazine, November 1902 pp.86-88.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I invite you to observe, my dear Wilshire, that our admired and ingenious Bax does not make the slightest attempt to contradict my definite accusation against the Social-Democratic Federation and Independent Labor Party: to wit, that at their last annual conference they had not a word to say about Socialism, and confined themselves to ordinary Radicalism plus a resolution in favor of what Bax insists on calling female suffrage. All that Bax has to say in reply is that female suffrage is a piece of idiocy, thus going a step further in condemnation of his colleagues than I did. He says that I “rail at Socialist bodies for including in their programs items accepted also by the Radicals;” but here he misses my point: what I objected to was not the inclusion of Radical resolutions at the conferences, but the exclusion of all other resolutions, including Socialist ones. If I am wrong, nothing is easier than to quote the resolutions which differentiated these conferences from Radical Conferences. But there are none to quote. The conferences were so possessed with Bax’s opinion that “in so far as Radicalism has failed to complete its historical task, the uncompleted portions of that task devolve upon the Socialism that is its successor,” that they threw over Socialism altogether, and concentrated themselves on supporting the most violently liberal, Radical and Non-conformist types of anti-Socialism in their attitude on the War and the Education Bill. Compare their echoes of the National Liberal Federation and the Liberal and Radical Union on these burning questions with the perfectly independent and original utterances of the Fabian Society and you will see that the moment you bring Fax’s favorite stalwarts down from their rhetorical balloons to the solid ground of practical politics they are sound individualist Chartist Radicals, whereas the Fabian Society, which has trained itself on the ground and not in the air, invariably strikes a distinct note, which you may approve of or not as the case may be; but which cannot be confounded for a moment with the note either of Conservatism, Jingoism, Liberalism, or Radicalism.

“Fabianism,” says Bax, “is nothing more than a movement for the aggrandisement and ascendancy of the civil servant, in other words, of the Bureaucracy.” When you read this, you no doubt rubbed your eyes to see whether you were really reading Bax, and not Ricardo or McCulloch. Why of course, Fabianism is a movement for the ascendancy of the civil servant. What else is Socialism but a proposal to replace the private speculator by the public servant of the whole community? What are you advocating at present but the management of the Trusts by the American nation: that is, the dethronement of Messrs. Carnegie, Schwab, Pierpont Morgan and Company, and the transfer of their industrial functions to a Bureaucracy? Bureaucracy was a term of abuse in the mouths of the Whig; but the Socialist theory, pushed to its logical conclusion, would make every citizen a civil servant. Could you have a more striking proof of the fact that what Bax and his friends sympathize with in Socialism is not its true diagnostic of collectivism but the purely accidental insurrectionism which it inherited from regicide Liberalism, than his naive plea that the Fabians must be imposters because they want to set up a bureaucracy and have no patience with the melodrama of the barricade? And Bax, remember, is none of your muddleheads who are incapable of analytic thinking: he is the philosopher of the movement. If he writes to you as Benjamin Franklin might if he were alive, it is not that he knows nothing about Hegel. It is simply that the moment you scratch the Hegelian you find the true Krugerite, English bourgeois, the old Republican, the Protestant, the fierce asserter of personal rights, the man with the sovereign private judgment in his heart and the Bible in his hand. The gifted Jew who wrote his Bible may not have been Jeremiah or Amos, but Marx: no matter, the inner will is the same.

Now I do not blame Bax for this. I am myself all that I say he is. I am even an admirer of Marx, and think Das Capital a literary masterpiece still capable of opening men’s eyes to the atrocity of the capitalist regime which followed the Industrial Revolution, though Marx’s stupendous ignorance of the history, the character, and the organization of the English working classes, not to mention his bogus economics and his affectation of the sort of erudition that was most alien to his genius, have sent it to the scrap heap as a textbook. When Bax reads this, he will feel exactly as Mr. Kruger would feel if he heard Bax talking about the Bible; and if I were to add, as I might with perfect truth, that nothing in the revolutionary literature of 1845, to which period all Marxs writing belongs generically, is now worth the worst chapter in Sidney Webb’s Industrial Democracy, which is the greatest economic and political treatise produced since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, I believe that Bax would give me up as stark mad, and would even go the length of running for sympathy to our friend Hyndman (need I explain, by the way, that these two champions of the Social-Democratic Federation have been fighting a battle royal in the Federation newspaper, Justice, and have had to be separated by the editor on the point of scandalizing the rank and file by painful personal disparagements). For all this I blame Bax no more than you do. We Socialists are stubborn individualists, insubordinate, combative, Republican, Protestant, and all the rest of it. Socialism is from one point of view, the discovery that the maximum of individual freedom can only be attained through the abandonment of individualism in industry, and the organization of the production and distribution of the material conditions of existence so as to baffle the tendency of the individual to get more and do less than his share at the expense of other individuals. What I do blame Bax for is his making Socialism a mere stalking horse for Tory shooting, and deliberately appealing to the individualism of the crowd to rouse them against the Fabian demonstration of the absolute necessity of postponing the claims of that individualism until a basis of real freedom has been secured for it by a development of Socialism sufficient to secure a good standard of life for the community.

In the event of “a harmless and industrious workman “ (have you any of then in America, by the way?) being set upon by Hooligans and robbed of his tools (just the last thing a Hooligan would rob him of), and in the further event of a conference of professed Socialists joining all the ordinary papers in the usual clamor for police activity and flogging and so on, coupled with the inevitable attempt on the part of the Opposition in parliament to persuade the country that the Hooligans were probably supporters of the Government, I should in that case unhesitatingly utter the phrase which Bax has drafted as an impossible enormity, and tell them that they had not a breath of the old Collectivism stirring among them. Can you imagine the brilliant and heterodox Bax whom you knew, regarding the South African war as a wicked assault by a Hooligan named Chamberlain upon a harmless and industrious old gentleman named Kruger? Can you do nothing to bring him to his senses?

I wish, by the way, that you would edit your paper more carefully, and not allow scraps from the Times to get mixed up with Bax’s letters. That bit about the “rottenness” of New Zealand as a consequence of its experiments in Socialism is one of the favorite sallies of the correspondents who from time to time inform our leading newspaper that the Fabianizing of New Zealand labor politics has led that colony to the verge of bankruptcy. These gentlemen are invariably most miserably exposed and smashed next day by Pember Reeves, the New Zealand Agent General, so that they are getting rather chary of trying it on again. It is really too bad of you to affiliate such reactionary stuff on Bax. Or can it be that because the New Zealand Premier, Seddon, took the side of Chamberlain (and put on a good deal of it) in the war, that Bax has abandoned even the pretence of Socialism and – but no; I will not believe it. Confess that it was a mistake in the make-up of your columns.


Yours ever
G.Bernard Shaw

[The article to which Mr. Shaw refers and which Mr. Bax defends, appeared in our August issue under the caption of Shaw and Fabianism, by Mr. Bax.]


Last updated on 6.8.2004