Christopher Caudwell. Studies in a Dying Culture 1938

George Bernard Shaw
A Study of the Bourgeois Superman

‘A good man fallen among Fabians.’

Shaw in his life acquired general recognition among the ordinary members of the ‘middle class’ both here and in America, as representative of Socialist thought. The case of Shaw is in many ways interesting and significant; it is a proof of how stubborn is the bourgeois illusion. The bourgeois may be familiar with Marxism and keenly critical of the social system, and anxious to change it, and yet all this leads only to an ineffectual beating of the air because he believes that man is in himself free.

Shaw is an ex-anarchist, a vegetarian, a Fabian, and, of late years, a Social Fascist: he is inevitably an Utopian socialist. His idea of Utopia was expounded in Back to Methuselah, a paradise of Ancients who spend their days in thought and despise the butterfly young who engage in active work of artistic creation and science.

Shaw then exposed the weakness as well as the essence of his characteristically bourgeois brand of Socialism. It represents the primacy of pure contemplation. In pure contemplation man is alone, is apparently exempt from co-operation, is wrapped in a private world; and he is then believed, by bourgeois thought, to be wholly free. Is not this the illusion of the scientist? No, for science is not pure thought, it is thought allied to action, testing all its cogitations at the bar of reality. It is thought as thought ought to be, passing always in dialectic movement between knowing and being, between dream and outer reality. Shaw abhors this kind of thought. He abhors modern science not as he might do for its human weaknesses, but hating it for its essence, for its social qualities, for all that is good in its active creative rôle.

This is a familiar spectacle: the intellectual attempting to dominate hostile reality by pure thought. It is a human weakness to believe that by retiring into his imagination man can elicit categories or magical spells which will enable him to subjugate reality contemplatively. It is the error of the ‘theoretical’ man, of the prophet, of the mystic, of the metaphysician, in its pathological form the error of the neurotic. It is the trace of the primitive believer in magic that remains in us all. In Shaw it takes a characteristically bourgeois form. He sees that truth brings freedom, but he refuses to see that this understanding is a social product and not a thing that one clever man can find alone. Shaw still believes that out of his Platonic soul man can extract pure wisdom in the form of world-dominating Ideas, and out of debate and ratiocination, without social action, beat out a new and higher consciousness.

It is notable that the real artist, like the real scientist, never makes this mistake. Both find themselves repeatedly pushed into contact with reality; they desire and seek reality outside them.

Reality is a large, tough, and – as man gets to know it – increasingly complex substance. To know it requires the socially pooled labours of generations of men. So complex has science already grown that a man can only hope to grasp completely a small corner of it. The old dream of all-knowledge for one mind has vanished. Men must be content to co-operate by giving a few stitches in the vast tapestry, and even these few stitches may be as complex as the earlier large design of a Newton or a Darwin.

Now Shaw with his bourgeois individualism is impatient at the restriction science sets on the domination of reality by one acute intellect. Shaw cannot hope to master the apparatus of science, therefore he sweeps it all away as mumbo-jumbo. It is nonsense, Shaw says, that the sun is ninety million miles away from the earth. Natural Selection is preposterous. And so instead of these concepts reached with so much labour, Shaw puts forward ideas drawn purely from his desires like those of any Hindoo mystic theorising about the world. Sweeping aside all science as nonsense, he rewrites the history of reality in terms of a witchdoctor’s ‘life-force’ and a jam-to-morrow God. Shavian cosmology is barbarous; it is idealistic. Shaw dominates this tough, distressing, gritty environment by the familiar neurotic method, by imposing on it a series of fictional delusions of a wish-fulfilment type. This is not because Shaw is foolish but precisely because he is possessed of a naturally acute intellect. Its very acuteness has given him a pride which makes him feel he ought to be able to dominate all knowledge without social aid, by pure cerebration. He will not recognise, except cursorily, the social nature of knowledge. So we get in his cosmology an effect like that of an exceptionally brilliant medicine man theorising about life. Since the average intellectual is still infected with similarly barbaric theorising, it is not surprising that he does not detect the essential crudity of all Shaw’s philosophy. Bourgeois speaks to bourgeois.

It is barbarous to believe in action without thought, that is the Fascist heresy. But it is equally barbarous to believe in thought without action, the bourgeois intellectual heresy. Thought is immobilised – or rather races like a machine with nothing to bite on – once it is declutched from action, for thought is an aid to action. Thought guides action, but it learns how to guide from action. Being must historically and always proceed knowing, for knowing evolves as an extension of being.

Shaw’s instinctive bourgeois belief in the primacy of lonely thought is of course evidenced not only in his ludicrous cosmology and repulsive Utopia, but also in his Butlerian biology, in which the various animals decide whether they want long necks and so forth, and by concentrating their minds on this aim, succeed in growing them. Ludicrous as this Butlerian neo-Lamarckianism is, it has enormous emotional influence on the bourgeois mind. It appeals to it so powerfully that sober scientists, even while admitting that no atom of evidence can be found for this hypothesis and all kinds of evidence for the opposite standpoint, yet insist on giving it a provisional approval, because it seems so nice to them. To a mind obsessed with bourgeois concepts of liberty and the autonomy of the individual mind, such a conception seems to promise a kind of substitute for the paradise which determinism denies him.

This would be unimportant if Shaw’s Fabianism did not pervade all his work, robbing it of artistic as well as of political value. Believing in the solitary primacy of thought, all his plays are devoid of humanity, because they represent human beings as walking intellects. Fortunately they are not, or the human race would long ago have perished in some dream-fantasy of logic and metaphysics. Human beings are mountains of unconscious being, walking the old grooves of instinct and simple life, with a kind of occasional phosphorescence of consciousness at the summit. And this conscious phosphorescence derives its value and its power from the emotions, from the instincts; only its form is derived from the intellectual shapes of thought. Age by age man strives to make this consciousness more intense, the artist by subtilising and intensifying the emotions, the scientist by making fuller and more real the thought form, and in both cases this is done by burning more being in the thin flame. Shaw, however, is obsessed with the pure flame, phosphorescence separate from being. The ideas thus abstracted become empty and petty and strike with a remote tinkling sound in the ears. Shaw’s plays become an ‘unearthly ballet of bloodless categories’.

This mixed thought and feeling of consciousness is not the source of social power, only a component of it. Society with its workshops, its buildings, its material solidity, is always present below real being and is a kind of vast reservoir of the unknown, unconscious and irrational in every man, so that of everyone we can say his conscious life is only a fitful gleam on the mass of his whole existence. Moreover, there is a kind of carapacious toughness about the conscious part of society which resists change, even while, below these generalisations, changes in material and technique and real detailed being are going on. This gives rise in every man to a tension which is a real dynamic force in society, producing artists, poets, prophets, madmen, neurotics and all the little uncertainties, irrationalities, impulses, sudden unreasoning emotions, all the delights and horrors, everything that makes life the thing it is, enrapturing the artist and terrifying the neurotic. It is the sum of the uneasy, the anti-conservative, the revolutionary. It is everything which cannot be content with the present but causes lovers to tire of love, children to flee their happy parental circle, men to waste themselves apparently useless effort.

This source of all happiness and woe is the disparity between man’s being and man’s consciousness, which drives on society and makes life vital. Now all this tension, everything below the dead intellectual sphere, is blotted out in Shaw. The Life Love, which is his crude theological substitute for this real active being, is itself intellectually conceived. Thus his characters are inhuman; all their conflicts occur on the rational plane, and none of their conflicts are ever resolved – for how can logic ever resolve its eternal antimonies, which can only be synthesised in action? This tension creates heroes like Cæsar and Joan of Arc, who, in response to the unformulated guidance of experience, call into existence tremendous talent forces of whose nature they can know nothing, yet history itself seems to obey them. Such heroes are inconceivable to Shaw. He is bound to suppose that all they brought about they consciously willed. Hence these heroes appear to him as the neat little figures of a bourgeois history book, quite inhuman, and regarding their lives as calmly as if they were examination papers on the currents of social change These plays are not dramas. This is not art, it is mere debate and just as unresolved, just as lacking in tragic finality, temporal progress or artistic unity as is all debate.

For this reason too, Shaw is a kind of intellectual aristocrat, and no one who is not capable of declaring his motives rationally and with the utmost acuity on instant demand appears in his plays, except as a ludicrous or second-rate figure. The actors are nothing; the thinkers are everything. Even a man who in real life would be powerful, formidable and quite brainless – the ‘armourer’ of ‘Major Barbara’ – has to be transformed into a brilliant theoretician before (as Shaw thinks) he can be made impressive on the stage. But we all know and admire characters devoid of the ability for intellectual formulation who yet seem in their influence upon reality nobler, grander, more powerful and effective than any of our intellectual friends. We know well enough in life at all events, that thought alone does not suffice to drive on the world, and recognise this in our homage to ‘illusory’ ‘irrational’ art, art that speaks to the mere experience of us, stirring it into a fleeting and purely emotional consciousness? None of these characters, who in war, art, statesmanship and ethics have been of significance in the world’s history, appear in Shaw’s plays. He is incapable of drawing a character who is impressive without being a good arguer in bourgeois dialectic. This weakness naturally Shows itself in his proletarians. Like the proletarians in the Army hostel of Major Barbara, they are simply caricatures. Only by being ‘educated’ like the chauffeur in Man and Superman, can they become respectable.

It therefore follows that Shaw’s ideal world is a world not of communism, but like Wells’ is a world ruled by intellectual Samurai guiding the poor muddled workers; a world of Fascism. For bourgeois intellectuals obsessed with a false notion of the nature of liberty are by the inherent contradictions of their notion at length driven to liberty’s opposite, Fascism. Shaw’s Utopia is a planned world imposed from above in which the organisation is in the hands of a bureaucracy of intellectuals. Such a world is negated by the world of communism, in which all participate in ruling and active intellectuals, no longer divorced from being, learn from the conscious worker just as much as the workers demand guidance from thought. The fatal class gap between thought and action is bridged. This world, with its replaceable officials not specially trained for the task, is the opposite of the old Fabian dream or nightmare, the class Utopia in which the ruling class now takes the form of a permanent, intellectual, trained bureaucracy, wielding the powers of State for the good of the proletariat. This world was a pleasant dream of the middle class, which neither owned the world, like the capitalist, nor had the certainty of one day owning it like the proletariat. It is an unrealisable dream which yet holds the intellectual away from the proletariat and makes him a bulwark of reaction and Fascism. Shaw is still obsessed with the idea of liberty as a kind of medicine which a man of goodwill can impose on the ignorant worker from without. That liberty would be medicine for the bourgeois, not the worker. He does not see that neither intellectual nor worker possesses as yet this priceless freedom to give, both are confined within the categories of their time, and communism is the active creation of true liberty which cannot yet be given by anybody to anybody. It is a voyage of discovery, but we are certain of one thing. The liberty which the Roman, the feudal lord and the bourgeois achieved, proved illusory, simply because they believed that a ruling class could find it, and impose it on society. But we can see that they failed and man is still everywhere in chains, because they did not share the pursuit of liberty with their slaves, their serfs, or the exploited proletariat; and they did not do so because to have done so would have been to cease to be a ruling class, a thing impossible until productive forces had developed to a stage where ruling classes were no longer necessary. Therefore, before the well-meaning intellectual, such as Shaw, seeks this difficult liberty, he must first help to change the system of social relations to one in which all men and not a class have the reins of society in their hands. To achieve liberty a man must govern himself; but since he lives in society, and society lives by and in its productive relations, this means that for men to achieve liberty society must govern its productive relations. For a man to rule himself presupposes that society is not ruled by a class from which he himself is excluded. The search for liberty only begins in the classless state, when society, being completely self-governing, can learn the difficult ways of freedom. But how can this be achieved when its destiny is planned by a class, or controlled by the higgling of a market, or even arranged by a company of elegant Samurai? How can the intellectual Samurai ever agree, since no two philosophers have ever agreed about absolute truth and justice? Only one referee has ever been found for the interminable sic et mon of thought – action. But in a world where thought rules and action must hold its tongue, how can the issue ever be resolved? Action permeates every pore of society: its life is the action of every man. Society is torn apart as soon as its form is determined by the thought of a few which is privileged and separate from the action of the many.

Since Shaw implicitly denies the elementary truth that thought flows from being, and that man changes his consciousness by changing his social relations; which change is the result of the pressure of real being below those relations. Shaw must necessarily deny the efficacy of revolutionary action as compared with the activities of propaganda. Like Wells he believes that preaching alone will move the world. But the world moves, and though it moves through and with preaching, it does not follow that all preaching moves it, but only that that preaching moves it which moves with the law of motion of the world, which marches along the line of action, and cuts down the grain of events. Yet a bourgeois intellectual always believes that whatever he conceives as absolute truth and justice – vegetarianism or equal incomes or anti-vaccination – can be imposed on the world by successful argument. Hence Shaw’s plays.

But here Shaw is faced with a dilemma. He is to impose his absolute truths on the world by the process of logical debate. But the world of non-thinkers or half-thinkers on which he imposes it are necessarily an inferior race of creatures – the mere labourers, the nit-wit aggregation of the non-intellectuals, the plastic amorphous mass whom the intellectual lords of creation save from disaster by their god-like commands. How can one drill sense into these creatures? What will appeal to their infantile frivolous minds? One must of course treat them as one treats children, one must sugar the pill of reason with paradox, humour, with lively and preposterous incident.

Thus Shaw, whom a belief in the primacy of intellectual consciousness prevented from becoming an artist, was by this same belief prevented from becoming a serious thinker or a real force in contemporary consciousness. He became the world’s buffoon; because his messages were always wrapped in the sugar of humour, they were taken as always laughable. The British bourgeois, who ignored Marx, vilified Lenin and threw its Tom Manns into prison, regarded Shaw with a tolerant good-humour as a kind of court jester. The people he had depreciated depreciated him. The sugar he put on his pill prevented the pill from acting.

Marx by contrast did not attempt to make Das Kapital appealing to the tired brains of the British bourgeoisie. He did not attempt to become a bestseller, or veil his views in West End successes. He did not give humorous interviews to the contemporary press. His name was known only to a few Englishmen of his time, while that of Shaw is known to millions. But because he gave his message seriously, treating the race of men as his equals, his message was received seriously and well. Because he did not believe that thought rules the world, but that thought must follow the grain of action, his thought has been more world-creating than that of any single man. Not only has it called into existence a new civilisation over a sixth of the world’s surface, but in all other countries all revolutionary elements are oriented round Marx’s thought; all contemporary politics are of significance only in so far as they are with Marx or against him.

It is no answer to say that Marx’s is a greater intellect than Shaw’s. Doubtless if Shaw had been Marx he would have been Marx. No one has devised a standard for measuring intellects in themselves, since intellects do not exist in themselves, but only in their overt mentation. Shaw and Marx were both men of keen intellect, as evidenced in their writings, and both were aware, from experience, of the breakdown of greedy bourgeois social relations; but the mind of one was able to leap forward to the future, the other is prisoned always in the categories of the bourgeoisdom it despises. Because Shaw gave his message condescendingly and flippantly, treating the race of men as his inferiors, his message has been much read and little noted, and the message itself betrays all the falsehood and unreality of the attitude which settled its delivery.

Shaw read Marx early in life, and he was given therefore the alternative of being a dangerous revolutionary instead of a popular reformist who would dream of a world saved by a converted middle-class. He decided that although Marx had shown him the shame and falsities of bourgeois life, he would refuse to recognise the necessity for the overthrow of this decaying class by the class of the future. From that moment Shaw was divided against himself.

This decision is explained by his personal history. Born into a middle-class family that had fallen from affluence and social position to embarrassment, the ambitious young Shaw, impressed from childhood with the necessity for retrieving the former Shavian status, came to London to gain success. Here he existed for a time by writing, as poor as any worker. But thanks to the possession of a dress-suit and a gift for playing on the piano, he was still able to mix in refined Kensington circles. Faced with proletarianisation, he clung to the bourgeois class. In the same way, faced with the problem of ideological proletarianisation in his reading of Marx, he resisted it, and adhered to Fabianism, with its bourgeois traditions and its social respectability.

This problem and his answer to it, decided his ideology and also his art. His knowledge of Marx enabled him to attack destructively all bourgeois institutions. But he was never able to give any answer to the question: What shall we do here and now to improve them besides talking? This problem, in the veiled form of tainted money comes up in his work repeatedly – in Widower’s Houses, Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren’s Profession – and always it is patched up. We must accept things as they are until the system is changed. But no immediate steps besides talking, are ever to be taken to change the system. Major Barbara, horrified at first by finding the Christ she believes in has sold out to capital, ends all the same by marrying the manager of the armament factory whose proprietor has bought Him. Shaw himself, who discovered the ruling class was rotten to the core, and built on the exploitation of the workers, yet ends by marrying ideologically money, respectability, fame, peaceful reformism and ultimately even Mussolini. He who takes no active steps to change the system, helps to maintain the system.

Yet just because Shaw has read Marx, he understands the essential contradictions of this solution. For this reason his plays are full of deliberately forced conversions, unconvincing dénouements, and a general escape from reality through the medium of fantasy and humour. Shaw dealt quite simply in his life with the problem of tainted goods that arose from the sufferings of animals. Meat and sera, one resulting from the slaughter and the other from the vivisection of animals, must not be used, even though in spite of one’s abstention the wicked business goes merrily on. But he cannot make that renouncement in the case of money and of all the intangibles of bourgeois respectability – fame as a Fabian intellectual instead of suppression as a dangerous revolutionary. Meat and sera are not essential to the life of society, and therefore it is possible to abstain from them. In bourgeois society money is what holds society together: no one can ever eat without it; therefore it is impossible to abstain from it. But this in itself exposes the futility of Shaw’s bourgeois abstaining approach to the problem, like that of the pacifist who will not fight but continues to be fed at the expense of the community. Shaw’s ambivalent attitude to social evils reveals his cowardice before the prime evil, the very hinge of society, which he will accept, while he abstains from the lesser evils. Thus his vegetarianism acts as a kind of compensation for his betrayal on the larger issue, and a symbol of his whole reformist approach. He will abstain; he will criticise; but he will not act. This last refusal infects his criticism and makes his abstention an active weapon of reaction. And so, all through his plays and prefaces, money is the god, without which we are nothing, are powerless and helpless. ‘Get money, and you can be virtuous; without it you cannot even start to be good.’ Shaw repeats this so often and so loudly that he seems anxious to convince himself as well as others. ‘Renounce it,’ he asks, ‘and what help is your altruism? Even if you throw it in the gutter, some scoundrel will pick it up. Wait till the system is changed.’

But how is it to be changed? Shaw has no convincing answer. There is no need to accuse Shaw of conscious dishonesty. Shaw is helplessly imprisoned in the categories of bourgeois thought. He could not see, that because being conditions knowing, the bourgeois class for all their cleverness are doomed to collapse and the workers for all their stupidity are able to play an active creative rôle in building a new civilisation an the wreckage of the old. Faced with this choice – worker or bourgeois – the bourgeois – with all the brilliance of bourgeois culture behind him – seemed to Shaw preferable to the other, ignorant, irrational and brutalised by poverty. Hence arose his life problem, how to persuade this bourgeois class to renounce its sins. He had to convert them, or fold his hands in despair; and yet in his heart he did not believe in their future, for he had read Marx.

This decision, conditioned by his class and his experience, led to all his difficulties. He could never really bring himself to believe in a bourgeois class regenerated by Fabianism, and events made still clearer its hopelessness and its decay. Hence, more and more, his plays become futile and unresolved. Civilisation is driven ‘On the Rocks’ or is in the ‘Apple Cart’. Relief is found in the faith of a Life Force making inevitably for a Utopia (Back to Methuselah). Or as in St. Joan he tries to comfort himself by turning to a period when this class he has committed himself to, this bourgeois class, played an active creative part: he draws St. Joan as the heroine and prophet of bourgeois individuality, amid a dying medievalism. In Heartbreak House he records simply a Tchekovian detachment and disillusion. Evidently all Shaw’s failing, all the things that prevented him from fulfilling the artistic and intellectual promise of his native gifts, arise in a most direct fashion from his fatal choice of the bourgeois class at a period of history when the choice was wrong. From this choice springs the unreality of his plays, their lack of dramatic resolutions, the substitution of debate for dialectic, the belief in life forces and thought Utopias, the bungling treatment of human beings in love, the lack of scientific knowledge, and the queer strain of mountebank in all Shaw says, as of a man who in mocking others is also mocking himself because he despises himself but despises others more.

Shaw performed a useful function in exposing the weakness of the bourgeois class. He exposes the rottenness of its culture and at the same time commits the future to its hands, but neither he nor his readers can believe in the success of that; and so he represents symbolically bourgeois intelligence as it is to-day, shamefaced and losing confidence in itself. He plays this active part, that he is one of the forces of defeatism and despair which help the decay of a world that has had its day. This disintegration is no more than pathological without the active forces of revolution which can shatter the rotten structure and build it anew. This confidence Shaw has never achieved, nor the insight that is needed for it. He stands by the side of Wells, Lawrence, Proust, Huxley, Russell, Forster, Wassermann, Hemingway, and Galsworthy as typical of their age, men who proclaim the disillusionment of bourgeois culture with itself, men themselves disillusioned and yet not able to wish for anything better or gain any closer grasp of this bourgeois culture whose pursuit of liberty and individualism led men into the mire. Always it is their freedom they are defending. This makes them pathetic rather than tragic figures, for they are helpless, not because of overwhelming circumstances but because of their own illusion.