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Ian Birchall

WRITERS REVIEWED: George Bernard Shaw

Plays, prefaces and polemics

(March 1983)

From Socialist Review, No.52, March 1983, p.26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Shaw was one of the backbones of Fabianism. Yet his biting social satire makes modern reformists appear mealy-mouthed. Ian Birchall assesses the basis of Shavian politics.

Slagging off George Bernard Shaw has long been popular among British Marxists. In the thirties Christopher Caudwell labelled him a ‘Social Fascist’; in the eighties Terry Eagleton dismissed him as ‘the grandfather of all naturalists.’ The lesser fry have followed suit.

And certainly Shaw’s political record invites denunciation. In 1882, at the age of twenty-six, he discovered Marx and rapidly became a socialist activist. He was well-known as an open-air speaker, adept at dealing with hecklers.

But this was a short phase of his career. On 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Shaw took part in a demonstration viciously attacked by police. This seems to have shaken his faith in mass action. He broke with his old friend William Morris and became openly identified with Fabianism. There can be no doubt that it is Morris, not Shaw, who represents the best tradition in British socialism. For Shaw it was downhill all the way. Fabianism meant a contempt for trade unionism and all forms of working class self-activity and a belief that reform would be carried through by benevolent intellectuals.

In 1914 the First World War left Shaw confused; his position is so contorted that it is hard to say if he was for or against the war, (Yet such was the graven capitulation of his fellow-writers that Shaw’s position is still better than, any other member of the British literary establishment, with the solitary exception of Bertrand Russell).

About his last years the less said the better. In Back to Methuselah Shaw looked forward to an extension of the human life-span – but if his own had been thirty years shorter his reputation would have been sweeter. Support for Stalin, vilification of Trotsky and flirtations with Hitler and Mussolini marked his long decades of senile decline from the twenties to his death in 1950.

But there remains the Shaw that Lenin and Brecht admired, Shaw the writer of plays, prefaces and political polemics. And from this Shaw there is still something to be learnt.

First of all there is Shaw’s unashamed partisanship. Unlike so many mealy-mouthed writers of today’s left, Shaw made no attempt to conceal the fact that he was writing for a purpose. The Preface to Widowers’ Houses, his first – and finest – play states that the work is ‘deliberately intended to induce people to vote on the Progressive side at the next County Council election in London.’ (Where is the radical playwright today who would do as much for Ken Livingstone?) Shaw even claimed that he wanted to bring a blackboard on stage in Widowers’ Houses in order to explain value theory to the audience.

This partisanship is a major merit in Shaw – but what makes him truly valuable as a writer is his ability to write effectively, to fight for his ideas in prose that is both powerful and entertaining. As Brecht put it:

‘He knows that there is nothing more time-wasting and distracting than a particular kind of seriousness which is popular in literature but nowhere else ... He gives the theatre as much fun as it can stand.’

It is here, above all, that we can learn from Shaw. Most left propaganda today comes in drab journals, carefully edited to ensure political orthodoxy and stylistic anonymity. Shaw’s indictment of bourgeois society remains as true today as in 1883, when he wrote An Unsocial Socialist.

Unfavourable impressions

‘Modern English polite society, my native sphere, seems to me as corrupt as consciousness of culture and absence of honesty can make it. A canting, lie-living, fact-hating, scribbling, chattering, wealth-hunting, pleasure-hunting, celebrity-hunting mob, that having lost the fear of hell, and not replaced it by the love of justice, cares for nothing but the lion’s share of the wealth wrung by threat of starvation from the hands of the classes that create it.’

And as Thatcher prepares to complete the destruction of the National Health Service, it is well worth looking again at the Preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), where Shaw explains what private medicine really means:

‘It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community, as at present provided for, is a murderous absurdity. That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity. But that is precisely what we have done. And the more appalling the mutilation, the more the mutilator is paid. He who corrects the ingrowing toe-nail receives a few shillings: he who cuts your inside out receives hundreds of guineas, except when he does it to a poor person for practice.’

Shaw was a Fabian. But compare the fire and wit of Shaw’s prose to the mincing evasive liberal platitudes of one of today’s Fabians, Tony Benn. Nothing could more graphically illustrate the historical decline of reformism. The only alternative is revolution – the revolution Shaw ran away from in 1887, but which haunted him for the rest of his life.

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Last updated: 26 March 2010