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Irving Howe

Bernard Shaw’s Anti-Capitalism

(January 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 1, January 1948, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eric Bentley’s recent book on Bernard Shaw [1] frankly declares its intention to be polemical – to wit, a defense of Shaw as political thinker. Though half of his book analyzes the plays – and very well, too – the burden of Bentley’s argument is political. The result, to put it bluntly, is pretty sad.

Since Bentley’s argument is largely directed against the usual Marxist objections to Shaw’s politics, his own knowledge of Marxism is called into question. But as soon as Bentley enters the field of political theory he is like a provincial let loose in a museum: all he can do is to remember a few phrases of his hometown’s philistines. Thus we read that Marxism “appeals to pure sentiment, to that praise of the poor as poor which is the essence of demagogy.” And again, that Marxism believes in “the adequacy of ‘material and economic factors’ to make revolutions on their own” – whatever revolutions made on “their own” by “factors” may mean!

This kind of writing calls into question Bentley’s entire book; no one can claim serious attention when he gives such a completely ridiculous report of what Marx believed. This is the kind of impressionistic, off-the-cuff politics which a young literary academician can pick up by reading literary magazines in which ex-leftist intellectuals announce their break from Marxism. It is terribly stale and secondhand.

Shaw was never a systematic thinker. First shocked into social awareness by the depression of the early 1880s, he developed an eclectic concoction of notions picked up from a variety of sources. From Marx – whom, incidentally, he admitted having read only very skimpily – Shaw borrowed the general social critique of capitalist society, while rejecting the Marxian historical approach, the theory of class struggle and Marxian economics. From the marginal-utility economists Shaw borrowed his economic theories. But the most decisive intellectual influences in his life were a number of very perceptive but essentially reactionary critics of industrial capitalism: Carlyle, Ruskin and, when he read him later on, Nietzsche. These writers savagely attacked all the faults of capitalism, but since they rejected socialism and the working class (largely because of their antipathy to the masses and to any kind of mass movement) they had no alternative but to fall back upon mere nostalgia or reliance on a great and benevolent leader.

Shaw had one great intellectual virtue: he has been taken in by almost everything else but never by capitalism. He succumbed to Nietzscheism, Lamarckism, vegetarianism, imperialism, fascism, Stalinism, anti-vivisectionism, Fabianism and what have you; but he knew how rotten were the internal social workings of capitalist society and never stopped saying so. As a result his magnificently composed pamphlets, polemics and prefaces are full of some of the most eloquent and effective anti-capitalist agitation of our times. But that was all. His best writing was always in terms of particularities, always very concrete and limited. As soon as he entered the field of theory, as soon as he essayed generalizations, he usually made an ass of himself.

Even in the late nineteenth century Shaw’s political physiognomy was accurately described. Despite the fact that Shaw was infinitely more brilliant than he, the British Marxist, H.M. Hyndman, in an essay called The Final Futility of Final Utility destroyed Shaw’s economic theories. The British socialist writer, Max Beer, described Shaw most accurately:

Having no objective guide, no leading principle to go by, Shaw necessarily arrives at hero-worship – at the hankering after the Superman to guide mankind. I have noticed the same mental development in several continental critics ... They began with Social Democracy, passed through the Ibsen period, worshipped The Enemy of the People, finally becoming adherents of Nietzsche in theory and of Bismarck or some other social-imperialist in practice.

Supermen and Yahoos

For Shaw socialism was not a mass movement in which the working class played a leading role; he distrusted the masses of people, the Yahoos as he called them. What he had in common with the other Fabians, the more routine reformists, was precisely this distrust of the mass. They, however, did not go along with his notion of superman; as complacent and cautious reformists they had enough sense to realize that the leader theory was for them a very dangerous business. That is why they, who never could write such bitter and brilliant attacks on capitalism as did Shaw, also seldom succumbed to the modern totalitarians so disgracefully as did Shaw.

Only in recent years have we been able to see what Shaw’s Socialism for Supermen and Gentlemen really meant. When Mussolini came to power, Shaw was one of the first European intellectuals to applaud the tinsel dictator. For this Shaw got the most merciless polemical drubbing of his life. The Italian democrat – one of the last genuine survivors of the breed – Gaetano Salvemini went after Shaw fist and claw and never let go. Salvemini exposed for all time Shaw’s frigid flirtations with totalitarianism.

Later when Hitler came to power Shaw behaved in the same way. And finally he became an apologist for Stalin, in whose tyranny he saw a vindication of the principle of the “efficient leader.” Shaw may have yearned for the Nietzschean “socialisation of the selective breeding of Man” (The Revolutionist’s Handbook) – which Bentley has called, with other-worldly restraint, “idealistic racism” – but in practice he could not resist the wretched corporeal supermen of fascism and Stalinism.

This is the hardest nut for Bentley to crack and the way he does it is really an indication of what passes for avant-garde thought these days. Bentley approvingly declares Shaw believed that

liberalism and fascism are rival masks of capitalism, and fascism is in some ways the better of the two. It sometimes benefitted the proletariat, it gave bureaucratic status to functionaries who were formerly casual employees... To that extent it prepared the way for genuine socialism. (My emphasis – I.H.)

Shaw’s praise of fascism, Bentley triumphantly concludes, was merely a device to prod British liberals out of their complacent belief in laissez-faire capitalism. But is it not dear that by this sort of argument almost anything can be excused or explained away?

What Shaw wanted above all was a society run according to the rational prescriptions of Victorian intellectuals – gentlemen, every one of them. His hero – the naturally muted British version of the Superman – was the “efficient civil servant” who would do things right. If there is any single political idea that would be anathema to Shaw it is the one contained in Lenin’s remark that every cook must learn to be a cabinet minister. Shaw was for ministers ruling and cooks cooking.

Unlike the great Marxists, Shaw was fundamentally alien to the democratic and equalitarian spirit that has inspired all genuine socialist movements; his conception of socialism was thoroughly bureaucratic. He was ready to borrow from every non-capitalist theory so long as it was not committed to a belief in the independent historical role of the masses. That is why Shaw could admire Stalin but could never appreciate the democratic idealism which was the underpinning of Marx’s and Lenin’s life-work. To the end Shaw was the petty bourgeois, resentful of his rulers but hating the “Yahoos.”

That this son of doctrine should today find a certain response is not surprising. Mr. Bentley has done it the doubtful service of reducing it to its most frank, unadorned and ugly essentials.


1. Bernard Shaw, by Eric Bentley. New Directions, 1947, 242 pp., $2.00.

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