The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

New Ways to Hell

Out of Ireland we have come;
much hatred, little room
W. B. Yeats, Apology for Intemperate Speech

As a political thinker George Bernard Shaw is mostly remembered for some deplorable flippancies about Stalinism's crimes. As an individual he was probably insufferable: it should be enough to mention that he was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, and an anti-vivisectionist. He was also one of the best-known advocates of Fabian socialism, and the one who wrote the book on it: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism. I've just read it, in its Penguin edition, whose title was needlessly stretched out to: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. And an entertaining and instructive read it is.

Fancy yourself in a car which you do not know how to steer and cannot stop, with an inexhaustible supply of petrol in the tank, rushing along at fifty miles an hour on an island strewn with rocks and bounded by cliff precipices! That is what living under Capitalism feels like when you come to understand it.

One closes it with a taste of metal and a smell of paper, and a sense of that difference: between the machinery of production and the share certificates of ownership. Shaw was a sound money man, and clear on the political economy of rent: after reading his case for state or municipal ownership of utilities and of quasi-monopoly services, one is left with the suspicion that their privatisation might just be a terrible scam, that would leave us paying more for worse service ... oh, wait ...

The Fabian Society was from the start consciously and deliberately anti-Marxist, and anti-liberal. Marx, while 'one of our English prophets', was seen as a foister of economic fallacies, and an accomplice in the firebrand illusions of liberalism about such unscientific nonsense as the Rights of Man. Fabian hostility to Marxism was repaid in kind: "the Fabian Society is not a working class organisation and stands for state capitalism", said the Marxist Socialist Standard in its sixth issue, in February 1905. Shaw deplored the devastation following the Russian Revolution, ignorant as it showed the Bolsheviks to be of the inevitability of gradualness, but - like his fellow Fabians, the Webbs - saw in its Stalinist nemesis a sinister fulfillment.

All the more ironic, therefore, is Shaw's dark warning:
John Bunyan, with his deep but queer insight, pointed out long ago that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven; that the way to heaven is therefore also the way to hell; and that the name of the gentleman who goes by that road is Ignorance. The way to Socialism, ignorantly pursued, may land us in State Capitalism. Both must travel the same road; and this is what Lenin, less inspired than Bunyan, failed to see when he denounced the Fabian methods as State Capitalism.

Lenin is alleged to have called Shaw 'a good man fallen among Fabians', and, to someone who called Shaw a clown, to have snapped: 'He wouldn't be a clown in a revolution!' Shaw deplored revolution, and not because he was soft. It is genuinely hard to tell whether the following extracts aren't a profound moral insight, or another heartless flippancy:
[I]t may drive us mad if we begin to think of public evils as millionfold evils. They are nothing of the kind. What you yourself can suffer is the the utmost that can be suffered on earth. [...] Therefore do not be oppressed by 'the frightful sum of human suffering': there is no sum [...] Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. [...] Do not let your mind be disabled by excessive sympathy. What the true Socialist revolts against is not the suffering that is not cumulative, but the waste that is.

But all in all, and sharp as Shaw was, with him we are in a different world from that of the few revolutionaries to have come out of the Britain of his day, of Tom Mann and Eleanor Marx, of William Morris, of John Maclean and James Connolly, and even of Belfort Bax. Their every page breathes a spirit of rebellion from below, not reform from above, and when the chance came they entered the rapids of revolution with, if not always a clear head, a warm and not a cold heart: in the cases of Connolly and Maclean, until privation or the firing squad stopped their hearts. Shaw contributed next to nothing to the one revolution to which he could have given much.

For the terrible revolution whose spectre stalks Shaw's pages is not the Russian, of which he understood little, but the Irish, which he knew to the bone. Between his lines one sees, as in crime-scene photographs, burned-out mansions and RIC men dead. What made a stone of his heart may not have been too long a sacrifice, but too comfortable a room.


Ah, that's a fine and damning last line.

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