Not The Guy You Thought You Studied
The shock of the week for me this week was finding out a bit more about George Bernard Shaw. My experience of George Bernard Shaw starts and stops at high school where we studied ‘Major Barbara’, ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘St. Joan’. They are to some degree coloured by ideology Shaw wanted to put across, so we had to study that George Bernard Shaw was a ‘Fabian’ socialist; and of course we learned that the Fabians didn’t want violent revolutions, they wanted gradual changes towards adopting more socialist ideas.
Imagine my surprise then when I encountered somebody who vehemently argued that Shaw was a Nazi supporter who favoured radical eugenics by wiping out people he didn’t like. Yes, I did a double take when he presented that information, and this quote:
“You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”
If you Google that entire quote, you find that it is most often quoted by a certain kind of right winger who hates socialism. It’s also on his Wikipedia page, together with this description:
Shaw opposed the execution of Sir Roger Casement in 1916. He wrote a letter “as an Irishman” to The Times, which they rejected, but it was subsequently printed by both the Manchester Guardian on 22 July 1916, and by the New York American on 13 August 1916.
Shaw was not necessarily better informed about actual conditions in other countries than other people were at the time, and tended to believe the best of people who professed similar principles to those he held himself. This led to him taking some positions that now seem grotesque.
After visiting the USSR in 1931 and meeting Joseph Stalin, Shaw became a supporter of the Stalinist USSR. On 11 October 1931 he broadcast a lecture on American national radio telling his audience that any ‘skilled workman…of suitable age and good character’ would be welcomed and given work in the Soviet Union. Tim Tzouliadis asserts that hundreds of Americans responded to his suggestion and left for the USSR.
Shaw continued this support for Stalin’s system
Then, along came Hitler, and Hitler too got the nod of approval from Shaw, who by this time was more in favour of authoritarian regimes because of his disgust for liberal democracies, and probably the moniker where the Nazis were ostensibly National Socialist Workers Party, and the use of that word would have been a candle to the moth.
The most interesting read and probably the most relevant, quick, pivotal assessment of George Bernard Shaw the man can be found here. It’s a depressing article in as much as the George Bernard Shaw presented there is utterly unlike the Fabian sociliast or progressive. It seems that in his old age, his cantankerous-ness and contrarian qualities led him deeper into espousing uglier and more outlandish sentiments:
And in lines even more extreme than his banned BBC talk, he again praised the failed Mussolini as “right” in describing democracy as “a stinking corpse”. As for Hitler, he added, “in the world war we claim to be fighting for democracy; and Adolf Hitler retorts unanswerably that British democracy is nothing but Anglo-Semitic plutocracy”. In other words, alleged capitalist injustice with a Jewish taint was an “unanswerable” fact. Had he lost his reason, or was he only remaining consistent to his cantankerous image?
He had had enough of liberal democracies; he preferred the austere, mean, authoritarians instead of the difficult compromises of democracy. By the time he is working on his play ‘Geneva’, he is utterly unlike the man we were led believe inhHigh school.
So I went around and asked a number of people who they thought George Bernard Shaw was, ans what kind of beliefs the man might have held. Predictably, people came back with answers that I had given – which sort of goes to show that the NSW Board of Education has somehow created this doxa (opinion) about George Bernard Shaw which is shared by many people, but is also utterly inaccurate.
Which brings me to my point. I’ve even asked teachers of English about this, and they didn’t know about how George Bernard Shaw’s intellectual life went after 1920 – after the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik coup. All these teachers are probably still out there teaching that George Bernard Shaw was a Fabian. Yes, he was, but he was so much more than that, and in some ways, so much more despicable than somebody who sort of wanted society to progress. I’m a little upset at my high school teachers who presented me ‘Major Barbara’ and ‘Pygmalion’ who didn’t go through with telling us just who Shaw was. It seems amiss, and almost malicious to withhold such important information that contextualises the work. They might have taught in good faith, but the net result is that they were teaching misinformation.
How is this so? How could this have happened? I imagine there was at some point a strong desire to overlook these things in favour of presenting students with works they could take on board as ideological education of sorts. In hindsight, I feel quite strongly that the students were not served well by this – for want of a better word – coverup.
These books are still on the high school curriculum in Australia. There are many teachers out there teaching these texts, who grew up on being taught about Shaw, largely as I was, thinking that he was largely a benign playwright who had socialist ideals. They’re probably rerunning the misunderstanding just as it was handed to them, and it seems to me a great shout out is necessary: “George Bernard Shaw didn’t finish up the way he was in the middle of his career!”
I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of the shattered idol, trying to figure out which bits can be salvaged. I’ve also had a little think about it and it occurs to me that Shaw’s radical tilt towards an ugly embrace of authoritarianism might have something to do with the onset of his advanced age.
The years 1920-1950 not only represent the last 30years of Shaw’s life, they also represent the era of the Bolshevik revolution, through the end of World War II and the re-establishment of world order after World War II. In these years, Shaw was aged 64-94. He was still mouthing off to the press in his advanced age – at an age where most people bow out into retirement.
It is highly probable that a younger Shaw would denounce the position of the elderly Shaw; if we are to be fair to his work, then I can only suspect that in his old age, he lost his grip on his ideas and got a little lazy. Maybe he even had Alzheimers or some degenerative brain condition that we do not know about. Maybe he just got old and impatient and decided niceties were boring, and thus was happy to give into the inner fascist more often, and even in public. And maybe I’m working hard here to let him off the hook. Well, what do we know?
Today, with rigorous thinking, we understand that there’s a gulf between Socialism and National Socialism as practiced by the Nazis; and that in the practical running of the 19th century socialist ideas and ideals in the Soviet Republics, how it created brutal injustices that were largely in line with what you would expect from ‘absolute power’ (as per George Orwell’s dictum, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’). Hindsight is 20-20 and better. Shaw lived through this stuff and could only be reasonably asked to digest it the ay we digest events in say, Afghanistan or Libya or Syria.
Anyway, I share this with you today, still shocked to find out George Bernard Shaw was nothing like the figure I was taught he was.