George Walford: The Way to Say It

George Bernard Shaw was perhaps more successful as a character than as a thinker, but he did put the ideas and experiences of the socialist movement of his time with a clarity rare in political writing. He produced no full-dress autobiography but many fragments and contributions to biographies, and Stanley Weintraub assembled some of these under the title Shaw; an Autobiography 1856-1898 (London, Max Reinhardt 1969).

The book includes a chapter on GBS’s Fabian experiences, and one of the strongest impressions left from reading this is of the divisiveness which already dominated the movement. The Society itself favoured a mild version of socialism (Shaw terms it “constitutional”), many of its members (the Webbs, for example), not being very definitely detached from liberalism. Accordingly it suffered (by socialist standards) comparatively little internecine conflict. But it grew out of a schism in an earlier organisation, and lived in disputation with rival socialist groups, all of them busily despising each other. The International Socialist Congress spent days on the controversy between Marx and Bakunin, eventually expelling the anarchists (who immediately produced credentials as trade union delegates and returned to their seats unchallenged).

Reading today of the Communist and Socialist Federations, Leagues and Internationals of the 19th Century leaves one with a picture of a flourishing movement now sadly declined, but it is almost a rule that the more impressive the title of a left-wing group the smaller its membership. For Shaw, closer to the facts than we can be today, the reality of these organisations was “less than forty inexperienced young men without a banking account”; Marx’s First International counted its London office income in shillings.

IC has pointed out repeatedly that although the reformers and revolutionaries favour full political and intellectual freedom, they would restrict liberty of action in the economic sphere. Against conservative privatisation the Left would have people living as council tenants rather than owning their own houses, subscribing to a National Health Service rather than using private doctors, and working for state-owned industries rather than entering private employment or becoming employers themselves. Shaw describes himself as detesting the competition for wealth and convinced that equality had to be achieved before a rationally organised society with good manners, discipline, proper subordination and selection of the right people for high function could be hoped for. In his time this attitude was being developed into practical programmes capable of immediate application, and he highly valued the Webbs for their immense contribution to the detailed research needed.

Shaw goes on to show, more clearly than most of us could do, how each ideologically-determined viewpoint appears, to those holding it, as the normality which people attached to other views are strangely reluctant to recognise. An optician assured him his eyesight was normal, and Shaw was intrigued to find that this made him exceptional. Normal sight, the power of seeing things accurately, was enjoyed by only about ten percent of people. He drew the conclusion that a corresponding mental condition explained the difference between his thinking and that of the general body of the population. Only our Bernard and his comrades were in step; the great majority who differed from them were eccentric.

IC has presented Newman’s fictional account of the transition from the ideology of expediency to that of domination. Life tends to be less tidy than novels, and memory tends to foreshorten development; Shaw’s autobiographical account combines this step in one movement with the further transition to atheism, but the characteristic acquisition of respect for principle comes through clearly enough. As an infant he was kept in line by threats of eternal punishment, everlasting thirst and torture by a magical flame that never destroyed what it fed on. On becoming old enough to reject this he recalls himself as rejecting all religious teaching with it, but by then a sense of honour had appeared to take the place of fear in inhibiting evil actions.

IC has long been combating the belief that the liberals of the 19th Century believed in unrestricted laissez faire; leave competition completely free, and devil take the hindmost. They were well aware that unrestricted competition must result in the elimination from the field of most competitors, the concentration of economic power in the hands of a minority. Shaw reports Sidney Webb’s having learnt from James Stuart Mill “the economic certainty that private property in the sources of production plus freedom of contract must produce a plutocracy face to face with a proletariat… ”

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from Ideological Commentary 40, July 1989.