- Shaw the Political Pragmatist
Distilling the essence of Shaw's Controversial Socialism has proved a challenge: the book itself is a distillation, and a thorough one, [End Page 376] of Shaw's political thinking over nearly seven decades. Absent in it is Shaw the ironic, witty playwright and the polemicist of his prefaces (a sweeping claim in this book is that Shaw's socialism "was more substantial than either his drama or his criticism"). Instead we find Shaw the ideologue putting (and spouting) forth his ideas in speeches and in tracts, pamphlets, manifestos, and essays: from Fabian Essays in Socialism and The Quintessence of Ibsenism (Shaw's first published "serious doctrinal work") to "significant but overlooked writings," such as Fabanism and the Fiscal Question ("the high point and the end of Shaw's influence on Fabian policy"), "The Jevonian Criticism of Marx" "Bluffing the Value Theory," "The Illusions of Socialism," "The Impossibilities of Anarchism" ("the most thoroughly argued case for Socialism put forward in England"), "The Economic Aspect of the Basis of Socialism" (which took Shaw two weeks to write), "The Solidarity of Social-Democracy" ("one of the most inflammatory articles Shaw ever wrote"), and dozens more.
The book's five chapters—Shaw and Marxism, 1882–1892; Liberalism, 1886–1895; Marxism, 1893–1904; Liberalism, 1896–1904; and, more briefly, Liberalism and Marxism 1905–1950—survey Shaw's overlapping (and evolving) allegiances. Author James Alexander traces the successes, failures, and frustrations of Shaw the political thinker, from his early socialism (that took from Marxism and Liberalism), through his later socialism (that distinguished itself from them), to a socialism "acknowledging that it had irreconcilable but necessary Marxist and Liberal purposes … a Liberal purpose (reform) and a Marxist purpose (revolution)." From his seventies onwards, claims Alexander, Shaw became "both Marxist and Liberal. Once this is understood, there is nothing about Shaw's politics that remains inexplicable."
Throughout his very long life, Shaw witnessed a shifting political landscape at home and abroad—the Boer War, two world wars, and a Russian revolution—and, ever the pragmatist, was willing to adapt his views according to circumstances, rethinking them as the sociopolitical scene changed. Granted, sometimes the rethinking was wrongheaded, as with his attempts to justify Stalin's Russia in the 1930s and 1940s—although in the circumstances of failing capitalism there had to be something better. (Shaw was late acknowledging Stalin's crimes, but he denounced him eventually.)
Even though Shaw's socialism emphasized "the ends of equality, harmony, and welfare" and "sought to reconcile revolutionary imperatives and practical necessities," it remained controversial, says Alexander, [End Page 377] because it existed at all times in tension with Liberalism and Marxism; because it was propagandistic, argumentative and deliberately offensive; and because it formed no coherent system or theory. For Shaw (another sweeping claim), "Socialism was not a morality as such, but a religion, and beyond morality … it was beyond philosophy or history. It was a matter of faith."
In light of Shaw's ongoing preoccupations as playwright, critic, and prolific correspondent, what astounds is the sheer amount of work he accomplished on behalf of socialism, detailed in this book with attention to context: the British stage as well as the world stage. Shaw attended countless meetings and gave numerous talks and speeches ("Of the two hundred or so lectures Shaw delivered between 1885 and 1896, most dealt with Socialism and Radicalism"). He was one of the most active members of the Fabian Society (from 1884 to 1911); he was Karl Marx's "first apologist"; and he knew everyone in the political arena, "assimilating the ideas of, arguing with, and affronting" Belfort Bax, Hubert Bland, Henry Hyndman, William Mallock, William Morris, Graham Wallas, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, to name only a few. And in the midst of what was often a frenetic social life of encounters and travels, he published incessantly and on everything: not only on theatre, music, and literature, but on free trade and protectionism, anarchism and radicalism, collectivism and capitalism. As Alexander astutely observes, "the breadth of Shaw's engagements complicated his own...