- Fabian Controversialist
Famously, on 10 March 1886, ten years after his arrival from Dublin, Bernard Shaw informed the members of the new Shelley Society that like their hero, he too was “a Socialist, an Atheist and Vegetarian.” Although Shaw’s lifelong commitment to vegetarianism remains unambiguous, many commentators have examined and contested the exact nature of both his socialism and his atheism. So the arrival of a new volume on Shaw’s socialism arouses the hope of clearing those muddy waters. Taking what he calls an historical rather than a literary point of view, James Alexander has researched and written a valuable and provocative book that places Shaw in the detailed and specific context of the struggle to advance socialism in England from 1882 to 1950. The allocation of pages to various decades soon reveals that the strength of this study is its deep familiarity with the various strains of left-wing opinion and organizing in England in the long decade of 1892 to 1904. This is the period of Shavian dramatic activity bracketed by the composition of Mrs Warren’s Profession and John Bull’s Other Island.
Exploring and explaining the greater historical and political background surrounding his socialist organizing than any Shaw biography for this particular decade, Alexander provides many delights to readers who have been drawn by the dramatic genius but puzzled by or even repelled by the political activist. Shaw contained multitudes, and this study allows us to appreciate his involvement and commitment to political change through his ever-evolving notions of socialism and what socialism could look like in England.
Another strength of Alexander’s study is his contention that Shaw introduced a new freedom that was plain in his dramatic writing. Taking the famous Shaw aphorism “Every jest is an earnest in the womb of time” as central to Shaw’s method, Alexander comments on how the drama provided a venue for Shaw to express his ideas with a freedom that he could not find in his political writing (170). Being provocative in his own right, [End Page 266] Alexander makes a trenchant comparison of Shaw and Nietzsche complaining of the “relentless categorization of academic subjects that allows Nietzsche to be studied as a philosopher and Shaw only as a dramatist, the effect of which is that Nietzsche’s assertions are almost always taken too seriously, while Shaw’s are almost always taken too lightly” (171). Alexander’s avowed purpose is to make an historical analysis and not a literary critical one, but the occasional remarks he does inject about the plays are suggestive. “Shaw decorated his plays with fragments of politics, just as he decorated Broadbent’s study with a picture of Gladstone and caricatures of Chamberlain and Balfour, and Roebuck Ramsden’s study in Man and Superman with busts of Bright and Spencer and a painting of Cobden.” He praises Shaw’s prefaces as interesting developments and “attempts to broaden his range.” He admits a fascination for “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” in which he claims Shaw “attempted a sort of Kierkegaardian disengagement from what he wrote . . . a speculative, disengaged, even empty sort of quality” (176).
Alexander has pounced on the Shavian trait that probably has led to more exhilaration and exasperation when he returns repeatedly to Shaw’s sense of freedom. Admittedly, what drew me to Shaw in the 1960s was my sense of excitement when he would espouse unpopular or even forbidden ideas and insist that they could be discussed and maybe even eventually embraced. Shaw’s bracing openness was a great provocation to some and the source of delight to others. Encountering his plays and prefaces as a teenager, I found their daring willingness to engage “forbidden” subjects both thrilling and discomforting: wondering how can he be so brave as to say aloud the things that he thinks. He radiated fearlessness and modeled a rare and dazzling intellectual courage; especially dazzling for us, Americans, who paradoxically idealize freedom and yet self-censor our intellectual lives in a political atmosphere that labels any left-liberal thinking as...