“You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes” – George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara.
The first act of George Bernard Shaw’s life started at 33 Synge Street, Dublin on 26th July 1856. Brought up in an outwardly orthodox but unconventional Irish Protestant family, he later declared he was “a freethinker before I knew how to think.” He left Ireland for London aged nineteen and remained there for the rest of his life, though was still concerned with Irish politics. (Iris Murdoch’s novel The Red and the Green mentions his writing circulating in Dublin in 1916.) After decades writing he finally achieved success as a playwright in the 1900s 1
Shaw has been called “one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived”2. He wrote extensively on diverse areas in religion, philosophy, politics, economics, culture and society.
Shaw attributed his interest in economics to a lecture by economist Henry George that he heard in 1882 which “struck [him] dumb and shunted [him] from barren agnostic controversy to economics.” In this second act of his life, his economic and political philosophy was expressed through tracts, lectures and essays. His first major political treatise was addressed to women: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism (1928). Shaw was a staunch supporter of feminism, supporting the redefinition of gender roles and depicting the “New Woman” in his plays. He was also an active commentator on social institutions such as marriage and the family and on the class struggle.
Shaw put his politics into practise in his extensive work in the Fabian Society (founded 1884), helping to develop their distinctive brand of socialism3. Taking a non-revolutionary approach, the Fabian Society aimed to infuse socialist policies into the existing political and social structures. Shaw produced the Fabians’ second most important manifesto in 1884. Its principles can be summarised as follows4:
Land and capital have created the division of society into hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme and large dinners and no appetites at the other. Nationalisation of land is a public duty. Capitalism has ceased to encourage invention and to distribute its benefits in the fairest way attainable. Under the existing system of the national industry, competition has the effect of rendering adulteration, dishonest dealing, and inhumanity compulsory. The Public Revenue should be levied by a direct Tax. The State should compete with private individuals — especially with parents — in providing happy homes for children, so that every child may have a refuge from the tyranny or neglect of its natural custodians. The sexes should enjoy equal political rights. The State should secure a free, liberal education for everybody.
The early Fabians were fairly successful, achieving the adoption of many of their policies by the Liberal Party, and seeing their tracts inspiring public legislation in early 20th century Britain. The argument that poverty was preventable and could be reduced through social services was the basis of modern social welfare policy. However the Fabian Society was also controversial. “The early Fabians believed erroneously in the quick breakdown of capitalism and the emergence of a socialism based on state control, strict bureaucratic social planning and management for public welfare.”5 Instead of democracy, experts would improve society. In addition, many members espoused the theory of eugenics, an enthusiasm Shaw shared. He wrote that “nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilisations.” 6
In Ireland Shaw is also controversial for his support of Empire, outlined in the Fabian tract he drafted, Fabianism and the Empire (1900). In it Shaw argued that small nations were anachronisms in an inevitable evolution towards large powerful states. The Fabians sought a “public spirited” or “social” imperialism that spread enlightened civilisation throughout the world (run by experts much as the United Kingdom itself.)7
Shaw applied the principle to Ireland too, saying in 1916 8:
if Ireland were cut loose from the British fleet and army tomorrow she would have to make a present of herself the day after to the United States, or France, or Germany, or any big power that would condescend to accept her: England for instance.
Yet he was also aware of the mishandling of Ireland and the propensity for revolt, saying in Fabianism and the Empire9:
The British Empire, wisely governed, is invincible. The British Empire, handled as we handled Ireland and the American colonies, and as we may handle South Africa if we are not careful, will fall to pieces without the firing of a foreign shot.
At the time, Shaw’s stand against the First World War was unpopular. Despite his belief that (understandable as it was to desire it) Irish separation from Britain was doomed to failure, he supported Roger Casement in his trial, advising him to put on the performance of his life. (Casement’s rather less theatrical lawyers did not agree, perhaps wrongly.)10 While both of those actions are looked on more kindly now, Shaw’s support of Russian communism in the 1920s and 30s are not. While he winked at Russian totalitarianism and suppression, he did condemn Hitler’s antisemitism, and satirised Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in his 1928 play, Geneva.
By the mid 1920s (the third act) he was an international celebrity on a scale few other writers have achieved in their lifetime. He won the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty” and shared the 1938 Oscar for best adapted screenplay (“Pygmalion,” based upon his stage play). Until Bob Dylan equaled his record (with an Oscar in 2000 and a Nobel for Literature in 2016), Shaw was the only person to have won both awards.
His plays express his philosophical theory based on ideas from thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Samuel Butler, Lamarch and Goethe, that he called “creative evolution”. Its central principle was outlined in the preface to the play St. Joan (1925): “the Law of Change is the Law of God”11.
According to the theory of creative evolution, the world is driven by an intelligent principle, the Life Force, which works through evolution to aim at higher forms of life and consciousness. It can be influenced by human intellect and skill and the purpose of human life is to contribute to its development. The details are outlined in plays (and their prefaces) Man and Superman (1905), Back to Methuselah (1921), St Joan and the prose work The Adventures of the Black Girl in his search for God (1932)12.
Under the influence of his travels and his wife Charlotte’s interest in Eastern mysticism, Shaw grew increasingly impressed by non-European race and philosophies. As he became increasingly pessimistic about the West, he started to portray non-Europeans as the future custodians of the Life Force13.
Shaw’s last political treatise Everybody’s Political What’s What was published in 1944. He continued to write into his nineties. He died in Herefordshire on the 2 November 1950.
Featured Image: Detail of silkscreen color poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion” by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) at the Hollywood Playhouse, Vine Street, near Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, with bust portrait of Bernard Shaw. Wikimedia, Public Domain.
- A. M. Gibbs (2004) “Shaw, George Bernard” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophy, Thoemmes, pp. 297-299. ↩
- Brad Kent (2017) “On the value of intellectuals” OUP Blog url=https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/george-bernard-shaw-politics/ ↩
- Gibbs (2004). ↩
- Andrzej Diniejko (2013) “The Fabian Society in Late Victorian Britain” The Victorian Web url=http://www.victorianweb.org/history/fabian.html ↩
- Diniejko (2013). ↩
- Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom (2006) Why Truth Matters. New York: Continuum, p. 85 cited in Diniejko (2013) ↩
- Diniejko (2013) ↩
- “Irish Nonsense about Ireland” New York Times (Apr 9 1916) VI, 1:1 URL=http://walterschafer.com/atimesofshaw/articles/1916.html#0267. This article was quoted by Iris Murdoch in The Red and the Green and the husband repeats Shaw’s theory (unattributed) in the final chapter. ↩
- Shaw (1900) Fabianism and the Empire, p. 15 cited in Diniejko (2013). ↩
- Finan O’Toole (2016) “Bernard Shaw to Roger Casement: put on the performance of your life” Irish Times (26 Mar 2016). ↩
- Gibbs (2004). ↩
- Gibbs (2004). ↩
- Gibbs (2004) ↩