George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Vestryman and Borough Councillor

AT FIRST Shaw STRUCK THE IMAGINATION OF HIS TIME AS PERPETUALLY INTENT upon tearing down without thought of building up. Familiarity with his career and the evolution of his thought compels the conviction that a burning zeal for the practical accomplishment of his social aims and ideals was the driving power of this amazingly energetic social worker. His political and social views underwent a gradual evolution, from nineteenth-century skepticism in religious metaphysics, through a sudden extension of his outlook to the economic field by George and Marx, followed by a long exploration with Webb and the Fabians of the parliamentary paths to Socialism, to a final rejection of parliaments and party governments as we know them as possible instruments of Socialist government and an equalitarian Distributism as extreme as that imagined in the romances of Bellamy. Thus, in his social philosophy, Shaw began with an American, George, and ended with an American, Bellamy. In spirit and instincts, in financial acuteness and clear-sighted practicality, Shaw was far more American than either Irish, Scotch or English.1

Shaw always maintained that his literary work and forensic exposition received much of their strength and practicality from invaluable experience through contact with men and women of affairs, on boards and committees, in drafting resolutions, documents and constitutions of all sorts, and in getting things done intelligently. He would have been a dangerous adviser to a king or cabinet, for his receptiveness to original and ingenious ideas, however fantastic and Utopian, and the clarifying common sense which he brought to bear on their reduction to familiar practice (often to the utter disgust of their authors), might have carried them far beyond their conservative intentions. As between the practical and the impossibilist proposal he was an adept at showing that the practical is in fact complicated and impossible, and the impossible not only simple but well established in everyday practice. A good example of this was his advocacy of equality of income not as an innovation but as an inevitable extension to classes of the existing distribution between individuals of the same class, and his denunciation of Capitalism as a paper Utopia which has never borne the test of practice. There was an Olympian air about his

____________________
1
Consult Archibald Henderson, "Bernard Shaw nearer in Spirit to Americans than to Englishmen," The New York Times, August 18, 1907.

-258-

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