Socialist Worker

George Bernard Shaw: a fascinating contradiction

A new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara begins in London this week. Paul O’Brien looks at the playwright’s ideas

Issue No. 2090

George Bernard Shaw in 1915

George Bernard Shaw in 1915

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856. He was one of the most prolific playwrights of his time. In 1891 Shaw introduced the work of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen to the English-speaking world and in the process he helped create 20th century realism on the English stage.

His plays are satires that are witty and combative. They expose capitalism with a passionate intensity that has seldom been equalled.

Shaw became a socialist by reading Karl Marx’s Capital. He said, “Marx opened my eyes to the facts of history and civilisation... [and] provided me with a purpose and a mission in life”.

Shaw was a controversial and contradictory figure. He was a Marxist and an anti-Marxist, a revolutionary and a reformer.

At times he displayed a monumental ignorance of Marxist theory, but his heart remained true to the dreams of socialist revolution, which his Fabian head rejected.

In the preface to Major Barbara, Shaw stated that he was and always will be “a revolutionary writer”. The theatre became a platform for his political views and he deliberately set out to provoke a response from his audience.

Shaw wrote Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession in the 1890s shortly after his discovery of Marxism. This was the closest he ever came to writing a purely socialist drama.

These are no mere polemics. They reveal the soul of man under capitalism is “thoroughly corrupted and deformed”.

Shaw insisted that his bourgeois characters were not exceptions, but typical members of their class.

The alternative – socialism – is unspoken or left open-ended. The impetus towards socialism comes from the revulsion caused by the grim analysis of the status quo.

Shaw’s plays stand in contrast to the simplistic melodrama of the time, where villains were caricatures of reality. Shaw’s exploiters were never straw men or women.

They were complex characters caught up in moral dilemmas that exposed in a surprising and meaningful way the contradictions inherent in capitalist society.

He transformed political theory into the language of life. In his soul he was a socialist, but isolated from the masses he remained a lone voice trapped in a world that war and revolution had swept aside.

Shaw was a founder member of the Fabian Society.

The Fabians were a group of intellectual young men and women who were critical of the way that British society was being run.

While describing themselves as socialists they remained aloof from the working class movement.

They believed that society could become socialist by the state taking control of much of the services and industries run by capitalist companies.

Intellectuals would play the crucial role in running this “new society”, standing in for the self-activity of the masses.

The Fabians became associated with “benevolent” reforms and hostility to radical change.

In the 1930s Shaw became an enthusiastic supporter of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

Lacking any faith in the ability of the masses to transform the world, Stalin became the embodiment of the natural leader or benevolent dictator that Shaw had portrayed as necessary in his plays Man and Superman, and Major Barbara.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described Shaw as “a good man fallen among Fabians”, and that was his tragedy, but he remained a fighter to the end.

Shaw died in 1950. Politically isolated, in the last 20 years of his life, he produced little of literary merit.

He was never afraid to take an unpopular stand and for this he earned the hatred of the authorities.

He was a socialist, a humanist, and a great artist who put politics at the centre of his work.

Major Barbara by Bernard Shaw is on at the National Theatre in London until 5 April.

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Tue 26 Feb 2008, 18:57 GMT
Issue No. 2090
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