Was George Bernard Shaw a secretly-funded 'useful idiot'?

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Was George Bernard Shaw a secretly-funded 'useful idiot'?

Postby rerevisionist » 15 Nov 2011 04:05

Was George Bernard Shaw a secretly-funded 'useful idiot', hired or advertised to prop up the Soviet Union dictatorship & mass murder machine?

Shaw was world-famous from roughly (Max Beerbohm's chronology) his 40th birthday, 1896. This fame lasted to the end of his life. But less that ten years after waking up no longer obscure, the First World War began. He was established in the fin de siecle, a contemporary of a mixed crew including Wilde, Beardsley, William Morris - just about, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Wagner, Whistler, Zola, H G Wells. Why did Shaw become so well-known, or, if you prefer, notorious? Holroyd, in my opinion, is hopeless on this question. As a minimum, to situate X, it's necessary to establish what outlook was assumed by writers before the advent of X; and then describe what he/she did that was so novel as to attract huge attention. It's also necessary to establish the economic and legal framework: it's likely Shaw benefitted from the relaxation of laws on blasphemy, and on the removal of stamp duty from educational publications, and on Victorian wealth, allowing fairly massive attendance at theatres (and music halls) - and no doubt other things. However, Holroyd seems rather incapable of attempting general topics; his accounts of Shaw's work, mostly plays of course, are competent but seem (to me) superficial. Thus 'Heartbreak House' (first produced 1923) was regarded by Bertrand Russell as an illustration of the enfeebled moral and intellectual state of Britain prior to the First World War, populated by people talking about little of importance; and possibly its audiences viewed it in that light; but Holroyd's descriptions, in a long passage in vol 3, of the characters and their speeches, doesn't do much to bring out the irresponsibility of Heartbreak House types.

Even after fairly careful examination of Holroyd, I can't be certain when Shaw metamorphosed from music critic, ghost writer, author of unfinished novels, and author of unperformed plays into fame. Holroyd, in effect, assumes Shaw's retrospective activity must have been important, and we get a great deal of information on Shaw's life and family in Ireland, St Pancras Vestry and local London politics, Henry George - Shaw regarded the 'land question' as absolutely crucial - and Karl Marx as influences, the Webbs, the founding of the 'New Statesman', and so on. Fascinating to read that the LSE was established with the help of a bequest of £10,000. Socialism in Britain started earlier than anywhere else, and was basically nationalistic. This explains a peculiar difference with both the USA and Germany, where Jewish immigration perverted the movement from the start into a secretive pro-Jewish underground force.

Interesting material on Shaw and sex. Volume I ('The Search for Love') ends in 1898; Volume 3 ('The Lure of Fantasy') begins in 1918. Volume 2 ('The Pursuit of Power') therefore covers the shortest time span of the volumes, Holroyd, probably correctly, implicitly deeming the First World War more influential than the Second. But again there's superficiality: Shaw's 'Common Sense About the War' isn't reproduced, and Holroyd is a bit evasive about it, as of course he is in re the Second World War.

The time span of volume 2 included vast Jewish immigration into the East End of London, unnoticed by Holroyd; it's interesting that by 1909 'a powerful Broadway impresario Charles Frohman' became involved in 'experimental repertory' at the Duke of York's. I wish Holroyd had delved a little into the taboo topic of theatre takings - was Shaw something like an Andrew Lloyd-Webber figure? Was he in effect funded to confuse the issue about the USSR? Anyway, Volume 3 contains 32 years of Shaw ageing from 63 to 94. He clearly had little idea about Stalin, and for that matter little about Hitler. And indeed little about Churchill. His death was eventful - many news hacks and a few religious figures turning up more or less unwantedly. He left money to the British Museum, which later split into two parts, the British Library being the natural destination of his money; however, there was at least one lawsuit over this issue. Bertie Russell said that he was delicious in his attacks on humbug - but also that, his battles being won, his plays were no longer performed. I've seen and heard several people say his plays are "boring".

Holroyd's books therefore are more valuable as reference sources than as a convincing portrait. Interesting to read Shaw on Einstein - not a clue. Or on vaccination: Shaw had emphatic opinions, and these are usually disregarded as anti-scientific aberrations; but it's perfectly possible that Shaw was influenced by someone who knew exactly what he was talking about, even if Shaw was unable to summarise convincingly. Or on continental brothels being legalised in 1876 (discussing 'Mrs Warren's Profession'). Or Charlie Chaplin. Or Liberalism - Shaw was brought up when the Manchester School of competition benefitted Britain, especially the entrepreneurial types, and Shaw noted things were changing, and lashed out at Liberalism and Liberals. I expect he helped muddy the meaning of the word - in the USA it's used in truly weird senses. Shaw (and the Fabians) as far as I know got nowhere with the 'fiscal question' - Wells said the standard response was "Oh Lord, a currency crank!" (from memory). Shaw knew nothing of Judaism (Belloc isn't even mentioned in Volume 3). Or Shakespeare - one of his plays shows Shakespeare jotting down comments from the common people on his wax tablets! I don't think Shaw knew much of India - many of his pithy sayings make sense if you assume that information was restricted, and Shaw was simply assuming that most people were fairly reasonable. It's hard to make sense of his comments on the USSR (Soviet Union) on any other basis - Holroyd has of course quite a bit on this, not of great informational depth. And the same applies to many of his plays - St Joan, for example. Of course, the same applied to his audiences who otherwise would have been less inclined to regard him as a sage.

So - detailed, with many presumably accurate quotations. And full of raw meat, notably on the Socialist movement in Britain, but all somewhat uncooked and indigestible. (There is no real examination of the way Socialist ideals became influenced, corrupted, degraded in their passage to official 'Labour Party' dogma). I don't think I'm alone in thinking this; the laudatory paragraphs in the blurbs don't entirely carry conviction; and my copies ('used', once owned by a school) look unopened.

So far as I know, Shaw never mentioned nuclear weapons (Despite dying in 1950). At any rate, Holroyd's very long biography attributes nothing to him on this issue.

It has to be suspected that he was funded as a sort of loose cannon, socialist-minded, 'useful idiot'. Which might explain why his works are largely ignored. Just a thought, anyway.
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