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The Socialism of Mr. Shaw

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01/01/2007Albert Jay Nock

[A review of George Bernard Shaw, Everybody's Political What's What? (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1944), Economic Council Review of Books, Volume II, no. 6, February 1945, published in New York by the National Economic Council]

There is nowadays a tendency to regard Mr. George Bernard Shaw as somewhat a back number; that is, as a person who has "done his stuff," done it extremely well, and is therefore entitled to grateful remembrance, but who belongs to the past and has nothing much to say to us who are living in the present. As far as his plays are concerned, this may or may not be so; I do not venture any opinion about that, beyond observing that the specific occasions which brought forth some of them, such as Candida and Mrs. Warren's Profession, have now pretty well passed out of a dramatist's reckoning, so that interest in these plays is no longer topical.

As pieces of social criticism they now have no great point. As specimens of dramatic construction, however, it is not easy to say how long an interest even in these plays may last; and still less easy to forecast a future for interest in plays which are not in this category, such as Androcles, Pygmalion, The Devil's Disciple.

But letting it pass without argument that as a dramatist Mr. Shaw has no longer anything to say to us, as an analyst and critic of society he has a great deal to say. In this capacity he is far from being a back number. On the contrary, his book published last October, Everybody's Political What's What, reveals him as distinctly a man of today, full up to the minute; he is all there all the time; and the chances are that he will go on being all there as long as the constitution of human society remains what it is. His analysis and criticism are applicable to any aggregation of incorporated humanity of which we have record.

The essential difficulties, the obstacles lying in the way of all attempts to organize or to maintain a civil system that has a dog's chances of stability were exactly the same in the times of Shalmaneser II, Pericles, Augustus, as they are now in the time of our Hitlers, Roosevelts, Churchills. Mr. Shaw is miles ahead of the vast mass of us in knowing just what those obstacles are, in understanding them thoroughly, and in being able to discuss them not only competently, but also with all his characteristic force and his engaging simplicity of manner.

This is the service which his book proposes to render and does render, and it is a service of the first magnitude. When you have an object in view, no matter what, from frying an egg to laying out a railway, the first thing you have to consider is what stands in the way of your getting to it. You must first know that the obstacles are there; and then, second, before you try to overcome them you must understand them, get their measure, discover how formidable they actually are, and in what directions. This procedure is the commonest kind of common horse sense. We all follow it in the course of our public affairs; yet, obviously the failure to follow it in public affairs entails by far the more ruinous consequences. Suppose we go in for a certain political theory as we went in for republicanism, for example, after the war of 1776. Will it work? Is it practical? Will the institutions founded on that theory stand up? To get even a provisional answer to these questions, the first and all-important thing is to know what obstacles confront the theory, and then to go as far as we can towards understanding them.

The question of what to do about getting over or around those obstacles is secondary. If we don't know the things are there until we hit them, and then don't know anything about their nature or their degree of obstructive power, but merely try to extemporize some "practical" way of dealing with them as they stand, we are sure to make a sorry mess of it; just such a mess as our erring brethren in Washington have made with the practical working out of their fantastic political theory. They did not know there were any obstacles in the way of their theory, let alone knowing anything about such obstacles; hence, as Henry Adams put it, they were "like monkeys monkeying with a loaded bomb."


So in reading Mr. Shaw's book the reader must understand clearly what he may expect to get out of it and what he may not expect. He will never find anywhere a more lucid, able, penetrating, and outspoken analysis of the difficulties which social architects must overcome before they can erect a politico-economic structure that has the faintest chance of stability. Mr. Shaw has long been foremost — I am tempted to say he is now the only one — among the few writers who know what the word discussion means. He is able to see all sides of a question and to work his way around it, putting everything into its right relation with everything else as he goes, and presenting the sum-total as an orderly whole. He impresses one as caring relatively little what people think of his presentation, provided only that they think; really think, that is, think for themselves, not merely think they think; or quite as idly, take their views as second-hand, believing that they have thought about them, when in fact they have done no more than memorize them more or less correctly. In his three chapters on education, for example, Mr. Shaw seems much less concerned with our accepting his view of "what to do about it" than he is with our understanding exactly what the problem is and our perceiving clearly how serious it is. Nothing could be more useful than this method of approach; and Mr. Shaw's consistency in the use and exposition of it makes his book invaluable.

This being so, the reader can easily and gratefully afford to give all due weight of respect to Mr. Shaw's conclusions, even though he may not accept them. Many of them are sound. Others are sound as far as they go; they are provisionally sound; and it is to Mr. Shaw's credit that he always makes their provisional character clear. Others again, and some of them the most important, are quite unacceptable because he has left the determining factor out of the account. But the intelligent reader will not boggle at any of this; he will thankfully take the enormous benefit of Mr. Shaw's analysis and criticism, and will not be put off by any conclusions which he finds unacceptable or even debatable.

Many such conclusions appear in the references to Socialism which are scattered through the book, and we can use them in a general way for purposes of illustration. Mr. Shaw is a Socialist. In his view the extreme of collectivist Statism is a cure for all ills, like the old grandmother's pennyroyal. In politics it will abolish the party system, simplify procedures, and ensure the keeping of good and capable men in office. Mr. Shaw's State will establish equality of income, provide the right kind of education for children, settle the land-question, control production and distribution, keep everybody at work, and so forth and so on; and all in the public interest. Mr. Shaw unsparingly diagnoses the various ills to which the body politic is heir; his diagnosis is complete and correct; and for each and every ill he prescribes the one remedy — State action.

Now, one may be glad to admit that if Socialism will do everything that Mr. Shaw thinks it can do and will do; he is right from beginning to end, and collectivist Statism is just the thing. It looks like a very simple matter. All we have to do is to set up the right kind of government, manned by the right kind of people, and there you are. But there are a few little difficulties that must be dealt with before we can do that; and curiously no on understands those difficulties better than Mr. Shaw. He sees, for instance, that the conceptions of Socialism prevailing at present are incompetent, which is true; therefore we must oust them and re-educate ourselves to better ideas of what Socialism really means. The milk of the Word, in short, must be put through a strainer; and although Mr. Shaw takes this rather lightly, it looks like the devil of a hard job. Another job that will take a lot of doing is finding enough of the right kind of people to run the Socialist machine, putting them all in their places, and keeping them there — keeping them from being edged out by pressure of the unfit. Mr. Shaw seems to think that when we are all re-educated to an understanding of true Socialism this problem will more or less settle itself. Possibly so; but meanwhile things are beginning to look as if there would not be much human material left capable of re-education, or that would have any interest whatever in being re-educated in Socialism or indeed in anything.

In 1797, ten years after our Constitution was drafted, Chief Justice Jay said in a letter to a friend that every political theory which does not regard mankind as being what they are (the italics are his) will prove abortive. Just this is the root-trouble with Mr. Shaw's theory and with all other forms of collectivist Statism; they do not regard mankind as being what they are. The first sentence in Mr. Shaw's book is a warning to his readers that if they believe human nature is incurably depraved they should read no further. But this is quite beside the point. Total depravity would certainly invalidate Mr. Shaw's theory — no doubt of that — but only a most monstrous and preposterous extravagance would imply that the wrecking of Socialist theory betokens total depravity or anything like it. In fact, Mr. Shaw devotes a good deal of space to showing that those who follow courses of conduct inimical to Socialist theory and who we know would follow like courses under any conceivable conditions, are not depraved persons; on the contrary, measured by any standard except those of collectivist practice, they are good, decent, conscientious persons, worthy of all respect. Even after Mr. Shaw has put his theory through a refiner's fire, it still dissolves at the touch of a fundamental law of human conduct which Mr. Shaw leaves out of account as completely as if he had never heard of it. Economists have sometimes (rather inaptly, as I think) called it the Law of Parsimony[1]; and its formula is: Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion.

This being so, then obviously the easiest way of satisfying one's needs and desires is by exploitation; and hence the tendency towards exploitation is a natural one for man in common with the rest of the animal world. As one of my friends puts it, if self-preservation is the first law of nature, exploitation is the second. In practice, as we all know, both these laws admit of occasional exceptions, but the tendency is universal and invariable. That man does always satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion is not a natural law; but that he always tends to do so is a natural law; and by consequence the same is true of the tendency to exploitation. Moreover, as a matter of common experience we find that man, both collectively and individually, does resort to exploitation with almost unfailing regularity whenever the means are available.

The one incomparably powerful means of exploitation is the State. It is also the safest means, because it is irresponsible. It is exempt from all the basic sanctions of ordinary morality. It is free to murder, cheat, lie, steal, and persecute at its own good pleasure and without fear of reprisals. Socialists who say that the smooth and honest administration of great private concerns like General Motors shows that the collectivist State can be smoothly and honestly administered, forget the determining factor of irresponsibility. A top executive of the Steel Corporation who in his official capacity is a proven liar, spendthrift, cheat, and swindler, would not last overnight; any top executive of the State can last indefinitely under those conditions. Moreover, officials of the Steel Corporation, from top to bottom, have to show some kind of competence; officials of the State do not. How many ranking officials are there in the bureaucracy at Washington today whose judgment you would trust in a commercial transaction involving thirty-five dollars? Would it be Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Ickes, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Wallace, for example? I doubt it.

What therefore happens is this: A law of nature, mighty and august, keeps continually herding into the State's service a stream of incompetent and inferior persons. Some desire power; some, prestige; some, a livelihood gained by an easier and more unexacting means than they could otherwise command. These, in the natural desire to expand their own importance, keep the ways open for others who are like them to swarm in. Their irresponsibility brings on a regime of prodigality, waste, inefficiency and corruption; the Law of Parsimony puts a high premium on these vices; and thus the whole civil system progressively rots down.

There is no evidence here, however, that mankind are incurably depraved. Probably the proportion of incurable depravity is no greater among our jobholders and jobseekers than it is elsewhere. The evidence is only that jobholders and jobseekers are alike subject to a law which nature, perhaps unfortunately, has made universal. Like all the rest of us, they tend always to satisfy their needs and desires with the least possible exertion. Hence in order to make his improved and titivated Socialism practicable, it looks as if Mr. Shaw would have to devise some way whereby we can get around this law, climb over it, or tunnel under it; and this is no easy matter. Mr. Shaw sees that Socialism would multiply indefinitely the avenues leading to exploitation. He states the fact in the first words of his searching chapter on State Corruption, and faces it manfully; but all he has to propose for dealing with it is more and better Socialism, or in our vulgar parlance, "the hair of the dog that bit you."


Mr. Shaw's criticism is at all points so sound, so penetrating and convincing, that at the end of it one might be pardoned for suspecting that any hope of a stable civil system on a national scale is illusory. Perhaps mankind are going beyond their powers in projecting any such thing, like the projectors of the tower of Babel. Perhaps their collective mental and moral capacities won't stretch to anything over village-size or township-size, and nationalism will always be the monumental failure that it has ever been and now is. If one keeps the so-called Law of Parsimony in mind, one sees how a highly plausible case may be made out for this view; and the evidence of history alone is weighty enough to force the admission that it may be so.

Mr. Shaw, moreover, has the excellent merit which virtually none of our anti-collectivist writers has — the more shame for them! — of being a whole-hogger. He does not make the slightest concession to anybody. With him it is either clean-strain, eighteen-carat collectivist Statism, by God, or nothing. One wishes our anti-Statist writers had that much intrepid faith in their principles and as clear knowledge of what their principles are; the only exceptions I have so far heard of are Mrs. [Isabel] Paterson and Mrs. [Rose Wilder] Lane. What completely vitiates Mr. Hayek's work, Mr. Eric Johnston's, and a whole shoal of others, is that they concede a small and strictly limited measure of State intervention — a sort of five-percent Statism. Apparently, like Mr. Shaw, these writers never heard of the Law of Parsimony, and have no idea of what it can do. If they had even considered the history of this country's twenty-five years' experience under the Income Tax Amendment, they would begin to see the reason why their notion is as absurd as the notion of a small and strictly limited implantation of tuberculosis, syphilis, or cancer. There is no such shuffling nonsense about Mr. Shaw's work, and the sooner anti-Statist writers take example by him, the better.


[1] I say "inaptly" because the application of this name is rather fanciful and inexact, but chiefly because the name has long been preempted for another formula devised seven hundred years ago by William of Ockham.


Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock (October 13, 1870–August 19, 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle twentieth century. Murray Rothbard was deeply influenced by him, and so was the whole generation of free market thinkers of the 1950s.