Mr. Shaw on Words

The Leader-Post – Nov 25, 1948

Mr. Shaw on Words

Mr. Shaw expressed a wish some time ago for an authoritative dictionary of political and quasi-political terms so that the meaning of such words as “Democracy,” “Communism,” “Socialism” and “Capitalism” might be established for all of us.

Such a dictionary can never exist outside dreamland. It is an unfortunate thing, but most of the superlatively important thing in life are incapable of exact definition.

We can all agree as to what the word “daddy-long-legs” means; but we do not find the same unanimity as to what “religion” or “beauty” or “poetry” means. There are students of Buddhism who tell us for example, that the word “religion” need not imply the existence of God.

The word “elephant” would convey the same meaning to all the members of a BBC Brains trust; but the definition of the word “freedom” or “democracy” would almost certainly lead to differences of opinion.

Whether Mr. Shaw himself would accept the authority of any dictionary of political terms is doubtful. A master of words, he enjoys showing his mastery by giving them whatever meaning he chooses. So at least I felt as I read his article in the “Daily Worker.”

* * *

He begins, for example, by attacking the people in this country who are opposed to Communism and tells them that modern civilization “would be utterly impossible were it not for the world-wide foundation of Communism without which we should all starve to death in a few weeks.”

Here the suggestion appears to be that international trade and mutual aid are essentially Communistic, and that dislike of the variety of Communism that flourishes in Russia ought logically to be followed by the demand for the abolition of international trade and aid.

I maintain, on the other hand that it is possible to believe both in international trade and Communism and yet to object vehemently to the spread of the Russian variety of Communism to European nations that do not want it.

The Russian state, as Mr. Strachey pointed out to Mr. Shaw some years ago, is not a Communist state at all in its present shape. The Russians themselves call it a Socialist state — a transitional phase on the way to Communism under which the state will wither away.

Mr. Shaw’s free and easy habit of using words is revealed again in such a remark as that “a Gestapo is nothing but our own C.I.D.” He should have told the Russian exiles of Kropotkin’s time the same good news about the police system of 50 years ago.

* * *

Then, in reply to the suggestion that in Russia he would be shot if he wrote against the government, he tells us with magnificent indifference to the meaning of the words that in Russia the papers are “full of grievances and complaints of the people against the government.”

This would convey to a simple-minded reader that the Russian papers, or some of them, are as full of attacks on Generalisimo Stalin and Mr. Molotov as English newspapers are of attacks on Mr. Attlee and Mr. Bevin. Can Mr. Shaw quote even one instance of an attack on either of the Russian leaders in a Russian paper?

* * *

It is interesting to note, by the way, that though Mr. Shaw has no fear of Russian Communism he is not quite so sure of Communism nearer home.

He warns his fellow-Marxists against “juvenile All or Nothing recruits who are the worst totalitarians believing as they do that if one service is communized, every service must be communized” and that “all incomes can be instantly equalized.”

Mr. Shaw obviously wants to make the road to Communism as uncatastrophic as possible. I, for one, strongly agree with him. That is why I prefer what the Russians don’t call democracy to Bolshevism.


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