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Next: Another terrific essay by this neglected, forgotten and out-of-print author.
New Statesman – June 21, 1919
IN order to realise how good a writer Mr. Shaw is, we have only to compare his work with that of other writers who by common consent have excelled in the same branches of literature. As a novelist he may come off badly from such a comparison, but even his queasiest critics will hardly be able to put him far down in the class as a comic dramatist and a pamphleteer. How many prose plays have been written in English so rich in wit and even in character-drawing as Man and Superman and John Bull’s Other Island? One could count them on one’s fingers without troubling about the thumbs. As for his pamphlets, can one find in the long stretch of English literature many that can be put on a level with Commonsense and the War and his recently-published Peace Conference Hints? He does not, it is clear, challenge comparison with the two supreme pamphlet-writers who have used the English language, Milton and Burke. Milton and Burke spoke from the thundercloud in their pamphlets. Milton was a great poet, even when he wrote in prose, and Burke was the writer of an exalted rhetoric which, though not poetic, had in it some quality akin to that of poetry. The Areopagitica is, I suppose, the most inspired pamphlet in the English tongue. Burke’sThoughts on the Cause of tlie Present Discontents and his Reflections on the Revolution in France are the only others that approach it in majesty of conception and phrase. It is just possible that one ought also to include Carlyle and Ruskin among the pamphleteers, both of them with more of the poet in them than Burke and equally great, perhaps, as rhetoricians. One thinks of them, however, as preachers rather than pamphleteers, as prophets rather than as controversialists. Like Milton and Burke, they, too, spoke out of the thundercloud, but they were not, as Milton and Burke were, good party men speaking out of a thundercloud. The true pamphleteer has something of the party man about him. Mr. Shaw, for all his readiness to accept the position and the solitude of an enemy of the people, certainly has.
If we are to discover his predecessors in the evolution—or descent, or whatever you call it—of the pamphlet, we must turn aside from the poets and the rhetoricians to the writers of plain prose. If we do this, shall we be able to name even a dozen pamphlets more than a generation old that the general reader—or, for that matter, the educated reader—troubles to find room for on his shelves? There are, of course, numerous pamphlets that are in a great many libraries by accident. If you possess a collected edition of Dr. Johnson, you will have Taxation No Tyranny. If you possess a collected Addison, you will have The Present State of the War. But you do not read Taxation No Tyranny for its own sake, and you would not read The Present State of the War even for Addison’s sake. Probably, the earliest pamphlets written in workaday prose that would be widely read for their own sake if issued in a popular series are Defoe’s Shortest Way with Dissenters, and Swift’s Drapier’s Letters. Swift’s Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or the Country, and for Making litem Beneficial to the Public is, perhaps, read even more frequently than the Drapier’s Letters, and, if we count The Battle of the Books as a pamphlet, that is read oftener still. The rest of his many pamphlets, however, are read only by students of history. Even his great stop-the-war pamphlet,The Conduct of the Allies, can hardly be said to have an independent existence as literature. Still, to have written three immortal pamphlets must be almost a record. I can think of no second writer in English who can boast of so many. Among the multitude of other eighteenth-century pamphlets, few have survived except for purposes of reference. Bolingbroke’s The Patriot King is memorable as a work that influenced George III. by its matter and Burke by its style. The Letters of Junius, again, which is only a big pamphlet, can still entertain us with its vivid accusations and its libellous character-studies. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man has not yet ceased to have a place in the literature of liberty, and even The Age of Reason can be read with pleasure at certain stages of religious doubt. Godwin’s Political Justice and Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women are the only other considerable pamphlets of the century. It is difficult to recall any other readable pamphlets earlier than the nineteenth century, unless we include various dissertations and controversies on literary subjects. Perhaps Dryden and Jeremy Collier and Young have as much claim to be reckoned among pamphleteers as the Swift of The Battle of the Books. In tracing Mr. Shaw’s literary genealogy, however, it is better that we should restrict the name of pamphleteer to controversialists on public affairs.
It may be admitted at once that one’s selection of pamphlets is somewhat arbitrary. It would be possible, I suppose, to make out a case for calling Locke a pamphleteer. It would be possible even, despite the length of his too notorious book, to describe Malthus as one. But one has to draw the line somewhere. One thinks of a pamphlet chiefly as a fairly small book addressed to a popular audience on what is called a burning question. We may reasonably give the name of pamphlet to Sydney Smith’s Peter Plymley’s Letters, even though like The Letters of Junius it is so long that one has to stretch one’s definition. And, indeed, if we cannot include Peter Plymley, we shall be hard put to it to discover a humorous masterpiece among the pamphlets of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth’s Convention of Cintra is a nobly-written pamphlet, but it is as free from humour as it is from poetry. For the rest, the nineteenth century was curiously barren of great pamphlets, save on theological subjects. Who now reads Wilberforcc on the slaves or Gladstone on the Vatican? How many permanent additions to literature were made by the pamphleteers on the Corn Laws, Chartism, the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, Ireland, the Franco-Prussian War, Turkey, women, the plight of the native races? Mill’s writings on Ireland and on women have lived, and Carlyle—yes, one has to include Carlyle after all—wrote on Chartism. John Mitchel again wrote a fire-hot pamphlet rather than a history in The Last Conquest of Ireland—Perhaps. But, on the whole, the nineteenth-century pamphlet Was divorced from literature. Matthew Arnold was almost a pamphleteer, but he was a pamphleteer above the battle. Many men of letters during the century wrote instead of pamphlets novels with a purpose. There was no pamphlet written in the last quarter of a century comparable in importance to The Fabian Essays. And that brings us back to Mr. Shaw.
The body of great pamphleteers, we have seen, is not a large one. What is Mr. Shaw’s place in it? Clearly, we must look for it in the circle of men of wit and humour. If this is so, what rivals has he to face except Swift and Sydney Smith? Perhaps we should include Defoe on account of his one great jest, Junius for the sake of the witty lash of his horsewhip, and even Tom Paine for certain rude provocations to laughter. On the whole, however, it is wiser to put Swift and Sydney Smith and Mr. Shaw in a class by themselves as pamphleteers in whom the comic sense has been made the servant of justice. Mr. Shaw’s genius is sufficiently different from Swift’s. He is jovial where Swift was saturnine. He is personal where Swift was secretive. He states a fact in a way that makes it appear to be an exaggeration where Swift stated an exaggeration in a way that made it appear to be a fact. Both of them, being artists, however, have been ludicrously misunderstood when they have turned to politics. Their politics have been dismissed as perversity, this being the simplest method of getting rid of their unpleasant truths. Swift was supposed to be perverse from wounded vanity; Mr. Shaw is supposed to be perverse from vanity that it seems impossible to wound. Both of them, it must be admitted, have laid themselves open to attack by harnessing some of their truest political generalisations to fallacious instances. Swift wrote The Drapier’s Letters as a protest against the introduction of Wood’s halfpence into Ireland. Economists, I believe, are now almost unanimous in asserting that Wood’s halfpence could not have done Ireland any harm; this, however, though it enables the partisan to score against Swift, does not in the slightest degree invalidate what Swift had to say about the principles of freedom. Similarly, in Peace Conference Hints, Mr. Shaw may be challengeable on a score of points—Viscount Grey’s responsibility for the war, German atrocities and federalism—but on his main theme, the causes that must inevitably lead to war, he says a far greater number of things that are profoundly and permanently true. In his attitude to the question of German guilt and German atrocities he seems to me to have been misled by his temperament. He has such an uncompromising passion for equality that he believes in it not only in regard to incomes but in regard to atrocities. If we put it to the test of historical fact, the theory of equality of atrocities simply will not work. Even supposing the Allies had wished to commit them—and there is no reason to suppose this in spite of the later degradation of Allied statesmanship—they had not the opportunity. They represented the invaded, not the invader, in the most important fields of the war, and it is invasions that lead to the worst atrocities. Mr. Shaw seems to me to have been misled once again, whether by his temperament or his doctrine, in his unrestricted praise of federalism. In the name of federal republicanism, he is apparently as much opposed to the break-up of the Austrian as of the German Empires “What is good for the German goose,” he writes, “is good for the Austrian gander.” But surely the point to remember is that the German goose is a recognisable bird with a heart and head and legs and a tail, all mutually dependent and among them forming a real organism. The Austrian gander was not a bird at all: it was a freak. It had a gander’s head, a calf’s neck, a lion’s body and a mermaid’s tail. Nature cries out against such a beast. It can survive only in a fairy-tale. I shall be surprised if Irish Separatists do not discover a similar logical flaw in Mr. Shaw’s plea for Anglo-Irish Federalism. The Separatist Irish, he says, cannot expect sympathy from the United States, “which in the Civil War of 1861 committed themselves to the principle of Unionism at all costs.” America, in point of fact, committed itself to the principle of Unionism only as regards unitary nations. They did not deny the right of a nation, but of a part of a nation, to secede. It is amusing to reflect that the example of America, which is so often used in this country against Irish secessionists, is as freely made use of in Ireland against the Ulster secessionists.
One might go on in this way for a considerable time treading on the tail of Mr. Shaw’s coat, as his methods of controversy invite one to do. But in doing so one might easily miss the significant part of his argument. If he believes that all nations are equally guilty of the crime of the war, it is not for shallow and negligible reasons. It is because he wants at all costs to drive it home to us that all the nations are equally responsible for the institution of war. He realises—as many people fail to realise—that, whether Germany had or had not torn up scraps of paper, violated neutrality, invaded small nations, and adopted a philosophy of atrocities, some such war as we have just come through was inevitable in the absence of a League of Nations or a miracle. Wars took place before Germany was ever heard of. They will continue to take place “whilst war exists as an institution and nations compete with one another for power, prestige and places in the sun.” If Germany were wiped off the map, and these conditions remained, we should be no nearer the abolition of war than we were in July, 1914. Compared with this terrible and blindingly obvious fact, even the tale of German atrocities sinks into the position of an irrelevancy. There is little use in rescuing the world from the atrocities of Germany unless we can at the same time rescue it from the atrocity of War. Mr. Shaw is angry at people for concentrating their attention on the wickedness of Prussia because it gives them an excuse for forgetting the wickedness of the world. In this he is in the tradition of the great moralists. Someone has said that Prussia is not only a place on the map: it is a state of the human soul. No one who accepts this point of view will quarrel with the main argument in Mr. Shaw’s new pamphlet. We may say that it is a mere platitude, and that no one questions it. Mr. Shaw, however, sees that platitudes are of no use unless we make them work for us. The wisest sayings are for the most part platitudes with a soul of energy. It is because in Peace Conference Hints he puts a soul of energy into things that most of us sleepily know to be true that this pamphlet should be read by everybody who believes the League of Nations to be more than a bore’s dream.
For Mr. Shaw hammers into his readers the fact that a real League of Nations will come not as a result of lazy assent but of vigorous and organised resistance to the forces of evil. As he says:
The earth is full of amiable people who believe that moral steam unlike physical steam, is independent of engines and organisation It is, of course, nothing of the sort. The reason that lust for money and power prevail as they do against the nobler sentiments is simply that the people who want more money and more power have organised armaments to coerce those who desire to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, and have also organised the Press and the public schools to persuade the masses that the pursuit of more money and more power is virtuous, heroic, and patriotic. This they do with the enormous advantage of being single-minded in the knowledge of what they want and the determination to get it at all costs (though, having got it, they become at once the most charming people imaginable). They are single-minded not only as to ends, but to means, the means being always the presentation to their opponents of the clear and universally intelligible alternative “Submit or be killed.” In the meantime, the idealists are single-minded neither as to ends nor means, being a motley crew “with a hundred religions and only one sauce,” carrying individualism to such a degree that each of them confronts the enemy in a minority, though if they combined they would be in a majority of at least four to one. The single-minded “divide and govern,” because they have a common religion and a common philosophy of life. The religion may be the worship of Mammon, and the philosophy that of a pirate ; but they are all effectively agreed oh it, and will cut throats for its sake; and so they will triumph until their opponents learn the lesson and find unity in a common religion and philosophy of their own.
Such a passage as this gives us a clue to the temper in which Mr. Shaw has written his pamphlet. He is tired of people who strike wide and fatuous blows for the League of Nations. He is anxious to strike a blow with force in it—a blow, too, aimed at a vital spot in the enemy. He has done this in a pamphlet which, if at times it seems to deal with superficial events superficially, more than makes up for this by dealing with the essential things with profound and immortal common sense.