Nock on Shaw’s Socialism

-By Thomas Brewton

Celebrated libertarian analyst Albert Jay Nock’s 1945 review of George Bernard Shaw’s Everybody’s Political What’s What exposes the fundamental flaw in socialism and its American liberal-progressive doctrine. As we begin a new Congress dominated by liberal-socialist-progressives, it is useful to have Mr. Nock’s perspective.

The website posting titled The Socialism of Mr. Shaw is a reminder to us elderly, and a notice to the young, that however delightful Shaw was as a playwright, he was very far out in left field with regard to politics and economics. Not surprisingly, just as is true today of the media and theatre today, Shaw’s plays project pro-socialist views.

Most people today who know of Shaw at all probably acquired that acquaintance indirectly via the hugely successful Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which was an adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion. To appreciate Shaw’s role outside the literary field, it’s necessary to understand a bit more about the late Victorian period in England and its impact upon political and economic doctrine in the United States.

Shaw was a founder in 1883, along with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, of the Fabian Society, which aimed at replacing the British constitution with the planned and top-to-bottom-managed economy of socialism. The essential difference between the Fabians and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who had written the notorious Communist Manifesto in England forty years earlier, was the Fabians’ tactic of gradualist rather than revolutionary implementation of socialism.

Fabian gradualism was the model emulated in the United States during the same period under the banners variously of Populism in the 1890s, Progressivism from the 1890s into the 1920s, and liberalism in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Among its earliest exemplars was Teddy Roosevelt, an 1880 graduate of Harvard, which was in the process of abandoning its historic mission of training Christian ministers and turning wholly toward the atheistic materialism that now dominates all of the Ivy League and most other colleges and universities today.

Teddy’s young cousin Franklin Roosevelt, graduating from Harvard in 1904, got a full-throttle indoctrination in the materialistic conceptions of socialism.

Graham Wallas, one of the early Fabians, taught at Harvard, where his star pupil was 1909 graduate Walter Lippmann, president of the Harvard Socialist Club and later co-founder with Herbert Croly of The New Republic, one of the most influential liberal publications before World War II. Mr. Lippman in later years, observing the wreckage of socialism in practice, became an adherent of our original constitutionalism.

Shaw and his Fabian associates organized what became the British Labour Party, which after World War II effected a wholesale imposition of socialism in the UK. As Mr. Nock observes in his book review (see the quotations below), socialism and American liberalism have fatal flaws that led inevitably to near economic collapses, both in the UK and in the United States, from which we were rescued by the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Excerpts from The Socialism of Mr. Shaw
by Albert Jay Nock

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.

……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 that 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; 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.

……..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.”

In contrast to George Bernard Shaw, the delegates who wrote our Constitution in 1787 had a clear-eyed view of human nature.

Urging ratification of the Constitution, James Madison wrote, in Federalist No. 51,

Were the executive magistrate, or the judges, not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other would be merely nominal. But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.

The fundamental, and by now almost permanent, damage to constitutionalism in the United States was the New Deal’s collectivization of power in Washington, at the expense of state and local governments, that eliminated the most important of Madison’s “auxiliary precautions” against concentration of power. Since the New Deal, the Bill of Rights has become. In effect, a discretionary document to be set aside whenever state-planners find it conflicting with individual rights such as private property, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms.

Copyright Publius Forum 2001