George Bernard Shaw
and the Fabian Society

By Kristina Raevska


George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26th, 1856. His family was of low middle-class, Scottish Protestant ancestry. His father, George Carr Shaw, was a failed corn-merchant with a drinking problem; his mother was a professional singer, whose teacher, Vandeleur Lee claimed to have a unique approach to singing.[1]

Due to his dislike of organized training, his education was very irregular. Shaw went to several schools in Dublin, including the Wesleyan Connexional School, but he himself claims he learned a little and was largely self -educated. After working in an estate agent’s office for a while (1876), he left for London. He joined his mother, who had left his father a few years earlier, on his 16th birthday. There he lived off his mother’s support, while pursuing a career in journalism and writing.1 He managed to establish himself as a leading music and theatre critic, and also as a very prominent orator with an energetic and aggressive speaking style.[2]


These characteristics were more than welcome when he joined the Fabian Society in 1884 as one of its first members. Shaw was a freethinker, a supporter of women’s rights and an advocate of income equality. He vividly fought for abolition of private property, which can be seen in his essay “Economic”, part of the famous Fabian Essays (1889), of which he was also an editor. Shaw’s pragmatic approach to politics and his welfare views along with his talents made a very distinct contribution to the society.[3]

He became famous as a socialist agitator, speaking publicly all over London, on political and social questions. [4


 The Society was a socialist political organization, dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state. The difference from other organizations of the sort was that they were to do it not through revolution, as Marx advised, but by systematic, progressive legislation, enhanced by persuasion and mass education. The Fabian Society later went on to serve as an instrument in the founding of the London School of economics and the Labor Party. The society was considered a “strand of latter-day utopian socialism”[5]. Middle-class Fabians were more directly involved with politics and political gains, rather than with Marx’s idealistic revolutionary ideology, through contacts not only with the “International Labor Party”, but also with trade unions, cooperative movements and the entire British political apparatus as a whole. This particular ideology fit perfectly into Shaw’s believes, who, even though he had a lot of admiration for Das Kapital, still recognized the flaws with Marx’s economic ideas. He did not quite accept the economic principles set forth in the book and realized that they would have little impact on the working class. It was the middle and upper classes that are the revolutionary element of society, not the proletariat. He favored gradualism over revolution and in a pamphlet he wrote in 1897 he predicted that: “ socialism will come by prosaic installments of public regulation and public administration”, enacted by ordinary governments.[6]


 At the core of the Fabian believes laid the Ricardian Theory of rent, which they applied to capital, land and labor. It was their belief that it is the state’s responsibility to acquire this rent, which explains their later admiration with the Soviet Union and particularly with Stalin’s efficiency in acquiring this rent. The way to get to that state of economic development according to them was through influencing the public in that direction. This was to be accomplished not through mass organization, but by educating the selected few that actually have the political power to make a substantial difference. From there on the reforms will spread on to the rest of society. The society started releasing essays, written by famous and prominent figures, including G.B. Shaw and attracted a lot of literary and speech talents, thus ensuring influence among British intellectuals and eventually government officials. The Fabians believed that capitalism had created an unjust and inefficient society of property owners. They aimed for democratic socialism. They sought to achieve reform through education, lecturing and discussions, initiated by political professionals. This was essentially Sidney Webb’s theory, which later was adopted by Shaw as well; he argued in favor of equality of income and equitable division of land and capital.[7]


Bernard’s ideas can be seen in many of his plays, several of which highly political. These included Man and Superman (1902), John Bull’s Other Island (1904) and Major Barbara (1905). These plays dealt with issues such as women’s rights and poverty and implied that socialism could help solve capitalist problems. His main literary contribution to the Fabian Society, though were his pamphlets and his essays, part of the Fabian Essays. The Irish author, as much as he agreed with Marxist basic principles, repudiated the ideas in terms of economic substance and adopted Ricardian law of rent as a corner stone for the Fabian economic principles. Ricardo had demonstrated that the wealth of landlord was due to their monopoly of the soil and from the differences in the productive value of different pieces of land and that of the least productive piece in cultivation or use. He extended this theory to apply not only to land but also to capital and labor. Large incomes were considered to be chiefly rents arising from the possession of differential monopolies and maintained that these rents belonged to the community as a whole, not solely to the monopolist. Therefore the economic problem was the distribution of those incomes to the society and the most logical way seemed through social ownership of the monopolies. According to Shaw it was the purchaser, not the capitalist, who is ultimately robbing the surplus value from labor. He also defied Marxian theory of value, on which he based one of his works: Jevonian Criticism of Marx, 1985. The Society saw the source and measure of value not as Marx did- in labor, but, following Jevons, in utility, which fit perfectly with their utilitarian tone. Shaw even called himself “ a raving Jevonian”. [8]


Shaw expressed his main economic ideas in his essay “ Economic”, which was part of the original Fabian Essays, published in 1889 and considered the main doctrine of the society. In that piece he explains in detail the theory of rent and its consequences. He also offered reasons for the existence of proletariat, in particular the unavailability of any more land or of ways to improve production, which leaves the newcomers with only their labor to fall back on. In defining capitalism, Shaw borrows a little from Marxist ideology, namely the alienation of the worker process, but he elaborates it as alienation not only from the production process, but from society as well. If we have to generalize, we can say that the essay’s purpose is to prove that private property, even from the very start, was the basis for all inequality occurring among the people. Shaw explains how Socialism is trying to fight the abovementioned inequality, in particularly the abolishment of private property and a demonstration that public ownership of the country’s land resources is a necessary condition for equal distribution of income. In his other essay, named “Transition”, the author tries to outline the path to Socialism, through education of the powerful, setting it up as a program to the present day social democrats. He advocates the establishment of income taxes as a way to re-distribute the wealth equally. One more time he states that while the main approach of earlier Socialist supporter, the revolutionary one, has its flaws and has “proved to be impracticable”, the idea of equality, lying on the basis of socialism is still viable. Shaw claimed it to be “ the only finally possible alternative”.[9]

The author was one of the most active members of the Fabian Society. Aside from writing pamphlets and plays, and holding speeches, he took important part in the society’ organizational activities. He was one of the Fabian delegates that attended a conference in Bradford, which led to the formation of the Independent Labor Party. He produced reports for the Trade Union Congress three years later and he also served on the committee of the congress in attempt to mobilize the political power of the labor movement.6


During the 1930s Shaw grew more and more disenfranchised with the society. We can see that from his preface to the fifth edition of the Fabian Essays. The Fabians had reached some of their goals, namely affecting some major political players like the prime Minister of Britain in 1931. They had also established the platform of the labor Party, but soon after the party came to power it dropped its promises. Shaw’ views started to differ quite obviously from those of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. He thought that the school should be explicitly collectivist in teaching, while the couple concentrated on unbiased and objective studies of the truth.3 His support for the Boer War as a way to widen the effect of the school’s reforms over a multitude of smaller countries was not approved by most of the members of the society. By the end of the 30s the society had completely disintegrated and Shaw concentrated on his work as a playwright and journalist. His art will remain for generations to come and will probably influence many others. We have witnessed the collapse of his ideal system in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and transition from Socialism to market economy in the Eastern European countries. By all means the equality system had plenty of flaws and as we have seen is most definitely inapplicable. This fact by no means diminishes his passion and the efforts he made to convince others in his beliefs, though. Shaw will remain one of the greatest playwrights in our century and his works will always be admired, despite the fact that he won’t go down in history as changing the world to one of equality and happiness. While his ideas as part of the Fabian Society platform, were not seen implemented, the school served as a basis for such long lasting establishments as the London School of economics and the British Labor Party, which in a far- fetched way fulfills his dreams- to educate the people.


[9] Transition; G.B. Shaw; Fabian Essays; Garden City Press LTD.; London, 1889.




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