The banishing of venerated figures from universities is a relentless exercise in correcting past faults by the standards of the present. Busts or portraits are removed, lecture halls are renamed, and classic works are deleted from the curriculum. University College London has launched an independent enquiry on whether it should continue to honour polymath Sir Francis Galton. The retrospective offence of Galton was to have founded the science (or what some dismiss as pseudoscience) of eugenics. But as shown by the unveiling of a commemorative window at London School of Economics by prime minister Tony Blair, some eugenicists are immune to the book-burning zeal.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, moving to London aged 20. Struggling to make ends meet, in 1884 he joined the Fabian Society, and deployed his wit as an open-air speaker. By the 1920s he was simultaneously a popular playwright and a fervent activist in the cause of socialism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, although the Pears’ Cyclopaedia of the following year described his plays as ‘tantalising brilliant and effective in parts, but just as tantalisingly inefficient as dramatic entireties’. Among his widely-read political works was The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, which made Marxism accessible to millions. But for all his literary talent, Shaw was a ‘useful idiot’ for the Soviet regime.
It is well known that the British Left was mesmerised by the Russian communist venture, but historians have too readily excused this as naïve idealism. The likes of George Lansbury and Jimmy Maxton lauded not only the purportedly egalitarian system, but also the ruthless eradication of ‘counter-revolutionaries’. The end justified the means: Stalin was building a socialist Utopia, and totalitarian methods were necessary. In his startling tome Labour and the Gulag, Giles Udy delves into the dark depths of pro-Soviet apologia in the interwar years. Specifically, Udy reveals how the Labour government fed the Russian timber trade, despite clear evidence of mass convict labour and unconscionable conditions in the camps of the frozen north. While other countries rejected the fruits of forced lumbering, convoys of British vessels arrived at Archangel every day. Effectively, Stalin’s economy was built on slave labour with a sure buyer in Westminster.
Priming this immoral trade, the Soviet Union had plenty of enthusiasts in British academe, not least at the London School of Economics, which had opened in 1921. The most prominent founder was Shaw, a keen propagandist for the Soviet Union who urged a Bolshevik-style revolution in Britain. As Udy noted, ‘little-known or mentioned today’, Shaw ‘had a brutal and cruel streak to which the written record abundantly attests’. Stalin, he believed, was following an uncompromising Fabian approach to communism. Defending the execution of political criminals, Shaw remarked: ‘a well-kept garden must be weeded’.
In 1931 Shaw visited Moscow, where he was fêted and all his preconceptions confirmed. Here was the future for mankind: rationally planned, and unsentimental. While he accused the British media of exaggerating persecution, Shaw was not averse to this in principle. The workshy deserved to be sent to the gulag, where their labour would be exploited and exhausted. For a conservative thinker or politician to have used the term ‘social parasites’ would never be forgiven or forgotten, but Shaw is strangely excused. When the show trials began in Moscow in 1937, Western sympathies were severely tested: here were pioneers and principal figures of the Soviet Union admitting guilt for incredible crimes, surely under duress. Shaw, however, held the line: ‘On the top of the ladder is a very trying place for old revolutionists who have had no administrative experience…They often have to be pushed off the ladder, with a rope around their neck’.
Heinous crimes against humanity were acceptable to Shaw, who dismissed the sanctity of life. Indeed, a major appeal of communism was its godlessness and hostility to Judaeo-Christian mores. Like Richard Dawkins today, Shaw was a militant atheist, who wanted children of religious parents removed to orphanages. Back in 1910, he considered how society could dispose of large numbers of undesirable people in the most efficient way: ‘I appeal to the chemists to discover a human gas that will instantly and painlessly’. As well as the mentally and physically handicapped, this ‘lethal chamber’ would have use in exterminating antisocial elements, including political opponents. While Shaw was not directly responsible for Zyklon-B and the Holocaust, he offered intellectual credibility to the extremes of ideologically-motivated eugenics.
How can a man of such abhorrent misanthropy be celebrated? It certainly seems hypocritical that Shaw has a free pass while Galton is demonised. As a socialist, Shaw benefits from the Manichean law: he was on the side of good, and must have meant well. Tony Blair, in his address at the LSE commemoration, said; ‘A lot of the values that the Fabians and George Bernard Shaw stood for would be very recognisable, at least I hope they would, in today’s Labour Party’. There is a tendency to characterise eugenics as ‘right-wing’, but calls for sterilisation and euthanasia mostly came from the same political and intellectual sources of support for the Soviet experiment.
This is not merely a debate around historical revisionism. Cambridge University recently dismissed talented scholar Noah Carl, following a campaign by ideologically-charged staff and students. Carl’s offence was to have conducted research on intelligence and heredity, and he has been accused of Nazi eugenics despite never studying or speculating on racial factors in intelligence. Real lives are being destroyed by a puritanical (and anti-scientific) witch hunt. In the future, today’s heroes might be targeted, but instead of a purified Year Zero, let their record be scrutinised. LSE can keep its window for Shaw, and UCL should spare Galton from a show trial.
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