Sometime during the evening of a long day late in the summer of 1923, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), renowned wit and agent provocateur for Fabian socialism, had almost finished entertaining himself and other members of a party assembled at a house in Chelsea. Having been there for about an hour, Shaw was preparing to take his leave when the arrival of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was announced.
Whether Chesterton was expected is a question probably no one (least of all Chesterton) was prepared to answer. It made no difference. At the prospect of a clash between England’s most famous — or at least most popular — literary figures, the group gathered ’round like idlers in the street anticipating a cat and dog fight, as actor, director, and writer Edward Hesketh Gibbons Pearson (1887-1964), who was present, described it.
Pearson, realizing what he later called his “wildest dream” was about to be fulfilled, took out a notebook and pencil, and almost without thinking recorded the entire ten-minute conversation. From the first words out of Shaw’s mouth what followed was quintessential Chesterton and Shaw —
“Have you any adequate excuse to make us for not being drunk?” (Louis Biancolli, ed., The Book of Great Conversations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948, 501.)
Despite Shaw’s opening salvo and although the informal debate was published in the September 1923 issue of The Adelphi magazine of London (1923-1955) as “breaking a lance over the absorption of alcohol,” the talk really had nothing to do with imbibing intoxicants. That was just Shaw’s way of trying to throw Chesterton off-balance and seize the high ground to defend himself against an opponent who consistently frustrated him by refusing to attack.
|Fabius the Delayer|
A master of paradox in thought, word, and deed, Chesterton’s refusal to be drawn into any fight over questionable specifics when he knew himself to be armed only with irrefutable generalities deftly turned the tables on Shaw. The Fabian Society, of which Shaw was the principal spokesman, took its name from Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, “the Delayer,” a Roman general during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) who by avoiding battle nearly defeated the Carthaginian Hannibal Barca.
Consistent with their emblem of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the strategy of the Fabian Society is to duplicate the Delayer’s tactics, work slowly, and avoid open action until success is clearly within their grasp. Their stated goal is to infiltrate organizations and turn them socialist without (if possible) using the term socialism or letting people realize that what they have been led to accept and even champion is socialist.
That evening, however, it quickly became evident, whatever verbal lures he tossed out in his efforts to bring Chesterton to ground, Shaw was concerned with one thing. That was to force Chesterton either to accept socialism openly or admit that he had always done so secretly; that what Chesterton called “distributism” was simply a form of Fabian socialism. Why continue to deny reality when everyone who was anyone had already agreed that socialism is the wave of the future, and the only way civilization could go?
This was not because Shaw believed that socialism or anything else is true. No, it was because Shaw thought socialism is a practical means to achieve what he believed both men desired: the material uplift of society, with special emphasis on the betterment of the poor.
In Shaw’s opinion, distributism was much too vague and romantic to compete with socialism. A policy of widely distributed private property was simply inadequate to meet the needs of a modern economy, especially when one added in the preference for small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses.
Of course, part of Shaw’s difficulty might have been that he did not understand property, of which there are two essential aspects. There is the right to be an owner inherent in human nature itself and that in part defines what it means to be human, the right to property. This necessarily includes the power to control what is owned and to “enjoy the fruits” (use or usufruct), e.g., the right to use one’s things (capital) to produce marketable goods and services and receive the income generated. This right is absolute and inalienable.
Then there are the rights of ownership, the rights of property. These are necessarily limited, being socially defined and delineating specifically how an owner may use what is owned and even in some circumstances what may be owned. In general, no one may exercise ownership in any way that harms the owner, other people or groups, or the common good as a whole.
Added to Shaw’s urgency that evening was something he seemed to take as a personal insult: Chesterton’s recent conversion to Catholicism. This was intolerable — to Shaw — as the Catholic Church was the only institution of which either Shaw or Chesterton were aware that was managing to hold out against both capitalism and socialism and stand up for reason and common sense in the world.
Not receiving an answer that satisfied him, i.e., something that he could twist into an admission of guilt from which to launch an attack to promote socialism, Shaw repeated his demand:
“You will please tell us why you are sober.” (Ibid.)
Using alcohol as a metaphor that the nondrinking Shaw failed to grasp, Chesterton replied that it was impossible for him to answer Shaw’s question. Shaw the disciplined and abstemious teetotaler had no common ground with Chesterton the self-indulgent and dissipated toper.
In Chesterton’s opinion, Shaw was locked into a deep-worn rut of atheism, vegetarianism, abstinence, and socialism, what Chesterton, to Shaw’s irritation, insisted on calling Puritan prudery. As a result, Shaw — according to Chesterton — was “constitutionally incapable of understanding the Catholic standpoint” (ibid., 504), which was, so Chesterton declared, his own standpoint.
|Last official debate.|
To Shaw, Catholicism was narrow and bigoted because it refused to admit socialism not merely as a viable alternative, but as the only possible way to meet people’s material needs. To Chesterton, it was Shaw and the socialists who were narrow and bigoted because they could see nothing beyond socialism.
Failing in his initial attempt to get under Chesterton’s skin, Shaw launched into a disjointed speech. He hurled one increasingly ridiculous accusation after another in Chesterton’s face in an effort to goad him into responding with something specific that he could attack. Thwarted, Shaw finally took refuge in the most ludicrous charge of all, that Chesterton was a liar and a fraud —
I asked you just now why you weren’t drunk. The reason I did this was because in all your writings you glorify inebriation to such an extent that anyone who doesn’t know you must assume that you spend the whole of your time in staggering from pub to pub and scribbling your books and articles against the various lamp-posts en route. I, of course, know it’s all bunkum. I know that everything you say is bunkum, though a fair amount of it is inspired bunkum. I realize that the only reason you ever go near a pub is to placate your own admirers, who may have come from Kamchatka in order to see you and who would be scandalized almost to the point of suicide if you didn’t stand up and soak your quart like a man. (Ibid., 503.)
At this point Chesterton may have smiled infuriatingly at Shaw, for he realized he had won the debate — or, rather, that Shaw had lost it. Chesterton knew the utter futility of trying to argue with someone who either disagrees on basic principles or simply rejects absolutes altogether.
That, however, was not the end of the matter, as we will see in the next posting on this subject . . .