The Worthy Adversaries: Benjamin R. Tucker & G. Bernard Shaw

by Shoshana Edwards

In 1882 Benjamin R. Tucker was waging his journalistic battle against hypocrisy, tyranny and the dangers of State Socialism. Liberty was over a year old, and Tucker had already begun to achieve a reputation as an earnest and learned defender of what was to become known as Individualist Anarchism. During this same year, George Bernard Shaw rose from the benches as a casual debater to the platform as an earnest propagandist for State Socialism.

While neither Tucker nor Shaw were aware of one another in 1882, eventually their politics and their shared conception of the value of the arts would bring them together in bitter debate and mutual admiration.

 

I.

The first appearance of G. Bernard Shaw in the American press was in Liberty, on April 11, 1885 (60, p. 7). Shaw had written "What's in a Name? (How an Anarchist might put it)" at the request of Charlotte Wilson, a fellow Fabian and editor of Freedom, a radical journal. The Anarchist, another English radical journal, printed the piece in its first issue. Tucker picked it up and reprinted it. Although Shaw was distressed at being thought an Anarchist and endlessly denied that the views were his own,1 Tucker asserted years later that "Bernard Shaw highly appreciates the fact that I was the first person to print his name in America (way back In 1885). He was hardly known fn England then."2

In May, 1885, Tucker reprinted "Proprietors and Their Slaves," a speech Shaw had delivered to the Fabian Society. While the speech managed to dissuade Tucker of any beliefs he might have held regarding Shaw's anarchism, it did establish a foundation for the debates in which the two engaged for the next twenty-three years.

The debates, which centered around the similarities and differences of Anarchism and State Socialism, were chronicled in the pages of Liberty, the Fabian Papers, the Fabian Tracts and Annie Besant's Our Corner. Tucker would reprint an article or speech by Shaw,3 complete with commentary and criticism, and Shaw would respond in the English journals. Two major political documents emerged as a result of these debates: Tucker's "State Socialism and Anarchism," published in 1888, and Shaw's "The Impossibilities of Anarchism," published as a Fabian Tract in 1893.

Although the articles were often acerbic and cutting, neither Tucker nor Shaw were interested in attacking each other personally. They were both propagandists. What they found in one another was the perfect foil for honing and perfecting the theories and logic of their arguments. Tucker, believing Shaw to be the finest spokesman of his day for State Socialism, wrote, "After the buffoonery of the 'Workmen's Advocate' and the superficiality of 'Der Sozialist,' it is pleasant to be criticised by a man of brains and wit (124, p. 1)." Tucker's response to other critics was seldom so cordial. Scathingly merciless against those who dared to disagree with him, he was known to some as "Tucker the Terrible." The Communist/Anarchist press referred to him as "The Pope." His response to Shaw's politics, therefore, was notable for its civility and moderation.

Because of their great personal respect for one another, each sought to convert the other through Logic and rhetoric. It was hopeless, since each was utterly dedicated to his cause. But they remained invaluable to each other. As Tucker said years later, "Since Anarchy cannot have Shaw for a champion, the next best thing for the cause is to have him as a conspicuous foe (365, p. 1)." And Shaw once observed, "An examination of any number of this Journal (Liberty) will show that as a candid, clear-headed and courageous demonstration of Individualist Anarchism by purely intellectual methods, Mr. Tucker may safely be accepted as one of the most capable spokesmen of his party."4

 

II.

A vocal supporter of Liberty, Shaw declared that it ". . . is a lively paper, in which the usual proportions of a half-penny worth of discussion to an intolerable deal of balderdash are reversed."5 He found Tucker to be the most courageous and truthful journalist of his time. Thus the relationship and mutual respect between Tucker and Shaw was not confined to politics. Shaw found Tucker to be a man with visionary acumen regarding the performing and literary arts. He was especially impressed with Tucker's view of advanced literature, which Tucker viewed as that ". . . which in religion and morals, leads away from superstition, which, in politics, leads away from government, and which, in art, leads away from tradition (391, p. 4)." Tucker consistently supported drama, literature, fine art and music which experimented with form and tradition and was often willing to excuse a lack of stylistic perfection or dramatic power if a work satisfied his dicta. Shaw's criticism and literary works reflected the same standards and the same tolerance toward experimental style.

Tucker readily recognized and valued this sharing of critical standards. When Walter Scott published Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891, Tucker wrote: "There is one State Socialist who was never known to say a dull word. I refer to G. Bernard Shaw, of London (257, p. 2)." He was greatly impressed with Quintessence, which Shaw described as "egoistic . . . an assertion of . . . the human will as against all laws, institutions, isms, and the like . . . ." Liberty asserted that "George Bernard Shaw understands Ibsenism better than Ibsen (212, p. 3)." Tucker took never ending delight in a State Socialist's propounding such thoroughly anarchistic ideas.

Shaw readily complied with Tucker's request to publish an American edition, and the book appeared in cloth and paper under Tucker's imprint in 1891. For eight years, it and Brentano's edition of Cashel Byron were the only Shaw reprints made in the
United States.6

This is not to say, however, that Shaw was otherwise unknown in America. The popular press printed reviews of all of his London openings. When, in 1894, Arms and the Man opened in London, Tucker reprinted two very laudatory reviews, one from the London correspondent for the New York Times and one from the London Public Opinion (290, p. 6). Consonant with Tucker's assertion that great literature must lead away from the traditional, the Times said of Shaw: ". . . like the great impressionist (Monet), he has that force of character which makes the thinking man who believes in green grass and blue sky pause and wonder if he has been wrong all his life." And in keeping with Tucker's dictum that great literature should dispel superstition, Public Opinion wrote, "The play should be seen by all who are sick of conventionalities." Tucker urged his readers to, "Go and see sham and humbug mercilessly exposed (396, p. 30)."

Tucker's readers concurred with his admiration for Shaw as critic and dramatist. C.L. Swartz, editor of Individual Liberty and a frequent contributor to Liberty, reviewed Man and Superman in 1904, saying "The time has certainly arrived for us to lay aside the mask of hypocrisy which most of us habitually wear and to face the problems of sociology with that candor which alone can lead to their solution. And Shaw has set us a noble and unselfish example (385, pp. 3-5)."

Even Victor Yarros, who was intensely critical of Shaw, grudgingly admitted that while Shaw's philosophy in "The Perfect Wagnerite" was all wrong, ". . . [he] offers to the Philistines and perplexed critics an expert's commentary on Wagner's Ring of the Niblungs . . . . [he] obligingly imparts that knowledge which is most likely to be lacking in the conventional music-lovers equipment . . . . Shaw is both a musician and a revolutionist . . . . (361, pp. 3-4)." Tucker said of the article, "Shaw helps us to understand the great musical iconoclasts."

When Shaw was appointed literary and drama critic of the Saturday Review in 1895, Tucker wrote: "It goes without saying that the worship of dramatic ghosts is repudiated and a healthy and sane critical standard raised (305, p. 1)."

 

III.

Tucker fought courageous and voluble battles with the censors. In 1882, after portions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass were suppressed as obscene by the authorities in Massachusetts, Tucker published the entire work from the Osgood's original plates, and challenged the courts to prove that the book was obscene. He waged war against Anthony Comstock and James Wanamaker, then Postmaster General. Although he deplored the tactics of Moses Harman, editor and publisher of Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, he was a loyal and generous supporter of Harman during his many, long battles with Comstock and the courts.

Shaw also delighted in shocking and challenging the self-styled arbiters of morality and decency. He once wrote Anthony Comstock that he completely agreed that his books were dangerous to young people. Shaw felt that anything new or different was dangerous, and that it was the dangerous and shocking which provoked men to change and to grow. Like Tucker, he fought the traditional whenever it was raised as a standard to be venerated and imitated.

Because of this abhorrence for: the traditional and the insipid, Tucker was unsparing in his criticism of literary critics of his time who either bowed under to Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice, or were lacking in any visionary insight. Shaw was equally vociferous in his condemnation, not only of the critics, but of the theater-going public in general.7 It was this shared opinion which led to their finest collaboration.

In 1895, the Boston Transcript published an article attacking critics who praised frivolous dramatic inanities and condemned serious studies of contemporary social conditions. Undoubtedly the editors of the Transcript had in mind Max Nordau's Entartung, later translated as Degeneracy, which had first been published in 1892.

In this work, Nordau maintained that all modern art was pathological and degenerate. He regarded modern music, contemporary poetry and Impressionist painting all to be symptomatic of corruption and mental decay.

Shaw was appalled by the book, but since none of the London editors seemed inclined to take issue with Nordau, he attempted to ignore the whole affair. It was Benjamin Tucker who persuaded Shaw to expose the absurdity of Nordau's argument.8

Tucker "felt instinctively that Nordau was all wrong." He believed that Shaw was "the only writer living who could cover the fine arts with enough knowledge of them to put his finger on all Nordau's weak spots." So he wrote to Shaw in 1895, asking him to determine "the highest price ever paid for an article in the history of journalism. That price, whatever it might be, he offered Shaw for a review of Entartung.9

Shaw accepted the challenge, although he never charged a fee for his article. His analysis of Entartung appeared in Liberty on July 27, 1895. Entitled "A Degenerate's View of Nordau," the article was as much a statement pf Shaw's critical and artistic beliefs as a refutation of Nordau and his followers.

These beliefs eloquently elaborate and illuminate Tucker's standards for great literature:

. . . On religion and morals: "Every step in morals is made by challenging the validity of the existing conception of perfect propriety of conduct. . . "

. . . On politics: "Laws deaden the conscience of individuals by relieving them of the moral responsibility of their own actions."

. . . On art: "The great artist is he who goes a step beyond the demand, and by supplying works of a higher beauty and a higher interest than have yet been perceived, succeeds. . . in adding this fresh extension of sense to the heritage of the race."

The article created a sensation. Tucker sent copies of the issue to every leading publisher and newspaper in America, and Shaw did the same in England. The reviews were consistently approbative, notable among them the Kansas City Journal, which said: "Probably never before has there appeared such a wonderful defense of modern art and music as Mr. Shaw has given us in his criticism. . . one of the most masterly pieces of sarcasm that has reached the reading world in a generation (324, p. 7)."

 

IV.

Articles by and about Shaw continued to appear in Liberty until the last issue in April of 1908. During these years, the two men formed a personal friendship which continued until Tucker's death in 1939. They had first met in 1889, while Tucker was visiting William Morris in England. From references in letters and articles it is apparent that there was an on-going correspondence. However, other than "A Degenerates View of Nordau," some shorter pieces in Liberty, and the few letters in private and library collections, there is little documentation of their friendship available. The relationship can be traced partially through the chronology of articles in Liberty, The Fabian Essays, Fabian Tracts, Our Corner and the holdings in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.10

One possible reason for the lack of letters and manuscripts prior to 1907 is that most likely all of Tucker's copies were lost in the December, 1907 fire which destroyed his offices and bookstore. All that survived were the plates for Paul Eltzbacher's Anarchism and Shaw's Sanity of Art.

The demise of Liberty did not end the political debate between Tucker and Shaw. Although Shaw made only cursory references to Tucker in his articles and speeches, letters in the Berg Collection indicate that they continued their friendship and their political squabbles until Tucker's death.

Their final public publishing venture was the printing of "A Degenerates View of Nordau" in book form. Entitled The Sanity of Art, this volume is clearly the most valuable and enduring product of their friendship.

In a letter to Joseph Ishill, in 1936, Shaw wrote, "This is my latest published account of the Tucker-Nordau incident. It hardly does justice to his really great feat of editorship, for what he did was what all the leading London editors ought to have done. But they couldn't grasp the situation nor pick the man. Benjamin did both." And in 1937, again to Ishill, Shaw said, "It was the biggest thing I ever heard of an editor doing, and it succeeded completely, for Nordau and his Degeneracy were never mentioned by the Press again, as far as I know.11

 

V.

In a letter to Tucker on February 15, 1896, Shaw said, "I have always found that the more respectable the paper, the better I suit it. My achievements as a journalist are not written in the pages of the socialist, radical and free thinking papers, which are mostly so steeped in intolerance and cowardice as to be quite unsuspicious of their own state."12 Liberty was the obvious exception. In addition to the degeneracy article, Tucker published or reprinted 19 separate, lengthy articles and speeches by Shaw, as well as two of his critical reviews. He devoted the entire July 27, 1895 issue to his Nordau article. Although he often disagreed with Shaw, Tucker always respected him.

By his praise and support of Tucker and Liberty, Shaw demonstrated his belief that Benjamin Tucker exemplified all that is great in journalism. In the preface to The Sanity of Art, he contends that journalism is the highest form of literature. Thus his respect for Tucker was deep and sincere.

Shaw's belief in Tucker's greatness was well-founded. In a time when most if not all of the radical papers and considerable portion of mainstream journalism indulged in vituperation, scandal-mongering and out-right slander, Tucker was witty, logical, factual and scrupulously honest.

Throughout their lives, both men remained courageous and literate defenders of their causes. They shunned hypocrisy, never compromised their principles, and spoke out boldly against injustice and tyranny. Tucker and Shaw were, indeed, worthy adversaries.

 

Bibliography

Besant, Annie (ed.). Our Corner. 12 Vols. London: Freethought Publishing Co., 1888.

Goldman, Emma. The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Edited by Richard S. Badger. Boston: Gorham Press, 1914.

Ishill, Joseph (ed.). Free Vistas, II. Berkely Heights, New Jersey: Oriole Press, 1937.

Jackson, Holbrook. The Eighteen-Nineties: Prelude to the Nineteen Hundreds. Berkely Heights, New Jersey: Oriole Press, 1964.

Laurence, Dan H. (ed.). Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 1874-1897. Vol. I. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965.

Laurence, Dan H. (ed.). Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 1898-1910. Vol. 11. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1972.

Martin, James. Men Against the State. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Ralph Myles Publishing, Inc., 1970.

Pearson, Hesketh. George Bernard Shaw, A Full Length Portrait. New York: Harper & Bros., 1942.

Shaw, G. Bernard. "The Impossibilities of Anarchism," #45 in Fabian Tracts. London: The Fabian Society, 1893.

Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. London: Walter Scott, 1891.

Shaw, George Bernard. The Sanity of Art. New York: Benjamin R. Tucker, 1908.

Tucker, Benjamin R. (ed.). Liberty. ("Radical Periodicals in the United States, Second Series, 1881-1961") Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1970.

 

Footnotes

1. Dan H. Laurence (ed.), Bernard Shaw Collected Letters, 1874-1896, Vol. I (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1942), p. 51.

2. Joseph Ishill (ed.), Free Vistas, II (Berkley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press, 1937), p. 278.

3. See Liberty 60 (1885); 62 (1885); 108U887); 109 (1887); 392(1906); and 395 (1906). On several occasions Tucker reprinted an article or speech which Shaw had published elsewhere.

4. Benjamin R. Tucker (ed.), Introduction to Liberty, "Radical Periodicals in the United States, Second Series, 1881-1961," Vols. 1-3 (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1970).

5. Although this quotation appears regularly in the endorsement column of Liberty, the original source is unknown. See preface to Sanity of Art (New York; Benjamin R. Tucker, 1908) and Shaw's letter to Frederick H. Evans (Laurence, Collected Letters, Vol. 1, p. 56) for further endorsements of Liberty by Shaw.

6. Laurence, Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 1909-1910, Vol. II, pp. 108-109. Shaw notes that a person going by the name of Roycroft had also published an "expurgated and gentilified" essay of his entitled "On Going to Church."

7. Shaw, "The Home as a Corrupter of Manners," Liberty, 364(1899):5.

8. Ishill, Free Vistas, II, p. 274.

9. Ibid., p. 275.

10. Laurence will soon be publishing the third volume of Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters. Perhaps there will be more Shaw/Tucker letters in this volume. However, since Volume II ended in 1910, it seems that much of the earlier correspondence may have been lost. For reference to other correspondence, see Laurence, Collected Letters, Vol. I, pp. 109, 561, 597, and 829; Collected Letters, Vol. II, pp. 108 and 415-416. Also, see Ishill, Free Vistas, Vol. II, pp. 273-278.

11. Ishill, Free Vistas, II, pp. 274-5.

12. Laurence, Collected Letters, Vol. I, p. 597.

 

Liberty

Uncle Taz Home Page 2