Bradlaugh And Today
by George Bernard Shaw
|This speech of Shaw's was one of a series of speeches delivered at the centenary celebration of the birth of Charles Bradlaugh, held at Friends House, Euston Road, London, on September 23, 1933. It is quoted from a memorial pamphlet issued for the Centenary Committee by C. A. Watts & Co., Ltd., and The Pioneer Press.|
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: One of the things that one has to do at this distance of time in speaking of Charles Bradlaugh is to find out what he really stands for in the memories of those who, like myself, personally remember him and in the memories of those who know nothing about his personality and to whom he is only a name. Nothing would be easier than for me to give a long list of his activities in various directions. He was a man of a great many collateral activities. He was not a man of one subject, and yet I want to remind you tonight that he was preeminently a man of one subject. For instance, if I were addressing the sort of polite audience which would expect me to spread myself on every one of the things that might be said about Charles Bradlaugh except the one central thing which they would prefer me to ignore, I might expatiate unctuously on the services he rendered to labor when he got the Truck Acts passed. But we do not think of the Truck Acts in connection with Charles Bradlaugh. When factory legislation is in question, we think of Lord Shaftesbury. I have no doubt that if Charles Bradlaugh were here tonight he would make Lord Shaftesbury a handsome present of the Truck Acts. To suggest that the names of Shaftesbury and Bradlaugh stand together in our historic imagination would greatly astonish their surviving contemporaries, for Shaftesbury was sustained all through his life by a burning conviction that the official religion of this country was all right, and Bradlaugh was sustained all through his life by an equally burning conviction that the religion of this country was all wrong. And I am here tonight very largely because I also passionately share that conviction. [Applause]
Now we are not here tonight to discuss the merits of this or that belief or disbelief. We are here to celebrate the memory of a political genius. Political genius consists in a sense of values, of knowing the relative importance of things. Bradlaugh saw the fundamental importance of the religious question in this country: that was what made him before all things an Anti-Fundamentalist.
Since his death, things have marched his way. A week or so ago a couple of very eloquent sermons were broadcast from London. One of them was by that great man in his way, the Dean of St. Paul's, and the other by that eminent churchman, the Bishop of Chichester. They were both preaching, and preaching with their utmost seriousness, because they were addressing many millions of people. The subject with which they were dealing was the life of Christ, the example of Christ, the possibility of living the Christian life. The sermons were very good sermons, but neither of them contained one single word from which a stranger to our religions and institutions could have gathered that Jesus Christ was anything more than a man. There was not the slightest hint of his being a supernatural event. The Dean of St. Paul's even went a little out of his way to emphasize that the promises made by Jesus Christ at the end of his career, that he would return and establish his kingdom on earth, had not been fulfilled, and that in future we must face the question of Christ's life and example in the light of that fact.
Clearly we have traveled some distance since the death of Charles Bradlaugh; yet few of those who remember him notice that they have changed their opinions. They remember only that it was not considered respectable to agree with him when he was alive, and as they quite forget why -- if they ever knew -- they still remember Bradlaugh as being a man with whose opinions it was not respectable to agree. They are not conscious of the fact that there has been such a shift of opinion that many church dignitaries have reached a point which I really think would rather have shocked Charles Bradlaugh. He himself shocked people by saying that he was a republican, but if he were here today and were converted to monarchy he would have to apologize for his conversion, for in his time monarchy was the prevalent system of government in Europe. But what is it now? You can with a little trouble still find a king here and there in Europe [Laughter], but even the emperors who were mighty in the time of Charles Bradlaugh are on the dole. His republicanism is therefore now beside the point. What really made Charles Bradlaugh, the great man that he was was not so much those extraordinary heroic personal qualities which made him an almost superhuman figure for his contemporaries as well as a great platform artist, but that he saw that the religious question was the question. It was certainly the question he had most at heart. [Hear, Hear] He spoke as a matter of duty about other questions, but on this one he spoke with passion and conviction, facing every peril to himself for the sake of making his opinions known and denouncing and trying to destroy the Bible worshiping superstition they called religion at that time.
It is a curious point that his devotion to this great social service proves that he must have been a deeply religious man, and this is why we could not have chosen a more appropriate place of meeting to celebrate the centenary of Charles Bradlaugh than Friends House. [Applause] Our friends the Quakers have got nearer to real religion than any other professedly religious body. [Hear, Hear]
His work is not finished. The spadework he did on its foundations was mostly negative work, that is to say that he had to deny. A great deal of it was necessarily denial of falsehoods and exposure of all sorts of irrationalities and superstitions. I wish he were with us today, because he brought us to the point at which we see that negatives are not enough. [Hear, Hear] One of the worst of the crimes we are still committing is that we deliberately go on teaching our children lies. [Applause] Those of us who are carrying on Bradlaugh's work are like the unfortunate man in the classical inferno, whose punishment it was throughout all eternity to roll an enormous stone up a hill, only to have it crash back on him again every time. That is what is happening to us, and what happened continually to Charles Bradlaugh. He could get at his own audiences and could convert them, but all round him the new generations of children were going into church schools and into all sorts of schools where the Bible was being put into their hands, not as a collection of old literature and fairy tales, as it is, but as a divine revelation. [Hear, Hear] If you want to know what it means to get the campaigns of Joshua rubbed into you in your youth as the work of God, you have nothing to do but read the history of the years 1914 to 1918. [Applause]
I say, then, that the campaign in which Charles Bradlaugh was a great captain will have to become a positive campaign. [Hear, Hear] We shall have to see that in future children shall not only not be told lies but told truths. [Applause] Bradlaugh would approve of that because what made him great was that he could not tolerate falsehood. [Hear, Hear] That is saying a great deal in a country in which we are all clamoring for falsehood. The moment anybody utters a truth we all rise up passionately and deny it instinctively without thinking. [Applause] You can see the effect of that on our statesmen. There are many men who, in their earlier days, are intellectually honest and, like Bradlaugh, have told the truth and fought for the truth, but they end by going into Parliament. They are classed as eminent statesmen when they learn how to give the public what it wants, and that is bunk. [Applause] Whatever you got from Charles Bradlaugh you never got bunk. You never got anything that he did not believe. The only thing I regret in his career is that he went into Parliament. It was just the one place that was not fit for him, nor he fit for it.
The British Parliament is the most effective engine for preventing progress of any kind that has ever been devised by the wit of man. We want men who, like Bradlaugh, will risk their liberty for the sake of progress. There are men who shriek out, "Dictator, dictator," if you suggest a revolt against the British parliamentary system. The less liberty they have the more they are afraid of losing it, and when they are dictated to by the boss in all their daily jobs, and by the landlord's rent collector in their homes, and have all their opinions dictated to them by the millionaires' newspapers until they cannot call their souls their own, they thank God that they are free. What these people need to make them capable of real freedom is the right sort of dictator. Bradlaugh would have made a very good dictator of that kind.
I do not, like Lord Snell, owe my conversion to Charles Bradlaugh, because I was ten times as much an atheist as he was before I ever met him, but I do say that he was a great figure, and there he remains, when a great many of his parliamentary contemporaries have completely faded out of our memory and out of history. We have not got any single man of his stamp now. If we had, perhaps we should stop running after the bunk merchants, who have not his sane sense of values. He knew what was wrong. He knew the fundamental rottenness in our education. He felt it, hated it, and fought it. That is the sort of person we need nowadays, for we are so amiable that we put up with anything to make ourselves agreeable. Yet Charles Bradlaugh was not an unamiable man. There are those on this platform who know a great deal more about him personally than I do, and it is they who will testify that he was an affectionate man, and even, like all great orators, a sentimental man. But he hated the wrong thing, and went for it. That, I think, sums up what we admire in Bradlaugh, the sort of thing which makes him an inspiring recollection and makes us wish that we had a few more like him today. [Applause]