George Bernard Shaw (1905)

Death of an Old Revolutionary Hero

First published: The Clarion, 24th March 1905.

So old Joe Budgett of Balwick – Stalwart Joe – is dead at last. The Socialist movement has seldom mourned a more typical thoroughgoer than dear old Joe. We all knew him; for he quarrelled with every one of us at one time or another; and yet is there one who is not sorry to lose him? Those who witnessed that simple funeral at Balwick last Thursday morning, when the remains of a poor workman in a cheap pine coffin were borne through the pelting sleet to their last resting-place on the shoulders of Robert Blatchford and H. M. Hyndman, Sidney Webb and Harold Cox, Jaurès (who had come from Paris expressly to pay this last sad duty to the veteran of the International) and myself, Mr Gerald Balfour and Lord Lansdowne, must have asked themselves what manner of man this was to receive a tribute from persons of such diverse views, and so far removed from him in social position.

Joseph Budgett was a heavily built man; and even at 90 – his age when he died – he was no light weight. My heart was heavy as I helped to shoulder the coffin; but I confess that poor Joe seemed heavier still by the time we reached the grave; for we were not trained to the work; and there was a good deal of sugaring among the bearers: Harold, for instance, did nothing but shelter from the sleet under the pall after the first ten yards; Jaurès and Hyndman argued in French instead of attending to their work; Blatchford, after the manner of highly sympathetic literary geniuses with a strong susceptibility to incongruous humor, was so convulsed with suppressed laughter that his quiverings rattled Joe’s bones over the stones without contributing anything to their support; and if it had not been for Webb and myself (Fabians doing the practical work as usual), Joe Budgett would never have got to his grave; for Gerald Balfour and Lord Lansdowne were too far forward to get their shoulders properly under the coffin.

Lord Lansdowne was evidently taken aback to find that there was to be no religious service (Joe having been an uncompromising atheist); but he spoke very feelingly at the graveside. “It was part of the tragedy of this man’s career,” he said, “that in all the seventy years of active political life during which he agitated ceaselessly on behalf of his own class, he never found either in the Liberal party or in the irregular groups which pretended to represent Labor and Socialism, that incorruptible spirit, that stainless purity of principle, that absolute integrity, aloof from all compromising alliances, which his honest character demanded as the sole and sufficient claim to his support. He regarded the Conservative party as an open enemy; but he rightly preferred an open enemy to a false or half-hearted friend; and so, if we never gained his theoretic approval, we at least always had what we valued far more: his practical support.”

It was at this point that the accident of which so much has been made befell Blatchford. The account of it in the evening papers was much exaggerated. It is true that the editor of The Clarion broke down and covered his face with his handkerchief. It is also true that in an attempt to hurry away from the graveside with his eyes full of tears he tripped over the sexton’s spade; but he did not fell into the grave, nor was an impression of the name-plate found on his person afterwards. The capitalist press naturally strives to belittle and make ridiculous the obsequies of a political opponent; but I cannot help thinking that it might have shewn better taste than to choose a funeral for a display of its cockney facetiousness.

The rest of the speaking has been so fully reported in all the Labor papers that I need not give any account of it here, except that Webb’s advice to the Progressive Municipalities to make Free Funerals a plank in the program of Municipal Socialism was quite practical and sincere, and was not, as The Deptford Times asserted, a thinly veiled threat of wholesale political assassination.

A good deal of misunderstanding has been caused by the report that the reason I did not speak was that Mrs Budgett said it would be a mockery for a man who had done his best to kill her husband to make a speech over his grave, and that Joe would turn in his coffin at the sound of my voice. Now it is quite true that Mrs Budgett actually did say this, and that I took no part in the speaking in deference to her wishes. But the three Labor papers who have rebuked Mrs Budgett for making her husband’s funeral the occasion of an attack on the Fabian Society are quite wrong in their interpretation of her remarks. She was not thinking of the Fabian Society at all. The truth is, I once did actually try to kill Joe; and as it happened a good many years ago, and he forgave me handsomely – though Mrs Budgett could never forget it – I may as well do penance now by describing the affair exactly as it happened.

I was quite a young Socialist then; and when I heard one day in spring that old Budgett was passing away whilst the earth was germinating all around, a lump came into my throat: the only one I have ever had. I got used to the news later on, because Joe began dying when he was 75, and never got out of his bed from that time forth except to address a meeting or attend a Socialist Congress. But, as I have just said, I was a young hand then; and an intense desire to see the old revolutionary hero before he returned to dust took hold of me. The end of it was that I found myself a couple of days later at his cottage at Balwick, asking Mrs Budgett whether he was strong enough to see me. She said he was not, as his heart was in such a state that the least excitement or any sudden noise might be fetal. But when she saw how disappointed I was, she added that he was so mortal dull that a little company would perhaps do him good; and so, if I would promise not to talk to him, and be careful not to make any noise, she would let me up for a while. I promised eagerly; and we went up together, she warning me not to trip over the high sills or dash my head against the low lintels of the sturdy old oakframed cottage, and I doing the one at every door in my anxiety to avoid doing the other.

This is perhaps the best place for me to say that Mrs Budgett struck me even then as being extraordinarily devoted to Joe. In fact, I dont think she ventured to regard him as anything so familiar as a husband. She had known both toil and sorrow; for she had had to keep Joe and bring up a family of five by her own exertions. As a boy, Joe had been apprenticed to a bigginwainer, and had served his time and learnt the trade; but when a little thumbed and blackened volume containing Shelley’s Queen Mab and Men of England, and Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, came in his way, and he heard a speech from Orator Hunt, the famous Man in the White Hat, he threw up his bigginwaining and devoted his life to the cause of the people, entrusting all his business affairs to his faithful wife, who never let him know want. In course of time he almost forgot his trade; for I remember on one occasion, when William Morris, in his abrupt way, said to him “And what the devil is a bigginwainer?” Joe was quite at a loss, and could describe it only as a branch of the coopering. The consequence was that Mrs Budgett had to work pretty hard as a laundress; but she did not mind hard work: what weighed on her was the curious fatality that the five children all turned against Joe. They became strong chapelgoers and moneymakers, and made their quarrel with Joe an excuse for doing very little for her, because, they said, they did not want their earnings wasted in encouraging him. So there had been sorrow and strife enough even in that little household.

Joe was sitting up in bed when we entered; and I was struck at once by the lion-like mane of white hair, the firmly closed mouth with its muscles developed by half a century of public speaking, the serene brow, clear ruddy complexion, and keen bold eyes of the veteran. He gave my hand a strong hearty grip, and said, in tones that were still resonant (for he had not then acquired the senile whistling utterance that pierced the ears and hearts of the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam), “Do I at last see before me that old and tried friend of the working classes, George Bernard Shaw? How are you, George?”

Although I was not then old, and had no other feeling for the working classes than an intense desire to abolish them and replace them by sensible people, Joe’s cordial manner encouraged and set me at ease. He invited me to sit down; and before my trousers had pressed the chair he was deep in a flood of reminiscences.

“I served my apprenticeship to the revolution,” he said, “in the struggle against the Reform Bill of 1832.”

Against it!” I cried.

“Aye, against it,” he said. ‘"Old as I am, my blood still boils when I think of the way in which a capitalist tailor named Place – one of the half-hearted Radical vermin – worked that infamous conspiracy to enfranchise the middle classes and deny the vote to the working men. I spoke against it oh every platform in England. The Duke of Wellington himself said to me that he disapproved of revolutionists in general, but that he wished there were a few more in the country of my kidney. Then came Chartism with its five points to fool the people and keep them from going to the real root of the matter by abolishing kings, priests, and private property. I shewed up its leaders, and had the satisfaction of seeing them all go to prison and come out without a single follower left to them. Then there was Bright and Cobden trailing the red herring of Free Trade across the trail of the emancipation of the working classes. I exposed them and their silly lies about cheap bread; and if I'd been listened to, no Englishman need ever have wanted bread again. Next came those black blots on our statute book, the Factory Acts, which recognized and regulated and legalized the accursed exploitation of the wives and children of the poor in the factory hells. Why, when I took the field against them, the very employers themselves said I was right and bid me God-speed in that campaign. Then came a worse swindle than the Reform Bill of 1832 – the ‘67 Bill, that gave just a handful of votes to a few workmen to bolster up the lie that Parliament represents the people instead of the vampires that live by plundering them. Didnt I get this scar over my eye from a stone that hit me while I was speaking against that Bill? But it became law for all that; and it emboldened the capitalists so much that they brought in the Education Act to drive all our children into their prisons of schools, and drill them into submission, and teach them to be more efficient slaves to make profits for their bloodsuckers. I spoke against it until I lost my voice for a whole month; and the people were with me too, heart and soul. It ended, as all double-facedness ends, in the Compromise. But thank God – not that I believe in God, but I use the word in a manner of speaking – I never compromised; and I never will. I left the International because it would not support me against the school Bastilles. And it was high time I did; for the International was a rotten compromise itself – half mere Trade- Unionism, and the other half a little private game of a rare old dodger named Marx – not Harry Marks, you know, but Karl – a compromise between a German and a Jew, he was: neither one thing nor the other. Then came the Commune of Paris, that did nothing but get the people of Paris slaughtered like mad dogs, because, as I pointed out at the time, it was too local, and stood for a city instead of for all the world. That put an end to everything for ten years; and then Socialism came up again with all the old mistakes and compromises: the half-hearted Chartist palliatives, the stooping to use the votes that the capitalists had bribed the people with, the pushing middle class men and autocratic swells at the head of it. I soon saw through Hyndman, and went with Morris into the Socialist League. But Morris was just as bad: all he wanted was our pennies to publish his poems – John Bull’s Earthly Paradise and such tosh as that – in The Commonweal. I turned the League against him at last and took The Commonwealfrom him; and then he shewed his true nature by leaving us without means to pay the rent or publish the paper. Nothing came of it but another Reform Bill in 1885. I said, ‘Does it abolish the registration laws and establish Universal Suffrage?’ ‘No,’ they said. ‘Then have nothing to do with it,’ I said; and I spoke against it and agitated against it as I never agitated before. But the spirit of the workers was broken: they submitted to it like sheep. I took to my bed then, and never came out of it until the Dock Strike of 1889.”

“That roused you, did it?” I said, ambiguously; for I was now alive to the danger of jumping to any conclusions as to which side Joe might have taken.

“Could I lie here and see the people led away by a renegade like John Burns?” he exclaimed. “Oh what a degradation that was! what a spectacle of crawling slavery! to see freeborn men begging for sixpence an hour instead of insisting in a voice of thunder on the full product of their labor! That was what Burns’s pretended Socialism came to when he was put to the test. Sixpence an hour! But I expected no more. I saw through him from the first, just as I saw through Francis Place, and Fergus O'Connor, and Bronterre O'Brien, and the hypocritical Christian Socialists, and George Odger and Charles Bradlaugh and Hyndman and Morris and Champion and the German wirepullers, Bebel and Liebknecht. Self-seeking humbugs, talkers and compromisers all of them. None of them thorough, none of them genuine right through. The Dock Strike was nothing but a conspiracy between Cardinal Manning and John Burns to get Manning made Pope and to get Bums into the County Council. From that day I resolved that Burns should be driven from the cause of the people if my tongue and pen could do it. I'm organizing the Socialist opposition to him at Battersea – the genuine real Socialist opposition – and we'll have him out at the next election, when the Albert Palace is replaced by flats full of Conservative voters.”

“You are working for the Conservatives, then?”

“Young man: I have opposed the Tories all my life; but theres one thing I hate more than a Tory; and thats a traitor.”

“Are all the Labor and Socialist leaders traitors?”

“Traitors! What puts such a thought into your mind? There are hundreds of true men who ought to be leaders, and will be when the people come to their senses. But the men that put themselves forward as leaders – that organize strikes and tout for votes and win elections are all traitors and self-seekers, every man of them. It’s the so-called unsuccessful men – the martyrs of the movement – the men that stand up for the people against everybody – mark that, against everybody: those are the real men, the salt of the people’s cause, the glory of the revolution.”

He paused to take a sip of Liebig from a cup his wife had brought him when we came in. He did it just as a speaker who is getting hoarse takes a sip of water on the platform. As his historical reminiscences had by this time come pretty well up to date, I thought he was done; but he suddenly switched off from history to moral exhortation.

“Look at me!” he said, “going on for eighty, and as sound as a bell, except for this complaint in my heart, brought on by its bleeding for the people and by overwork on the platform. Thats because I am a teetotaler, young man. And why am I a teetotaler? Because the cause of the people has been drink to me and stimulant to me and courage and warmth to me. Have I ever taken money for my principles? Never. The exploiting classes have offered over and over again to finance me. But I have never accepted a penny.”

“Except from your wife,” I remarked, thoughtlessly.

For a moment he was completely taken aback. Then he said, with indescribable majesty, “Never. It is a foul lie; and whoever told it to you lies in his black throat. Prove to me that my wife has ever accepted a farthing from any oppressor of the people – that she has ever possessed a coin that was not earned by her own honest toil – and I will never look on her face again.”

“Thats not precisely what I mean,” I said, rather lamely; for I perceived that he had missed my point; and I rather doubted whether an explanation would mend matters. But he went on impetuously, being constitutionally a bad listener.

“My wife is a crown of rubies to me,” he said, with feeling. “But I have always kept her out of the rough and tumble of political strife. It has broken me up; but at least I have shielded her from it.” Here he wiped away a tear. “And when I think,” he went on, “that there are men who are at this present moment plotting to give the vote to middle class women and deny it to my wife, I feel that I could rise from my bed like a young man and fight with my last breath against it as I did against the abomination of 1832.”

“All or nothing is your principle,” I said.

“Thats it,” he responded in a ringing voice, aglow with enthusiasm. “All or nothing.”

“Well,” I said, “as it is quite certain that you wont get All, you are practically the propagandist of Nothing: a Nihilist, in fact.”

“I am not ashamed of the word Nihilist,” he said. “The Nihilists are my brothers.”

“To change the subject,” I said: “is it really true that your heart is so bad that a sudden noise would kill you?”

“It is,” he said proudly. “You could snuff me out like a candle by knocking that cup of Liebig’s Extract over on to the floor.”

I looked round. A grandfather’s clock ticked peacefully in the silence; for Joe, having reminded himself of the Liebig, was now drinking it; and even he could not talk and drink at the same time.

“Mr Budgett,” I said, rising, “I am not a Nihilist; and it is perfectly clear to me that nothing will ever be done as long as you are about. So here goes!” And I pulled the grandfather’s clock right over.

It fell with an appalling crash, striking as it fell until its weights thundered on the boards. Terrified at my own deed, I looked fearfully at the dying man. But Joe did not die. Instead, he sprang out of bed and said, “What the – – are you doing?”

I thought it best, on the whole, to drop from the window and make for the railway station. Next day I sent him £2 – all I could spare – to pay for repairing the clock. But he sent it back to me with a letter of some thirty pages to say that he could do without a clock, but not without his self-respect.

That was why Mrs Budgett objected to my speaking at the funeral.

I confess, now that advancing years have mellowed my character, that I was wrong in trying to kill Joe. One must live and let live. He bore no malice whatever for the incident, and used to refer to it with the utmost good humor, always ending up with the assurance that he did not take me seriously, and knew that my real object was simply to give him a hearty laugh.

His end was undoubtedly hastened by his efforts to turn the Labor movement against the new Bill for the Enfranchisement of Women; and he was proud to number a Countess among his converts. He almost lost his temper with me because I said that I should support any Bill that would make a start by giving a parliamentary vote or seat to even one woman, though the property qualification were a million sterling. “All or nothing!” he said, with a fervor worthy of Ibsen’s Brand.

The governing classes keep the mass of people enslaved by taking advantage of their sloth, their stupidity, their ignorance, their poverty, their narrowness, their superstition, and their vices. They could not enslave Joe by such means. He was energetic and clever; he was as well read as most cabinet ministers; he was sufficiently fed, clothed and housed (by his wife); he was a universalist in his breadth of view; he was an atheist; and he had practically no vices. And yet the governing classes tied Joe up with the principles of absolute morality tighter than they could tie a hooligan with a set of handcuffs.

After all, the principles of absolute morality were made for this very purpose; so Joe was hardly to be blamed.