Wednesday, February 17, 2016


A few days ago I discovered that the terrorist who was responsible for the 2011 Norway attacks had written a manifesto in which he quotes Shaw twice. The first quotation is one of the aphorisms in "Maxims for Revolutionists," one of the addenda to Man and Superman, and it reads: 

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."

Reign of the Superman

The other quotation is a little bit more complex. Not only because the whole sentence has the usual convolute syntax that so many of us have grown to enjoy, but because it is part of a longer context that needs to be discussed as well. The quotation in question is the following: 

"A revolution always seems hopeless and impossible the day before it breaks out and indeed never does break out until it seems hopeless and impossible."

As many of you may remember, this fragment is from the Preface to Back to Methuselah. Specifically, it is part of the section called "The Betrayal of Western Civilization." In this section, before writing the sentence I have quoted above, Shaw is complaining about the abuses on the part of allegedly democratic governments in the form of censorship and repression (though not exclusively) because they are afraid.

"Statesmen are afraid of the suburbs, of the newspapers, of the profiteers, of the diplomatists, of the militarists, of the country houses, of the trade unions, of everything ephemeral on earth except the revolutions they are provoking; and they would be afraid of these if they were not too breaks out, and indeed never does break out until it seems hopeless and ignorant of society and history to appreciate the risk, and to know that a revolution always seems hopeless and impossible the day before it impossible; for rulers who think it possible take care to insure the risk by ruling reasonably."

In other words, what may seem like encouragement for revolutionists is actually a plea for reasonable government. This surprises no-one among Shavians, for we know Shaw was not a man of action. 

That is perhaps why Lenin called him "a good man fallen among Fabians."

That is perhaps why he decided to walk away from the Bloody Sunday riots.

That is perhaps why he joined and promoted a political (Fabian) society that was named after a Roman general that defeated Hannibal with delaying tactics.  

And that is perhaps why we find interesting connections between censorship and revolution in Shaw's writings. So, for example, we can read something to the same effect of the above in the Statement of the evidence in chief of George Bernard Shaw before the Joint-Committee on Stage Plays (1909).

"The Inquisition and the Star Chamber, which were nothing but censorships, made ruthless war on impiety and immorality. The result was once familiar to English­men, though of late years it seems to have been for­gotten. It cost England a revolution to get rid of the Star Chamber. Spain did not get rid of the Inquisition, and paid for that omission by becoming a barely third-rate power politically, and intellectually no power at all, in the Europe she had once domin­ated as the mightiest of the Christian empires."
Paradoxically (not quite), as he points out in his famous letter to H. M. Hyndman (28 April 1900), Shaw is a revolutionary himself, but a "moral revolutionary"

"I am a moral revolutionary, interested, not in the class war, but in the struggle between human vitality and the artificial system of morality, and distinguishing, not between capitalist & proletarian, but between moralist and natural historian." 

Shavians of the world, unite! 
G Bernard Shaw 2