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George Bernard Shaw's book on Socialism--a chapter

The best writer of the last century, the most performed playwright from that century.  Among the best essayist, and he’d often argue for social justice I those essays.  A chapter from a book which reads like a delightful collection of essays. ENJOY!


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NO APOSTROPHES:  Shaw in support of linguistic reform dropped the apostrophe.

George Bernard Shaw

Socialism and Liberty

Written: 1928;
Source: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism;
Published: Pelican Books, 1937;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan
Sally Ryan.

period photo

THE dread of Socialism by nervous people who do not understand it, on the ground that there would be too much law under it, and that every act of our lives would be regulated by the police, is more plausible than the terrors of the ignorant people Who think it would mean the end of all law, because under Capitalism we have been forced to impose restrictions that in a socialized nation would have no sense, in order to save the proletariat from extermination, or at least from extremities that would have provoked it to rebellion. Here is a little example. A friend of mine Who employed some girls in an artistic business in which there was not competition enough to compel him to do his worst in the way of sweating them, took a nice old riverside house, and decorated it very prettily with Morris wall-papers, furnishing it in such a way that the girls could have their tea comfortably in their workrooms, which he made as homelike as possible. All went well until one day a gentleman walked in and announced himself to my friend as the factory inspector. He looked round him, evidently much puzzled, and asked where the women worked.  'Here,' replied my friend, with justifiable pride, confident that the inspector had never seen anything so creditable in the way of a factory before. But what the inspector said was 'Where is the copy of the factory regulations which you are obliged by law to post up on your walls in full view of your employees?' Surely you dent expect me to stick up a beastly ugly thing like that in a room furnished like a drawing-room,' said my friend.  'Why, that paper on the wall is a Morris paper: I cant disfigure it by pasting up a big placard on it.' 'You are liable to severe penalties' replied the inspector 'for having not only omitted to post the regulations, but for putting paper on your walls instead of having them lime washed at the intervals prescribed by law.' 'But hang it all!' my friend remonstrated, 'I want to make the place homely and beautiful. You forget that the girls are not always working. They take their tea here.' 'For allowing your employees to take their meals in the room where they work you have incurred an additional penalty' said the inspector. 'It is a gross breach of the Factory Acts.' And he walked out, leaving my friend an abashed criminal caught red-handed.

As it happened, the inspector was a man of sense. He did not return; the penalties were not exacted; the Morris wall-papers remained; and the illicit teas continued; but the incident illustrates the extent to which individual liberty has been cut down under Capitalism for good as well as for evil. Where women are concerned it is assumed that they must be protected to a degree that is unnecessary for men (as if men were any more free in a factory than women); consequently the regulations are so much stricter that women are often kept out of employments to which men are welcomed. Beside is the factory inspector there are the Commissioners of Inland Revenue inquiring into your income and making you disgorge a lot of it, the school attendance visitors taking possession of your children, the local government inspectors making you build and drain your house not as you please but as they order, the Poor Law officers, the unemployment insurance officers, the vaccination officers, and others whom I cannot think of just at present. And the tendency is to have more and more of them as we become less tolerant of the abuses of our capitalist system. But if you study these interferences with our liberties closely you will find that in practice they are virtually suspended in the case of people well enough off to be able to take care of themselves: for instance, the school attendance officer never calls at houses valued above a certain figure, though the education of the children in them is often disgracefully neglected or mishandled. Poor Law officers would not exist if there were no poor, nor unemployment insurance officers if we all got incomes whether we were employed or not. If nobody could make profits by sweating, nor compel us to work in uncomfortable, unsafe, insanitary factories and workshops, a great deal of our factory regulations would become not only superfluous but unbearably obstructive.

Then consider the police: the friends of the honest woman and the enemies and hunters of thieves, tramps, swindlers, rioters, confidence tricksters, drunkards, and prostitutes. The police officer, like the soldier who stands behind him, is mainly occupied today in enforcing the legalized robbery of the poor which takes place whenever the wealth produced by the labor of a productive worker is transferred as rent or interest to the pockets of an idler or an idler's parasite. They are even given powers to arrest us for 'sleeping out', which means sleeping in the open air without paying a landlord for permission to do so. Get rid of this part of their duties, and at the same time of the poverty which it enforces, with the mass of corruption, thieving, rioting, swindling, and prostitution which poverty produces as surely as insanitary squalor produces smallpox and typhus, and you get rid of the least agreeable part of our present police activity, with all that it involves in prisons, criminal courts, and jury duties.

By getting rid of poverty we shall get rid of the unhappiness and worry which it causes. To defend themselves against this, women, like men, resort to artificial happiness, just as they resort to artificial insensibility when they have to undergo a painful operation. Alcohol produces artificial happiness, artificial courage, artificial gaiety, artificial self-satisfaction, thus making life bearable for millions who would otherwise be unable to endure their condition. To them alcohol is a blessing. Unfortunately, as it acts by destroying conscience, self-control, and the normal functioning of the body, it produces crime, disease, and degradation on such a scale that its manufacture and sale are at present prohibited by law throughout the United States of America, and there is a strong movement to introduce the same prohibition here.

The ferocity of the resistance to this attempt to abolish artificial happiness shows how indispensable it has become under Capitalism. A famous American Prohibitionist was mobbed by medical students in broad daylight in the streets of London, and barely escaped with the loss of one eye, and his back all but broken. If he had been equally famous for anything else, the United States Government would have insisted on the more ample reparation, apology, and condign punishment of his assailants; and if this had been withheld, or even grudged, American hotheads would have clamored for war. But for the enemy of the anaesthetic that makes the misery of the poor and the idleness of the rich tolerable, turning it into a fuddled dream of enjoyment, neither his own country nor the public conscience of ours could be moved even to the extent of a mild censure on the police. It was evident that had he been torn limb from limb the popular verdict would have been that it served him jolly well right.

Alcohol, however, is a very mild drug compared with the most effective modern happiness producers, These give you no mere sodden self-satisfaction and self-conceit: they give you ecstasy. It is followed by hideous wretchedness; but then you can cure that by taking more and more of the drug until you become a living horror to all about you, after which you become a dead one, to their great relief. As to these drugs, not even a mob of medical students, expressly educated to make their living by trading in artificial health and happiness, dares protest against strenuous prohibition, provided they may still prescribe the drug; nevertheless the demand is so great in the classes who have too much money and too little work that smuggling, which is easy and very profitable, goes on in spite of the heaviest penalties. Our efforts to suppress this trade in artificial happiness has already landed us in such interferences with personal liberty that we are not allowed to purchase many useful drugs for entirely innocent purposes unless we first pay (not to say bribe) a doctor to prescribe it.

Still, prohibition of the fiercer drugs has the support of public opinion. It is the prohibition of alcohol that rouses such opposition that the strongest governments shrink from it in spite of overwhelming evidence of the increase in material well-being produced by it wherever it has been risked. You prove to people that as teetotallers they will dwell in their own houses instead of in a frowsy tenement, besides keeping their own motor car, having a bank account, and living ten years longer. They angrily deny it; but when you crush their denials by unquestionable American statistics they tell you flatly that they had rather be happy for thirty years in a tenement without a car or a penny to put in the bank than be unhappy for forty years with all these things. You find a wife distracted because her husband drinks and is ruining her and her children; yet when you induce him to take the pledge, you find presently that she has tempted him to drink again because he is so morose when he is sober that she cannot endure living with him. And to make his drunkenness bearable she takes to drink herself, and lives happily in shameless degradation with him until they both drink themselves dead.

Besides, the vast majority of modern drinkers do not feel any the worse for it, because they do not miss the extra efficiency they would enjoy on the water wagon. Very few people ~re obliged by their occupations to work up to the extreme limit of their powers. Who cares whether a lady gardener or a bookkeeper or a typist or a shop assistant is a teetotaller or not, provided she always stops well short of being noticeably drunk? It is to the motorist or the aeroplane pilot that a single glass of any intoxicant may make the difference between life and death. What would be sobriety for a billiard marker would be ruinous drunkenness for a professional billiard player. The glass of stimulant that enlivens a routine job is often dropped because when the routineer plays golf 'to keep herself fit' she finds that it spoils her putting. Thus you find that you can sometimes make a worker give up alcohol partly or wholly by giving her more leisure. She finds that a woman who is sober enough to do her work as well as it need be done is not sober enough to play as well as she would like to do it. The moment people are in a position to develop their fitness, as they call it, to the utmost, whether at work or at play, they begin to grudge the sacrifice of the last inch of efficiency which alcohol knocks off, and which in all really fine work makes the difference between first rate and second rate. If this book owed any of its quality to alcohol or to any other drug, it might amuse you more; but it would be enormously less conscientious intellectually, and therefore much more dangerous to your mind.

If you put all this together you will see that any social change which abolishes poverty and increases the leisure of routine workers will destroy the need for artificial happiness, and increase the opportunities for the sort of activity that makes people very jealous of reducing their fitness by stimulants. Even now we admit that the champion athlete must not drink whilst training; and the nearer we get to a world in which everyone is in training all the time the nearer we shall get to general teetotalism, and to the possibility of discarding all those restrictions on personal liberty which the prevalent dearth of happiness and consequent resort to pernicious artificial substitutes now force us to impose.

As to such serious personal outrages as compulsory vaccination and the monstrous series of dangerous inoculations which are forced on soldiers, and at some frontiers on immigrants, they are only desperate attempts to stave off the consequences of bad sanitation and overcrowding by infecting people with disease when they are well and strong in the hope of developing their natural resistance to it by exercise sufficiently to prevent them from catching it when they are ailing and weak. The poverty of our doctors forces them to support such practices in the teeth of all experience and disinterested science; but if we get rid of poor doctors and overcrowded and unsanitary dwellings we get rid of the diseases which terrify us into these grotesque witch rituals; and no woman will be forced to expose her infant to the risk of a horrible, lingering, hideously disfiguring death from generalized vaccine lest it should catch confluent smallpox, which, by the way, is, in a choice between the two evils, much to be preferred. Dread of epidemics: that is, of disease and premature death, has created a pseudo-scientific tyranny just as the dread of hell created a priestly tyranny in the ages of faith. {Shaw saw vaccines as a danger practice sold to the public—jk).   Florence Nightingale, a sensible woman whom doctors could neither humbug nor bully, told them that what was wrong with our soldiers was dirt, bad food, and foul water: in short, the conditions produced by war in the field and poverty in the slum. When we get rid of poverty the doctors will no longer be able to frighten us into imposing on ourselves by law pathogenic inoculations which, under healthy conditions, kill more people than the diseases against which they pretend to protect them. And when we get rid of Commercialism, and vaccines no longer make dividends for capitalists, the fairy tales by which they are advertized will drop out of the papers, and be replaced, let us hope, by disinterested attempts to ascertain and publish the scientific truth about them, which, by the way, promises to be much more hopeful and interesting.

As to the mass of oppressive and unjust laws that protect property at the expense of humanity, and enable proprietors to drive whole populations off the land because sheep or deer are more profitable, we have said enough about them already. Naturally we shall get rid of them when we get rid of private property.

Now, however, I must come to one respect in which official interference with personal liberty would be carried under Socialism to lengths undreamed of at present. We may be as idle as we please if only we have money in our pockets; and the more we look as if we had never done a day's work in our lives and never intend to, the more we are respected by every official we come in contact with, and the more we are envied, courted, and deferred to by everybody. If we enter a village school the children all rise and stand respectfully to receive us, whereas the entrance of a plumber or carpenter leaves them unmoved. The mother who secures a rich idler as a husband for her daughter is proud of it: the father who makes a million uses it to make rich idlers of his children. That work is a curse is part of our religion: that it is a disgrace is the first article in our social code. To carry a parcel through the streets is not only a trouble, but a derogation from one's rank. Where there are blacks to carry them, as in South Africa, it is virtually impossible for a white to be seen doing such a thing. In London we condemn these colonial extremes of snobbery; but how many ladies could we persuade to carry a jug of milk down Bond Street on a May afternoon, even for a bet?

Now it is not likely, human laziness being what it is, that under Socialism anyone will carry a parcel or a jug if she can induce somebody else (her husband, say) to carry it for her. But nobody will think it disgraceful to carry a parcel because carrying a parcel is work. The idler will be treated not only as a rogue and a vagabond, but as an embezzler of the national funds, the meanest sort of thief. The police will not have much trouble in detecting such offenders. They will be denounced by everybody, because there will be a very marked jealousy of slackers who take their share without 'doing their bit'. The real lady will be the woman who does more than her bit, and thereby leaves her country richer than she found it. Today nobody knows what a real lady is; but the dignity is assumed most confidently by the women who ostentatiously take as much and give as nearly nothing as they can.

The snobbery that exists at present among workers will also disappear. Our ridiculous social distinctions between manual labor and brain work, between wholesale business and retail business, are really class distinctions. If a doctor considers it beneath his dignity to carry a scuttle of coals from one room to another, but is proud of his skill in performing some unpleasantly messy operation, it is clearly not because the one is any more or less manual than the other, but solely because surgical operations are associated with descent through younger sons from the propertied class, and carrying coals with proletarian descent. If the petty ironmonger's daughter is not considered eligible for marriage with the ironmaster's son, it is not because selling steel by the ounce and selling it by the ton are attributes of two different species, but because petty ironmongers have usually been poor and ironmasters rich. When there are no rich and no poor, and descent from the proprietary class will be described as criminal antecedents', people will turn their hands to anything, and indeed rebel against any division of labor that deprives them of physical exercise. My own excessively sedentary occupation makes me long to be a half-time navy. I find myself begging my gardener, who is a glutton for work, to leave me a few rough jobs to do when I have written myself to a standstill; for I cannot go out and take a hand with the natives, because I should be taking the bread out of a poor man's mouth; nor should we be very comfortable company for one another with our different habits and speech and bringing-up, all produced by differences in our parents' incomes and class. But with all these obstacles swept away by Socialism I could lend a hand at any job within my strength and skill, and help my mates instead of hurting them, besides being as good company for them as I am now for professional persons or rich folk. Even as it is a good deal of haymaking is done for fun; and I am persuaded (having some imagination, thank Heaven!) that under Socialism open air workers would have plenty of voluntary help, female as well as male, without the trouble of whistling for it. Laws might have to be made to deal with officiousness. Everything would make for activity and against idleness: indeed it would probably be much harder to be an idler than it is now to be a pickpocket. Anyhow, as idleness would be not only a criminal offence, but unladylike and ungentlemanly in the lowest degree, nobody would resent the laws against it as infringements of natural liberty.

Lest anyone should at this point try to muddle you with the inveterate delusion that because capital can increase wealth people can live on capital without working, let me go back just for a moment to the way in which capital becomes productive.

Let us take those cases in which capital is used, not for destructive purposes, as in war, but for increasing production: that is, saving time and trouble in future work. When all the merchandise in a country has to be brought from the makers to the users on packhorses or carts over bad roads the cost in time and trouble and labor of man and beast is so great that most things have to be made and consumed on the spot. There may be a famine in one village and a glut in another a hundred miles off because of the difficulty of sending food from one to the other. Now if there is enough spare subsistence (capital) to support gangs of navvies and engineers and other workers whilst they cover the country with railways, canals, and metalled roads, and build engines and trains, barges and motor cars to travel on them, to say nothing of aeroplanes, then all sorts of goods can be sent long distances quickly and cheaply; so that the village which formerly could not get a cartload of bread and a few cans of milk from a hundred miles off to save its life is able to buy quite cheaply grain grown in Russia or America and domestic articles made in Germany or Japan. The spare subsistence will be entirely consumed in the operation: there will be no more left of it than of the capital lent for the war; but it will leave behind it the roadways and waterways and machinery by which labor can do a great deal more in a given time than it could without them. The destruction of these aids to labor would be a very different matter from our annual confiscations of the National Debt by taxation. It would leave us much poorer and less civilized: in fact most of us would starve, because big modern populations cannot support themselves without elaborate machinery and railways and so forth.

Still, roadways and machines can produce nothing by themselves. They can only assist labor. And they have to be continually repaired and renewed by labor. A country crammed with factories and machines, traversed in all directions by roadways, tramways and railways, dotted with aerodromes and hangars and garages, each crowded with aeroplanes and airships and motor cars, would produce absolutely nothing at all except ruin and rust and decay if the inhabitants ceased to work. We should starve in the midst of all the triumphs of civilization because we could not breakfast on the clay of the railway embankments, lunch on boiled aeroplanes, and dine on toasted steam-hammers. Nature inexorably denies to us the possibility of living without labor or of hoarding its most vital products. We may be helped by past labor; but we must live by present labor. By telling off one set of workers to produce more than they consume, and telling off another set to live on the surplus whilst they are making roads and machines, we may make our labor much more productive, and take out the gain either in shorter hours of work or bigger returns from the same number of hours of work as before, but we cannot stop working and sit down and look on while the roads and machines make and fetch and carry for us without anyone lifting a finger. We may reduce our working hours to two a day, or increase our income tenfold, or even conceivably do both at once; but by no magic on earth can any of us honestly become an idler. When you see a person who does no productive or serviceable work, you may conclude with absolute certainty that she or he is sponging on the labor of other people. It may or may not be expedient to allow certain persons this privilege for a time: sometimes it is; and sometimes it is not. I have already described how we offer at present, to anyone who can invent a labor-saving machine, what is called a patent: that is, a right to take a share of what the workers produce with the help of that machine for fourteen years. When a man writes a book or a play, we give him, by what is called copyright, the power to make everybody who reads the book or sees the play performed pay him and his heirs something during his lifetime and fifty years afterwards. This is our way of encouraging people to invent machines and to write books and plays instead of being content with the old handiwork, and with the Bible and Shakespeare; and as we do this with our eyes open and with a definite purpose, and the privilege lasts no longer than enough to accomplish its purpose, there is a good deal to be said for it. But to allow the descendants of a man who invested a few hundred pounds in the New River Water Company in the reign of James I to go on for ever and ever living in idleness on the incessant daily labor of the London ratepayers is senseless and mischievous. If they actually did the daily work of supplying London with water, they might reasonably claim either to work for less time or receive more for their work than a water-carrier in Elizabeth's time; but for doing no work at all they have not a shadow of excuse. To consider Socialism a tyranny because it will compel everyone to share the daily work of the world is to confess to the brain of an idiot and the instinct of a tramp.

Speaking generally, it is a mistake to suppose that the absence of law means the absence of tyranny. Take, for example, the tyranny of fashion. The only law concerned in this is the law that we must all wear something in the presence of other people. It does not prescribe what a woman shall wear: it only says that in public she shall be a draped figure and not a nude one. But does this mean that a woman can wear what she likes? Legally she can; but socially her slavery is more complete than any sumptuary law could make it. If she is a waitress or a parlormaid there is no question about it: she must wear a uniform or lose her employment and starve. If she is a duchess she must dress in the fashion or be ridiculous. In the case of the duchess nothing worse than ridicule is the penalty of unfashionable dressing. But any woman who has to earn her living outside her own house finds that if she is to keep her employment she must also keep up appearances, which means that she must dress in the fashion, even when it is not at all becoming to her, and her wardrobe contains serviceable dresses a couple of years out of date. And the better her class of employment the tighter her bonds. The rag picker has the melancholy privilege of being less particular about her working clothes than the manageress of a hotel; but she would be very glad to exchange that freedom for the obligation of the manageress to be always well dressed. In fact the most enviable women in this respect are nuns and policewomen, who, like gentlemen at evening parties and military officers on parade, never have to think of what they will wear, as it is all settled for them by regulation and custom.

This dress question is only one familiar example of the extent to which the private employment of today imposes regulations on us which are quite outside the law, but which are none the less enforced by private employers on pain of destitution. The husband in public employment, the socialized husband, is much freer than the unsocialized one in private employment. He may travel third class, wearing a lounge suit and soft bat, living in the suburbs, and spending his Sundays as he pleases, whilst the others must travel first class, wear a frock coat and tall hat, live at a fashionable address, and go to church regularly. Their wives have to do as they do; and the single women who have escaped from the limitations of the home into independent activity find just the same difference between public work and private: in public employment their livelihood is never at the mercy of a private irresponsible person as it is in private. The lengths to which women are sometimes forced to go to please their private employers are much more revolting than, for instance, the petty dishonesties in which clerks are forced to become accomplices.

Then there are estate rules: that is to say, edicts drawn up by private estate owners and imposed on their tenants without any legal sanction. These often prohibit the-building on the estate of any place of worship except an Anglican church, or of any public house. They refuse houses to practitioners of the many kinds that are now not registered by the General Medical Council. In fact they exercise a tyranny which would lead to a revolution if it were attempted by the King, and which did actually provoke us to cutoff a king's head in the seventeenth century. We have to submit to these tyrannies because the people who can refuse us employment or the use of land have powers of life and death over us, and can therefore make us do what they like, law or no law. Socialism would transfer this power of life and death from private hands to the hands of the constitutional authorities, and regulate it by public law. The result would be a great increase of independence, self-respect, freedom from interference with our tastes and ways of living, and, generally, all the liberty we really care about.

Childish people, we saw, want to have all their lives regulated for them, with occasional holiday outbursts of naughtiness to relieve the monotony; and we admitted that the able bodied ones make good soldiers and steady conventional employees. When they are left to themselves they make laws of fashions, customs, points of etiquette, and 'what other people will say', hardly daring to call their souls their own, though they may be rich enough to do as they please. Money as a means of freedom is thrown away on these people. It is funny to hear them declaring, as they often do, that Socialism would be unendurable because it would dictate to them what they should eat and drink and wear, leaving them no choice in the matter, when they are cowering under a social tyranny which regulates their meals, their clothes, their hours, their religion and politics, so ruthlessly that they dare no more walk down a fashionable street in an unfashionable hat, which there is no law to prevent them doing, than to walk down it naked, which would be stopped by the police. They regard with dread and abhorrence the emancipated spirits who, within the limits of legality and cleanliness and convenience, do not care what they wear, and boldly spend their free time as their fancy dictates.

But do not undervalue the sheepish wisdom of the conventional. Nobody can live in society without conventions. The reason why sensible people are as conventional as they can bear to be is that conventionality saves so much time and thought and trouble and social friction of one sort or another that it leaves them much more leisure for freedom than unconventionality does. Believe me, unless you intend to devote your life to preaching unconventionality, and thus make it your profession, the more conventional you are, short of being silly or slavish or miserable, the easier life will be for you. Even as a professional reformer you had better be content to preach one form of unconventionality at a time. For instance, if you rebel against high-heeled shoes, take care to do it in a very smart hat.


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