“ Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw
This quote is quite regularly used as an introduction to a blog, just like I have used it here. It seems most suitable for many advisory blog causes from capitalist and altruistic change advocacies to well-being philosophies to wealth generation opportunities. The plethora of interpretations arising from Shaw’s statement, intrigued me so much, that I found myself wanting to hear Shaw’s side of the story. So I began a little desk top research that, after seven days of scouring the internet, resulted in no factual confirmation that Shaw actually authored this quote. However, what I did find led me to think that if Shaw did say what he is being quoted as saying, the catalyst, if not the true facilitator of his opinion, might well be the American author Henry George, and for some reason unknown, George Bernard Shaw suffers the credit. I say suffer because Shaw was a passionately opinionated man, whose orations regularly found him extensively popular from applause or in front of booing political audiences. After seven days of reading and scouring the internet pot in search of whatever I could find about Shaw, I’d say that if he was alive today, he would not be amused, but swamped and over whelmed with the many and varied wild interpretations about what he really meant by progress and change.
George Bernard Shaw was born at the end of the great famine of Ireland, under the fire sign of Leo in the equally fiery Chinese dragon year of 1856. He was youngest child and only son of, a female dominated, Irish working class family. In Shaw's world both creativity and hard work were embraced.
In the year he was born, The Irish Parliamentary Party was striving to attain Irish democracy under Home Rule, as opposed to being governed by and from England. In 1856, Ireland was very much a part of Britain, and Britain had just used its men to defeat Russia in the Crimean War. Policemen were also being employed in greater numbers, to enforce Queen Victoria’s laws’, in every town throughout Britain and British Ireland. When Shaw was two years old, the British Parliament forced India under the umbrella of British rule and Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India.
When Shaw was a teenager, Scotsman Alexander Bell invented the telephone. By the time he was 30, the world's first recording of the human voice had been heard, the first public electric lighting of London had replaced the old gas lamps, the first electric railway had been opened, the gramophone had been invented and education (an institution that Shaw despised) was now compulsory for children aged 5 to 10 years old. By the time Shaw began his career as a professional art and music critic, industrially progressive thinking was being peddled aggressively, not only by British Authors, but by American authors too.
In the second half of the 19th Century, socialism was on the rise, partly as an outcome of the industrial revolution, partly as a result of the gentry's identifications of their growing needs from the working class, partly because of the rise of working class snobbery and partly as a fashion statement of emerging middle class Fabian Victorians.
In 1882, Shaw was particularly moved by his attendance at a London promotion of the book Progress and Poverty by its' American author, Henry George.
Henry George was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania under the astrological sign of Virgo in the Chinese Year of the Earth Pig. He was the second born of ten children. His father, Richard George, was a publisher of religious texts and a devout Episcopalian who sent George to the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. George left the academy without graduating and went to sea as a foremast boy at age 15.
When 26 year old Shaw met 43 year old Henry George in 1882, Henry was peddling his self-published work Progress and Poverty (1879), which was essentially a treatise about inequality, the cyclic nature of industrial economies, and the use of the land value tax as a remedy.
Shaw had grown up with working parents who had suffered the great potato famine of Ireland and where the main cause of disaffection was land as property.
In 1846 it was reported to British Parliament that
"It would be impossible to adequately describe the privations which they [Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure . . . in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water . . . their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury . . . and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property."
Irish, working man Shaw was inspired by American George by crediting George's book about equality as 'changing the whole current of his life'. So much so, that Shaw furthered his interest in equality by reading the English version of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital from cover to cover whereupon he fell in love with the ideals of communism. As a result of his passion for social justice, Shaw decided to commit himself to the communist left of British socialism and joined the emerging Fabian Society with a social justice thirst for righting the capitalist wrongs against people like his family.
Shaw’s Fabian Society was a British socialist organization whose purpose was to advance the principles of democratic socialism in a gradualist and reformist way rather than a revolutionary one. In other words, the Fabian Society favoured gradual change rather than revolutionary change and Shaw’s was a leading Fabian.
The first Fabian Society pamphlets advocating tenets of social justice coincided with the zeitgeist of Liberal reforms during the early 1900s. The Fabian proposals however were considerably more progressive than those that were enacted in the Liberal reform legislation. The Fabians lobbied for the introduction of a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of a universal health care system in 1911 and for the abolition of hereditary peerages in 1917.
The Fabians favoured the nationalisation of land rent, believing that rents collected by landowners were unearned, an idea which drew heavily from the work of Henry George.
In the early 1900's, Fabian Society members advocated the ideal of a scientifically planned society and supported eugenics by way of sterilization. This is credited to the passage of the Half-Caste Act, and its subsequent implementation in Australia, where children were systematically and forcibly removed from their parents, so that the British colonial regime could "protect" the Aborigine children from their parents. In 2008, the Australian Labour Party Prime Minister apologised to the Aboriginal people, for the outcomes of the implementation of the Half-Caste Act.
As a Fabian, Shaw defended the Half-Caste Act. He was a strong advocate of Eugenics as a social philosophy for the improvement of human hereditary traits and he was an Imperialist with communist leanings.
In 1900 the Society produced Fabianism and the Empire, the first statement of its views on foreign affairs (drafted by Shaw) that incorporated the suggestions of 150 Fabian members. The foreign affairs statement was directed against the liberal individualism of those such as John Morley and Sir William Harcourt. It claimed that the classical liberal political economy was outdated, and that imperialism was the new stage of the international polity.
Imperialism, as defined by the Dictionary of Human Geography, is
"the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination."
Imperialism, as described by that work is primarily a Western undertaking that employs "expansionist, mercantilist policies". Lewis Samuel Feuer identifies two major subtypes of imperialism; the first is "regressive imperialism" identified with pure conquest, unequivocal exploitation, extermination or reductions of undesired people's, and settlement of desired people's into those territories, an example being Nazi Germany. The second type identified by Feurer is "progressive imperialism" that is founded upon a cosmopolitan view of humanity, that promotes the spread of civilization to allegedly "backward" societies to elevate living standards and culture in conquered territories, and allowance of a conquered people to assimilate into the imperial society, examples being the Roman Empire and British Empire.
In contrast to Shaw's commitment to Fabian eugenic imperialist socialism, Henry George independently professed a socialism where all land should belong to all living and that the government should be the equitable coordinators of that land. He laid the blame of poverty squarely on the shoulders of land values. In Progress and Poverty he advocated:
“ It is not the relations of capital and labour, not the pressure of population against subsistence, that explains the unequal development of society. The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land. Ownership of land is the great fundamental fact that ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people. And it must be so. For land is the home of humans, the storehouse we must draw upon for all our needs. Land is the material to which we must apply our labour to supply all our desires. Even the products of the sea cannot be taken, or the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products. On land we are born, from it we live, tho it we return again. We are children of the soil as truly as a blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from people all that belongs to land, and they are but disembodied spirits. Material progress cannot rid us of our dependence on land; it can only add to our power to produce wealth from land. Hence, when land is monopolized, progress might go on to infinity without increasing wages or improving the condition of those who have only their labour. It can only add to the value of land and the power its possession gives. Everywhere, in all times, among all peoples, possession of land is the base of aristocracy, the foundation of great fortunes, the source of power.”
As a new world American, Henry George had the unique opportunity of observing the topographical and anthropological formation of an industrially influenced society—the change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents and mud change into a fine town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways and buses: And as he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the first appearance of pauperism. He saw degradation forming as he saw the advent of leisure and affluence, and he felt compelled to discover why they arose concurrently. Henry George was suggesting that investment in land was the answer to rising above poverty. George Bernard Shaw was also aware that inequitable control of land caused poverty in times of famine.
While Henry George was unable to read Marx, because this work hadn't been translated into English before his self-publication of Progress and Poverty, George Bernard Shaw had this opportunity. This opportunity furthered Shaw’s determination about sharing Henry’s ideals that all land should be subjected to altruistic central governance. However, George took his ideas further than Henry’s observations by suggesting that communism held the answer. While Henry George’s ideas were largely ignored by the masses at the time of publication, George Bernard Shaw infiltrated his ideas into British society using the media of criticism and drama. He believed that it was the wealthy who should change to accommodate the needs of those poorer, as opposed to the other way around, and he utilised his influence of middle and upper class circles of British society to further this message with subtleties; Like in Pygmalion when Henry Higgins tells his ‘social experiment’ that she is the one who has to change because he is not going to change. In this way, George was sending a message that the person with the power to refuse gentrified un-change was the bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza. Henry’s refusal to change also increases the power of Eliza to take control of her own situation, once she has integrated his phonetics into her own. In this way, Eliza has the opportunity to become more informed than Henry and Shaw’s message, about integrating new ways of thinking into society through the use of self-development and oration, reverberates with his own socialist propaganda efforts. Yet, even today, the question remains open about why anyone would want to belong to a gentrified social circle that, according to Henry George, induces more human poverty by capitalising on the inclusive wants of the most dis-empowered.
Shaw answers this question in his original play, when Eliza the “Pygmalion” comes to life in Henry’s phonetic image. In his original version of Pygmalion, Eliza retains her pride and triumph of emancipation beyond the end of the play, where in the last scene Higgins goes out onto the balcony to watch her departure. He is happy that he 'sculptured' Eliza into life and he is happy to see her take her leave to live her own life. In other words, Higgins is pleased to have supported the emancipation of Eliza and Eliza is empowered to take on the duty of being responsible for living her own life.
While he was married to the celibate Irish heiress Charlotte, George advocated the freedom from unequal rights to be the duty of women as opposed to the duty of men. In 1891 in his Freedom for Women he wrote:
“ Unless woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself. It is false to say that woman is now directly the slave of man: she is the immediate slave of duty; and as man's path to freedom is strewn with the wreckage of the duties and ideals he has trampled on, so must hers be.”
Yet the American's changed the ending of Pygmalion to what they considered to be a happier ending for increased box office profits and Shaw was livid. Imagine the sense of injustice he must have felt for not having his social justice statement, of the emancipation of women, repudiated in favour of capitalizing from the ignorance of the audience. Shaw was inflamed and spent many of his years trying to get the ending changed back, without success.
Shaw’s friend, Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:
"Bernard Shaw is a marvellously smart witty fellow with a crank for not making money. I have never known a man use his pen in such a workmanlike fashion or acquire such a thoroughly technical knowledge of any subject upon which he gives an opinion. As to his character, I do not understand it. He has been for twelve years a devoted propagandist, hammering away at the ordinary routine of Fabian Executive work with as much persistence as Graham Wallas or Sidney (Webb). He is an excellent friend - at least to men - but beyond this I know nothing.... Adored by many women, he is a born philanderer. A vegetarian, fastidious but unconventional in his clothes, six foot in height with a lithe, broad chested figure and laughing blue eyes. Above all a brilliant talker, and, therefore, a delightful companion."
The similarity between Henry George and George Bernard Shaw lay in their belief in emancipating people from the circumstances of poverty. Henry considered that people needed to think more about the consequences of buying into capitalism and George considered people needed to be led away from buying into capitalism through legislated political action. Both agreed that the government should take responsibility for equitable distribution of land to ensure a moralization of property values in favour of fairer wages. Both agreed that greed arising from any possession of the earth, that rightfully belonged to no one, should not be the reason for any human poverty. Shaw also agreed with the morality of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty’s message, that civilisations are destroyed by the very process that produces its growth, (and that is ) the unequal distribution of wealth and power.
“ Inequality is the necessary result of material progress wherever land is monopolized. These rights are denied when the equal right to land is denied—for people can only live by using land. Equal political rights will not compensate for denying equal rights to the gifts of nature. Without equal rights to land, political liberty is merely the right to compete for employment at starvation wages.The world is pulsing with unrest. There is an irreconcilable conflict between democratic ideas and the aristocratic organization of society. We cannot permit people to vote, then force them to beg. We cannot go on educating them, then refusing them the right to earn a living. We cannot go on chattering about inalienable human rights, then deny the inalienable right to the bounty of the Creator. While there is still time, we may turn to justice. If we do, the dangers that threaten us will disappear. With want destroyed and greed transformed, equality will take the place of jealousy and fear.” ~ Henry George.
In a letter to Henry James dated 17 January 1909, Shaw wrote,
“ I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”
Both Henry George and George Bernard Shaw agreed that the refusal of the individual to think, the refusal of the individual to act against the will of traditional progress, and the inability of government to protect the interests of humanity by prohibiting capitalist property interests, lay at the heart of human poverty.
With all of the above in mind, I again ask, what could the quotes meaning of progress, change and those who cannot change, be?
capitalism vs socialism : “Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”
Should progress be the freeing of land ownership, should progress be the right of the individual to retain their identity despite articulation, should progress be a reduction in capitalism in favour of altruism, should progress be a rejection of capitalist monetary policies in favour of a cooperative society managed by government, what now is the impossibility of progress? I think that, irrespective of whether the quote reflects the work of George Bernard Shaw or Henry George, the progress being referred to is socialism.
Therefore, in my mind, the story behind the quote is:-
“Socialism is impossible without change, and capitalists who cannot change their minds in favour of socialism cannot change anything.”
Can you imagine the change implications of this in your society and the role that you play in its progress? My imagination now makes me think of this:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man” ~ George Bernard Shaw.
" There is danger in reckless change, but greater danger in blind conservatism " ~ Henry George
At the end of the day, with both of these great influencers gone from the earth, does it matter how the quote is interpreted if it furthers the cause it is applied to? In terms of authenticity of purpose, I would vote yes. In terms of creative licence of something that is freely available on the internet, I'd also vote yes.
If you can offer a link to documented evidence of how Shaw is the rightful author of the progress is impossible without change quote, please share the reference here, and in so doing, support or refute this socialist conclusion. Looking forward to your connection. © Chris Tyne, 2012.
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