By George! A Dialogue Between Henry George and George Bernard
Edward J. Dodson
[An unpublished playscript written in 1988]
AT RISE: BERNARD SHAW IS SEATED ALONE CN
STAGE, READING. THE STAGE IS DARKENED WITH THE EXCEPTION OF A
SPOTLIGHT ON SHAW.
"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. The man who
listens to reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not
strong enough to master her."
HE RISES, CLOSING THE BOOK, AND ADDRESSES
I wrote those words in 1903, in mid-life, but with most of my
personal successes still to come. Yet, by then I had lost much of the
reasonableness my early upbringing had troubled to instill within me.
I think of myself as an Irishman, born as I was in Dublin in 1856;
and, although my family was of Protestant stock we counted ourselves
not among the privileged class. Nor were the Shaws a family bent on
martyrdom among countrymen who seemed to live for that fate. The world
seemed too full of practical problems one had to face without
bothering oneself with politics.
As I grew into a young man, I of course recognized that poverty
existed all around me. The survival of my own family depended upon me
finding employment when jobs were scarcely to be had. And so, after
much searching I did find a position that would give me and mine a
steady income. The job was working as a process server for a Dublin
Your silence is judging me. Am I not right? I know what you're
thinking. "George Bernard Shaw, evicting poor people from their
meager homes?" Well, it is true. I don't deny it; but the
experience changed my life. Made me downright unreasonable about the
way things were, it did.
SHAW SLOWLY TURNS TO STAGELEFT AND BRINGS
HIS LEFT HAND TO HIS FACE IN A THOUGHTFUL GESTURE. THE SPOTLIGHT ON
SHAW SLOWLY DIMS, SIMULTANEOUSLY RISING AT STAGE LEFT. THERE SITS A
BEATEN LOOKING MAN OF THE WORKING CLASS WHOSE ANGER AND DESPAIR ARE
CLEARLY PRESENT IN HIS FACE. HE RISES AND SJ'EAKS TO THE AUDIENCE.
Mr. Shaw says to me I can either pay up or leave as I choose; it's as
simple as that. What about my poor wife and our children? Where am I
to go? What am I to do? this lumper's not lookin' for any free ride,
but there are no jobs for a laborin' man. The mills are closed. And
the towns are bulging with tenant farmers who've lost their fields to
the consolidating landlords and their sheep or cattle. There's no
clean water anywhere. Come down with somethin' and where's a doctor?
Find one, and for whatever he can bleed from you he'll help you to
your grave. Go to Mass, the priest has nothin' to say about the here
and now. He blesses you and tells you to ask for forgiveness. For
what? For being born to this miserable life?
I m willing to work. I'm wantin' to do my share, but somethin' is
terrible wrong that won't let me. Mine is not a life; it's barely an
existence. For me and anyone I know, life is only a continuous hell.
Somethin' seems to resent our being on this earth and can't wait to
see the last of us.
THE IRISH WORKER DROPS HIS HEAD AND THE
SPOTLIGHT DIMS, LEAVING THE STAGE IN MOMENTARY DARKNESS. THE SPOTLIGHT
BRIGHTENS AGAIN ON SHAW, NOW SEATED, LEGS CROSSED AND LOOKING UPWARD
WITH EYES CLOSED. HE LOOKS TO THE AUDIENCE.
Alas, I had no help for this or any other pitiful soul whom I was
charged to evict. The law was on the side of my employer, that was
clear. But an inner sense of injustice began to arise in me that
brought me to speak reasonably I thought on their behalf, an action
that soon found me in the circumstance of once again searching for
employment. This time I was not successful. And so, I set my sights
upon becoming a man of letters, writing half a dozen novels that no
one -- thank the Lord -- has ever heard of or read. Although my career
as a novelist was an abysmal failure, I loved the writing. Eventually,
however, I realized I had nothing to say of any importance -- and I
was taking up hundreds of pages doing it!
All the while, I could not get away from the terrible reality of my
time and my society. The older I became, the more I learned, the more
my world appeared disjointed and chaotic. Reason seemed the only way
through this morass. I sought refuge in the works of the one writer
who had been both conscience and voice of reason for the generation of
my youth -- the most noble Charles Dickens. There, in Dickens' tales
were horrible truths and a message that only a deeply felt moral
conviction could change the status quo. Scrooge, for one, embodied all
the worst characteristics of the propertied who managed to ignore the
deprivation that existed all around them. Scrooge became a changed man
in Dickens' tale of fantasy; yet, I sensed that even a thousand
changed Scrooge's in the real world would have no lasting impact on
the course of wickedness on which history was travelling.
My reason told me that despite the greatness of Dickens and others
like him, the 19th century -- which had declared itself the greatest
of all centuries -- was, in fact, the most wicked. Still, I reasoned
that change had to be possible; it had to be within the power (if the
individual to do something. Dickens had made his impact as an
entertainer, and so would I. I shared his belief that in order to
change social and political institutions you must change people.
People had to accept responsibility for our social problems. Someone
had to make them listen, make them understand the consequences of
their actions and to change the institutions that bred inequality and
poverty. And, by God, I was determined to use the power of the written
and spoken word to do it.
Now, I have not been known to be a particularly spiritual individual;
and I hesitate to speculate as to what our Maker has in mind for us.
But there are times when events have the distinct character of what
one might mistake for 'divine intervention'. And, in our history,
there are no more than a handful of individuals who seem to have come
to us as inspired as did the American author of Progress and
Poverty. This man, Henry George, heightened the awareness of
thinking, caring people all over the world, and it was to be my
incredible good fortune that in the late nineteenth century he came to
the British Isles to lecture and ... to agitate against the status
It was in the winter of 1883-84 when, as a young reporter, I attended
George's lecture -- he did not merely speak, you see -- to the Land
Nationalization Society started by Alfred Russell Wallace. I noticed
that he was a born orator, and that he had small, plump and pretty
hands; and, although some of my colleagues thought George to be about
fifty years out of date, I sensed that only an American could have
seen in a single lifetime the growth of the whole tragedy of
civilization from the primitive forest clearing. The result of my
hearing the speech, and buying from one of the stewards of the meeting
a copy of Progress and Poverty for sixpence (Heaven knows
where I got that sixpence) was that I plunged into a course of
economic study, and at a very early stage of it became a Socialist.
...And that all the work was not mere gas, let the feats and pamphlets
of the Fabian Society attest. When I was thus swept into the great
Socialist revival of 1883, I found that five-sixths of those who were
swept in with me had been converted by Henry George.
FROM STAGELEFT A SECOND SPOTLIGHT COMES ON
IMMEDIATELY, AND HENRY GEORGE IS SEEN STANDING ERECT, FACING SHAW,
HANDS ON HIPS. HIS FACE SHOWS NOT ANGER BUT GREAT CONCERN.
IMMEDIATELY, HE INTERRUPTS.
Yes! My words were read, my speeches applauded. But, my dear Shaw,
you and so many others allowed your reason to hear only that which
seemed to find harmony with what you had already thought to be the
truth! You have said that it was I, Henry George, who lighted the
spark of activism in the hearts of so many; yet, the years have shown
me to have been a poor messenger. The flame of truth that seemed to
burn brightly during my life has dwindled to barely a flicker of light
today. I now realize that I vastly overestimated the power of truth to
When I lectured for the first time at Oxford, a professor of
political economy in that great university met and opposed me, and he
said: "I have read Mr. George's books from one end to the other.
What I have to say is this: there is nothing in it both new and true.
What is true is not new, and what is new is not true." I answered
him: "I accept your statement; it is a correct criticism. Social
truth never is, never can be, new; and the truth for which we stand is
an old truth -- a truth seen by men everywhere, recognized by the
first perceptions of all men, only overclouded, only obscured in our
modern times by force and fraud." Thus, I did no more to any man
than point out God's stars. They were there for him to see and every
man may see them who will look.
What keeps me from resting peacefully, forced to return again and
again to speak to new generations such as that of tonight's audience,
is the needless suffering that continues to plague human life in its
earthly state. You may recall that while preparing for that very visit
in 1883 both of my parents passed on within a week of one another; at
the time, I said to my son Richard that I thought if I also died the
work would be carried on by many men in many lands. I knew I could
help it while I lived; but my death did not stop it. What is most
troubling is that so many of those who sought change then and others
who do so now have so little regard for liberty and justice, for which
I gave my all.
Henry, I learned much from you in those days. You were the man of
serious letter. I, as a pamphleteer and reporter, strived to emulate.
The great difference between us, I think, is that you were always the
serious voice in the wilderness. Your message was one of hope and of
promise for a better future, but you were not able to change the
present. I, on the other hand, held high those same universal truths
but grabbed for whatever good could be achieved. And, as life has its
comic ironies, I understood the value of laughter; that we must I
learn to laugh or, by Heavens, we will commit suicide when we realize
all the infamy of the world as it is. You remained a reasonable man in
an unreasonable world and, thus far, you have been largely ignored and
unforgivably forgotten. My humor made people laugh at themselves; my
social commentary lunged at their self-righteousness and dignity.
Henry, your death in 1897 was a great tragedy -- premature and
leaving behind you so much yet to be done. Many of us felt you should
not have come down from the mountain to seek political office; the
strain of campaign cost you your life. Be that as it may, world war in
1915 and not your absence struck the death blow for those who followed
in your footsteps. For myself, as you know, instead of belonging to a
literary club I belonged to a municipal council. Instead of drinking
and discussing authors and reviews, I sat on committees with capable
practical greengrocers and bootmakers and administered the collection
of dust, the electric lighting of the streets, and the enforcement of
sanitary laws. In the end, the establishment greatly respected you as
an individual but called your proposals quack remedies. In my case, I
found that the more frequently I was attacked, the greater my
reputation and impact became. You were gone by then, but in 1903 I was
heard to have offered this advice to others in the field of political
radicalism: 'tNever ruin yourself less than twice a year or the public
will forget all about you." And, it worked. If not well
understood, I am well remembered. Sadly, you are neither.
You, Henry, became a catalyst for change, but yours was not a vision
I nor many other Fabians could share. Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and I
agreed with you that the economic value of nature is public wealth and
not private property. Where you stopped short -- in the
use to which the State should put this public fund -- was where
socialism came in. We remedied your oversights in our Fabian Essays
and attacked Liberalism for what it was, a thinly disguised attempt to
subvert real change by buying off the poor with promises for the
My heart is heavy; so much time has been lost, so much misery spread.
Establishing the just responsibilities of the State in a vacuum is, I
continue to believe, not possible. Yet you wanted not only to capture
the State but to nationalize both the ownership of nature and the
means of production as well. Such power, where it has been gained, has
not proven itself to be the ally of mankind. By the collection of the
economic value of nature -- the remedy you describe as my 'Single Tax'
and modern economists describe as 'land value taxation -- I foresaw a
lessening in the need for heavy state intervention in the individual
affairs of those who labored or owned capital. My hope was that
society would thus approach the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, the
promised land of Herbert Spencer, the containment of government as a
directing and oppressive power. It would at the same time, and in the
same degree, become possible for it to realize the dream of socialism.
We should reach the ideal of the socialist, but not through government
oppression. Government would change its character, and would become
the administrator of a great cooperative society, the agency by which
the common property was administered for the common benefit.
Beautifully said, Henry. It is easy to see why you -- alone -- were
able to influence individuals of such diverse viewpoints as anarchists
such as Tolstoy and Fabian socialists such as me.
That monopoly in land was at root the problem of Russian peasants
was, for Tolstoy, clear enough; that monopoly of capital had replaced
monopoly in land as the greater evil was the reality of everyday life
as we Fabians lived it. In 1945 I reflected on this at length in a
book entitled Eveiybody's Political What's What? My views
remained solid that if the state confiscated rent without being
prepared to employ it instantly as capital in industry, production
would cease and the country be starved.
Production case? I continue to wonder at such thinking. Even the very
rich can live on savings for only so long. What man produces will
eventually deteriorate and return to mother nature. Thus, the
incentives to progress are the desires inherent in human nature -- the
desire to gratify the wants of the animal nature, the wants of the
intellectual nature, and the wants of the sympathetic nature; the
desire to be, to know, and to do -- desires that short of infinity can
never be satisfied, as they grow by what they feed on. Improvement
becomes possible as men come together in peaceful association, the
greater the possibilities of improvement. And as the wasteful
expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the
moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is
recognized, equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.
In our time, my dear Shaw, as in times before, crept on the insidious
forces that, producing inequality, destroyed liberty. On the horizon
the clouds began to lower. Liberty called to us again. We should have
followed her further; we should have trusted her fully. My message was
that we must wholly accept her or she will not stay. It is not enough
that men should vote; it is not enough that they should be
theoretically equal before the law.
They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and
means of life; they must stand on equal terms with reference to the
bounty of nature. Either this, or darkness comes on,, and the very
forces that progress has evolved turn to powers that work destruction.
This is the universal law. This is the lesson of the centuries. Unless
its foundations be laid in justice the social structure cannot stand.
And, this is not a structure that is enhanced by the direction of an
all-powerful state. You, yourself, know this as well as anyone.
Rome, I suspect ... the message brought by Ra. You've turned my words
back on me. Should I be upset? Or surprised? The good people of our
audience may not know my Ra of Caesar and Cleopatra as we do,
Henry. Let them listen and judge for themselves.
SHAW MOVES TO STAGELEFT, TO STAND BESIDE
GEORGE. RA ENTERS FROM STAGERIGHT AND MOVES TO CENTERSTAGE. THE
SPOTLIGHT FADES ON SHAW AND GEORGE.
The old Rome was poor and little, and greedy and fierce, and evil in
many ways; but because its mind was little and its work was simple, it
knew its own mind and did its own work; and the gods pitied it and
helped it and strengthened it and shielded it; for the gods are
patient with littleness.
Then the old Rome, like the beggar on horseback, presumed on the
favor of the gods, and said, "Lo! There is neither riches nor
greatness in our littleness: the road to riches and greatness is
through robbery of the poor and slaughter of the weak." So they
robbed their own poor until they became great masters of that art, and
knew by what laws it could be made to appear seemly and honest.
And when they had squeezed their own poor dry, they robbed the poor
of other lands, and added those lands to Rome until there came a new
Rome, rich and huge.
And I, Ra, laughed; for the minds of the Romans remained the same
size whilst their dominion spread over the Earth.
THE SPOTLIGHT FADES ON RA AND IS RAISED ON
SHAW AND GEORGE, NOW STANDING CLOSE AND FACING ONE ANOTHER.
The Romans expelled their kings, and continued to abhor the vary name
of king. But under the name of Caesars and Imperators they crouched
before tyrants more absolute than kings. The mar who is dependent on a
master for his living, whether that master be person or State, is not
a free man. The primary purpose and end of government being to secure
the natural rights and equal liberty of each, all activities that
involve monopoly are, I have argued, within the necessary province of
governmental regulation, and activities that are in their nature
complete monopolies become properly functions of the State. As society
develops, the State must assume these functions, in their nature
cooperative, in order to secure the equal rights and liberty of all.
However, the province of the State must be restricted to those things
which cannot be done, or cannot be so well done, by individual action.
If there is any truth in what you call socialism, this is that truth.
On this question, we may debate eternally. Nothing has happened since
my passing to change my thinking. Once for all, we are not born free;
and we never can be free. When all the human tyrants are slain or
deposed there will still be the supreme tyrant that can never be slain
or deposed, and that tyrant is Nature. And Nature is a hard
Now commercial civilization has been at root nothing more than the
invention of ways of doing Nature's tasks with less labor. What, then,
is liberty? It is Leisure. And modern methods of production enable
each person to produce much more than they need consume to keep
themselves alive and reproduce themselves. That means that modern
methods produce not only a national fund of wealth but a national fund
of leisure or liberty. Now just as you can distribute the wealth so as
to make a few people monstrously rich whilst leaving all the rest as
poor as before, you can distribute the leisure in such a way as to
make a few people free. And this is exactly what the institution of
private property has done, and why a demand for its abolition and for
the equal distribution of the national leisure or liberty among the
whole population has arisen under the banner of Socialism.
When all is said, the people who shout for freedom without
understanding its limitations, and call Socialism or any other advance
in civilization slavery because it involves new laws as well as new
liberties, are as obstructive to the extension of leisure and liberty
as the more numerous victims of those who, if they could, would
handcuff everybody rather than face the risk of having their noses
punched by somebody.
Liberty, my good fellow, has but to do with Justice, and Justice is
the natural law -- the law of health and symmetry and strength, of
fraternity and co-operation. We speak of Liberty as one thing, and of
virtue, wealth, knowledge, invention, national strength and national
independence as other things. But, of all these, Liberty is the
source, the mother, the necessary condition. She is to virtue what
light is to color; to wealth what sunshine is to grain; to knowledge
what eyes are to sight. She is the genius of invention, the brawn of
national strength, the spirit of national independence. Where Liberty
rises, there virtue grows, wealth increases, knowledge expands,
invention multiplies human powers, and in strength and spirit the
freer nation rises among her neighbors as Saul amid his brethren --
taller and fairer.
You say, "Abolish private property!" I ask, "What
constitutes the rightful basis of property? What is it that enables a
man justly to say of a thing, 'It is mine!' "Is it not the right
of a man t himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of
the fruits of his own exertions? Is it not this individual right,
which springs from and is testified to by the natural facts of
individual organization which alone justifies individual ownership? As
a man belongs to himself, so his labor when put in concrete form
belongs to him. No one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive
right to it involves no wrong to anyone else.
Thus there is to everything produced by human exertion a clear and
indisputable title to exclusive possession and enjoyment, which is
perfectly consistent with justice, as it descends from the original
producer, in whom it vested by natural law.
I do not ask you, or you [George pointing to the audience] to
accept my views. I ask only that you think for yourself. If you will,
I do believe that you will see that Liberty is Justice, and Justice is
the Natural Law. Those actions which in violating the Liberty of
another take the form of License, must fall under public regulation.
Otherwise, Justice is lost. At the same time, we must be free to
exercise our true Liberty.
GEORGE TURNS AWAY FROM SHAW AND TOWARD THE
AUDIENCE. SHAW MOVES BACKWARD OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT, LEAVING GEORGE
ALONG AND MOMENTARILY SILENT. GEORGE CLOSES HIS EYES, LOOKS UPWARD,
THEN STARES OUT AT THE AUDIENCE.
The truth that I have tried to make clear -- to Bernard Shaw, to our
contemporaries, to you -- did not find easy acceptance. If that could
have been, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could have
been, it would never have been obscured. But it found friends -- those
who have toiled for it; suffered for it; died for it. This is the
power of Truth.
Will it at length prevail? Ultimately, yes. But in your own times, or
in times of which any memory of us remains, who shall say?
For the man who, seeing the want and misery, the ignorance and
brutishness caused by unjust social institutions, sets himself, in so
far as he has strength, to right them, there is disappointment and
bitterness. So it has been of old time. So is it even now. But the
bitterest thought -- and it sometimes comes to the best and bravest --
is that of the hopelessness of the effort, the futility of the
sacrifice. To how few of those who sow the seed is it given to see it
grow, or even with certainty to know that it will grow.
Again, I ask on behalf of Liberty. Shall we not trust her?