Although this is a well-known quotation for most Shavians, I must admit that I felt compelled to write about it when I found it in an article in an edited volume entitled The State of Social Progress of Islamic Societies (p. 572). The world Shaw lived in saw its fair share of revolutions, and the world today seems to be headed in a similar direction, especially in some Islamic societies. It should come as no surprise, then, that this should be the closing words of the foreword to The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion.
And it is precisely the disparity between what those words meant for Shaw and his readers in the context of Man and Superman and how they have been used by different people afterwards that I would like to illustrate today.
This fragment has been quoted by several Shaw critics, although each of them has used it to exemplify a rather different aspect. So, for example, Richard M. Ohmann (Shaw: The Style and the Man) makes a purely stylistic claim when he argues that this is one of the many examples where
"...Shaw frequently compounds the structure of a whole piece from a set of negations. Take that quintessence of Shavianism, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook.” After a preface concluding that “Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny” (italics mine), John Tanner’s first chapter outlines the need for controlled breeding, but in doing so it begins with a denial that transfiguration of institutions is evermore than change from Tweedledum to Tweedledee, and ends with a warning that the goal of breeding must be neither a race of mindless athletes nor a race of Sunday School prigs."
H.P. Hackett (Shaw: George versus Bernard), in turn, focuses on how Man and Superman reveals itself as a major turning point in Shaw's philosophy, or rather, that by then
"He was summing up the results of twenty years' experience as a reformer, confessing failure of the old method, and trying for a new one. He looked back and said that reforms were useless till man had reformed himself, and looked forward and said that man couldn't reform himself till the Life Force had reformed him. He cleared the decks of everything else in a single sweep—or rather in a series of them called a Preface, a Philosophy, and a Revolutionist's Handbook. He did it with that magnificent openness and thoroughness which is the joy and despair of his biographers—for it gives them the fullest inside information about him, and yet when they try to present it to the public, they find that it was all so much better in the original."
Outside the Shavian circles, however, there has been a motley corpus of appropriations of this quotation - sometimes stretching its original sense beyond recognition.
So, for example, we find wild claims such as the argument found in Competition Science Vision that "having seen the iron-curtain of Stalin after the 1917 Revolution, the great English dramatist G.B. Shaw gave this lucid comment that 'Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny..." Either Shaw mastered time travel or I fail to see how this is even possible.
Some other times (The New Management: Democracy and Enterprise are Transforming Organizations), the quotation is used as a foreboding, gloomy summary of historical evolution, without taking into consideration the ability of humankind to evolve, according to Shaw. So, for Halal
"By embracing the icon of capitalism held up by the West, communism has shed its old ideology only to submit to a new ideology. Many Russians bitterly condemn the blind faith in capitalism that now imprisons them as badly as communism used to. George Bernard Shaw put it best: Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny..."
Others have used Shaw's words to summarize the corrpution of the ideals of the French Revolution and the age of Enlightenment. Take, for instance, this passage from Violence: The Enduring Problem; or the opening quotation in Chapter III of A Cultural History of the Modern Age Vol. 2: Baroque, Rococo and Enlightenment. The bottomline is usually the same and I believe it neglects another key passage from The Revolutionist's Handbook that underscores where the real revolution lies:
"Our only hope, then, is in evolution. We must replace the man by the superman. It is frightful for the citizen, as the years pass him, to see his own contemporaries so exactly reproduced by the younger generation, that his companions of thirty years ago have their counterparts in every city crowd, where he had to check himself repeatedly in the act of saluting as an old friend some young man to whom he is only an elderly stranger. All hope of advance dies in his bosom as he watches them: he knows that they will do just what their fathers did, and that the few voices which will still, as always before, exhort them to do something else and be something better, might as well spare their breath to cool their porridge (if they can get any). Men like Ruskin and Carlyle will preach to Smith and Brown for the sake of preaching, just as St Francis preached to the birds and St Anthony to the fishes. But Smith and Brown, like the fishes and birds, remain as they are; and poets who plan Utopias and prove that nothing is necessary for their realization but that Man should will them, perceive at last, like Richard Wagner, that the fact to be faced is that Man does not effectively will them. And he never will until he becomes Superman."
However, ascertaining what Shaw, Wagner, Nietzsche, and everybody else in the history of ideas might mean by "Superman" will have to wait for another day.