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  • Shaw and Conversion
  • Nicholas Grene (bio)

My subject is Shaw and conversion, but I would like to approach that subject initially by a somewhat circuitous route, taking in some aspects of evolutionary theory, the evolution of Shaw's consciousness, and the effect on it of his exposure to Marx and Samuel Butler, before arriving at the plays and the way conversion is represented in them. My specific starting point is the evolutionary concept of "punctuated equilibria." According to standard Darwinian thinking, "evolutionary change is generally slow, steady, gradual, and continuous."1 Evolution, it is argued, took place over very long periods of time by a process of successive tiny mutations in large populations in which, by the principle of natural selection, those organisms best adapted to the environment survived and those less well adapted died out. The only difficulty with this theory is that it is not supported by the fossil record, which yields no evidence of gradual change: "New species almost always appeared suddenly . . . with no intermediate links to ancestors in older rocks of the same region."2 Darwin put this down to the fragmentary and imperfect character of the fossil record left to us, but he maintained that these gradual transitional stages must have existed, even those now lost to view. He held to the ancient maxim "Natura non facit saltum," nature does not move in jumps. In the 1970s, however, two paleontologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, argued that this is exactly what nature may have done in evolution. This is the theory of punctuated equilibria, or punc. eq. to its intimates: "Lineages change little during most of their history, but events of rapid speciation occasionally punctuate this tranquility. Evolution is the differential survival and deployment of these punctuations."3 Thus, if we believe Eldredge and Gould, the fossil record is not the gapped and inadequate set of vestiges that Darwin believed but, rather, faithfully reflects the intermittent pattern of evolutionary change.

This could be related to Shaw's own doctrine of Creative Evolution. The five plays of Back to Methuselah could be seen as punctuating episodes in [End Page 59] the work's vision of the human race stretching through time from the Garden of Eden to as far as thought can reach. But that is not how I want to apply the concept here. Instead, I would like to look at the evolution of Shaw's own consciousness in terms of punctuated equilibria. Politically, Shaw was an advocate of the Fabian principle of the "inevitability of gradualism" and constantly resisted the notion of a single, one-off, all-changing revolution. Yet, in the development of his own thought, there were periods of sudden revelation that radically transformed his intellectual landscape. What is more, once that transformation was effected, its results remained in place for the rest of his life. This is why I use the analogy of evolutionary punc. eq. In Shaw's consciousness there were times of extremely rapid change followed by a prolonged lifetime of unchanging belief. I will concentrate on just two of the most important of these punctuations: his reaction to Marx in the early 1880s and the effect of his reading of Samuel Butler toward the end of that decade.

The story of Shaw's first encounter with Marx is of course very well known: how hearing the American Henry George lecture in 1882 opened his eyes to "the importance of economics"; how he went to a meeting of H. M. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF) preaching George's doctrine of land nationalization and was scorned for not having read Marx; how he painstakingly read the first volume of Capital in French translation, only to discover that the ever-so-superior members of the SDF had not read Marx themselves.4 Shaw was soon convinced that Marx's labor theory of value was mistaken and espoused instead the value theory of marginal utility deriving from Stanley Jevons. This was to make him a very peculiar Marxist from an economic point of view and partly prompted Lenin's famous comment that Shaw was "a good man fallen among Fabians," as well as a couple of fierce book-length denunciations...


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