Freedom by GB Shaw; Summary & Analysis


George Bernard Shaw uses his radio broadcast to tackle the theme of freedom without the confines of theoretical jargons. A believer and proponent of democratic socialism, Shaw condemns the devices of the elites and the rich who foster an environment of false freedom and enslavement of the poor and underprivileged.

However, behind his humour lies the satirical chastisement of the existent social condition and scheme of power. The text of the talk was later produced as an essay.



Shaw says that a person who can do what he likes when he likes and where he likes, or do nothing at all if he prefers it is truly free. But there is no such person; and it is not possible to be like that because we have to do what is necessary like sleep, travel etc. whether we are monarchs or humble labourers.

We have to do our natural jobs plus other jobs for provision, food, shelter, clothes etc, All these material necessities can be stolen. So, in effect, if we can steal honey from bees or enslave a horse for transportation then we can also make other men, women and children do our work by force or fraud or trickery of any sort, and religion.

He debunks the conventional wisdom about ‘freedom’ held by those who think that such a social order in which slavery is a necessary component.

Enforcement of Slavery

So one must be cautious of becoming slaves to other people’s whims and it is the Governments that should be to prevent such imposition. But, the real objective of most Governments is to enforce such slavery in the name of freedom.

Not just that, they regulate your slavery, feeding the greed of your masters within limitations. Therefore, chattel slavery is replaced by wage slavery, the choice between one employment is like choosing one master over others, even if it is called a glorious triumph for freedom.

If you have grievances then you can redeem the promised benefits through a vote, every five years or so. At the election, there is a choice of one rich among the various competing rich, which leaves you no freer than you were before.

Then there are the newspapers assuring you that your vote makes you a free citizen in a democratic country. And one is fool enough to believe them. It is nothing but a perpetual cycle of slavery but with the legal and constitutional sanction.

Kinds of Slavery

The difference between the natural slavery to Nature and the unnatural slavery to man is that Nature is kind. It makes slavery pleasant like eating, sleeping etc.

Family and marriage help us realize our dreams. Thus, we relish our natural wants even if we are slaves to them; we eulogize them in songs and celebrate them.

The slavery of man to man is hateful. No man can be good enough to be another man’s master. Providing Marxist argument Shaw adds that there is no limit to human selfishness and cruelty.

The lust for power over others leads to a perpetual civil war i.e. the class war—between the slaves and their masters. We can never establish a peaceful and stable society until this struggle is resolved.

It can only happen through the eradication of slavery altogether. Slavery under humans is oppressive, exploitative and demeaning. the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ can be bridged only when every man does what he needs to buy his own hands i.e. manual labour is the only solution for social friction.

Submission of the Slaves

The people who have the power, ‘the masterclasses’ do their best to create a sense of false comfort in the minds of those without power. The institutions like the Parliament, schools and the newspaper are leveraged for the purpose.

School children are taught about England as the land the free and the chain of historical accomplishments. The freedom that was earned by the ancestors by forcing King John to sign Magna Charta after defeating the Spanish Armada and when King William had to give assent to the Bill of Rights or the American Declaration of Independence was made or when the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar were won.

How the German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires were changed into republics. On the contrary when the ordinary people demonstrate they are held responsible because of the vote they gave.

The dissenter to the established truths are told that the doles like the Factory Acts, and the Wages Board, free education, and the New Deal are more than the people deserve.

The justification is made by telling the poor that the rich are taxed almost half of their incomes even though it is the poor pay as much their wages for rent. Plus, they have to work double the amount every day.

Whenever renowned writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, Shelley or Karl Marx write on such impositions, their works are made inaccessible. If people seek a revolution, the country declares war on them and recruits the other Powers to hands in the exercise of enslavement.

It sides with the tyrannical empires and fights against the revolutionaries. They (Britain) joined hands with such a sate at the war of Waterloo and the victory was declared a win triumph for British freedom and the British wage slaves.

The propaganda swayed intellectuals like Lord Byron too. At first, the revolution in Russia (1922) was criticized and ridiculed but as the revolution gave shape to a powerful military Power our terms of engagement changed.

When the equations changed, rather than denouncing the tyrants we (British crown) invited them to state dinners.

The Fallacy of Fair Society

However, a fair and equitable society is just a farce and a lie. The elected government, the courts and a robust executive apparatus only enable an unjust, inequitable and subjugating social order stratified in differential privilege.

A thorough process of brain-washing makes the poor unwittingly submit to their masters. However, even the master class is caught up in such delusion.

When the children of privileged families go to the elite schools, colleges and universities, they too get conditioned into believing their superiority.

They become oblivious and insensitive to the plight of the underprivileged who never got the same access to a good life. The educated elite is considered superior to the common worker whose duty is to do his errands, earn his livelihood for him and even should shed his blood if a need arises.

Thus, past injustice is repeated and becomes inherently accepted in the system. The disprivileged can’t accept the discriminatory treatment quietly. But if they give voice to the resentment they get the long arm of the law enforcement.

Additionally, there are always a few brownnose and corrupt officials who are experts in quelling dissent. If they harbour dream of being rescued by some Napoleonic genius then they might as well say goodbye to their freedom as empires do not bend to popular will.

So, the enslaved reluctantly plead their allegiance to the master even though, given a fair chance, they would vote emphatically against the unjust system.

A Plea to Common Intelligence

Shaw reflects on his own text and decides to dilute in preaching what he believes. He reiterated that he does not court controversies advises the listeners to exercise intelligence with his text otherwise there may be unintended and undesirable conclusions drawn.

He asserts that slaves are indispensable when it comes to running a society and uses the example of Greek philosopher Aristotle and use of slaves for governance.

In a government set-up, there exist a few privileged persons must exude a sense of superiority or an aura around them. This ‘aura’ is consciously constructed by making them look smarter, stronger, special and in control.

From their attire to their lifestyle, they have numerous slaves at their beck and call to do errands. Such splendour and grandeur make them worthy of obeisance and even worship. So, this special class of people requires the creation of a nation of slaves.

People accept subservience to when they accept the seeming superiors as their lords. This legitimizes enslavement and perpetuates the privilege of the rich and handsome.

No Time to Enjoy Freedom

Shaw sums up his arguments one can never be truly free as Nature demands half of one’s day for good health, sound mind and recovered body. For the next half, you have to work for yourself or somebody else to earn your livelihood.

During this time you have to follow the rules and laws of the civilized society you live in. If you defy these rules you invite the wrath of the penal law and the police that enforce it.

However, laws are necessary if they are impartial and reasonable; they increase freedom by safeguarding people against violence, abuse and atrocity. This keeps us sane and society in order. At a more intimate level, there is the landlord and the employer.

Both of them dictate your choices from what clothing you wear pr what political party you support. They can evict or dismiss you at their fancy. Hence, they have more control and authority over you than any political dictator.

According to Shaw, the only solution currently available is a strong trade union which can go on hunger strike and threaten to starve on the employer’s doorsteps if justice is not done.

However, the police will not allow you to die at your employer’s doorstep so you can only starve to death in your own house if you are lucky to have one by then. He regards the more extreme form of the strike, the general strike of all workers as human folly.

If it worked then it will lead to the complete extinction of the human race in mere days with the complainants the first to taste death. He goes on to do some mathematics of work. He says the one works for twelve hours a day cannot ever have freedom.

One who works eight hours a day gets four hours of freedom but with the limits of the laws, money and health. Even then there are natural limitations of body and needs rest so you hardly get any free time to entertain your sense or enlighten your mind.

Leisure is True Freedom

Shaw condemns people who desire more freedom but are satisfied with a vote and a freebie. He quotes the Shakespearean character of Iago’s who advised his friends to earn more money and not spend it to enrich oneself.

However, that is not practical with meagre wages and burgeoning. He says people in England (and the World) clamour for freedom even without knowing what it means to be free or never having experienced it. Instead, they only understand leisure which is measured in terms of wages.

Therefore instead of chanting ‘Rule Britannia’ Britain people should ask for more money in return for their labour and earn more leisure with that money.

He condemns the existing system of elections and calls politicians as anarchists who preserve a system of oppression and exploitation.

The empty rhetoric of freedom and liberty under the banner of justice and equality only hides the gluttonous political class enslaving the governed.

Choice of Freedom

Now he re-examines the dichotomy between money and happiness He says that Satan will still make mischief with people who sit idle. Man is but a collection of desires, emotions and mistakes. There are so many people who lose their happiness and health, even after amassing wealth and money.

He says that most people struggle to make judicious use of extra wealth and leisure time and often indulge in sinful activities. The excesses of luxury and time can be a big burden without proper education and grooming.

Shaw ends the talk by posing a dilemma that If we had your choice, would we rather work eight hours a day and retire with a full pension at forty-five, or work four hours a day and keep working till seventy.

In a characteristically humorous tone says that the listeners should discuss the answer with their wives regarding their preferred choice.

Key Thoughts

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish-born writer, gave this as a radio broadcast address on 17 June 1935. The text of this broadcast challenged the old order, the current state, and the likely future. He explains the difference between two kinds of slavery, natural and unnatural or slavery by man.

The natural slavery takes at least twelve hours a day, while the unnatural slavery is regulated by the educational, legal and administrative system of the country. The audacious content raised a lot of eyebrows and controversy at the time.

Shaw says that the master class uses the ideological apparatuses like religious ideology, ethical ideology, legal ideology, political ideology to create a sense of Marxian ‘false consciousness’ and a sense of freedom.

However, he believes no man can ever be truly free, either from the slavery of nature of the slavery of man. True to his Marxist roots, Shaw delivers a scathing denunciation of the capitalist and formalistic view of freedom.