"The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" was published in 1927, when George Bernard Shaw was at the very pinnacle of his success as a playwright. (He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for "St Joan" two years earlier.)
It purported to be a political primer for the "intelligent woman" who knew little or nothing of politics. This literary device of addressing an imaginary, ignorant audience allowed Shaw to start from the beginning. Clear your mind of all preconceptions, he said, and let us first look at the facts. What are the conditions under which the mass of mankind lives in the industrialized world? What is "politics"? What is the real meaning of the words "capitalism" and "socialism" and "communism"? What is the present state of society if examined without any of these labels? Why is it like this?
Having cleared the ground, Shaw then addressed that most fundamental of all social questions, the question to which his entire adult life had been devoted. How is the wealth of the world to be divided up?
Shaw was (to put it mildly) a committed socialist. And The Guide pulled no punches in asserting that socialism is the only sane answer to that question. However, he played scrupulously fair in his presentation of the facts. He described with absolute clarity the causes, conditions and present (1927) state of private property, political parties, banking, revolutions, facism, the stock market, credit, the national debt, universal adult suffrage, investment, strikes and poverty.
In short, the primary value of this extraordinary work was its conceptual clarity. Whether or not readers shared Shaw's opinions, merely by reading the book they could not help but greatly - and usefully - increase their understanding of their world.
The question for modern readers, seventy-five years later, is whether The Guide can help us to understand the modern world.
The answer is Yes.
As a test, borrow a copy of the book and read the chapter entitled "Banking". Just that one chapter. If you do not understand at least twice as much about what a bank is, and does, than you did before, then you need not bother with anything else in the book and you can return it with thanks. Otherwise, as a clincher, read the chapter entitled "Revolutions". I will be very surprised if you do not then buy your own copy.
That said, there are a couple of traps. Firstly, Shaw's English is now somewhat dated. He often uses very much longer sentences, with more subordinate clauses, than we commonly do today. This is ultimately helpful in conveying his meaning, but not immediately so to the modern reader. The Guide is therefore somewhat wearing to read for any length of time. It is not an easy book to skim.
Secondly, since Shaw does have a definite polemical intention (he wants us to become socialists), and since few writers have ever been more skilful at delivering a message while appearing not to, the reader has to be permanently on guard against taking Shaw's statements as facts. He is expert at the art of covertly leading readers to his own conclusions. The effort required to resist all this is also rather exhausting.
These shortcomings aside, and they are significant, The Guide stands as one of the great literary political works of the twentieth century. It is also one of the few genuinely hopeful contributions to the discipline we now call sociology. This reflects neither an earlier, cheerier worldview (in 1927 in England there was every reason to despair), nor a utopian naïveté (Shaw had a clearer sense than most of the horrors of which mankind is capable). No, the sense of hope that suffuses The Guide derives from Shaw's own inextinguishable, strangely realistic generosity of spirit.
In comparing Shaw with his famous fellow-socialist author H.G.Wells, C.P.Snow commented that "Shaw was a kinder, but colder man". He was. And both his kindness and his coldness inform The Guide: matchless detachment, combined with the utmost charity and reasonableness.
"The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" was George Bernard Shaw's political magnum opus. He had spent much of the previous forty years writing about politics and society, often in the guise of drama, musical criticism or "prefaces" to his published plays. And he continued to do so for the remainder of his life, the last major political work appearing only a few years before his death in 1950.
But this book is It. "The Intelligent Woman's Guide" summarizes all his thinking, all his reading, all his public speaking, all his experience, all his hopes and all his fears for the future. It is the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the betterment of mankind by political means. In his twenty more years of work - including "The Apple Cart", "Too True to be Good", and "Everybody's Political What's What" - Shaw never wrote anything as good again. There was nothing more he needed to say.