December 8th, 2005

Literary leftists: H.G. Wells and the future (Part III)

[Part I: Reading Lolita in Tehran]
[Part II: Hemingway and Dos Passos and the Spanish Civil War]

We all know H.G. Wells.

That is, we all think we know him. He’s the author of science fiction novels that seem to have been designed with the express purpose of being made into films. One might almost think he foresaw the invention of movies, too–but films were actually in the process of being invented when Wells wrote his most famous books–The Time Machine in 1895, and War of the Worlds in 1898.

When Wells was alive, he was considered by many to be far more than a mere spinner of tall tales, entertaining though those tales might be:

In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, one of the twentieth century’s most famous proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, held up Wells in particular as an example of the idealist intellectuals who believed in “the most comprehensive central planning” and could “at the same time, write an ardent defence of the rights of man”.

Wells became a socialist in 1903, when he joined the Fabian Society. But Wells (and the Fabians) was a gradualist; he did not believe in revolutionary socialism:

The Fabians believed that social reform could be achieved by a new political approach of gradual and patient argument, ‘permeating’ their ideas into the circles of those with power: ‘the inevitability of gradualism’ was an early slogan.

As Sidney Webb wrote to the Fabian Edward Pease in 1886, “Nothing is done in England without the consent of a small intellectual yet political class in London, not 2000 in number. We alone could get at that class.” The Fabians were especially active in London local government. The Fabians aimed for democratic socialism. Believing that voters could be persuaded of socialism’s justice, they sought to achieve reform by education, stimulating debate through lectures and discussions initiated by democratically accountable and educated professionals.

Wells flirted for a time with the Soviets, but he quickly learned that his aims and theirs were antithetical:

Although Wells had many reservations about the Soviet system, he understood the broad aims of the Russian Revolution, and had in 1920 a fairly amiable meeting with Lenin. In the early 1920s Wells was a labour candidate for Parliament…In 1934 he had discussions with both Stalin, who left him disillusioned, and Roosevelt, trying to recruit them without success to his world-saving schemes. Wells was convinced that Western socialists cannot compromise with Communism, and that the best hope for the future lay in Washington…In THE HOLY TERROR (1939) Wells studied the psychological development of a modern dictator exemplified in the careers of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Wells was clear-eyed enough to understand tyranny, and he had no use for it.

Why am I writing about Wells? He was a fascinating combination of amazing foresight about scientific discoveries, unrealistic idealism about human nature, and pessimism about that very same human nature.

I came across some astounding excerpts from his novel The World Set Free (written in 1914) in the November 28, 2005 issue of the New Yorker (yes, indeed; that magazine again!), which amply illustrate the first and last of these Wellsian characteristics. They are part of an article by Tom Reiss entitled “Imagining the Worst: How a literary genre anticipated the modern world,” about futuristic science fiction and its relation to reality.

In his book The World Set Free, Wells had the distinction of foreseeing nuclear war. His vision was not of some generalized and unspecified sort of apocalyptic weaponry; it was of nuclear weapons themselves, including an excellent description of a chain reaction. He even seems to have used the term “atomic bombs.”

Reiss writes:

When the book appeared, no physicists thought that an artificially induced chain reaction–which Wells called “the disease of matter”–was possible. Wells based the science in his story on research by the British physicists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford, both of whom dismissed the idea (Rutherford called it “moonshine.”) In 1932, however, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist working at the Institute of Theoretical Physics, in Berlin, read the novel in a German translation. The following year, while on a walk in London, Szilard had an epiphany in which he conceived how a nuclear weapon might actually be built. He subsequently sent the first chapter of Wells’ book to Sir Hugo Hirst, the founder of British General Electric, accompanied by a letter in which he wrote, “The forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists. The physicists have conclusive arguments as to why we cannot create at present new sources of energy…I am not so sure whether they do not miss the point.”…

The book’s main character is the nuclear chain reaction itself;: a phenomenon portrayed in such intimate and creepy detail that it seems almost like a living thing…The last part of the book takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where…[m]ost of the capital cities of the world were burning, millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.

Wells had a solution for the problem, too–at the end of the book, nations abandon their nationhood and form a world government that ends war. It was the only solution that seemed possible to him; but even then, it came at the end of nuclear catastrophe, not in time to prevent it.

Here’s Wells in The World Set Free (and as you read this passage, remember that it was written and published at the beginning of World War I):

All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing…Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city. These facts were before the minds of everybody; the children in the streets knew them. And yet the world still, as the Americans used to phrase it, “Fooled around” with the paraphernalia and pretensions of war.

I think it’s a truly impressive prediction in light of today’s talk of suitcase bombs. And of course there’s that phrase “any little body of malcontents;” Wells foresaw, if not the exact identity of Islamicist terrorists, then the general phenomenon of a small group of angry people gaining incredible destructive power and being willing to use it.

Wells was stellar at foreseeing the march of science and the problems to which it would lead. What he didn’t have was a solution–although he wanted to find one, and tried to find one. His idea of a world government banning war was certainly attractive, and is difficult to give up even today, when it has proven untenable.

The idea was a hope born of desperation. Towards the end of his life, Wells seems to have abandoned it to despair. It was his fortune–or misfortune; I’m not sure which–to have lived to see the end of World War II, and even the beginnings of atomic war (although not the out-of-control worldwide atomic war he foretold and feared). He died almost exactly one year after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while working on a project on the dangers of nuclear war.

In his preface to a 1923 edition of The World Set Free, Wells still retained hope, although it was fading and tenuous:

[T]he question whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world. It is clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs demands. The inertia of dead ideas and old institutions carries us on towards the rapids. Only in one direction is there any plain recognition of the idea of a human commonweal as something overriding any national and patriotic consideration, and that is in the working class movement throughout the world. And labour internationalism is closely bound up with conceptions of a profound social revolution. If world peace is to be attained through labour internationalism, it will have to be attained at the price of the completest social and economic reconstruction and by passing through a phase of revolution that will certainly be violent, that may be very bloody, which may be prolonged through a long period, and may in the end fail to achieve anything but social destruction. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far appeared. The dream of The World Set Free, a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world, has thus far remained a dream.

Wells was both a man of science and a dreamer. But he was enough of a realist, I believe, to sadly renounce his dream in the face of evidence that it wasn’t tenable. His final book, World at the End of its Tether (compare that to the optimistic title of his earlier work, The World Set Free), was utterly despairing about the prospects for the future. My suspicion is that the abject failure of the League of Nations, the horrors of Stalin’s USSR, and the conflagration of World War II made Wells recognize that salvation did not lie in working class internationalism. That realization was probably nearly unbearable for him.

Would Wells have been encouraged or dismayed if he had somehow taken a time machine and found himself in our present world? I don’t know. But I like to think he’d be pleasantly surprised to find, at least, that the world has lasted as long as it has without total nuclear destruction. I also like to think he would have given up–albeit reluctantly–on the old but unrealistic dream of international bodies such as the UN solving the problem. I like to think he’d see a certain amount of hope in the spread–however tenuous–of democracy in areas of the world which have never seen it before.

And I like to think that he wasn’t so very prescient after all, and that his vision of destruction never comes to pass–and that, at least in that respect, life does not imitate art.

21 Responses to “Literary leftists: H.G. Wells and the future (Part III)”

  1. Dr John S. Partington Says:

    I would just like to clear up a few points in your blog, and elaborate upon them as I go along.

    - You say ‘Wells became a socialist in 1903′: In fact he was a socialist from the 1880s, giving two presentations to his college Debating Society on Socialism, and visiting William Morris’s house to hear socialist lectures by Morris, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, among others.

    - You say Wells ‘did not believe in revolutionary socialism’: This depends upon your definition of ‘revolutionary’. He opposed class war and thought little of Marx’s predictions (though he did respect Marx’s historical analysis). By the 1920s, however, Wells was calling for revolution and, while this often appeared to mean a kind of revolution in attitudes rather than through physical action, he does specify quite clearly in ‘The Open Conspiracy’ (1928) that violence might be necessary by peoples against their intransigent governments. Some critics also read the violence in Wells’s fiction (‘The World Set Free’, 1914, ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, 1933, and the film for which he wrote the screenplay, ‘Things to Come’, 1936, eg.) as suggesting Wells’s own willingness to use force to achieve his objectives.

    - I’m intrigued by your quotation of the 1923 preface to ‘The World Set Free’ – I have never seen it before, and find the references to labour internationalism and the working class movement very un-Wellsian. I’d be interested to have the full bibliographical details of this book so I can chase up the preface. Are you citing the Collins or Macmillan edition of that year?

    - You mention Wells’s final book, but mistitle it: your ‘World at the End of Its Tether’ should read ‘Mind at the End of Its Tether’.

    You write ‘I also like to think he would have given up – albeit reluctantly – on the old but unrealistic dream of international bodies such as the UN solving the problem’: This both underestimates the centrality and importance of global bodies in Wells’s thought. Based on his ealry 20th century position, he would no doubt have rejected the UN for the same reason he rejected the League of Nations (which he rejected as early as 1920 after promoting the idea through the Great War) – because it represents a forum for nation-states to debate world issues. Wells’s violently opposed the nation-state and sought transnational bodies to take replace the nation-state as a unit of political control. He was a supporter of David Lubin’s International Institute of Agriculture in Rome (which has been absorbed into the World Food Organisation) because Lubin’s body made treaties with nations and organisations, rather than leaving treaty making between nation-states.

    - Your write ‘I like to think he’d see a certain amount of hope in the spread – however tenuous – of democracy in areas of the world which have never seen it before’: Wells was not a supporter of democracy as represented by electoral methods, but preferred representative government by means un-manipulable by party machines and the mass media. Thus, when writing his ‘Rights of Man’ declaration between 1939 and 1944, he deliberately avoided including electoral democracy as a ‘right’ though he did insist on popular input into the process of government.

    - on Pancho’s point, Wells did write about conservation which, whiler not narrowly concerned with global warming, is central to it.

    - Chris’s point about Wells’s labor class having been absorbed into the present bourgeoisie is one that has been investigated. Wells’s anti-working-class thought essentially promoted a rising of the standard of living so that all would be middle class. Orwell thought similarly, though he considered such a classless society to be a proletarian world (this being positive to Orwell, in cultural term).

    - David mentions ‘The Bulpington of Blup’ – this is a fictional picture Ford Madox Ford, whom Wells considered a facade and a dilettante.

    - To Ymarsakar, your vision of war as a show of strength and leadership is social-Darwinian, and has been promoted for over a century. It is imperialist, racist, and has been a common espousal of militarist apologists since the late-nineteenth century, and was incorporated into ideology by the National Socialists.

    This essay is satisfying on the whole, and it is refreshing to read a blanced account from a centre-right author.

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  5. greeneyeshade Says:

    You might check out Orwell’s essay, “Wells, Hitler and the World State,” written just after the invasion of Russia, which includes a passage with a lot of resonance for our times:
    “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.”

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    I usually do the brainstorming, stream of consciousness posts here first, and then post them to my blog for ease of reference if I needed them back. This time I’ll do it the other way around. Probably because I had an idea of what I wanted to write about first, and my blog is easier to edit on. Editing is not a breeze at all.

    First I had an idea, or decided to articulate an idea I was massaging. Then I responded to some of what NNCon had written. (Why does had written/had wrote keep bouncing around in my head)

    His idea of a world government banning war

    I’ve been kicking this idea around for awhile, and I’ve begun to start seeing war as a test.

    Not as a test of who is right or wrong, more or less powerful, but simply with whom lies the best chances for human success.
    [...]
    One of the questions that lead to this conclusion is why does it take a war that ends up blowing up the planet, to unite it?

    Why does war show the best and worst sides of human nature?
    [...]
    So what is it a test of, if it is a test of anything?

    I believe it is a test of who has the best chances for bringing a collected group of people through survival challenges.

    A test of leadership in otherwords. Of whom that will determine the fate of the human race, in the end. Hitler, Stalin, Milosovic, Saddam, Pol Pot, all were contenders really.

    is difficult to give up even today, when it has proven untenable.

    I really didn’t think the concept of a world government is all that untenable, and I explained why in my post.

    “the fact remains that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far appeared. “

    This guy should have studied “Thermopyles” and the Xenophon’s 10,000, as well as the entire history of the Roman Empire. First, Second, and Third Punic Wars. He might have found his “concept of a world rule and a world peace” through that instead of the non-existent international labor.

  7. David Says:

    A very different book by Wells is “The Bulpington of Blup.” It’s about an aspiring literary intellectual and his struggles to find himself in the early 20th century. No science fiction or futurism here. Extremely well-written.

  8. roman Says:

    This prescient piece of writing is the scariest of all.

    “Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city.”

    It is the “elephant” which few of us want to acknowledge. People have been moving into cities and towns for a couple of centuries. Will this trend be reversed keeping in mind the destrucive power which can be unleashed from a “handbag” by any malcontent?

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    To hg wells: I forgot we had such an authority here! You must think it audacious of me to have tried to read your mind :-).

    paul: It’s one of those books that are definitely on my list. But it’s a long list, getting longer all the time.

    bunnies: Done!

  10. Motor 1560 Says:

    Great post!

    h.g. wells said: H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley are the the British triumvirate of influential authors whom I first read as a teenager that provided the matrix of thinking, both critical and open, which formed me then and continues to inspire me to this day.

    I too read these three when I was young. Wells first, then Huxley and Orwell last. When I was 19 and doing the schlep around Europe thing, I bought the wonderful Penguin editions of Keep the Asphidistra Flying and Down and Out in London and In Paris. There was nothing quite as wonderful as a EurRail pass, a night train and a really good book.

    chris: Good point on globalization. I get a kick out the leftists screaming, “Wait, wait. You can’t do it that way. You’ve forgotten the step where you do Socialism first.” Sorry, different dance, different music.Wear nicer clothes. That chambray shirt, long scarf and green book bag thing is so last week.

  11. Chris Says:

    It’s funny, but when I read about his description of his hopes for the labor class, I thought of what we call globalization. As more and more people enter the networked global economy, the revolution grows. The bourgeoisie has absorbed the old working class. As more people enter the middle class, it becomes Wells’ labor class.

  12. Esbiem Says:

    Take the following quote and substitute Islamist jihadists for Labor Class and you will find that HG Wells was right on, he only had the identity of the revolutionaries wrong… “Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far appeared. The dream of The World Set Free, a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world, has thus far remained a dream.”

  13. Richard Landes Says:

    “Wells foresaw, if not the exact identity of Islamicist terrorists, then the general phenomenon of a small group of angry people gaining incredible destructive power and being willing to use it.”

    Actually Wells already had the example before him of Russian terrorists who not only invented suicide terrorism, but also the use of children to do so. My colleague Anna Geifman has a book on this which is now only in French entitled La mort sera votre Dieu [Death will be your God] http://www.amazon.fr/exec/obidos/search-handle-form/403-8575862-0422066.

    The difference between the Russians and the Muslims on this is that the former believed, using Nietzsche, that “God is dead; everything is permitted”; while the latter believe that “Allah wills it; everything is permitted. Alas for we mere mortals.

  14. Paul Says:

    Please do (if you haven’t already) read “Ex-Friends” by Norman Podhoretz. There is a great chapter in the tome on Lillian Hellman. It is an expose on a woman who was a Communist and liked to portray herself as a victim of McCarthyism. Indeed it is a profound book and as an old Leftist (long since reformed) I find it to be an honest book about a disturbing subject.

  15. JSU Says:

    I think Wells would be astounded at how powerful — and anger-dissipating, among those so blessed — free markets + free government have turned out to be. The world set free, indeed. But faster, please.

  16. hg wells Says:

    Given my pseud on this blog, it’s irresistible for me to chime in. H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley are the the British triumvirate of influential authors whom I first read as a teenager that provided the matrix of thinking, both critical and open, which formed me then and continues to inspire me to this day.

    Of course I know that Wells was a socialist in his time, as I was when I was younger. As neo points out, Wells was both a realist and a dreamer. He was indeed capable of changing in the face of contrary evidence, yet there was always a vision of human progress that motivated him. I would like to think that, were he alive today, he would be heartened by what has been accomplished and the potential of what is to come.

    Frankly I think the Iraq War would not pose near the difficulties to Wells that it does to most of my progressive friends.

    Wells is still worth reading and worth reading about.

    Thanks.

  17. Pancho Says:

    I only wish that Wells had commented on Global Warming and how it is affecting our world. A solution must be found before we in West Texas freeze to death. 7° here this morning….

  18. chuck Says:

    When I was a kid I picked up Well’s The War in the Air, from the library. It was written in 1907 and had great fleets of aircraft doing battle as all the powers of the time put up armadas; one cloud of aircraft after another would suddenly appear over the horizon. It was technically dated, of course, but still great fun. It is probably a work in some ways similar to The World Set Free

    The War of the Worlds is still worth a read. There are passages I still find stunning:

    It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about. Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.

    Green. Green smokes, flashes, streaks, and lights. Martian technology was green before its time ;)

  19. The Bunnies Says:

    I recommend you add this series to “Best of Neo-Neocon.”

  20. Sigmund, Carl and Alfred Says:

    Great post. I love this stuff- I come away knowing a whole lot more than I did when I started reading!

    Your take on Wells’ “unrealistic idealism about human nature, and pessimism about that very same human nature” is an interesting one- “Wells foresaw, if not the exact identity of Islamicist terrorists, then the general phenomenon of a small group of angry people gaining incredible destructive power and being willing to use it.”

    That Well wrote about a ‘world government’ after a nuclear disaster is telling: human nature, being what it is, occasionally needs a real beating to part us from our hubris and narcissism.

    This post is both a sleeper and a keeper.

    Bouquets!

  21. Huan Says:

    a great post. educational and entertaining.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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