|H.G. Wells ~ A Utopian Mind
by Michael Ricciardi
"Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a
hideous grimace." -- HGW
Most famous for his groundbreaking science-fiction books such as War Of The Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and most notably The Time Machine--all published in the last years of the 19th century-- H.G. Wells would become, in the first half of the 20th century, nearly equally famous for his social-scientific lectures, political activism, and speculative non-fiction works.
We can see an indication of this development in Wells's intellectual life with a rereading of his "scientific fantasies", as they were called then. Wells's definitive fiction works all possessed the air of a cautionary fable, and the hint of an emerging critical philosophy. Wells's later, non-fiction works were equally innovative for bridging the 'specialized' fields of science, philosophy, education, economics, and politics…and they introduced a world-wide, literate audience to Wells' progressive ideas on birth-control/feminism, pedagogy, socialism, scientific progress, and human rights, as well as his ideas of 'the good society', the basis for his utopian world-view.
In any attempt to understand the intellectual Wells, we must look at the historical epoch in which he came of age, as well as certain incidents in his early years. Wells was born in Bromley, Kent in 1866, barely seven years after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species--perhaps the most revolutionary (even to this day) book ever published in the English language--and barely twenty years after Carl Marx's almost equally revolutionary work, The Communist Manifesto, was first published (1847). These works made undeniably massive waves in the cultural, scientific, and political oceans. By the end of the 1890's, the educated middle and upper classes of England, The United States, and Europe were abuzz with sophisticated argumentation and speculation on evolution, revolution, progress, education, socialism, and communism (the American stock market crash of 1900 had already opened the door to talk of socialist remedies). Many prominent political leaders and thinkers believed that Capitalism had 'run its course'. Science was achieving greater success in its theoretical explications of the natural world--radio and human flight were not far off--and there existed a palpable sense of moment; that despite the uncertainty and social and political turmoil, true human progress lay at hand.
On the more personal level, though no less formative, HGW suffered a broken tibia when he was seven years of age. He was laid up for considerable time, during which his father would bring him books--scientific books like Wood's Natural History--for his son to pass his time in bed. Many years later, Wells recalled this incident and, noting its pivotal role in his intellectual development, dubbed it his 'lucky moment'. The richly illustrated book revealed an astoundingly vast world of microorganisms that he could never before imagine. This, plus a book on astronomy, and suddenly Life, the entire Universe, had become infinitely larger and stranger. This time would be the beginning of Wells's great love of literature, learning, and the life of the mind. Also, Wells indicates in his later correspondence that this injury experience drove his need to alleviate or distract himself from his physical pain. Painkilling medicines were not widely available--especially to a lower-middle class family with modest means. He saw no use in religion for accomplishing this, but only in the power of imagination, aided by literature.
There is another set of factors contributing to Wells' emotional and intellectual development… Wells' father, a former professional cricket player, had injured himself years earlier (also a broken leg) and was unable to work (though he tried to run a small business) and support the family. This forced his mother--whom Wells described as a devoutly religious, no nonsense, hard working woman--to seek employment as a maid, but in another town. The young Wells saw his mother very little during these years, though he would later write of her hard work and devotion to the family. The maturing Wells learned first hand of the hardships that labor can bring--and the hardships that can result when one is without work. Perhaps these early realizations contributed to his later socialist values, as well as his views on (and relationships with) women. The family had expected Wells to be apprenticed to a draper. However, the Education Act of 1870 had recently enabled middle class children to enroll in academies, and so, already in his early teens, Wells commenced his formal education and entered a local teaching academy.
By the turn of the century, H.G. Wells was a literary household name. Wells had single-handedly created the genre of science fiction with a half-dozen best selling works prior to 1900. Come the first decade of the new century, British, American, and European society was now talking incessantly of 'the future'. His literary success allowed him to apply his prognosticating abilities in numerous critical essays and speculative articles that were published in the most popular magazines and reviews of the times. Wells began advocating a 'literature of the future', a literature not subtle or sly or cramped by style, but one that was scientific, bold, and honest. His ideas during this period would often evolve from essay into book form.
In 1901, Wells's book Anticipations was published--laying out his views on the political, social, and scientific currents that were about to converge and shape the brave new 20th century world. The book grew out of several lectures he had given by invitation at the Royal College (in late 1890's) concerning the growing socialist movement. Rather Platonic in parts, the work makes a call for a 'New Republic' and what Wells termed the 'Open Conspiracy'--that of people working jointly towards his self-described end: ‘the good society'.
In 1902, Wells gave a well-publicized speech before the Royal Institution. The audience was comprised of invited friends, scholars, and colleagues as well as hundreds who stood throughout just to hear the great thinker's words. The speech, which was later to become the basis of his 1903 work The Discovery of the Future, contained the following famous comment:
'We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes. All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come--one day in the unending succession of days--when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, will stand upon the earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh, and reach out their hands amidst the stars.'
This strangely unsettling, yet optimistic, view of a society-yet-to-come would be expressed more elaborately two years later in A Modern Utopia (1905). An earlier work, Mankind In The Making (1903), though noteworthy for its frank advocacy of birth control (Wells was actively corresponding with Margaret Sanger), was a less refined work than A Modern Utopia, and was not as critically regarded. As in his youth, Wells was an avid reader, and this time period found him steeped in the writings of Freud, Jung, Spencer, and Huxley, as well as in a reinvestigation of the works of Plato, particularly the Republic. The latter's influence is made evident in A Modern Utopia by his adoption of a dialectical format, and a slightly altered appropriation of Platonic concepts. Ironically, for all of his 'futurism', Wells envisions the Utopia's emergence through the creation and support of a group of 'philosopher-kings', but which Wells then called samurai. Taken from medieval Japanese culture, these samurai would serve as ethical guardians, insuring the preservation of the highest conduct through their reproach of transgressors. Questions of reproachment (enforcement) method are not troubled with in this work with, presumably, the samurai being bound by their own honor code, and the group's scrupulosity rendering them impervious to corruption.
Regardless, this work, like its predecessors, was quite popular and influential in its time. A Modern Utopia sparked the formation of several Samurai Societies and was even favorably viewed by Winston Churchill--though he disagreed with Wells's contention that a modern Society or State could be run by 'experts', due to the need for unified knowledge amongst all participants in said government. Wells, who did not always take criticism of his ideas easily, nonetheless was thrilled with Churchill's recommendation, and follow up by sending him a copy of Anticipations. Overall, A Modern Utopia made a significant impact on the social and political discourse of the time and Wells's reputation as a thinker grew wider.
A Modern Utopia would be followed up by New Worlds For Old, in 1908, First And Last Things, also in 1908, and the novel The New Machiavelli, in 1911. During this period, Wells' writings attracted the attention and admiration of members of The Fabian Society, a politically well-connected group of socialist utopian moderates. In fact, the attraction was mutual. Though the toast of many a Fabian dinner party, and certainly attracted by this new access to the reformatory agency of government, HGW would none-the-less part ways with the Fabians. Wells would comment many years later that he grew impatient with the Fabians' over-willingness to make political concessions to the opposition, and their ideological reluctance to listen to their own allied supporters and friends. Wells portrays many of these Fabians (including George Bernard Shaw), and even draws characterizations, in The New Machiavelli --an historically intriguing novel whose relevance to future political-philosophical circles would persevere.
Wells's views on socialism were far from dogmatic and he was generally delighted to engage society, his fellows, both male and female, in an open debate on the particular forms of socialism that could, or should, emerge. Perhaps in an effort to resolve questions about his 'stance', in First And Last Things, he writes:
"Socialism is to me no clear cut system of theories and dogmas; it is one of those solid and extensive and synthetic ideas that are better indicated by a number of different formulae than by one…Socialism for me is a common step we are all taking in the great synthesis of human purpose…Socialism is to me no more and no less than the awakening of a collective consciousness in humanity, a collective will and a collective mind out of which finer individualities may arise forever in a perpetual series of fresh endeavors and fresh achievements for the race." [Italics mine]
I note that Wells does not seem to be advocating some rigid, personality-less, "beehive" society, for he clearly sees the outcome of better social organization and cooperation as being better individuals, or individual potentials (his 'individualities'). This is a more nuanced aspect of Wells' Socialist writings, for he seldom spelled out the ways that such collective endeavors could take a wrong turn. One of his greatest admirers and devotees, the writer/activist Violet Paget (who would stop by Wells and his wife Jane's home for long discussions of utopian possibilities) wrote an 'Open Letter to H.G. Wells' which was publish in a London biweekly review. The 'letter' stated that Wells had created a “twin' of our planet…where things are done much better than here”. As noted before, Wells generally gave little treatment in his books to the unintentional complications, or opposing realities, that might thwart his 'Open Conspiracy'. Still, he could convey a vision of a better world so convincingly, that few readers were not seized, in some measure, by his utopian dream. In the same published letter, Paget amicably complains of being “confused by Wells” because his words were so demanding of acceptance, and yet they failed to include “that piece of reality” that might prevent his 'good society' from becoming a reality.
In these writings, Wells accurately predicted the growth of suburban communities through transportation improvements, the impact of new communication technology (radio) on information sharing (in civilian and military spheres), the (much later) spread of birth-control practices, the development of biological engineering, and even developments in warfare, such as the use of 'ironclads' (tanks) and air power.
However, what Wells over-looked was the ascendance of Nationalism and a 'Neo-Imperialism' throughout Europe. Wells had not foreseen World War I, although he often commented on the causes of war in general, and cautioned that war was always imminent. Wells' debilitation as a youth had also fostered in him a deep fear of death. War, insofar as it was mass death, was unthinkably immoral to him; the negation of all that he saw that was possible in humanity. In 1914, one week before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Wells had been contemplating the demise of German militarism, and the type of world that would then be possible. But WWI shattered many a utopian philosophy. In America, participants of this war became the "lost generation". Though disgusted and appalled by the waste and destruction of war, Wells used the experiences of this first World War to solidify his views that society must change itself through some willing act of 'collective consciousness', and repeatedly cited the need for a people that was ready to learn from its mistakes, from its history.
Given this, it was no surprise that in 1917 Wells was selected to be a member of the Research Committee for the League of Nations. HGW would now get to play the real life role of 'philosopher-king' (a role he would come to play again). If Wells had not been nominated for this committee, he surely would have insisted on his own participation. Here now was one of those great moments that might change the course of the world for the better. Though ultimately and inopportunely dissolved (the League survived for eleven years before its disbanding prior to World War II), this League of Nations would serve as the prototypal inspiration for Wells' call for a 'Federation of Man'. Wells also played an important role in keeping the political discussion focused in part on the role/status of post-war, post-revolution Russia.
The years following 'The Great War' (but still prior to WWII) saw the publication of several non-fiction books, among them The Outline Of History (1920), The Science Of Life (in serial, 1929-39) and Experiment In Autobiography (1934). This later autobiography is still considered by academics to be an exceptional expression of the genre.
Returning for a moment to Wells's 19th century fantasies, I note again that The Time Machine and other works all possessed a prophetic (often nightmarish) message at their heart. From his youth, Wells possessed a deep and abiding concern for individual betterment and social progress. But this concern was tempered with a more prescient (sometimes sardonic) wisdom concerning human nature. The Time Machine (1895), written at the age of 29, was in fact both a satire of the class system and an attempt to undermine the 'pro-human' view of evolution that was fashionable amongst intellectuals and sophisticates at the time. Wells, the complex thinker and artist, seemed to be engaged in a life-long dialectic within himself. The younger writer was labeled 'pessimistic', while the mature Wells was accused of being too 'optimistic'. Wells' passionate belief in human improvement would eventually manifest itself in ‘H.G. Wells: the social philosopher’. Still, though he could not deny the war's strong impact upon his thinking--but perhaps because it was the first of the world wars--Wells maintained a cautiously optimistic view of the “perfectibility of man”. This was due, in no small degree, to his efforts on behalf of the League of Nations and the receptiveness, in general, to progressive political ideas following WWI. Between the world wars, Wells wrote:
"…I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist at bottom. This is an entirely indifferent world in which willful wisdom seems to have a perfectly fair chance."
Despite his famed futuristic visions, Wells could be very much the realist. In 1939, seeing the handwriting on the wall, Wells penned The Holy Terror, a psychological 'portrait' of a would-be modern dictator based on a composite of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Through letters and articles published in numerous magazines and journals in Britain and America, Wells inserted himself firmly into the debate over the aims of this brewing, second World War. As the blitz fire bombing continued (Wells refused to leave London), no doubt Wells realized that the question of 'war aims' was being obviated by survival imperatives. A slight shift in Wells' focus occurs; his promulgation of a post-war World State, or Federation, would be tempered by a more pressing vision: 'The Rights of Man'.
In March of 1940, Wells was asked to participate in a public forum/debate, sponsored by the National Peace Council, on 'The New World Order ~ Its Fundamental Principles'. In his talk, Wells refuted the British Government's imperialist arguments and announced that a 'complete biological revolution' had occurred, and that consequently, the world must be reorganized into a unified social, political, economic, and educational community. In what turned out to be more of a political rally, than a forum, Wells called for a 'universal declaration of the Rights of Man'. This forum was highly publicized and provoked heated debate in newspapers, throughout the government, and amongst the common population.
In speeches, letters, and articles, Wells doggedly advocated many other new ideas, such as: a 'new encyclopedia of knowledge' (to facilitate universal education), and a universal language, such as Basic English, or even Esperanto (invented by C. K. Ogden) which came to Wells's attention during his work with the League of Nations in 1918. This universal language was viewed as absolutely necessary to facilitate communication in a World State (or 'Federation of Man') comprised of many language groups, and sub-groups. He advocated the conservation of world resources as an antidote to excessive industrial exploitation. In what perhaps presaged modern 'World Court' formulations, though far more democratically, Wells also advocated a type of global 'jury system' in which different population groups (comprised of 20,000 citizens each), selected by lottery, would be given a sovereign voice in world affairs. He saw this as 'the fundamental law of a new free world that draws on all mankind.'
Now in his seventies, there occurred another intellectual shift for Wells regarding the political role of science. For most of his life, Wells viewed, and prized, scientific endeavor as apolitical; science was what it was, and did what it did, regardless of the politics in fashion. But as a growing number of scientists became polarized by the war (many were disgusted by German scientific collusion with the Nazis to produce the V2 rockets), and as a 'Scientific Left' and 'Scientific Right' emerged in this period in England, Wells was persuaded to advocate a political stance, and role, for the science of the future (Wells had called for a 'Scientific Fellowship'). Most of his friends were leaning to the 'left' position, that is, that science must be dedicated to the improvement of human life and welfare, free from governmental coercion, and its fruits available to all. This view of science would find its way into a first draft of the 'Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man' (1940). This first draft, though it had other contributors and utilized similar ideas put forth by other social thinkers, was primarily authored and distributed (with the help of Lord Calder) by Wells. As the crowning achievement of Wells's life, he saw the Declaration as vital to a post-war reconciliation of the 'two strains' of emergent political thinking: Eastern and Western.
It should be understood that in Wells's day, the terms 'New World Order' and 'World State' did not convey the 'Orwellian', Cold War, or apocalyptic Christian, sense of a 'godless', repressive, totalitarianism that would emerge in the post WWII political scene. As stated earlier, Wells was neither naïve nor a socialist ideologue, and in fact advocated a 'scientific socialist humanism' where the power of any state was predicated upon fundamental human rights. In the preamble to a finalized version of 'The Rights of Man', published in 1943, Wells writes:
"The history of the Western peoples has a lesson for all mankind. It has been the practice of what are called the democratic or Parliamentary countries to meet every enhancement or centralization of power in the past by a definite and vigorous reassertion of the individual rights of man. Never before has the demand to revive that precedent been as urgent as it is now."
As the war's end seemed to be nearing, Wells seemed to be oscillating in his future prognostications. Though he was a tireless advocate of the Declaration (his book Guide to the New World, 1941, was essentially a vehicle for the promotion of this Declaration.), he had become critically aware of the role that scientists were playing in the war effort. In the 1930's he had been instrumental, along with Sir Richard Gregory, in the political support for Freud's and Einstein's emigration from Germany, as well as other scientists--including some whom would come to work for the (U.S.) government (such as Werner VanBraun). The American's dropping of atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fulfillment of his worst fears. And no doubt this impacted his last book, Mind At The End Of Its Tether (1945), a sobering work which expresses clear pessimism about mankind's future possibilities, though he never fully abdicated his belief in the 'perfectibility of man'. Wells died in London on August 13, 1946, a year and a week after the dropping of the first atomic bombs.
In some ways, the early 20th century political and social philosophy of H.G. Wells could be considered a failure. His utopian vision and values would see no official implementation, rather, his ‘social-scientific-humanism’ would come to be challenged and demonized by conservative and religious interests. And although on Jan. 10, 1946, the first General Assembly of the United Nations convened in London, Wells's vision of a "equalitarian" World Federation would be undermined by the adoption of veto power by Security Council members, the geo-political dividing of Europe, and the first rumblings of the 'Cold War.'
Yet still, inklings of Wellsian thought have managed to stay alive in the harsh world of competing ideas. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs of the 1960's seemed to have taken inspiration from Wells's utopian social vision, though in a far more limited, and politically practical, sense. And, shortly after the death of Wells, a 'Universal Declaration on Human Rights'--its language and spirit heavily influenced by Wells--was drafted and circulated at the United Nations, and would come to be signed by sixty plus member nations over the next forty years, with the U.S. not ratifying it until 1994. This Declaration is now the standard for all international labor laws and human rights policies.
In a 1941 article called 'The Greatest Opportunity the World Has Ever Known' (what some critics believe to be his greatest writing), Wells enjoins his readers:
"We have to rescue human affairs from the independent sovereign stage; we have to conserve human resources from the waste of national conflict and reckless exploitation for profit; and we have to substitute an equalitiarian for a graded society. Then we can hope to go on. Otherwise there is no surcease to disaster. Can we map such a course? WE can."
Michael Anthony Ricciardi
H.G. Wells ~ Desperately Mortal, David C. Smith, Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 1986.
(Preface to) Seven Famous Novels By H.G. Wells (Introduction by HGW), Garden City Publishing Co. Inc., Garden City, New York, 1934.
(website) H.G. Wells ~ Biography and Works http://www.online-literature.com/wellshg/