“I don’t know whether it’s a good thing to run after our grandchildren and descendants.”

              -Dobrica Cosic


H. G. Wells: Experiment in Autobiography; Little, Brown; Boston.


H. G. Wells in Love; Edited by G.P. Wells; Little, Brown; Boston.


Anthony West: H. G. Wells, Aspects of a Life; Random  House;  New York.


“His son’s portrait of him as a man who ‘transcended his origins and made himself a very big man indeed’ is largely con­ vincing.”



H.G. Wells belongs irrevocably to the past. The publication of these three books is likely only to revive and alter our memory of him — not to change our opinion of his limited value. Although I was never wont to devour everything he wrote, I could not help noticing over the years the great number of his books in the secondhand bookstores I haunted. Among his contemporaries it was Chesterton who commanded my loyalty. I came to understand, however, what gave him the authority and stature he attained in his own day. When Experiment in Autobiography was published in 1934, Wells was an aging man of declining ability and appeal. Yet the autobiography received praise that now seems difficult to comprehend: “a miracle,” “of first-rate importance,” “one of the important human documents of our day.” “His mind is really one of the most extraordinary that England has produced in our time” — this last from H. L. Mencken, a usually keen detector of the confus­ ing and the inept. That the book was chaotic, blatantly self-serving, and barely readable made little difference. Wells was by that time a symbol of 20th-century liberalism, and he earned the kudos showered on him by having chosen the “right side.” In his world the right side was something like the “right stuff” — you knew it when you came across it.



The  right side, 20th-century liberalism, is much less a cohesive body of principles than the dogmatic ring of certainty with which the word is used suggests. Even though it is as much of a rallying cry for operational tactics as an idea, like all ideologies it has a set of intellectual bylaws. Chief among them  would  be faith  in  a  narrow rationality. Society, much like Monopoly or other games, can be organized according to rational postulates. Wells holds this ace among his other cards. ‘The sustaining theme of my Experiment in Autobiography has been the development and consolidation of my persona, as a devotee … to the evolution of the Socialist World-State.” The capstone of that work is entitled “The Idea of a Planned World.” The idea of “planning,” the praxis of rationality, is absolutely central to the liberal mind. Success is always due to “analysis and reasoned planning.” We are living in a time “of more and more comprehensive plans.” A planned World-State “has become imperative.” It was apparent to even the most dull­ pated liberal that Wells with his commitment to “brains” was on the right side.


He was also a certified, albeit part­ time, meliorist, enamored as he was of the philosophy of progress. He wrote frequently of the impulses and movements of the world toward the “New Republic” that would result from A Modern Utopia (1905). “We are, as a species, caught in an irreversible process.” The planned World-State is “as much a part of the frame in which our lives are set as the roundness and rotation of the earth.” Wells’s contempt for tradition, another mark of the liberal sensibility, was evident in his hysterical attack on the Catholic Church (1943), although he was not finally selective. All formal religion was rejected: “I am an outright atheist.” His “religion,” as he called it, was “a real fascination with the perhaps unattainable World-State I serve … the rational purpose of my life.” The supremacy of the World-State explains Wells’s statism — his eagerness for centralization and consolidation, a wiping out of all differences regional as well as national.


Clustering is antipathetic to us. I have always been disposed to despise people who cluster close in families, gangs, clans and nations. That is my main objection to Jews. And Scotsmen. And the provincial French.


Attacking the right to private property was like a Masonic handshake among liberals. His attack came early and remained a  persistent  idea.  The one thing that unites all socialists, he wrote, was “the wish to abolish private property in any but the most immediately personal things.”  Where Wells felt superior to his fellow socialists was in his discovery of the need for a “Competent Receiver” to replace private ownership when the socialist World-State was created through the “new pattern of revolution.” “Revolution” was always his word when de­ scribing how the new state was to come about; I do not recall his using “reform” or “renewal.” “Revolutionary change” would follow upon the sense of personal disaster felt by the multitudes who would then be ready to join the “Open Conspiracy” of “honest and creative-minded men.” Like other liberals, Wells was infatuated with “a vivid sense of the promise and possibilities of change.”


The final intellectual bylaw of liberalism was its faith in science. That was Wells’s first love, and it remained central to his sense of reality until the end. A startled University of London felt constrained, I imagine, to award him a D.Sc. for a thesis in pseudoscience he submitted when he was 78. The Royal Society, however, never made him a member. Science gave authority to the concept of planning, since it provided a rigid, if flawed, base for scheming, charting, and designing. Science was method and strategy. The inevitable revolution would produce “a new mechanical civilization” (Socialism and the Scientific Motive, 1923).


Anthony West, his son, is correct in his view that his father came to stand for everything that the experience of the 30’s and 40’s “had shown to be facile and false in liberal meliorism.” West feels, however, that this view of his father in the public mind was wrong; he insists instead that Wells was one of the most influential ancestors of “the truly progressive outlook of today.” Loyalty to parent has seldom been stretched so far to cover as much.


What is centrally false in liberalism — its sad little secret — was no secret in the writings of Wells: he was curiously open about his discomfort with and distrust of people. He did not “care a damn,” as he put it, for most people. Belief in the masses was “sentimental.” It was precisely on this point that the famous controversy on socialism in The New Age (1907-08) was waged by Gilbert and Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, on one side, and G. B. Shaw, Belfort Bax, and Wells on the other.


The people, asserted Chesterton, are “absolutely and eternally right” in their instincts. “I believe very strongly in the mass of the common people. I do not mean their ‘potentialities,’ I mean in their faces, in their habits, and their admirable language.” He was not a socialist, he testified, because he had “not lost faith in democracy.” Wells had, I would contend, even though Anthony West argues that he had not, that his views, for in­ stance, in the Sorbonne lecture, “Democracy Under Revision” (1927), were really wholesome if naive. “The time has come for the educated to save democracy from itself by becoming a political force.” His views may have been naïve — a common enough liberal fault — but they were clear. The autobiography repeats this idea and gives it central position in his thought. The intelligentsia of the world — “all of mankind that mattered” — were to commit themselves to the liberal­ scientific consensus.


By putting themselves in positions to be consulted whenever and wherever political decisions were to be made, intellectuals would lead us to the World-State. “We originative intellectual workers [a beehive world?] are reconditioning human life” [pieces of furniture?]. Even the diction shows the dehumanizing result of the one kind of elitism that is always tyrannical. That the “genuine Socialist government” should be in the hands of an exclusive body of rulers, “the right sort,” “a fraternity of enlightened minds,” Wells emphasized as his special contribution to the world of the future.


His penchant for scientific planning and his contempt for “the proletarian masses” met in a suggestion made in A Modern Utopia: “For purposes of the state I propose a division into four types of character, the kinetic, the poietic, the dull, and the base.” The kinetic were to be the effective rulers, having all executive and administrative power. The poietic were to sug­ gest, criticize, help legislate, and help to control the base. The base were individuals of such strong antisocial disposition that they were inalterably excluded from office. The dull needed to be provided with incentive if they wished to engage in kinetic labors. These classes were not hereditary, but regulated by “the filtering processes of education and the tests of social life.”


The Order of the Samurai in this configuration of classes was special and exclusive. Membership was voluntary but made very difficult by qualifications and disciplinary tests. Such an order did not come about by itself; it could be realized only by deliberate effort. Early on, Wells’s great hope was that the members of the Fabian Society would become the Samurai, embodying “for mankind a sense of the state.” The Society’s failure to grasp this opportunity caused Wells to con­ fess that no part of his career rankled him as much as his involvement with the Fabians.


The idea of the Samurai brings to mind The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, and rightly so. On one level this idea is the result of boyish emotions — the secret club, exclusive membership, the password, the handshake — Tom Sawyer stuff. But on another level this boyish emotion could (and did) produce monsters. Wells, however, remained boyishly unaware of such dangers. Looking at the following passage (1934) offers a frightening glimpse into his naivete.


The experience of the thirty years that have passed since I launched this scheme [1906], and particularly the appearance of such successful organizations as the Communist  Party  and the Italic1n fascists has greatly strengthened my belief in the essential soundness of this conception of the governing order of the future. A Samurai Order educated in such an ideology as I have since tried to shape out, is inevitable if the modern World-State is ever to be fully realized. We want the world ruled not by everybody, but by a politically minded organization open, with proper safeguards, to everybody. The problem of world  revolution and world civilization  becomes t e problem of crystallizing, as soon as possible, as many as possible of the right sort of individuals from the social magma, and getting them into effective, conscious co-operation.


While Wells was unable to find a way to make his Samurai Order real, he noted how successful Lenin was in shaping “an extraordinarily similar scheme, the reconstructed Communist Party.” The Communist reality and Wells’s proposal were alike, he noted, in their elitism and in their insistence “upon a training in directive ideas as part of the militant qualifica­ tion.” The reconstructed Communist Party “is alone sufficient to justify [the Russian] revolution.”


It was not until the 40’s that Wells was fully disillusioned with his plans and schemes. In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) he compared human­ kind to rats in a sack, desperately struggling and fighting. The decent, Edwardian, scientific, oh-so-sensible view crumbled under the assault of experience. The most that one can say is that he knew he had been  wrong, but I do not think he ever knew why. He had always been aware of “the persistent wickedness of the human heart,” but this partial insight became at the end a wickedness without relief, rhyme, or reason. He could only curse the darkness with “the conscious impotence of rage at human folly.”


Wells did not fail simply because the right side turned out to be the wrong side; his failure to be great was inherently personal. His total absorption in himself was bound to be disastrous. He actually thought of himself as the one who had found “the pattern of the key to master our world and release its imprisoned promise.” He stated candidly and clearly that “his obstinate self-conceit” was the chief factor in his survival. “I shall die, as I have lived, the responsible centre of my world.” To see this as a virtue requires that one have an enormous ego or a most peculiar definition of “responsible.”


It appears that he used just about everyone for his own purposes; he was particularly reprehensible in dehumanizing the multitudes of women in his life. Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler described him as a “homey … little lower-class Limey.” One of his long­ term mistresses, though finally thrown over, commented on this aspect of his character. Odette Keun, admittedly hostile, reviewed the autobiography in Time and Tide (1934). West’s summary of her review is excellent:


He was, she said, in his writing what he was in everything else, like a child playing a game, or an actor reading a part…. She explored the defects of temperament and character that led to his ‘ultimate and irrevocable failure to be great,’ and deplored his self­ indulgence, his instability, and his vanity…. He was enclosed within himself, and utterly unaware of others.


He lived his way so blithely because he was convinced that he “sustained the whole world upon his shoulders.” He felt himself to be “Everyman.” Had he been an Achilles instead of a Ulysses, one can only contemplate with horror the incredible amount of public damage he might have done. While Wells is irrevocably part of the past, his very typicality made him, ironically enough, timeless in Saul Bellow’s finest novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The figure of Wells plays a prominent role, symbolizing the failure of 20th-century liberal thought. In dramatizing the history of this century in his own life, old Artur Sammler remembers his own inclination toward liberalism during his years as a journalist in London between the wars. He had been on the edge of Wells’s circle, but now he has grave doubts about his writings, about his world projects, about the molding of a universal order. “What kindhearted, ingenious, stupid schemes” they had been. Wells’s faith had been in “Scientific humanism,” in an “emancipated future,” in “active benevolence, in reason, in civilization,” but in the end he “could only blast and curse everyone.” On the one hand, he was a man who “in his seventies was still obsessed with girls,” and on the other a natural teacher, the explainer, who, alas, thought he should explain everything. He expressed as many views as he could, and at all times. “He was like Voltaire, a graphomaniac.” In the novel the point is made that the future Wells thought he was serving turned out to be the last convulsions of the 18th and 19th centuries. For all his concerns with the future, the final irony is that Wells was bound to the past. What he saw as the promise of a new era was in fact the final decadence of an old one, the last spasms of a bankrupt modernism.       cc