23 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 5

Finally, my week-long review of H. G. Wells's Experiment in Autobiography comes to an end with a discussion of that obsession of Wells's late life, the World State. Happy 150th birthday, H. G. Wells! Sorry there's no World State yet.

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

The World State

Like I said in earlier parts of this review, Wells really wants a World State to come into existence. It's impossible to read his discussions of why the World State is what humanity needs, and not recall the current context of Wells's own nation exiting the European Union, which I've no doubt Wells would have strongly praised as a genuine step to the World State.

Wells links his brand of socialism with science, which is nice. For me, I mean, since much of my research concerns those who use scientific vision as a justification for their actions. Wells contrasts his current beliefs (as of 1934) with the ones he held in his youth, when he first came to socialism (to the extent of wearing a red tie!), saying he "did not at first link the idea of science with the socialist idea, the idea, that is, of a planned inter-co-ordinated society. The socialist movement in England was under the aesthetic influence of Ruskin; it was being run by poets and decorators like William Morris [...]. These leaders were generally ignorant of scientific philosophy and they had been misled by Herbert Spencer's Individualism into a belief that biological science was anti-socialist. I do not recall any contributions on my part, in those early years, to correct that misunderstanding" (192). There's probably a book to be written (I assume someone has already written it) on how we got from the aesthetic socialism of Morris's News from Nowhere to the scientific socialism of Wells. (Though I should note that Engels called Marx's socialism "scientific socialism," and I imagine that Wells, based on the comments I quoted above, would disagree most vociferously!)

Red tie? Some kinda socialist!

Wells goes on to sound almost like a Comtean Positivist, proposing the existence of Professors of Analytical History: "Instead of presenting the clotted masses of un-digested or ill-digested fact which still encumber academic history to-day, my Professors [...] would be human ecologists; indeed Human Ecology would be a good alternative name for this new history as I conceive it." These new human ecologists wouldn't be in competition with old-fashioned historians, for "[t]hey would be related to the older school of historians as much as vegetable physiologists[,] ecologists and morphologists are related to the old plant-flattening, specimen-hunting, stamen-counting botanists. The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis. The clearer their new history became the nearer they would be to efficient world-planning" (552). Perhaps there was never a clearer statement of the idea of idea of a scientific reconstruction of society that I often encounter in fiction-- though I'd like to track down what Wells thought of Comte, because I bet it's not flattering.

Wells predicts that something like human ecology will take over sooner or later, supplanting our focus on history as a series of documents to be memorized and great figures to be canonized, which he says lacks any educational value. I guess this is much like that physics professor he hated, but I don't think what he wanted to happen ever did, at least not in the way he might have hoped for. Wells, in classic Wells fashion, even posits that he's better at history than actual historians. For example, when he discusses his work pushing forward the idea of the League of Nations, he claims, "because I was not a 'scholar' and had never been put under a pedant to study a 'period' intensely and prematurely, and because I had a student's knowledge of biology of of the archæological record, I had a much broader grasp of historical reality than most of my associates" (612-3). The thing about Wells, though, is that when he's cocky, he's still often right; I need to get around to reading The Outline of History and finding out if his arrogance is justified in this case.

Wells actually later wrote a book called The New World Order.
It's almost sad to realize to what extent Wells's dream of the World State is not coming to pass. He's decidedly optimistic when assessing the work he and his colleagues have done:
There is no proof that the seed we have already sown has died. On the contrary, the signs of vitality increase. Now it is a series of lessons in some elementary school; now it is a string of broadcast talks like those of Commander King-Hall; now it is a book for children or the newspaper report of a provincial lecture, that comes reassuringly, another fresh green blade forcing its way to the light. The new ideology creeps upon the world now. [...]
     [T]he realization of a new day comes to thousands before it comes to millions; at first the illumination is almost imperceptible, everything is touched by it while nothing stands out; there is a slow leisureliness in its manner of approach that belies its steady and assured incessancy. (624)
Though there are other times he's a little more guarded, saying, "Sometime I feel that generations of propaganda and education may have to precede it" (668). He was hugely disappointed in the path negotiations took after the Great War, thinking Europe had a real opportunity to create a genuine League of Nations that could coordinate human affairs, and instead it was squandered because of timidity and vengeance.

Whatta guy.
At the time he wrote the Experiment, Wells saw two big sources of centralization: the USSR and the USA: "the end sought [in both countries], a precisely more organized big-scale community, is precisely the same" (678). As a result, he arranged interviews with both FDR and Stalin. FDR was the fourth US president Wells met, after Teddy Roosevelt (who liked The Time Machine), Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Wells's impressions of Stalin are particularly interesting: "I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and to these qualities it is [...] that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendency in Russia. I had thought before I saw him that he might be where he was because men were afraid of him, but I realize that he owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him" (689). Hardly what I would have imagined! Wells seemed to admire both men, but also be disappointed that neither saw themselves or their countries as playing a role in the increased centralization of humankind.

Since his death, the EU came into existence, which I suspect would have furthered his optimism. Now, of course, the USSR is no more, the UK has voted to leave the EU,* and Scotland even voted on whether or not to leave the UK! Plus you have states like Yugoslavia that came into existence during his lifetime but no longer exist. Now, I'm not convinced of the need for the World State per se (maybe if his science of human ecology had taken off, someone could have proven its necessity to me), but it does seem sad that the thing he devoted the last three decades of his life to is if anything further from realization now than in the 1930s.

* Though, Wells did say that he "had become accustomed to looking westward for the definitive leadership of the English speaking community-- and anywhere but London for the leadership of mankind" (678).

Here's the links to all the parts of this lengthy review:
1. Wells in the Twentieth Century
2. Ways of Seeing: Science and Education
3. Wells's Writing and Wells on Writing
4. Wells's Personal Life
5. The World State

Be Back Monday: I'm not done with H. G. Wells yet, because it's time to hear about his many and varied romances in H. G. Wells in Love!

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