Socialists in Retrospect 6
The Way the Future Was
H. G. Wells and the Shape of Things to Come
Gwydion M. Williams writing as Michael Alexander looks at the ideas of H. G. Wells, and how they influenced the development of socialism.
20th century socialism has in large measure followed the ideas of H. G. Wells, and gone off the rails when things went outside the framework that Wells envisaged. While other minds created formal ideological structures, Wells was a formative influence on the people who had to actually carry out the task of constructing socialism, whether on Leninist or Social-Democratic lines. The number of individuals who got their first notion of socialism from Wells must be almost beyond counting.
But Wells was just one man, who could only foresee so much. He offered positive visions, while many subsequent socialist writers of fiction could do no more than point out faults in the system that most people already knew about anyway. But we have to go beyond Wells, whose ideas remained 19th-century even though he lived till 1946.
Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come is a good place to start an assessment. Written in 1933, it basically envisages a break-up of the existing order, followed by the emergence of an ‘Air Dictatorship’ that ruthlessly builds a rational world state. (There have been a couple of films supposedly based on Wells’s book. The first of these is worth watching as a thing in itself, but is quite a bit different from what Wells wrote.)
As a prediction of actual events, it is way off. President Roosevelt Gust elected when Wells wrote) is expected to be a very minor and unsuccessful figure. (p 144). Though he supported sexual equality, he did not expect women to contribute much after getting the vote.
“Outside that sexual vindication, women at that time had little or nothing to contribute to the solution of the world’s problems, and as a matter of fact they contributed nothing.” (p 141).
Blitzkrieg is not taken seriously. The “British dream of the next definitive war” involving “a torrent of ironmongery tearing triumphantly across Europe” is a “genial absurdity” in an obscure comer of a war museum in the future Wells imagined. (P 187). Wells, even though he had invented the tank in his story The Land Ironclads – the direct inspiration for the actual machines that the British first introduced into World War One, had a very poor understanding of their possible use. He contributed a little to the general British attitude that ensured that it was German ‘torrents of ironmongery’ that tore triumphantly across Europe.
The Wellsian vision is explicitly totalitarian. ‘
“This Communist Party, like the Italian Fascisti, owes its general conception to the: germinal idea of the Modern State, the Guardians in Plato’s Republic. For if anyone is to be called the Father of the Modern State it is Plato.” (Page 154, Corgi SF Collector’s Library 1974.)
But actual totalitarian systems fall short of his ideal:
“There was a heavy load of democratic and equalitarian cant upon the back of the Russian system, just as there was a burden of patriotic and religious cant upon the Italian Fascists. Even the United States Constitution did not profess democratic equality and insist upon · the inspired wisdom of the untutored more obstinately than the new Russian regime.” (p 155).
“Except for the fundamentally important fact that these Fascisti were intensely nationalistic, this control by a self-appointed, self-disciplined elite was a distinct step towards our Modern State organisation.” (p 239)
Wells’s schema is indeed quite close to that of his early novel The Sleeper Awakes, except that the wicked oligarchs of the earlier book are now the admired Fellows of the Modem State Society – an elite of about a quarter of a million, later rising to some five million or more, who run everybody else’s lives.
The ideal totalitarian elite reshapes the world, by smashing all overt opposition, and by suppressing religion. After accidentally killing a priest while breaking up a combined Fascist, Monarchist and Catholic demonstration with a non-lethal gas, it decides to go the whole hog.
“It had gripped that vast world organisation, the Catholic Church, and told it in effect to be still for evermore. It was now awake to its own purpose. It might have retreated or compromised. It decided to go on. Ten days later guards descended upon Mecca and closed the chief holy places… An Act of uniformity came into operation everywhere. There was now to be one faith only in the world, the moral expression of the one world community.” (pp 382-383.)
The new order then consolidates itself by educating the young to its own ideals. Its education expert “restored again to credibility what Plato had first asserted: that, however difficult, it was possible to begin again at the beginning with uninfected minds.” The older people die off, and their children grow up properly trained for positions in either the elite or the rank and file of the new world state.
It should be added that Wells seems to have had mixed feelings about the vision in The Shape of Things to Come.
“I feel that, but for the ‘accidents of space and time’, I should have been one of the actively protesting spirits who squirmed in the pitilessly benevolent grip of the Air Dictatorship.”
But this sentiment is no more than a sentiment – the implication of the book is that the ruthless benevolence of the Air Dictatorship is the best we can hope for.
A sort of resolution comes at the end of the book, with a relaxation of the system aft.er it is solidly in power. A sort of Glasnost and Perestroika, as the ruling elite in the Soviet Union must have hoped they would happen. Totally unlike what has actually happened and is still happening, of course.
The Wellsian vision of the future must have looked reasonable, and even attractive, when set as an alternative to the actuality of the 1930s. The brief capitalist prosperity after World War One had fallen apart. There was little reason to think that it would come again, or that it would last very long if it did.
From probably the 1950s, and definitely from the 1960s onwards, the Wellsian vision became obsolete, ‘the way the future was’. Ordinary people had gone beyond the point where they would be likely to accept something like Wells’s benevolent Air Dictatorship. People were educated and prosperous enough to want to run their own lives. Kids showed a vast degree of resistance 10 being processed and standardised by a well-intentioned education system.
In the Soviet Union, the chosen solution to the new situation was the exact reverse of what needed to be done. The Stalinist state planning system had been highly successful, and had gone a long way towards catching up with the West. It was disorganised and partially dismantled, and the Soviet Union and its allies promptly began falling further and further behind the West. Censorship and the one-party system were no longer needed in a nuclear-armed superpower, but were retained despite some small measures of liberalisation. But the ‘democratic and equalitarian cant’ that Wells had been critical of, were still at the core of the official ideology. The obvious gap between ideology and reality, combined with relative economic failure, led inexorably towards the present bust-up.
In the West, things were more complex. There were old democratic and populist traditions on the left that had always co-existed uneasily with the Wellsian vision of socialism as efficient management by technocrats. Marx could be quoted by both sides, since he was neither definitely for nor definitely against it
In Britain, the two visions clashed in the debate over Workers Control in the 1970s. It was there for the taking, the capitalists were more or less resigned to it. But a society in which ordinary workers control their own workplaces would be a society that could never be dominated by a technocratic elite. The proposals of the Bullock Committee were never implemented, and a few years later Thatcher came to power on a wave of anti-technocrat and anti-state feeling.
Possibly the world today would be a happier place if something like Wells’s Air Dictatorship had emerged out of World War Two. Certainly, a Wellsian World State would have suppressed war and provided a decent life for the impoverished masses in the poorer parts of the Third World. The present-day pattern of food surpluses in Europe and America combined with mass starvation in Africa would be impossible with any sort of World State. The world would not have lived for more than four decades with the prospect of global nuclear war, nor would it face the continuing risk of a limited nuclear war, which at the time of writing is a very real possibility in the Middle East. (By the time you read this article, Iraq may be using chemical weapons against either Israel or Saudi Arabia, and Israel or America may be retaliating with small nuclear weapons.)
Anyway, the Wellsian vision did not happen, and almost certainly can not happen in the future. As socialists, we should purge our minds of it, and of the Marxist-Wellsian mix that was Leninism. If this is done on a wide enough scale, the prospects are by no means bad. The peoples of Eastern Europe will learn over the next few years that many aspects of capitalism are quite as bad as the discredited ‘Communist’ regimes told them they were. In Western Europe, we will no longer suffer the stigma of being seen as a potential fifth column, as sympathizers with a foreign enemy power.
The New Right has no clear vision of the future, only a vague notion of a world in which everything is for sale. Disgust with such a prospect is very widespread. Socialists, if they will only stop being nostalgic about the way the future was, can offer the only positive alternative. Peace, rational planning and co-operation, as Wells envisaged it. But also based on democracy, not on any self-appointing elite. That could be the real shape of things to come!
This article appeared in September 1990, in Issue 19 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.