The Godfather of American Liberalism
H. G. Wells: novelist, historian, authoritarian, anticapitalist, eugenicist, and advisor to presidents
Modern American liberalism, as it emerged in the 1920s, was animated by a revolt against the masses. Liberal thinkers accused the great unwashed of smothering creative individuals in a blanket of materialist, spiritually empty cultural conformity. The liberal project was, so to speak, to refound America by replacing its business civilization—a “dictatorship of the middle class,” as Vernon Parrington put it—with a new, more highly evolved leadership. But along with the ideal of the spontaneous, creative individual, liberals also embraced government economic planning, which depended on making people more predictable. The tension between the two aspirations was resolved, rhetorically at least, by proposing to place power in the hands of scientists, academics, artists, and professionals, a new and truly worthy aristocracy that could govern based on what was good for both leaders and the led.
These antidemocratic and elitist assumptions were nowhere better illustrated than in the extraordinary career of a Briton, H. G. Wells. Wells is best remembered today as the author of such late-nineteenth-century socio-scientific fantasies as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. But he was much more than that. His political writing achieved extraordinary influence in America, not just through his defense of liberal freedoms such as free speech but through his hostility to population growth, capitalism, and democracy itself.
Herbert George Wells was already a renowned writer of fiction when in 1901 he published the nonfiction work Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought. The book’s scientific prescriptions to cure social diseases turned the novelist into a seer, both in England and in America, where Anticipations had already been serialized in the North American Review. More than any other intellectual of the time, Wells spoke to two enormous nineteenth-century shifts: the growth of giant industries, which undercut the old assumptions about the sovereignty of the individual; and Darwinism’s concussive reassignment of humanity from the spiritual to the natural world, which begged for prophets of a naturalized humanity.
Numerous fin de siècle writers had looked backward at a century of material and mechanical progress, both to praise its achievements and to condemn its running sore, the seemingly permanent misery of the urban working class. But Wells looked ahead, asserting that the future as well as the past had a pattern. He argued inductively about the nature of what was likely to come, based on the way the telephone, telegraph, and railroad had shrunk the world, and he populated his predictions with a dramatic cast of collective characters. Some he loathed: the idle, parasitic rich; the “vicious helpless pauper masses,” the “People of the Abyss”; and the yapping politicians and yellow journalists whom he considered instruments of patriotism and war.
But if these people were leading the world on the path to hell, there were also the redeemers, the “New Republicans,” the “capable men” of vision who might own the future. These scientist-poets and engineers could, Wells thought, redirect the Darwinian struggle away from a descent into savagery and toward a new and higher ground. Building on the social and sexual ideals of nineteenth-century utopian reformers, Wells generated a complete cosmology, a scientific socialism to compete with Marxism, which, he thought, reduced the complexities of life to simpleminded slogans of class war. Outflanking the Marxists on their own ground, he called for a different kind of struggle, a “revolt of the competent” against the confines of conventional middle-class morality.
The conventions of Anglo-American family life, Wells believed, blocked the path toward a more highly evolved future. On one side was a “normal, ordinary world which is on the whole satisfied with itself” and encompasses “the great mass of men”—the bovine “Normal Life” of workers, clerks, and small businessmen. Opposite it stood an “ever advancing better world, pushing through this outworn husk in the minds and wills of creative humanity,” a “Great State” led by the creative class, a richly textured life that might be possible if only the new men of science could displace the vote-buying of electoral politics.
Well before Mussolini, still a revolutionary socialist in the early twentieth century, and at roughly the same time as Lenin, Wells—in the book that he called the “keystone to the main arch of my work”—gave up not only on democracy but on organized labor as a transformative force. All three men rejected what might be described as social democracy, that is, the attempt to use political means to redress the inadequacies of capitalism. Instead, each proposed a new class, a vanguard to carry forward a postcapitalist social order.
In A Modern Utopia, written in 1905, Wells updated John Stuart Mill’s culturally individualist liberalism in light of the horizons opened by Darwin and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Biologically, argues the book’s narrator, the “species is the accumulation of the experiments of all its successful individuals since the beginning.” That means, he says, that the “people of exceptional quality must be ascendant.” Further, “the better sort of people, so far as they can be distinguished, must have the fullest freedom of public service.”
What provides the possibility for such freedom is eugenics. Wells has no use for the iron laws of Marxism, but he replaces them with the iron laws of Malthus and Darwin. “From the view of human comfort and happiness, the increase of population that occurs at each advance in human security is the greatest evil of life,” he writes. “The extravagant swarm of new births” that created the masses was “the essential disaster of the 19th century.” Man’s propensity to reproduce will always outstrip his productive capacity, even in an age of machinery. Worse, the “base and servile types,” who are little more than the “leaping, glittering confusion of shoaling mackerel on a sunlit afternoon,” are the most fecund.
In Anticipations, Wells had already argued horrifyingly that the “nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, or poisons its People of the Abyss” would be ascendant. For the base and servile types, death would mean merely “the end of the bitterness of failure.” It was “their portion to die out and disappear.” The New Republicans would have “little pity and less benevolence” for the untermenschen, “born of unrestrained lusts . . . and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity.”
In A Modern Utopia, Wells, stung by criticism of Anticipations, backed off, but only partway. “Idiots,” “drunkards,” “criminals,” “lunatics,” “congenital invalids,” and the “diseased” would “spoil the world for others,” Wells again argued. But their depredations required “social surgery,” not total extermination. That meant preventing people below a set income and intelligence from reproducing, as well as isolating the “failures” on an island so that better folk could live unfettered by government intrusion. Remove the unfit, and there will be no need for jails or prisons, which are places “of torture by restraint.” Illiberalism enables liberalism.
Wells’s “Samurai,” an updated version of the New Republicans, would keep track of their charges through a centralized thumbprint index of all the earth’s inhabitants. Latter-day Puritans in everything except sex, the Samurai would lead lives of irreproachable rectitude, abjuring tobacco, alcohol, trade, and games, which they could neither join nor watch. These elect, “the clean and straight” men and women capable “of self-devotion, of intentional courage, of honest thought, and steady endeavour,” would rule in the name of the new godhead: Progress through Science. As Wells would later put it, science was to be “king of the world.”
Wells saw America, which wasn’t weighted down by ancient traditions, as the best chance for his ideas to come to fruition. A host of British visitors, from Fanny Trollope and Charles Dickens to Robert Louis Stevenson, could barely contain their disdain for their backwoods American cousins. But Wells—an anti–Henry James who saw himself as a self-made man—exulted in the absence of an established church, the embodiment of the irrational past. “Up to the point of its equality of opportunity,” he wrote, “surely no sane Englishman can do anything but admire the American state.” His 1904 nonfiction book Mankind in the Making welcomed a possible reunion of Britain and the United States based, as he saw it, on their common racial stock.
At the same time, Wells showed deep concerns about America. A socialist critic of American capitalism, he was revulsed by the “inhuman energy” of New York’s immigrant masses. In the Days of the Comet (1906) portrayed overproduction by a rapacious “gang of energetic, narrow-minded” American ironmongers as a threat to English social stability. Wells also thought that American democracy provided too much leeway to the poltroons who ran the political machines and the “fools” who supported them. The “immigrants are being given votes,” he argued, but “that does not free them, it only enslaves the country.”
In The Future in America, an account of his first trip to these shores in 1906 that was serialized in American and British magazines, Wells rightly pointed out that America was essentially “the central part of the European organism without either the dreaming head or the subjugated feet.” But that wasn’t a good thing, he claimed. In England, modern men of money “had become part of a responsible ruling class”; in America, the absence of an aristocracy had left the country without that sense of “state responsibility” that was necessary “to give significance to the whole.” The upshot was that “the typical American has no sense of the state. . . . He has no perception that his business activities, his private employments, are constituents in a larger collective process.” Further, Wells argued, America’s can-do commercialism was “crushing and maiming a great multitude of souls.” “The greatest work which the coming century has to do,” he wrote, “is to build up an aristocracy of thought and feeling which shall hold its own against the aristocracy of mercantilism” and its allies “materialism and Philistinism.”
In the course of his visit to the U.S., Wells was befriended by Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens, who arranged for a visit to the White House. Teddy Roosevelt, an avid reader, was delighted to talk for hours with Wells about the growing class divisions in America, which had been exacerbated by the confluence of rapid industrialization and rapid immigration. Roosevelt had rightly read The Time Machine as an anticipation of deepened class divisions hardened over time into an overworld and an underworld. The president became “gesticulatory,” his voice “straining,” Wells remembered. “Suppose after all,” Roosevelt said slowly, “that should prove to be right, and that it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn’t matter now. The effort’s real”—Roosevelt’s reform effort to curb the power of giant monopolies, that is. “It’s worth going on with. It’s worth it—even then.”
“My hero in the confused drama of human life,” Wells wrote in The Future in America, “is intelligence; intelligence inspired by constructive passion. There is a demi-god imprisoned in mankind.” Three years before Herbert Croly’s pathbreaking book The Promise of American Life totemized Roosevelt as the incarnation of a new liberal politics that deployed Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends, Wells presented TR as the demigod incarnate, the very symbol of “the creative will in man.” Here was the man of the future—“traditions,” noted Wells, “have no hold on him”—a model of the Samurai. “I know of no other,” said Wells, “a tithe so representative of the creative purpose, the goodwill in men as he.”
By 1920, The Nation could describe Wells as “the most influential writer in English of our day.” Wells’s version of socialism, with its barbed attacks on Victorian gentility and its promise of sexual and artistic liberation, was far more appealing to American intellectuals than the bureaucratic droning of the Fabians or the dogmatism of the Marxists.
For many, noted historian Henry May, Wells was “the most important social prophet.” The social critic Randolph Bourne described Wells’s “religious” impact, his “power of seeming to express for us the ideas and dilemmas which we feel spring out of our modernity”—a power that was nothing less than “magical.” Walter Lippmann—the leading political commentator for the first half of the twentieth century, whose writing for The New Republic and whose books Drift and Mastery and Public Opinion shaped the emergence of modern liberalism—saw Wells as one of those “invaluable men who happen along occasionally with the ability to give hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind.” And here is literary critic Floyd Dell:
Suddenly there came into our minds the magnificent and well-nigh incredible conception of Change. . . . gigantic, miraculous change, an overwhelming of the old in ruin and an emergence of the new. Into our eternal and changeless world came H. G. Wells prophesying its ending, and the Kingdom of Heaven come upon earth; the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll, and all the familiar things of earth pass away utterly—so he seemed to cry out to our astounded ears.
Wells’s extraordinary influence sprang in part from the elitism of American intellectuals. Critic Van Wyck Brooks, for example, the first American to write a book on Wells, approvingly heard echoes of Nietzsche’s supermen in the Samurai: they were “delegates of the species, experimenting, searching for new directions; they instinctively view themselves as explorers for the race, as disinterested agents. . . . Their self-development [is] the method by which the Life Impulse discovers and rewards itself, and pushes on to ever wider and richer manifestations.” Once a new class of professionals and engineers came into its own, Brooks explained, conveying the conventional wisdom among advanced liberals, “democracy as we know it” would “pass away.” “Without doubt,” wrote Brooks, “Wells has altered the air we breathe and made a conscious fact in many minds the excellence that resides in certain kinds of men and modes of living and odiousness that resides in others.” Dell, and Lippmann too, believed themselves members of the new aristocracy of mind and character.
Other major public figures in the U.S. acknowledged Wells’s impact. Margaret Sanger, a leading feminist, militant proponent of the First Amendment, and champion of birth control and eugenics—all causes shared by Wells—believed that the author had “influenced the American intelligentsia more than any other one man.” The naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, looking back on the 1920s, noted of Wells that “a whole surviving generation might appropriately sing in the words of the popular ballad of their days, ‘You made me what I am today.’ ” To assess Wells and George Bernard Shaw, Krutch asserted, “would come pretty close to assessing the aims, the ideals, the thinking and one might almost say, the wisdom and folly of a half-century.”
During World War I, Wells—like his admirers at The New Republic, the new magazine where he published regularly and whose name was redolent of the heroes of Anticipations—had been both an ardent antinationalist and a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a new world to emerge from the terrible bloodshed. But liberal hopes for international comity were dashed, and postwar bewilderment and disillusion created an extraordinary demand for answers. Why had all civilized standards broken down in the course of the first total war? Why had so much sacrifice come to so little? Why had a war to protect the status quo ante been so destabilizing? Why was it being followed not by peace but by revolution?
Anyone who could offer “a clue, any clue, to the riddle,” said the historian J. Carlton Hayes, “was assured a large and attentive audience.” Lenin was the first off the mark, ascribing the war to the cupidity of capitalism and offering Communist internationalism as the means to peace. For perplexed Americans struggling to make sense of America’s new role in the world, Wells provided an alternative internationalist answer. His massive, two-volume The Outline of History (1920) became the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade, a sort of secular Bible, complete with creation story—in this case, Darwinian—and a promise of redemption if advances in communications and man’s intelligence were allowed to minimize the scourge of nationalism by creating a world government led by the Samurai.
Humanity, Wells said, had a common origin that allowed for a shared path toward its goal, which was “to create and develop a common consciousness and a common stock of knowledge which may serve and illuminate” reality. The recent war was the product of an “educational breakdown” in which the retrograde ideals of nationalism and patriotism had been allowed to metastasize. “There can be no peace now, we realize, but a common peace in all the world,” Wells wrote, “no prosperity but a general prosperity. But there can be no common peace and prosperity without common historical ideas.”
The Outline’s aim was to establish that common heritage, to forge the consciousness that merged “the narrow globe of the individual experience” into a “wider being,” a Jung-like shared identity as a species searching for the higher evolutionary path. In the future, Wells predicted, anticipating the liberationist ideas of the sixties, “man will breathe sweetness and generosity and use his mind and hands cleanly and exactly. He will feel better, will be better, think better, see, taste, and hear better than men do now. His undersoul will no longer be a mutinous cavern of ill-treated suppressions and of impulses repressed without understanding.” Golden youths would lead lives of deliciously complete sexual and emotional fulfillment.
When Wells came to New York in 1921 to cover the Washington Naval Conference for the New York World and London’s Daily Mail, he was received, noted the respected radical Max Eastman, as “reporter-judge.” The widely shared sense of Wells as “a priest-like teacher” brought him, said Eastman, “to his highest point at that momentous or meant to be momentous conference.” At the disarmament talks, Wells received more deference than the major nationalities’ official delegates did. A banquet “was tendered to him at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel by Ralph Pulitzer, the proprietor of the New York World,” reported Eastman, “and the outstanding dignitaries of the city—legal, political, financial, journalistic, literary—were invited to it.”
Over the next decade, Wells would meet with Presidents Harding and Hoover at the White House. But while he was still publicly lionized, his intellectual influence began to decline. Some liberals, disillusioned by the war’s outcome and angered by the hysteria of the postwar Red Scare, saw in Wells’s optimism the simplicities of a “Fabian schoolmarm,” as one critic put it, stuck in the hopeful years before the war. Soviet sympathizers similarly mocked him as “the last of the Great Parlor Socialists.”
As the bootsteps of both fascism and Communism began stamping down his influence, Wells wrote a 1924 essay, “The Spirit of Fascism: Is There Any Good in It at All?” The answer: a resounding no. “Moscow and Rome are alike in this, that they embody the rule of a minority conceited enough to believe that they have a clue to the tangled incoherencies of human life, and need only sufficiently terrorize criticism and opposition to achieve a general happiness,” Wells wrote. As elitist as his rivals but nonetheless liberal, he explained that “neither recognizes the enormously tentative quality of human institutions, and the tangled and scarcely explored difficulties in the path of social reconstruction.” At the same time, both fascists and Communists were too democratic for Wells, having attained power, as he saw it, by an ill-advised appeal to the masses. “The underlying fact in all these matters,” he concluded, was that “the common uneducated man is a violent fool in social and public affairs.”
Though Wells would always be critical of Marxism, he viewed the Soviet experiment as proof of his foresight. In What Are We to Do with Our Lives? (1931), he wrote, “The idea of reorganizing the affairs of the world on quite a big scale, which was ‘Utopian,’ and so forth, in 1926 and 1927, and still ‘bold’ in 1928, has now spread about the world until nearly everybody has it. It has broken out all over the place, thanks largely to the mental stimulation of the Russian Five Year Plan.” But drawing again on Marx’s “utopian” predecessors, he promised an anodyne adaptation of Soviet central planning shorn of police-state thuggery. He called for a “great central organization of economic science,” which “would necessarily produce direction; it would indicate what had best be done here, there, and everywhere.” But “it would not be an organization of will, imposing its will upon a recalcitrant race; it would be a direction, just as a map is a direction.” A map, he explained, “imposes no will on anyone, breaks no one in to its ‘policy.’ And yet we obey our maps.”
The book fell flat. As one critic put it, “Wells is the mostly highly imaginative human being living,” but “his intellect can’t keep pace with his imagination.” By 1932, a frustrated Wells found his superior wisdom bypassed time and again by the superior mass appeal of fascism and Communism. In a talk at Oxford provocatively titled “Liberal Fascism,” he called for liberalism to be “born again.” After his customary denunciation of parliamentary politics as an anachronism, he let out his frustrations, calling for fascist means to serve liberal ends by way of a liberal elite as “conceited” and as power-hungry as its rivals. “I suggest that you study the reinvigoration of Catholicism by Loyola,” Wells said. “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti.” It was also to Communism that “we shall have to turn—we outsiders, that is, the young people with foresight for enlightened Nazis; I am proposing that you consider the formation for a greater Communist Party; a western response to Russia.”
Wells thought he had found that Western response in 1934, when he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and with key members of FDR’s Brains Trust. “My impression of both him and Mrs. Roosevelt,” he wrote, “is that they are unlimited people, entirely modern in the openness of their minds and the logic of their actions.” Here, for a time at least, was another political hero with whom he could identify wholeheartedly. FDR was “continually revolutionary in the new way without ever provoking a stark revolutionary crisis,” wrote the ever-certain Wells. “I do not say that the President has these revolutionary ideas in so elaborate and comprehensive a form as they have come to me, [but] unless I misjudge him, they will presently possess him altogether.” Indeed, FDR was “the most effective transmitting instrument possible for the coming of the new world order,” and in Brains Trusters Raymond Moley, Felix Frankfurter, and Rex Tugwell, Wells found the nucleus of the new elite, those who were destined to take full power in time.
Wells retained his judgment of FDR even after meeting with Stalin four months later in his capacity as president of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), an international association dedicated to defending freedom of speech. Wells, noted Malcolm Cowley, the philo-Stalinist literary critic of The New Republic, was “not an official figure,” but when he met with Stalin, “he spoke with the voice of Anglo-American liberalism.” Seeking to outflank Stalin, he told the Soviet dictator, “It seems to me that I am more to the Left than you. I think the old system is closer to the end than you think.” Wells asked an unimpressed Stalin to abandon the class struggle on the grounds that the future lay with the Royal Society, the leading British academy, which had called scientific planning the best path to the future. Stalin, echoing Lenin’s earlier reaction to Wells—after a friendly 1920 meeting, the revolutionary had found the seer “incurably middle-class”—responded with a lecture on the unavoidably bourgeois character of experts.
Wells thought the loss of freedom for Russian writers was temporary and seemed to accept Stalin’s insistence that vigorous debate within the party took place. Despite Stalin’s impermeability, Wells concluded that “I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and it is to these qualities and to nothing occult and sinister, that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendancy in Russia. . . . No one is afraid of him and everyone trusts him.” Wells summed up the differences between Washington and Moscow by arguing that “the one is a receptive and coordinating brain center; the other is a concentrated and personal direction.” The aim sought, “a progressively more organized big-scale community,” was “precisely the same.” The New Republic and The Nation were churning out similar conclusions weekly.
Still, Wells placed his hopes for the future on FDR, not on Stalin. In 1935, he did a series of articles on the New Deal for Collier’s, extolling FDR’s program as a model for the world. But Wells had little new to say. He was still a major figure in America but no longer a major influence, and when eventually he soured on the New Deal as not having attained his exalted expectations, it was to scant effect.
In Germany, of course, the eugenics and central planning that Wells touted soon led in directions that the futurist didn’t anticipate. Wells attempted to explain away Hitler as “the screaming little defective in Germany”—an explanation for which George Orwell had only contempt. But Orwell nonetheless recognized Wells’s extraordinary impact. “I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much,” Orwell wrote. “The minds of all of us . . . would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.”
Orwell was right. It was Wells who made it respectable, even before World War I, for liberals in England and America to demean their own native democratic culture in the name of an imagined antidemocratic World State. And it was Wells, with his stature as the prophet of the future, who taught upper-middle-class liberals that they were entitled to govern in the name of social evolution.
Top Photo: A 1969 Brooke Bond collectors tea card depicting the author (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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