The Forgotten H.G. Wells

Today marks the 143rd anniversary of the birth of H.G. Wells, and Google has marked the occasion with one of those curious UFO banners they’ve been featuring lately.

Wells is best known today for his immortal contributions to science-fiction — such classics as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man — but in his own time (1866-1946) he was perhaps better known as a political author and activist, one of the most outspoken members of the “Progressive” movement from which today’s liberalism descends. He had an extraordinary faith in the ability of visionary men and women, armed with the ascendant power of science, to sweep aside the old order of the world, and to put a new and better civilization in its place.

Like most Progressive thinkers of the era, Wells approved of the Leftist social reforms that swept Europe in the early years of the 20th century under the banners of the Fascists and Nazis, and he called, in a speech to the Young Liberals at Oxford in 1932, for a “‘Phoenix Rebirth’ of Liberalism,” a kind of “enlightened Nazism” that he proposed be called “Liberal Fascism.” He was a friend and admirer of FDR (who, before the war, shared Wells’ high opinion of Fascist ideals), and was a frequent visitor to the White House.

Wells was frank about the difficulty of creating a new order, guided by an elite of cultural, scientific, and political savants, in such a messy world; in particular there was the lingering issue of the lowest, most unproductive classes. It was obvious to him that if we were ever to get anywhere, their numbers must be culled, and he shared in, and was an influential spokesman for, the prevailing support amongst Progressives for a global program of eugenics. In Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1902), Wells wrote:

And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world state with a common language and a common rule. All over the world its roads, its standards, its laws, and its apparatus of control will run. It will, I have said, make the multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard of social efficiency unpleasant and difficult… The Jew will probably lose much of his particularism, intermarry with Gentiles, and cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs in a century or so. But much of his moral tradition will, I hope, never die. … And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?
Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.

Some have read into this a call for genocide, but this is mistaken; in the prevailing view of the time, a steady downward pressure would suffice. For Wells, and the Progressives of his day (in contrast to the programs later undertaken by the Nazis, who combined genocide with selective breeding of “pure” Aryans), eugenics would bring about gradual attrition of the congenitally deficient by curtailing their reproduction. Wells wrote elsewhere that “it is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Much of this seems shocking now, but in the heady zeitgeist of the Progressive era, these were not uncommon views, as witness Oliver Wendell Holmes’ oft-quoted opinion in Buck v. Bell. In that case, which challenged Virginia’s eugenics statutes authorizing the compulsory sterilization of the mentally retarded, Holmes famously opined that that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Little of this is remembered now, of course; even the word “fascism” has now become, in the mouths of those on the Left, a caustic term for the political Right, despite its origins on the diametrically opposite side of the political spectrum. Indeed, two of the favorite causes of the political Left, now seen as social blessings for the masses of the poor — contraception and the minimum wage — originally arose as Progressive projects intended not as ways to help lift a struggling underclass, but to breed and starve them out of existence. (I’ll save that for another post.)

But however you may feel about Mr. Wells’s politics — and this briefest of summaries cannot begin to do justice to the complexity and evolution of his views over the tumultuous decades of the early 20th century — what a strong and restless mind he had, and what stories he told! I read all of his science-fiction novels as a boy, and his many short stories as well. His contribution to English letters was enormous, and for that alone he deserves his Google banner.

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4 Comments

  1. jz says

    Malcolm – interesting reading, thank you. jz

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  2. A world with a common language is entirely desirable. The World indeed does need a common auxiliary language.

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    At this point, I’d say English is well on its way to filling that role, Brian; I think getting all the people of the word to take up Esperanto is a hopeless proposition, if you’ll forgive the pun.

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  4. Kevin Kim says

    I’m not sure that an artificial language, largely European in character, needs to be foisted on the entire global populace. Having just finished watching the “Firefly” TV series on Hulu, I wouldn’t mind a scenario like the one portrayed on that show: English and Chinese mixed together in a happy, organic jumble. I also remain charmed by another sci-fi scenario: that of the Star Wars universe, in which everyone speaks his own native tongue, yet understands many others.

    And while we’re on the topic of sci-fi: have you seen “Time After Time”? The movie portrays an HG Wells brimming with utopian and socialist ideals.

    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink