From New International, Vol. II No. 2, March 1935, pp. 75–76.
Trawnscribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Experiment in Autobiography
Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
By H.G. Welly
432 pp. New York. The Macmillan Company. $4.
It has been H.G. Wells’ job to voice the non-revolutionary radicalism of the middle class and make it respectable. No one has done so more successfully. Certainly no writer can boast of having more thoroughly exposed, though quite unwittingly, the futility of this radicalism and the reactionary character it assumes in times of crisis.
In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells gives us a report on his job.
He describes his life as the growth and development of an average brain. He never tires of repeating this. It sounds the keynote not only to his life but to his ideas. It has earned for his autobiography the title of “Honest”.
Born of lower middle class parents, in a squalid environment, Wells considers his rise to the position of an intellectual as an accident. When a child, a broken leg limited his activity to reading. It is in this period of his life that the roots of his radicalism are to be found. His early reading made him conscious of the drabness of his home. His mother was a simple, religious woman; he became passionately anti-religious.
Much as today, it was both a custom and an economic necessity in the ’80s for middle class parents to indenture their children as apprentices in the trade they wished them to follow. Wells became a draper’s apprentice at the age of 14 and hated it. His early reading and dreaming had given him a sense of superiority, so he rebelled not with but against labor. In his own words, his “want of enthusiasm for the proletarian ideal” goes back to those early years.
He reached London University in time to study biology under T.H. Huxley. At this point Wells’ radicalism began to assume a definite shape. He acquired a “feel” of the scientific concept of evolution, and translated it literally into social terms. Social evolution became for him an inevitable and good thing. The idea that humanity is gradually moving towards a “world scientific state” began to crystallize. Years later he was to set down the result of his thinking on the subject in his Outline of History.
There was no room for the middle class intellectual in the scheme of contemporary English society. Wells was acutely aware of that. He saw that teaching was hampered on all sides by old pedagogical and moral forms. It was in no way possible to teach science, as Latin and history had hitherto been taught, without destroying its social implications. The reform of the educational system became therefore a leading issue for him. Such a reform would not only speed the development of science itself, but would make its findings available to the thousands of other little Wellses who had not broken a leg. In addition, with so much new and promising material released from the drapery emporia, would it not be possible to transform through education the whole of civilized life?
It is typical of Wells’ thinking that while he asks very tentative questions about the world, he is already unshakably convinced of the answers. He contributed nothing scientific to the theory of evolution, but Progress (evolution plus education) has become a matter of profound moral significance to him.
The form his radicalism assumed was moulded by his childhood reactions. Furthermore these reactions were based upon experiences shared by the great majority of the middle class. Hence the importance and popularity of Wells. He has been able to articulate the hopes and aspirations of his class. Politically and intellectually he has lived them.
To follow the idea of Progress throughout Wells’ life, its twists and turns, the manner in which it becomes interwoven with minor themes and subjective moods is to witness an amazing spectacle of intellectual vanity and dishonesty. He revolted against academic tradition, and pretentious vagueness became “free and searching thought”. His struggle for internal and external peace, his yearning for the “perfect study”, has been identified in his mind with a struggle between good and evil in society. “Make the world safe for intellectuals!”
He has much contempt for what he calls the “governess-trained minds” which control the British Foreign Office. But he has no real feeling of social indignation or hatred for the ruling class. Just a tinge of envy which takes the form of “I am as good as they are”, a thought that can easily be reversed! Thus his revolt is confined to the fact that the aristocracy would not accept him, the middle class intellectual, as one of its own. His republicanism has prevented his getting a peerage. What he wants is a world in which his kind would just naturally be peers.
It is quite consistent with his views that the spiritual peace and intellectual freedom of inquiry which the 18th century aristocrat enjoyed should be Wells’ private notion of the good life. He is not blind to the fact that such a life rests upon the shoulders of sweating, ignorant masses. But that is on the whole just a subject for research. Besides, he asks, wouldn’t the masses benefit by this leisure which their labor has made possible? Can’t intellectuals use this leisure to draw up the blueprints of a society in which it will not be necessary to have a working class at all, to draw these blueprints quietly, uninterrupted by the constant pressure of events? He and his kind hold the key to a better world, the World State. True, to get humanity to see this requires a “bold handling of stupidity, obstruction and perversity”. But in the last analysis the responsibiiity lies with mankind. After all, he can’t do more than show the way! The implication: Mankind is stupid and perverse if it doesn’t follow Wells. At this point he pouts. What then becomes of Progress, one wonders?
On the one hand Wells envies the “spaciousness and leisure” enjoyed by the aristocrats, on the other he shares the typical middle class mistrust of the proletariat and its organizations. He would call himself a socialist, and sometimes does, but the idea of socialism has been hopelessly corrupted by Marx. He played about with the Fabians for a while, but criticized them severely: “Let us have a new world, they said, and they called it socialism. But they did not realize that a new world, new in scale and power was coming up all about them.” What is this new world? It is the locomotive, the transatlantic liner, and the growing respectability of H.G. Wells. He didn’t like the Fabians because they were too political and narrow. He wanted them to become the nucleus of a new world aristocracy, but they wouldn’t do anything of the kind.
His contempt and hatred of Marx know no bounds. Marxism is not the least of the “stupidities and perversities” that stand in the way of his world state. He calls Marx a “stuffy, egocentered, malicious theorist”. The theory of the class struggle merely released “an epidemic of spite” which retards mankind in its march towards order, peace, and light.
Here the tragedy of Wells the Radical is made evident. Suspicious of working-men’s organizations, he was condemned to play the role of valet to the governing class just as surely as his mother had been the chambermaid to a gentlewoman. But his mother knew she was a chambermaid, and she believed in God. Her inflated offspring on the other hand, with his conceited naiveté, invented the slogan: “A war to end wars”, and thought he was doing his bit for a happy new world!
Wells complained towards the end of the war that “we were used as decoys”. He became disillusioned like so many others. But did he learn anything? According to him his attitude at the outset of the war was not wrong; he was just a man ahead of his time. He supported the worst mass murder for profit in history, urged workers to slaughter, because he hoped that the war would be the “last wave of folly” and the World State would emerge. He toyed a bit with the idea of a League of Nations, but no ... he had overestimated Humanity! When he saw thousands cheering the returning soldiers, peace, and the full dress parades, his only thought was:
“And this is the proletariat of dear old Marx in being ... This is the stuff that old dogmatist counted upon for his dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Wells had reassumed his role of the Free and Searching Thinker. Long live the day when such Thinkers and Decoys will govern our destinies! We can count upon Wells to do his bit for the next imperialist war.
After 1918 he realized things were a bit different. The Russian revolution and the Treaty of Versailles left their mark even on Wells. Something must be done to speed the coming of the new World Economy. He still talks about education, but after forty years of thinking on the subject, the most constructive suggestion he has to offer is: “I wish I had a virus with which one might bite people and make them mad for education.” But more serious is his great scheme, “The Open Conspiracy”, whereby middle class intellectuals, both professional and Thinkers, would band together and save the world from the orthodox stuffed shirts, Right and Left. This idea has since had its practical application in this country in the shape of our “Brain Trust”, trying to outwit both the “rapacious capitalist” and the impatient worker.
Although Wells’ Open Conspiracy, like the “government by experts” idea of the most radical of our New Dealers, could lend itself to Fascism, it would be quite mistaken to think that Wells might ever become a Fascist. He is too mature a liberal. He hardly mentions Fascism at all. When he does it is to dismiss it as childishness and stupidity. It is a phenomenon which he can’t explain because it runs counter to his religion of Progress. He is one of those “enlightened” people who, should Fascism come to their country, will blindly walk over the edge of the cliff at the bottom of which lies a concentration camp. The Stalinists have nothing on him in this respect. In fact I rather think he is the kind of intellectual they would love to have in one of their “Against War and Fascism” organizations, if only they could catch him. He is a social-Fascist.
If one were to approach Wells and ask him: “But don’t you think that it is important to fight for the immediate demands of the workers?” he would undoubtedly answer: “Oh, very possible, but I can’t be bothered with that, I am thinking of the future.” What then, of the future? He has spent a great deal of time thinking about it. He owes us a nice blueprint; the kind that will save generations to come the trouble of planning that would otherwise be in store for them. But from all we can gather the World State will realize itself more or less automatically. If any part of it doesn’t, that will be taken care of “by myself and a few other people that inhabit my world”. He sees signs of this emergence here and there in the acts of some individual or in the draft of some movement. Since he is unable in any way to describe the mechanism of this process, he can choose his illustrations at random according to his fancy, a fancy clearly dominated by his class interests. The more obscure an idea, the wider the field of speculation and surmise. The question of organization does not concern him. This gives him an enormous advantage over scientists and Marxists. It permits him to look way ahead of them, untrammelled by any immediate problems. He even goes so far as to speculate about what will happen when the sun cools off. He is a man ahead of his time.
Anticipating a legend. Wells goes to sleep for three hundred years. During his prolonged somnolence many things happen: Wars, revolutions, periods of Fascism and reaction, in the course of which books are burned, thousands upon thousands killed, and Wells’ name has been forgotten. Finally the revolution is successful, socialism is built, the communist society established. Wells wakes up, looks around him and says: “Ah! I see the world has finally decided to follow my advise.”
Last updated on 26 February 2016