And the inferior swarms will have to die

Michael Coren
Saturday 02 January 1993 00:02 GMT

'This was a man whose word was light in a thousand dark places. Since the beginning of the century, whenever young men and women, from the Arctic to the tropics, were determined to free themselves from mental squalor, from superstition, ignorance, cruelty and fear, there was H G Wells at their side, unwearying and eager to instruct and inspire.' Thus spoke the socialist writer J B Priestley at the cremation of his friend on 16 August 1946. Wells's fame, genius and immense powers of imagination and energy are not in doubt, but in a new biography Michael Coren argues that Wells should be seen as a major contributor to the powers of darkness.

H G Wells published the purest and most succinct account of his ideal political system in 1901. He called it Anticipations. It was 'the keystone to the main arch of my work', he explained, and indeed it was. Anticipations presented a novel and terrifying picture of a Wellsian Utopia. He believed the imagined and desired society he envisaged there would come about within 10 years.

The book begins with a long, somewhat tedious analysis of the history and future of locomotion, and goes on to discuss war, social relations and democracy. It is, however, in the intricate section entitled 'The Faith, Morals and Public Policy of the New Republic' that Wells explores his idealised future. Liberal democracy, he believed, was moribund. When it finally succumbed to the catharsis of historical forces, a new, polished and ethical society would emerge. A renascent class would come to rule, a people 'adapted to the big-scale conditions of the new time . . . an unprecedented sort of people'.

Here was the swirling hybrid of predestinarian and Marxist gleanings and his own radical ideas that Wells had been groping towards in his earlier books. The idea was that one part of the world's population would benefit by killing or enslaving the rest. Civil, economic and political freedom would be severely limited and controlled; racial and social homogeneity would be enforced; the omnipotent state would, by a combination of education and social engineering, produce a world of content and obedient citizens.

This was an extension of the Darwinist theory of evolution through the survival of the fittest, and of a perverse form of utilitarianism and the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Both of these theories Wells had eagerly consumed as a teenager and a student, but he adapted them without the moral reference or foundation of Charles Darwin or Jeremy Bentham.

Moreover, he had been brought up with his mother's belief in predestination and the God-given right and duty - in fact the theological inevitability - of the rule of the saints. The sentiments contained in these writings were heartfelt, and the product of much thought and reflection. 'Wells didn't think that he was a pessimist, far from it,' wrote the author J B Priestley. 'In fact he believed that social engineering was the most optimistic and positive philosophy there was at the time. With hindsight the material contained in Anticipations is awful; if we are honest, it was awful when it was written. Yet to some degree it was a product of fashion, of the Edwardian obsession with building a better future, instead of standing by and waiting for things to happen. We only learnt our lessons later.'

After the collapse of the established order, a pristine successor would take its place. Wells wrote of the composition of the new order, and of its policies to benefit humanity: 'And the ethical system which will dominate the world-state will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity - beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge - and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies and habits of men . . . the method that has only one alternative, the method that must in some cases still be called in to the help of man, is death . . .

'For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.'

Behind the despots of this cleansed state would stand the young, uniformly supportive of the new order and described in a later work as 'boys and girls and youths and maidens, full of the zest of new life, full of an abundant joyful receptivity'.

For the most part, Wells believed that 'lower' peoples would die out by what the historian Philip Guedalla later described as 'pseudo-natural causes', such as diseases, plagues and their own inability to survive. To ensure such a result, the leaders of the New Republic would 'contrive a land legislation that will keep the black or yellow or mean-white squatter on the move'. He goes on to ask: '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 civilised world, the Jew?'

The question is posed for rhetorical effect, of course, and Wells does not hesitate to answer it. Undesirables would be discouraged, by any means necessary, from procreation.

The Jew, who 'ages and dies sooner than the average European', possesses an 'incurable tendency to social parasitism', and particular care must be taken to expunge any traces of racial identity and pride or religious faith from world Jewry. It is relevant here to consider Malcolm Muggeridge's comment that Wells had read some of the works of the Anglo-German race theorist, proto-Nazi and anti-Semite, Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

Muggeridge disagreed with J B Priestley about the essence of Anticipations and wrote that, 'although Wells was not a National Socialist, he told a group of students in 1938 that he had read some of Chamberlain's articles and his book on Richard Wagner, before he had written Anticipations, and that he found some of these ideas - which are undoubtedly pagan - to be helpful'.

Muggeridge commented: 'I do not see anything surprising in Wells adopting ideas of mass relocation and murder. He was a progressive in an era when progress, at least in the material sense, had come to a halt. The empire was in decay, class warfare was on the horizon and Wells believed that life on earth was the only life we had. Pretty bleak. So he opted for schemes which make us shudder today.'

It is tempting to believe that Wells was writing with irony when he described the wretched fate of so many people, or presented a scenario of the worst possibilities. This is not the case. Wells emphasised his point time and again in the book, making it clear that the races which did not fit into his elaborate plan had no place in the New Jerusalem: 'And for the rest - those swarms of black and brown and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency? Well, the world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.'

Peppered throughout the text are signs of the author's obsession with 'multiplication' of inadequates; the forced movement and isolation of ethnic, sexual, political and moral dissidents; the engineering of humanity so as to create one type of human being, acceptable to H G Wells. But there was more, and worse. 'This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and sensual, is possible,' he wrote. 'I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.'

The lascivious and the lazy, the dark-skinned and the dreamers, the rebels and the religious, the unstable and the unhappy, and all who did not fit deftly into the eye of Wells's needle would be put to death. They may be allowed to live 'only on sufferance, out of pity and patience, and on the understanding that they do not propagate; and I do not foresee any reason to suppose that they (the New Republic's rulers) will hesitate to kill when that sufferance is abused'.

Sidney Webb, the Fabian social historian, thought the book his favourite of the year, and Arnold Bennett was quite bowled over: 'I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer intellectual vigour . . . really made me a little afraid of you. Either you have in supreme degree the journalistic trick of seeming omniscience, or you are one of the most remarkable men alive.'

Beatrice Webb, socialist and a founder of the London School of Economics, recorded in her diary that the volume was filled with 'luminous hypotheses', the product of 'a powerful imagination furnished with the data and methods of physical science working on social problems'. Wells himself described Anticipations as 'designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy and respectability. One has to go quietly in the earlier papers, but the last will be a buster.'

There were, however, many dissenting voices. The young G K Chesterton considered the book 'terrifying, if not horrifying. Mr Wells may be something of a genius, but within every genius there is an element of darkness. It is exhibited here in a book of gloomy, hellish predictions. Mr Wells appears to relish such a future for man, even call for its fruition. Well, well, Mr Wells, I beg to differ.'

Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor as well as an author, wrote that Anticipations was 'vile and villainous. Any man who knows science and medicine knows the book is muddle-headed. Any man who knows humanity knows the book is horrible.'

The review of the book in the Literary World of 1 August 1902 was unambiguous in its opinions. The anonymous critic wrote: 'If anyone wishes to know what a very cocksure person, 'well up' in two or possibly three of the natural sciences, but comprehensively ignorant of history, ethics and the social sciences in general, thinks mankind will be and do in the year AD2000, this is the book for him. The author is a well-known novelist who has dealt extensively with the possible future of men after the manner of fiction, and his novels have had a certain attractiveness for many. Certainly they deserve a wider audience than these Anticipations, which are not put in the form of fiction, but seem as purely the construction of a single brain working narrowly and arbitrarily as any novel could well be.

'The work is placed before us as a very sober and coldly reasoned sketch of the actual society . . . One must be free to remark that this picture throws more light upon the limitations of Mr Wells's own culture than it does upon the probable evolution of society. . . . The book is a travesty of possibilities.'

In general, however, the book was not widely reviewed, and thereby escaped mass criticism.

Yet to what extent was Wells simply reiterating the views of an entire group of intellectuals; just how extraordinary were his beliefs and his hopes? There is no doubt that socialist and early fascist thinkers looked to eugenics as a positive force for change and, as they perceived it, improvement.

By the outbreak of the First World War there were small but active movements throughout Europe advocating human engineering. Wells did, however, stand out for several reasons. He was one of the first writers, and certainly the first popular writer, to include racial engineering in his philosophy. There had been monomaniacs in the past who had written about the subject and peppered their work with anti-Semitic obsessions, but none of these was regarded as being on the left within the bounds of respectability. It was also that very popularity which made Wells's writings unique. The rantings of a fanatic were one thing, but the considered views of a highly and widely respected novelist were quite another.

This goes some way to explaining the positive response to Anticipations. Sidney Webb, for example, wrote to Chesterton after the latter's attack on the book, and declared that while much of Anticipations revolted him, it was imperative that the overall belief in eugenics not be attacked by fellow radicals. He thought Wells 'a man who had fallen over the edge'.

The plaintive flavour of the letter characterised many of the things written by Wells's supporters. They were profoundly divided: should they scold and condemn, or smile and encourage? Anticipations was the most structured and complete manual of eugenics ever to be written by a reputed author. Just a few years later the applauders had changed their minds. Wells never did. As the Conservative MP Victor Cazalet recorded in his diary on 14 December 1934: 'Lunch with . . . H G Wells. We talked of Russia and dictatorship. Wells said if he were a dictator he would probably be very vicious.'

The biographer's verdict: flawed genius

SO WHAT of Wells's true legacy and genuine achievements? He was, without doubt, a writer touched by genius and capable of work that will for ever delight those who read it. That he was a novelist of overwhelming abilities is beyond argument.

But through his political writings Wells helped to create an intellectual climate in the Twenties and Thirties that - although not leading directly to the social engineering horrors of Hilter and Stalin - certainly gave credibility to the dictators' atrocities. He injected permissibility into political eugenics, varnished murderous ideas with respect and reputation.

At its most simplistic level, the belief of the social engineers was that by exterminating or incarcerating perhaps one half of the world's population, the remaining half would enjoy unparalleled benefits. Wells not only went along with this, he also encouraged it. Thus there is a stain on his writing and on his character that is indelible.

'The Invisible Man, the life and liberties of H G Wells' by Michael Coren is published by Bloomsbury on 14 January at pounds 20.

(Photographs omitted)

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