Later editions carried the subtitle: ‘A Plain Account of Modern Socialism’, which sums up the content of the book pretty well. It was, in its day, both successful and influential, and introduced a whole generation to socialist ideas, converting many. Wells assembled the book out of various occasional and journalistic pieces: the opening nine chapters (‘The Good Will in Man’; ‘The Fundamental Idea of Socialism’; ‘The First Main Generalisation of Socialism’; ‘The Second Main Generalisation of Socialism’; ‘The Spirit of Gain and the Spirit of Service’; ‘Would Socialism Destroy the Home?’ ‘Would Modern Socialism Abolish All Property?’ ‘The Middle-Class Man, the Business Man and Socialism’ and ‘Some Common Objections to Socialism’) first appeared serially in The Grand Magazine (from July 1907 to March 1908). The remaining chapters had appeared in various places and magazines, and chapter 14, ‘Some Arguments Ad Hominem’, was originally a lecture Wells delivered at the City Temple Hall in London, November 1907, under the title ‘Every-Day Life in a Socialist State’
So successful did the book become that its Aladdin-esque title became a shorthand for socialist ambition as such. Here's Leo Bloom, in the ‘Circe’ section of Ulysses, laying out his politics:
A little anachronistic, that, since the novel is supposed to be set in 1904; but what the hey. Many of Bloom's specifics (parks open to the public, for instance) are in Wells's twelfth chapter ‘Administrative Socialism’; and ‘Free Love’ is discussed in chapter ‘Would Socialism Destroy the Home?’
It's not hard to see why the book had such popular appeal: it's written throughout with lively energy and a well-judged range of specific examples. To read it today is to be struck pretty forcably by what ghastliness a couple of centuries of entirely unfettered capitalism had entailed for the majority of the population. So for example, Wells quotes the headmaster of a regular (that is, not a ragged) London school: of his 405 children he notes ‘7.4 % of his boys whose clothing was “the scantiest possible—e.g. one ragged coat buttoned up and practically nothing found beneath it; and boots either absent or represented by a mass of rags tied upon the feet”; of 34.8 per cent. whose “clothing was insufficient to retain animal heat and needed urgent remedy”; of 45.9 per cent, whose clothing was “poor but passable; an old and perhaps ragged suit, with some attempt at proper underclothing—usually of flannelette”; thus leaving only 12.8 per cent. who could, in the broadest sense, be termed “well clad.”’ [1:3] Or take this chart, compiled by visiting nurses from their records of all London schoolchildren in 1906:
Look at those numbers for infants! Heart-sinking stuff. One of Wells's most effective rhetorical strategies is to take the terms on which conservatives attack socialism, and elegantly swap them about. Take ‘socialism will destroy the home!’—yes, but what home? Under ‘Plutocracy’ the majority of homes are hellish: Wells quotes representative samples from eight hundred surveys of Edinburgh homes, all of them variations of this kind of thing:
A filthy, dirty house. The most elementary notions of cleanliness seem disregarded. The father’s earnings are not large, and the house is insanitary, but more might be made of things if there were sobriety and thrift. There does not, however, appear to be great drunkenness, and five small children must be difficult to bring up on the money coming in. There are two women in the house. The eldest child dirty and fleabitten. Housing: seven in two rooms. Evidence from Police, Club, Employer, School-mistress and School Officer. [New Worlds For Old, 6:2]Socialism destroy the home? Not at all. Socialism is ‘rather the rescue of the home from economic destruction’ [6:3]. Wells does something similar with socialism and ‘free love’ by pointing out how many women, most of them unwilling, are driven to prostitution by economic necessity under the present system. And so it goes on: ‘Socialism is pure Materialism, it seeks only physical well-being’ (‘—just as much as nursing lepers for pity and the love of God is pure materialism that seeks only physical well-being’); ‘Socialism would destroy Incentive and Efficiency’; ‘Socialism is economically unsound’ and so on.
It's all very persuasive, although my saying so will probably not convince the unconverted, since they will (rightly) assume I read this book from a position of pre-existing ideological sympathy with Wells. So instead of pressing that line, I'm going to pick-up the way Wells several times in New Worlds For Old flavours his argument with allusions to his earlier scientific romances. A couple of examples. So here he addresses the ‘but, human nature!’ argument by tucking-in what I assume is a reference to his invading Martians: ‘people talk of Socialism as being a proposal “against human nature;” they would have us believe that this life of anxiety, of parsimony and speculation, of mercenary considerations and forced toil we all lead, is the complete and final expression of the social possibilities of the human soul.’ Not so, says Wells. It is, on the contrary, the avaricious hoarding of wealth and property that is against human nature:
It is not a thing that comes naturally out of the quality of man; it is the result of a blind and complex social growth, of this set of ideas working against that, and of these influences modifying those. The idea of property has run wild and become a choking universal weed. [New Worlds For Old, 5:1]That can hardly fail to make us think of the Red Weed in War of the Worlds, which in turn makes me wonder if Wells is nudging us towards a reading of that earlier book as a sort of allegory of invading Capital. Or what about this, surely a nod to The Time Machine?
The plain answer is that under our present conditions the Breeding-Getter wins, the man who can hold and keep and reproduce his kind. Aggressive, intensely acquisitive, reproductive people—the ignoble sort of Jew is the very type of it—are the people who will prevail in a social system based on private property and mercantile competition. No creative power, no nobility, no courage can battle against them. And below—in the slums and factories, what will be going on? The survival of a race of stunted toilers, with great resisting power to infection, contagion and fatigue, omnivorous as rats ... [New Worlds for Old, 9:6]The terminal ellipsis there is Wells's own: one of his rhetorical tics, designed to invite the reader to let his/her imagination expand into the darkly Morlockian spaces he only hints at. And this brings us to one of the book's problematics, that aspect of New Worlds For Old that makes it hard to take today. I'm talking, of course, of Wells's crudely social-Darwinist racism—this passage's ignoble Jew, posited as an explicit threat to social health and harmony. Clearly a book that indulges in this kind of hoogah-boogah arm-waving and hooting (‘if we're not careful Jews will outbreed Gentiles and reduce us all to stunted Morlockian toilers!’) is not something a twenty-first century reader is likely to think of as entirely progressive.
It's important to grasp how often ‘the Jew’ figured as a straightforward rebus for Plutocracy in the early socialist movement, and also, I'm sorry to say, in some corners of the modern Labour Party too. Wells says repeatedly in New Worlds For Old that there are only two options: Socialism, and Plutocracy (what later socialists came to call capitalism). The opposition of ‘Plutocracy and Socialism’, he insists, ‘is the supreme social and political fact in the world at the present time’ [8:1]. Personifying this opposition as a Jew facing-off against a Gentile Worker (or if one wanted more incendiary propaganda, against a Gentile Woman) was one of the ways the struggle was urged upon the broader population. It has remained a persistent, if often subterranean, strand in leftist thinking, right up to the present day, although nowadays the convention is to deprecate Zionists rather than Jews as such. This is, of course, contentious ground and I don't want to misrepresent it by only skating over its surface, any more than I want to suggest that New Worlds For Old is primarily anti-Semitic in the thrust of its argument. It isn't; the anti-Semitism is mentioned in passing. But that is precisely the point: because it's the fact that this only needs a passing mention that reveals the ways in which the society and culture out of which the book was written had internalised so comprehensive an ideological animus against the Semite that it could be invoked with the merest nod. Here's Bryan Cheyette:
The Phoenicians, as Joyce learnt from Bérard, were a mercantile Hebrew-speaking people who were commonly perceived as ancient equivalents of the contemporary Jewish bourgeoisie. Such ‘parallels between contemporaneity and antiquity’, as Eliot argued in his review of Ulysses began to be exploited as early as Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo (1850) … Wells’s New Worlds for Old (London 1908) and The Outline of History (London 1920) both make a popularly held parallel between the historic semitic Phoenicians and the contemporary British-Jewish plutocracy. [Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of 'the Jew' in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge Univ. Press 1993), 259]Cheyette goes on: ‘the destruction of Carthage, a “semitic” city in Wells’s terms, is implicitly referred to throughout The Waste Land and, according to Empson, is at the heart of Ezra Pound’s understanding of the “unity” of Eliot’s poem. ... Pound had written that “London has just escaped, from the First World War, but it is certain to be destroyed in the next one, because it is in the hands of international financiers. The very place of it will be sown with salt, as Carthage was, and forgotten by men; or it will be sown with salt”. The “purgation” of Phlebas … is, according to this reading, also implicated in the cleansing of the Carthaginian “Judaic father” who all-pervading materialism and “semitic” confusion had brought about the downfall of European civilization.’ This is what Wells says in New Worlds for Old:
Which is the better master—the democratic State or a “combine” of millionaires? Which will give the best social atmosphere for one’s children to breathe—a Plutocracy or a Socialism? That is the real question to which the middle-class man should address himself. No doubt to many minds a Plutocracy presents many attractions. ... for the masses, they will be fed with a sort of careless vigour and considerable economy from the Chicago stockyards, and by agricultural produce trusts, big breweries, fresh-water companies, and the like; they will be organized industrially and carefully controlled. They will crowd to see the motor-car races, the aeroplane competitions. It will be a world rich in contrasts and not without its gleam of pure adventure. ... But there are countervailing considerations. There is, it is said, a tendency in Plutocracies either to become unprogressive, unenterprising and stagnantly autocratic, or to develop states of stress and discontent, and so drift towards Cæsarism. The latter was the fate of the Roman Republic, and may perhaps be the destiny of the budding young Plutocracy of America. But the developing British Plutocracy, like the Carthaginian, will be largely Semitic in blood, and like the Carthaginian may resist these insurgent tendencies. [8:1]In other words—or not other words, but these actual words—who shall be master, the democratic State or a “combine” of Semitic millionaires? Which would you prefer: rule by Socialism, or rule by the Jew? Wells really does present the options as being as zero-sum as that.
This sense that the old Gentile aristocracy was being squeezed out by a more aggressive and fundamentally Jewish plutocracy crops up repeatedly in the novels Wells was writing through these years. It's there at the beginning of Tono Bungay (1909), where the narrator recalls, with a kind of complicated nostalgia, growing up in ‘Bladesover House’, formerly under the command of the elderly English Lady Drew, but now ‘let furnished to Sir Reuben Lichtenstein ... since old Lady Drew died’.
To borrow an image from my mineralogical days, these Jews were not so much a new British gentry as “pseudomorphous” after the gentry. They are a very clever people, the Jews, but not clever enough to suppress their cleverness. [Tono-Bungay, 1:3]To which the only response is: ‘yikes!’ And not in a good way. And now I'm wondering if putting the title of Wells's book into the mouth of Ulysses' Jewish protagonist wasn't yet another example of sinuous Joycean irony.