Friday, 21 July 2017

The Great State (1912)

This volume was co-edited by Wells, G R Stirling Taylor (a prominent London barrister and socialist) and the remarkable Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, who, having spent much of the later nineteenth-century as mistress to a string of prominent figures, including the Prince of Wales, Lord Charles Beresford (during which relationship she was shocked to discover that her husband, the Earl of Warwick, had impregnated Lady Beresford), American millionaire Joseph Laycock and various others, settled down somewhat in middle-age to socialist good works. I mean, I say, settled down. She did blackmail George V on his accession in 1910 by threatening to publish the love letters his father, Edward VII, had written to her when he was Prince of Wales—an inarguably commendable enterprise which netted her £64,000, close to seven million in today's money. But broadly speaking by the time she became friendly with Wells she had settled, as I say, into a more respectable middle-age.

So for example she joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1904. She donated generously to socialist causes, opposed World War 1, supported the October Revolution and after the war joined the Labour Party. Interesting fact: the song ‘Daisy Daisy’ was written about her. Indeed, the link from SF's Guvnor H G Wells, through his friend the Countess of Warwick, to HAL singing that song with increasingly machinic ritardando in 2001: A Space Odyssey makes me greatly, and perhaps illogically, happy.

Anyway, not to get distracted: the Countess, Taylor and Wells agreed on the desirability of a book exploring how the evolution of a socialistic State might work, and commissioned various prominent socialists to contribute. ‘A collection of essays by contemporaries actively concerned with various special aspects of progress was proposed,’ is how the preface to the book passive-voices it. This is the result:

Pausing only to remark what a most excellent name ‘L G Chiozza Money’ is for a fiscal economist, let us move on to Wells's contribution to the volume.

He starts by distinguishing between ‘the Normal Social Life’ and ‘the Great State’. The former is what has ‘been the lot of the enormous majority of human beings as far back as history or tradition or the vestiges of material that supply our conceptions of the neolithic period can carry us’ (basically ‘a community in which the greater proportion of the individuals are engaged more or less directly in the cultivation of the land’ [4]). The latter is where Wells wants us all to go. Between the two, however, is a third thing which Wells calls ‘the surplus life’, where trade creates surplus value which a few exploit: ‘all recorded history is in a sense the history of these surplus and supplemental activities of mankind’.
The Normal Social Life flowed on in its immemorial fashion, using no letters, needing no records, leaving no history. Then a little minority, bulking disproportionately in the record, come the trade and sailor, the slave, the landlord and the tax-collector, the townsman and the kind. All written history is the story of a minority and their peculiar and abnormal affairs. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 7-8]
History then is fundamentally anomalous: ‘the Normal Social Life is essentially illiterate and traditional. The Normal Social Life is as mute as the standing crops; it is as seasonal and cyclic as nature herself and reaches towards the future only an intimation of continual repetitions.’

Wells's main thesis is that ‘conservative’ thinkers—he specifically names Chesterton, Belloc and William Morris—romanticise the Normal Social Life, and regard ‘the surplus forces’ as ‘in more or less destructive conflict with it’. But, Wells says, this life was ‘laborious, prolific, illiterate, limited’, and cherry picking moments from the historical record doesn’t change that. ‘It must recede and disappear before methods upon a much larger scale, employing wholesale machinery and involving great economies’ [34]. This is the Great State, founded upon collectivised farms (‘extensive tracts being cultivated on a wholesale scale’ [36]) that will free up collective wealth for collective improvement and enjoyment. Wells lays out his standard Fabian compromise between plutocracy and full Communism, ideas he had already touched on in his Modern Utopia and his various Fabian tracts:
I would like to underline in the most emphatic way that it is possible to have this Great State, essentially socialistic, owning and running the land and all the great public services, sustaining everybody in absolute freedom at a certain minimum of comfort and well-being, and still leaving most of the interests, amusements and adornments of the individual life and all sorts of collective concerns social and political discussion, religious worship, philosophy and the like to the free personal initiatives of entirely unofficial people. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 42-43]
He ends with a little diagram tracing the path out of what, with a tidy piece of typographic delinquency, Wells now appears to call THE NORMAE SOCIAL LIFE.

I trust that's clear.


  1. From a Marxist point of view that little diagram is extraordinary - with "general labour conscription" and improved automation, he foresees the working class withering away and the (pre-existing) "leisure class" leading the way to a future of leisure for all. I guess a writer's own class interest will out.

    1. However impoverished he was as a kid, Wells was never properly 'working class', was he. Always lower-middle, or lower-lower-middle, and always with his eyes set up social ladder, not downwards.