Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Elements of Reconstruction (1916)

‘D.P.’ stands for ‘Dominating Personality’, which pseudonym was intended as a piece of whimsy between Wells and his friend Lord Northcliffe but which has, when you think about it, something of the sinister about it. I'll come back to that.

Through 1916 Wells and Northcliffe would meet for occasional lunches, during which Northcliffe, acting as Lloyd George's director of propaganda, liked to sound-out Wells to discover what people ‘outside the Establishment’ were thinking, especially with respect to national negativity towards the war effort. Wells, a man who lacked neither opinions nor the vehemence to express them, argued forcefully that various changes were needful, and Northcliffe persuaded him to write his thoughts up as a series of articles for one of this (many) papers, the Times (at 25 guineas a pop! Wells earned £157. 10s from the whole run. Pretty sizeable sums for 1916). Wells agreed on condition of anonymity—hence ‘D.P.’—presumably because he wanted the liberty to express himself without the constraint of his considerable public profile. Since one of the things these articles do is, effectively, to repudiate Socialism, it's conceivable he may also have wanted to protect himself from backlash. Many of friends were still loyal to the movement, after all. At any rate, the articles created considerable buzz, word got out as to their authorship and Wells was compelled to acknowledge them as his in the volume in which they were collected: as above.

This anonymous/famous problem threads the book, actually. So, The Elements of Reconstruction opens with a preface by Viscount Milner that begins ‘I know nothing about the authors except what can be gathered from their own writing.’ Since Milner was a friend of Northcliffe, and knew Wells from the Coefficient Club, and elsewhere, this can't have been true. And the articles themselves refer to the writer's longstanding and published interest in questions of education, political reorganisation, technological advance and so on, which must have put original readers in mind of Wells.

Anyway: under the following chapter titles three broad areas are discussed: political, economic and educational reform:
1. Science in Education and Industry
2. Scientific Agriculture And The Nation's Food
3. The Long View And Labour
4. Problems Of Political Adaptation
5. An Imperial Constitution
6. Higher Education In The Empire
The book begins by arguing that Germany proved able to capitalise on scientific ideas (the example Wells gives is the production of dyes) more effectively than Britain because it was organised along more centralised and efficient lines. Rather than copying pre-war Germany, though, Wells proposes a more comprehensive nationalisation: ‘replanning of scientific education and research, concurrently with, and as a part of, a systematic amalgamation and co- ordination of industries’ [1]. This, however, is not Socialism. He himself used to be a Socialist, it's true. But no longer:
It is probable that historians will mark the year 1914 as the end of the Socialist movement; it was an ailing movement before that time, and after the war we shall find new oppositions and new formulae replacing the obsolete ‘-isms’ of the former age. This is not to say that Socialism will be counted to have failed. No movement can be said to have failed which has sat so triumphantly on the grave of its antagonists as Socialism has sat upon the grave of laissez faire. But the movement combined general ideas of the utmost sanity with methods of utter impracticability, and, while the sounder elements of the Socialistic proposal have so passed into the general consciousness as to be no longer distinctive, its rejected factors shrivel and perish as things completely judged, and its name becomes a shelter for ‘rebels’ and faddists. [Elements of Reconstruction, 2]
That looks like a pretty wholehearted break, doesn't it? According to Wells, ‘the deadest part of Socialism now is all that centred about the idea of “expropriation”.’ There will be none of that in his to-be-Reconstructed future: landowners and capitalists, farmers and factory owners can all hang on to their stuff, although the Government will buy all their produce from them and distribute it to the population: ‘Syndication Without Confiscation’ is Wells's slogan.

Other proposals: an altogether more thorough and focused scientific education will become the norm, the electoral system will change to proportional representation the better to reflect the will of the people, and a global Peace League and ‘Imperial Parliament’ will unify and grow Britain's Empire. There's quite a lot of detail (considering these are short-ish newspaper pieces aimed at the general reader) on things like tariffs, voting systems and a proposed world court system, but the overall effect is a little wearying. The book, mostly, lacks rhetorical flourish or punch, and so reads rather dully.

A more interesting approach to all this, I think, is to consider The Elements of Reconstruction as indicative of the stresses that were pulling the early twentieth-century socialist movement in two different directions. On the one hand there is the line of descent that the present Labour Party (for instance) likes to stress: a majority genealogy, adapting the Marxian demand for revolution into a democratic ameliorist political programme working to close the gap between rich and poor, building a welfare state and addressing systematic modes of oppression like sexism and racism. That is to say: the history of the actual Labour Party and the Fabians. But there is another line of descent: those socialists who veered rightward, incorporating a tribal nationalism, authoritarianism, the cult of the leader, unashamed Imperialism and militarism and in so doing morphed into the fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Oswald Mosley was a dedicated Fabian in the 1920s, and was a minister in Ramsay McDonald's Labour Government before leaving to form his own 'New Party', and thence, when that didn't work out, to the foundation of the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Mussolini was a member of the Partito Socialista Italiano for several years, before they kicked him out in 1914 for his repudiation of egalitarianism and his support for the war. He went on to found the Partito Nazionale Fascista in 1921, and we all know what happened after that.

We need to be careful, here, of course. There exists a crudely polemical line of ideological argument, particularly popular in some quarters of the US, advanced for instance by Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (2008), that socialism and fascism are interchangeable terms. They're not. This is a tactic used to demonise soft-left politics, to bracket the Democrats with the Nazi party and claim the Republican right as the only torchbearer for liberty. (Torchbearer! Did you see what I did there?) You can tell from my tone here in what contempt I hold this opinion; and Liberal Fascism happens to be a very bad book. Goldberg has taken a small piece of truth (that a few European fascist parties budded off from the larger tradition of European socialism in the earlier twentieth century) and around it has accrued a huge pseudo-pearl of compressed shit, in which the prime heuristic is coincidence-treated-as-absolute-correlation—reasoning of the ‘Hitler was a vegetarian, Gandhi was a vegetarian, therefore Gandhi was a Nazi’ sort. But, the grit of truth at the centre of the poohpearl remains true: various undeniably fascist parties and groups started life as undeniably socialist parties or groups. You know who actually coined the phrase ‘liberal fascism’? H G Wells, in 1932

So, yes: the relevant question for this blog, of course, is how far Wells travelled along this Mosleyan path. Luckily, the answer is: not very far. But it's hard to shake the sense, reading The Elements of Reconstruction, that the atmosphere of wartime ruthlessness was nudging him in that direction. One salient is Empire. Although he doesn't say it in so many words, there's a pervasive sense that he is here tempted to consider the British Empire (it covered a third of the globe at this point, after all) as a halfway house to his wished-for World State. So he considers ‘the loyalty of our workers under the test of war’ to be ‘the most hopeful augury for the future of the Empire’ [3], hopes that ‘Empire is to wax and not wane in the new era’ [3], and spells out specific stepping stones to help that happen: ‘an Imperial Council’ leading to ‘an Imperial Parliament’ and a widespread programme of high-level education across all British colonial holdings. This book doesn't use the phrase ‘World State’, but we see where Wells's arguments are heading.

And it's worth being aware of the company he's keeping in this volume. Viscount Milner, who writes the preface, made his reputation in colonial administration. He served in Lloyd George's War Cabinet and bankrolled the British Workers National League after it split from the Socialist Party over the latter's insufficient (as they saw it) support for the war effort (Wells himself served on the executive of this new organisation, actually). Renamed the British Workers League this group soon swung sharply to the right, defining themselves as an anti-socialist, Imperialist party for ‘patriotic workers’, fascist in all but name. Milner himself died in 1925, and his ‘Credo’, published in the Times after his death, was widely praised at the time, speaking with particular clarity to the nascent British fascist movement:
I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan .... I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world. My patriotism knows no geographical but only racial limits. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander because I am a British Race Patriot ... The British State must follow the race, must comprehend it, wherever it settles in appreciable numbers as an independent community. If the swarms constantly being thrown off by the parent hive are lost to the State, the State is irreparably weakened. We cannot afford to part with so much of our best blood.
Dominating Personality indeed. Not for the first time on this blog I am moved to gloss this with: ugh.


  1. I don't want my distaste for Goldberg's Liberal Fascism book to overwhelm this post, but it's worth stressing what a bad book it is. My animus derives in part from the fact that it just is a very bad book, and in part from what my friend Scott Eric Kaufman told me, when he was still alive, about his interactions with Goldberg. In a nutshell: Scott's area of academic expertise involved the period Goldberg was writing about; Goldberg contacted Scott to have one of the arguments in his book confirmed; when Scott said, in effect, no, you're wrong about this, it's much more complex than you're implying, Goldberg got cross, told Scott not to contact him any more, and included the original argument in the published edition unmodified. You can read a longer account of this on Scott's old blog here. So I don't have much respect for Goldberg as a scholar.

    The thing is: there is an interesting subject to be discussed here, about that minor strand of socialism that morphed into fascism in the 1920s. I just don't know of any (serious) accounts of it.

  2. 'No movement can be said to have failed which has sat so triumphantly on the grave of its antagonists as Socialism has sat upon the grave of laissez faire.'

    Not triumphantly enough, it turned out. The wheel turns and the same battles keep having to be fought.

    1. I think you're broadly right; although contemporary neoliberalism functions, as the Edwardian age did not, on a broad foundation of welfare provision: pensions, health services, certain benefits. However cut, underfunded and hacked-about they may be they're still there. It may be that the future direction of the west will see them all abolished, and then we will see hardship on a scale we have, collectively, forgotten. But as it stands I think Wells's point very broadly holds.

  3. As it happened, before I read your post on Wells and the state of things in 1916, I'd read this apropos post on socialism in 1917 as compared to 2017 at NAKED CAPITALISM by the radical economist Michael Hudson. Worth a read and Hudson responds in the comments --

    Michael Hudson: Socialism, Land and Banking: 2017 Compared to 1917

    "Socialism a century ago seemed to be the wave of the future. There were various schools of socialism, but the common ideal was to guarantee support for basic needs, and for state ownership to free society from landlords, predatory banking and monopolies. In the West these hopes are now much further away than they seemed in 1917. Land and natural resources, basic infrastructure monopolies, health care and pensions have been increasingly privatized and financialized ...."

  4. Wells's racism (widely shared, very much of its time, etc, but racism nonetheless) casts a dark shadow over this stuff. If you believe in top-down co-ordination of the economy without 'confiscation' (and hence presumably without redistribution); if you believe that some men[sic] are stronger, more intelligent and just plain manlier than others, and that those men deserve to be in charge; and if you believe that the human race is continuing to evolve, with the white (and non-Jewish) 'race' being its most advanced element and other elements being destined to disappear over time... Really, the question isn't so much how close Wells got to outright Fascism as how he managed to avoid it at all.