Wednesday, 8 November 2017

In the Fourth Year: Anticipations of a World Peace (1918)

Even a century later you don't need to ask ‘the fourth year of what?’ It's 1918. You know the what. Like his previous 1914-18 non-fiction volumes Wells here assembles a variety of journalistic pieces, this time on the theme of a looked-for ‘League of Free Nations’ to sort-out future international disputes and prevent future war. In one sense this is more of the same-old from Wells; he'd been agitating for a World State for at least a decade and a half. Still, the specificity of this book's proposals marks a new stage in Wells's political thought, because, for the first time, these ideas found a path to political actualisation, or something like it. Mid-1918 Wells was discussing the possibilities of a pan-national organisation; by the end of January 1920 the League of Nations was a reality. If for nothing else, Wells can at least take credit for the name.

Henry R Winkler argues that ‘before 1919 no organized group took up the idea of world government’ [Winkler, The League of Nations Movement in Great Britain 1914-1919 (Rutgers University Press 1958), 29]—this was despite the urgent advocacy not just of Wells, but also of influential figures like John A Hobson and H N Brailsford. It's not that these individuals lacked an audience (Wells was read by millions, after all). It's that they were commentators, and their ideas needed political actors to realise them.

In the Fourth Year had a role to play in that transition: Walter Lippmann (who acquired many of the sections of this book for publication in The New Republic, and who met Wells in person) acted as a point of mediation between the book's ideas and the US State Department. Which means that Wells had some influence on the fourteenth of President Wilson's end-of-war ‘Fourteen Points’: ‘XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’

The actual League of Nations fell far short of Wells's hopes for it, however. He insisted it must ‘possess power and exercise power, powers must be delegated to it’ and must ‘practically control the army, navy, air forces, and armament industry of every nation in the world’ [3]. The real League never managed that. Nor is it the case that Wells is pie-in-the-sky or unrealistic about his proposals: he has enough of realpolitik to see that equal representation of states was a non-starter: ‘the preservation of the world-peace rests with the great powers and with the great powers alone’ [10]—
There are only four powers certainly capable at the present time of producing the men and materials needed for a modern war in sufficient abundance to go on fighting: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. There are three others which are very doubtfully capable: Italy, Japan, and Austria. Russia I will mark—it is all that one can do with Russia just now—with a note of interrogation. Some day China may be war capable—I hope never, but it is a possibility. Personally I don't think that any other power on earth would have a ghost of a chance to resist the will—if it could be an honestly united will—of the first-named four. [In the Fourth Year, 10]
But when America decided, after some havering, not to join the League it effectively doomed the whole enterprise:—something of which contemporaries were well aware. Witness this Punch cartoon from December 1920:

The French and British governments of the 1920s and (especially) the 1930s did not engage as fully with the League as they might, and the advent of a second World War in 1939, the exact thing the League had been instituted to prevent, sounded its death-knell. But the interesting thing is how much popular support the League had, even into the 1930s. The League of Nations Union, a British affiliate association, had over 400,000 members 1931-32: with 3000 branches across Britain as well as ‘some 4,400 corporate affiliates ranging from trade unions to Boy Scout troops and Women's Institutes, with especially deep penetration in the Protestant churches’ [David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon and Schuster 2013), 221]. Whatever else it might be, Wells's enthusiasm for the idea of a League was by no means an eccentric position.

In The Fourth Year makes for a curiously unsatisfying read, nonetheless: full of blind-spots, blotted by racism, and constantly changing gear between vast, sweeping generalisations and micro-managed tedious detail. On the one hand, Wells booms that humanity ‘is facing a choice between the League of Free Nations and a famished race of men looting in search of non-existent food amidst the smouldering ruins of civilization’ [8]. On the other, he gets bogged down in pettifogging over-analysis of proposals for election by Proportional representation and the single transferable vote, the complexities of which system will be ameliorated (he says) by the invention of automatic vote-counting machines that will tally and redistribute votes as necessary (‘the Cash Register people,’ Wells claims, optimistically, ‘will invent machines to do it for you while you wait’). Meanwhile, many of the largest-scale practicalities of running a League of Free Nations are glossed over.

Not entirely glossed over, mind you. In the round, Wells thinks that world peace will be best maintained by ‘international’ (that is, Western) control of a great many mandated territories: the African continent to be placed under international rule; the Ottoman Empire broken up into ‘localised regions’ under ‘honestly conceived international control of police and transit and trade’ [5.2] and so on.

This means overcoming nationalist and plutocratic inertia. Wells worries whether people—he means white people—will accept ‘international’ rule: rule, that is, by ‘foreigners’:
But so soon as the League takes on the shape its general proposition makes logically necessary, the armament interest will take fright. Then it is we shall hear the drum patriotic loud in defence of the human blood trade. Are we to hand over these most intimate affairs of ours to ‘a lot of foreigners’? Among these ‘foreigners’ who will be appealed to, to terrify the patriotic souls of the British, will be the ‘Americans.’ Are we men of English blood and tradition to see our affairs controlled by such ‘foreigners’ as Wilson, Lincoln, Webster and Washington? Perish the thought! When they might be controlled by Disraelis, Wettins, Mount-Battens, and what not! And so on and so on. [Fourth Year, 3]
A veritable clogdance of xenophobic sarcasm, this. It is, Wells is saying, absurd to object that people with good British surnames like Wilson and Lincoln might have power over us just because they're American, when we don't bat an eyelid at rule by a Jew like Disraeli or by German Royals (Wettin is the actual surname of the members of the House of Windsor aka Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the Mountbattens hail originally from Hesse). I suppose, at a pinch, we might read this as an assertion of the arbitrary nature of national identity, but it looks more to me like an atavistic dogwhistle: ‘ruled by Jews and Krauts?—oh no! Yanks to rescue!’

And that's white people. Where non-whites are concerned, Wells simply assumes populations of Africa and Asia will accept Western authority. The chapter on Africa is particularly, and lamentably, racist. The whole continent, says Wells, (excepting only South Africa and Egypt) must be placed under ‘international control’ as soon as possible:
What are the ends that must be achieved if Africa is not to continue a festering sore in the body of mankind? The first most obvious danger of Africa is the militarization of the black. General Smuts has pointed this out plainly. The negro makes a good soldier; he is hardy, he stands the sea, and he stands cold. It is absolutely essential to the peace of the world that there should be no arming of the negroes. [Fourth Year, 4]
Two centuries of slaver-driven depopulation and a half century of hugely accelerated and rabid imperialist expropriation of valuable resources, accompanied by mass-murder, certainly had something to do with Africa becoming, in Wells's unkind phrase, ‘a festering sore in the body of mankind.’ And if the problem was imperialism, it's hard to see how more imperialism could be the answer.

Of course, Wells pitches his pan-African mandate as a civilising, not an expropriating, force. But civilisation is really not the focus of In The Fourth Year's African chapter. Instead Wells waxes racist-hysteric: ‘the whole negro population of Africa,’ he declares, ‘is now rotten with diseases’. The whole population? Really? ‘A bacterium that may kill you or me in some novel and disgusting way may even now be developing in some Congo muck-heap.’ Ugh! And we can't simply quarantine the Continent because ‘Africa is the great source of many of the most necessary raw materials upon which our modern comforts and conveniences depend’. So what Wells calls ‘international tutelage’ becomes needful. Really, it's hard to overstate the malignancy of this. When Wells frets about ‘some bacterium that may kill you or me in disgusting ways’ his ‘you and me’ doesn't include black Africans. He's not addressing them. That's because, in his mind, black Africans are not competent to be part of this discussion of their own political future. Jan Smuts, quoted so approvingly here by Wells (the two men were friends) governed South Africa on principles of racial segregation that lead eventually to apartheid, and described black Africans as ‘children of nature’ lacking ‘the inner toughness and persistence of the European’ who had never had ‘those social and moral incentives to progress which have built up European civilization.’ Such sentiments have not, to put it mildly, aged well.

Wells insists the League will not simply be Imperialism under a new name (chapter 5 is titled ‘Getting the League Idea Clear in Relation to Imperialism’), and he does look, not now but at some unspecified point in the future, to a modicum of racial equality in his future: not Black Africans but, according to the structurally racist assumptions of his age, maybe Indians, and perhaps Arabs: ‘the time is drawing near when the Egyptian and the nations of India will ask us, “Are things going on for ever here as they go on now, or are we to look for the time when we, too, like the [white South] Africander, the Canadian and the Australian, will be your confessed and equal partners?”’

Wells doesn't use the term mandate, but that's essentially what In The Fourth Year is talking about, and that was the main strategy by which the League of Nations actually operated. Wells's faith that rule by international mandate would herald a new global dawn proved misguided, though. Not for the first time on this blog it's hard to avoid the superciliousness of judgement-by-hindsight; but as Susan Pedersen comprehensively demonstrates in her history of the movement, mandates were flawed from the beginning.
The mandate system made imperial governance more burdensome and brought normative statehood nearer. This was not what its architects and officials had intended. To the contrary, they sought at every turn to uphold imperial authority and strengthen the prestige and legitimacy of alien non-consensual rule. The problem was that the internationalization inherent in League oversight worked against those purposes. By offering a platform for wordy humanitarians, belligerent German revisionists and nationalists determined to expose the brutalities of imperial rule, the mandates system not only undermined imperial authority but also—possibly more importantly—led at least some within the European empires to question whether direct rule was desirable anyway. That most local inhabitants had no affection for the mandates system seems apparent. Over time, however, many within the imperial powers lost their sympathy for it as well. [Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford University Press 2015), 13]
Pederson gives the example of Britain, the (as she puts it) most ‘global’ of imperial powers, deciding to end mandated rule of Iraq and instead pursue their imperial ambitions through the direct treaty of 1930. It was this, as Pederson convincingly argues, that inspired today's system of economic imperialism.

The problem with In the Fourth Year, I think, is more than just the staleness, or Old Moore's Almanac daftness, hindsight detects in a book whose prophecies (those subtitular ‘Anticipations of a World Peace’) proved so spectacularly wrongheaded. It's not, in other words, that Wells happened to be wrong, in this instance: it's that reading In the Fourth Year persuades me he was wrong for structural reasons immanent in his thought as such. In particular: how odd it is that a book proposing a League of Nations at no point involves Wells actually defining what he considers a nation to be. Indeed, there is a fatal confusion in the way he deploys the concept, using it sometimes as a racially defined association, sometimes as a geographical or political one, often as a sheer accumulation of individuals, and rarely if ever as a historically determined formation—Wells is, as ever, extraordinarily cavalier with history, and (as ever) absurdly over-confident in his belief that history can be easily swept away, never to bother humanity again. Other aspects of nationhood (religious identity in particular) do not enter into his thinking at all.

The book's grander slogans suffer by their tendency to elide these, very different, quantities: ‘not only is justice to prevail between race and race and nation and nation, but also between man and man; there is to be a universal respect for human life throughout the earth’ [9] and so on. It seems elementary to suggest that proposals for a League of Nations must be grounded in a detailed understanding of nationhood as such, prior to determining in what ways that multiple and various quantity can be leagued at all; but it is an elementarity Wells entirely overlooks.


  1. ‘The League resolved some territorial disputes and created international structures for areas such as postal mail, aviation, and opium control, some of which would later be absorbed into the UN. However, the League lacked representation for colonial peoples (then half the world's population) and significant participation from several major powers, including the US, USSR, Germany, and Japan; it failed to act against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and German expansions under Adolf Hitler that culminated in the Second World War.’ [Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House 2007), 10-24

  2. I haven't read Pedersen, but when I studied IR by mistake we were told that Rhodes & Milner's mandate system was based on, or at least justified by, the idea that these non-states were developing towards statehood; it's just that some of them were developing quite slowly. IIRC the system had three gradations - 'A' mandates could be expected to become independent in fairly short order; the 'C's were too primitive or chaotic for independence to be realistic in the foreseeable future; and the 'B's could look forward to independence, only not just yet. I think the 'A's were mostly under quasi-indigenous White rule - and for the 'B's it probably always would be 'not just yet'.

    1. I very much like the idea of studying "International Relations By Mistake". It's like that John Robert Seeley quotation about the British "conquering half the world in a fit of absence of mind".

    2. Pederson's book is proper capital-H History, dense with footnotes and original sources, but it's very good nonetheless. Here's a review: