Saturday, 6 January 2018

After Democracy (1932)

This book is not, per its cover, Wells putting in an early bid for the role of the Blue Fairy in the upcoming Wizard of Oz movie. It is, rather, a collection in book-form of sixteen pieces: some speeches delivered (in Madrid, New York, Paris, the Berlin Reichstag and elsewhere) and some previously published journalism.

There are a great many such volumes in Wells's bibliography, yes: but this one is more readable than many of them. In its review, The Spectator called this style of book ‘the stuff which in any other great author appears as a sediment packed into the last volume of the exhaustive addition of the complete works’. But adds: ‘with Mr. Wells somehow it is different. His journalism cannot be dismissed, as can the journalism of almost any other well-known writer, as a merely private matter between him and his bank-manager’ [Spectator (22 October 1932), 20]. Subtitled ‘Addresses and Papers on the Present World Situation’ this collection is a useful summary of where Wells's socio-political thinking had reached by the early thirties. Not that that's necessarily a very likeable position. But it is readable. Can't deny that.

Wells is now more fully committed to the idea that a writer cannot simply describe the world, but must try to intervene in it: ‘in a world that moves as our world now moves’ is how he puts it, ‘—a fleet of huge vessels manoeuvring without common plan in an area that grows daily more restricted—it is not the aloof artist that counts, it is the man who dares climb on to a prow and shout instructions with a megaphone’. So what is he bellowing through the megaphone of his global fame? Well, he's mostly shouting his contempt for democracy. Check the book's title.

Instead of the old 19th-century representative democracy he calls for ‘the dictatorship of informed and educated common sense’ (‘The world,’ he says, ‘is sick of parliamentary politics’). In a speech Wells delivered to the Liberal Summer School he urges liberals and socialists alike to study Loyola, of all people. He's still insisting upon the need for his Samurai order to enforce order and happiness on the world, and it still sounds to me like the SS. And although he doesn't specifically bang the eugenicist drum here, the unpleasant odour of that belief-set nonetheless hangs over the whole like a malarial miasma:
The world and its future is not for feeble folk any more than it is for selfish folk. It is not for the multitude but for the best ... I want to make opportunity universal and not miss out one single being who is worth while. [After Democracy, 50]
The kind of thing only somebody who considers themselves part of ‘the best’ is liable to say, of course. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany, in January 1933, was only a few short months away.


  1. The kind of thing only somebody who considers themselves part of ‘the best’ is liable to say, of course. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany, in January 1933, was only a few short months away.

    I guess you'll get to this in time, but did Wells reconsider this kind of thing later on? I know in Experiment in Autobiography he says (paraphrasing from memory here) that the 'Hitler phase' where one loves personality in politics is something both individuals (he talks about himself as a young man) and peoples pass through but grow out of. I read the Experiment during Trump's primary bid, which seems to contradict that idea.

    1. Steve: you're quite right. The passage in 1934's Experiment in Autobiography (which he is starting to draft as After Democracy hits the bookstores): ‘I had ideas about Aryans extraordinarily like Mr. Hitler's. The more I hear of him the more I am convinced that his mind is almost the twin of my thirteen year old mind in 1879; but heard through a megaphone and—implemented. I do not know from what books I caught my first glimpse of the Great Aryan People going to and fro in the middle plains of Europe, spreading east, west, north and south ... and driving the inferior breeds into the mountains.’

      That was him as a teenager, though; and by the 1930s he's much, much more anti-racism than this. Science of Life (rightly) repudiates ‘race’ as a category entirely, and rightly so.

      Fascism is trickier. Lots of people, on the left and the right, were attracted to fascism in the 1930s, and 1932 was the year Wells delivered his ‘Liberal Fascism’ talk. His line was, in a nutshell: ‘Fascism has much to recommend it, but only if it is entirely purged of two elements, its rabid nationalism, and its aggressive militarism’. Big if, that.