Monday, 5 February 2018

The Rights of Man (1940)

This book is, in essence, a reworked version of The New World Order (1940). Wells had been involved with debates about the need for a global Bill of Rights since the outbreak of war, writing letters to the Times and the Daily Herald and talking about it with his fellow National Council for Civil Liberties and PEN members. In part because of his energy on this topic, a committee was established to draft a possible Declaration, which Wells was originally going to chair. He stepped down after getting into some hot-water when one of his newspaper articles attacked, with some vitriol, the architects of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, and the fact were remaining in government to prosecute the war, and instead the committee was chaired by Lord Sankey, a former Lord Chancellor.

Discussion in committee passed into the public area via a monthly full-page report in the Daily Herald, and though the eventual conclusions became known as ‘The Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man’ (1940) it's clear that Wells was the real driving force in the committee. According to Anthony West, who saw him often at this time, ‘he felt an overwhelming need to get a substantial document, on that would seem neither tentative nor specifically western,m on paper and on record before the strange period of inaction that had followed the rapid gobbling up of Poland should come to an end’ [West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), 149].

The Rights of Man was issued by Penguin late in 1940, in tandem with another Penguin original, The Common Sense of War and Peace. The two books reference one another, but this is the work mostly concerned with laying-out the main terms of the Sankey Declaration, and explaining its main items in turn. It's clear and persuasive, and is worth reading, even today. Indeed, it was reprinted by Penguin in 2015 with a new introduction by Ali Smith. The contents page of the original edition gives a sense of what it covers:
1. Imperative Need for a Declaration
2. Security from Violence
3. Habeus Corpus
4. Democratic Law
5. The New Tyranny of the Dossier
6. The Right to Subsistence
7. The Right to Work and to Have Posessions
8. Free Marker and Profit-Seeking
9. The Revised Declaration
10. A French Parallel
11. An Alternate Draft and Some Further Suggestions
12. The New Map of the World
13. A Book For Which The World is Waiting
‘Dossier’, there, means secret police files held against citizens, and that chapter is about the need to guard against the surveillance powers of the modern state. That's certainly not got any less timely.

The actual post-war United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is a document of dignity and power, is not associated with Wells by any but the most hardened Wells enthusiasts, though. The Sankey Declaration was one of many different sorts of proposed tabulations of human rights that fed into the process that produced that text, and by the time it was passed by the UN General Assembly, right at the end of 1948, Wells had been dead for several years.

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