Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. A Criticism. (1921)

Book Review from the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

As Mr. Wells's history approaches modern times it lays greater stress than in earlier epochs upon changes in economic conditions and their profound effects upon social and intellectual life. The reason is, of course, the fact that the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries—the most striking and momentous economic change in the annals of man—is so conspicuously at the root of all the characteristics peculiar to "modern society" that its importance cannot be overlooked nor an account of it shirked.

At the close of Chap. XXXVI. 12, after dealing with the "Enclosure Acts" and the beginnings of the factory system, we find this, for the most part, fine passage :
  As the Industrial Revolution went on, a great gulf opened between employer and employed. In the past every manufacturing worker had the hope of becoming an independent master. Even the slave craftsmen of Babylon and Rome were protected by laws that enabled them to save and buy their freedom and to set up for themselves. But now a factory and its engines and machines became a vast and costly thing measured by the scale of the worker's pocket. Wealthy men had to come together to create an enterprise ; credit and plant, that is to say, "Capital," were required. "Setting up for oneself" ceased to be the normal hope for an artisan. The worker was henceforth a worker from the cradle to the grave. Besides the landlords and merchants and the money-dealers who financed trading  companies and lent their money to the merchants and the State, there now arose this new wealth of industrial capital—a new sort of power in the State.
Many so called Industrial Histories do not state the facts so clearly and frankly as does the above quotation. In a later chapter Mr. Wells deals at greater length with the Industrial Revolution, but while it is itself described in a fairly satisfactory manner, some of its effects upon society are missed. Little mention is made (probably by design, as will be seen later) of the horrors and miseries of the new factory system, nor of the child slaves of the factory lords. The cycles of industrial crises—among the most conspicuous phenomena of the 19th century—are not mentioned at all.

Mr. Wells treats briefly of the early trade unions but, strangely enough, omits to make mention of the Chartist movement. The life and brilliant, though Utopian, schemes of Robert Owen are dealt with at some length as being typical of the Utopian school of thought. Although the authors' misconception of the Marxian theory lead him to make some very foolish criticisms, he provides the following testimony to Marx's foresight and clarity of thought:
  A sense of solidarity between all sorts of poor and propertyless men, as against the profit-amassing and wealth-concentrating class, is growing more and more evident in our world. Old differences fade away, the difference between craftsman and open-air worker, between black-coat and overall. . . . They must all buy the same cheap furnishings and live in similar cheap houses ; their sons and daughters will all mingle and marry; success at the upper levels becomes more and more hopeless for the rank and file. Marx, who did not so much advocate the class war, the expropriated mass against the 'expropriating ' few, as foretell it, is being more and more justified by events. Chap. XXXIX. 2.
In an earlier chapter the author points out that "The 'solidarity of labour' is, we shall find when we come to study the mechanical revolution of the nineteenth century A.D, a new idea and a new possibility in human affairs."

In the light of the three quotations given above what shall we think of the following extract from an article by Mr. Wells in the "Sunday Express," 14.11.20?
  Das Kapital (by Marx) a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. . . . when I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constitute the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows.
Is this only confusion of thought of an extraordinary variety, or is it deliberate journalistic humbug and lying ?

A point which is worthy of comment and appreciation because it is so rare to find it recognised by a non-Marxian writer, is the fact that Mr. Wells sees in the economic needs of the capitalist class the factor which produced "popular education." After mentioning the sectarian night classes and Sunday schools of the early 19th century he says : 
  The earlier, less enlightened manufacturers, unable to take a broad view of their own interests, hated and opposed these schools. But here again needy Germany led her richer neighbours. The religious teacher found the profit-seeker at his side unexpectedly eager to get the commonality, if not educated, at least 'trained.' The student of English magazines of the middle and later Victorian-period may trace the steadily spreading recognition of the new necessity for popular education. . . . At the back of this process was the mechanical revolution . . . insisting inexorably upon the complete abolition of a totally illiterate class throughout the world. (Chap. XXXIX. 2.). 
Surely Mr. Wells missed a golden opportunity here of demonstrating the truth and utility of his great theory of "nomadization"?

In the final chapter of the history proper an account is given of the "imperialism" of the European "Powers" and of the political events which led up to the "Great War," followed by a brief but excellent record of the military side of the war itself. In dealing with earlier wars Mr. Wells makes much of "the Powers" as social forces, discusses their "rivalries," and constantly refers to the "traditional policy" of this Power or that. All this is in the approved style of the usual bourgeois "historian." The social forces upon which these "rivalries" and "traditional policies," nay, even the very existence of the "powers" themselves, are based are almost entirely unrecognised.

The author deals in the same barren way with the ''Great War." To him it was the inevitable outcome of rampant "nationalism" and "imperialism," but what these were the inevitable outcome of he does not tell us. Here again "nomadization" might have been pressed into service. That war is a necessary result of the capitalist method of production and that nationalism and imperialism are but the theoretical and political expression of two successive phases of this system, Mr. Wells fails to recognise. More satisfactory by far is the account of the material, social, and mental effects of the war. Here Mr. Wells gets nearer to bedrock economic facts. He is greatly influenced by and quotes lengthily from the "Economic Consequences of the Peace," by J. M. Keynes.

In the final chapter of his work our historian ventures a forecast of the future of society. He sees the ideal community of the future as a "Community of Knowledge and Will." This, if interpreted as a community of knowledge and interest is quite an acceptable forecast. The various details of this society which Mr. Wells enumerates we need not trouble about. Criticising Utopias of the distant future is a waste of energy. Vividly he points out the possibilities inherent in the machine. 
  This—and the disappearance of war and the smoothing out of endless restraints and contentions by juster social and economic arrangements—will lift the burden of toilsome work and routine work, that has been the price of human security since the dawn of the first civilizations, from the shoulders of our children. Which does not mean that they will cease to work, but that they will cease to do irksome work under pressure, and will work freely, planning, making, creating, according to their gifts and instincts. They will fight nature no longer as dull conscripts of the pick and plough, but for a splendid conquest.
He discusses the possibilities of and tendencies towards this ideal community, but the fact that he denies the socially constructive importance of the modern class struggle drives him to the conclusion that the only hope lies in a great revival of moral enthusiasm (which he mistakenly calls "religion") combined with "education." We also believe in. the efficacy of education —revolutionary education amongst the world's proletariat. But Mr. Wells's "education" is a universal instruction for social service. We also believe in that, but see and point out that it is an impossible dream in a society grounded on exploitation and class-rule. Such a scheme of education can and will only be achieved after the Socialist Revolution— not before.

It is Mr. Wells's opinion that the ruling class of to-day can be persuaded by reasonable, humanitarian arguments or by far-sighted self-interest to bring about a "re-adjustment" of society which will gradually abolish exploitation and class distinctions. This opinion we cannot share. It is opposed by the whole teaching of history. No ruling class when faced by discontent and revolt ever acted in such a manner. To expect our present rulers to do so is to wallow in superstition rather than stand four-square to science.

Mr. Wells has guided us through latter-day history upon a plan of his own. He has emphasised the stupidity and ignorance of our ruling class and its political representatives, but his standard has been an idealist, not a realist one. Gladstone, a typical capitalist statesman, is declared, for instance, a "grossly ignorant man." But W.E.G. can only be considered ignorant in a relative sense. Everyone is ignorant by some standard of wisdom. Gladstone did what was expected of him by the class he represented. He conformed to the conditions imposed upon him. He was sufficiently wise for his task and no wiser. Thus he became the most popular and revered statesman of his age —he became "great."

But the great "sin of omission" on the part of Mr. Wells is that he fails to point out—in the present writer's opinion deliberately refrains from pointing out, for he must know of it—that for greed, stubbornness, and rapacity in the defence of their interests—even their most grossly material interests—the capitalist class of the present order have shown themselves worthy successors of the slave- and serf-holders of proceeding periods, whilst for political craftiness the earlier ruling classes were "children at the game" in comparison with the modern, bourgeoisie,  

Why does Mr. Wells make no mention whatever in his review of the nineteenth century, of the Paris Commune ? This was no mere political episode, but an object lesson in sociology and, as such, one of the most significant occurrences of the century. Mr. Wells is no "drum and trumpet" historian, but to him as to the common run of bourgeois historians the Commune is taboo. With its 100,000 working-class victims the Paris Commune tears aside the veil of hypocrisy and humanitarian cant which envelop the social relations of our day and reveal naked the power-lust of the capitalist class. The more recent history of the class struggle in Russia, Finland, Germany, and Hungary but confirms and strengthens our view. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive that Mr. Wells, with his knowledge, really believes in the tactic of moralising the capitalist class. In the present writer's opinion Mr. Wells knows better. But as an experienced and "successful" writer and journalist, camouflage (to be polite) is one of the tools of his trade.
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In conclusion : It is one of the minor tragedies of capitalism that in this "scientific age" the scientific history of our race has yet to be written. Material in abundance lies in the archives, museums, and libraries of the world, and the theoretical means thereto have existed for close upon a century. But the capitalist class forbid. Let us work mightily for the great day when those social parasites which thus paralyse the activity of that supreme product of evolution—the intellect of man—will be banished with the dead and gone into the limbo of the past.
R. W. Housley.

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

Hat tip to ALB for originally scanning this in.

That's the February 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard done and dusted.