The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Third
The World Renascence: the Birth of the Modern State

4. Prophets, Pioneers, Fanatics and Murdered Men

H.G. Wells

HISTORY, especially general history, is prone to deal too much with masses and outlines. We write that “all Germany” resented an insult, or the “hopes of Asia” fell. But the living facts of history are changes in thought, emotion and reaction in the minds of thousands of millions of lives.

In the preceding sections we have spoken in general terms of “concepts of combination” developing; of ideologies dissolving and giving place to other ideologies like clouds that gather and melt and pass across the mental skies of mankind. In the books before those sections we traced the growing awareness of a possible World-State in the thoughts of men throughout two thousand years of slow awakening. But the presentation is incomplete until we have turned our attention, for a chapter at least, from the broad sweep of opinion and the changing determination of the collective will, to the texture of individual experiences, the brain storms, the tormented granules, which shaped out these massive structural developments.

One must draw upon the naïve materials of one’s own childhood to conceive, however remotely, the states of mind of those rare spirits who looked first towards human brotherhood. One must consider the life of some animal, one’s dog, one’s cheetah or one’s pony, to realize the bounded, definite existence of a human being in the early civilizations. The human life then was just as set in its surroundings as any animal’s. There was the town, the river, the cultivations, the distant hills, the temple, near friends and strange distant enemies constituting a complete and satisfying all. The gods were credible and responsible, taking all ultimate responsibility off your shoulders; the animals had souls like yourself, as understandable as yourself, and the darkness and shadows were haunted by spirits. In that sort of setting innumerable generations lived and loved and hated and died. Everything was made familiar and understandable by the trick of personification. You brought the stranger into your family; you made it a member of your group. Earth was a mother and the sun a great father of glory marching across the sky.

It is a marvellous intricate history to trace how the human mind began to doubt, to pry and question, to penetrate the curtains of assurance and fancied security that enclosed it. Perhaps it was rather torn out of its confidence than that it fretted its way out by any urgency of its own.

The Hebrew Bible, which Christianity preserved for us, is a precious record of uneasy souls amidst the limited conditions of these ages before mechanism or travel or logical analysis. It tells how man came out of the Eden of unquestioning acceptance and found perplexity. It gives us intimate glimpses of states of mind that were typical of what went on in hundreds of thousands of struggling brains. They were beginning to note thorns and weeds, toil and the insecurity of life. They made great efforts to explain their growing sense that all was not right with the world. They had to dramatize the story. They had as yet only “personification” as a means of apprehending relations and causes. They had no way of getting hold of a general idea except by imagining it as a person. Strange thoughts frightened them. They seemed exterior to them. They dared not even say “I think”; they had to say “I heard a voice” or the “Word of the Lord came to me”. Enormous effort therefore was needed to pass from the thought of a patriarchal tribal God to a mightier overriding God. Men did not unite communities; they identified their Gods. Monotheism was the first form of the World-State in men’s minds.

What a desperate deed it was for some inwardly terrified man to lift up his voice against the local elders and the local idol, proclaiming “There is no God but God.” The reactions of his fellows, living still within the framework of accepted beliefs, to this attempt to break out to wide relations, were scorn, amusement, irritation, dislike or horror and superstitious fear. We have the story of Mohammed recorded, and of his fight with the gods of Mecca, but that was a late and sophisticated instance of something that happened in innumerable times and places; the challenge of the man “inspired” by his new idea to the social mental nest out of which he was breaking.

Men who saw the light and spoke, were only one species of a larger genus of human beings whose minds worked differently from the common man’s or were simply more feverishly active. The others were eccentrics or downright madmen. One sort was hardly to be told from another, for both were sayers of incredible things.

The beginning of written record in the millennium before Christ shows a long tradition already established for the treatment of these odd, disturbing exceptions. So far as we can peer into the past we find the tranquillity of the everyday community broken by these troubled troublesome individuals who went about, living queerly, saying unusual and disconcerting things, inciting people to behave strangely, threatening divine anger, foreboding evils. There was a disposition to buy them off with a sort of reverence—and disregard. Inferior and unhappy people might find an interest and excitement in their strange announcements and suggestions. But rulers did not like them, comfortable people disliked and feared them. They irritated, they terrified contented people. They seemed perverse, and many of them plainly were perverse. If they went too far mankind turned on them and they were ill-treated and mobbed and ridiculed; they were cast into prisons; beaten and killed.

The ones that mattered most seemed always, by our present standards, to have had something to say that was at once profoundly important and yet not quite true or not quite truly said. Disciples, sometimes in great multitude, respond to their enigmatical utterances. When they died or were killed men were left asking, “What exactly did he say? What exactly did he mean?” The inspired words became very readily riddles for interpreters and matter for pedantry. They were phrased and rephrased, applied and misapplied, tried out in every possible and impossible way.

Nowadays we find a common quality in all these madmen, prophets, teachers and disturbers of the mental peace. The species was learning to talk and use language. The race was, as it were, trying to think something out; was attempting to say something new and enlarging to itself. It was doing this against great resistance. Its intellectual enterprise was playing against its instinctive fear of novelty. Some of these teachers died terribly, were flayed or burnt or tortured to death. One hung on a cross and died of physical weakness some hours before the two felons who were his hardier fellow sufferers, leaving a teaching compounded of such sweet and fine ideas of conduct, such mystical incomprehensibleness, such misleading inconsistency, that it remained a moral stimulus and an intellectual perplexity, a jungle for heresies and discoveries, for millions of souls for two millennia.

Vainly does one try nowadays to put ourself into the mind of the prophet led to execution. We know the value of what he did, it is true, but what did he think he was doing? The secret of such personifying, urgently seeking brains seems hidden from us now for ever.

In the busier and more prosperous social phases of history such disturbers are less evident; in times of change, and especially when there was also a release of social energy, when conflicting traditions ground and wore upon each other, these troubled and troublesome minds seemed to have multiplied. The days of the vast unstable Roman imperialism abounded in efforts to say something new and profound about life. Everywhere there were new worships, because a worship still seemed the only form in which a new idea and way of life could be conveyed from mind to mind. Everywhere the puzzled sprawling human race was trying to say something, some magic word to resolve its perplexities and guide it to peace.

With the Renascence of learning and the onset of organized science the actual number and the actual proportion of enquiring and innovating minds increased greatly. The effort of the racial mind to master the conditions of its being was renewed on a multitudinous scale. But now the disturbers of equanimity no longer appear as wild-eyed prophets; they no longer claim that the Word of the Lord is upon them. Abstract and logical thought has pervaded the mind of the race and such personification is no longer needed. They do not denounce the old gods; they analyse them. Moreover, now that we approach modern times and deal with more and more abundantly recorded events, we begin to realize with a living understanding and sympathy what was going on in the minds of the innovators and to feel in touch with the immeasurable heroisms and innumerable tragedies of those later pioneers, those rebels, critics, revolutionaries who were thrusting, more or less intelligently, against the acceptances and inertias amidst which they lived, towards a saner, more comprehensive and more clearly apprehended racial idea.

So far no completely masterly digest has been made of the millions of biographies and tons of other material that tell of the mental seething of the world from the seventeenth century of the Christian Era onward. If the old world prophets are too rare and remote for our understanding, the modern revolutionaries are almost too close and abundant for us to stand back and see them clearly. Vast studies have been organized of various portions of the field; Roger Cuddington and his associates’ Studies of Protestant Thought in Holland, the Rhineland, Switzerland and Britain from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century give, for instance, a picture of one wide area and period, in which the fermentation arose first in a religious form and owed much to the clash of Jew and Gentile; while Margrim’s Early Forms of Anarchism and Socialism is a very successful attempt to realize the ideas and personalities from which the modern criticism of rule and property derived. With the help of such works as these, and with some luck among the biographies, we do contrive at last to get down close to an imaginative participation in those individual reactions, which in the aggregate remade the human community in the form we know to-day.

Every one of these personal stories, if it were told completely, would have to begin with a child, taking the world for granted, believing its home, its daddy and mummy to be right and eternal. It confronted a fixed and established world with no standard of comparison in past or future. It was told its place in life and what it had to do. Bad luck, discomfort, some shock or some innate unrest was needed to put a note of interrogation against these certainties. Then for those whom destiny has marked for disturbance comes the suspicion: “This that they have told me isn’t true.” Still more disturbing came the possibility: “This that they do and want me to do isn’t right.” And then with a widening reference: “Things could be better than this.” So the infected individual drifted out of easy vulgar living with his fellows, out of a natural animal-like acceptance of the established thing, to join the fermenting and increasing minority of troubled minds that made trouble.

He began talking to his fellows or he made notes in secret of his opinions. He asked awkward questions. He attempted little comments and ironies. We could conjure up hundreds of thousands of pictures of such doubters beginning to air their opinions in the eighteenth-century world, in the little workshops of the time, in shabby, needy homes, in market places, in village inns, daring to say something, hardly daring to say anything, unable often to join up the vague objections they were making into any orderly criticism. But in the brown libraries and studies of the period other men were sitting, poring over books, writing with something furtive in their manner, while the pride of contemporary life brayed and trumpeted along the roadway outside. “What is being told to the people is not true. Things could be better than this.” Men ventured on strange suggestions in university classes; brought out startlingly unorthodox theses.

The infectious interrogations spread. Constituted authority got wind of these questionings and itself came questioning in search of heresy and sedition, with rack and thumbscrew. When we read the books and pamphlets of that awakening phase, writings which seem amidst profuse apologies to half say next to nothing, we get the measure of the reasonable timidities of the time. Men might pay in sweating agony and death for that next-to-nothing they had said.

At first they raised not so much the substance as the form of an interrogation. In the sixteenth century you would have found a number of local accumulations of heresies, but hardly any inkling of the Modern State. Except for some scholar’s echo to the Republic or Laws of Plato, there was no one at all reading and comparing in the field of social and political structure before the seventeenth century. The eighteenth century was, in comparison with its predecessor, an age of voluminous revolutionary thought. Men began calling fundamental ideas and political institutions in question as they had never been challenged since the onset of Christianity. They went into exile for their innovations; their books were burnt; censorships were established to suppress these new ideas. Still they spread and multiplied. The authoritative claim of aristocracy, the divinity of monarchy, tarnished, dwindled, became ineffective under these dripping notes of interrogation. Republics appeared and the first embryonic intimations of socialism.

In our account of the first French Revolution and the revolutionary perturbation of the eighteenth century [No traces of this account are to be found in Raven’s papers.—ED.] we have had to discriminate between the economic and social forces that were forcing political readjustment on the one hand, and the influence of new ideas on the other. We have shown how little these formal changes were planned, and how small a share in these events is to be ascribed to creative intention or mental processes generally. Nevertheless the questioning was drawing closer to reality and the scope of the planning was spreading. We will not tell again of the profound change in men’s ideas about private property, private freedom and monetary relationship, that began to find expression in the socialist and communist movements of the age. Our concern here is to emphasize the billions of small wrangles that were altering the collective thought, to summon out of the past, for an instant, an elfin clamour of now silenced voices that prepared the soil for revolution, the not-at-all-lucid propagandists at street corners, the speakers in little meeting-houses, in open spaces and during work intermissions; to recall the rustle of queer newspapers that were not quite ordinary newspapers; and the handicapped book publications that were everywhere fighting traditional and instinctive resistances. Everywhere the leaven of the Modern State was working—confusedly.

As we have seen, the new conception of a single world society did not come at one blow, perfect and effective, into the human mind. It was not completed even in outline until the days of De Windt, and before that time it was represented by a necessary confusion of contributory material, incomplete bits of it and illogical and misleading extensions of those bits. It had to begin like that; it had to begin in fragments and rashly. There was always a fierce disposition manifested to apply the new incomplete ideas, headlong and violently. The more the sense of insufficiency gnaws at a man’s secret consciousness, the more he is in conflict with an inner as well as an outer antagonist, the more emphatic, dogmatic and final he is apt to be. That disposition to bring the new ideas to the test of reality, the urge to assert by experiment, was the chief source of trouble for these ever increasing multitudes, of innovating minds. Constituted authority, established usage, have no quarrel with ideas as such; it is only when these ideas become incitation, when they sought incarnation in act and reality, that conflict began.

So all over the world throughout the nineteenth century men were to be found contriving trouble for authority and devising outrages on usage. The light of world reconstruction lit their souls, but often it filtered through thick veils of misconception and had the colourings of some epidemic hate. They dreamt of insurrections, of seizures of power, of organized terror; in practice their efforts dwindled down too often to stupid little murders—often completely irrelevant murders—to shouting and swarming in the streets, to peltings and window-breaking, to blowing in the front doors of government houses and embassies, to the casting of explosives amidst the harmless spectators at public ceremonies.

Before the French Revolution there was not nearly so much of such sporadic violence as afterwards. There were a few assassinations by religious or racial fanatics, but usually the older type of political crime was definitely connected with some conspiracy to change the personnel rather than the nature of a régime. The “Anarchist” outrages of the nineteenth century, however clumsy, were by comparison social criticisms. Behind them, even though vague, exaggerated and distorted, was the hope of a new world order.

Linked inseparably with all these premature expressions of the desire for a new life were the activities of more extensive revolutionary systems: printing-presses in cellars, furtive distribution of papers, secret meetings, the savage discipline of fear-ruled illegal societies, the going to and fro of emissaries—men often with narrow and ill-assorted minds, but nevertheless men with everything to lose and little to gain or hope for by such activities. After we have allowed for every sort of resentment and bitter impulse in them, the fact remains such men were devotees. They were a necessary ferment for the spread of thought.

That increasing revolutionary ferment, in all its tentative aspects, used to be called The Extreme Left. There had never been anything quite like it in the world before. For the most part these men had broken not only with the political and social order of their time, but with its religious beliefs. Between 1788 and 1965, hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of women, far braver than any Moslem fanatics, sustained by no hope of a future life, no hope of any greeting after the sudden blankness of their untimely deaths, and, so far as we can gather now, not even with a clear vision of the full and ordered social life for which they died, stood up sullenly or with a certain sad exaltation to face the firing party or the halter. A hundred times as many endured exile, prisons, ostracisms, beatings, gross humiliations and the direst poverty for the still dimly apprehended cause of human liberation.

They had not even the assurance of unanimity. They were all convinced that there had to be a better world, but they had not the knowledge, they had not the facilities for free and open discussion, to clear up and work out the inevitable outline of their common need. They formulated their ideas dully and clumsily; they went a certain way to truth and then stopped short; they suspected all other formulæ than the ones they themselves had hit upon; they quarrelled endlessly, bitterly, murderously, among themselves. Nearly all sooner or later were infected by hate. Often it happened that two men, each of whom had roughly half the justice of things in him, killed each other, when indeed they needed only to put their prepossessions together to get the full outline of a working reconstruction.

Da Silva has called all those who made the revolutions and revolutionary efforts that occurred between 1788 and 1948 the “revolutionaries of the half-light”. His studies of the tangled history of the new social concepts that broke through to open popular discussion, only after the establishment of the Soviet régime in Russia in 1917, constitute a very brilliant work of elucidation and simplification. It is a history of twilight that ends at dawn. In the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century the ordinary man in the street was discussing, cheaply perhaps, but freely, ideas, possibilities and courses of action that no one would have dared to whisper about, would scarcely have dared to think about, two centuries before. He scarcely knew a single name of the pioneers, fanatics and desperadoes who had won this freedom for his mind.

The nature of the conflict was changing. That was very plain by 1940. Where there had been pioneers, there were now systematic explorers and surveyors; the teeming multitudes of our race were still producing devoted and sacrificial types, but the half light was now a cloudy daylight and the ordered analyses and plans of such men as De Windt were making understandings and cooperations possible that would have been incredible in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century revolution was suspected, forbidden, dark, criminal, desperate and hysterical. In the twentieth century it became candid and sympathetic. The difference was essentially an intellectual one; after a vast period of stormy disputation the revolutionary idea had cleared up. The sun of the Modern State broke through.

Revolution still demanded its martyrs, but the martyrdoms were henceforth of a different character. Biographies of revolutionists before the Great War go on by night, amidst a scenery of back streets, cellars, prisons, suspicions and betrayals. Biographies of revolutionists in the final struggle to establish the Modern State go on in full daylight. It is reaction now which has taken to the darkness, to plots, assassinations, and illegal measures. The Modern State propagandist became less and less like an insurgent individual of some alien subject race; he became more and more like a missionary in savage country, ill-armed or unarmed, and at an immediate disadvantage, but with the remote incalculable prestige of a coming power behind him.

The later death-roll of revolutionaries has fewer and fewer executions in it and an increasing tale of assassinations and deaths in public conflict. A larger and larger proportion of those who died for it were killed either by mobs or in fair and open fighting. And soon the idea of the Modern State had become so pervasive that the battles ceased to be for it or against it; they became, rather, misunderstandings between impatient zealots with a common end. In many conflicts the historian is still perplexed to determine which side, if either, can be counted as fighting for the Modern State.

The analyses of De Windt made immense charities of understanding possible. Creative-minded men, though they hardened against the liar and the cheat, became less and less willing to fight the puerile adherent and the honest fanatic with a tiresome but honestly intended formula. “There,” they said, “but for certain misconceptions and resolvable obsessions go our men,” and set themselves at any risk or loss to the task of conversion. Just as Fascism in its time seized upon the ancient terroristic and blackmailing Mafia in Sicily and partly annexed it, partly changed it and so superseded it, just as the Nazi movement incorporated large chunks of the Communist party in its efforts to reformulate Germany, so now the Modern State fellowship grappled with the world-wide series of organizations which had superseded democratic institutions nearly everywhere, made every effort to capture the imaginations of their adherents, and showed the most unscrupulous boldness in seizing their direction whenever it could. The Modern State Movement differed from every preceding revolutionary movement in its immense assimilating power, due to the clearness of the objectives it set before men’s minds.

The difference between the revolutionary before the Great War and the revolutionary after that illuminating crisis is closely parallel to the difference between the old alchemist and the modern man of science; the former haunted by demons, goblins and spirits, warped by symbolic obsessions and cabalistic words and numbers, terribly alone with himself, obsessed with religious fears, by fear of the inquisitor, by fear of the ruler above and of the rabble below, perpetually baffled in his attempts to achieve great things, but full of a dangerous unpremeditated knowledge of poisons and mischievous devices; the latter with a mind released by centuries of analysis and simplification, reassured by the incessant tale of scientific victories, stoically indifferent to popular misrepresentation and equally sure of his universe and himself.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 3 - 5. The First Conference at Basra: 1965

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