The Shape of Things to Come

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

7. Intellectual Antagonism to the Modern State

H.G. Wells

THE EARLIEST known histories are dynastic. They are little more than lists of priest-kings and kings and tribes and contributions. With Herodotus history became political. It was only in the eighteenth century (C.E.) that economic processes came into the story, and only after the time of Karl Marx that their essential importance was recognized. Later still, climatic, biological and geographical changes were woven into the historical tapestry. Not until the last hundred years have education, cultural influences and psychological sequences generally been given their proper rôle in the human drama.

The most difficult thing in our understanding of the past is to realize, even in the most elementary form, the mental states of those men and women, who seem so deceptively like ourselves. They had bodies on exactly the same pattern as ours, if not so well exercised, well nourished and uniformly healthy; they had brains as capable as ours and as complicated. It is only when we compare their conduct with ours that we realize that, judged by their contents and their habits of reaction, those brains might almost have belonged to another species of creature.

We read incredulously about the public burning of religious heretics, of the torture of criminals to enforce confession, of murders and outrages, of the offence of rape, of the hunting and tormenting of animals for “sport”, of men and women paying money for the pleasure of throwing sticks at a tethered cock until it died, and it is hard to resist the persuasion that our ancestors were insane. Most of us, were we suddenly put back into the London of King Henry VIII, would be as frightened, and frightened in the same way, as if we were put into a ward of unattended criminal lunatics. But the brains of these people were no more diseased than ours. Their mental habit systems had been built up on a different framework; and that is the whole difference.

It was perfectly sane men who made the World War, who allowed the private capitalist system to smash itself to fragments in spite of reiterated warnings, and who came near to destroying mankind. If the reader were sent back only for the hundred and seventy years between now and 1933, he would still feel a decided uneasiness about what people might or might not do next. Yet as he fought down his alarm and went about among them he would have found them as completely satisfied of the sanity of their own mental shapes as he was.

Presently he would have found himself trying to adapt himself to those mental shapes. In the end he might come to realize that, in his own case also, it might be that the things he felt compelled to believe and do, and the things he found impossible to believe and do, though they had served his everyday purposes in his own time fairly well, were no more final in the scheme of things than the ideology that framed the motives and acts of a Roman emperor or a Sumerian slave.

The difficulty in the comparison and understanding of past mental states with our own increases rather than diminishes as we approach the present, because the differences become more subtle and more interwoven with familiar phrases and with values we accept. We cannot keep in mind that meanings are perpetually being expanded or whittled away. We live to-day so saturated in our circumstances, so full of the security, abundance and vitalizing activity of our world-commonweal, that it is hard to realize how recently it was possible for minds of the highest intelligence to call the most fundamental conceptions of our present order in question. Even in the middle Twentieth Century, ideas that now seem so natural and necessary to us that we cannot imagine them disputed, appeared extravagant, impossible and offensive to brains that were in their essential quality just as good as the best alive to-day.

In the early half of the Twentieth Century a great majority of educated and intelligent men and women had no faith whatever in the Modern State; they hated it, feared it and opposed it, and it is doubtful whether the balance was redressed until the Twenty-first Century was well under way. The Modern State was built up, by comparatively mediocre men, upon whom the necessary group of ideas happened to strike with compelling force. As H. Levy insisted in his Universe of Science as early as 1932 (Historical Documents: General Ideas Series, 192301), science is a “social venture” rather than an accumulation of individual triumphs. Both the scientific idea and the idea of the human community were not individual but social products. And the Modern State prevailed because its logic steadily conquered not this man in particular nor that man in particular, but the sense of fitness in the general human intelligence.

Maxwell Brown, in his monumental studies of the growth of the Modern State idea, has made a fairly exhaustive review of the art and literature of the early Twentieth Century. Except in the writings of a few such sociologists as J. A. Hodson, Harry Elmer Barnes, James Harvey Robinson, C. A. and Mary Beard, Raymond B. Fosdick and a few American and English journalists, and in such alarmist fantasies as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there is no sense whatever of the immense revolutionary changes that were occurring in the social structure. Bernard Shaw, for example, though classed as a revolutionary writer, never, except in his preposterous Back to Methuselah, anticipated. The mass of his work was a witty and destructive commentary upon contemporary things, ending in that petition in bankruptcy, Too True to be Good. He had to a supreme degree the opposition mentality of the Irish.

This estrangement of literature from the Modern State movement became more marked throughout the nineteen twenties and thirties. As reality became urgent, as war and insolvency descended upon social life, literature, art and criticism recoiled into studies and studios and their own bitter and peculiar Bohemia; they became elaborately stylistic and “rare”, or brilliantly or brutally smutty.

This decadence of literature, says Maxwell Brown, was an inevitable expression of the economic decadence of the Thirties and Forties. He draws an illuminating contrast between the type of mind primarily directed towards æstheticism and the type of mind primarily directed towards science. The “æsthetic producer”, he insists, is dominated by acceptance; he writes for response. The scientific worker aims at knowledge and is quite indifferent whether people like or dislike the knowledge he produces. æsthetic life therefore is conditioned by the times; science conditions the times.

Literature and art are necessarily time-servers, either abjectly so or aggressively and pretentiously so. They deflect real moods or speculate upon possible moods in the community. It is no good writing books that people will not read or painting pictures from which they merely turn away. Psychology in those days had not developed sufficiently to permit of a scientific analysis of creative work, and such criticism as there was, when it was not a simple release of spite, was essentially an effort either to persuade or to browbeat people into buying books and pictures or listening to music of a type fancied by the critic. It was more bitterly partisan and propagandist than political discussion.

In the expansive phase of the later nineteenth century the general confidence of the prosperous classes was reflected in a large, hopeful, forward-looking complacent literature, and every critic was, so to speak, an uncle, a prosperous uncle, sitting by the fire, but the sense of contraction and advancing dangers that troubled the patrons of art and literature as the twentieth century unfolded threw a defensive quality over the intellectual world, outside the spheres of science and invention. The progressive note was popular no longer. The reading offered to the people was pervaded by a nagging hostility to new things, by lamentations for imaginary lost loyalties and vanished virtues.

It was not so much that the writers of the time desired civilization to retrace its steps, as that they wished that no more steps should be taken. They wanted things to stop—oh, they wanted them to stop! The underlying craving was for consolidation and rest before more was lost. There was little coherent system in the objections taken; it was objection at large. Mass production was very generally reprehended; science rarely got a good word; war— with modern weapons—was condemned, though much was to be said for the “chivalrous” warfare of the past; there were proposals to “abolish” aeroplanes and close all the laboratories in the world; it was assumed that hygiene, and especially sexual hygiene, “robbed life of romance”; the decay of good manners since the polished days of Hogarth, Sir Charles Grandison and Tony Lumpkin was deplored, and the practical disappearance of anything that could be called Style. As one nineteenth-century American writer lamented, in suitably archaic English:

“How life hath cheapened, and how blank
The Worlde is! like a fen
Where long ago unstained sank
The starrie gentlemen:
Since Marston Moor and Newbury drank
King Charles his gentlemen.”

That was the dominant note.

Maxwell Brown gives a volume of material, quotations (Literature Hangs Back; Historical Documents: General Ideas Series 311002) from about four thousand representative books and papers.

As the world emerged again from the sheer desolation of the Famished Fifties and the great pestilence, this purely opposition mentality revived in hundreds of thousands of elderly literate people whose brains had been fitted and turned round in that way for good. It revived because it was all there was to revive in them; and it met with all too ready and natural an acceptance among those endless myriads of cleverish active people who were now trying to get private businesses and private profit systems going before it became too late for ever, between the expanding system—of the Transport Control and its collaterals above, and the inarticulate and still needy masses below. They did not realize how much the revival of prosperity was due to the new organization. It was not in their type of mind to want to account for revivals of prosperity. What they desired to do was to take advantage of the “turn of luck”. To them from the first the Transport Control appeared as a formidable competitor, harsh in spirit and still harsher in method, which had set itself to prevent smaller brighter folk making hay while the sun shone. They were only too eager to see it as a huge, cheap, nasty, vulgar menace to all the jolly little profits and rewards and assurances that were peeping up again in life. For the loyalty and obedience of servants, it offered them ingenious mechanical arrangements; for the labour of respectful toilers, it suggested indifferent and dangerous power machinery. Are we not wise and virtuous enough in ourselves, they asked, that this World Control should come “tidying us up”?

Manifestly the new order was resolved to “incorporate” (hateful word!), if it could, all these would-be privileged, would-be irresponsible people. Its face was hard towards them. Its hygienic and educational activities threatened an increasing regulation of their lives. It proposed to rob them of the natural excitements and adventure of gambling and speculation; to deprive them of the legitimate advantages of their foresight and business flair. It threatened them with service; service and ever more service—a rôle, they insisted, that would be unendurably “monotonous”. They wanted to be good sometimes and bad sometimes and jump from this to that. A “soulless uniformity” became the bugbear of these recalcitrant minds.

The workers often resented Modern State methods almost as much as their immediate employers. Men have always been difficult to educate and reluctant to submit themselves to discipline, and there was a curious suggestion of the schoolmaster about these fellows of the Modern State nuclei. Dislike of what was at hand helped to conjure up fears of what might lie beyond. Once freedom of business had gone, what rules and regulations might not presently enmesh the wilful individual under the thumb of this one world employer? For instance, the Modern State centres were talking of a control of population; it was easy to see in that a hideous invasion of the most private moments in life. Weights and measures and money to-day, and wives and parentage tomorrow!

These widely diffused repugnances, fears and antagonisms were enhanced by the difficulties put in the way of aspirants to the Modern State Fellowship and to positions of responsibility in the service of the Controls. Jobs were not for everyone. Rejected candidates to the Fellowship were among the most energetic of Modern State antagonists. By 1970, all over the world, wherever the remains of the old prosperous and educated classes of “independent” and business people were to be found, appeared associations to combat the activities of the Modern State nuclei. There were Liberty Clubs and Free Trade Associations; there were Leagues of Citizens, Trade Protection Chambers and “Return to Legality” societies. There were organized religious and patriotic revivals. The Modern State schools were discovered to be immoral, unpatriotic and anti-religious. It was extraordinary how the money-changers hurried to the deserted temples and clamoured for the return of Christ.

Every town and city found someone or other—as often as not it was some elderly lawyer or politician from the old days—keen to revive and protect its privileges. The world heard once more of the rights of peoples and nations to be free and sovereign within their borders. A hundred different flags fluttered more abundantly every day about the reviving earth in the sacred name of freedom. Even men who were engaged in organizing debt-serf cultivation and debt-serf industrialism in the American cotton districts, in the old rubber plantations and in the factories of India, China and South Italy, appeared as generous supporters of and subscribers to the sacred cause of individual liberty.

The behaviour of the inferior masses showed a wide divergence of reactions. The widespread communist propaganda of the War Years and the Famished Fifties had intensified their natural hostility to the profit-seeking bourgeoisie, and there was little chance of their making common cause with them; but the Modern State Society, with the lessons of Russia before it, had no disposition to exacerbate the class war for its own ends. It knew quite clearly that to appeal to the mere insurrectionary impulse of the downtrodden was to invite the specialist demagogue, sustained by his gang and his heelers, his spies and secret police, to take the chair in the council chamber.

De Windt had driven that point well home. “Creative revolution cannot cooperate with insurrectionary revolution.” There was to be no flattery of ignorance and inferiority as though they were the keys to an instinctive wisdom; no incitement to envy and jealousy against knowledge and ability. The Modern State meant to abolish toil, and that meant to abolish any toiling class, proletariat, labour mass, serf or slave, whatever it was called, but it had no intention of flattering and using the oafish mental as well as physical limitations it meant to liberate from existence altogether. It took the risk that the forces of reaction would organize strikes and mass resistance against its regulations, its economies of employment, its mechanization, its movements of population and the like, among the other inevitable difficulties of its task.

So the world-stage was set for the triangular drama of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries, in which reaction in a thousand forms, and Modern State organization in one, struggled against each other to subjugate or assimilate the more or less passive majority of mankind.

We write in outline, and necessarily in an elementary history it is only the primary lines that can be given. But just as when we enlarge our scale of observation, the broad divisions of a map vanish and countries and divisions become hills, valleys, buildings, forests, roads, and at last, when we come to earth, stones, pebbles, blades of grass and flowers, so this rough division of humanity into three intermingled and intensely interacting multitudes was in reality qualified by a thousand million individual complications.

On the whole the content of people’s minds was far more intricate then than it is now. That is a principle the student of history must never forget. The intellectual progress of mankind had been a continual disentanglement and simplification leading to increased grasp and power. These closing decades of the Age of Frustration were still, in comparison with our own time, a time of uncertainties, inaccuracies, mixed motives, irrational surprises and bitter late realizations. There was scarcely an unskilled toiler in the world who was really no more than a passive clod in the hands of his exploiters and employers. There was scarcely a reactionary who did not in some fashion want tidiness and efficiency. And, conversely, there was hardly a Fellow of the Modern State organization, man or woman, who had not spasms of acute self-seeking and vanity, who could not be doctrinaire, intolerant and vindictive on occasion, who could not be touched by the sentimental and æsthetic values of the old order, and who did not like, love and react to scores of people incurably shaped to the opposition pattern.

The New Fiction of the Eighties and Nineties is enormously preoccupied with this universal battle of ideas and mental habits in people’s minds. The simpler novels of the earlier past and the novels of the present day tell of individual character in a set battle between good and bad in a world of undisputed standards; but the novels of those years of social conflict tell of a wild confusion between two sorts of good and two sorts of bad and of innate character distorted in a thousand ways. It was a difficult age. Life still has its endless ironies and ambiguities, but they are as nothing to those amidst which the men of 1970 had to steer their courses.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 3 - 8. The Second Conference at Basra, 1978

Back    |    Words Home    |    H.G. Wells Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback