The Life and Thought of H. G. Wells

J. Kagarlitski
Translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg


Chapter Four

Facing the Changes

(2) Religion instead of Revolution

Mr. Britling sitting in his study deliberates whether the war wouldn’t be followed by a revolution. The people in power would be trying to keep all the valves closed. And then the whole boiler would explode.

Mr. Britling has no use for revolution, the aims he dreams of can be achieved without it. He is no longer concerned, as he was in When the Sleeper Wakes, with handing over to the people the means and tools of production. To achieve what he believes to be right, he turns to God.

The notion of religion is difficult at first to attribute to Wells. When he was a young man he had always protested vehemently against orthodox Christianity and he had always liked to stress his atheism. He was against prejudice of any kind and a believer in science. However, his appeal to God is not more surprising perhaps than his two-faced attitude to the war. There were two reasons for this. One reason was the desire to hand over the eradication of the old bourgeois order to the bourgeoisie itself. Wells was compelled to ignore the real class interests of the bourgeoisie and to consider the human qualities of individual representatives of this class. That is why the principles of religious morality could not be brought into the argument. The second reason is linked with his belief in the possible unity of all mankind. This was, Wells believed, impossible without a common world outlook and he was ready to accommodate even religion to achieve that outlook.

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Both these tendencies had already been apparent in Wells’s writing. But before Mr. Britling he had never accepted a personified deity. Now he went through a period of searching for God and of ingenious theological contortions. After Mr. Britling came the polemical novel God the Invisible King (1917). After that there were other works in the same style, The Soul of a Bishop (1917), Joan and Peter (1918) and The Undying Fire (1919).

Wells believed that people who had lost their loved ones in the war would search for religious consolation, but at the same time would understand the falsehood of orthodox Christianity. The old ideas about the nature of the world would collapse, but men would search for new ideas. A vacuum would be created in their minds and hearts and a new faith would rapidly find access to them.

God the Invisible King was to be the gospel of the new faith. Wells decided to give the shape of universality to his social ideas and hand them over to the whole of mankind. One might say he tried to see himself as a new Messiah and create “new myths for old”, as William Archer aptly put it.

God the Invisible King did not exercise any influence on mankind; it did not meet with approval even in the comparatively narrow circle of the English intelligentsia. The most interesting and effective reply to Wells was contained in the pamphlet by William Archer, God and Mr. Wells, which explained precisely why Wells could neither expect nor seriously desire his book to be successful.

Wells, said Archer, had not turned to religion by accident. His theories were like “the aeroplane without an engine”; perhaps as a “propelling force” one might finally fit in the Lord God. But he was, however, neither a strong enough nor a desirable enough ally, as can be seen if one translates Wells’s theological hocus-pocus into the language of sociological ideas.

An atheist, according to Wells, was “a man without a master”. This was the term used in Japan for one who had lost his feudal lord. But is it such a disaster to be a man without a master? Does a normal, spiritually healthy human being suffer because he has no one to kneel to, no one to whom to hand over his sense of responsibility? The end of feudalism was crowned by the destruction of the feudal gods. Why, then, create other idols and kneel

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to “holy” images? By wishing to supplant the modern forms of Christianity by the cult of his Higher Being Wells was taking a step backwards in the spiritual history of mankind.

Wells imagines, Archer goes on, that he is fighting the Church. But the Church is not his enemy but his ally, because it helps to create in the masses the religious climate most receptive to his ideas. A believer is anyway not a sceptic or an atheist. With the help of the Church it is therefore easier to exchange the old obsolete forms of religion for a modern cult.

Archer’s book made a deep impression on his readers and none at all on Wells. He maintained as before that one must preach truth—as he imagined it to be—with the help of a prejudice. But a prejudice is rarely a good servant of the truth. Once started upon such a relationship, the friendship between prejudice and truth may become too close. Truth may be ready to forget why this alliance was ever formed and begin to use a strange language. Wells’s world outlook became less progressive during this period. It pronounced anathema on Darwinism, warned against socialism, which he said, could begin with an admiration for Ruskin and William Morris and end with an infatuation for Karl Marx. He stood firmly and vigorously for a peace between the classes of society. In fact he signed his own death warrant an as an artist.

Mr. Britling revealed clearly the reasons for this transformation in Wells. The war with its victims and destruction had thrown Wells’s dream of a humane and rationally organised world into sharp relief—and it also engendered in him a fear of all social cataclysms, including revolution, of which Mr. Britling had lived in anxious expectation since 1916. In 1917 revolution broke out in Russia. Wells took it as a sinister warning to the English ruling class. What had happened in Russia could happen here, too, he repeated again and again. Revolution could come and bring destruction, hunger and cruelty. It could sweep away the old social system, and there would be no time to prepare a new one. Wells firmly believed that “our world must be transformed, if we are to preserve it from destruction”. Wells’s fear of a sweeping popular revolution which embodied in it a threat to civilisation and which could only be carried out with cruel methods was shared by many distinguished members of the Western intelligentsia. Wells, unlike

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many of them, was not himself against every form of violence. He could see that revolution in Russia had been conditioned by historical causes and he understood the natural development of what had happened. But it seemed to him that an intelligent, and responsible é1ite could have eliminated these causes. He believed in the movement of the small top group towards collectivism rather than the movement of the masses towards it and tried to direct the British ruling classes to this aim. This, one is apt to think, was one of the reasons that moved Wells to go to Soviet Russia in 1920. Wells was not the first influential Englishman to visit Soviet Russia. Before him there had been members of the left wing of English Social Democracy—future English Communists—and there had been a few right-wing Labour Party men who had afterwards written the most libellous articles on the Bolsheviks. Bertrand Russell, the most distinguished member of the English intelligentsia, came to Russia and published, on his return to England, two articles in the liberal New Statesman and then a book, The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (1920), which, though rather superficial, contained no hostile outbursts against Communism. On the contrary, Russell emphasized the unquestioned honesty of the Communists, who, he declared, spared nobody but certainly did not spare themselves either and who followed no personal ambitions but fought for a new life with the utmost selflessness. Wells absorbed all these impressions very carefully. Now his turn had come to declare his attitude to the revolution in Russia and to put his views on paper. He did this in his book Russia in the Shadows (1920). What Wells had to say in this book was particularly valuable in that he had been interested in Russia for a very long time and had maintained contacts with several representatives of Russian cultural life.

In April 1906 Wells had met Maxim Gorki in New York, and he wrote later that he had felt himself at once in sympathy with him. They met a year later, this time in London, where Gorki had come in connection with the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. After that they exchanged many letters. When Mr. Britling Sees It Through came out, Gorki immediately had it published in his periodical The Annals (Nos. 7-12 in 1916). In 1918 Gorki asked Wells to write

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a life of Edison for his Lives of Remarkable Men. Wells agreed and even gave a date when he would send the copy but for some reason failed to keep his promise. On the other hand, he treated all Gorki’s requests with remarkable thoroughness, particularly the requests dealing with the necessity of keeping up cultural links between Soviet Russia and the West in the difficult conditions of these years. When in May 1920 Gorki first asked Wells to send books, Wells immediately did so and also wrote that he was organising the despatch of foodstuffs for Russian scientists. The contacts he had then in scientific as well as government circles enabled him later, on his return from Soviet Russia, to get the necessary permission and then to carry out such requests.

The last time Wells and Gorki met was in 1934 in Moscow. That meeting left bitterness in Wells’s heart. The two writers disagreed on too many questions and neither of them was prepared to conceal the fact. But two years later, hearing of Gorki’s death, he took back at once the unjust words which he had written about him in Experiment in Autobiography, after their final meeting.

“Another of the great men, brought forward in Russia by the revolutionary process, has passed away to eternity,” so ran Wells’s telegram to the Union of Soviet Writers. “A writer of world repute has died. His works will remain unsurpassable masterpieces. But Gorki's importance is not exhausted by belles lettres in the exact sense of the word. Gorki played a great part in what can be called the education of consciousness.”

Wells met other Russian men of letters. He met Korkney Chukovsky several times in England, met the translator Likiardopulo, and during the war was visited by Alexei Tolstoy. Wells’s first visit to Russia was in January 1914 and he also sent some of his heroes there, and to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev in The Passionate Friends (1913) and Joan and Peter (1918).

In January 1914 Wells spent a fortnight in Russia, and in the autumn of 1920 he went back for about the same length of time. The impressions gathered from these two visits were poles apart. St. Petersburg in 1914 seemed much like London to Wells, with its central streets, its rows of shops, its leisurely and animated crowds. The St. Petersburg of 1920, however, was more in line with the scenes described in War of the Worlds and The World Set Free:

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there was hunger, and destruction, a mass exodus from the towns into the country; miserably clad, shivering crowds, and closed shops. He heard stories of plunder and murder, of floating corpses floating in the canals. . . . What were Wells’s reactions to all this?

Russia in the Shadows was not and could never have been written by a person sharing our views. But it was written by an honest man. At the time when for the most part the British Press was exercising itself in false inventions about Soviet Russia, Wells wrote the truth as he understood it. Russia in the Shadows was one of that company of books on the Soviet Union, written at various times by favourably inclined observers, such as the Webbs, Hewlett Johnson and others—books which played an important part in the spreading of the truth about the Soviet Union.

Having described the desolation he had seen, Wells turned to the main problem at the heart of the West’s view of Russia. “Who is to blame for it all?” and he replies: “I do not believe this is the result of Bolshevik rule. It was not Communism that plunged this huge, creaking, bankrupt Empire into six years of exhausting war,” writes Wells, “it was European imperialism. Nor is it Communism that has pestered this suffering and perhaps dying Russia with a series of subsidised raids, invasions and insurrections and inflicted upon it an atrocious blockade. The vindictive French creditor, the journalistic British oaf, are far more responsible for these death-bed miseries than any communist.”

“According to the crazier section of the British Press,” continues Wells, “these Bolsheviks who have taken such an effectual hold on Russia are agents of a mysterious plot, a secret society. They are, in fact, people like any others and I with my temperament and experience of life, understand and respect their spirit. Communism spreads not because a group of conspirators is behind it. It appeals to young men of imagination because they realise in their own persons the social injustice, the stupid negligence and the colossal incivility of our system, they realise that they are insulted and sacrificed by it, and they devote themselves to breaking it and emancipating themselves from it. No insidious propaganda is needed to make such rebels, it is the faults

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of a system that half-educates and then enslaves them which have created the Communist movement wherever industrialism has developed.

“The Soviet government,” continues Wells, “is the most temerarious in the world. It is also essentially honest. Their training in communistic ideas, their collective control has helped them enormously. The Bolsheviks in this state of siege and famine have done upon principle what any other government would have had to do from necessity. The recivilising of Russia must be done with the Soviet government as the starting phase. The ambiguous adventurers supported by Western powers are essentially brigands. Every man who will destroy the present legality and order in Russia will destroy all that remains in it of legality and order. A brigand monarchist government will leave a trail of fresh blood across the Russian scene, and will show what gentlemen can do when they are roused, in a tremendous pogrom.”

Lenin made a deep impression on Wells. Wells wrote later that Lenin was perhaps the only truly great man he had met in his life. In Russia in the Shadows he tells us that as he left the Kremlin he tried to preserve in his memory every little feature of the “Kremlin dreamer”, as he called Lenin. In this definition there was both admiration for Lenin’s brain and spirit, for Lenin himself, who in a ruined and destitute Russia was able to see the world of the future—and also some doubt in the realisation of Lenin’s plans, particularly the electrification plan. But history has long since proved Wells's doubt ill-founded.

Wells wrote rightly that their differences in opinion on whether or not a social revolution was necessary as a preliminary condition for the building of a new society were the usual differences between an “evolutionary collectivist” and a Marxist. Wells claimed that revolution destroys one economic system before the new one begins to function efficiently. “I believe,” he wrote, “that through a vast sustained educational campaign the existing Capitalist system can be civilised into a Collectivist world system.”

Lenin disagreed with him and Wells, as he himself admitted, “had a very uphill argument”. But Wells imagined that the picture of a starving Russia in ruins proved his point. He did not believe

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either that the Soviet government would be capable of coping alone with the disastrous situation. He urged the allied powers to support the Soviet government in its struggle to re-establish the country’s economy and thus retain Russia as a part of the civilised world. At the end of his book he frankly asserted how much the establishment of a normal relationship between Soviet Russia and the West fitted his own plans. Having set up a cultural and trade exchange with Russia the capitalists would always have before them an edifying example of a “collectivist” society. On the other hand, relations with the West would help Communism to curb its “excesses”.

Russia in the Shadows by no means indicated that Wells was inclined to accept the revolution. On the contrary, at that period he was propagating with particular obstinacy his theories on “evolutionary collectivism”, laying all his hopes on the spiritual transformation of mankind.

The time was to come when Wells would turn his back on his “God-seeking” pursuits, and when he would quote William Archer’s attack with a certain degree of pleasure. But the time had not come yet. Only in 1926, in The World of William Clissold, did he write through the lips of his hero about a certain Mr. Wells who, wanting to paint mankind “with a crown on the head”, created a kind of symbol of “universal emanation of human reason” and became too obsessed with theological terminology, for which he suffered merited criticism. Wells kept the Lord God in reserve, in the meantime as it were, in order the better to prepare the positions. Then he discovered that the better they were prepared, the less comfortable they would be for the Great Visitor. Finally, Wells was obliged to cancel the invitation.

This complicated process of abandoning God and at the same time of clarifying the aims which had led him to the ingenious theological contortions took up several years. Wells’s last and rather feeble attempt to find God came in Christina Alberta’s Father (1925). However, the story of Christina Alberta, who is perhaps Ann Veronica’s direct descendant, occupied the author’s mind very much more than the story of her father, who imagined himself to be the forerunner of a new religion. And the

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God-seeking episodes are coloured with a great deal of humour. The Sovereign of the World leaves the stage to the merry peals of the audience’s laughter. His retreat to the wings had started in a more serious, even slightly solemn atmosphere.

In 1920-1924 Wells published several historical and educational works, including The Outline of History (1920), The New Teaching of History (1921), and The Story of a Great Schoolmaster (1924), an account of the life and ideas of F. W. Sanderson, headmaster of Oundle from 1892 to 1922. These works pursued aims far beyond those usually associated with textbooks. Wells believed that with them he was laying the foundation stone of an education that would teach humanely and in a spirit of collectivism. This, according to him, was the way to avoid the catastrophes which he now feared most of all—war and revolution.

A. Menshoj, who reviewed The Outline of History when it came out in a Russian translation, wrote that Wells declared to him when they met: “I would like all the old textbooks to be destroyed and burnt, and new ones to be written along the lines of my scheme. .  . . And the new generation should be taught from these new books.” He also explained why he had started this work: “I admit that I’m afraid of revolution,” he declared, “and hope that we can do without it. An intellectual revolution, a revolution in the brains is now taking place in Europe. And I want to believe that it will be sufficient. I want to believe that this revolution will lead mankind out of the dead end.”

The biggest sales were achieved by A Short History of the World. In Wells’s view this book was best read as a preparation for the reading of the more lengthy and less popular The Outline of History. It was written very simply, in parts entrancingly, and within everybody’s grasp.

The idealistic view of history as “a product of intelligence and will” permeates The Outline of History. Talking of ancient history, Wells maintains, for instance, that “the Bible was not so much created by the Jews as the Jewish nation was created by the Bible”. Discussing the French Revolution he fails to mention the class struggle that motivated it and handicapped it. He avoids any mention of revolutions, and whole great periods of history, if one were to believe Wells, were a result of the influence of one

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or another religious reformer or enlightener. It is difficult for him to maintain that point of view to the end for his course in history is devoted not only to the change in religious systems and the progress of science, but also to the history of the very foundation of the social pyramid. It cannot be said of this book that it is “history without a people”. Wells did not accept the idea of revolution, he wanted to dispel it from the minds of his readers. It was, however, the October Revolution that forced him to assess the role of the people in history.

Wells put at the head of the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire the fact that the Roman Empire was a slave state. He devotes a special chapter to the life of the people in the times of the Roman Empire. In the chapter on the Library in Alexandria he points out that knowledge at that time was like a lantern with a screen: however bright the flame inside it, it was invisible to the masses. The Reformation he described as the striving of the people for social justice.

The closer we come to our own day, writes Wells, the more important becomes the role of the masses. From being the object they become with the passing of time more and more the subject of history, until today history is made by the masses. Once the people realise this, they will declare their rights with even greater firmness. Wells wants them to declare their rights not by armed rebellion, but by “intellectual revolution”. The moment the people realise the obsoleteness of the modern social system, the system itself will cease to exist. The teachings of Jesus Christ will then be realised in practice.

Here lies the basic contradiction in Wells’s book. Transient religions are according to him, the different stages of mankind’s self-assessment. But with scientific progress and the breaking down of prejudice, mankind assesses itself and its needs more and more in a non-religious way. Why, in that case, should the people want religion?

If Wells clung fast to the last remnants of his theories, it was only because he sought salvation from the revolutionary forms of progress in religious forms of progress. He was more ready to sacrifice logic than this ingredient of his system. Up until quite recently the Lord God had formed the basis of it. Now he was

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compelled to stick by it. But in order that Wells should allow the Lord God to go quietly into retirement it was not enough simply to realise the contradictions of his view of history. He had to return to his elemental wrath against a world of bloodshed, falsehood and cupidity. It was necessary for the theorising well-wishing bourgeois to give way to the humanist and the artist.


SOURCE: Kagarlitski, J[ulius] [Iulii Iosifovich, 1926-2000]. The Life and Thought of H. G. Wells, translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1966. xiv, 210 pp., 8 plates. (Originally published under the title Herbert Wells: ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva. Name also transliterated as: Julij Kagarlicki, Julij Kagarlickij, Julius Kagarlitski, Julius Kagarlitsky, Yuli Kagarlitsky.) Chapter 4: Facing the Changes; section 2: Religion instead of Revolution; pp. 181-191.


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