By John Parry
A review of “Building Cosmopolis: The political thought of H G Wells”, by John S Partington (Ashgate Publishing)
The British author H G Wells is mainly known today for novels such as Kipps, or The History of Mr Polly, and science fantasies about Martian invasion in War of the Worlds or the experiments of a ruthless transplant surgeon in The Island of Dr Moreau. Very few present-day readers are now aware of his political writings and his campaign for World Government. John S Partington’s analysis of Wells’ political thought in Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H G Wells is therefore particularly welcome.
Born in 1866, Wells studied biology under T H Huxley, the leading Darwinian of Victorian times, and came to see the ethical principles underlying humanity’s social systems as being rooted in the evolutionary process, and therefore having the potential for onward development. Early in his career he proposed extending social structures to the global level by means of a “permanent international Congress …which will insure the peace of the world”.
His initial account of how such a Congress would function remained in some aspects tantalisingly vague. He foresaw national governments continuing as the custodians of the common law and international trade while acting as an intermediary between the Congress and their own municipal governments, thus combining some centralised power with subsidiarity wherever possible. This sounds basically federalist, yet the centralised competences he suggests would cover criminal law, prisons, registration of births and deaths, and the right to direct people to work in whatever part of the world they may be needed. In addition everyone would have identity documents bearing their thumb-print, and English to be the world language.
Such a world would hardly be regarded today as a utopia, though the ideas are not untypical of some of the wilder theories being discussed in late Victorian Britain, partly at least as a reaction to the growth of state nationalism in Europe. Declarations of patriotic pride were too often accompanied by a determination to build and maintain military superiority while expanding overseas empires; though in some cases, such as Greece, nationalist movements were primarily linked with the fight for liberty and independence. At the same time ethnically-based cross-border groupings were beginning to appear. Wells quotes Anglo-Saxon, Pan-Germanic and Pan-Slav movements, each expressive of shared cultural identity, and he foresaw a role for such regional groupings within the world Congress.
Some groupings, such as the British, French and other empires, would be broken up. Instead, they would evolve systems of democratic autonomy in each of their subject states, leading them gradually to the point where they could join their imperial masters as equal group partners within the world community.
Understandably, his ideas developed with the changing political scene, and much of the value of Building Cosmopolis lies in its demonstration of how this occurred and the arguments at each stage. With the outbreak of World War I Wells refined his proposal, envisaging a League of Free Nations endowed with a common law and a tribunal or court with the task of ensuring peace by settling disputes through arbitration, protecting weaker communities, and suppressing member states’ preparations for war. But although the subsequent establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 might have seemed a vindication of Wells’ own ideas, he saw it as being tainted with traditional diplomacy-that is, with the very methods which led to wars in the first place. He wanted, in effect, not only a new approach to handling international affairs but also to find a fresh way of looking at the world.
In this respect his relationship with federalist organisations is particularly interesting. He was impatient with their insistence on the need to work through existing political structures to achieve world federation and accused Federal Union of being “under the spell of the nation-state”. Under his plan, for example, all military forces with the exception of small militias should be transferred immediately to the world federation, yet he had no faith in the willingness of national politicians to surrender such a sensitive aspect of sovereignty to the global authority, nor in the parliamentary system which supported them in office. Equally, he did not agree that a European federation could lead to world government. It was more likely, he felt, to result in wars between regional blocs.
His distrust of parliaments led him to new concepts such as the use of specialised international agencies to take over many of the functions of modern administration, using as a model the work of the International Postal Union which operates both efficiently and independently of national governments. Several other similar inter-national, functional agencies have already come into existence. While not wishing to abolish elections, he felt there was a need for citizen-juries to monitor politicians’ decisions and agency functions at both national and world levels, and hold them to account in a way which is not possible through normal electoral mechanisms.
H G Wells died in 1946, never knowing how far some of his ideas have been put into practice. Had he lived he would have been very impatient with the course events have taken. In a far-sighted comment written before the development of air travel, electronic communications and satellites, he stated that “the increasing facilities of communication, the abolition of distance, render the federal association of the free communities more and more imperative.” Both in his fiction and non-fiction he was essentially a visionary, intolerant of delays and difficulties. Some of his proposals are impractical; others contain hidden threats to personal liberty. Yet, as the author of Building Cosmopolis points out, he was also a fierce defender of human rights. It was this conviction which inspired his proposals for political change, even though his preferred societal structures reveal a greater faith in mankind’s ethical progress than events can often justify.
John Parry is Honorary Member of the Bureau of the Union of European Federalists and a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.