January 19, 2004

H.G. Wells Becomes a Socialist

From H.G. Wells (1908), New Worlds for Old (London: Macmillan), pp. 16-19:

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..a walk I had a little while ago with a friend along the Thames Embankment, from Blackfriars Bridge to Westminster. We had dined together and we went there because we thought that with a fitful moon and clouds adrift, on a night when the air was a crystal air that gladdened and brightened, that crescent of great buildings and steely, soft-hurrying water must needs be altogether beautiful. And indeed it was beautiful: the mysteries and mounting masses of the buildings to the right of us, the blurs of this coloured light or that, blue-white, green-white, amber or warmer orange, the rich black archings of Waterloo Bridge, the rippled lights upon the silent flowing river, the lattice of girders, and the shifting trains of Charing Cross Bridge--their funnels pouring a sort of hot-edged moonlight by way of smoke--and then the sweeping line of lamps, the accelerated run and diminuendo of the Embankment lamps as one came into sight of Westminster. The big hotels were very fine, huge swelling shapes of dun dark-gray and brown, huge shapes seamed and bursting and fenestrated with illumination, tattered at a thousand windows with light and the indistinct glowing suggestions of feasting and pleasure. And dim and faint above it all and very remote was the moon's dead wan face veiled and then displayed.

But we were dashed by an unanticipated refrain to this succession of magnificent things, and we did not cry, as we had meant to cry, "How good it was to be alive!"

Along the embankment, you see, there are iron seats at regular intervals, seats you cannot lie upon because iron arm-rests prevent that, and each seat, one saw by the lamplight, was filled with crouching and drooping figures. Not a vacant place remained, not one vacant place. These were the homeless, and they had come to sleep here. Now one noted a poor old woman with a shameful battered straw hat awry over her drowsing face, now a young clerk staring before him at despair; now a filthy tramp, and now a bearded, frock-coated, collarless respectability; I remember particularly one ghastly long white neck and white face that lopped backward, choked in some nightmare, awakened, clutched with a bony hand at the bony throat, and sat up and stared angrily as we passed. The wind had a keen edge that night, even for us who had dined and were well-clad. One crumpled figure coughed and went on coughing--damnably.

"It's fine," said I, trying to keep hold of the effects to which this line of poor wretches was but the selvage; "it's fine! But I can't stand this."

"It changes all that we expected," admitted my friend, after a silence.

"Must we go on--past them all?"

"Yes. I think we ought to do that. It's a lesson perhaps--for trying to get too much beauty out of life as it is, and forgetting. Don't shirk it!"

"Great God!" cried I. "But must life always be like this? I could die, indeed, I would willingly jump into this cold and muddy river now, if by so doing I could stick a stiff dead hand through all these things in the future,--a dead commanding hand insisting with a silent irresistible gesture that this waste and failure of life should cease, and cease forever."

"But it does cease! Each year in its proportions it is a little less."

I walked in silence, and my companion talked by my side.

"We go on. Here is a good thing done, and there is a good thing done. The Good Will in man--"

"Not fast enough. It goes so slowly--and in a little while we too must die."

"It can be done," said my companion.

"It could be avoided," say I.

"It shall be in the days to come. There is food enough for all, shelter for all, wealth enough for all. Men need only know it and will it. And yet we have this!"

"And so much like this!" said I.

So we talked and were tormented.

And I remember how later we found ourselves on Westminster Bridge, looking back upon the long sweep of wrinkled black water that reflected lights and palaces and the flitting glow of steamboats, and by that time we had talked ourselves past our despair. We perceived that what was splendid remained splendid, that what was mysterious remained insoluble for all our pain and impatience. But it was clear to us: the thing for us two to go upon was not the good of the present nor the evil, but the effort and the dream of the finer order, the fuller life, the banishment of suffering, to come...


[Posted with ecto]

Posted by DeLong at January 19, 2004 01:23 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Beautiful. I don't know why there aren't more comments appended to this, except maybe that it doesn't need any comments. MY comment is that I need to read more.

Thank you.

Posted by: John H. Farr on January 19, 2004 04:54 PM

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Beautiful. I don't know why there aren't more comments appended to this, except maybe that it doesn't need any comments. MY comment is that I need to read more.

Thank you.

Posted by: John H. Farr on January 19, 2004 04:56 PM

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Movable Type has the slowest comments function in the known universe. I even got a message that the connection had timed out so I pushed "Post" again. Screw the Internet. Give me three guys and a bottle and a rowboat.

Posted by: John H. Farr on January 19, 2004 04:58 PM

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For one of several alternative but similar perspectives on HG Wells, I suggest this:
http://www.worldandi.com/specialreport/1993/november/Sa11003.htm

Posted by: Bob on January 19, 2004 10:55 PM

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Thanks, Brad; parts are piercingly poignant;
"but the effort and the dream of the finer order, the fuller life, the banishment of suffering," this dream is extremely interesting.
As you know, all socialists with gov't power, including national socialists, resorted to a rather odious method of banishing suffering.
Death. Death squads, gulags, cultural revolution, reeducation camps, death camps.
The culture of death.

Yet the dream is so seductive ...
And isn't opposition to Bush's Iraq war opposing the dream?

Man, and original sin, indicate that we need to nurture hope, and comfort in the hope of a better future for the world, despite inevitable suffering. Though compassion for those who suffer is also good, as so many churches show--while Leftists, by and large, do not.

Posted by: Tom Grey on January 20, 2004 06:53 AM

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Tom Grey, the USA have never had any problem with the nazis or other fascists. Killing, no matter how many people, no matter in how horrible a way, has never been disgusting to an USA government. If something can be said of most inhabitants of the USA it is the thirst for murder. And an abject cowardice when any menace turn on them.


DSW

Posted by: Antoni Jaume on January 20, 2004 08:03 AM

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Conservative thinkers and their mimics are forever confusing the terms Communist and Socialist. They do so on purpose to discredit any idea that wants to change things as they are.

Communism is a political ideology that depends on an elite class of political activists to control and orchestrate a violent overthrough of the established order and impose the "dictatorship of the proletariat" through the power of the state. China is a communist state. East Germany was a communist state.

Socialism is entierly different. First socialism is a political doctrine that accepts capitalism as the engine of economic progress. Second, socialism is a democratic movement that works though the legislative assemblies of the country the socialist party works in. Socialism is a democratic movement. Third, socialism is skeptical about the ability of the market to solve all the concerns of society and is willing to use the power of the domocratically elected government to address these problems. Often through taxation or regulation.
In many ways, ALL the states of the Western World are socialist. Even the United States. Take for example the idea of the weekend - thats a socialist idea. Paid vacation? a socialist idea. 40 hour work week? a socilaist idea. Universal Health care? Government Pension Plan? Work and Safety Standars? Food Inspection? State Universities? Etc...

I can't blame anyone for confusing the two terms. There has been a massive long standing practice amongst the opponents of Socialist ideas in America to make you confuse socialism with communism. Red baiting has a long long history in the USA. It also doesn't help that true communist organisations like ANSWER use the adjective "socialist" to cover up their anti-democratic nature. A trick also employed by Communist states during the cold war. "The Socialist Republic of insert name here"

We are only 15 years out from the end of the cold war. My hope is that as Real Communism fades from reality, that Socialism can be reabilitated as a term for civil political discourse.

HG Wells was one of the good guys.

Posted by: Scott McArthur on January 20, 2004 08:37 AM

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"... socialism is a democratic movement that works though the legislative assemblies of the country the socialist party works in. Socialism is a democratic movement. Third, socialism is skeptical about the ability of the market to solve all the concerns of society and is willing to use the power of the domocratically elected government to address these problems. Often through taxation or regulation. "

Ah! So one example would be, like, NATIONAL socialism, as practiced in Germany, circa 1940?

". Take for example the idea of the weekend - thats a socialist idea. Paid vacation? a socialist idea. 40 hour work week? a socilaist idea. Universal Health care? Government Pension Plan? Work and Safety Standars? Food Inspection? State Universities? Etc..."

Eugenics? Rent Control? Steel tarriffs? The National Endowment for the Arts? Gasoline rationing? Diane Rehm, Terri Gross, and Tavis Smiley? Compulsary school attendence? Fluoridation? Quarantine of HIV patients? Relocation and detention of foreign nationals in time of war? Price supports for agricultural commodities such as sugar or peanuts?

It would seem to me that there are GOOD socialist ideas and BAD socialist ideas. Where the market has established that an idea is -- if not bad -- at least not popular enough to generate or sustain profits; then "an elite class of political activists" will -- for our own good -- attempt to control and orchestrate an overthrow of the established order and impose a system of taxes and regulations through the power of the state to skew outcomes in the direction they have deemed "Good."

Which is a problem for those of us who don't want our tax dollars supporting a talk show by Diane Rehm, nor our government to round up all Iranian nationals and shipping them off to Gitmo. Whatever "good" may come of such efforts, it comes to an effort to employ government coercion where ever persuasion has proven insufficient and the "market failed".

While in small doses, at infrequent intervals, socialism may not kill me, in general I say it is spinach, and I say "To hell with it."


Posted by: Pouncer on January 20, 2004 10:58 AM

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I am impressed by this paragraph here more than by others:

"...There is food enough for all, shelter for all, wealth enough for all. Men need only know it and will it...."

Posted by: bulent on January 20, 2004 01:57 PM

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"Eugenics? Rent Control? Steel tarriffs? ***The National Endowment for the Arts?*** Gasoline rationing? Diane Rehm, ***Terri Gross***, and Tavis Smiley? ***Compulsory school attendance?*** ***Fluoridation?*** Quarantine of HIV patients? Relocation and detention of foreign nationals in time of war? Price supports for agricultural commodities such as sugar or peanuts?"

It is fascinating that someone could put this together as a list of ::bad:: socialist ideas!

Some of them are undeniably bad, but not socialist. Others are arguable, with merits and disadvantages that depend enormously upon circumstance. The ones I have starred, though... how could anyone but a rigid ideologue think they were anything but obviously good?

Posted by: Canadian Reader on January 20, 2004 11:34 PM

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