There’s an anecdote concerning H.G. Wells that rather exemplifies his character. A London theatre in the 1920s. Wells was approached by a nervous, eager young fan. “Mr. Wells, you probably don’t remember me”, he said, holding out his hand. “Yes, I bloody do!” replied Wells, and rudely turned his back. Personality aside, Wells also embraced anti-Semitism, racism, and social engineering, and in this atmosphere of outrage and iconoclasm it’s surprising that he hasn’t been more targeted for symbolic removal. Then again, perhaps not. Because while the undoubtedly gifted author said and believed some dreadful things he was also a man of the left. And when it comes to cancel culture, socialism is the ultimate prophylactic.
George Bernard Shaw said of his nastiness and his ugly views, “Multiply the total by ten; square the result. Raise it again to the millionth power and square it again; and you will still fall short of the truth about Wells — yet the worse he behaved the more he was indulged; and the more he was indulged the worse he behaved.”
For much of the 20th-century, eugenics was a creature of the left as much if not more than the right
In fact, for much of the 20th-century eugenics was a creature of the left as much if not more than the right. Shaw himself, Sydney and Beatrice Webb and many other left-wing intellectuals were convinced that for the lives of the majority to improve there had to be a harsh control of the minority.
Wells argued that the existing social and economic structure would collapse and a new order would emerge, led by “people throughout the world whose minds were adapted to the demands of the big-scale conditions of the new time … a naturally and informally organized educated class, an unprecedented sort of people.” The “base,” the class at the bottom of the scale, “people who had given evidence of a strong anti-social disposition,” would be in trouble. “This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and the sensual, is possible. I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.” He wrote of, “boys and girls and youth and maidens, full of zest and new life, full of an abundant joyful receptivity . . . helpers behind us in the struggle.” Then chillingly, “And for the rest, these swarms of black and brown and dingy white and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency . . . I take it they will have to go.”
It’s not clear where the Jews would come into this but if Wells wasn’t a professional anti-Semite he was certainly a talented amateur. “I met a Jewish friend of mine the other day and he asked me, ‘What is going to happen to the Jews?’ I told him I had rather he had asked me a different question, What is going to happen to mankind? ‘But my people—’ he began. ‘That,’ said I, ‘is exactly what is the matter with them.’” And of the First World War,
“Throughout those tragic and almost fruitless four years of war, the Jewish spokesmen were most elaborately and energetically demonstrating that they cared not a rap for the troubles and dangers of English, French, Germans, Russians, Americans, or of any other people but their own. They kept their eyes steadfastly upon the restoration of the Jews.”
It was explained that the first volunteer for the American forces in Europe was Jewish, that there were numerous German-Jewish winners of the Iron Cross, and that Jews died for every nation. His response was sullen dismissal, then: “There was never a promise; they were never chosen; their distinctive observances, their Sabbath, their Passover, their queer calendar, are mere traditional oddities of no present significance whatsoever.” Leon Gelman, President of the Mizrachi Organization of America, responded:
“H.G. Wells is brazenly spreading notorious lies about the Jews. His violent language betrays a streak of sadism that is revolting. If any man who professes to be an enlightened human being can preach such heinous distortions, then mankind is doomed to utter darkness.”
Nor was Wells some fringe character. His books were international bestsellers, he had genuine influence, and when he met Stalin the dictator was so impressed that he extended the interview. That significance didn’t end with his death in 1946. My biography of Wells was published in 1993, and led the former Labour Party leader Michael Foot to criticize me in the national press for my “attack on a great man.” There’s a statue to the “great man” in Woking, but the petition to remove it is hardly gathering national attention. “HG Wells was a racist who also happened to love eugenics,” said petition organiser Joshua Reid. “Woking’s statue of him must go!”
I’m fine with the thing staying where it is. I’d simply prefer us to be a little more consistent and – well – tolerant.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe