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Bertrand Russell: H. G. Wells,1953

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Bertrand Russell Quotes 366
I first met H. G. Wells in 1902 at a small discussion society created by Sidney Webb and by him christened "The Co-efficients" in the hope that we should be jointly efficient. There were about a dozen of us. Some have escaped my memory. Among those whom I remember, the most distinguished was Sir Edward Grey. Then there was H. J. MacKinder (afterward Sir) who was Reader in Geography at the University of Oxford and a great authority on the then new German subject of geopolitics. What I found most interesting about him was that he had climbed Kilimanjaro with a native guide who walked barefoot except in villages, where he wore dancing pumps. There was Amory. And there was Commander Bellairs, a breezy naval officer who was engaged in a perpetual ding-dong battle for the Parliamentary representation of Kings Lynn with an opponent universally known as Tommy Bowles, a gallant champion of the army. Commander Bellairs was a Liberal and Tommy Bowles a Conservative; but, after a while, Commander Bellairs became a Conservative, and Tommy Bowles became a Liberal. They were thus enabled to continue their duel at Kings Lynn. In 1902 Commander Bellairs was halfway on the journey from the old party to the new one. And there was W. A. S. Hewins, the director of the School of Economics. Hewins once told me that he had been brought up a Roman Catholic, but had since replaced faith in the Church by faith in the British Empire. He was passionately opposed to Free trade, and was successfully engaged in converting Joseph Chamberlain to Tariff Reform. I know how large a part he had in this conversion, as he showed me the correspondence between himself and Chamberlain before Chamberlain had come out publicly for Tariff Reform.
I had never heard of Wells until Webb mentioned him as a man whom he had invited to become a Co-efficient. Webb informed me that Wells was a young man who, for the moment, wrote stories in the style of Jules Verne, but hoped, when these made his name and fortune, to devote himself to more serious work. I very soon found that I was too much out of sympathy with most of the Co-efficients to be able to profit by the discussions or contribute usefully to them. All the members except Wells and myself were Imperialists and looked forward without too much apprehension to a war with Germany. I was drawn to Wells by our common antipathy to this point of view. He was a Socialist, and at that time, though not later, considered great wars a folly. Matters came to a head when Sir Edward Grey, then in Opposition, advocated what became the policy of the Entente with France and Russia, which was adopted by the Conservative Government some two years later, and solidified by Sir Edward Grey when he became Foreign Secretary. I spoke vehemently against this policy, which 1 felt led straight to world war, but no one except Wells agreed with me.
As a result of the political sympathy between us, I invited Wells and Mrs. Wells to visit me at Bagley Wood, near Oxford, where I then lived. The visit was not altogether a success. Wells, in our presence, accused Mrs. Wells of a Cockney accent, an accusation which (so it seemed to me) could more justly be brought against him. More serious was a matter arising out of a book that he had lately written called In the Days of the Comet. In this book the earth passes through the tail of a comet which contains a gas that makes everybody sensible. The victory of good sense is shown in two ways: a war between England and Germany, which had been raging, is stopped by mutual consent; and everybody takes to free love. Wells was assailed in the Press, not for his pacifism, but for his advocacy of free love. He replied somewhat heatedly that he had not advocated free love, but had merely prophesied possible effects of new ingredients in the atmosphere without saying whether he thought these effects good or bad. This seemed to me disingenuous, and I asked him, "Why did you first advocate free love and then say you hadn't?" He replied that he had not yet saved enough money out of royalties to be able to live on the interest, and that he did not propose to advocate free love publicly until he had done so. I was in those days perhaps unduly strict, and this answer displeased me.
After this I did not see much of him until the First World War had ended. In spite of his previous attitude about war with Germany, he became exceedingly bellicose in 1914. He invented the phrase about "a war to end war." He said that he was "enthusiastic for this war against Prussian militarism." In the very first days, he stated that the whole Prussian military machine was paralyzed before the defenses of Liege which fell a day or two later. Sidney Webb, although he agreed with Wells about the war, had ceased to be on good terms with him, partly from moral disapproval, partly because Wells undertook an elaborate campaign to win from Webb the leadership of the Fabian Society. Wells's hostility to the Webbs was expressed in several novels, and was never appeased.
After the end of the first war, my relations with Wells became again more friendly. I admired his Outline of History, especially its earlier parts, and found myself in agreement with his opinions on a great many subjects. He had immense energy and a capacity to organize great masses of material. He was also a very vivacious and amusing talker. His eyes were very bright, and in an argument one felt that he was taking an impersonal interest in the subject rather than a personal interest in his interlocutor. I used to visit him at weekends at his house in Essex where, on Sunday afternoons, he would take his house party to visit his neighbor Lady Warwick. She was an active supporter of the Labor Party, and her park contained a lake surrounded by huge green porcelain frogs given her by Edward VII. It was a little difficult to adapt one's conversation to both these aspects of her personality.
Wells derived his importance from quantity rather than quality, though one must admit that he excelled in certain qualities. He was very good at imagining mass behavior in unusual circumstances, for example in The War of the Worlds. Some of his novels depict convincingly heroes not unlike himself. Politically, he was one of those who made Socialism respectable in England. He had a very considerable influence upon the generation that followed him, not only as regards politics but also as regards matters of personal ethics. His knowledge, though nowhere profound, was very extensive. He had, however, certain weaknesses which somewhat interfered with his position as a sage. He found unpopularity very hard to endure, and would make concessions to popular clamor which interfered with the consistency of his teaching. He had a sympathy with the masses which made him liable to share their occasional hysterias. When he was worried by accusations of immorality or infidelity, he would write somewhat second-rate stories designed to rebut such charges, such as The Soul of a Bishop or the story of the husband and wife who are beginning to quarrel and, to stop this process, spend the winter in Labrador and are reconciled by a common fight against a bear. The last time I saw him, which was shortly before his death, he spoke with great earnestness of the harm done by divisions on the Left, and I gathered, though he did not explicitly say so, that he thought Socialists ought to cooperate with Communists more than they were doing. This had not been his view in the heyday of his vigor, when he used to make fun of Marx's beard and exhort people not to adopt the new Marxist orthodoxy.
Wells's importance was primarily as a liberator of thought and imagination. He was able to construct pictures of possible societies, both attractive and unattractive, of a sort that encouraged the young to envisage possibilities which otherwise they would not have thought of. Sometimes he does this in a very illuminating way. His Country of the Blind is a somewhat pessimistic restatement in modern language of Plato's allegory of the cave. His various Utopias, though perhaps not in themselves very solid, are calculated to start trains of thought which may prove fruitful. He is always rational, and avoids various forms of superstition to which modern minds are prone. His belief in scientific method is healthful and invigorating. His general optimism, although the state of the world makes it difficult to sustain, is much more likely to lead to good results than the somewhat lazy pessimism which is becoming all too common. In spite of some reservations, I think one should regard Wells as having been an important force toward sane and constructive thinking both as regards social systems and as regards personal relations. I hope he may have successors, though I do not at the moment know who they will be.