"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Shape of Things to Come (1933) by H. G. Wells

...."es lasst sich nicht lesen"—it does not permit itself to be read. 

-- Edgar A. Poe, "The Man of the Crowd" 

The Shape of Things to Come (1933) is a novel I last tried to read in high school. Its opening chapters defeated me. Forty years later, I am trying again. 

Wells's politics, petty bourgeois liberal reformism mixed with the kind of "socialism" Marx obituaried in The Poverty of Philosophy and Engels systematically demolished in Anti-Duhring, infuriates in its complacent and parochial ignorance. His main criticism of Marx is that he provided no plan for rule by socialist governments of the future.

In The Shape of Things to Come he writes:

Marx seems never to have distinguished clearly between restrictive and productive possessions, which nowadays we recognize as a difference of fundamental importance. Exploitation for profit and strangulation for dominance, the radical son and the conservative father, were all one to him. And his proposals for expropriating the profit-seeking 'capitalist' were of the vaguest; he betrayed no conception whatever of the real psychology of economic activities, and he had no sense of the intricate organization of motives needed if the coarse incentive of profit was to be superseded. Indeed, he had no practical capacity at all, and one is not surprised to learn that for his own part he never earned a living. He claimed all the privileges of a prophet and all the laxity and indolence of a genius, and he never even completed his great book.

     It was the far abler and finer-minded Lenin (1870 – 1924, in power in Russia after 1917), rather than Marx, who gave a practical organization to the revolutionary forces of communism and made the Communist Party for a time, until Stalin overtook it, the most vital creative force in the world. The essential intellectual difference between these two men is explained very clearly by Max Eastman (1895 – 1980), whose compact and scholarly Marx and Lenin[13] is still quite readable by the contemporary student. In his time Lenin had to pose as the disciple and exponent of Marx; it was only later that criticism revealed the subtle brilliance of his effort to wrest a practical common sense out of the time-worn doctrines of the older prophet.

     Another nineteenth-century writer, with perhaps a clearer realization of the strangulating effect of restrictive property as distinguished from the stimulating effect of exploitation, was Henry George (1839 – 1897), an American printer who rose to great popularity as a writer upon economic questions. He saw the life of mankind limited and dwarfed by the continual rise in rents. His naive remedy was to tax the landowner, as Marx's naive remedy was to expropriate the capitalist, and just as Marx never gave his disciples the ghost of an idea for a competent administration of the expropriated economic plant and resources of the world, so Henry George never indicated how, in the world of implacable individualism he advocated, the taxing authority was to find a use for its ever-increasing tax receipts.

I admit it is unfair to pick a political argument with a work of fiction. But the early chapters of The Shape of Things to Come clearly permit no air between Wells the pamphleteer and the novel's narrator.

Did Wells realize the "novels of ideas" put him in a position of unmatched aesthetic banality? That compared with the grace and economy of earlier work, which wore it's world government polemic lightly, a novel like The Shape of Things to Come is too drearily authoritarian to provoke more from the reader than capitulation?


4 May 2021

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