The “Master Spirit” Takes Charge: H. G. Wells on the Dictatorial Century


In his monumental Experiment in Autobiography (1934), the English novelist and public intellectual Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) claims to understand the German dictator Adolf Hitler intuitively. The discussion will shortly come to that – but first some background.

Writing of his “mid schoolboy stage” at Thomas Morley’s school in 1878 and 79, and trying to reconstruct his thirteen-year-old worldview, Wells recalls, along with much else, his adolescent fondness for indulging in compensatory military fantasies rooted in a rebellious but invariably thwarted libido dominandi. “The flavor of J. R. Green’s recently published (1874) History of the English people had drifted to me either directly or at second hand,” as the autobiographer writes, “and my mind had leapt all too readily to the idea that I was a blond and blue-eyed Nordic, quite the best make of human being known.” Wells remarks that, “England was consciously Teutonic in those days, [and] the monarchy and Thomas Carlyle were strong influences in that direction.” Discussion of Britain as a romantic “Keltic Fringe” hung in the air, as Wells writes; “and the defeat of France in 1870-71 seemed to be the final defeat of the decadent Latin peoples.” The convictions that, “We English, by sheer native superiority, practically without trying, had possessed ourselves of an Empire on which the sun never set” and that, “the errors and infirmities of other races” were compelling Britain towards “world dominion” fastened themselves unquestionably in young Georgie’s mind. The adult Wells would put it this way: “All that was settled in my head,” such that the array of associated notions informed the lad’s “active imagination.”

The smallish and high-voiced Georgie, “an undernourished boy, meanly clad,” as Wells confesses, “liked especially to dream that [he] was a great military dictator like Cromwell, a great republican like George Washington or like Napoleon in his earlier phases”; and he “used to fight battles whenever [he] went for a walk alone” in the vicinity of Bromley, in Kent.

No one suspected that a phantom staff pranced about me and phantom orderlies galloped at my commands, to shift the guns and concentrate fire on those houses below, to launch the final attack upon yonder distant ridge. The citizens of Bromley town go out to take the air on Martin’s Hill and look towards Shortland across the fields where once meandered the now dried-up and vanished Ravensbourne, with never a suspicion of the orgies of bloodshed I once conducted there.

Wells fondly remembers how he “entered, conquered, or rescued, towns riding at the head of [his] troops, with [his] cousins and schoolfellows recognizing [him] with surprise from the windows.” Crowned heads and elected leaders would converge on his triumph to offer congratulations. “With inveterate enemies, monarchists, Roman Catholics, non-Aryans and the like,” Wells adds, “I was grimly just.” It is in recalling the racial theme that Wells likens himself as he was in those days to the Leader of National Socialism: “I had ideas about Aryans extraordinarily like Mr. Hitler’s.” Those ideas would have included the picture of “the Great Aryan People going to and fro in the middle plains of Europe… varying their consonants according to Grimm’s Law… and driving inferior breeds into the mountains,” as well as the thesis that the Aryan accomplishment consummated itself everywhere when it “squared accounts with the Jews.” Yet as Wells says in distinguishing himself, “Unlike Hitler I had no feelings about the contemporary Jew.” So it is in Wells’ attestation, that, “the more I hear of Hitler the more I am convinced that his mind is almost the twin of my thirteen year old mind in 1879; but heard through a megaphone and – implemented.”


In addition to these glancing observations about der Führer, the Experiment in Autobiography addresses the cases of Benito Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, concerning whom, while omitting Mussolini, Wells could boast of personal acquaintance. Regarding Mosley, the Experiment recalls that Wells “met [him] intermittently for years, as a promising young conservative, a promising young liberal, a promising new convert to the Labour party, with Communist leanings, and finally as the thing he is.” Wells characterizes Mosley as “dull and heavy… platitudinous in his speeches,” the jejuneness of the oratory in the hall “vastly exaggerated by loud speakers,” with the speechmaker himself the preening object of “idiotic songs about [the] glorious Leader.” Mosley appears as Lord Horatio Bohun, the purple-shirted would-be British duce, in The Holy Terror (1940), Wells’ second-to-last novel. So much for Mosley. In respect of Lenin, Wells tended to blinker himself. Leon Trotsky recorded that Lenin found Wells “incurably middle-class,” and Wells affirms in The Experiment that Lenin in this case “was a sound observer.” Wells assesses Lenin and Trotsky this way: They “were of the same vital social stratum,” that is, middle class, as he, “but the discolouration of their stream of thought by Marxist pretences and sentimentalities… blinded them to their own essential quality.”


What of Stalin? Here the relationship grows complex. Wells the ultra-socialist had no use whatever for Marx or Marxism, as the remark about Lenin and Trotsky hints. “Marx,” he wrote, “offered to the cheapest and basest of human impulses the poses of a pretentious philosophy, and the active minds among the distressed classes fell to him very readily.”

In Stalin, whom he interviewed in Moscow in 1932, Wells responded to what he at first perceived as the technocratic pragmatist and potential collaborator in the dream-project of a rationally organized world-state: “I had to recognize that under [Stalin] Russia was not being merely tyrannized over and held down; it was being governed and it was getting on.” Stalin in Wells’ eyes was a “lonely overbearing man… damned disagreeable,” and yet possessed of “an intelligence far beyond dogmatism.” In The Experiment, the description of the interview goes on for eight pages (684 – 691). At moments, Stalin is “friendly and commonplace,” obtusely recusant in seeing “any sort of parallelism with the processes and methods and aims of Washington and Moscow,” “not a free impulsive brain nor a scientifically organized brain,” and yet “never… a man more candid, fair and honest” while also being “an exceptionally unsubtle Georgian.” The Big Moustache sat facing Wells – this is the picture The Experiment gives – and he “sucked thoughtfully at the pipe he had most politely asked my permission to smoke.” But to the tenor-voiced Englishman, his precise equal in height, and to the Englishman’s ideas, the vozhd could only say, nyet, but “reflectively,” Wells adds. As the colloquy approached its conclusion, three hours after it began, the two men “discussed liberty of expression.” Stalin told Wells that “he admitted the necessity and excellence of criticism, but preferred that it should be home-made by the party within the party organization.” In fairness to Wells, whom Stalin undoubtedly used, all this happened before the show-trials of 1936 and the attendant Terror. When elements of the Stalin-personality turn up in fictional guise in the later Wellsian authorship, the assessment has noticeably changed.

Mussolini receives one mention only in The Experiment, in a paragraph that Wells devotes to rebutting the Carlylean theory of the “Great Man.” All the Caesar- and Napoleon-types, Wells argues, are a mere “outcome of systemic processes.” Wells likens such men to “the pustules that break out through the skin of many growing young people.” Wells believes that, “just now we are living in a world where such boils are breaking out everywhere… from the highly distended Mussolini to our own little black-head, Mosley.” Thus Mosley again. The modern dictator figures, in the dialectic of this Cockney Hegelianism, as the blemish-like symptom of a maturational growth-spurt in the global body-human, as it approaches the frontier separating its adolescence from its adulthood. The global body-human perversely resists the passage from the agonies and dramas of its adolescence and shows great reluctance in giving up its fantasies of war and triumph. World-Tantrum thwarts World-Spirit.

The dictatorial personality interested Wells from close to the beginning of his long novelistic and essayistic career all the way to his final creativity. The development of the dictator-type in Wellsian fiction must be considered, however, in parallel with the author’s appropriation of and meditation on another theme, that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Superman,” as it appears in such works as Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883; 1885). Numerous Wellsian characters fancy themselves this speculative next stage of human evolution. In the Dickensian social novel Kipps (1905), a priggish young lawyer named Walsingham “had been reading Nietzsche, and he thought that in all probability he was the Non-Moral Overman referred to by that writer.” Walsingham, in love with a freckled girl, “wanted to expand the theme of the Non-Moral Overman in [her] ear.” This way is not a good way, as it turns out, to seduce a freckled girl. Again in Tono-Bungay (1906), the nouveau-riche purveyor of the novel’s namesake health-and-vigor tonic, one Edward Ponderevo, for a time naively conceives his own identity with “this Overman idee, Nietzsche – all that stuff.” Once again in The New Machiavelli (1911), the first-person narrator Dick Remington argues in a political debate that, “all human life was virtually aristocratic”; from which the conclusion follows that, “the reality of human progress lay necessarily through the establishment of freedoms for the human best and a collective receptivity and understanding.” A loud objection comes from the gallery: “Superman rubbish – Nietzsche. Shaw! Ugh!”

Yet another self-annointed “Superman” bodies himself forth in the princely person of Karl Albert, the Prussian warlord who instigates the catastrophic world-conflict in The War in the Air (1906). “Big and blond and virile, and splendidly non-moral,” Karl Albert “seemed [to many to be] Nietzsche’s Overman revealed.” Having wrecked the world, the prince latterly seems more like a Homeric primitive, a Cyclops, than an Übermensch; he dies on Goat Island at Niagara Falls, unceremoniously shot down by the story’s Cockney protagonist, who mutters justifiably as he fires his pistol, “Dem that prince!”

The fact that Wells populates his novels with ridiculous false “Supermen” should not however prejudice readers to conclude that Wells dismissed Nietzsche’s vatic conjuration of the human telos. On the contrary, Wells took the notion seriously, at least in the first half of his career, although his notion of the “Superman” is, typically, his own. Thus the giant children of The Food of the Gods (1902), hypertrophied creatures of a nutritional additive that outperforms the guesses of its concoctors, scheme by the story’s end to supersede mere humanity; and Wells has persuaded his readers to see things from their point of view. Again in The World Set Free (1913), a tale of Armageddon-like atomic warfare and the subsequent reconstruction of the shattered world as a technocratic unitary society, Wells puts onstage both a false “Superman” and, as the narrative leads readers to believe, a real one. Ferdinand Charles, also known as “the Slavic Fox,” is the Serbian monarch, who resists the efforts of the novel’s utopians to disarm the sovereign nations and incorporate them in the new world order; he mistakes his own egomania for actual exaltedness. Like Karl Albert, Ferdinand Charles suffers the fate of being ignominiously gunned down by the white hats. In distinctive contrast to “the Slavic Fox” is Marcus Karenin, whom the ruling council of the incipient “World Republic” places in charge of organizing uniform global education.

“Singular,” the narrator says, “in [his] being a congenital cripple,” it is due to Karenin “far more than to any contemporary… that self-abnegation, self-identification with the world spirit, was made the basis of universal education.” Resembling Nietzsche’s “Blond Beast” not at all, yet like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Karenin preaches “the release of man from self.” According to Karenin’s light, the men and women of the “World Republic” must learn “to shed the old Adam of instinctive suspicions, hostilities, and passions, and to find themselves again in the great being of the universe,” as the Wellsian phrase would have it. Or again, “The little circles of [people’s] egotisms have to be opened out until they become arcs in the sweep of the racial purpose.” Karenin achieves his effect by radiating what amounts to a charisma of religious conviction in his cause. Wells the religious skeptic even sees the educational crusade instigated by Karenin as the reinjection of spiritual vitality into human affairs: “It was the clear vision of Marcus Karenin much more than any other contemporary influence which brought [religion] back into the texture of human life. He saw religion without hallucinations, without superstitious reverence, as a common thing as necessary as food and air, as land and energy to the life of man and the well-being of the Republic.” Karenin, as the narrator tells readers, “rephrased [religion] to the lights and perspectives of the new dawn,” as what one might call racial-technocratic ecstasy and self-abnegation. At the end of the novel, in a chapter that amounts to a Platonic dialogue, the dying Karenin goes so far as to introduce the proposal that human beings might re-engineer themselves biologically to consummate their social perfection.

Whether Wells himself would go so far poses a difficulty for interpretation because in his fiction serious speculation and satiric hyperbole mix themselves up thoroughly. Wells was ever a provocateur and a thrower of elbows. One should nevertheless remark that Wells seems strongly to endorse the utopia in The World Set Free, short of Karenin’s proposal, and that his “World Republic” is governed dictatorially by a self-appointed committee. The same situation prevails in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) and in the film of that novel called Things to Come (1936).

On the topics of dictators and dictatorship then Wells shows himself ambiguous. He makes clear in The Experiment that his lifelong project, his religious mania so to speak, was the bringing about of a scientifically organized world state. He never entertained the fantasy that such a state might be enacted piecemeal by the ballot box and through legislation – hence perhaps his leniency or envy in such cases as Lenin and Stalin. In a filmed Pathé News press-conference in 1941, for example, before the United States entered the war, Wells told a roomful of shocked reporters that, speaking as a private Englishman, he hoped that President Roosevelt would not commit America to the conflict on the Allied side but rather that America might join with Russia, also at the time a non-combatant, to impose an armistice on all belligerents by means of air and sea blockades – a reminiscence of the “Air Dictatorship” in The Shape of Things to Come – and so establish de facto a system of non-consultative central economic planning on a global scale. The imperial alliance would in effect abolish national sovereignty, which Wells identified as the fecundating context of the world’s Karl Alberts, Ferdinand Charleses, Oswald Mosleys, and Benito Mussolinis. Now in two novels of his last phase, The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1934) and The Holy Terror (1939), Wells returned to his exploration of the actual dictatorial century, creating in both instances something like a roman-à-clef in which it is easy to see reflections of actual persons, on whom the Experiment-author comments abundantly in his copious non-fiction. Mosley, Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin are all present in guises in both, but so is Wells himself. Neither book is well-known; both are indeed quite unknown but then most of the Wellsian authorship after 1910 remains unknown.


The Autocracy of Mr. Parham, published in a lavish edition with illustrations by David Low, bears a subtitle, His Remarkable Adventures in this Changing World, in the words appearing on the title page, but the original slipcover adds a description of equal pertinence: “Mr. Wells has an ironic, amusing and amazing vision of the next world war.” The comic, and by stages darkly comic, narrative begins by introducing its namesake. An Oxford professor of history who has written a biography of Cardinal Richelieu, the fussy, pedantic Parham has been chasing millionaire-industrialist Sir Bussy Woodcock in hopes of extracting funds for a high-toned review, speculatively christened The Paramount Weekly. Through his not-yet-materialized magazine, Parham will address to a select public his intuitions, for example, “how completely out of tune was the confusion of current events with anything that one could properly call fine history or fine philosophy” and how “from 1919 onward everything had gone from bad to worse.” Parham thinks to himself that “an editor… partakes of the nature of God.” Contemplating Sir Bussy, whose wealth is power, Parham reminds himself to “beware of power that does not carry on and develop tradition,” of which – the tradition, that is – he would be the guardian. At one of Sir Bussy’s dinner affairs, Parham rehearses what he might say to his sponsor. He would invoke “the grave high figures of the past… Cæsar, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc” and numerous others who qualify as “builders of Powers”; he would call on “armoured Angels” and again on “Our Imperial Destinies… our Glorious Navy [and our] embattled flags!”

That Wells wrote The Autocracy almost simultaneously with his Experiment more than justifies linking Parham’s jingoism with the author’s report of his teenaged military fantasies in the Kentish countryside. As for Woodcock – he resembles his author: Short, full of energy, candid in speech, with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and in reception thereof ever a skeptic and always testing. Whenever Parham delivers a finely worded aperçu, Woodcock responds with his habitual, technically noncommittal, but practically dismissive, “Gaw!” Woodcock keeps Parham around to serve as a cicerone to museum-galleries and concerts and for intellectual decoration at endless champagne dinners and confabulations, all variously peopled.

Parham’s view of politics consists in his obsessesion about Russia. He recites a set speech about Russia: “Here… in the very centre of the Old World, illimitably vast, potentially more powerful than most of the rest of the world put together… is Russia. It really does not matter in the least whether she is Czarist or Bolshevik” because “she is the final danger – the overwhelming enemy,” whom “we must circumvent.” Parham sees in preemptive war with Russia the means for Britain to extend her imperial rule over the whole world. If the enterprise were “fraught with danger” it would also be “fraught… with limitless possibilities.” Exhausting the museum galleries and sating himself musically, and having read or left half-read the multitude of books that Parham foists on him, Sir Bussy latterly conceives an interest in psychic phenomena, organizing séances in his London abode, Marmion House, with Parham in attendance. Events turn fanciful. A human-sized globule of ectoplasm, claiming the planet Mars as its current abode and identifying itself as “The Master Spirit,” abruptly takes hold of Parham, transforming him into that Caesar, Charlemagne, and Joan of Arc of his rhetoric, as “The Lord Paramount.” Wells having sprinted into the realm of pure imagination (later he explains it all rationally) he has licensed himself to make things to develop with amazing swiftness.


There were times when it seemed almost as if Sir Bussy invited people merely to annoy Mr. Parham, underbred contradictory people with accents and the most preposterous views. There was a crazy eclectism about his hospitality.


The book and chapter titles tell the story in outline. Book the Third is called The Strong Hand At Last and Book the Fourth The Second World War. Chapters of Book the Third are “An Arm Outstretched,” “The Coup d’Etat,” “The Lord Paramount Studies his Weapons,” “A Little Tour of Europe,” and “War with Russia,” among others. Chapters of Book the Fourth are “The Big Guns Go Off” and “Facing the Storm,” among others. Wells possessed a keen ear for oratorical platitude, the stock-in-trade of The Lord Paramount. Thus at the Cromwellian dismissal of Parliament in “Coup d’Etat,” concerning the Lord Paramount, Wells offers this: “It would have needed a soul entirely devoid of imagination to ignore the profound historical significance of this occasion, and the Master was of imagination all compact. His stern determination was mellowed but not weakened by a certain element of awe at his own immense achievement.” Whereas formerly “gladiators,” as Wells has Parham call them, had dominated Parliament; “now,” as the Master Spirit sees it, “this once so potent assembly had waxed vulgar, senile, labourist, garrulous and ineffective, and the day of rejuvenescence, the restoration of the Phoenix, was at hand.” In turning out the Members and Lords, the charismatic autocrat explains how, “for the good of His Majesty's realm and the needs of our mighty Empire I must for a time take… things over from you”; but, he adds, “when England has found her soul again, when her health has been restored, then all her ancient liberties of speech and counsel will return to her.”


"Gentlemen and Ministers of the Crown," said the Master Spirit, "I would advise you to yield your portfolios to my secretaries without demur. For the good of His Majesty's realm and the needs of our mighty Empire, I must for a time take these things from you. When England has found her soul again then all her ancient liberties of speech and counsel will be restored.


In his Grand Council, the Master Spirit sketches his theory of the state, which doubles as his theory of himself: “A state is a militant organization, and a militant organization that is healthy and complete must be militant through and through.” Economics is merely a less intensive phase of armed conflict. As the Master Spirit explains to his counselors, “Tariffs are now the normal everyday method of that same conflict for existence between states which is the substance of all history and which finds its highest, noblest expression in war.” Parham’s justification of trade-barriers, identical incidentally to the real-life Mosley’s, resembles a hygienic principle: “By means of tariffs… we protect our economic life from confusion with the economic life of other states, we ensure the integrity of our resources against the day of trial, [and] we sustain our allies and attack the social balance and well-being of our enemies and competitors.” The inability to conceive of the market separately from armed conflict tells of Parham’s philosophical limitations. Parham can only think in bellicose terms. In the Wellsian view, the mid-century, national dictators corresponded to a vapid, sloganeering type of mentality; and they emerged against a social background of mental degeneration. In The Autocracy, of course, Wells is working in his comic-satiric manner, arranging set-piece imbroglios and scenes of strutting and preening that anticipate Chaplain’s Great Dictator. Parham’s “Little Tour of Europe,” for example, takes the Master Spirit around the Continent to meet his counterparts in the other nations.

They all bear names reminiscent of the Parham-moniker. Thus, “Von Barheim was now effectual master of Germany.” In France, the Master Spirit confers with “Monsieur Parème,” who wears “the frock coat without which all French statesmanship is invalid”; elsewhere the counterpart is “King Paramitri” or “Count Paroli” or, absent any etiquette, “Parimo de Rivera.” As in the Chaplain film, but once again anticipating rather than copying it, the scena di gran buffo involves the Mussolini stand-in. Wells christens him “Paramuzzi” and he lets him on, while cocking an eye, to be the “pattern of all the militant great men of the age.” Low’s illustration is especially effective, with the two gentlemen in the full panoply of their ridiculous uniforms. Parham says to Paramuzzi at their meeting, “Here is the man,” and Paramuzzi replies, “Ecce Homo.” Later at the Vittorio Emanuele monument, Paramuzzi calls Parham, “Caesar Britannicus,” and Parham returns the compliment with, “Hail, Cisalpine Caesar!” The two men experience in private, as Wells puts it, “a moment of intense spiritual communion.” The two men see in one another “Power,” “Virility” and “The Forces of Life.” Parham thinks to himself: “There was glamour about this Paramuzzi,” who “could bring all the glory of Rome out of his sleeve; he could make an old hat look like empire, and a swarming and swelling population of illiterates adequate security for limitless loans.”


"I love life," said Paramuzzi. "I delight in untamed horses, attempts at assassination amuse me". "For me," said the Lord Paramount, "my duty." Paramuzzi would have liked to have said that.


The Master Spirit’s war against Russia goes catastrophically awry. Wells gives it to the businessmen and industrialists, organized by Sir Bussy, to rescue the world from the bloody mess that Parham has made of it. The businessmen consult no one, qualifying thus as dictators too, but as they think in internationalist terms rather than nationalist ones, Wells approves of them. The details will amuse anyone who seeks out the book.


The Holy Terror came nearly six years after The Autocracy in 1940 although Wells had finished the manuscript before the outbreak of war in September 1939. Elements of satire persist but on the whole the book, purporting itself to be a biography of the first world-dictator, maintains a serious atmosphere. In Rud Whitlow, a resentment-driven nihilist, Wells synthesizes his lifetime’s store of personal impressions of men of power, distilling his protagonist from equal parts of Lenin and Stalin, Hitler, including the race-obsession, and Mussolini. As mentioned earlier, Oswald Mosley appears in the narrative, under the name of Sir Horatio Bohun, in a struggle with whom, Whitlow achieves his first political triumph. A strong note of ambiguity informs the novel. Whitlow brings about a technocratic World State, the self-confessed quasi-religious eschato-mania of his writer-creator; he therefore mediates the realization of the supreme Wellsian good. Yet the authorial attitude towards the character remains distinctly cool; where nastiness colors the personality, as it frequently does, Wells refrains from any mitigation of it. There is, for example, a good deal of homosexual neurosis in Whitlow’s personality; he associates with men exclusively, remaining completely alienated from women. Given the pre-politically correct context of 1939-1940, readers can hardly evade the implication of profound moral perversity. A streak of cruelty also emerges, as when young Whitlow imagines hunting tigers with exploding bullets.

Like his author in youth, the adolescent Whitlow indulges in extravagant military fantasies, informed by the habit that, “he read voraciously… [in] the history of wars, conquests and campaigns,” whereupon “he became Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon or Genghis Khan.” Whitlow also imaginatively assumes such character-guises as Cromwell and Gustavus Adolphus – crusader-supermen and vehement anti-Catholics. Whitlow’s steady lifelong anti-Catholicism gives way abruptly late in his career to an outburst of raw Jew-hatred. But the topic of Whitlow’s childhood reading is not quite closed. “Fiction,” Wells adds, Whitlow “did not like” because “there were too many of those incalculable girls in it.”

Where Parham advertises himself in his dream of power as the Master Spirit, Whitlow early assumes the guise of “the Common Man.” Despite Whitlow’s globalist, one-world agenda, the totalitarian order for which he fights puts Anglo-Saxons über alles. It falls to the Anglo-Saxon, wherever he is all over the world, but especially in England and North America, to articulate “the Plain Needs of Common Sense.” Early in his rise, adopting the rhetoric of tactical self-effacement, Whitlow says: “Leaders are nothing… Parties are nothing… Governments are nothing… Nothing matters but the common man.” Exchanging the principle of self-effacement for that of self-apotheosis, Whitlow also says, “I am the Common Man.” This image of “the Common Man” or “the Common Man Emergent,” as Whitlow thinks to himself in a moment of reverie, “gathered together humanity, purified it, [and] rendered it.” Whitlow comes, then, to redeem humanity from disarticulation and to provide it with its concept. He invents a fictitious autobiography, in which he contextualizes his own advent historically. From a time “before the dawn of history,” Whitlow thinks, “the masterful men, the terrifying people, the cruelty dealers, the punishers, the lords and priests, ruled without challenge, and the common man knew his master and obeyed the tradition imposed upon him from the cradle to the grave.” Thus, “History opened out for Rud as the Martyrdom of Man, the sacrifice of the Common Man, in face of a gathering protest on the part of the overpowered common people.” Whitlow, who “hated everything established,” gives voice to that protest.

Whitlow’s monologues, some internal, some divulged aloud to the inner circle of his movement, are of the essence in The Holy Terror. The selection of topics might well begin with Christianity. Unsurprisingly for one who invokes Nietzsche’s category of a realm of action that lies “beyond good and evil,” Whitlow’s theory of Christianity appears as though extracted, digest-wise, from The Twilight of the Idols. Early Christianity “had been an outstanding effort of the common man to find release from repressions”; it even constituted “the principal and typical revolt,” and it articulated in “the common fatherhood of God” what whitlow sees as the proper confraternity of the auto-apotheotic Common Man. Christianity, however, “had been corrupted early,” mixing itself in the mélange of Late-Antique cults and superstitions and becoming “mineralised” in the Catholic hierarchy. “A swarm of Bishops and Fathers accumulated all over it,” Whitlow says, “and they suffocated it.” Yet the greatest deficiency of Christianity, in Whitlow’s analysis, concerns its main codifier: “Instead of a Rud to express it, a lucid, simple Rud, it had fallen beneath the sway of – Saint Paul.” In the much earlier World Set Free, by contrast, Wells had put into his mouthpiece Marcus Karenin words to the effect that the World Republic actually consummated early Christianity on a higher level.

In The Holy Terror, Wells arranges for one of Whitlow’s close collaborators to propose that very thesis from The World Set Free, and to have Whitlow reject it with vehemence: “Clean all this past stuff off history, and begin again,” he says; “if, after all, we are only going back to primitive Christianity,” a thesis which he does not believe, “then,” he says, “let these Christians find it out.” Comparing “the march on Jerusalem” with “the march on Rome,” Whitlow finds the former lacking. “I’m a better Nazarene than any Christian alive,” he boasts.

Once Whitlow, through a decade of vigorous publicity and by organizing a universal mutiny during wartime, has made himself “Master Director” of the “World Directorate,” his pathological tendencies come to the fore. He organizes a GPU-like secret police force to quash dissent by torture and murder; he promotes himself Stalin-like through global propaganda that elevates him to quasi-divine status, a “God Caesar,” to cite the relevant chapter-title, and elsewhere in the text the “World Trustee.” Schoolchildren celebrate the “World Trustee” in those “idiotic songs” that Wells found so objectionable at a meeting of Mosley’s British union of Fascists. Whitlow also increasingly isolates himself behind ceremonial protocol and bureaucratic compartmentalization. In degree like to his isolation he grows ever more suspicious, seeing conspiracy everywhere. Naturally, “the searchlight of his suspicions swung round upon the Jews”; whereupon, “focused, the Jew became a burning centre of mental inflammation.” In Whitlow’s imagination, the Jews wax intolerable to the extent that they resist Gleichschaltung with his regime. “When all the rest of the world was becoming one community,” Whitlow asks himself, “why did they still cling to their peculiarities of food and observance?” Whitlow’s anti-Semitism settles in as the “nucleus,” in Wells’ terminology, “of a tangle of fear-born impulses to extravagant violence.”

While nursing his Jew-hatred and laying plans for a global pogrom, Whitlow also turns his suspicion against his longtime inner-circle, loyal men all; he has his chief of secret police arrest and murder Chiffan, his old Oxford chum and the one person who might have qualified as his actual friend. The signs point to an impending slaughter of Jews and the degeneration of the World Directorate into a global torture-and-murder tyranny, with the “World Trustee” in a good position to exercise his disturbed libido at will. One inner-circle member confides to his comrades: “No one of us ever foresaw the tremendous power of modern mind-moulding,” and “the old Nazi and Soviet methods have been developed now to a tremendous efficiency.” They resolve to assassinate Whitlow, only to discover that the dictator’s private physician has planned likewise and has executed his judgment in advance of their scheme. The inheritors of the regime suppress knowledge of the leader’s death, fearing the consequences should the news deprive the world of its idol. There are plenty of films and recorded speeches to sustain the illusion. Carstall, who has also been a conspirator with Whitlow from Whitlow’s beginnings, sums up the Wellsian theory of the dictator: “All these fellows had the same quality of being driven to do something, feeling that they were creatures of destiny, they all began like that, and then, not being able to understand, not being able to give themselves simply to the thing that gripped them, they went mad.” Thus, by conclusion, “History… is a case-book for the alienist.”

The Holy Terror prefigures George Orwell’s 1984 in at least one way. The cult of personality that Whitlow fosters for himself and under the propaganda of which he retreats into homicidal paranoia anticipates Orwell’s “Big Brother.” Critics tend to appreciate 1984 as though its literary context was narrow; in fact Orwell’s dystopia belongs to a tradition and the Wellsian authorship contributes mightily to that tradition. Orwell might have extrapolated the socialist-totalitarian state of Oceania, for example, from the pattern of The Holy Terror’s “World Directorate” under Whitlow’s psychological disintegration. Orwell’s Oceania is what the “World Directorate” would have become had not the assassin of Whitlow nipped the trend in its bud. But then both Wells and Orwell drew on the same empirical pattern – the Stalin dictatorship. The literary precedence of The Holy Terror in the dystopian subgenre is nevertheless appreciable. As one character says in breaching the topic of what to do about Whitlow, “This infernal secret police of his is arresting people, making them vanish, killing them.” A perfected surveillance-technology makes the nascent police-state even more threatening. One is not so far from Orwell’s monitory “telescreen.” It would be quite within the realm of plausibility, in fact, to trace elements of 1984 beyond The Holy Terror all the way back to Wells’ own early dystopia, When the Sleeper Wakes (1910), which depicts a future London enclosed under a vast roof and ruthlessly supervised against dissidence, in thought or speech, not to mention deed, by an authoritarian regime.

Yet the cofounders of the “World Directorate” in The Holy Terror do succeed in nipping the evil trend in the bud and they thereby get to have their cake and eat it. They preserve their revolutionary abolition of finance, organized religion, and all other inherited institutions and customs, and they presumably bequeath their achievement to the future. However much Wells had come to distrust dictators by the time he got around to writing The Holy Terror, he had never lost his conviction that dictatorship was the unavoidable path to a reconstructed civilization. The rescuers and renovators of civilization in The World Set Free, for example, act according to a nakedly dictatorial plan. “We are just going to lay down our differences and take over government,” they say frankly; and they are going to do it “without any election… without any sanction,” under the assumption that, “the governed will show their consent by silence.” Twenty years on, the black-clad “Air Police” of “Wings over the World” in the film Things to Come also acts, oblivious of any consultative principle. Raymond Massey, in his role as John Cabal, supreme architect of the film’s novum ordo seclorum, tells Ralph Richardson, in his role as the neo-feudal “Chief” of a barbarous post-catastrophe remnant-state, “We shall clean you up.”

Seventy-five years of additional data unavailable to Wells given his mortal dates convince me that Wells judged quite wrongly about the rationale and desirability of the sovereign nation-state, whose revivification today might constitute a bulwark against the international attack on freedom. Wells was quite right, however, in seeing the century beyond his death as the battleground of what, in ’42 to ’44 (1944), he called “the crisis of the world revolution.” Although an ardent internationalist and repudiator of the sovereign state, Wells increasingly grasped, as the decades went past, that corruption and diremption might afflict international agendas quite as readily as, in his view, they afflicted nationalist agendas. By the time he wrote The Mind at the End of its tether, for example, in 1945, he despaired of any salvation for civilized existence. I repeat here what I have written elsewhere about Wells: That to the degree he advocated a utopian scheme rooted in notions of progress and technocratic management, to the same degree he warned, over and over, that catastrophe was at least as likely as the “bout of sanity” by which his fictional utopias generally have their birth. As for Wells’ internationalism, it differs greatly from today’s internationalism: It is thoroughly Anglo-Saxon in concept, even in The World Set Free to the extent of abolishing all natural languages except English. Despite his quirks, Wells is today increasingly a writer with whose work people on the intelligent right should grapple. I believe, for example, that Wells would indignantly have rejected the Nanny State and would have responded to Multiculturalism with a hearty, Gaw!

For all that – and on the basis of a lifetime’s loving and conflicted involvement in his work – I commend Herbert George Wells to intelligent readers.

On being drawn to H. G. Wells once more

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Tom Bertonneau's writings on H. G. Wells keep reminding me from new directions of what a concise and energetic yet wonderfully subtle prose Wells had at his command. If the reader has not done so yet, let him listen to any passage of his just for the particular tone and dynamics of his sound and sense and he will hear what I mean, even in the many examples that Bertonneau cites of Wells' grappling with the "dictatorial personality" and other major problems of the age. Bertonneau's own prose has the virtue of combining complexity of thought with ease and clarity of expression, and, as I may have commented in BJ before, it achieves what all fine literary and historical commentary does, which is to stimulate the reader's desire to go to the sources themselves. This goal informs the final words of his essay and is central to his aims in bringing other authors he admires to the attention of "intelligent readers."


Two additional points, the first on the illustrations for Wells' The Autocracy of Mr. Parham by the great political cartoonist David Low, which were a delightful surprise, as I have spent many pleasurable hours looking at examples of his journalistic art but never knew that he had also illustrated works of fiction.


The second concerns the beginning and end of the long paragraph on Wells' interview of Stalin in 1932. Bertonneau writes that, "at first," Wells saw in Stalin "the technocratic pragmatist and potential collaborator in the dream-project of a rationally organized world-state: 'I had to recognize that under [Stalin] Russia was not being merely tyrannized over and held down; it was being governed and it was getting on.'” At the end of his fascinating glimpse into Wells' three hours with this coarse but complex Asiat, in the words of Stalin's daughter, Bertonneau writes, "In fairness to Wells, whom Stalin undoubtedly used, all this happened before the show-trials of 1936 and the attendant Terror. When elements of the Stalin-personality turn up in fictional guise in the later Wellsian authorship, the assessment has noticeably changed." Indeed, under Lenin and then Stalin, almost all visitors, journalists, and authors were used by the regime to advance its world-wide propaganda campaigns. I say almost because Malcolm Muggeridge, writing three articles anonymously for The Manchester Guardian in 1933, and the extraordinary Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, writing under his own name and much more extensively than Muggeridge that same year, provided readers in the west with the earliest accounts of Stalin's man-made Ukrainian famine in the second half of his first Five-Year Plan (1928-32). Given the range and power of Soviet propaganda from the earliest days of the regime, I can appreciate that hard evidence to the contrary could not stand a chance against the onslaught of the party line; but just the same, and having no in-depth knowledge of Wells, I am still struck by his use of "merely" in "Russia was not being merely tyrannized over" and by the balancing of this thought with the opposite assertion that it was also being "governed" and "was getting on." The year of the interview is telling, for Stalin needed all the influential western voices he could muster, such as Wells' and Walter Duranty's, in order to hide the truth, which emerged one year later. Jones had witnessed the famine even before 1933 and, fluent as he was in Russian, among the other languages he knew, made the most of his journies through the region of the Volga. Duranty whitewashed the facts in a series of articles, received a Pulitzer (never rescinded), and, in a further effort on Stalin's behalf in The New York Times, did his best to smear Jones, who wiped the floor with him in a long letter to the paper. Jones is still revered in the Ukrainian community in Canada and, if I remember right, in Ukraine itself.







I thank Steve Kogan for his

I thank Steve Kogan for his generous comments.  There is doubt neither that H. G. Wells was a flawed examiner of existing conditions in Russia in 1934, to which his ideological commitment to utopian schemes blinded him.  Yet the capacity for penetrating perception, as Kogan remarks, is impressive in the Wellsian authorship.  No one described the metamorphoses that altered London from a medieval market-town on the Thames into the capitol of a globe-spanning mercantile empire better than Wells did in Tono-Bungay; and Wells’ sense that the modern arrangement of nations and economies is a catch-up-style improvisation, barely ahead of its own desperate patch-work, remains valid right down to the present moment.  My fondness for Wells has partly to do with the ability of men on the political right to take what is valid from men on the other side of politics.  The alteration of viewpoint in Wells’ later authorship signifies something else that should be of interest to men of the right.  Wells was shifting in his last decade, giving up some of his cherished delusions. The Autocracy of Mr. Parham demonstrates this; so does The Holy Terror even more, and so does another late masterpiece, Babes in the Darkling Wood.  Then finally there is the apocalyptic despair of The Mind at the End of Its Tether, a book so odd and unexpected that one hardly knows what to say about it.


Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones saw the Soviet Union more clearly than Wells; so did William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings.  What differentiates those men from Wells? None was so well-known as Wells when he went to Russia, so none had the same propaganda value to the Soviets.  None was treated as lavishly as Wells.  None was as egocentric as Wells; all were better able to resist the rhetoric of Communist self-justification, which they could not square with what they saw and deduced.  George Orwell also grasped the mid-century political reality better than Wells.  Orwell has much in common with Muggeridge, Jones, Williams, and Cummings.  Incidentally, Williams and Cummings doubted the legitimacy of American involvement in World War I.  During “The Great War,” Wells reverted to patriot of his sovereign nation and was fiercely anti-German.  My approach is to examine all these authors for the truths that they saw and could affirm.  Wells would recognize the current situation in 2012, especially the fictitious financial liquidity of the West, as the house of cards about to fall that he wrote about repeatedly from the 1890s to the 1940s.

Atomic Bomb 1913?

I do not know what to make of the phrase in "The World Set Free (1913), a tale of Armageddon-like atomic warfare, ..." Nuclear fision and the possibility of the atom bomb was first conceived in 1933 by Leó Szilárd. What then was it that Wells was envisaging?

Responding to Marpag

Responding to Marpag –


Marpag’s incredulity is understandable, but he must give it up.  Wells indeed wrote The World Set Free in the first half of 1913 and published it late in that year.  In it, he did indeed foresee the application of nuclear fission to weaponry and he described the operation and the effects of atomic explosives.  Wells would have drawn on the considerable knowledge of atomic disintegration already available in 1913.  Marpag should remember that the Curies had done research on radium already in the decade before 1900 and that other researchers were also investigating radioactive decay in this period.  But it was Wells who foresaw the implications.  His bomb is somewhat different from the actual bomb, the Manhattan-Project bomb. His bomb uses a fictional trans-uranium element that he dubs Carolinium; and the destructive effects of the weapon come mainly from a continuous chain reaction that penetrates into the earth where the device is dropped and forms a continuously erupting radioactive volcano.  Wells does make the airplane the delivery system of the weapon.  His atomic war is an aerial war.

 Incidentally, when Leo Szilard was approached to work on the Manjattan-Project, he initially expressed some reluctance.  He cited Wells in elaborating on his misgivings.  Szilard had read The World Set Free and knew from it what nuclear weapons would mean.

The online text of The World Set Free is here, at Project Gutenberg Australia.  (I invite Marpag to affirm all this for himself.)  And here is the description of the German atomic-bomb attack on the Allied headquarters in Paris in Wells’ fictional world-war, which breaks out in 1955, as narrated from the point of view of a naïve secretary who works as a typist in the under the Allied Staff:


And then it was as if thunder broke overhead.


The sound struck her like a blow. She crouched together against the masonry and looked up. She saw three black shapes swooping down through the torn clouds, and from a point a little below two of them, there had already started curling trails of red....


Everything else in her being was paralysed, she hung through moments that seemed infinities, watching those red missiles whirl down towards her.


She felt torn out of the world. There was nothing else in the world but a crimson-purple glare and sound, deafening, all-embracing, continuing sound. Every other light had gone out about her and against this glare hung slanting walls, pirouetting pillars, projecting fragments of cornices, and a disorderly flight of huge angular sheets of glass. She had an impression of a great ball of crimson-purple fire like a maddened living thing that seemed to be whirling about very rapidly amidst a chaos of falling masonry that seemed to be attacking the earth furiously, that seemed to be burrowing into it like a blazing rabbit....


She had all the sensations of waking up out of a dream.


She found she was lying face downward on a bank of mould and that a little rivulet of hot water was running over one foot. She tried to raise herself and found her leg was very painful. She was not clear whether it was night or day nor where she was; she made a second effort, wincing and groaning, and turned over and got into a sitting position and looked about her.


Everything seemed very silent. She was, in fact, in the midst of a vast uproar, but she did not realise this because her hearing had been destroyed.


At first she could not join on what she saw to any previous experience.


She seemed to be in a strange world, a soundless, ruinous world, a world of heaped broken things. And it was lit—and somehow this was more familiar to her mind than any other fact about her—by a flickering, purplish-crimson light. Then close to her, rising above a confusion of debris, she recognised the Trocadero; it was changed, something had gone from it, but its outline was unmistakable. It stood out against a streaming, whirling uprush of red-lit steam. And with that she recalled Paris and the Seine and the warm, overcast evening and the beautiful, luminous organisation of the War Control...


In addition to assuring Marpag that it is so, I also wish to thank both him and Capodistrias for taking the time to read my essay.




Well's Fearful Symmetry


Blake came to mind reading your analysis of Well's "The Holy Terror,"

As for Whitlow,

"A streak of cruelty also emerges, as when young Whitlow imagines hunting tigers with exploding bullets"


Tyger, Tyger Blowing Up


I thank KO for taking the

I thank KO for taking the time to read my article.  A good deal is unstated in the essay that KO obviously intuits.  Wells would not recognize his project in the contemporary situation.  He would keenly perceive the decadence and complacency in the UN, the EU, the USA, and in "internationalized" professoriate, and he would find it repellent.  

Thank you!

A thousand thanks to Prof. Bertonneau for inviting us to read Wells's fictionalized insights into the crisis of the West in the previous century!  Wells is so attached to rule by expert such as liberal rationalism (or rationalist liberalism) promotes that he apparently has trouble shaking it, though at the same time dictatorship is an obvious solution to failed liberal government whether one believes in expertise or not.  What we don't hear about in this account is post-liberal democracy as a result of devolution.  I wonder what Wells is thinking now, as the travesty of the U.N. is being upstaged by the travesty of the E.U.!


Readers who enjoy this should read Prof. Bertonneau's essay on Sigrid Undset's account of her journey across the Soveit Union, published here a couple of years ago: