Monday, 5 February 2018

The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940)



The subtitle gives us our stark choice, as Wells conceives it: ‘World Revolution or War Unending’. To quote Anthony Burgess's Alex, What's it going to be then, eh?

This book steps once again through familiar Wellsian territory. The broad thrust is that we must reconfigure our whole global way of doing things, or else we will war ourselves into ultimate destruction. Humanity is still infantile, Wells thinks, and will not be fully grown up until it realises, as all adults do, that it has no need of leaders at all: no Hitler- or Mussolini-style figures. ‘Grown Men do not need Leaders. But that does not mean that they will not trust a properly accredited equal who has some specific gift or function. You trust your plumber, your doctor, your cook, your automobile scout, your Ordnance Map, conditionally, without either arrogance or subservience’ [1]. Nation-states have to be done away with because they are too small to encompass the newly-released human energies of modernity. Everything is different to the way it was two generations before, and these changes are ‘the bedrock realities upon which all our ideas of social and political policy must now rest’. The whole world has swung about ‘ in less than half a century, from need to possible abundance, and from remoteness to unavoidable contact’ [4]. Only one thing will guarantee peace: ‘World Revolution’.
I ask you not to be afraid of the word ‘Revolution’. Speak English. Don't think of Revolution as an affair of street barricades, the heads of beautiful ladies on pikes, and tumbrils going to the guillotine. Our ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 had none of these ingredients, and the Revolution that established the Hanoverian Succession was practically bloodless. You can have a Revolution without massacre or violence. But anyhow, I submit that organised world peace and welfare mean such a Revolution in human life as will dwarf all previous revolutions to comparative insignificance. [Common Sense, 4]
Slightly selective, not to say cherry-picked, examples of bloodless revolutions, there; and given the scale of the revolution being proposed in this slim book, and the fact that pretty much everyone in the world of 1940 was armed to the teeth, it looks a touch jejune.

The book's larger argument loses its way, rather, in a lengthy middle section in which Wells retorts to an article by Dean Inge that had accused him of class-resentment (‘he says I have never recovered from “the hardships of my early life”; I am “permanently embittered” with the genteel classes; at the sight of real ladies, deer parks, the stately homes of England and the clergy, I “see Red” and “exult in the destitution” which I “hope awaits them”’ [5]). This involves lengthy quotations from Inge, matched with equally lengthy attempts at rebuttal, and it's as unengaging as this sort of point-scoring-record-setting-straight gubbins always is.

Wells insists that air-war is so dangerous a global monopoly on all air-travel and aerial armaments must be the first order of business at any peace conference. The book winds up with an emphasis on the need for a World Declaration of Human Rights, sketches what they might be, and directs the reader to the ‘companion Penguin to this—The Rights of Man’. This latter volume is Wells's updated version of The New World Order volume from earlier that same year, incorporating the revised Declaration, ‘as it has emerged from the hands of Lord Sankey's Drafting Committee’ [10].

He adds two appendices. One is a lengthy quotation from his last major novel (‘I have been writing a novel which is these days of paper shortage mayor may not be published, Babes in the Darkling Wood’ [13]) that ends
Will these old men of the City and the stately homes of England and so forth ever release that stagnating, paralysing grip that holds back our people and all the people in our Empire from any fullness of life, until in sheer despair of their heavy monopolisation we are driven to wrench them off violently? [Babes, 4.3.6]
‘The whole of this present book,’ Wells glosses, ‘is an attempt to discover a possible answer to that young man's question’.
That is one appendix to this pamphlet. Now, by way of a further appendix and a warning, I am going to reprint a document that was drawn up twenty-two years ago, chiefly by Dr. J.W. Headlam Morley and myself, as a memorandum for the propaganda department of Crewe House. It dates in certain details, but on the whole, because of the lack of fulfillment, there is much of it that might have been written this month. This is how we saw things in May, 1918. [Common Sense, 14]
Pages and pages of quoted material follow. We're always fighting the last war when we prosecute the current war, I guess.

1 comment:

  1. One thing from this book, on aerial war.

    "War in the air has been foretold for more than a century. I need scarcely quote Tennyson's ‘airy navies grappling in the central blue.’ What I have more particularly in mind is a book I published in 1908, The War in the Air, a year before Bleriot flew the Channel, and I want to direct your attention to the spirit in which it was written and read … The argument of the book was perfectly clear and sound, and it has been sustained by the experience of the intervening third of a century. It was that air war would be enormously destructive and inconclusive. This conviction, which is a clear, reasoned conviction, I have since reiterated in various books and films. But I am not claiming credit as a prophet."

    Good job he's not claiming prophet-credit, too, since though The War in the Air does portray future aerial war as ‘destructive’ it is far from ‘inconclusive’: it crashes the world into a new barbarism, which is conclusive enough.

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