H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 59. The Development of Modern Political and Social Ideas
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · ILLUSTRATIONS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

LIX.  The Development of Modern Political and Social Ideas


THE INSTITUTIONS and customs and political ideas of the ancient civilizations grew up slowly, age by age, no man designing and no man foreseeing. It was only in that great century of human adolescence, the sixth century B.C., that men began to think clearly about their relations to one another, and first to question and first propose to alter and rearrange the established beliefs and laws and methods of human government.   1
  We have told of the glorious intellectual dawn of Greece and Alexandria, and how presently the collapse of the slave-holding civilizations and the clouds of religious intolerance and absolutist government darkened the promise of that beginning. The light of fearless thinking did not break through the European obscurity again effectually until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We have tried to show something of the share of the great winds of Arab curiosity and Mongol conquest in this gradual clearing of the mental skies of Europe. And at first it was chiefly material knowledge that increased. The first fruits of the recovered manhood of the race were material achievements and material power. The science of human relationship, of individual and social psychology, of education and of economics, are not only more subtle and intricate in themselves but also bound up inextricably with much emotional matter. The advances made in them have been slower and made against greater opposition. Men will listen dispassionately to the most diverse suggestions about stars or molecules, but ideas about our ways of life touch and reflect upon everyone about us.   2
  And just as in Greece the bold speculations of Plato came before Aristotle’s hard search for fact, so in Europe the first political enquiries of the new phase were put in the form of “Utopian” stories, directly imitated from Plato’s Republic and his Laws. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia is a curious imitation of Plato that bore fruit in a new English poor law. The Neapolitan Campanella’s City of the Sun was more fantastic and less fruitful.   3
  By the end of the seventeenth century we find a considerable and growing literature of political and social science was being produced. Among the pioneers in this discussion was John Locke, the son of an English republican, an Oxford scholar who first directed his attention to chemistry and medicine. His treatises on government, toleration and education show a mind fully awake to the possibilities of social reconstruction. Parallel with and a little later than John Locke in England, Montesquieu (1689–1755) in France subjected social, political and religious institutions to a searching and fundamental analysis. He stripped the magical prestige from the absolutist monarchy in France. He shares with Locke the credit for clearing away many of the false ideas that had hitherto prevented deliberate and conscious attempts to reconstruct human society.   4
  The generation that followed him in the middle and later decades of the eighteenth century was boldly speculative upon the moral and intellectual clearings he had made. A group of brilliant writers, the “Encyclopædists,” mostly rebel spirits from the excellent schools of the Jesuits, set themselves to scheme out a new world (1766). Side by side with the Encyclopaedists were the Economists or Physiocrats, who were making bold and crude enquiries into the production and distribution of food and goods. Morelly, the author of the Code de la Nature, denounced the institution of private property and proposed a communistic organization of society. He was the precursor of that large and various school of collectivist thinkers in the nineteenth century who are lumped together as Socialists.   5
  What is Socialism? There are a hundred definitions of Socialism and a thousand sects of Socialists. Essentially Socialism is no more and no less than a criticism of the idea of property in the light of the public good. We may review the history of that idea through the ages very briefly. That and the idea of internationalism are the two cardinal ideas upon which most of our political life is turning.   6
  The idea of property arises out of the combative instincts of the species. Long before men were men, the ancestral ape was a proprietor. Primitive property is what a beast will fight for. The dog and his bone, the tigress and her lair, the roaring stag and his herd, these are proprietorship blazing. No more nonsensical expression is conceivable in sociology than the term “primitive communism.” The Old Man of the family tribe of early palælithic times insisted upon his proprietorship in his wives and daughters, in his tools, in his visible universe. If any other man wandered into his visible universe he fought him, and if he could he slew him. The tribe grew in the course of ages, as Atkinson showed convincingly in his Primal Law, by the gradual toleration by the Old Man of the existence of the younger men, and of their proprietorship in the wives they captured from outside the tribe, and in the tools and ornaments they made and the game they slew. Human society grew by a compromise between this one’s property and that. It was a compromise with instinct which was forced upon men by the necessity of driving some other tribe out of its visible universe. If the hills and forests and streams were not your land or my land, it was because they had to be our land. Each of us would have preferred to have it my land, but that would not work. In that case the other fellows would have destroyed us. Society, therefore, is from its beginning a mitigation of ownership. Ownership in the beast and in the primitive savage was far more intense a thing than it is in the civilized world to-day. It is rooted more strongly in our instincts than in our reason.   7
  In the natural savage and in the untutored man to-day there is no limitation to the sphere of ownership. Whatever you can fight for, you can own; women-folk, spared captive, captured beast, forest glade, stone-pit or what not. As the community grew, a sort of law came to restrain internecine fighting, men developed rough-and-ready methods of settling proprietorship. Men could own what they were the first to make or capture or claim. It seemed natural that a debtor who could not pay should become the property of his creditor. Equally natural was it that after claiming a patch of land a man should exact payments from anyone who wanted to use it. It was only slowly, as the possibilities of organized life dawned on men, that this unlimited property in anything whatever began to be recognized as a nuisance. Men found themselves born into a universe all owned and claimed, nay! they found themselves born owned and claimed. The social struggles of the earlier civilization are difficult to trace now, but the history we have told of the Roman Republic shows a community waking up to the idea that debts may become a public inconvenience and should then be repudiated, and that the unlimited ownership of land is also an inconvenience. We find that later Babylonia severely limited the rights of property in slaves. Finally, we find in the teaching of that great revolutionist, Jesus of Nazareth, such an attack upon property as had never been before. Easier it was, he said, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the owner of great possessions to enter the kingdom of heaven. A steady, continuous criticism of the permissible scope of property seems to have been going on in the world for the last twenty-five or thirty centuries. Nineteen hundred years after Jesus of Nazareth we find all the world that has come under the Christian teaching persuaded that there could be no property in human beings. And also the idea that “a man may do what he likes with his own” was very much shaken in relation to other sorts of property.   8
  But this world of the closing eighteenth century was still only in the interrogative stage in this matter. It had got nothing clear enough, much less settled enough, to act upon. One of its primary impulses was to protect property against the greed and waste of kings and the exploitation of noble adventurers. It was largely to protect private property from taxation that the French Revolution began. But the equalitarian formulæ of the Revolution carried it into a criticism of the very property it had risen to protect. How can men be free and equal when numbers of them have no ground to stand upon and nothing to eat, and the owners will neither feed nor lodge them unless they toil? Excessively—the poor complained.   9
  To which riddle the reply of one important political group was to set about “dividing up.” They wanted to intensify and universalize property. Aiming at the same end by another route, there were the primitive socialists—or, to be more exact, communists—who wanted to “abolish” private property altogether. The state (a democratic state was of course understood) was to own all property.  10
  It is paradoxical that different men seeking the same ends of liberty and happiness should propose on the one hand to make property as absolute as possible, and on the other to put an end to it altogether. But so it was. And the clue to this paradox is to be found in the fact that ownership is not one thing but a multitude of different things.  11
  It was only as the nineteenth century developed that men began to realize that property was not one simple thing, but a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences, that many things (such as one’s body, the implements of an artist, clothing, toothbrushes) are very profoundly and incurably one’s personal property, and that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest. On the practical side these questions pass into politics, and the problem of making and sustaining efficient state administration. They open up issues in social psychology, and interact with the enquiries of educational science. The criticism of property is still a vast and passionate ferment rather than a science. On the one hand are the Individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other the Socialists who would in many directions pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every gradation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist who would deny any possessions at all. The ordinary socialist of to-day is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass productions of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organized state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a moderate socialism scientifically studied and planned. It is realized more and more clearly that the untutored man does not co-operate easily and successfully in large undertakings, and that every step towards a more complex state and every function that the state takes over from private enterprise, necessitates a corresponding educational advance and the organization of a proper criticism and control. Both the press and the political methods of the contemporary state are far too crude for any large extension of collective activities.  12
  But for a time the stresses between employer and employed and particularly between selfish employers and reluctant workers, led to a world-wide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with the name of Marx. Marx based his theories on a belief that men’s minds are limited by their economic necessities, and that there is a necessary conflict of interests in our present civilization between the prosperous and employing classes of people and the employed mass. With the advance in education necessitated by the mechanical revolution, this great employed majority will become more and more class-conscious and more and more solid in antagonism to the (class-conscious) ruling minority. In some way the class-conscious workers would seize power, he prophesied, and inaugurate a new social state. The antagonism, the insurrection, the possible revolution are understandable enough, but it does not follow that a new social state or anything but a socially destructive process will ensue. Put to the test in Russia, Marxism, as we shall note later, has proved singularly uncreative.  13
  Marx sought to replace national antagonism by class antagonisms; Marxism has produced in succession a First, a Second and a Third Workers’ International. But from the starting point of modern individualistic thought it is also possible to reach international ideas. From the days of that great English economist, Adam Smith, onward there has been an increasing realization that for world-wide prosperity free and unencumbered trade about the earth is needed. The individualist with his hostility to the state is hostile also to tariffs and boundaries and all the restraints upon free act and movement that national boundaries seem to justify. It is interesting to see two lines of thought, so diverse in spirit, so different in substance as this class-war socialism of the Marxists and the individualistic freetrading philosophy of the British business men of the Victorian age heading at last, in spite of these primary differences, towards the same intimations of a new world-wide treatment of human affairs outside the boundaries and limitations of any existing state. The logic of reality triumphs over the logic of theory. We begin to perceive that from widely divergent starting points individualist theory and socialist theory are part of a common search, a search for more spacious social and political ideas and interpretations, upon which men may contrive to work together, a search that began again in Europe and has intensified as men’s confidence in the ideas of the Holy Roman Empire and in Christendom decayed, and as the age of discovery broadened their horizons from the world of the Mediterranean to the whole wide world.  14
  To bring this description of the elaboration and development of social, economic and political ideas right down to the discussions of the present day, would be to introduce issues altogether too controversial for the scope and intentions of this book. But regarding these things, as we do here, from the vast perspectives of the student of world history, we are bound to recognize that this reconstruction of these directive ideas in the human mind is still an unfinished task—we cannot even estimate yet how unfinished the task may be. Certain common beliefs do seem to be emerging, and their influence is very perceptible upon the political events and public acts of today; but at present they are not clear enough nor convincing enough to compel men definitely and systematically towards their realization. Men’s acts waver between tradition and the new, and on the whole they rather gravitate towards the traditional. Yet, compared with the thought of even a brief lifetime ago, there does seem to be an outline shaping itself of a new order in human affairs. It is a sketchy outline, vanishing into vagueness at this point and that, and fluctuating in detail and formulæ, yet it grows steadfastly clearer, and its main lines change less and less.  15
  It is becoming plainer and plainer each year that in many respects and in an increasing range of affairs, mankind is becoming one community, and that it is more and more necessary that in such matters there should be a common world-wide control. For example, it is steadily truer that the whole planet is now one economic community, that the proper exploitation of its natural resources demands one comprehensive direction, and that the greater power and range that discovery has given human effort makes the present fragmentary and contentious administration of such affairs more and more wasteful and dangerous. Financial and monetary expedients also become world-wide interests to be dealt with successfully only on world-wide lines. Infectious diseases and the increase and migrations of population are also now plainly seen to be world-wide concerns. The greater power and range of human activities has also made war disproportionately destructive and disorganizing, and, even as a clumsy way of settling issues between government and government and people and people, ineffective. All these things clamour for controls and authorities of a greater range and greater comprehensiveness than any government that has hitherto existed.  16
  But it does not follow that the solution of these problems lies in some super-government of all the world arising by conquest or by the coalescence of existing governments. By analogy with existing institutions men have thought of the Parliament of Mankind, of a World Congress, of a President or Emperor of the Earth. Our first natural reaction is towards some such conclusion, but the discussion and experiences of half a century of suggestions and attempts has on the whole discouraged belief in that first obvious idea. Along that line to world unity the resistances are too great. The drift of thought seems now to be in the direction of a number of special committees or organizations, with world-wide power delegated to them by existing governments in this group of matters or that, bodies concerned with the waste or development of natural wealth, with the equalization of labour conditions, with world peace, with currency, population and health, and so forth.  17
  The world may discover that all its common interests are being managed as one concern, while it still fails to realize that a world government exists. But before even so much human unity is attained, before such international arrangements can be put above patriotic suspicions and jealousies, it is necessary that the common mind of the race should be possessed of that idea of human unity, and that the idea of mankind as one family should be a matter of universal instruction and understanding.  18
  For a score of centuries or more the spirit of the great universal religions has been struggling to maintain and extend that idea of a universal human brotherhood, but to this day the spites, angers and distrusts of tribal, national and racial friction obstruct, and successfully obstruct, the broader views and more generous impulses which would make every man the servant of all mankind. The idea of human brotherhood struggles now to possess the human soul, just as the idea of Christendom struggled to possess the soul of Europe in the confusion and disorder of the sixth and seventh centuries of the Christian era. The dissemination and triumph of such ideas must be the work of a multitude of devoted and undistinguished missionaries, and no contemporary writer can presume to guess how far such work has gone or what harvest it may be preparing.  19
  Social and economic questions seem to be inseparably mingled with international ones. The solution in each case lies in an appeal to that same spirit of service which can enter and inspire the human heart. The distrust, intractability and egotism of nations reflects and is reflected by the distrust, intractability and egotism of the individual owner and worker in the face of the common good. Exaggerations of possessiveness in the individual are parallel and of a piece with the clutching greed of nations and emperors. They are products of the same instinctive tendencies, and the same ignorances and traditions. Internationalism is the socialism of nations. No one who has wrestled with these problems can feel that there yet exists a sufficient depth and strength of psychological science and a sufficiently planned-out educational method and organization for any real and final solution of these riddles of human intercourse and cooperation. We are as incapable of planning a really effective peace organization of the world to-day as were men in 1820 to plan an electric railway system, but for all we know the thing is equally practicable and may be as nearly at hand.  20
  No man can go beyond his own knowledge, no thought can reach beyond contemporary thought, and it is impossible for us to guess or foretell how many generations of humanity may have to live in war and waste and insecurity and misery before the dawn of the great peace to which all history seems to be pointing, peace in the heart and peace in the world, ends our night of wasteful and aimless living. Our proposed solutions are still vague and crude. Passion and suspicion surround them. A great task of intellectual reconstruction is going on, it is still incomplete, and our conceptions grow clearer and more exact—slowly, rapidly, it is hard to tell which. But as they grow clearer they will gather power over the minds and imaginations of men. Their present lack of grip is due to their lack of assurance and exact rightness. They are misunderstood because they are variously and confusingly presented. But with precision and certainty the new vision of the world will gain compelling power. It may presently gain power very rapidly. And a great work of educational reconstruction will follow logically and necessarily upon that clearer understanding.  21



CONTENTS · ILLUSTRATIONS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors