The Scientific Socialism of H. G. Wells

The poverty of industrial England was the backdrop of H. G Wells’s childhood. This experience instilled in him a clear-eyed realism with which he rejected both utopianism and progressive notions that socialism could be won without class struggle.

H. G. Wells, circa 1890. (Frederick Hollyer / Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science via Wikimedia Commons)

The continuing fame enjoyed by H. G. Wells owes itself largely to his two most famous novels, The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Imaginative and daring, these books infuse the reader with a combination of hope and realism: hope for the possibility of a vibrant future that benefits all, and realism about the difficulty of realizing such an aim. Ignored in retellings of Wells’s life and works is that his vision of progress was a distinctly socialist one.

Alongside his novelistic output, Wells engaged tirelessly as a public intellectual, marshaling arguments against the inevitability of capitalist social relations. In “The Misery of Boots,” an address he gave to the Fabian Society in 1905, he conjured up the metaphor of tattered boots which, for Wells, represented the struggles of the working class in a capitalistic society. This unlucky majority can only afford cheaply made boots that wear and degrade under the stress of endless labor. From this he draws two conclusions: commerce and manufacturing should not occur “for the private profit of individuals, but for the good of all,” and that socialists are “the only people who do hold out any hope of far-reaching change that will alter the present state of affairs.”

Though he shared much of the gradualist, progressive vision of the Fabian Society, he eventually left it because he viewed its outlook, which saw socialism as a natural outgrowth of capitalist society, as unscientific and emerging from a middle class unengaged in working-class politics. Science meant for Wells an entire worldview: not the cold, mechanical perspective of social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer, but rather the viewpoint that society should always seek to improve through empirical study and reflection, exposing ignorance to the light of knowledge. The Fabians were an “extraordinarily inadequate and feeble organization” to Wells because he viewed them as relying too heavily on grandiose rhetoric at the expense of offering practical solutions to organize the working class and build an effective movement. Both socialism and science contributed to what Wells viewed as the general tendency of historical progress to reveal to humanity that “they are items in a whole vaster, more enduring, and more wonderful than their ancestors ever dreamed or expected.”

Socialism and Science

Before Wells formulated his ideas on socialism or science, he was merely one of millions of unlucky kids struggling in the chaotic, industrializing environment of Victorian Britain. His father, Joseph, kept a small shop, but the business generated so little revenue that he had to supplement his income by playing cricket. This situation lasted until his father broke a leg, and the Wells family fell swiftly from the precarity common among the lower middle class to outright economic hardship. Wells’s mother, Sarah, worked as a maid, a job that was more successful at exhausting her than alleviating the family’s financial distress. The family withdrew the young H. G. from school and apprenticed him to a tailor at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in 1881, where he would often work for thirteen hours a day. Experiencing the squalid underside of Victorian industrial society from a young age shaped his political perspective. Like Charles Dickens, who was forced to work in a bootblacking factory as a child, Wells never forgot his visceral experience with the unvarnished ugliness of a world in which progress is only possible through exploitation, even after becoming a world-renowned writer.

Unlike Dickens, whose ethical objections to capitalist modernity rarely developed into systematic critique, Wells took a more scientific approach to resolving the stark inequality of his age. After returning to school in 1883, Wells taught younger pupils while devouring contemporary literature in his limited free time, discovering both Marx and Darwin. Wells won a scholarship to attend the Normal School of Science, a predecessor of Imperial College London. T. H. Huxley, an esteemed biologist and public intellectual known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ardent defense of evolutionary theory, taught there and deeply impressed Wells.

Wells absorbed from Huxley’s teaching a caution toward the extravagances of evolutionary theory. Huxley’s claim that progress means “checking the cosmic process” of amoral evolution and thus creating “the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process,” combats the faith, too often expressed these days by Silicon Valley billionaires, that technological progress necessarily equates to social progress. For Wells, improving society scientifically meant implementing a comprehensive, socialist vision.

He found the idea of socialism conceptualized by Marx, undergirded by comprehensive observation and scientific study, significantly more plausible than the idealistic notions of utopian socialism common at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Arguing in his university’s Debating Society, he asserted that “Marx Socialism” is a “new thing based on Darwinism, and therefore fundamentally different” from past conceptions of socialism. Two complementary convictions motivating Wells during university helped direct his writing throughout the rest of his career: an ardent commitment to a more just and prosperous future free from the ravages of a profit-centric society, and a belief that such a commitment requires scientifically rigorous and skeptical thinking to succeed.

Beyond Utopianism

When Wells published The Time Machine, he mesmerized the imagination of a nation hurtling toward the future but uncertain about what that future would be. Wells exists in the cultural consciousness as an uncritical proponent of futurism, who believed reason and progress would inevitably triumph. But he does not truly deserve the criticism of George Orwell, who called him “too sane to understand the modern world.” Wells imagined the potential of the future, but he also imagined its challenges, as The Time Machine demonstrates. The novel’s protagonist, known only as the Time Traveler, begins his journey to the future with idealistic notions about the wisdom and flourishing he will find. Only later does he realize that the passage of many thousands of years reduced the towering cities of the Victorian age to rubble.

He finds humanity devolved into two different species: the upper class mutated into the effete, childlike Eloi, adorned with elegant clothing but unable to think intelligently, and the working class mutated into the goblin-like Morlocks, who live brutish lives underground. Instead of enjoying the manifold pleasures of a gleaming future unspoiled by class conflict, the Time Traveler struggles against the restrictions of a morose epoch where that conflict solidified into biology.

The Time Traveler laments of how much more frightening the actual future is than the dreamlike utopia he imagined, contemplating how “all the activity, all the traditions, the carefully planned organizations” of the past had unceremoniously “been swept out of existence.” The Time Machine deflates idle fantasies about the future necessarily surpassing the past, undermining the common image of Wells as an indulgent optimist who viewed society as continually progressing.

Like his mentor Huxley, Wells deeply respected Darwinian ideas about evolution but understood that society could not extract from these ideas any guarantee of linear progress. Similarly, technological progress without social progress was, for Wells, a nightmarish vision, perhaps best exemplified in The War of the Worlds, a tale of reverse colonization wherein technologically advanced Martians invade Earth. Social progress for Wells meant exposing to the light of scientific inquiry both the unjust capitalist order and romanticized, utopian conceptions of the future

In A Modern Utopia (1905), a relatively optimistic novel that sketches his vision of a less divided and exploitative future, he nonetheless asserts that the “Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ” from “the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world.” Grotesque visions like The Time Machine are not missives against hoping for a better future. Rather, they offer warnings that hope does not, by itself, suffice.

Imagining Tomorrow

Lucid and penetrating, Wells envisioned a unity between science and socialism worth recovering today. Science too often nowadays conjures images of billionaire vanity projects. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, with their Silicon Valley credentials and their zealous love of science fiction, present themselves as faces of rationalism. Many on the Left understandably thus view claims of scientific progress quite skeptically. Yet Wells understood, in the tradition of Marx, that socialism without a basis in rigorous scientific analysis tends toward empty moral platitudes.

Not all of the ideas Wells concocted were without flaws, such as his desire for a powerful supernational “world-state,” but he largely avoided the eugenicist tendencies that marred the thinking of many British Fabian socialists. In both his fiction and his political writings, Wells held that progress in technology is only beneficial when accompanied by progress in politics, away from greed and self-interest and toward the common good.

Radical science-fiction writers throughout history, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Kim Stanley Robinson, have used the medium for both critiquing the old order and imagining what the new order could be, and that radical tradition extends back to Wells. From his grueling childhood experiences in the drapery, he developed an acute understanding of economic injustice, and through his reading and study, he developed a robust vision for what the future could be, founded on the twin pillars of left-wing politics and rigorous scientific analysis. As bleak as The Time Machine can be, it ends with a note of optimism, with the narrator wondering whether the Time Traveler will finally find an ideal era, “with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved.” Despite his doubt, the narrator refuses to believe that these “days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord” are humanity’s “culminating time,” and Wells, throughout his career, tried unrelentingly to make that hope into reality.