The year 2016 marks the centennial of a significant body of Anglo-American literature setting forth diverse visions of the future by influential authors across the political and ideological spectrum. This series of essays for Nomocracy, broadly titled “The Future in 1916,” offers a window on the past and investigates both continuities and discontinuities in intellectual history between 1916 and our own time. The series, which will investigate published works that emerged in the year 1916, includes authors such as H. G. Wells, Walter Rauschenbush, Madison Grant, and Bertrand Russell. Like Time magazine’s annual deliberations over “person of the year,” I select these names not due to my own agreement with the worldview portrayed by these essayists (indeed my disagreements may predominate) but due to their influence in the not-so-bygone era of progressive ascendancy a century ago. I leave to my readers to evaluate how salutary such influences turned out to be.
H. G. Wells, Prognosticator
This first essay turns to Britain and an investigation of H. G. Wells. According to historian Jacques Barzun, the four most influential British essayists in the decade prior to Word War I were Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, and Shaw. Here I focus on What Is Coming? A European Forecast, a 1916 Wells monograph written at what would later be seen as the midpoint of the Great War. After a sojourn in the radical counter-cultural movement of Fabian Socialism, Wells began to settle into a more realist-oriented democratic liberalism. Most famous for his futuristic fiction, notably his portrayal of a future austere divide between the overlords and their underlings in The Time Machine, Wells also offered many nonfictive prognostications to his reading public. As we shall see, a blend of utopianism and pragmatism characterizes Wells’s take on the future from his perspective in the year 1916.
Wells biographer Patrick Parrinder offers a cogent outline of Wells’s life from the vantage of intellectual history. Wells studied under famed evolutionary biologist and freethinker T. H. Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) in the mid-1880s. Wells’s fascination with the scientific enterprise became evident in his science fiction as well as his nonfiction writings. Wells proposed a new educational system that he hoped would emerge from the ashes of the Great War. He held that the biological sciences and the exact sciences would provide “the greatest variety of educational benefit, so as to include the criticism of evidence, the massing of facts, and the extracting and testing of generalisations.” While conceding a continuing (implicitly rather dusty) corner in modern education for “Greek, Hebrew, Sanscrit, philology, archaeology, Christian theology, and so on and so on . . .” he placed science at the “intellectual and moral backbone of the nation” for the masses. Notwithstanding his seeming exaltation of the sciences over the humanities, Wells remained a man of letters seeking to blend science and literature. Parrinder avers that “romantic poetry, Enlightenment satire, and classical utopian thought, together with evolutionary science, were his intellectual passions.”
In A Modern Utopia (1905), Wells had set forth an “evolving socialist world state, not a picture of settled perfection,” to be “ruled by a voluntary élite (an updated version of Plato’s Guardians), the Samurai.” By 1916 the ghastly panorama of European trench warfare had tempered this earlier optimism with a dose of stern realism, but an optimistic strain was still operative within Wells in the midst of the darkness. Wells saw the war as intimately causally connected to past educational systems rife with “popular nationalism and imperialism.” These were prejudicial against his dream of the establishment of world peace. His eventual Outline of History would become an alternative model of history explicitly gathered from experts in an effort to offer the world a textbook that could transcend such rivalries and strife.
The Context of War
The central concern of What is Coming? A European Forecast was the conundrum raised by the effort to establish a long world peace in the wake of the First World War. Writing at the midpoint of the conflict, Wells puzzled over an earlier pamphlet title, popular just two years before at the outbreak of the war, The War That Will End War. Given the propensity of human societies to engage in warfare in the past, Wells proposed a system whereby future wars could be avoided. As a rationalist Wells couched the issue as a battle between reason and passion. To rein in bellicose passion, a rational ordering of relations between states was necessary to peace.
Wells reasoned that “the first difficulty in the way of establishing world peace is that it is nobody’s business in particular.” He noted, sardonically, that while most people of good will claim to be in favor of peace, actual efforts toward peace are “amateurish” at best. His solution was the postwar creation of an overarching state to unify the world governments, analogous to the way the states in the United States had surrendered their sovereignty to the federal government. This international body would be a permanent means of settling disputes, described in his words as “some head power, some point of reference, a supreme court of some kind, a universally recognized executive over and above the separate governments of the world that exist today.”
Some contemporaries of Wells were apparently suggesting the Roman Catholic pope or the president of the United States could head up such an undertaking. Wells rejected the former because the divisions within Christianity disabled it from performing a unifying role. The latter (Woodrow Wilson, mentioned by name) Wells perceived as too occupied with domestic duties to have a chance to succeed in such a transnational leadership role.
Wells lambasted the “small minority of people who trade upon contention.” He listed offenders in terms still familiar in 2016: “war contractors, loan mongers, sensational journalists,” all of whom have a stake in getting wars going and keeping them going. More recent political debates over the “war on terror” with names bandied by various sides of global conflict such as Halliburton on one side or Al Jazeera on the other represent iterations of complaints reminiscent of those raised by Wells a century ago. The economic populism of Wells also seems to be echoed by socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Wells wrote of the need for redistribution in terms now familiar: “The stride to economic national service and Socialism is a stride that labour should be more eager to take than any other section of the community. And the first step in reassuring labour must be to bring the greedy private owner and the speculator under a far more drastic discipline than at present.” The debate rhetoric embraced by Occupy Wall Street or leftist political criticisms often voiced toward the “one percent” could easily draw even today upon Wells’s rhetorical well.
International Relations after the War
Wells believed that three great world powers would emerge after the dust settled in the current conflagration of war. These he labeled the Anti-German Allies, the Allied Central Europeans, and the Pan-Americans (a union of North and South American nations). The first, with some exceptions, would emerge during the Cold War as NATO, the second was roughly analogous to the rise of the Soviet Union, and the third did not occur. Most important here is to point out Wells’s gross underestimation of the Pacific Rim and what we recognize a century later as the rise of the economic might of Asia.
Where Wells did prove prescient was his identification of a continuing hostility emerging from Germany. “This war has made Germany,” he cautioned, “the central fact in all national affairs about the earth.” Perhaps extrapolating from the stalemate of trench warfare, Wells wrote of the Great War: “It is not going to destroy Germany, and it seems improbable that either defeat or victory, or any mixture of these, will immediately alter the cardinal fact of Germany’s organized aggressiveness.” Wells also queried to what extent the postwar reconstruction of a peaceful Europe would require revolutions within the client states under the European umbrella. This was a cogent concern, given that in 1916 V. I. Lenin would publish his Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline and would proceed to foment the Russian revolution in 1917.
In his chapter “How Far Will Europe Go toward Socialism?” Wells identified both strengths and weaknesses in the German system of government. He decried her “imperialism and Junkerism” as well as her “intense sentimental nationalism.” However, he heaped praise upon Germany for “her science and her socialism.” Within the next two decades Germany would realize the rise and merger of all these elements in the toxic brew of National Socialism.
The counterpoint of Wells’s adulation for socialism was his hatred of individualism. Criticisms of individualism abound in this chapter. “Individualism permits base private people to abscond with the national resources and squeeze a profit out of national suffering,” he fulminated. The form of this exploitation that most earned his ire, understandably, was the cornering of the market for certain drugs in high demand during the war. Pharmaceutical profiteers made both governments and individuals pay “double and even tenfold prices for what was essential to relieve pain and save life.” In 2015, Turing Pharmaceuticals experienced a significant public-relations backlash for increasing the price of cancer and AIDS drug Daraprim by five thousand percent. The company later reduced this price hike to a mere 2,500 percent and pledged to offer samples and otherwise ensure availability of the product to the terminally ill. In one sense the international press served a salubrious role in bringing about the public censure necessary to influence the marketplace in this case; however, the relevance of a Wellsian dream of socialism to such a debate remains somewhat murky.
Wells predicted that by 1936 there would be a decided global shift toward socialism, especially in certain key commercial areas: “ships, railways, coal and metal supply, the great metal industries, much engineering and most agriculture.” His vision was that these endeavors would be “more or less completely under collective control.” No monolithic international socialistic consolidation of these industries has occurred, and countries vary greatly in the respective governments’ involvement in any or all of them. It has taken a century, but perhaps at least some aspects of Wells’s dream are beginning to take concrete form in the Paris Climate Change deal announced at the end of 2015. Implementation appears at this early stage to be a largely voluntary affair, but the implications for the fossil fuel industry have some in the business community understandably on edge.
While Wells’s treatise is in the main an exploration of a European future, the United States does receive a brief treatment in the pages of What Is Coming?. In remarks that could easily spark a spirited exchange in the recent GOP presidential primary debates on foreign policy, Wells noted the crumbling of America’s ostensible isolationism:
The people of the United States have shed their delusion that there is an Eastern and a Western hemisphere, and that nothing can ever pass between them but immigrants and tourists and trade, and realized that this world is one round globe that gets smaller and smaller every decade if you measure it by day’s journeys. They are only going over the lesson the British have learnt in the last score or so of years. This is one world and bayonets are a crop that spreads. Let them gather and seed, it matters not how far from you, and a time will come when they will be sticking up under your nose.
Disputations in the 2016 election season over immigration and the spread of noxious ideologies from the rest of the world to American shores is even more momentous given our open society, complete with international air travel and the ideological vicissitudes of the Internet.
With regard to colonialism, Wells had reason to consider the year 1916 a decisive moment. The Irish Easter Rising of 1916 brought the troubles of colonial rule close to home. He focused greater attention, however, upon the so-called “subject races” in the chapter titled “The White Man’s Burthen.” Plaintively, Wells called not only England but other colonial powers to reassess their treatment of clients in the far-flung regions of their influence:
What are these Allies [France, Belgium, Britain, and Russia] going to do with their “subject races”? It is a matter in which the “subject races” are likely to have an increasingly important voice of their own. We Europeans may discuss their fate to-day among ourselves; we shall be discussing it with them to-morrow. If we do not agree with them then, they will take their fates in their own hands in spite of us. Long before A.D. 2100, there will be no such thing as a “subject race” in all the world.
American university campuses today regularly see awareness campaigns to end human trafficking. While woeful economic conditions and corrupt governments more than race tend to dictate the shape of this ongoing scourge of human suffering, Wells might well applaud the progress being made through international cooperation and the work of the United Nations. Still much more needs to be accomplished in 2016 and beyond.
One way Wells misread the colonial situation was with regard to religion in Africa. Wells believed that though Africa would remain open as a “fair field for all religions,” its needs would be best suited by the religion of Islam. This Islam would not be that of the Turks, who stood under his criticism, but of the Arabs, whom Wells labeled Islam’s “natural propagandist.” Here Wells seemed a rather naive Islamophile, when he wrote: “It is to the initiatives of Islamic culture, for example, that we owe our numerals, the bulk of modern mathematics, and the science of chemistry.” This common oversimplification of history has been challenged by, among others, sociologist Rodney Stark. Wells was at least correct in predicting the immunity of much of the Arab world to European influence and the concomitant power of Islam’s influence on Europe: “The French, the Italians, the British have to reckon with Islam and the Arab; where the continental deserts are there the Arabs are and there is Islam; their culture will never be destroyed and replaced over these regions by Europeanism.” Typical of utopian leftist blindness to Islamic radicalization, however, was Wells’s optimistic prophecy: “A new intellectual movement in Islam, a renascent Bagdad, is as inevitable as the year 1950.” Contra Wells, however, the ideological movement that has gained the most power in the century since he wrote these words has been Wahabi Islamic jihadism. This product of the Arabian desert is the very antithesis of the enlightened philosophical Islam Wells wistfully envisioned in 1916.
In his concluding remarks, Wells made an impassioned plea to look beyond war with Germany to the prospect of a more peaceful world: “The primary business of the Allies is not reconciliation with Germany. Their primary concern is to organize a great League of Peace about the world with which the American States and China may either unite or establish a permanent understanding.” Wells admitted that a generation or more would have to pass before passions had cooled between Germany and the rest of Europe and his rational approach take hold. He pledged to “do no more than I must to injure Germany further.” He promised to “do all that I can to restore the unity of mankind.” Yet his final sentence carried with it a haunting poignancy that in retrospect portended no lasting respite from European conflict: “None the less it is true that for me or for all the rest of my life the Germans I shall meet, the German things I shall see, will be smeared with the blood of my people and my friends that the willfulness of Germany has spilt.”
As a theologian, and a sort of caretaker of “things divine,” I cannot help but recall prophetic words from an ancient source. “The Preacher,” a pseudonym for ancient King Solomon, reminded his audience thirty centuries ago: “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” Prophecies of the secular variety have a tendency to be a rather mottled mix of hits and misses. What remains remarkable about futurology from 100 years ago is the eerie similarity of the concerns that animated figures such as H. G. Wells to today’s headlines. But a rational approach to the popular progressivism of 1916 and 2016 must include asking the awkward question: How many of humanity’s apparently intractable problems have been resolved by a century of progressive tinkering? If only we had a time machine, maybe we could tell.
Dennis L. Durst is Associate Professor of Theology at Kentucky Christian University.
 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 683.
 H. G. Wells, What Is Coming? A European Forecast (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 157.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 8.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 12–13.
 Ibid., 116–17. Article 8 of the (failed) League of Nations Charter evinced a similar sentiment: “The Members of the League agree that the manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections. The Council shall advise how the evil effects attendant upon such manufacture can be prevented, due regard being had to the necessities of those Members of the League which are not able to manufacture the munitions and implements of war necessary for their safety” (Covenant of the League of Nations, 1924, accessed December 16, 2015, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp).
 See Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin, 2011), 277–88.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 65.
 Ibid., 107.
 Jonathan Berr, “Turing Cuts 5,000% Drug Price Hike to 2,500%,” CBS News Moneywatch, November 25, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/turing-pharmaceuticals-rolls-back-5000-drug-price-increase/.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 122–23.
 Mike Scott, “Paris Climate Change Deal Could Spell the Beginning of the End of the Fossil Fuel Age,” Forbes, December 13, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikescott/2015/12/13/paris-climate-change-deal-could-spell-the-beginning-of-the-end-of-the-fossil-fuel-age/.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 217.
 Ibid., 240.
 UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “UNODC on human trafficking and migrant smuggling,” accessed December 16, 2015, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/. See also the End it Now movement website at https://secure.enditmovement.com/.
 On the pronounced growth of Christianity in Africa, see “Global Christianity–A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, December 19, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 249.
 Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 56–64.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 251. See Shadi Hamid, “The Major Roadblock to Muslim Assimilation in Europe,” The Atlantic, August 18, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/the-major-roadblock-to-muslim-assimilation-in-europe/243769/.
 Though extending back to the reform movement begun in the early eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the twentieth-century revival of Wahabism may be traced to 1902. In that year, a young Saudi prince named ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn ‘Abd al Rahman or Ibn Sa’ud (1879–1953) recaptured Riyadh. He consolidated control of Mecca and Medina by the 1920s. John O. Vall writes “the Wahhabiyah are the best-known example of a Muslim movement calling for the strict recognition of the oneness of God, with all of the social and moral implications of that belief, and advocating the reconstruction of society on the basis of a strict and independent interpretation of the fundamentals of Islam” (The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, s.v. “Wahhabiyah”).
 See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 201–3.
 Wells, What Is Coming?, 293–94.
 Eccles. 1:9 (New American Standard Bible).