Saturday, 2 December 2017

Socialism and the Scientific Motive (1923)



This is the published version of a lecture that Wells delivered at a dinner, organised by his supporters, at the University of London Club on March 21st, 1923, part of his campaign to become an MP (until 1950 London University returned an MP to the Commons, as did Oxford, Cambridge, and nine other universities). Wells had previously been selected as the Labour candidate for the 1922 election and had campaigned pretty hard through October and November of that year. But the result had not gone his way:
Sydney Russell Wells (Conservative/Unionist, no relation): 4,037 votes
Professor Frederick Pollard (Liberal): 2,593
H G Wells (Labour): 1,420
Appropriately enough for a University seat, Wells in 1922 ran on a platform of educational reform: ‘the key to the future’ is what he called education, and he insisted the matter was not being properly addressed by either the Conservatives or Liberals: Lloyd George ‘avoids the issue like a sparrow’, he said, and ‘Bonar Law like an earthworm’, which conceivably counted as coruscating political banter in 1922. Still, worm or not, Bonar Law was P.M. now; and he remained so until May 1923 when ill health, in the form of an aggressive throat-cancer, forced him to resign (He died a few months later). He was replaced as P.M. by Stanley Baldwin, who decided he needed a mandate from the people, and so called a new General Election in 1923.

Wells was again selected as the University of London Labour candidate, and once again gave various speeches and published various pamphlets. I'm bunging this one onto the blog to stand-on for the others. It argues that education needs to be reformed comprehensively on scientific and historical lines: ‘We of the Labour Party, as a party, believe in science and in the scientific motive, as a motive altogether superior to profit-seeking’. Come December Wells did a whole seven votes better than before, but still finished last:
Sydney Russell Wells (Conservative/Unionist): 3,833 votes
Professor Frederick Pollard (Liberal): 2,180
H G Wells (Labour): 1,427
The 1923 election resulted in a hung parliament, and Ramsay MacDonald formed the UK's first-ever Labour government by negotiating a deal with the Liberals. Rather sneakily, the Liberal Leader Herbert Asquith only agreed to this deal, and specifically turned down overtures from the Tories, because he believed MacDonald would prove so incompetent it would destroy Labour support in the country and bring voters back to the Liberals. In the event MacDonald did pretty well, avoiding major strikes, passing Insurance Acts to extend unemployment benefit and getting a Housing Act passed which greatly expanded municipal housing for low paid workers. But being a minority government, his administration was vulnerable, and it only lasted 10 months. Another general election was held in October 1924. By then Wells had publicly withdrawn from political campaigning, and did not stand again. In the Experiment in Autobiography he looks back on these two years:
In some manner the new education had to be got into the education office and the syllabuses and the schools, and since no one else seemed to be doing it, I felt under an obligation to try, however ineffectively, to do something about it myself. I turned my reluctant face towards meetings and committee-rooms again. I had had nothing to do with such things since my Fabian withdrawal. I heard with dislike and a sinking heart my straining voice once more beginning speeches. I dislike my voice in a meeting so much that it gives me an exasperated manner and I lose my thread listening to it. I still thought the Labour Party might be the party most responsive to constructive ideas in education, and in order to secure a footing in its councils I stood as Labour candidate for the London University at the 1922 and 1923 elections. I had no prospect of being returned, but I thought that by writing and publishing election addresses and such leaflets as The Labour Ideal of Education (1923) I might impose a modernization of the schools curriculum, upon the party policy and so get general history at least into its proper place as elementary school history.

In a speech at the University of London Club, in March 1923, reprinted as Socialism and the Scientific Motive, I find I was trying to persuade myself and my liberal-minded hearers of the essential identity of these two things. But I was not really persuaded. I was declaring what ought to be was fact. I was poking about in this political stuff not because I believed it to be the way to my ends, but because I did not certainly know any way to my ends, and this seemed to hold out possibilities. But the older men in control of the Labour Party at that time were quite impervious to the idea of changing education. They did not know that there could be different kinds and colours of education. A school, any school, was a school to them and a college a college. They thought there was something very genteel and desirable about education, just as there was about a municipal art gallery, and they wanted the working classes to have the best of everything. But they did not consider education as a matter of primary importance. They had themselves managed very well with very little. [Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 630-31]

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