1920s >> 1920 >> no-196-december-1920

Book Review: The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. A Criticism

This, the Magnum Opus of Mr. Wells, is a very remarkable book. It will be a useful addition to the “library” of the worker-student as undoubtedly it already is in many thousands of cases, and the work will probably have a widespread influence. Whilst woefully deficient in many respects, it is certainly the best one-man attempt at a fairly detailed “Universal History” which has come under the notice of the present writer. A “perfect” work of this kind will never be written this side of the Revolution.


The prime value of the book is as a great accumulation of historical data, orderly arranged and compressed within comparatively small compass. As a narrative it is for the most part intensely interesting. The descriptive powers, not to speak of imagination, of the writer of “The Time Machine” are, in places, exercised to the full, and the grip of the story at times approaches fascination.


The evolution of the Solar System, the earth and life, the races of men and their languages, and the evolution of writing and of primitive ideas, are all clearly and concisely dealt with according to the most recent and authoritative findings of Science. Mr. Wells is particularly good when describing the growth of inventions, discoveries, and knowledge in general.


A good sense of proportion is, in the main, shown throughout the book. The civilisation of China in particular, receives the prominence to which, by its “peculiar” character, age and expansion, it is entitled in any general account of the work of Man. Moreover Mr. Wells is continually reviewing well known facts from quite unusual points of view. He shows, for the most part, at least, a healthy disregard for conventional opinions, and especially for those which, embellish the sacred personalities of “great men.” Alexander, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Gladstone receive some rough handling which has shocked some of the more orthodox reviewers of the book. Mr. Wells has done some useful work in pulling down some of the “tin gods” of the multitude of hero-worshippers. He has his own “heroes,” nevertheless.


A very valuable and organic part of the work are the maps. They form quite an historical atlas in themselves. The same artist, Mr. Horrabin, has produced the “time charts” which are a novel and helpful inclusion, whilst his numerous line illustrations are not only really illustrative and seemingly very accurate but they are good examples of a rather severe, but eminently suitable technique in that difficult art—pen drawing.


In reviewing such a large work the line must be drawn somewhere. Therefore the following comments and criticisms are chiefly confined to some of Mr. Wells’ generalisations about history and views regarding social evolution. Owing to the different paging of the several editions, all citations are to the chapters and their subsections.

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Despite his sub title: “A Plain History of Life and Mankind,” Mr. Wells has not made the mere telling of his story his sole, or even his primary, aim. He has a theory to expound and to prove—a theory which issues finally as a lesson and a warning to his readers.


Briefly, Mr. Wells’ “theory of history” is that the evolution of the human race consists of the gradual “rise” of bestial, cruel, selfish, ignorant animals — primaeval men—living in small, independent, isolated and antagonistic family groups, to a cultured refinement, wisdom and altruism—fit citizens of one world-wide brotherhood-community. We have not yet arrived at this latter stage of perfection, but Mr. Wells says we have made enormous strides in that direction and this achievement is the next great step in human progress.


It is important to note that this evolution is the result mainly, in Mr. Wells’s opinion, of the influence of Religion and Education upon the minds of men, and it is to these factors he looks for future progress.


Of course our author strains the evidence to fit his theory. Practically all historians have done the same. It is so easy; it is all but unavoidable. Many of the “facts” upon which histories are based are so uncertain in themselves, are almost always open to a variety of legitimate interpretations and still more illegitimate ones. Moreover, their immense number makes inevitable a certain selection and suppression of facts in accord with the writer’s views as to their relative order of importance, which again depends upon his theoretical opinion or practical aims. In the book before us the “straining” is very obvious in parts, but on the whole is not so much in evidence as one would expect, for the author is by no means either thorough or consistent in the application of his theories.


Mr. Wells assumes that altruism and social solidarity was lacking in the earliest men. Even apart from other considerations this is rendered very improbable by the fact that recent savages possess these qualities to a marked degree. The extinct Tasmanians certainly did, and, as Mr. Wells points out, they were still in the early Paleolithic stage at the time they were discovered. The Bushmen and Australians, only a little further advanced, also contradict his view. Savages are almost invariably kind, affectionate, and loyal to their own people, but hostile to strangers and cruel to their enemies. Any survey of the races of men, such as Keane’s or Hutchinson’s, will prove this.


A serious and significant omission occurs when Mr. Wells fails to make any mention of the existence of the communal marriage system among primitive peoples. The discovery of this institution was one of the most revolutionary in the whole range of anthropology.


The reason for this omission is that our historian believes that the earliest and original form of human society was the single “self-centred” family group, ruled despotically by the oldest male, usually the father, until he died or one of his sons managed to kill him and rule in his stead. This is merely an extension to primitive conditions of the old “patriarchal theory.” He quotes from Worthington Smith’s excellent description of life in the early Stone Age, but, as this writer holds the contrary view of primitive society, Mr. Wells adds a highly hypothetical account of the supposed paleolithic family group and the conduct of its ruler, the “Old Man,” borrowed from the “Primal Law” by J. J. Atkinson, who, with Andrew Lang, is the only authority mentioned who supports his view. (See Chap. IX. 2.)


Now Mr. Wells does not tell his readers that a very large number—probably the great majority—of ethnologists and sociologists, hold a totally different view of social origins. Prof. Edward Jenks, a very able thinker, says in his “History of Politics” (p. 18) “by the discoveries concerning the nature of savage society . . it has been proved, that the earliest social group, so far from being a small household of a single man and his wives, is a large and loosely connected group or ‘pack’ … it could easily be shown that the origin of society in ‘single families’ is inherently impossible,” and he refers to the view supported by Mr. Wells as “the old theory, now definitely exploded.”


It is difficult to see how man could have acquired language, tools, or a developed intelligence without a considerable degree of sociability. The conclusions of modern Psychology as to the deep-rooted power of the herd-instinct and the pronounced suggestibility of the human mind also point indisputably to the gregarious nature of man.


The “Handbook to the Ethnographical Collection” of the British Museum (a cheap, well illustrated and useful book to students) states the general opinion amongst ethnologists as follows :


  “In a primitive community the individual has little importance as such. He may almost be said to belong to it body and soul, and apart from it he has neither rights nor responsibilities. Such a system is unfavourable to the development of enterprise or private initiative, but at the same time it entourages the habits of obedience, discipline and common action, upon which further social progress depends. The absorbing claims of the community are well illustrated by the primitive laws of property, according to which everything of the greatest value belongs to the clan in common.” (P. 25.)


Now the above paragraph flatly contradicts Mr. Wells’s assertion that “No more nonsensical expression is conceivable in sociology than the term ‘primitive communism.'” (Chap. XXXVII. 13.) By the use of such totally irrelevant analogies as the “dog and his bone, the tigress and her lair,” he tries to prove that primitive man was an intensely individualistic property-holder.


Many readers of his work will be unaware that in taking up this position Mr. Walls is contemptuously disregarding for the benefit of his thesis the accumulated evidence of a host of competent observers in all parts of the world, and also, for the later stages of primitive communism, a considerable mass of documentary evidence. We cannot state or discuss this evidence here. The works on the subject are numerous ; those by Morgan, Tylor, Lubbock and Maine will be profitable reading to the student. A good summary from a sound viewpoint is Lafargue’s “Evolution of Property,” and a great mass of evidence from all peoples and periods is contained in Prof. Letourneau’s “Property, its Origin and Development.


These omissions and errors, unfortunately, give a distorting perspective to what would otherwise be an uncommonly vivid picture of primaeval humanity. So conspicuous and important are they that their occurrence is only to be explained as a result of the preconceived theoretical notions of the author.


Mr. Wells classifies more advanced human societies into two primary types: “Communities of Will” and “Communities of Faith and Obedience.” The former are societies of “free” individuals, jointly and freely determining the activities of the communities to which they belong. His stock examples are the tribes of nomadic, warlike herdsmen of the great plains. Illustrations of the second type of community are the ancient States, such as those of Egypt and Babylonia, in which a monarchic and priestly government controlled the lives and commanded the allegiance and obedience of its subjects who regarded it with fearful and religious reverence.


Now, to the Marxist this classification must appear unsatisfactory, being based on nothing fundamental. It lays no stress upon the supremely important factor of interest. It should be obvious that you will find no community of will where there is no community of interest. The two conditions are interdependent. One in the absence of the other is almost inconceivable.


The tribesmen of a nomadic people could determine the activity of the community in defence, offence, or migration because their individual needs both immediate and ultimate were identical. This was easily seen and fully understood. The division of social labour had not yet reached the point at which it produces classes of oppressors and oppressed. All had inalienable “rights” in the community, membership of which was based upon actual blood-kinship. Every incentive existed to loyal action in support of the tribe.


Moreover, the fact that in a pastoral community public affairs are decided by the Council of Chiefs or assembly of tribesmen in no way alters the fact that “faith and obedience” exert a great influence on its members. The people of the tribe owe rigid obedience to the tribal custom law, and the sacred bonds of “ancestor worship” are an additional cement to that produced by unity of interest.


Now, exactly the reverse state of affairs obtained in the great communities of Egypt and Babylonia. Here diversity of occupation social function and interest brought about by progress in agriculture, handicraft, and commerce, was the cardinal feature. There were peasants, artisans, merchants, soldiers, officials, nobles, and priests, with sub-divisions of each. (Chattel slaves, very numerous, especially in Babylonia, are expressly omitted, as they are not members of the community in Mr. Wells’s sense.) The bulk of the “free” town workers had their narrow but well recognised craft interests, but those in different trades even in the same locality would have little in common. There were few amongst them who were completely propertyless, and thus no proletariat existed.


In districts where a large slave population existed—especially of gang-slaves—fear of their revolt would act as a sedative to discontent amongst the “free” workers.


These great States covered an extensive territory, and their population was large. Means of communication between distant cities and districts did not exist for the common people. There was thus little possibility of widespread revolt on the part of any exploited class. Local revolts though were not unknown—there was a “strike” of labourers at Thebes in the reign of Rameses III.—and as they were bound to conflict with the politico-religious authority they show that the common people were not so servile as Mr. Wells would have us believe.


Division of interests among the masses made possible the despotic rule of the politically intelligent minority, and the common need for protection against the inroads of barbarian invaders justified it. This minority, the “ruling class,” were originally successful conquerors, clan or tribal chiefs and “medicine men.” They had at their back a disciplined army largely of foreign troops from conquered provinces. Tradition and superstition were contributory factors, but of secondary importance.


Turning to another aspect of this interesting question, as Mr. Wells says (Chap. XX. 2): “On the whole the common men were probably well content to live under lord or king or god and obey their bidding. It was safer. It was easier.” Accustomed to his lot and aspiring to nothing higher than the standard of comfort it traditionally afforded, the average Egyptian peasant or labourer would submit in “faith and obedience” to what must often have seemed intolerable extortion and irksome obligations, rather than engage in any serious revolt against what must have seemed to him the mightiest, most impregnable power in the world. Such an act would do too much violence to his settled habits of work and thought, and all to no good purpose. Here also, then, interest, bodily and mental, is the deciding impulse.


It must not be thought that Mr. Wells entirely fails to recognise these effects of the hierarchy of classes; he does show that they are a contributory factor, but seems to think that it was the influence of priests and of the “god-king” idea which primarily caused men to surrender their “wills” in social affairs. The “god-king” certainly was a useful, indeed a necessary institution to primitive civilisation. Superstition, religious or secular, is always useful to class divided societies. It gives the ruling classes a supernatural or a moral sanction otherwise absent and thus oils the wheels of exploitation.


Mr. Wells devotes a whole chapter to the rise of classes in Egypt, Babylonia, India and China and his treatment in the main is very satisfactory. Here and there throughout the book he shows very clearly the effect of class grouping and interest as a determinant in social change.


R. W. Housley


To be continued.