In his 1901 book, “Anticipations,” H.G. Wells offered his predictions for the future and his belief that only an elite group of enlightened scientists and technicians could save humanity. The book caught the attention of London’s Fabian Society, a small group of accomplished men and women whose aim was to bring about socialism peacefully through the “permeation” of socialist ideas into universities and government. Some members thought that having Wells in their midst would make Fabianism interesting again, and in 1903 the red-bearded George Bernard Shaw, chair of their executive committee, led a group who put up the mustachioed Wells for membership.
Wells, like the younger members who had joined to save the world, was disappointed to find a cliquey institution controlled by Shaw and a few others. Wells served passively for two years, then suggested an inquiry into the society’s effectiveness. He was allowed to deliver his critique, “The Faults of the Fabian,” at a members-only meeting, and began by berating those assembled as inactive, silent on the Boer War and not concerned enough with reforming education. He scoffed at their requirement that applicants obtain letters of recommendation from existing members, as if they were a swanky social club. But his main concern was that while labor organizations were turning manual workers into socialists, not enough was being done to recruit doctors, teachers and other professionals.
“Make socialists and you will achieve socialism,” he exhorted.
The old guard conceded some points, but quickly realized that the kind of action Wells proposed did not fit in with the elitist sensibility of their society. A civil war ensued for the next two years, until Wells overplayed his hand and Shaw, using his skill as a debater, forced Wells to resign. Those who sided with Shaw saw Wells as the sort who could not work under any structure that he himself had not designed. In his 1934 memoir the novelist confessed that his behavior had been a case of “real inexcusable vanity,” but he defended his opposition to the Fabians’ plan to “permeate the existing order rather than change it.”
Thanks to Wells’s five-year association with the group, its membership had tripled, and its income had quadrupled. Wells had joined to promote socialism, but instead, had only succeeded in promoting the Fabians.
Edward Sorel, a caricaturist and muralist, is the author and illustrator of “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary.”