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Volume 193
Number 39

The Salvaging of Civilization


Mr. H. G. Wells

NOTE: This series of articles was originally prepared as lectures to be first delivered in the United States of America and Canada. The writer was unaccustomed to lecturing, and he regarded his American audiences with considerable dread. Accordingly he wrote and rewrote these addresses with exceptional care. It was to have been his first lecturing tour to the States; hitherto he had refused steadily to cross the Atlantic for this purpose; and it was only his conviction that he had something of very considerable moment to say to his friends in America that induced him to face what were for him considerable risks and fatigues. Unhappily, he was unable even to start. A severe attack of congestion of the lungs, about three weeks before the date of his sailing, made the expedition impossible, and it is now very improbable that he will ever talk face to face with an American audience. This illness was a very acute disappointment for him. These lectures he had planned upon very broad lines, and they give very clearly and explicitly his idea of what has to be done if our present civilization is to reconstruct itself and go on and escape from the destructive and degenerative phase into which it seems to have blundered. It is, the reader will see, a broadly complete project of world-wide political and educational propaganda and reconstruction, These lectures are now printed here, with very slight modifications, in the form and phrasing in which he would have liked to have given them to his American hearers. He has, in fact, resorted to The Saturday Evening Post as his lecture theater.

IN THIS opening article I want to tell you of the idea that now shapes and dominates my public life—the idea of a world politically united—of a world securely and permanently at peace. And I want to say what I have to say, so far as regards the main argument of it, as accurately and plainly as possible, without any flourishes.

When I first planned this article I chose as the title The Utopia of a World State. Well, there is something a little too flimsy and unpracticable about that word "Utopia." To most people "Utopia" conveys the idea of a high-toned political and ethical dream—agreeable and edifying, no doubt, but of no practical value whatever. What I have to say is not a bit dreamlike; it is about real dangers and urgent necessities. It is a project and not a Utopia. It may be a vast and impossible project. But if it fails our civilization fails. And so I have called his article, not the Utopia but The Project of a World State.

I will confess that I have written this article several times. There are some things that it is almost impossible to tell without soeming to scream and exaggerate, and yet these things may be in reality the soberest matter of fact.

I want to say that this civilization in which we are living is tumbling flown and, I think, tumbling down very fast; that I think rapid, enormous efforts will be needed to have it; and that I see no such efforts being made at the present time. I do not know if these words convey any concrete ideas to your minds at all. I know that you represent orderly and comfortable homes; that you walk through safe and well-lit streets; that behind you are towns of flourishing shops and businesses, banks and securities, orderly ndustries, a steady food supply.

But in the past year I have been going about Europe. I have had glimpses of a new phase of this civilization of ours—a new phase that would have looked like a fantastic dream if one had told about it ten years ago. I have seen a great city that had two million inhabitants, dying, and dying with incredible rapidity. In 1914 I was in the city of St. Petersburg, and it seemed as safe and orderly a great city as yours. I went thither in comfortable and punctual trains. I stayed in a hotel as well equipped and managed as any American hotel. I went to dine with and visit households of cultivated people. I walked along streets of brilliantly lit and well-furnished shops. It was, in fact, much the same sort of life that you are living here to-day—a part of our (then) worldwide modern civilization.

I revisited these things last summer. I found such a spectacle of decay that I find it almost impossible to convey it to an audience that has never seen the like. Streets with great holes where the drains had fallen in; stretches of roadway from which the wood paving had been torn for firewood; lamp-posts that had been knocked over, lying as they were left without an attempt to set them up again; shops and markets deserted and decayed and ruinous—not closed shops, but abandoned shops, as abandoned-looking as an old boot or an old can by the wayside; the railways falling out of use; a population of half a million where formerly there had been two million; a strangely homeless city, a city of discomforts and anxieties, a city of want and ill-health and death.

Such was Petersburg in 1920. Such, indeed, was all Russia.

I know there are people who have a quick and glib explanation of this vast and awe-inspiring spectacle of a great empire in collapse. They say it is Bolshevism that has caused all this destruction. But I hope to show in this article, among other more important things, that Bolshevism is merely a part of this immense collapse—that the overthrow of a huge civilized organization needs some more comprehensive explanation than that a little man named Lenine was able to get from Geneva to Russia at a particular crisis in Russian history. And particularly it is to be noted that this immense destruction of civilized life has not been confined to Russia. Austria and Hungary present spectacles hardly less desolating than Russia. There is a conspicuous ebb in civilization in Eastern Germany. And even when you come to France and Italy and Ireland there are cities, townships, whole wide regions where you can say, "This has gone back since 1914, and it is still going back in material prosperity, in health, in social order."

In England and Scotland, in Holland and Denmark and Sweden even, it is hard to determine whether things are stagnant or moving forward or moving back they are certainly not going ahead as they were before 1913—1914. The feeling in England is rather like the feeling of a man who is not quite sure whether he has caught a slight chill or whether he is in the opening stage of a serious illness.

Now what I want to do in this article is to theorize about this shadow—this chill and arrest—that seems to have come upon the flourishing and expanding civilization in which all of us were born and reared. I want to put a particular view of what is happening before you, and what it is that we are up against. I want to put before you for your judgment the view that this overstrain and breaking down and stoppage of the great, uprush of civilization that has gone on for the past three centuries is due to the same forces, and is the logical outcome of the same forces, that led to that uprush, to that tremendous expansion of human knowledge and power and life; and that that breaking up is an inevitable thing unless we meet it by a very great effort of a particular kind.