H.G. Wells, The Rights of Man: history repeating itself

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I checked this out weeks ago for a bit of light reading.

An act of gross cruelty or injustice that occurs in Manchura or Dunzig is as much an Englishman’s concern now, as if it occurred in Nigeria or Cardiff.”

H.G. Wells wrote the manifesto, ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’, in 1940 as a response to what he felt was the vacuum of reason as to why the Second World War was taking place. Urging authorities to make plain the rationale behind sending people off to fight yet another war, he and his cohorts set out just under ten clauses which all authorities globally could agree upon as the end goal, the ultimate society. These ideas would ultimately contribute to the Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948. He also formed and support PEN, a society formed of international writers who were dedicated to the freedom to read for all, and the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty, an independent council that campaigns for human rights issues in the UK.

I’ll be honest, I picked up this book because Ali Smith wrote the introduction to the Penguin reissue in 2015 and I’ve apparently made it my lifelong goal to read everything she’s ever written. It was £5 and I bought it from Lighthouse Radical Bookshop in Edinburgh. It seemed like a good fit. But why, in 2017, would a text written in 1940 about human rights still be perceived as progressive now?

I’m just kidding. I’m not an idiot. What struck me as I was reading this book was the duality of the text: the feeling that what you’re reading is both hugely radical and also what should be just common sense. The book consists of two letters in which Wells initially sets out the clauses and then following chapters in which he reconstitutes and reshapes these clauses to be more inclusive or to use better language to express what is meant. These rights include:

  • the right to nourishment, housing, healthcare and mental care
  • right to education
  • right to have home and private property protected
  • right to work and earn and be free from slavery
  • right to move freely about the world
  • right to privacy and security
  • right to public trial and to detention for a short fixed time only
  • freedom from torture and degrading or inhuman treatment
  • right not to be force-fed nor stopped from hunger strike if you so choose
  • right to finite imprisonment terms.

Wells argues that the only way to avoid this is an international agreement to collectively strive for the ideas set out in this manifesto. It is a demand for effort. Understanding that these ideas, as basic as they are, will require fundamental change, he asks that the work begins by the smallest action. As much as he wants affirmation by authorities, he also wants grassroots work from the ‘man’ in each clause, spreading the message of the preservation of human rights:

“There is no time to waste. Do not wait for ‘leaders’. Act yourself. Spread this idea of world collectivization plus the Rights of Man. We do not want ‘leaders’; we want honest representatives and missionaries to embody that idea and carry it everywhere on earth.”

The idea posited in the quote at the top of this post, the idea that regardless of nationality or geographical location, the violation of human rights in one place is the problem for another, is a cosmopolitan one. Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out the two threads of cosmopolitanism as follows:

“One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.”¹

It is fundamentally the idea that we are all equal, that we should take an interest in the lives and cultures of others no matter our own background, and that we have obligations to others. H.G. Wells was interested in the idea of the World State, of a world-wide authority, the idea of an international-run community. Appiah’s idea is far looser than that – it relies on an understanding that one can choose to be a cosmopolitan and thus act in such a way. And I think that’s what comes from this text: the idea that human rights are something authorities can choose to strive for and support. If they do not, they reveal themselves to be acting not in the interest of all but for the few.

Ali Smith wrote of the attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act in 2015: “They want to replace it with a British bill of rights, as if all nationalities are equal, but some are more equal than others.” In 2017, our nationalities seem to matter more. Donald Trump won based on Making America Great Again, and only America. No one else. The UK is apparently leaving the EU and in doing so is trying to reassert its Britishness with more Union Jacks than I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile right-wing nationalist parties are gaining traction in elections internationally as it seems most try to tighten their borders and reassert their national identity. National borders were lines first drawn in pencil across maps. They can be erased. And yet these lines currently decide who is considered more human than others.

Penguin’s reissuing of the text in 2015, with said introduction by Smith – a progressive writer who somehow manages to always write in order to make you think ‘Well, when you put it that way…’ – is again a direct response to the current events of the day. Acknowledging that its initial publication was “an urgently topical reaction to a global miscarriage of justice”, it states that we once again “face a humanitarian crisis”. ‘The sudden and urgent need’ of the reissuing of this book was done ‘in the hope that it will continue to stimulate debate and remind our leaders – and each other – of the essential priorities and responsibilities of mankind.”

Much like Wells’s own manifesto, this is an act of intervention. Even though this reprint is from 2015, the situation has, I feel it is safe to say with no exaggeration, only gotten worse. Whilst reading this, I felt more and more connected to the rest of history; the same patterns keep cropping up as humanity makes mistakes, vow to learn and never do. As a consequence, millions lose their homes, their perceived humanity or even their lives. And it keeps happening.

Smith emphasises in her introduction how prophetic Wells’s writing can seem and indeed his many predictions among others of the internet, lasers and genetic engineering have come true. His many quips and references to the events of his current moment placed the text firmly in its historical context but also seems to be part of a larger narrative, not peculiar to its time. He references the two hundred years before this time where humanity underwent great change and argues that we never really figured out how to handle that. He sees WW1 as part of the same forty years of ongoing conflict as WW2, a blindingly obvious sign to him that change is required. Actions and events throughout time are all connected as a result of our shared humanity.

Much like 1940, we find ourselves driven towards the unknown by politicians who we all know are unclear on where we’re going but refuse to admit it. Much like 1940, people are being forced to leave their homes due to war and famine and are on the whole being treated as inhuman. Language like swarms, migrants and masses allows those who live in non-war-torn countries to distance themselves from the dehumanised. The idea that every man (which Wells clarifies early on refers to all, not just those of the male persuasion) deserves food, shelter and safety regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or any other label used to discriminate against and withhold from refugees, is indeed still radical in 2017.

¹Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, (USA: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. xv.


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