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What Are We to Do with Our Lives? The League of Nations, Open Conspiracy, and the World State

Focus on modernist institutions requires attention to modernist institutionalism as well. Whereas focus on the former involves the ways in which literary and cultural developments are conditioned and made possible by publishers, publications, organizations, and governments, focus on the latter emphasizes the forms of justification and modes of habituation that result in the shape and functioning of such institutions. To give one example, the interwar period saw an intense debate over the features and functions of a global institutional system following the catastrophic results of the nationalist-driven Great War. The British-led League of Nations, which was meant to overcome national divisions, became the focal point of much internationalist debate: divided between the League of Nations Union (LNU), which helped sell the League to the British public in terms emphasizing the compatibility of the Empire’s moral leadership with that of the League, and critics like H. G. Wells, who saw the League as a half-measure, and instead argued for a world state rooted in a fundamental cosmopolitanism. For Wells, the world needed non-state solutions to world governance, and he instead focused on building an international coalition of like-minded individuals into what he called the “Open Conspiracy.” This article uses Wells’s Open Conspiracy writings to lay out the terms around which a new institutionalism was contested and characterize the precise ways in which his ideas were impactful amongst British progressives.

An Open Conspiracy

Wells’s Open Conspiracy was both a modification of his thinking on world government and an attempt to imagine an alternative to the League of Nations. He presented his first developed version in The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (1928), in which he advocated for a world system of governance developed by a network of progressive elites. Broadly speaking, and as the phrase suggests, an “open conspiracy” would involve a transparent effort to resituate social and political relations in global terms, a “world commonweal” as he has it. Open Conspiracists would be the “progressive section . . . of all or nearly all communities in order to weave the beginnings of a world community out of their selection.”[1] State governments, and specifically the military and political classes, are viewed as obstacles too entrenched in their self-interests and self-preservation. Familial and other tradition-oriented relations in society are also faulted (Wells, Open Conspiracy, 73–74). For Wells, the Open Conspiracy should not appeal to “crowd psychology and the indiscriminating rule of universal democracy” (78). A decentralized, non-authoritarian elitism is core to his vision. A kind of spontaneous and collective clarity and will can, on its own, develop a truly world system of governance.

In this respect, Wells reflected a shift in some corners of how international relations ought to be approached. For instance, in an early version of his Open Conspiracy thinking, Wells has the titular character of The World of William Clissold announce a new kind of international society arrived at through nonviolent means.

[The Open Conspiracy] seeks to consolidate and keep alive and develop the living powers in the world today by an illumination, a propaganda, a literature, a culture, an education and the consciously evoked expectation of a new society . . . Our true quality is cosmopolitan . . . When we cease to think ourselves British, American, German, or French, we do not become vaguely cosmopolitan; we become world-steel, world-shipping, world-cotton, world-food.[2]

The “cosmopolitan” Wells refers to here was a “new form of internationalism” moving into the twentieth century, which was not so much antagonistic with nation-states, but rather “transformed the status of sovereignty itself, so that the sovereign state (and any of its officers), instead of being the guarantor of rights, becomes answerable morally and in international law to the universal rights of humans.”[3] Kok-Chor Tan sees this as a distinction between institutional and moral cosmopolitanisms, whereas the former “calls for the establishment of a world state,” the latter “is not concerned directly with the question of how global institutions are to be ordered, but with the justificatory basis of these institutions,” and moreover “a moral cosmopolitan can as well defend national self-determination if she believes that the ideal of equal and impartial concern for individuals is best realized by respecting their claims to national sovereignty.”[4] And while Tan’s distinction makes Wells sound like an institutional cosmopolitan, he is more a moral cosmopolitan as his writings rather reflect the “justificatory basis” of such institutions. For example, when it came to the League of Nations, he held out hope for its viability as a supersession of nation-states until it was clear it was not. The “language of cosmopolitanism” was attractive to Wells, as with other internationalists, “because it allowed them to slip the bonds of the state, but cosmopolitanism implies no particular alternative political structure to interstate relations.” Daniel Gorman adds that “[t]his was the League’s core flaw—it functioned as an extension of interstate relations but was conceived of by its adherents and its opponents alike as an expression of international society.”[5] The League, as established, “of nations” was inevitably guided by multiple national foreign policies. And as it was enshrined in its Covenant, the League had little say in those respective nations’ agendas.

When the Covenant of the League of Nations was produced—with only a nod to collective security and at the exclusion of Germany and the Soviet Union—Wells joined several LNU members in signing an open letter that cautioned the “League was being transformed into an Allied alliance to hold Germany by force in an inferior position.”[6] Wells was concerned over the veto power of the eight member states on the Council reinforcing individual nation’s roles in this world system and the absence of a general disarmament clause in the Treaty of Versailles, combined with the League’s inability to enforce international agreements.[7] Indeed, the debate over the international regulation of war brought to a head disagreements between institutional and moral internationalists. “The broader interwar liberal internationalist movement . . . favored an expansion of the international legal regulation of war as embodied in the Hague System, the Geneva Conventions, and the League Covenant” (Gorman, Emergence, 265). On the other hand, the so called “outlawry movement” sought to make war “unlawful” except in “self-defense or for reasons outside national policy” (265). Gorman, in outlining this debate, quotes from Wells’s coauthored The Idea of a League of Nations (1919), where Wells critiques the expansion of regulation for making “the persistence of war as an institution” (265). For Wells, such institutional internationalism ultimately served national self-interests, and could not help achieve his self-imagined cosmopolitanism of a world state.

Wells and the League of Nations in Britain

But before we turn back to how Wells imagines a morally justified world state system, we need to further address how the League was received and packaged within Great Britain where it was initially popularly received. The LNU, which Wells grew distant from after 1919, spent the interwar years explaining and promoting the League to the citizens of Great Britain. According to Helen McCarthy, the LNU’s broad success could be credited to its “yoking its liberal-internationalist agenda to the values of non-partisanship, political education, and responsible citizenship.”[8] As a result, the LNU had “popularize[d] the idea of international government whilst in the process domesticating it, persuading many British people to place their faith in an untested innovation in internationalism by situating it within a comforting narrative of continuity in Britain’s encounter with modernity” (McCarthy 9). And importantly, the LNU packaged the League as an institution of moral development—they presented the “general good” of the League but emphasized the necessity of its widespread acceptance for that good to be capitalized. There was a belief within the LNU that currying popular support for the League would grant this institution its legitimacy, and its legitimacy was paramount if it was to be a symbol of a “shift in the balance of power between government and the governed” (18).

Yet there is another key dimension of the LNU, which is especially important to foreground as context for the reception of Wells’s Open Conspiracy-styled world state imaginings: namely, the attitude of the LNU’s leaders. When it came to the LNU leadership, the moderate appeal of the compromised result from the discussions in Paris trumped more radical proposals for world government. Part of the appeal derived from their reluctance to challenge how they understood the subtler forms of nationalism present in the British political class. Thus, according to McCarthy, the “LNU’s achievement was to carve out a place for the League within this culture by containing the pacifist influence and demonstrating the mutual compatibility of internationalist, militarist, and imperialist values” (148). British liberal internationalism, in effect, saw international relations as an extension and reflection of national policies and values. Some of this was borne out of a general skepticism prevalent amongst internationalists in the interwar period:

From the late-nineteenth century through to the interwar years, a gradual change took place within British liberal internationalism from (primarily) moral to (primarily) institutional arguments . . . Overall, however, these trends involved a reorientation of means more than ends. Moreover, the increasing prominence accorded to institutional solutions did not substitute for belief in potential moral development or efforts to bring it about through enlightenment and education.[9]

In essence, if the League was never an unbridled success in Britain, it was due less to its perceived viability, and more to already ingrained attitudes toward moral development. Thus, this tension between moral and institutional solutions is key to understanding Wells’s framing of the means to a world state in his interwar writings.

For example, in his revision of Open Conspiracy, published as What Are We to Do With Our Lives? (1931), Wells focuses on individual development as the basis for the building of the Open Conspiracy. He opens in terms we have encountered thus far: establishing what we mean by morality.

What does moral mean? Mores means manners and customs. Morality is the conduct of life. It is what we do with our social lives. It is how we deal with ourselves in relation to our fellow creatures.[10]

Wells’s issue with institutional solutions, especially national ones, has nothing to do with their existence as such, but rather their lack of satisfactory justification in relation to its citizens. For Wells, the Open Conspiracy should not, despite the subtitle of his 1928 volume, be revolutionary as realpolitik but inevitable. Elsewhere in What Are We to Do With Our Lives? he makes the progressive case for global institutional overhaul.

The Open Conspiracy is not necessarily antagonistic to any existing government. The Open Conspiracy is a creative, organizing movement and not an anarchistic one. It does not want to destroy existing controls and forms of human association, but either to supersede or amalgamate them into a common world directorate. If constitutions, parliaments, and kings can be dealt with as provisional institutions, trustees for the coming of age of the world commonweal, and in so far as they are conducted in that spirit, the Open Conspiracy makes no attack upon them. (70–71)

The “common world directorate” Wells imagines would form through a pooling of right-minded efforts from around the globe, and not through some politicized or militaristic confrontation of existing national systems. His unwillingness to call for open revolution also reflected his complicated relationship with another contemporaneous global institution: the British Empire.

Wells’s attitude towards national institutions, specifically his own, was complicated by his shifting perspective on the justification of its colonial territories at a time when the British government was itself trying to have it both ways with the League of Nations. The British government, who took a central role in the formation and maintenance of the League, and “fostered the process of internationalization, driven equally by a desire to exercise moral leadership in the world and to legitimate its own imperial practices,” found itself having to resolve the contradiction of possessing colonies while arguing against the territorial expansion of other nations.[11] While the League would eventually debate its role in propping up imperialist regimes, its acceptance or rejection in Britain was often framed in comparison to the Empire.[12] In Wells’s pre-World War I writings, for example, he imagined a global order of English-speaking peoples, a New Republic, which “would be best realized by the fusion of the United States and the British colonial empire.”[13] And while his attitude towards the United States cooled following a 1906 visit, his form of liberal imperialism, that empire was of instrumental value to achieve “the suppression of the system of states and the creation of a universal political order,” remained mostly in place (Bell 874). In fact, Wells’s critique of the League had less to do with its propping up interwar imperial regimes, than its failure to accomplish what those regimes seemed to be well-built for. This tack is clear throughout the collected articles of A Year of Prophesying (1924), where he criticized the League for its inability to supersede its member nations as nations in any meaningful way.[14] His own response was to spend the following years attempting to create a cosmopolitan audience, a “competent receiver,” who could swallow the cosmopolitanism he was cooking up.

Wells and the Progressive Societies

But were there any takers? As an indicator of how popular Wells Open Conspiracy ideas were, several progressive societies popped up in the wake of these publications claiming its influence. Most prominently, the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals (subsequently, the Progressive Society), whose member societies were colorfully named groups like the Promethean Society, the World League for Sexual Freedom, the Woodcraft Folk (an anti-imperialist answer to the Boy Scouts), the Gymnic Association of Great Britain (nudists), as well as the on-brand H. G. Wells Society, later the Open Conspiracy, later Cosmopolis, which eventually folded into the Progressive Society. The Progressive Society outlined their concerns in language which clearly echoed Wells’s Open Conspiracy writings:

I. Economic and Political . . . 3b. The progressive abrogation of national sovereignty as world authorities are brought into being . . . II. Educational. 1. The Establishment of a Universal System of Education . . . c. Inclusion in the school curriculum of instruction in (i) general biology, covering sex education and hygiene, (ii) world economics and finance, (iii) universal as opposed to national history.[15]

The Progressive Society’s platform was diverse and ambitious, but it clearly held to Wells’s cosmopolitanism which valued a well-informed and like-minded citizenry. Despite its ambitious plans, the Progressive Society always remained a marginal group, but its example does illustrate the degree of seriousness to which Wells’s ideas were taken.[16]  If the Progressive Society’s endgame was global in design, what it ended up with instead was something far more local, and for those involved, more meaningful: “what was created was a self-selecting group, which served at least some of the needs of the individuals within it for the sense of being part of a community and for support and sympathy in their various other endeavors towards a better social order.”[17] In some sense, this scans as a consolation prize for failing to meet their lofty objectives; however, the Progressive Society does serve as an interesting test case for the feasibility of a morally driven cosmopolitanism.

The heterogeneity of the Progressive Society’s interests, its broad tent for all manner of social interaction, gets to the heart of modernist institutionalism. The absence of consensus on what international institutions should do, and who they should be for, gave impetus to the various proposals put forward for a world society.[18] If a supranational institution like the League of Nations was a provisional step toward a more perfect form of world governance, then it not only left unresolved what that future form would be, but also left space open for speculative attempts at alternate institutional forms. In this sense, Wells’s “what are we to do with our lives?” is more an invitation to consider than a promise to answer. As such, his question remains central to modernist institutionalism, exhaustively thinking through the ways in which individuals could reshape the world condition through institutions of their own making.



[1] H. G. Wells, The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1928), 58–59. Open Conspiracy announces its intentions in the contradiction it proposes – is a conspiracy conspiratorial if it occurs in plain sight? Wells was searching for a means by which the “world revolution” of his subtitle could be achieved without the hallmarks of failed revolutions past. And as Maxim Shadurski points out, Wells was not keen on the potential effects of a proletarian-led revolution as well: “the reason why Wells dismisses revolution relates to his ulterior fear of the wreckage, inadequacy, and disruption that may succeed a historic shift” (Maxim Shadurski, The Nationality of Utopia: H. G. Wells, England, and the World State [New York: Routledge, 2020], 70).

[2] H. G. Wells, The World of William Clissold, Volume III (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 622–23.

[3] Robert J. C. Young, “The Cosmopolitan Idea and National Sovereignty” in Cosmopolitanisms, ed. Bruce Robbins and Paolo Lemos Horta, (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 135, 136.

[4] Kok-Chor Tan, “Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism” in The Cosmopolitan Reader eds. Garrett Wallace Brown and David Held (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), 182.

[5] Daniel Gorman, The Emergence of International Society in the 1920’s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 57–58.

[6] Douglas Birn, The League of Nations Union, 1918-1945 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1981), 17.

[7] John Partington, Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H. G. Wells (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 105-6.

[8] Helen McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship, and Internationalism, c.1918-1945 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011), 9.

[9] Casper Sylvest, British Liberal Internationalism, 1880-1930: Making Progress? (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009), 198–99.

[10] H. G. Wells, What Are We to Do With Our Lives? (London: William Heinemann Limited, 1931), 6.

[11] Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 357. In the League, it managed to do so politically, if not morally, by designing the “mandate system.” The mandate system was one of the signal features of the League of Nations under Article 22 of its Convenant, giving League members authority to govern former Ottoman and German colonial territories (see Mazower, Governing the World, 165–73 and Pedersen, Guardians, 53–59).

[12] See Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 53. See also Douglas Birn, The League of Nations Union, 1918-1945 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1981), 123.

[13] Duncan Bell, “Founding the World State: H. G. Wells on Empire and the English-Speaking Peoples,” International Studies Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2018): 867–79, 870.

[14] For more on Wells and Empire in relation to his ideas for a world state, see Bell, “Founding the World State” and Partington, Building Cosmopolis. Bell using the moment in Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography where he declared the Empire was “a convenience and not a God,” emphasized the author’s “disdain for imperial greed and hubris” (874). Indeed, in Imperialism and the Open Conspiracy (1929), Wells claims a kind of consistency of perspective about where the true problem lies: “[t]hen as now my ends were cosmopolitan, and my dislike for and opposition to nationalism and nationalist patriotism has never varied” (H. G. Wells, Imperialism and the Open Conspiracy [London: Faber and Faber, 1929], 7).

Partington, who works through Wells’s changing versions of a world state, “from a series of regional unions in the 1920’s to his theory of the functional world state, fully worked out by 1932,” curiously passes over Wells’s Open Conspiracy writings of this period (Building Cosmopolis, 8). Even so, he encapsulates Wells’s conceptual framework neatly, pointing to a passage in “The Common Sense of World Peace” (1929), where Wells argues that “[c]osmopolitanism is something entirely different from internationalism; it is antagonistic to internationalism. It does not see world peace as an arrangement between states, but as a greater human solidarity over-riding states” (quoted in Partington, Building Cosmpolis, 7).

[15] Manifesto: Being the Book of The Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, ed. C. E. M. Joad, (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1934), 23-24. Wells wrote the introduction to the manifesto, wherein he, without explicitly endorsing the Progressive Society, acknowledged that because of the “multifarious complexity of human affairs it is impracticable to attempt to achieve the objects already stated by one single creative revolutionary organization,” and argued for instead for the “marshal[ing of] a great variety of forces and prepar[ing] for a great variety of activities” (17). He would also irregularly write in to comment on Progressive Society declarations and served as one of its honorary vice presidents for some years. The pages of PLAN reproduced a revised version of the “Basis” in every issue.

[16] The life of this society can be tracked in the pages of PLAN between 1934 and 1936: for example, an announcement of the H. G. Wells Society (June 1934, 10); for an Open Conspiracy announcement (January 1936, 7); for Cosmopolis and a brief description of aims (July 1936, 16-7); and a plan to merge and the eventual merger announcement (October 1936, 17; December 1936, 23-4). Perhaps unsurprisingly, several Progressive Society members found federalist world government formulations appealing, and contributed to the conversation on federal union which gained traction in late 1939. The federal union publications of the wartime period is vast, but for Progressive Society member contributions, see Curry’s The Case for Federal Union (1939); Wooton’s “Socialism and Federation” in Studies in Federal Planning (1943); and Joad’s The Philosophy of Federalism (1943); D. N. Pritt’s Federal Illusion?: An Examination of Federal Union (1940); Stapledon’s “Federalism and Socialism” in Federal Union: A Symposium (1940); H. R. G. Greaves’s Federal Union in Practice (1940); and Duncan and Elizabeth Wilson’s Federation and World Order (1940).

[17] Lesley A. Hall, “‘A City That We Shall Never Find’? The Search for a Community of Fellow Progressive Spirits in the UK between the Wars,” Family & Community History 18, no. 1 (2015), 24–36, 34. For Wells’s “world” order and England as a “local” space, see: Sarah Cole, Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 306–309.

[18] For more on the variety of twentieth century supranational world unions, see Duncan Bell, “The Project for a New Anglo Century: Race, Space, and Global Order” in Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 196–207.