In the aftermath of the Second World War, the English novelist Dennis Wheatley feared the triumph of Communism was likely, not only on the Continent, but in Britain, where the Labour government was pursuing a socialist agenda marked by harsh austerity.
Wheatley was famous for his espionage and black-magic themed thrillers. His 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out is the subject of a long article on this blog. Wheatley had served in military intelligence during the war, as a member of the London Controlling Section, which planned the Normandy Invasion. His most famous novels blended the threats of dark political forces with the occult.
Wheatley’s horror at the prospect of a Communist coup in Britain led to his writing a remarkable document, which he titled, “A Letter to Posterity.” He composed it on November 20, 1947, the day Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece. Wheatley looked back at the extraordinary technological changes that had taken place since his birth in 1897, and how these changes had ushered in mass politics and Orwellian repression.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, communication technology serves as a lever of both political and occult power in Wheatley’s description. He was writing before television, the internet, or social media, but the trajectory of his critique aims directly at them.
Wheatley buried the letter on the grounds of his estate, Grove Place, Hampshire, where it was discovered after he moved out in 1968. He writes:
When I was born electricity had been discovered but not yet adapted to practical every-day usage. London had no electric light or telephone system. Wireless, radio recording, broadcasting and gramophones were still unknown, and the petrol engine was still in its infancy. There were no motorcars; on the streets all vehicles were still horse-drawn, and for travelling further afield, the steam train as yet without corridor coaches, was the only means of transport. Liners and warships were generally steam propelled but a great part of the world’s sea-borne commerce was still carried in sailing ships; and the idea of travelling by air was as remote and unreal with us as it was with the Romans.
The electric age, having its infancy while I was a schoolboy, reaching maturity during the First World War, and becoming a dominant factor in all our lives from then on, has revolutionised thought wherever it has penetrated.
In the early years of the century the vast majority of the people of Europe and the United States—and even more so those of the less progressive areas of the world—formed their opinions from personal contact with their fellows. The more advanced among them were neither lacking in intelligence or political consciousness, but their attitude towards their rulers was governed in the main by (1) any new laws which affected their personal well-being and (2) the discussion of events at the centres of government—declarations of war, treaties of alliance, court scandals, royal marriages etc. these were often belatedly reported but formed the staple talk wherever men were gathered together; in the towns, in clubs and taverns, in the country, in public halls and inns. Thus, in those days, the ‘voice of the people’ was in fact the consensus of opinion arrived at after a vast number of free debates had taken place at every level of society and in all parts of the country, concerned.
This ‘voice’ was rarely raised; but when it was, rulers had good cause to tremble, and almost invariably, the result was a cessation of repression or a change of government; as the ‘voice’ was usually pregnant with both justice and commonsense.
But the ‘voice’ was stilled by the coming of the electro-machine age, as the new inventions enabled the professional politicians of all parties to get into direct touch with every community, however remote. First came the electric press, enabling a million or more copies of a newspaper to be run off in a single night—and enormously improved arrangements for distribution. Then came the wireless telegraph—which swiftly developed into radio, with a five times a day news service which, by means of a cheap receiving set, could be picked up in every home. And these were followed by the cinematograph which soon became one of the most insidious weapons for political propaganda.
The result was that instead of forming their opinions by quiet thought and reasoned discussion, the bulk of the people took them ready made (from so called ‘informed’ sources) and, in consequence, in the short space of the first two decades of the 20th century an almost unbelievable change took place in the mental attitude of the masses all over the world. The immense speeding up of means of communication brought the national and international picture so swiftly before them that it filled their thoughts to the exclusion of local conditions and the well-being of their own communities; political ideologies and abstract theories of government usurped in their minds the place which had previously been occupied by the selective prosperity of local industries and the prospects of crops. Worst of all, the masses came under the immediate influence of the political demagogues who labelled themselves as the ‘representatives of the people’, who held that ‘all men being equal’ all power should be vested in the majority rather than in the intelligent minority, as had been the case in the past.
Wheatley died in 1977 so he did not live to see the end of the Cold War. He would have been gratified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But mass media is no less powerful a weapon today—and humans no less susceptible to it.