Here is another article from the archives, one that I enjoyed writing some years ago on my teaching blog:
Ok, so this might be useful for teachers of modern Britain (1930s) and teachers of Soviet Russia. In the early 1930s the USSR had a complex relationship with western intellectuals, it has been described by historian Michael David Fox as ‘Showcasing the Great Experiment, and there is a wealth of writing (much of it highly critical) on the ‘fellow traveller’ movement of western intellectuals that made an ideological pilgrimage to the USSR under Stalin. The historian David Caute wrote a brilliantly revealing, though stingingly critical account of the European and American fellow travellers. He described them as men and women who were not members of any European communist party, but who had sympathies with communism, particularly Stalinism. Most did not want to see the development of Soviet Communism in their home countries. In the case of Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, they were sure that Britain was too advanced, settled and civilised for the bloodshed the a Bolshevik revolution would entail. That kind of suffering was more appropriate in their eyes for the chaotic and backward Russians (on the democratic socialist left in Britain in the 1930s, all manner of paternalist and ideas about lesser foreign types prevailed). For most of the fellow travellers in Europe and America, Russia offered a blank canvas, a society that had been remade anew by a revolution with a utopian and eschatological creed. This meant that fantasies could be projected on to Russia externally and the new society that was developing could neatly reflect what it was the observer wished to see. For example, the black First World War veteran Harry Haywood who wrote in his memoirs ‘Black Bolshevik’ of the racial discrimination he encountered during and after the war, saw Stalin’s Russia as a post racial society that would accept him. When white American auto workers in the USSR were put on trial for assaulting black American worker Robert Robinsonin Stalingrad, the message seemed pretty unambiguous. Others, such as the Webbs saw the bureaucratism of the USSR as appealing, HG Wells (about whom, more soon), said that the world was divided into As and Bs (anarchists and bureaucrats) and the Webbs definitely preferred Bs. Beatrice Webb was initially appalled by October 1917, but was chiefly upset by the idea that the Bolsheviks might abolish the state. Fortunately for her, Lenin penned State and Revolution in 1917, and argued that a large, bureaucratic and authoritarian state would be essential in the task of building socialism in Russia.
Wells and Stalin
The conversation that HG Wells had with Stalin in July 1934 is fascinating for a number of reasons (I’ve added the link but below I’ll talk through a few of the abridged highlights). Firstly, simply the tone and the language of the interview reveals a lot; it adds more doubt to the Trotsky claim that Stalin, for all his monstrous crimes, was slow and a ‘plodder’. Here is how the discussion begins:
Wells : I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world. . .
Stalin : Not so very much.
Wells : I wander around the world as a common man and, as a common man, observe what is going on around me.
Stalin : Important public men like yourself are not “common men”. Of course, history alone can show how important this or that public man has been; at all events, you do not look at the world as a “common man.”
What Stalin is trying to say here is that the material circumstances of Wells’ life (fame, wealth, success and his social class), shape his thought or consciousness. Therefore he will filter and interpret the world in a particular way and any claim to be ‘common’ is absurd. The essence of Soviet Communism is that consciousness is socially and materially constructed. Change the material realities surrounding someone and you will change the man or woman. This in large part explains the belief in the ‘transformative’ quality of the gulag.
The interview also demonstrates the conceit and naivety of Wells, shared by much of the rest of the fellow traveller movement and Stalin argues the position of the Soviet Union convincingly; At this point Wells’ good friends the Webbs had already been to the USSR two years earlier and written their book ‘Soviet Communism: A New Society? which was published in 1934. The couple had corresponded with Wells about their trip which had happened at the height of the Soviet famines. Sidney Webb was confronted with the reality of the famine by the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, but he was able to dismiss it as merely ‘rumour’. Their book praised Stalin, claiming that as he held the position of General Secretary of the Party, he could not be thought of as a dictator. The trials that had taken place by 1934 (Shakhty and Metrovickers) were thought by Beatrice Webb to be legitimate, assuming that the accused must have done something. She later took the same line with the Bukharin trial in 1937.