Stalin’s fellow travellers
Paul Flewers looks at the strange case of the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb
Fellow-travelling - the more or less uncritical championing of a ‘socialist’ country - is a rather bedraggled phenomenon these days. For a start, there is a decided lack of countries that claim to be ‘socialist’ to fellow-travel. And those that remain cut a sorry contrast to the broad range that was on offer even as recently as the 1980s. Cuba has lost much of its lustre following the demise of Fidel Castro. Only the most delusional would consider North Korea a country worthy of emulation. Those who look favourably at China seem more impressed with its robust capitalist growth than with its display of red flags.
What a contrast this makes to the 1930s, the ‘Red Decade’: that heady time when sizeable numbers of intellectuals suddenly became enamoured with the Soviet Union, trooping off on carefully guided tours around the country and breathlessly recounting their experiences upon their return. This did not go unnoticed at the time:
To Moscow, to Moscow
To have a quick look.
Home again, home again
Write a fat book.1
One particular “fat book” truly exemplified this infatuation. Although it was a dreadfully dull plod, compared to the usual lively accounts of visitors to the Soviet Union, Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Soviet communism: a new civilisation is nonetheless a classic example of the manner in which the development of the country under Stalin could exert an immense attraction, even upon previously critical observers.2
The lives of the Webbs have been described in detail,3 and need not be more than touched on here. Suffice it to state that Sidney and Beatrice Webb, born in 1859 and 1858 respectively, and married in 1892, were by the end of the century seasoned authors with a long list of substantial works on politics and social reform. Lynchpins of the Fabian Society, a moderate socialist think-tank, the Webbs combined an incurable elitism with ultimate technocratism. Their idea of socialism was the precise ordering of society, with everything planned out in advance, and everyone working to that plan. Society was to be a well-oiled machine, run by disinterested experts standing above the political melee.
Like the liberal collectivists, they believed in “a deliberately organised society” and “the application of science to human relations with a view to betterment”, but, whereas the liberals looked to ‘the existing governing class”,
We staked our hopes on the organised working class, served and guided, it is true, by an elite of unassuming experts who would make no claim to superior social status, but would content themselves with exercising the power inherent in superior knowledge and longer administrative experience.4
The Webbs’ top-down conception of socialism meant that democracy would be strictly circumscribed, and certainly would not mean the masses running their own affairs, except in respect of the most mundane issues. Leadership had to remain with “an elite of unassuming experts”. It is no surprise that many socialists considered that the Webbs’ concept of socialism would merely lead to the replacement of the capitalist class by a new ruling elite.5 Nor should one be surprised that Beatrice Webb’s diaries contained many snide comments about the working class and socialists who sided with them. She sneered at the idea of workers’ control, writing it off as “the fumbling of the workers in their own limited affairs”, and she hoped that the General Strike of 1926 would represent “the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers’ control’ of public affairs through the trade unions, and by the method of direct action”.6 It comes as little surprise to learn that the Webbs were amongst those leftwingers who were in favour of eugenics.7
At first the Webbs opposed the Bolsheviks - paradoxically not because of their anti-elitist appeal, but because, as Beatrice Webb wrote in 1920, the Soviet state was “the most rigid form of state socialism”, and “the ‘servile state’ in being … a servile state run by fanatics” who had no respect for “the ‘bourgeois fetish’ of personal freedom”.8 She subsequently condemned the Soviet system as “a repetition of Russian autocracy”, and added that a regime founded on violence and ruled by “a militant minority” would hardly be capable of democratising itself.9
Nevertheless, a clue to her future allegiance to Stalinism can be seen in her shockingly contemptuous attitude in 1922 towards the victims of the famine that raged in the Soviet republic:
Russia to me is not much better than China - and whoever suggested … subscribing to save a Chinaman from death by famine? The always present doubt whether by saving a Chinese or Russian child from dying this year you will prevent it from dying the next year, together with the larger question of whether those races are desirable inhabitants, compared to other races, paralyses the charitable impulse. Have we not English children dying from lack of milk?10
Beatrice Webb’s attitude towards democratic freedoms was decidedly ambiguous. In 1926, after a trip to Sicily, she thought that Mussolini’s regime was “a ghastly tragedy” for intellectuals, yet added: “To the ordinary man … the Mussolini government is a relief from anxiety and bother: there is more efficiency and regularity and honesty in public and private affairs.”11 And no doubt the trains ran on time, too. Here, one can see a condemnation of official restrictions upon intellectuals - people like her and her husband - and a contemptuous attitude towards “the ordinary man”.
As late as 1928, Beatrice Webb doubted if living conditions for the Soviet masses were any better than under the ancien régime. She concluded that the “oligarchy” openly considered that its ambitions justified its “uncompromising dictatorship” and “the employment of any amount of force, and even of drastic oppression of individual dissentients”.12
What almost certainly pushed the Webbs into eventually dropping most of their qualms and qualifications about the Soviet Union was the great economic crash in the USA in 1929, its after-effects around the world and the feeble efforts of the Labour government to deal with them in Britain, and the contrast posed by the great advances the Soviet Union was making under the first five-year plan. As the plan swung into action, Beatrice Webb recognised that only in the Soviet Union was there a government which understood that a state could not “guarantee livelihood except under the conditions of a managed population”.13 She was dividing the Soviet population between leaders and led - or, more accurately, managers and managed - with the implication that the former had the right to “manage” the latter: there is something sinister in her emphasis of the word in view of her acknowledgement as late as February 1931 of the brutal way in which Stalin’s regime “managed” its population.14
The fruit of the Webbs’ new-found fondness for the Soviet regime was their book, Soviet communism: a new civilisation? First published in December 1935, it was republished with additional text (and without the question mark!) in 1937. A gigantic tome of over a thousand pages, Soviet communism in many ways covered familiar ground, as its authors reiterated, if at inordinate length, many of the points previously made by members of the pro-Soviet lobby. As such, it rapidly became a leading symbol of 1930s fellow-travelling - although one wonders how many purchasers of this impressive-looking but tediously dull book actually managed to finish it, or even got beyond the first hundred pages.15
Generally speaking, the Webbs were very impressed with the Soviet Union. The government had taken on a task that no other had ever undertaken:
No government outside the USSR has ever frankly taken as its task the complete recasting of the economic and social life of the entire community, including the physical health, the personal habits, the occupations and, above all, the ideas of all the millions for whom it acts - in short, the making of a new civilisation.16
And it had done very well indeed. It had developed a vast planned, industrial sector, and had successfully collectivised agriculture. It had made great advances in scientific research and application. It had implemented equal rights and facilities for national minorities and women. Its cultural and social policies and achievements were a wonder to be seen. There was still much to be done, and the implementation of some schemes was behind schedule, but, all in all, things were going wonderfully well. A planned, ordered, new civilisation was being constructed before one’s very eyes.
Naturally enough, the Webbs were very interested in the institutional organisation of the Soviet Union, and vast slabs of Soviet communism were devoted to intricate descriptions of the machinery of Soviet bodies at all levels, from the village committees at the base of the great pyramidal structures to the all-union executives at the summits. Cooperative, trade union and planning bodies did not escape their attention, and they too were described at great length.
The Webbs were at pains to prove the democratic credentials of the Soviet Union. The country had “a government instrumented by all the adult inhabitants, organised in a varied array of collectives”, based upon democratic centralism, “an upward stream of continuously generated power”, which was “transformed at the apex into a downward stream of authoritative laws and decrees”. They emphasised the participation of the general population in the myriad local and factory committees, and in the planning process.17 However, this support for popular participation was heavily qualified. The Webbs emphasised on several occasions that decisions made in Soviet institutions could always be negated by higher organs, and implicit throughout this book is the supremacy of ‘centralism’ over ‘democratic’ in the governmental structure. They repeatedly condemned the concept of workers’ control as parochialism - indeed, with barely disguised glee, they noted no less than four times how the Soviet government wound up the practice of workers’ control in the factories - and, having judged that consumers and producers were only interested in their own narrow interests, insisted that the organs of planning must be firmly centralised, although they did graciously permit workers to propose their own counter-plans in the factory which would increase - but seemingly never reduce! - local plan targets.18
And so, for all their talk of democracy, the Webbs’ elitism was clear. For them, a public meeting of any size “without intellectual leadership” was “but a mob”, and so an agency was necessary to give that leadership and thus avert anarchy - and that agency was the Communist Party. The party was the undisputed, legitimate leadership of the Soviet Union, and its members at all levels were not merely serving the community as “principal administrators” when in office, but were “continuously educating, inspiring, guiding and leading the whole people”. Party membership was not a job, but “the vocation of leadership”, with a place in society not unlike the Jesuits in a Roman Catholic country, and it required adhering to a stringent political and personal discipline, and giving leadership to the nation as a “life duty”. Regular purges cleansed the party of careerism, “disgraceful personal conduct”, deviations from the party line and factionalism, and thus maintained its moral rectitude.19
The Webbs denied that the Soviet Union was ruled by a dictatorship, and certainly not by any single man. There was “everywhere elaborate provision” for “collective control” over collegiate decisions and personnel appointments “at any stage of the [institutional] hierarchy”, and “in any branch of administration”. As for the party, it could only issue directives to its own members, and it could only influence the public through persuasion. Stalin was no dictator - he was the wrong sort of character for that role. A leader, yes, but one who worked carefully with his colleagues, and was loved by the population, as one could tell by the hero-worship he evoked.20
In sum, the party’s leading role at all levels in national affairs was accepted by the Soviet population:
If it exercises power, it does so by ‘keeping the conscience’ of its own members, and getting them elected to office by the popular vote. Even when not holding public office, the party members act as missionaries among the non-party citizens in the organisations of every kind throughout the USSR. It is in this way that the party secures the popular consent to, or at least the popular acquiescence in, the policy that it promotes.21
Other familiar fellow-travelling themes emerge in Soviet communism. The Webbs insisted that there was no famine in 1932-33, but merely local hardships caused by ignorant peasants who did not know what was good for them - a sort of reasoning that was condemned a year before the Webbs’ book appeared by one seasoned observer of the Soviet scene22 - and who were sometimes whipped up by anti-Soviet agitators into sabotaging the new collective agriculture. The State Political Directorate (GPU) management of the White Sea canal project was praised, particularly in respect of the convict labourers, who, “realising that they were engaged on a work of great public utility”, entered into the spirit of things by engaging in “socialist competition”, “gang against gang, locality against locality, as to which could shift the greatest amount of earth”.
The Webbs’ attitude towards the Moscow trials was less triumphalist than some, but they nonetheless managed to give an explanation that accepted the regime’s assertion that the defendants were guilty of treason.23 After appreciating the regime’s abortion facilities in the first edition of the book, the Webbs subsequently justified the official clampdown on abortion in the later editions, without either explaining or acknowledging the contradiction.24 They endorsed the use of wall newspapers and other devices to humiliate less efficient workers, and hailed the growing differentials in workers’ pay, the increasing use of piece work, and the giving of privileges to shock-workers.25
The technocratic Webbs placed more emphasis than many fellow-travellers upon the replacement of private property in the Soviet Union by economic planning. Not only did the overthrow of capitalism permit the ending of vested interest: it would ensure that a greater proportion of the nation’s resources, both material and human, could be put into operation and used more efficiently, and the wasteful competition, unemployment and boom-and-slump cycle of capitalism would be overcome. Moreover, as the overthrow of capitalism ended the exploitation of the working class and thus removed the basis for class struggle, there were no reasons for workers to go on strike. They were certain that the growth of inequalities would not lead to the emergence of new classes, and they assured their readers that the existence of differing social strata (as opposed to “distinct social classes”, which had disappeared) merely showed a functional difference amongst the “intellectual leaders”, lesser post-holders and workers, and were of little importance.26
Nevertheless, the Webbs were not totally satisfied. Having waxed eloquently upon the ultra-democratic credentials of the regime, and stated that the only prohibitions on expression were against expressions that were “fundamentally in opposition” to the regime, they then proceeded to complain about the “disease of orthodoxy”, the treatment of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin as a holy writ, and the “deliberate discouragement and even repression … of independent thinking on fundamental social issues”.
As the future progress of humanity relied upon “the power to think new thoughts, and to formulate even the most unexpected fresh ideas”, this “highly infectious” disease was in danger of cramping people’s creative powers. Being rooted in “the concentration of authority in a highly disciplined vocation”, it had led to “an atmosphere of fear among the intelligentsia, a succession … of accusations and counter-accusations, a denial to dissentient leaders of freedom of combination for the promotion of their views”, and was particularly virulent amongst “the less intelligent of the rank and file” of the party.27 And, like the question of abortion, the contradiction between this complaint and their insistence upon the democratic nature of the regime remained neither explained nor acknowledged.
Ultimately, the Webbs were not concerned about democracy in general. An article by Sidney Webb in 1933 echoed his wife’s sentiments about the question of freedom in Mussolini’s Italy. On the one hand, he was concerned that the inability of citizens to express “any fundamental objections” to the regime would eventually stifle the necessary development of new ideas, whilst, on the other, he claimed that Soviet workers enjoyed remarkable freedom of expression, as they could freely criticise their factory management. It is clear that his assertion that it was “prudent” for workers not to show “doubts” about the regime lest they became suspected of being counterrevolutionaries was not so much a caution against their engaging in political dissidence than an imprecation to them to be grateful for small mercies. Altogether, the concern shown by the Webbs over the “disease of orthodoxy” had little to do with intellectual freedom, and much more to do with freedom for the intellectual.28
It was not hard to criticise and poke fun at the Webbs. The rightwinger, Arnold Lunn, called them “decent and kindly folk”, living amidst “a curious blend of uplift, mutual-improvement societies, high teas and advanced revolutionary ideals”, who would be “completely happy in heaven” if given “some population statistics to play with, or a cherubim or two to cross-index”. Striking a more serious note, he stated they were “bureaucrats by passionate conviction … fascinated by a state, every aspect of which was controlled by an all-powerful bureaucracy”.29
This infatuation with bureaucracy and the power of the state did not go unnoticed. An exiled Russian liberal declared:
If the power of the state is unlimited, and that power is practically exercised by one party, whose power is overwhelming, when all that was once believed to be inviolable - the natural rights of the individual - has passed into dreamland, when the greatest crime is, as the authors endorse, the crime against such a state, we are indeed at the turning point where a ‘new civilisation’ is in the making.30
The Webbs were criticised by one reviewer for being more interested in the plans than in the results - “nothing is gained by mistaking the word for the deed” - for relying too much on the Moscow Daily News propaganda sheet, and for failing to subject official statements to criticism.31 They were accused by another of using “the most amazing dexterity” to highlight Soviet achievements, “while obscuring the more unseemly developments”: “The result is a great mass of information filtered so thoroughly as to be almost wholly free of the homely tang of reality.”32 William Beveridge criticised them for failing to show how planning could supplant the price mechanism in an economic system.33 Trotsky asked rhetorically how in 1,200 pages they could avoid any reference to “the Soviet bureaucracy as a social category”, and replied that they effectively wrote their book “under its dictation”.34
EH Carr felt that their “verbal contortions” to prove the democratic nature of the Soviet Union betrayed “twinges of an old-fashioned liberal conscience” that would be rejected by ‘official communists’ as rotten liberalism.35 Perhaps some party members were privately critical of the book, but, apart from insisting in a somewhat patronising manner that there was much in the book that appeared “to fall short of complete inner understanding” and which could “be usefully subjected to critical discussion”, Rajani Palme Dutt, the main theoretician of British Stalinism, was well pleased with their work.36 Praise came from other familiar quarters, including the US fellow-travelling journalist, Louis Fischer,37 while the New Statesman listed it as “probably … the most important political book” in its ‘Best books of 1935’.38
Moreover, it was also heavily used by writers, as if its size alone made it a work of genuine authority. Hence the leading British Stalinist, Johnny Campbell, used it to “prove” the level of popular participation in Soviet institutions,39 and the Christian socialist, Noreen Blythe, demonstrated a flagrant disregard of the eighth commandment as she plundered it unmercifully to show the wonders of Soviet society.40 But even friendly reviewers insisted that they naively understated the level of “dragooned uniformity” in their new civilisation.41
Writing Soviet communism was an exhausting effort for our two ageing Fabians, who were both hitting 80 years of age and in declining health by the late 1930s. Their allegiance to Moscow was tried by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent partition of Poland and invasion of Finland, but their faith was restored after June 1941, when the Soviet Union took on the might of the Wehrmacht. Rather fittingly, Beatrice Webb died in April 1943, when the Soviet Union was held in high esteem in Britain. Sidney Webb, on the other hand, died in October 1947, amidst the opening salvos of the cold war that would see the eclipse of the fellow-travelling spirit that Soviet communism above all symbolised.
Lure of Stalinism
The transformation of the Webbs into apologists for Stalinism can be ascribed to wish fulfilment, a desire that made them forsake the critical attitude that is necessary for a scientific appraisal. Beatrice Webb wrote revealingly in her diary in April 1932: “All I know is that I wish Soviet communism to succeed - a wish which tends to distort one’s judgement.”42
To this one can add the Webbs’ unfamiliarity with the Russian language, and their consequential heavy reliance upon the regime’s English-language propaganda material, and their very limited first-hand knowledge of Soviet life. Much of Soviet communism was lifted from official Soviet publications, and for the most part they merely retailed the impression which the regime wished to promote of an efficient governmental machine working in the interests of the population. They were oblivious to the evidence of many observers, who noted the chaotic nature of the Soviet socio-economic formation; they poured scorn on those who tried to assemble a critique of Soviet society through systematising the problems, inefficiencies and abuses exposed in the Soviet press; and they dealt superficially with the critical material that they did bother to read.
To take one example, they felt that the main thrust of Trotsky’s The revolution betrayed was against “financial inequality”, and completely overlooked his intricate analysis of the transformation of the Soviet party-state apparatus into a ruling elite. Furthermore, their understanding of bureaucratism was extremely superficial, viewing it as institutional inefficiency, rather than as a social phenomenon that could be - and in this case was - a core causal factor behind the rise of a new ruling elite.43
After decades of studying the generally reliable information published by government departments and non-governmental institutions in Britain, they were reluctant to question the veracity of Soviet statements and statistics. Ironically, for all the Webbs’ obsession with facts and figures, when challenged in a debate over the catastrophic decline in Soviet livestock during the collectivisation drive - of which she was aware - Beatrice Webb retorted that this was “not the place for a detailed argument about statistics”.44
It is entirely logical that the Webbs only championed the Soviet Union after the democratic core of Bolshevism had been extinguished, and the party-state apparatus had become a self-conscious ruling elite. Bolshevism during and for some time after the October revolution was permeated with a democratic ethos, best exemplified in Lenin’s State and revolution, which was utterly alien to them. They did re-evaluate the October revolution in a more positive manner, but they could never view it as the working class seizing and wielding power. By the mid-1930s, they convinced themselves that the Soviet party-state apparatus was by now pretty much the selfless steward of a new civilisation - the “elite of unassuming experts” managing in a humane manner the transformation of society in the interests of all - and that they had finally seen their dream of a well-ordered, efficient future coming to fruition in the present.
They had quietly discarded their criticisms of the authoritarian aspects of Stalin’s regime and even though they still had a few qualms, they were not going to let anyone ruin their otherwise beatific vision.
1. S Selwell, ‘Bloomsbury-Bolshie ballads’ Adelphi March 1933.
2. S and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935. The second edition came out in 1937 and there was a third edition, in 1944, which was republished in 1947. The main text of the first edition was not altered in the second and third editions, and any changes consisted of additional introductions and chapters covering events occurring since 1935. Unless otherwise stated, all references here are to the 1937 edition, which was aptly distributed by the Left Book Club.
3. See, for example, L Radice Beatrice and Sydney Webb: Fabian socialists Basingstoke 1984.
4. M Cole and B Drake (eds) Our partnership by Beatrice Webb London 1948, p97.
5. See L Barrow and I Bullock Democratic ideas and the British labour movement, 1880-1914 Cambridge 1996.
6. N and J MacKenzie (eds) The diary of Beatrice Webb Vol 4, London 1985, pp77, 97.
7. See D Paul, ‘Eugenics and the left’ Journal of the History of Ideas Vol 45, No4, October 1984, pp 567-68.
8. N MacKenzie (ed) The letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb Cambridge 1978, p141; N and J MacKenzie (eds) The diary of Beatrice Webb London 1984, Vol 3, p361.
9. N MacKenzie (ed) The letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb Cambridge 1978, pp176-77, 207.
10. N and J MacKenzie (eds) The diary of Beatrice Webb London 1984, Vol 3, p394.
11. Ibid Vol 4, p68.
12. B Webb, ‘Introduction’ to A Wicksteed Life under the soviets London 1928, ppvii, xiii-xiv.
13. N and J MacKenzie (eds) The diary of Beatrice Webb London 1984, Vol 4, p219.
14. Ibid Vol 4, p239.
15. A sizeable proportion of the copies that I have seen over the years in second-hand bookshops have been in suspiciously good condition half a century or more after their publication.
16. S and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, p107.
17. Ibid pp7, 51, 67, 416-17, 450, 645, 739.
18. Ibid pp31, 65-66, 72, 166-69, 301-03, 604-08, 645, 689-90, 700-03, 739.
19. Ibid pp6-7, 339-41, 374ff, 417.
20. Ibid pp429ff.
21. Ibid pp340-41.
22. WH Chamberlin, ‘Russia through coloured glasses’ Fortnightly Review October 1934, p391.
23. S and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, pp258ff, 590, 1152. The third edition of Soviet communism (p437) asserted that there was no ‘fifth column’ in the Soviet Union because the Moscow trials had dealt with “these undesirable citizens”.
24. Both the second and third editions of Soviet communism carried the two contradictory texts. See pp826-33 and 1202-06 in the 1937 edition, and pp670-74 and 962-65 in the 1944/1947 edition.
25. S and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, pp701-03, 749, 761-67, 1206ff.
26. Ibid pp169-73, 630ff, 703, 719, 796.
27. Ibid pp42, 913, 997-99, 1132, 1212-13. It may be the case, somewhat paradoxically, that the lingering unease that they felt about certain aspects of Soviet society, together with their previously critical stance, may well have made their positive appraisal appear more credible than the uncritical writings of other fellow-travellers, such as DN Pritt and John Strachey.
28. S Webb, ‘Freedom in Soviet Russia’ Contemporary Review January 1933.
29. A Lunn Revolutionary socialism in theory and practice London 1939, pp90-91.
30. A Meyendorff, ‘A new picture of Soviet Russia’ Contemporary Review March 1936, pp283-84. The leftwing intellectual, Harold Laski, raised the same concerns: see ‘Book reviews’ Political Quarterly Vol 9, No1, January 1938, pp130-33. A decade later, Laski made the same point, then praised “the richness of this remarkable book”: H Laski The Webbs and Soviet communism London 1947, p20.
31. JB Condliffe, ‘USSR’ International Affairs Vol 15, No3, May 1936, pp464-66.
32. V Conolly, ‘USSR’ International Affairs Vol 17, No5, September 1938, p735.
33. W Beveridge, ‘Soviet communism’ Political Quarterly Vol 7, No3, July 1936, p362.
34. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed: what is the Soviet Union and where is it going? London 1937, p132.
35. EH Carr, ‘Russia through Fabian eyes’ Fortnightly February 1936, p244.
36. R Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the month’ Labour Monthly January 1936.
37. L Fischer, ‘The Webbs on Russia’ New Statesman December 7 1935, pp895-96.
38. ‘Best books of 1935’ New Statesman January 25 1936, p124.
39. JR Campbell Soviet policy and its critics London 1939, p153.
40. N Blythe Which way tomorrow? London 1938 passim.
41. AL Rowse, ‘Books of the quarter’ Criterion April 1936, p504.
42. N and J MacKenzie (eds) The diary of Beatrice Webb London 1984, Vol 4, p284.
43. S and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, pp776, 1207, 1211-12.
44. Mrs Sidney Webb (sic) and Wilson Harris, ‘Efficiency and liberty: Russia’ Listener February 9 1938, p281. For her knowledge of Soviet livestock data, seeS and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, p246.