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Stalin’s useful idiots – PART ONE

Posted By on December 15, 2011

Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s ‘Soviet Communism’, a Skinnerian approach to examining the Webb’s intellectual journey.

In the mid 1990s the historian Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A history of the Soviet Camps, found herself at an official function speaking to Labour MP Ken Livingstone. In the introduction to her book she wrote about the encounter:

“Yes the Nazis were evil” he said. But the Soviet Union was ‘deformed’.’1

Applebaum remarked on the curiously uncritical attitude that some western intellectuals, politicians and writers on the left have sometimes held towards the USSR in general and the Stalinist period in particular, and the simple distinctions made between Stalinism and Nazism by politicians such as Livingstone.
When examining the origins of this duality, the intellectual journey of Sidney and Beatrice Webb from the 1880s to the 1930s is a vital area of study. The scope of this essay dictates that a tight focus on the works of these pre eminent voices of the British Left is necessary, though it goes without saying that the history of Western democratic leftist sympathies and apologies for Stalinism is a far wider study. Jean Paul Sartre, H.G. Wells, Eric Hobsbawm and E.H. Carr would all have to be considered in such a wider study, along with writers as diverse as Arthur Koestler and Martin Amis who represented the alternate view and criticised the perceived naiveté of the left.

The study of the Webb’s intellectual journey is fraught with potential pitfalls and misjudgments, and a rigorous methodological approach is necessary in order to avoid imposing contemporary post Stalinist judgments on the past. The danger also is that one might view the writings of a given thinker out of their specific economic or political context, or accidentally adopt a teleological approach and impose a convenient intellectual framework from the present on the seemingly confusing and contradictory evidence from the past.

To try to steer around some of these difficulties I am going to use a Skinnerian approach to discussing the evolution of the Webb’s thought. Quentin Skinner, in his seminal essay ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’ set forth a number of useful suggestions in how to interpret texts and how to examine the bodies of work of intellectuals, and these principals can be summarised as thus:

A rejection of the Lovejoy notion of ‘unit ideas’ in the study of intellectual history. The definition of a unit idea in Lovejoy’s works is rather vague, and the closest term that applies to the concept of a unit idea is ‘sentiment’, unit ideas are indivisible concepts that manifest themselves more as feelings than thoughts. Justice, equality, freedom and fraternity are all valid areas of study, Skinner argues, but the manner in which Lovejoy addressed them, the subjective and contested ways in which these concepts have been used over time is ignored. The result of this is a tendency towards simplistic narrative history, devoid of rigorous analysis.2

Skinner also argues that a prima facie understanding of the points raised in a text such as the Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, is insufficient in understanding its historical meaning and relevance. Instead, understanding what the Webbs were attempting to achieve with the book is a far more important task, which means studying their writing in a wider context, looking at the book intertextually and examining the economic, social and political context within which it was written. Writing in the journal History Today he said:

” they [historical texts] must also be thought of as weapons (Heidegger’s suggestion) or as tools (Wittgenstein’s term). It follows that to understand a particular concept and the text in which it occurs, we not only need to recognise the meanings of the terms used to express it; we also need to know who is wielding the concept in question, and with what argumentative purposes in mind.”3

There is also a danger of assuming that because the title of ‘intellectual’ has been applied to a writer, that they should in some way be immune from contradictions, oversights naiveties and mistakes, and that such things are aberrations. I will argue in this essay that the sentiments contained in Soviet Communism and other of the Webb’s writings and utterances, were not misjudgments or mistakes, but clearly and consciously thought through. The less than rigorous approach that they took to Stalin’s Russia was not an aberration, but the result of a long held left-wing elitism combined with a perceived final crisis of capitalism.
The Skinnerian methodology is a useful approach in examining Soviet Communism, as it was not a text that was written in an economic, political or intellectual vacuum, so their intentions are key to this analysis.

Perhaps the most valuable and the most challenging of Skinner’s suggestions is the idea, born of the linguistic turn in history, that instead of looking narrowly at texts, we should examine the entire political and social lexicon of a particular period. This I will attempt to do, but a fuller study of the political vocabulary of the 1930s might be possible only in a larger work than this.
In the course of this study I will examine four primary texts and a range of secondary reading. The first of the readings that I will examine is Soviet Communism itself, published by the Webbs in 1934. Following this I will examine a recent history of the intellectual climate of Britain between the wars, Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age. He devotes a chapter titled Utopian Politics: Cure or Disease? to the study not just of the Webb’s journeys to Russia but to the various other critiques of the capitalist system at the time. The third text is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Sidney and Beatrice Webb by John Davis, which gives a detailed and thorough account of their life and works, and will be useful in helping to tease out the evolution of their thoughts and ideas. Finally, Mark Bevir’s  essay Sidney Webb: Utilitarianism, Positivism and Social Democracy is focused for the most part on Sidney Webb’s early writing, and assesses the philosophical underpinnings of his earlier thought. I do not intend to engage in a lengthy narrative chronology of the Webbs entire career as writers, but to evaluate their key philosophical positions, identify turning point in their thought, and pinpoint their attitudes towards Russia from October 1917 onwards.

Early thought

Sidney Webb was heavily influenced by positivism of Auguste Comte, who argued, similarly to Marx that society evolved in certain stages and that there was an eschatological end-point to human affairs where society would reach an optimum point. The combination of Comte and the influence of Charles Darwin on 19th Century led Webb firstly to evolutionary sociology and from there to Fabian socialism. Mark Bevir argues that he ‘defined socialism in relation to an evolutionary philosophy’, 4 but there appear to be in these early positions, a sense of rigid economic and social determinism that would later lend itself to bureaucratic, as opposed to democratic solutions, but in the 1870’s and 1880s manifested itself in a support for individualist and voluntarist solutions to social inequality.

Bevir writes that:

“The bureaucratic rhetoric of Webb’s moral exhortations did not translate into excessively centralised or extensive forms of collectivism. Webb’s ethical positivism lead him to a strong collectivist morality in which individuals had to fulfill themselves through the greater whole; but his positivist social theory did not lead him to an equally strong collectivist vision of the state.” 5

Webb’s position on the functioning of society was in essence that accumulations of wealth in the hands of a few was for the most part down to accident of birth, and there was no innate right to that wealth. Where he differed from more radical voices on the left before 1900, was that he did not believe that state compulsion or coercion in redistributing wealth was justified, instead the middle and upper classes themselves would be happier and more fulfilled redistributing wealth, as it served a greater social good. This optimistic view of social relations was, as Bevir writes, peculiar to the 19th Century, and had not been tested by the twin crises of the First World War and global economic crisis from 1929 onwards.

Webb’s membership of the Fabian Society, which began in 1885, does not suggest sympathy with any Marxist collectivism, in fact quite the contrary; new members of the society were asked to pledge a commitment to socialist values, but Webb rejected the trend for land collectivism that was prevalent in society  at that time, and he also refused to join the Land Reform Union, telling his fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw ‘I am, I am sorry to say, no believer in state socialism,’6, for Sidney Webb, socialism in the 19th Century would be an individualist affair. His views seem to have prevailed in the society, by  1889 the Fabians had renounced ‘dogmatic Marxism’ 7, and their closeness to the embryonic Labour Party, which cannot be said to have ever fully embraced Marxist doctrine suggests that Fabian flirtations with orthodox Marxism were short-lived.

In 1886 Webb advocated the ‘Moralisation of the Capitalist’, in the journal Practical Socialist, the term referring to his approach to redistributing wealth mentioned earlier in this essay. Bevir argues that:

“Webb favoured the moralisation of the capitalist over collectivism for several reasons. For a start, he echoed Comte’s faith in a business elite. Collectivism would place wealth in the hands of the state, where the state represents the average citizen and so could use such wealth only for purposes approved by the majority.”8

This is Bevir’s reading of Webb, and it does seem to be consistent with later statements made by him when referring to the people he was committed to helping. Here it is sensible to look at this analysis of Webb through the prism of a Skinnerian analysis, and remember the social, economic and historic context of Webb’s life. Webb was at best lower middle class, he had risen through the civil service on merit alone and his views seem to echo a casual disdain for the judgement of the majority of society. He seems to have maneuvered himself into a difficult and paradoxical position, suggesting that the wealthy have no innate right to their wealth, but they must be the ones trusted with the task of redistributing it, as any state intervention would inevitably, in a mass democracy, reflect the will of the multitude and therefore lead to one of Webb’s most hated things, the misallocation of resources, inefficiency and waste. What both Sidney and Beatrice Webb witnessed as they grew older was a failure of voluntarism, which amounted to little more than the ‘good works’ of the Victorian and Edwardian middle classes, and later, during the Great Depression they witnessed its total irrelevance in the face of global economic catastrophe.

It is important to recognise here that the early writings of Sidney Webb are situated within the context of a relatively buoyant Victorian Britain, the economic and social shocks that led to an increasingly despairing stance following World War One had not happened.

Eric Hobsbawm, writing in The Age of Extremes describes the war as the collapse of ‘the great edifice of ‘European civilisation’ 8, and Richard Overy in the Morbid Age concurs, that the decade following the war had an entirely different tone to the one preceding it, and no writer or intellectual in Britain was likely to have been able to avoid the influence of this pessimism.

The Morbid Age

Looking at Overy’s analysis of the Webbs is important because, it appears heavily influenced by Skinner.

Overy’s chapter on utopian politics tries to assess Soviet Communism not as part of a long chain of thought, but as part of a generation of similar texts. Overy resurrects the long forgotten term coined by Bertrand Russell in 1920 and used widely in the 1920s and 1930s ‘creed wars’, Russell had been warning about the dangers of ideological warfare such as the Russian Civil War, being exported to Britain 9. The common use of this term suggests a widespread awareness of the polarisation of post war European politics between the creeds of Communism and Fascism. The socialist Harold Laski painted the coming conflict as a binary opposition, he called it a ‘struggle between life and death’ 10

Looking at Overy’s analysis of the Webbs is important because, it appears heavily influenced by Skinner.
Overy’s chapter on utopian politics tries to assess Soviet Communism not as part of a long chain of thought, but as part of a generation of similar texts. Overy resurrects the long forgotten term coined by Bertrand Russell in 1920 and used widely in the 1920s and 1930s ‘creed wars’, Russell had been warning about the dangers of ideological warfare such as the Russian Civil War, being exported to Britain 9. The common use of this term suggests a widespread awareness of the polarisation of post war European politics between the creeds of Communism and Fascism. The socialist Harold Laski painted the coming conflict as a binary opposition, he called it a ‘struggle between life and death’ 10

Whilst neither ideology found any real success in Britain, many on the left interpreted the coming conflict in Europe as a simple binary opposition, Hitler vs Stalin. Even those with misgivings about the Soviet Union believed that Stalin’s Russia (though not necessarily Stalinism itself) represented the only chance of salvation from Nazism. The actions of the British Government from the 1935 Anglo German Naval Agreement onwards only reinforced the notion that Britain herself would be no use in fighting fascism.

Overy makes a very important distinction about the intellectual climate of the 1920s and 30s when he states that:

“The focus on the modest electoral performance of the extremist parties [in Britain] masks the extent to which the ‘creed wars’ became a much broader sphere of public discourse. Indeed it is striking that for all the political feebleness of communism and fascism as mass political parties, the public arena in Britain was swamped during the 1930s with a remarkable level of engagement with both ideologies.”11

The Webbs were far from alone in their journeys to the Soviet Union, a steady stream of intellectual and political pilgrims from Britain journeyed to Russia throughout the  early years of the decade. Reader Bullard, the British Consul in Leningrad noted in his diary in July 1931 that:

“A party of English doctors and scientists passed through, mostly much impressed by what they had seen, and as they had been taken to all the showplaces and nothing else this is perhaps not remarkable.”12

Implicit in Bullard’s diary entry is the suggestion that the consul was well aware of how visitors to Russia were being misled, but the fact that there was a steady flow of political and economic tourists who drew largely the same, if not more sympathetic conclusions than the Webbs should tell us something. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whilst important and dominant voices on the British left existed within the confines of left discourses, not independent of them, and therefore their views and opinions can be seen as part of a wider fashion, not an anomaly. Famously they were joined in their praise of the Soviet Union by fellow Fabians George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells (Wells, had previously satirised the Webbs themselves for their instinctual bureaucratic centralism in his novel The New Machiavelli. He lampooned them as Oscar and Altiora  Bailey, who’s passion for modernising and centralising had them replace trees with green parasol sunshades. 13

Wells in 1932 wrote that Stalinism was:

“Dogmatic, resentful and struggling sorely, crazy with suspicion and persecution mania, ruled by a permanent terror, Russia never the less upholds the tattered banner of world collectivity and remains something splendid and hopeful in the spectacle of mankind.”14

Clearly Wells was aware of ‘permanent terror’ but viewed it as a price worth paying for ‘world collectivity’, though how far he was aware of the violent nature of that collectivity is unclear.

The Webb’s Soviet Communism, published in 1934 was just one of a number of texts sympathetic to Stalinist Russia throughout the decade, including Soviet Democracy in 1937 by Pat Sloan Gollancz and published by the popular Left Book Club.15

This book echoed the completely false claims made by Stalin after the ‘Stalin Constitution’ of 1936 that the country was a meaningful democracy.

Other defenders of the Soviet Union included Marxist historian Maurice Dobb, economist G.D.H. Cole, Aldous Huxley, Virginia and Leonard Wolfe and Bertrand Russell, all of whom were members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR. 16

Another pro soviet group, The Commitee of Peace and Friendship with the USSR, had members as prestigious as Vera Brittain, Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. The political and cultural reach of these societies and their literature was most likely quite considerable, they organised national tours of Soviet art, invited members of both the Labour and Conservative Parties to speak, held prestigious social events and they convened a Congress of Peace and Friendship in October 1937, to mark the 20 year anniversary of the revolution. At no time was the repressive nature of the USSR discussed,  or the real nature of the Soviet economy, based, as it was, on gulag labour.17

Why were so many British left intellectuals so willing to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt in the 1930s? The combination of a global crisis of capitalism in the first half of the decade, combined with a modernist notion that capitalism was out of date, and that scientific rationalism and planning were a far more logical and efficient way to plan a society.

In the writings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, time and time again the idea that capitalism is chaotic and unplanned, disorganised and unstable are emphasised. The catastrophe of the First World War, in the eyes of Sidney and Beatrice, had dealt a mortal blow to capitalism and it was unlikely to recover, and the tone of their writing post war loses the last vestiges of its optimism that a voluntarist arrangement for the equal distribution of wealth can be obtained18. The pre war idealism gives way to a new found faith in state power, something both Webbs in their youth were highly skeptical of. It may be that this belief in centralism was born more out of desperation than an epiphany, as a slump immediately followed the First World War, with a second one in 1929.

In 1923 they produced The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation, a text that could only have been written in the aftermath of the war. For them, capitalism was ‘dissolving before their very eyes’. 19

The enthusiasm for the USSR seems to be more based around the perceived orderliness of the state than the social democratic benefits that may actually result from Soviet rule.

Both the Webbs were skeptical of the virtues of worker control in the early years of the Russian revolution, and whilst it may be more of a correlation than direct causation, their attitudes towards the USSR soften as the prospects of worker democracy diminish.20

H.G. Wells accused the pair of being anti democratic centralisers during internal party debates during the 1900s. He accused them of elitism, claiming that they wished the nation to be run by a ‘Samurai Class’ consisting of the Webbs and their fellow travellers. John Davis, the Webb’s biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography claims this criticism was plausible, that they ‘venerated the bureaucratic expert, and that:

“Their preference for order over chaos was rooted in their rejection of utopian socialism: as Douglas Cole remembered, “the world was made up of A’s and B’s anarchists and Bureaucrats; and they were on the side of the B’s”‘21

Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s first experiences of none Anglo Saxon cultures came in 1912 when they visited Asia, traveling first to India. John Davis has an important observation here, one which has a bearing on their later journeys in Russia. Their information gathering methodologies were far less rigorous in India than the social research they conducted when they were in Britain. He said:

“In unfamiliar societies the Webbs could adopt a more detached ‘observer status’  than was open to them in Britain. The result was a schematic treatment of social organisation that contrasted with their empirical studies of British trade unionism and local government.”22

Critics of the Webbs observations of Russia claim that they deliberately gave a less exacting analysis of the USSR, and there are some alarming omissions and oversights in their work, but if the same is also true of their studies of China, India and Korea, perhaps there is a case to be made that significant difficulties in the study of foreign social and economic systems existed for the Webbs, irrespective of personal political biases.
Davis writes that the Webbs were impressed by the Hindu modernisers the Arya Samaj, who they described as ‘Vedic Protestants’, a label that was laden with connotations, value judgements and the assumptions of the Webbs themselves, finding in Hindu culture the kinds of ideas they most approved of.
Davis said:

“Much Indian popular religion was, in the Webb’s terms, superstitious and superficial, but the followers of Arya Samaj displayed ‘self effacement in the service of Hindu society and self reliance towards the outer world’ (S. Webb, introduction to L. Rai, The Arya Samaj, 1915 xiii). Here was the epitome of the life of selfless social commitment….The Webbs would find it again in Soviet Russia.” 23


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Author's Spotlight: Nick Shepley


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