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The Stalin-Wells Talk: The interview that defined the post-war British left

In 1934 H G Wells interviewed Joseph Stalin in Moscow. The fallout from the meeting led to a battle between three intellectual powerhouses - Shaw, Keynes and Wells - each of whom argued for their own vision of socialism in the UK.

Moscow.
Virgin cobbles upturned: the common people of Moscow would never have been liberated, Stalin argued, without violence. Photograph: Michael Kirchoff 2013.

 The interview between Joseph Stalin and H G Wells is published in the New Statesman Century: an anthology of the best and boldest pieces from the New Statesman archive, available from today (18 July). The 250-page, perfect-bound collectors' edition of the magazine includes exclusive reprints and contributions from Christopher Hitchens, Virginia Woolf, J M Keynes, Bertrand Russell and others. For more information and to order a copy, visit: www.newstatesman.com/century

H G Wells’s 1934 New Statesman interview with Stalin, and the debate that followed, is one of the most striking episodes in the fascinating history of the magazine. Wells—a novelist and committed socialist famous for writing seminal late-Victorian science fiction fantasies such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds—used the interview to try and coax Stalin into a more conciliatory position, challenging (too gently for some) his views on international relations, the rhetoric of class war and freedom of expression for writers.

The interview took place in Moscow at a time when many British socialists and fellow travellers were journeying to the Soviet Union seeking inspiration in the communist project. Wells was always on the lookout for signs that his socialist world state was coming into being, and the interview with Stalin was conceived as a foil to his meeting with Roosevelt the previous year. The intention was to make a comparison between the New Deal and the Five Year Plan, and to harness the progressive potential of both. Wells thought that they were similar projects and hoped that they might somehow join up in the middle. As he put it to Stalin, "is there not a relation in ideas, a kinship of ideas and needs, between Washington and Moscow?" Stalin’s insistence on the "antagonism between the two worlds"—the worlds of Russian revolutionary communism and of Western social democracy—more accurately prefigured the Cold War to come.

Yet it is hard not to admire Wells’s heartfelt internationalism. Stalin’s doctrine of "socialism in one country", adopted in 1926, had ensured that the Third International was international in name only. For Wells, cooperation between the communism of the East and the social democracy of the West was being delayed because the Soviet mind had been infected with the destructive fervour of nationalism. Moreover, the rhetoric of "class war" that Stalin defended in the interview was bound to alienate the bourgeois scientists and technical experts who were essential to Wells’s technocratic version of socialism. Finally, Wells argued, useful cooperation with the West was being undermined by the Soviet regime’s bullying attitude to its writers: he ended the interview by suggesting, naively perhaps, that the Union of Soviet Writers might like to affiliate to International PEN, of which he was then chairman.

The interview—which was criticised from both sides as either too indulgent or too critical of Stalin—sees the dying ideals of Edwardian liberalism chastened by an encounter with modern totalitarianism. It provoked strong reactions in the letters pages of the New Statesman from George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes (the sometime co-founder and the present chairman of the magazine), resulting in a clash between three intellectual giants that revealed a great deal about the tensions within the left in the 1930s. Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, thought the interview and the letters interesting enough to be republished as a pamphlet, which was called The Stalin-Wells Talk.

Shaw—by this stage a committed Stalinist—jumped in to defend Stalin from Wells’s impertinence. Keynes, meanwhile, thought Wells, Shaw and Stalin were all victims of the same "intellectual error", beholden to the classical economics that Marx (in Keynes’s view) held in common with Ricardo. What was needed was a new theory in which, as he wrote in a private letter to Shaw around this time, "the Ricardian foundations of Marxism will be knocked away". He meant, of course, the theory that would soon be published in his own General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. In this debate, three very different positions were set out, and two of them (those of Shaw and Keynes) were to become the major poles around which the left organised itself after 1945.

Initially, nobody could agree who had won. Shaw ranted in a letter to Keynes that "H.G. … has an infuriated belief that he has put Stalin in his place and given me an exemplary drubbing, whereas it is equally clear to me that he has made a blazing idiot of himself." This confusion was a symptom of the fact that nobody could agree about what the basic realities of Soviet socialism were. After his own visit to the Soviet Union in 1925, a perplexed Keynes wrote that "almost everything one can say about the country is true and false at the same time". It was as if Russia had become a kind of fantasy space, where British intellectuals and writers could project their hopes and fears, but where nobody could agree on the facts.

In the long run, Wells and the tradition he represented lost. In the ensuing years he cut a somewhat tragic figure, equipped with a detailed idea of what socialism would look like but little understanding of the obstacles to its realisation. Reflecting on his meeting with Stalin in his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells wrote that "universal freedom and abundance dangles within reach of us and is not achieved. We who are Citizens of the Future wander about this present scene like passengers on a ship overdue, in plain sight of a port which only some disorder in the chart-room prevents us from entering". The way to the socialist future Wells wanted was blocked by intransigent world rulers, of whom he complained: "I can talk to them and even unsettle them but I cannot compel their brains to see".

Shaw and Wells were from a unique generation of imaginative writers who believed in their power to change the course of history for the better by debating ideas with politicians. Not without some mental gymnastics, Shaw was able to deceive himself that Stalin was implementing exactly the sort of Fabian socialism he had himself advocated in the 1880s, albeit more quickly and violently. Wells’s exasperated acceptance of his failure, however, comes across as a key moment in the decline of a certain Edwardian version of socialism. His interview with Stalin nevertheless remains a fascinating reminder of the role the literary intelligentsia played in political debate during what Auden called, perhaps unfairly, a "low dishonest decade".

This article was based on research completed for a chapter entitled "Russia and the British Intellectuals: The Significance of the Stalin-Wells Talk", to be published this autumn in Russia in Britain: Melodrama to Modernism, edited by Rebecca Beasley and Philip Bullock (Oxford University Press)