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.

 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)

Virgin cobbles upturned: the common people of Moscow would never have been liberated, Stalin argued, without violence. Photograph: Michael Kirchoff 2013.
Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.