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.
Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.