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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser