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.
Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge