A century ago, the Webbs, Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943), were the power couple of British Labour. Together they help form the Fabian Society, whose devotion to the idea of a socialist UK played a major role in shaping Labour Party policy and creating the modern British welfare state. They took part in the founding of the London School of Economics. They carried out research, published studies, and sat on committees, all with the goal of establishing an entirely new social and economic order. For a time Sidney was a Labour minister.
“Together, we could move the world,” Sidney once said of their relationship. “Marriage is a partnership. It is the ultimate committee.” (That last sentence should give you a pretty good idea of how their minds worked.) The immense scale of their influence is undeniable; the merits of their efforts to alter the British system are subject to debate. Certainly much of what they helped to achieve was genuinely admirable. But the activity that capped off their careers can only be described as a world-class example of useful stoogery.
We’re referring here to their promotion of Soviet Communism.
The Webbs didn’t start out as admirers of the USSR. During the 1920s they recognized that Soviet Communism and Italian fascism were two sides of the same coin – and equally appalling.
But that changed. In 1935, after visiting the USSR and perusing economic data supplied to them by the Kremlin, they published a book of over a thousand pages entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? It was nothing less than a celebration of Stalinism. The Webbs cheered on forced collectivization, applauded the Gulag, even rationalized the mass murder of the kulaks. (“It must be recognised,” they wrote, “that this liquidation of the individual capitalists in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”)
“Old people,” Beatrice said, “often fall in love in extraordinary and ridiculous ways – with their chauffeurs, for example: we feel it more dignified to have fallen in love with Soviet Communism.”
Despite their private qualms about the Moscow show trials, in which Stalin railroaded his rivals, they publicly gave the trials their support. They acknowledged that the Soviet people were being fed a diet of pure propaganda, but argued that the BBC was doing essentially the same thing to the British populace. They flat-out denied that any famine had occurred in the Ukraine. They also denied that Stalin was a dictator, characterizing him instead as “a shrewd and definitely skilful manager.” And they gushed endlessly over the wonderfulness of everyday existence in the Soviet Union, where people lived “in an atmosphere of social equality and of freedom from servility or ‘inferiority complex’ that is unknown elsewhere,” and experienced an utter “absence of prejudice as to colour or race.” In the USSR, they enthused, “The Worship of God is replaced by The Service of Man.”
Between 1935 and 1937, Stalin had amped up the terrorization of his people to a level unmatched in human history. Nick Cohen has summed it up as follows: “Whole races were being transported, the Communist party was being massacred, every petrified citizen knew they must denounce or be denounced.” How did the Webbs respond? By taking out the question mark in the title of their book. In the 1937 second edition, it was entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. If, as Cohen puts it, that question mark had “delicately suggested it was possible to doubt that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise,” now all doubt was gone: “The Webbs responded to the creation of a slave economy by dropping the question mark.”
Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, pronounced that the two editions of the Webbs’ Russia book were “about the most unrealistic books ever produced by able people.” The historian A. J. P. Taylor said that Soviet Communism was “the most preposterous book ever written about Soviet Russia.” Malcolm Muggeridge – who had reported (honestly) from the Soviet Union – later wrote that the Webbs “knew about the regime,” including the evils of the Cheka secret police, “but they liked it.” Once Beatrice said to him, “Yes, it’s true, people disappear in Russia.” Muggeridge recalled that she had “said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.”