I often think one of the problems with intellectuals is that they become locked into ideas and ideologies in the same way other people become locked in rooms. I’ve always believed that the whole point of being smart is that you can occasionally review the evidence, admit that you’ve got it wrong, and change your mind. However intelligence often goes hand in hand with pride, and once someone’s announced their views on something it then becomes increasingly hard for them to admit that they might have made a mistake
To be fair to Sidney and Beatrice Webb they weren’t the only public figures to have the wool pulled over their eyes by Stalin and the Soviet Union. However unlike others they never seemed to lose faith, still acting as cheerleaders for Stalin after many other socialists had begun to have serious doubts about the direction he was taking the USSR in.
In their 1935 book Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, they confidently predicted that the central planning system being introduced in Russia would be a great success and would soon be replicated across the world. Unfortunately they failed to take into account the huge levels of corruption and incompetence that also existed, along with the food shortages it would lead to. A few years earlier in 1932-3 roughly four million people had died in the Ukraine due to a man-made famine that was genocide in all but name. The Webbs were in the Ukraine during this period and repeatedly denied in their writings that any famine was taking place and that it was a media invention of anti-communists. Subsequent research has proven conclusively that the famine did indeed take place.
Now this could be excused by virtue of the fact that the Webbs were shielded from the worst of the famine by their Soviet tour guides; but several journalists did report on it and some of them directly confronted the Webbs with their eyewitness reports. The Webbs refused point-blank to believe them or to do their own investigation. There comes a point when ignorance becomes wilful blindness. Jean Robinson had a similar problem with North Korea and China. She only allowed herself to see it’s successes and refused to believe that anything unpleasant could possibly be going on.
The Webbs were equally partisan when reporting on Stalin’s leadership of the USSR. In several books and articles they claimed that he was a completely decent human being and in no way could be considered a dictator. In 1935 they wrote:
“We have given particular attention to this point, collecting all the available evidence, and noting carefully the inferences to be drawn from the experience of the past eight years (1926-1934) We do not think that the Party is governed by the will of a single person or that Stalin is the sort of person to claim or desire such a position. He has himself very explicitly denied any such personal dictatorship in terms which, whether or not he is credited with sincerity, certainly accord with our own impression of the facts”.
They then wrote that, ”In short, the government of the USSR during the past decade has been clearly no better than that of a committee. Our inference is that it has been, in fact, the very opposite of a dictatorship”. They also added that in terms of his leadership, “his execution has been vacillating and lacking in ruthless completeness”. I’m fairly certain that the many victims of the 1930s show trials and the Gulags would disagree on this point.
They conclude their discussion of Stalin by arguing that, “Stalin is now universally considered to have justified his leadership by success; first in overcoming the very real difficulties of 1921, then in surmounting the obstacle of the peasant recalcitrance in 1930-1933; and in the successive triumphs of the Five-Year Plan. For him to be dismissed from office, or expelled from the Party, as Trotsky and so many others have been, could not be explained to the people. He will therefore remain in his great position of leadership so long as he wishes to do so”. If that’s not a dictatorship I’m not sure what is.
Once you add in the fact that the Webbs were huge fans of eugenics, writing in 1909 that they had to “prevent the multiplication of those irrevocably below the National Minimum of Fitness”, you’ve got to wonder why they’re still so widely praised today.
Both the Webbs died in the 1940s. It would have been interesting to see how they’d have responded if they’d live another decade as the truth about the Soviet Union began to emerge, especially after Stalin’s death when his own colleagues would denounce him for his brutality and ‘cult of personality’. In terms of predicting Stalin’s success and the success of the Soviet Union the Webbs couldn’t have been more wrong.