Political predictions they got wrong (No34) Sidney and Beatrice Webb predict the success of the Soviet Union

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.

For a full list of political predictions they got wrong please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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5 Responses to Political predictions they got wrong (No34) Sidney and Beatrice Webb predict the success of the Soviet Union

  1. Clem the Gem says:

    Well, its also true to say that as Fabians, the Webbs were wedded to a “top down” version of Socialism, where reforms would be granted to the majority by their Bloomsbury – inhabiting betters.
    Often you can find them showing contempt for those less fortunate than themselves, Labour politicians and Trades Unionists in their writings. HG Wells satirised them perfectly.
    I don’t think it was such a step for them to embrace Stalin worship, although it was certainly a tragedy, and they were in a position to know far more than, say the ordinary members of the Communist and Labour Parties at the time.
    They were what Lenin termed “useful idiots” in the propaganda war…

    • I think today they’d probably be referred to as ‘champagne socialists’. Some of the stuff they wrote about eugenics is absolutely jaw-dropping in its unpleasantness, and unfortunately a view shared by a lot of people at the time on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

      I think for me the worst element is them ignoring what was going on in the Ukraine. Several British journalists sent the Webbs their eyewitness reports of the starvation and Beatrice Webb in particular refused to believe that it could be happening. I believe they were also big supporters of the show trials in 37 and later.

      When people argue that the Webbs were simply fooled, I always point to figures like George Orwell who saw Stalin for what he was from a very early stage.

  2. Clem the Gem says:

    Yes, Orwell was outstanding in this respect. “Champagne Socialist” was I think a term of abuse launched at Nye Bevan by that great nonentity Brendan Bracken, for the formers enjoyment of Lord Beaverbrooks hospitality.
    The Webbs were, I believe, quite austere – not a quality that I tend to admire, given that Paul Foot and Bevan enjoyed Chamagne, and Christopher Hitchens enjoyed more than a few stiff Scotches.
    Crucial to the Webbs’ betrayal of democracy (for it was no less) was their understanding of what society should become – not a noisy, lively democracy, but a sterile republic, run by the great and the good in our best interests. Fabian as he was, at least HG Wells, as founder of PEN, stood up against both Hitler and Stalin.

    Worse than Sidney and Beatrice, who at least did do some very real good before “Soviet Russia” came out, would be the historian and 1930’s appeaser E H Carr, who traded appeasement for a lifetime of Stalin worship after 1940…

  3. It’s unfathomable to me that Sidney and Beatrice Webb could have overlooked (or blocked out) the Holodomor – from what I’ve read about it, it was not easy to ignore. They weren’t the only ones, though, who chose to overlook the extreme abuses of communism and preferred to think of the ideology foremost as humanist. Thank you for an instructive post!

    • It never ceases to amaze me how some people only see what they want to see. Some on the right did exactly the same with Nazism in the 30s unfortunately. The way the left glossed over the crimes of Stalin though is really bizarre. Luckily there were people like George Orwell around who could see beyond the propaganda and the ideology to the truth.

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