Of all the possible insults to fling at H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb, calling them idiots seems off the mark. All were successful writers, with passionate interests in social reform and the progress of humanity. They were the creative idea-forgers, opinion formers and protest leaders.
Amongst their achievements was the foundation of the London School of Economics and Political Science, attempts to devise a new and more logical alphabet, timeless classics of science fiction and plays that continue to be shown around the English speaking world and beyond.
H G Wells’s influence is so wide reaching that even in the 21st century Hollywood is drawn to his narratives for big screen treatment. All were leading lights in Britain’s nascent socialist movement, members of the Fabian Party and supporters of social change.
But they were all labelled as idiots by the very political system they supported and glorified. They were, in a phrase attributed to Lenin, “the Kremlin’s useful idiots”. Why did the Kremlin insult some of its most vocal supporters? And how were some of Britain’s cleverest people taken in by one of the world’s most brutal and cruel regimes?
The Soviet Union of the late 1920s and 1930s was a grim place – hunger stalked the countryside and a political motivated genocide would decimate the population of the Ukraine. Collectivisation of the farms had plunged production to below subsistence levels, and it would take the USSR over 20 years to return to former agricultural yields.
The country was firmly in the grip of Stalinism, a repressive and paranoid form of dictatorship that combined the worst elements of revolutionary class violence with an oppressive personality cult around an unpredictable and dangerous leader. Beria, the infamous head of state security, likened receiving a call from Stalin to speaking to Genghis Khan on the telephone.
Under the purges, enemies of the state were liquidated. Some found swift release when tortured to death in the grim cells of the Lubyanka. Others had painful, lingering deaths in the brutal work camps of the gulag system. The definition of ‘enemy’ was wide enough to cover vast swathes of society, from the military to academia, cultural luminaries to party members. Fear, paranoia, denunciation and heartbreak were the everyday backdrop to Russians’ lives.
And yet, across the west and especially in the UK, the Soviet Union was praised by some as a socialist paradise, a true workers’ republic where class divisions had been eradicated and improving the people’s welfare was the primary duty of the state. No group shouted the praises of the USSR louder, with more force or more effectively than this select group of left leaning intellectuals.
These writers, the Kremlin’s useful idiots, were given tours of Soviet cities and countryside. In the towns they were able to admire new public works, gleaming hospitals, schools packed with keen students, zealous, ideologically enthused university graduates proudly showed off new campuses. Factories hummed, turning out the manufactured goods that were the tangible product of successful five year plans.
In the countryside, the visitors marvelled at bounteous harvests, the happy, joyful peasants delightedly working for the common good. Villages were clean and improving – demonstrations of electricity in rural areas gave reality to Lenin’s oft quoted maxim that communism equalled socialism plus electricity. Tractors had replaced horses, mechanism was producing yields that multiplied year on year.
It was, of course, a sham. Elaborate Potemkin villages had been filled with carefully selected, ideologically sound residents. Their houses had been specially painted and grain and produce were shipped in from the surrounding countryside to give the impression of plenty. Starvation was the true product of collectivisation, misery the norm.
Even the industrial and urban developments were overblown. Russia had come a long way from its agrarian roots, and the five year plans had yielded spectacular improvements in productivity. But this was at the expense of worker’s health and happiness as they were required to fulfil ever increasing, sometimes unachievable quotas.
Not all writers were hoodwinked. Malcolm Muggeridge sent a celebrated stream of reports from a Ukraine buckling under the strain of a man made famine. Depending on the reader’s sympathies, his reports could be held aloft as evidence of Soviet brutality or denounced as misinformation and right-wing propaganda.
Similarly, Hemingway and Orson Welles had their red tinted view of the world cruelly exposed by the savagery of the Spanish civil war. Zealous appreciation of either extremes of the left or right seem to be left to those who had no direct experience of either.