A Webb of Lies


A terrific documentary from the BBC World Service (episode one available for download here; episode two airs next week) asking the age old question, "why are smart people so consistently fooled by evil regimes?" The first program, predictably titled "Useful Idiots," recounts the Sovietophilia of some very clever people, including Malcolm Muggeridge, Doris Lessing, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Claude Cockburn, HG Wells, and Walter Duranty.

For those familiar with the invaluable academic work of Paul Hollander, the cast of characters will be familiar and the zeal with which so many American intellectuals embraced totalitarianism will be unsurprising. But the mention of the Webbs and their book Soviet Communism: A New Civilization sent me to the academic database JSTOR to gauge the general reaction to the book, an almost comic hagiography of Stalin, amongst the intelligentsia. Here are samples from just the first page of results:

"The Webbs—the name by which the authors will ever be remembered—have produced, on the threshold of their ninth decade, an astonishing book. The volumes are a most helpful survey of a vast body of literature, the sifting of which has been done with a care that makes the process more than merely one of scissors and paste. While confessing to a bias, the authors strive conscientiously to achieve objectivity."—The Quarterly Journal of Economics (MIT Press), Vol. 51, No. 1 (Nov., 1936)

"This is a remarkable book, a fitting continuation of the documentary research and tract-writing with which the Webbs have enriched the social sciences during their long and fruitful collaboration. It is comprehensive, detailed and fully documented—an amazing piece of work, even granted the interest of the subject and the authors' mastery of technique."—International Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 3 (May—Jun., 1936)

"The indeed must be congratulated on the achievement of a stupendous task… The goal of Soviet medicine is to create the positive health of the population, and, so far as can be judged from this book, it seems to have made remarkable progress." The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3917 (Feb. 1, 1936)

"The result is a most complete analysis, in the first volume, of the complicated Soviet organizational structure and, in the second volume, of the social institutions of the Soviet system in action. While practically all aspects of the revolutionary struggle and of its institutional product are touched upon, the great value of the study, in the opinion of the reviewer, is the weighting by the authors of the various facts and factors." The Social Service Review (University of Chicago), Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jun., 1936)

"In this, their latest work, a monument of industry, written with extraordinary clarity and vivid with the ardour of perennial youth, [the Webbs] win once again our enthusiastic gratitude." The Economic Journal, Vol. 46, No. 181 (Mar., 1936)

 "The comprehensive survey that the authors here provide will go far to correct many prevailing errors in regard to different aspects of Russian life, and they are on safe ground when they stress the necessity of the picture being all-embracing…It is free from the crudeness which characterises so much of this type of literature. As a sustained effort to present the Bolshevik experiment in the most attractive colours, this work of 1,200 pages is a remarkable achievement. There is a studied moderation of tone that renders the book all the more effective for its purpose." Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 25, No. 97 (Mar., 1936)

"Faced with the magnitude of the task the authors have undertaken and the breadth of vision and depth of understanding with which they have accomplished it, to cavil at minor inaccuracies and to deplore the lack of a subject index seem acts of Lilliputian dimension…These criticisms are however of little importance; the two volumes composing this work constitute a synthesis of what has taken place in the Soviet Union for which the Western world cannot but be grateful." Pacific Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1936)

"Soviet Communism is the most balanced, scholarly and comprehensive book on Russia yet written in the English language. It has deprived all who can read English of their last excuse for prejudice born of ignorance. It should enable public opinion on Sovietism to move on to a new stage." The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 30 (Jun., 1936)

I found no critical reviews from 1936, the year Soviet Communism was released.

And apologies to the BBC for being pedantic, but while New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty was a repulsive Stalinist stooge, it isn't true that he "responded [to claims of famine] with an article in the New York Times headed 'Story of the famine is bunk.'" Duranty was more subtle than that, though only slightly. It was in private correspondence that Duranty called the stories "mostly bunk"; in print, he wrote that claims of widespread starvation were "scare stories," "exaggerated stories," and that previous accounts of Soviet brutality were "all bunk, of course."