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  Top » Catalog » Pages » Reviews
The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union 1929–1941 By Paul Flewers

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An excerpt from the review by Gary Daniels in Labour History Review, Vol 75 No 2, August 2010

The Soviet Union and British Spies

In his thoroughly researched and detailed study, Flewers portrays the wide range of attitudes to the Soviet Union which existed in 1930s Britain. They ran from rightwing anti-Communism through scepticism and critical interest to fellow travelling and formal commitment by means of membership of the Communist Party (CP) and its front organizations such as the Friends of the Soviet Union. At that end of the spectrum, political and/or emotional identification with the Soviet experiment could lead a few of its supporters into espionage. When opportunity was offered, some attempted to acquire and pass on all kinds of potentially useful information, not limited, as it sometimes is in the popular imagination, to atomic secrets or military intelligence. The extent to which this involved a significant break with other forms of active support or evolved fairly naturally from them as another justifiable, if considerably more risky, way of providing aid to the ‘workers’ state’, whose interests always came first, is arguable. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on a small scale it was a noteworthy, if limited, aspect of the activity of British Communism, although this has not always been recognized by historians.3 This is part of more fundamental overlooking of the central influence of the Soviet Union on the political culture of the CP which, together with a relatively favourable attitude to sanitized versions of British Stalinism, has been part of revisionist historiography in Britain.4

In The New Civilization? — the title is a comment on the Webbs’ infamous volume heaping praise on Stalinism, they dropped the question mark in the second edition — Flewers examines the ways in which what was happening in the Soviet Union was understood in Britain, from the victory of ‘socialism in one country’, the Third Period, and the launch of the first Five Year Plan in 1929 until Hitler betrayed his Russian allies and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. This is not a study of public opinion or the beliefs of state functionaries who informed policy, but an attempt to capture how the Soviet Union was perceived by the authors of a wide range of books and articles in journals and magazines published in Britain during this period. What is less clear is the impact that this kind of writing had on its readers. Drawing on the still tremendous resources of London’s libraries, Flewers has unearthed a wealth of material, some of it from sources that are well known if rarely read, some from books and periodicals which have been long forgotten.

While doing justice to the differences in each category and the overlaps between them, he divides opinion into three broad categories. First, the ‘anti-communist current’, a conservative, right-wing strand which in traditional terms emphasized state repression, lack of liberal democracy and civil liberties, and the threat of revolution Russia was seen as offering to the west; second, ‘the centre ground’, sometimes taken up by moderate Conservatives, liberals, and social democratic opinion, which deplored the negative features of the USSR and refused to endorse it but sometimes felt, particularly after 1933, that Stalin might be moving with some amount of sincerity from the encouragement of revolution to peaceful coexistence and that the experiment might hold lessons for economic and social engineering in a reformist world; and finally the ‘pro-Soviet lobby’, the CP, its periphery, and its fellow travellers, as well as assorted, sometimes eccentric, intellectuals most of whom had little time indeed for Stalinism in Britain but applauded it as suited to the conditions of Russia. On the fringe were dissident communists who tried to walk a line between demanding the transformation of the Soviet Union and defending it as it stood as, on the whole, preferable to capitalism.

Flewers’ careful analysis leads him to question a variety of misunderstandings and myths. He criticizes revisionist historians and endorses the view that the Soviet Union occupied the predominant place in the political and cultural life of the CP: indeed, for some members of the party, allegiance to the Soviet Union was, despite their professed sophistication as Marxists, a matter of faith. Flewers notes that while detailed information about what was happening was harder to come by than in the previous decade, it could, contrary to later excuses and apologetics, be acquired. However, not many were prepared for the effort and application or the danger to their faith that this required. Many conclusions were superficial, based on uncritical acceptance of what was gleaned from propaganda, favourable accounts and conducted tours:

    To Moscow, to Moscow
    To have a quick look,
    Home again, home again,
    Write a fat book.5

Flewers quotes observers and visitors on the importance of understanding and speaking Russian — which few did — in relation to gaining some awareness of the realities of life and politics in Russia. Nonetheless, favourable and unfavourable judgements were often bound up with events in Britain and different reactions to them projected onto what became a happy land far away or, more rarely, an economic and political dead end or a threat to western civilization.

Particularly during the years 1934 to 1939, the British environment was in certain ways helpful to the encouragement of sympathetic opinion. The sense and to some degree the reality of capitalist crisis was combined with the development of the threat of fascism. The turn away from revolution — even Sir Oswald Mosley wondered whether Stalin had now become a nationalist, content with revolution in one country — to collective security against fascism and the popular front, and the perceived if exaggerated and hyped success of Soviet planning, made for constructive interest in what was happening in the East. The number of CP members increased, although at a far from significant rate. In the author’s view admiration and support for the Soviet Union among members of the Labour Party has been overstated in some past accounts, while the CP remained tiny and fellow travellers were not typical of the non-Communist left.

Despite the high standing and public visibility of prominent sympathizers, events in the 1930s moved against the pro-Soviet lobby. The Moscow trials gradually caused greater disquiet than has sometimes been acknowledged and they sowed seeds of disillusion in a system claiming to be socialist. While some observers remained willing to overlook or delude themselves and others about issues of democracy, liberty, the rule of law, and workers’ control, and some still saw in the Soviet Union a ‘workers’ state’, Flewers argues that by 1941, under the influence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland, the centre ground had crumbled. Democratic socialists increasingly defined themselves against Stalinism in terms of parliamentary democracy, the accountability of the state to its citizens, and the view that revolution on the Russian model was not just a different and more dangerous and violent road to socialism but the road to dictatorship, suppression of freedom, and social disaster. There was growing, if never complete, common ground between the anti-communist current and the formerly sympathetic centre ground, and ‘official Communism’ was often assimilated to its Fascist ally as the ideology of a totalitarian state and mass society.

Flewers argues further that the progress and, to an extent, popularity of Stalinism marginalized the idea of a democratic supersession of capitalism by workers themselves and distorted the central idea that socialism was about workers’ selfmanagement. The idea of state socialism, democratic or authoritarian, became dominant on the left. In contrast to simplistic connections made by some academics, any influence Soviet planning had on the changing ideas of the Labour Party after 1930 has to be seen in the context of basic political conflicts between labourism and Stalinism, even if we pay regard to the influence Fabian elitism and paternalism exerted on the former. British interest in Soviet planning was generally careful and critical; it was rooted in longstanding economic developments within capitalism. Planning was already a distinctive part of political discourse in Britain rather than stemming from any identification with the methods of ‘official Communism’ in Russia during the 1930s. Interest was predominantly defined by the belief that lessons might be drawn for capitalist or perhaps democratic socialist economies, to be suitably applied in a very different economic, social, and political framework.

The book places a great deal of importance on the changes in thinking about the Soviet Union which occurred at the end of this period. Flewers argues convincingly that the views which began to prevail in 1939–1941 of Russia as a nationalist power pursuing expansionist territorial interests which threatened western democracy and European civilization influenced later Cold War thinking. They exercised particular influence on the theories of totalitarianism based on the equivalence of the similar but distinct theories and practice of fascism and Stalinism, which became dominant on the left as well as the right after 1947. The study is successful in recalling those who took the time and possessed the perception to see things as they were, not only George Orwell but others such as Henry Brailsford and Nigel Balchin, and those who attempted serious analysis of the Soviet Union — from Trotsky on the left to Waldemar Gurian on the right.

Unlike most historians of ‘official Communism’, Flewers considers what it represented and at least touches on the nature of Stalinism and how the Soviet Union was characterized in a range of competing theories.6 He also guides us through the often superficial impressions of a range of writers, notably George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who, as John McIlroy notes in an eloquent foreword to the book, test our respect for intellectuals. Flewers ends on a sober but perhaps realistic note: ‘the discussion around Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Soviet Union has always been and no doubt will continue to be strongly influenced, if not actually dominated and determined by the political agendas of the participants’ (p. 222). Based on the author’s PhD thesis, this excellent book should find a place on the shelf alongside earlier work covering similar subject matter by Jones, Williams, Caute, and Stone.7

Notes

2 See, for example, Nigel West, Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (London: Harper Collins, 1999); John Curry, The Security Service, 1908–1945: The Official History (Kew: Public Record Office, 1999); Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London: Allen Lane, 1999); Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2001); Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Britain and the Cold War (London: Allen Lane, 2002); Phillip Knightley, The Life and Times of the KGB Masterspys (London: Andre Deutsch, 2003); Michael Smith, The Spying Game (London: Politicos, 2003); Andrew Cook, M: MI5’s Spymaster (Stroud: Tempus, 2004); Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB and the World (London: Allen Lane, 2005); Andrew Meier, The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009).

3 See, for example, two very different books, Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920–1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992); James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

4 Nina Fishman, ‘Essentialists and Realists: Reflections on the Historiography of the CPGB’, Communist History Network Newsletter, 11 (2001); John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘Histories of the British Communist Party: A User’s Guide’, Labour History Review, 68 (2003), 33–59.

5 Samuel Selwell, ‘Bloomsbury-Bolshie Ballads’, Adelphi (March 1933), quoted in Flewers, New Civilization?, p. 11.

6 Flewers favours the analysis of Hillel Ticktin, Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays in the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System (New York: Armonk, 1990). Many of the theories about what kind of society the Soviet Union was have recently been discussed in Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

7 Bill Jones, The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977); Andrew Williams, Labour and Russia: The Attitude of the Labour Party to Russia, 1924–34 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); David Caute, The Fellow Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973); Dan Stone, Responses to Nazism in Britain, 1933–1939: Before War and Holocaust (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003).

© Society for the Study of Labour History 2010

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