The Free Market
A Webb of Lies
The Free Market 18, no. 2 (February 2000)
In The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin declared "For the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, we must have the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries." What he secured instead was the slavish devotion of Western intellectuals who claimed to represent the proletariat: left intellectuals. With some exceptions, these apologists either ignored or adamantly denied the atrocities of Stalinism. In doing so, they became accomplices to the bloodbath that was Soviet communism; that is, Marxism as popularized by Lenin.
The carnage was inevitable. Soviet communism openly advocated using violence in order to create the "new Soviet man"-an evolved human being whose nature would conform to a collectivist ideal. This man, multiplied by millions, would constitute a brave new society dedicated to a common goal and acting as though directed by a single will. In short, Soviet communists wanted to reprogram human nature.
But how? Marx contended that a man who had grown up in isolation would not be a human being. By contrast, a man shipwrecked alone would be human because of his prior socialization. He would have already been exposed to language, reasoning, art...all the factors that create "humanity." In essence, Marx argued that human beings are social constructs. Ludwig von Mises described the Marxist view of individual man, "The notion of an individual, say the critics, is an empty abstraction." To fill this abstraction, to mold it into an ideal man, it was necessary to control absolutely the society that would define him. If he resisted redefinition, he could be eliminated.
The attempt to speed up and direct evolution was doomed. To no avail, classical liberals explained that a man who developed in isolation would remain a human being with human characteristics. For example, he would have a scale of preferences and act to achieve the highest one first. True, without social interaction, much of his potential would never develop. For example, he was unlikely to develop language skills. If he were placed within a society, however, these potentials might emerge. But if they did, the development would be possible only because of his inherent nature as a human being. Not because a collective defined them into existence. Thus, instead of evolving a new man to fit a political ideal, classical liberals adopted a political approach (natural rights) that fit human nature. Their ideal society required few controls.
As implausible as the new Soviet man might seem, left-wing radicals in the West applauded the Soviet Experiment. They clearly believed Trotsky's description in Literature and Revolution: the "average human type" under communism would be the equal of Aristotle and "above this ridge new peaks" of humanity would rise. Among the loudest voices cheering were the prominent British socialist utopians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
In 1932, the Webbs traveled to Russia. This was the same year that Stalin directed a campaign of genocide against the kulaks-the millions of farmers, largely Ukrainian, who refused to be collectivized. When shooting them proved too slow, Stalin created a famine by sealing off roads and railway lines. Then the kulaks were stripped of all food, fuel, farm animals, and seed for planting. The death toll is estimated variously from six to ten million people.
The Webbs toured the Ukraine during the height of the famine (1932-1933), interviewing Soviet officials as they went. They concluded that anti-communists had invented the famine. The Webbs' two-volume book Soviet Communism: A New Civilization (1935) repeated the claim: no famine had occurred, planned or otherwise.
Malcolm Muggeridge, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, also toured the Ukraine in 1932- 1933, but he strayed from the pre-packaged Soviet itinerary. He called the famine "the most terrible thing I have ever seen" and claimed that "all the correspondents in Moscow were distorting it." He described the Webbs' response to him. "The Webbs were furious. Mrs. Webb in her diary says, `Malcolm has come back with stories about a terrible famine in the USSR. I have been to see Mr. Maisky (the Soviet ambassador in Britain) about it, and I realize that he's got it absolutely wrong.' Who would suppose that Mr. Maisky would say, `No, no, of course he's right'?"
Muggeridge continued, "My wife's aunt was Beatrice Webb. And so one saw close at hand the degree to which they all knew about the regime, knew all about the Cheka (the secret police) and everything, but they liked it. I remember Mrs. Webb, who after all was a very cultivated upper-class liberal-minded person, an early member of the Fabian Society and so on, saying to me, `Yes, it's true, people disappear in Russia.' She said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn't help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize." The Webbs staunchly supported Stalin through the Great Purge, the show trials and even the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
If the former USSR has any lessons for the world, they are in danger of being lost. The objective histories that should have been written remain blank pages. The wall of denial from the left continues. For example, Walter Duranty-the New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reports on Russia-also dismissed the famine as propaganda. To this day, the Times has not issued a retraction.
Meanwhile, a double standard is applied to Russia. As bombs devastate Chechnya, Clinton and much of the media look away. The chaos and collapse of Russia is ascribed to "failed capitalism" or to a drunken Yeltsin, not to the ruinous decades of totalitarianism. No wonder Soviet communism threatens to regain popularity among the Russian people. Left-wing radicals have betrayed working people by refusing to confront the failure of the "Soviet Experiment." Some of them do it with silence, others with words that lie. In both cases, they deny to the dead the right to be mourned. And to the living, the need to remember.
Wendy McElroy is the author of The Reasonable Woman (Prometheus).
Cite This Article
McElroy, Wendy. "A Webb of Lies." The Free Market 18, no. 2 (February 2000).