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The Locust Years

The unbearable lightness of interwar Britain.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By MARK FALCOFF
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One of the central paradoxes of this period is the fact that, while the Communist party of Great Britain never attracted many followers, the Soviet Union itself was the subject of huge admiration by broad sections of British intellectual and public life. The Society for Cultural Relations Between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the USSR was founded in 1924; by the 1930s it could count among its luminaries Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells, and John Maynard Keynes. Another organization, the Committee for Peace and Friendship with the USSR, included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bernard Shaw, G. D. H. Cole, and John Strachey. The most important catch for Sovietphiles was, of course, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, at the time arguably the most important Socialist intellectuals in the English-speaking world. Their book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? appeared in two hefty volumes in 1936. (The second edition appeared in the following year, with the question mark removed.) While Stalin’s Great Terror was consigning millions to the Gulag or execution squads, the Webbs were denying that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship at all but a special variety of political democracy. In her private correspondence Madame Webb was even more categorical: Commenting on the Moscow trials to H. G. Wells, she wrote that the issue was not whether the accused were guilty or innocent, “but will the counter-revolution be avoided?”

Overy admits that there was a double standard at work here. The same people who condemned concentration camps and political murders in Italy, Germany, and later Spain were speaking of countries with which many Britons could reasonably be expected to have some personal familiarity. No doubt this is true, but it is certainly not true that there was no information available on the facts of Soviet Russia in 1930s Britain. The best case he can make for these people—he obviously has considerable sympathy for them—is that many people cherished “the ideal of the Soviet Union in order to hasten the reform of Britain.”

Ironically, the war that so many on the left worked to avoid in the 1930s ended up being the very instrument by which Britain was transformed in directions they had long wished: the dismantling of empire, the embrace of economic planning, and a vast expansion of the welfare state. 

Overy probably could have found a way to say this in a long article, but for those who have a morbid interest in a morbid age, this volume will hold out a certain interest, particularly since so many of the assumptions—taking into account differences of time and place—that informed Britain’s late-imperial intellectual classes have lately found such resonance in our universities, in our mainstream media, and now, indeed, in the highest reaches of our government.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute.

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