From the archive: when HG Wells met Josef Stalin

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HG Wells’s interview with Stalin in 1934, and the debate that followed, was one of the most striking episodes in the history of the New Statesman. Wells – the novelist and socialist famous for science fiction such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – used the interview to try to coax Stalin into a more conciliatory position, challenging (too gently for some) his views on international relations, the rhetoric of class war and freedom of expression for writers.

The interview took place in Moscow at a time when many British socialists and fellow travellers were journeying to the Soviet Union seeking inspiration in the communist project. Wells was on the lookout for signs that his socialist world state was coming into being, and the interview with Stalin was conceived as a foil to his meeting with Roosevelt the previous year. The intention was to make a comparison between Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Soviet Five Year Plan, and to harness the progressive potential of both. Wells thought they were similar projects and hoped that they might somehow meet in the middle. As he put it to Stalin, “Is there not a relation in ideas, a kinship of ideas and needs, between Washington and Moscow?” But Stalin’s insistence on the antagonism between the two worlds more accurately prefigured the Cold War to come.

The interview, which was criticised from both sides as either too indulgent or too critical of Stalin, showed the dying ideals of Edwardian liberalism chastened by an encounter with modern totalitarianism. It provoked strong reactions in the letters pages of the New Statesman from George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes (the co-founder and the then chairman of the magazine), resulting in a clash between three intellectual giants that revealed a great deal about the tensions within the left in the 1930s. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, thought the interview and the letters interesting enough to be republished as a pamphlet. Today, it remains a fascinating reminder of the role the literary intelligentsia played in political debate during what WH Auden called, perhaps unfairly, a “low dishonest decade”.

Read by Adrian Bradley, Chris Stone and May Robson.

Read the text version here. It was first published in the New Statesman in 1934 and re-published on the website on 18 April 2014.

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