All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1995

H. G. Wells in Russia

Wells Had a Defective Vision of Lenin's Communist State

Martin Gardner is a science writer, author of some fifty books about science, math, philosophy, and literature. His best known book is The Annotated Alice. He was the editor of the math department of Scientific American for 25 years.

Today’s college students, preoccupied with everything except a liberal education, have only the dimmest awareness of how many famous writers, artists, and thinkers around the world were once under the magic spell of Communism. They have no conception of how many bright, attractive young people in American universities during the 1930s called each other “comrade,” exulting in the delusion that they were part of a vast, inevitable Revolution destined to overthrow an evil capitalism.

The Soviet Empire has now crumbled, Communist parties are dissolving, the old tricolor Russian flag has replaced the hammer and sickle, statues of Lenin have been toppled, and Marxist ideology is dead except in the atrophied brains of a few elderly diehards around the globe. As history takes this unexpected turn, it is good to remember that from the beginning—not just among conservatives but among democratic socialists—there were many who saw clearly that Marxism was a weird mystique set forth by an egotistical crank.

In 1920, three years after the Bolsheviks seized power, two of England’s most influential writers, Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells, made trips to Moscow to converse with Lenin. Each recorded his negative impressions in a book. Russell’s Practice and Theory of Bolshevism is the more perceptive of the two books, but it is still in print and widely known. Here I shall focus on the book by Wells, Russia in the Shadows, because it has been almost totally forgotten. It deserves to be read today for three reasons: its vivid account of Russian chaos following the first world war, its portrait of Lenin, and its insights into Wells’ early opinions of Marx and the future of Russia.

Wells made three visits to Russia. The first, accompanied by Maurice Baring, was in 1914, just before the outbreak of war, to see his old friend Maxim Gorky. Gorky’s secretary and mistress was then the Countess Benckendorff, formerly Moura Zakrevskaya. She had been planted on Gorky as a government spy. But Moura had told Gorky this. Admiring her straightforwardness, Gorky did not seem to mind.

In 1920, when Wells returned to Russia, Gorky (a personal friend of Lenin) arranged for Moura to be Wells’ guide and interpreter. Although there is no hint of it in Wells’ book, he fell passionately in love with her. The full story of this beautiful and witty woman has yet to be told, although Anthony West, Wells’ illegitimate son by Rebecca West, devotes many pages to her in his biography of Wells. “My father could not reason himself out of his intoxication with her, and however little future his passion might seem to have, he went home with it burning in him.”

Wells’ account of his 1920 trip first ran as a series of articles in London’s Sunday Express, instantly boosting that paper’s circulation by 80,000. Hodden and Stoughton brought the series out as a book in 1920, the same year that Russell’s book appeared.

Wells went first to St. Petersburg (later renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad, now back to St. Petersburg) to renew his friendship with Gorky. Since 1914 Moura had been imprisoned several times by the Bolsheviks, and was now forbidden to leave Petersburg to return to her children in nearby Estonia.

St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, was in a state of almost total ruin. The old Czarist order had collapsed because of what Wells called its “inherent rottenness.” The Bolsheviks had snatched power from the democratic but indecisive Mensheviks. There had been much killing to establish order and there was a crude rationing system for food and goods. Everywhere was evidence of a “vast irreparable breakdown.” Shops were closed, clothes were shabby, roads were terrible, houses had been torn down for firewood. A black market flourished, though occasionally a profiteer was caught and shot. Men were unshaven only because they had no razor blades. Hospitals had broken down. Medicines were unavailable. Everybody looked sick and sad. People stood for hours in long queues to get bread. Wherever Wells looked, and he was allowed to roam freely, he saw nothing but decay and desolation.

Over and over again Wells insists that this decay was not the product of Bolshevism but the cause. “It was not Communism which built up these great, impossible cities, but capitalism. It was not Communism that plunged this huge, creaking, bankrupt empire into six years of exhausting war. It was European imperialism. Nor is it Communism that has pestered this suffering and perhaps dying Russia with a series of subsidized raids, invasions and insurrections, and inflicted upon it an atrocious blockade. The vindictive French creditor, the journalistic British oaf are far more responsible for these deathbed miseries than any Communist.”

The Communist Party, Wells stressed, was at the moment the only possible government for Russia. Small in number, the Bolsheviks had been able to take over during the confusion that followed six years of war because they were the only party with a clear vision. Its leaders, Wells believed, were fanatical but honest. He acknowledged their brutalities, but suspected that a Red Terror, inspired by hate, was the only way order could have been restored.

Russell, whose visit to Russia preceded Wells’, found Gorky dying along with Russian culture. Wells chides Russell for this. Russell had simply caught Gorky with a bad cold, then his imagination led him into a “dark and purple passage.” Although Gorky was a great admirer of Lenin, Wells found him bitter toward the Communist Party, and strong in his respect for Western science and literature. Now thanks to Bolshevik efforts to prevent counterrevolutionary forces, Russian art, literature, and science had almost disappeared. Eminent scientists were without funds or access to Western journals. “The crude Marxist philosophy,” Wells wrote, “which divides all men into bourgeoisie and proletariat, which sees all social life as a stupidly simple ‘class war,’ had no knowledge of the conditions necessary for the collective mental life.”

Amazingly, only in plays and operas did pockets of the old culture persist. “When one faced the stage, it was as if nothing had changed.” Another hopeful sign was the government subsidy for a vast encyclopedia, though how would it be distributed? Wells granted that the Bolsheviks were basically honest, but they were also naive and simpleminded. Astonished to find themselves in power, they were without plans or ideas. “Marx the Prophet and his Sacred Book” provided no leads. Although Marx had given a good factual account of the evils of unfettered capitalism, he offered no blueprints for what would replace it. All he did was intimate vaguely about the new paradise that would eventually result after a temporary socialist phase had withered away. Communism, wrote Wells, was like a magician who had lost his rabbit and could produce nothing from his hat.

An Active Hostility Toward Marx

In a chapter titled “The Quintessence of Bolshevism” Wells slashed away at Marxist ideology in two memorable paragraphs:


It will be best if I write about Marx without any hypocritical deference. I have always regarded him as a Bore of the extremest sort. His vast unfinished work, Das Kapital, a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and proletariat, a book forever maundering away into tedious secondary discussions, impresses me as a monument of pretentious pedantry. But before I went to Russia on this last occasion I had no active hostility to Marx. I avoided his works and when I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constituted the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows. In Gorky’s flat I listened with attention while Bokaiev discussed with Shalyapin the fine question of whether in Russia there was a proletariat at all, distinguishable from the peasants. As Bokaiev has been head of the Extraordinary Commission of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Petersburg, it was interesting to note the fine difficulties of the argument. The “proletarian” in the Marxist jargon is like the “producer” in the jargon of some political economists, who is supposed to be a creature absolutely distinct and different from the “consumer.” So the proletarian is a figure put into flat opposition to something called capital. I find in large type outside the current number of the Plebs, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Apply this to a works foreman who is being taken in a train by an engine-driver to see how the house he is having built for him by a building society is getting on. To which of these immiscible does he belong, employer or employed? The stuff is sheer nonsense.

In Russia I must confess my passive objection to Marx has changed to a very active hostility. Wherever we went we encountered busts, portraits, and statues of Marx. About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn wooly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind. I found the omnipresent images of that beard more and more irritating. A gnawing desire grew upon me to see Karl Marx shaved. Some day, if I am spared, I will take up shears and a razor against Das Kapital; I will write The Shaving of Karl Marx.

Marxism, Wells wrote, was a cult that appealed to energetic young men and women who were aware of capitalism’s excesses and who longed for a new order. They would have become Marxists if Marx had never lived. Wells recalls his own youth. Denied an education, he had worked long hours in a detestable shop which he would have gladly burned down if he had not assumed it was overinsured. Marxism spread like fire around the world not because Marx was wise but because capitalism was “stupid, selfish, wasteful, and anarchistic.

Marx saw a “great conspiracy against human happiness concocted by a mysterious body of wicked men called capitalists.” Wells saw these tycoons as “no more than a scrambling disorder of mean-spirited and short-sighted men.” Marxism, with its conspiracy mania and revolutionary ardor, offered an illusory hope for a quick fix. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks had no experience in running a giant nation. Wells found their incompetence amazing, their ignorance profound. Repeatedly he was asked, “When is the social revolution going to happen in England?”

Every intelligent Bolshevik, wrote Wells, is bothered by the fact that the revolution happened first in Russia. According to Marx, it was to occur in advanced capitalist countries–first in England, then France, and Germany, and finally in America. Instead, it happened in Russia where there was no specialized working class at all. Russian factories were worked by peasants who came and went from villages. There was no proletariat, in Marx’s sense, to unite with the workers of the world. Slowly dawning on the minds of Bolsheviks was the “chill suspicion” that what happened in Russia was not a Marxist revolution at all, but only the capture of a derelict ship.

Wells tried to convince Russian leaders that in England there were at least 200 different classes, and the only class-conscious proletarians he knew were a small band of Scotch workers under the leadership of a gentleman named MacManus. Wells was amused by the repeated scoldings that came by wireless to British labor leaders because they refused to behave like Marx said they would. They ought to be Red. They were just yellow.

In Wells’ eyes “never was there so amateurish a government.” Their preposterous ideology was doing irreparable damage to science and art. The teaching of chemistry was actually forbidden unless it was Marxist chemistry. Art and literature were suppressed if not politically correct.

Wells visited a school selected by the government. When children were asked what Western writers they liked best, Wells’ name dominated! “Such comparatively trivial figures as Milton, Dickens, Shakespeare ran about intermittently between the feet of that literary colossus.” Wells was furious. The next day he visited a school of his own choice and found it far superior. There were no Wells books in its library. None of the children had ever heard of him.

At a meeting of Petersburg leaders he heard himself repeatedly praised. They urged him to write fairly about Russia; not to emulate Russell who had accepted their hospitality then gone home to write harsh criticism. To avoid mistranslations, Wells wrote down his speech and had it carefully translated before he gave it. He was not a Marxist, he told his listeners. He was a “collectivist.” He wished Russia well, but assured them that in England any movement toward socialism would be peaceful, the product of education, not class hatred. The speech was reported fairly in Pravda. The meeting ended with everyone singing the Internationale. Wells realized that in no way was the meeting democratic. It simply rubberstamped what it had been told. It was like “a big bagful of miscellaneous wheels” compared to an “old-fashioned and inaccurate but still going clock.”

Wells Meets Lenin

The sixth chapter of Wells’ book, titled “The Dreamer in the Kremlin,” describes Wells’ chat with Lenin. He found Moscow in less disrepair than Petersburg. Its churches were open. Ten thousand crosses glittered in the sunlight, and kissing icons was still a flourishing industry. A sign outside one church said, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” It had little effect, Wells observed, because most of the people in the street could not read.

After a long irritating wait, Wells was ushered through a labyrinth of passageways and guards to Lenin’s sanctum. Wells was surprised at how small Lenin was. He had expected to find a doctrinaire Marxist, but found him nothing of the sort. He had a pleasant, quick-changing, brownish face, lively smile, and a habit of screwing up one side of his face because of defective vision in one eye. Speaking excellent English, Lenin asked the inevitable question. Why is there no social revolution in England?

Wells in turn wanted to know what Lenin planned to do with the mammoth country he found on his hands. There were huge plans. The cities would become smaller, all Russia would be electrified, agriculture would be seized by the state and modernized. “Come back,” he said, “and see what we have done in ten years.” Wells was favorably impressed. In spite of Lenin’s cumbersome Marxist baggage, Wells believed that “this amazing little man” might actually succeed in revitalizing Russia.

Wells stressed his faith in evolutionary socialism. Lenin disagreed. Capitalism was incurable. It had to be totally overturned. Their argument ended indecisively, but they parted warmly. Wells and his Russian-speaking biologist son G. P. (“Gip”) who had accompanied him on the trip returned to Petersburg, then on to Revel to catch a ship home. Wells left convinced that Western nations should do all they could to provide aid, especially food to prevent a looming famine during the coming winter. If Russia were to collapse again, Bolshevism might be replaced by a new ideology and a dictatorship worse than Lenin’s. Such a collapse, Wells feared, could spread westward, and “possibly all modern civilization may tumble in.”

Leon Trotsky, in his biography of Lenin, wrote that several years after Wells’ visit Lenin had said of Wells, “Ugh! What a narrow petty bourgeois he is! He is a philistine! Ugh! What a philistine!” Anthony West, in his biography of his father says that he thinks Trotsky fabricated Lenin’s remark out of whole cloth.

Although Russia in the Shadows sold well in England, it was bitterly denounced by Communists for its attacks on Marx, and by conservatives for its tolerance of the Russian experiment and for its admiration of Lenin. Winston Churchill, who correctly perceived Communism as a growing cancer, blasted Wells’ book in The Daily Express (December 5, 1920), followed by Wells’ reply. Churchill and Wells had long been at odds. Wells would later caricature him as Rupert Catskill in his science fantasy Men Like Gods (1923). Arch-conservative Henry Arthur Jones was so enraged that he barraged Wells with abusive letters which he later published as a book My Dear Wells (1921).

Wells’ Defective Vision

Who today can fault Wells for seeing clearly through the shams of Marx, and for his fears that Bolshevik fanaticism would stifle Russian science and culture? But there are three glaring defects in his book.

Wells was curiously unimpressed by the absence of democracy in the new Russia. Not once did he ask Lenin if there were plans for free elections and secret ballots. Wells had never been keen on allowing uneducated people to vote, preferring instead a state governed by an appointed elite of scientists and technicians. Perhaps he bought the Bolshevik notion that a democracy of sorts operated in Russia as decisions made by low-level party cells filtered upward to the Kremlin. There is no excuse for Wells not realizing that without a vigorous democracy, and a press free to criticize, there could be no guarantee that a tyrant would not gain total control, as indeed one did.

Nor did Wells show an awareness that a free-market economy, combined with private property, is a far more efficient way to produce food and goods than a command economy that stifles initiatives and regulates with a clumsy, easily corrupted bureaucracy. As a democratic (of sorts) socialist, Wells shared Marx’s indictment of unrestrained capitalism, but he did not understand, as even democratic socialists do today, that a modern economy must be founded on free markets.

Finally, as an atheist himself, Wells was not appalled by Lenin’s efforts to eliminate Christianity from Russian culture and establish atheism as a state “religion.” Wells should have realized that efforts to stamp out religious faith, especially in a culture as deeply pious as Russia, would only alienate the masses and increase their hostility toward the government. As we now see, the Russian people are hungry as ever for the right to worship God, and flocking back by the millions to their newly opened churches. Some Russian leaders are even daring to end their speeches with “God bless you”!

This is not the place to cover the history of Wells’ growing realization that nothing good would ever come from the Russian experiment, and that universal suffrage was essential for the health of any nation. In 1934, during his three-hour conversation with Stalin, Wells tried to persuade Stalin that Roosevelt’s New Deal was the beginning in America of a movement toward socialism, and that the world’s two great superpowers should seize the chance to work together for a world socialist state. Stalin countered, as had Lenin, with the usual Marxist bromides. American capitalists were simply making a few trivial concessions to stay in power. They would never give up without a workers’ revolt that would totally overthrow them.

Wells’ last full-length novel, Babes in the Darkling Wood (1940), was about the disenchantment of two young Stalinists, a change of heart triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Finland. Hard as it is to believe, Wells still clung to his view that Stalin was a sincere, essentially decent fellow who was caught in the coils of a worthless ideology. By 1940 many books had accurately described Stalin’s terror—the millions of innocents he had shot or sent to die in the Gulag—but Wells either had not read them or he knew about them and did not believe them. His last great outburst of anger, Crux Ansata (1943) was directed not against the crimes of Stalin, but against what he considered the crimes of Roman Catholicism. When Wells died in 1946, soon after the first atom bomb fell on Japan, he had given up hope that humanity could save itself from wars that would plunge it back to barbarism.

Many of Wells’ prophecies were eerily accurate. As early as 1914, in his science-fiction novel The World Set Free, he described a second world war beginning in the forties in which “atom bombs” were dropped from planes. The one great event he totally failed to see was the abrupt collapse in the U.S.S.R. of its entire Marxist-Engels-Leninist-Stalinist heritage.

As I write, Russia is back in shadows strangely similar to those Wells encountered in 1920. Its economy is in chaos, famine is again a threat, and help from the West is desperately needed. As in 1920 its leaders have only the vaguest plans for restructuring a shattered empire along democratic and free-market lines. It is one of the magnificent and ironic surprises of history that this great culture, after 74 years of brutal Communist dictatorship, is now eager to construct a political and economic system of the very sort that Marx regarded as something so malevolent that it had to be destroyed utterly by workers of the world who had nothing to lose but their chains.