Gareth Jones: A man of ‘goodwill’?

On 2 March 1933 a letter on the USSR was published in the Manchester Guardian. It was signed by, among others, George Bernard Shaw, Somerville Hastings, Margaret Cole (the wife of G D H Cole) and D N Pritt. It opened:

Increasing unemployment and the failure of private capital to cope with it throughout the rest of the world is causing persons of all classes and parties to watch with increasing interest the progress of the Soviet Union.

The letter then attacked the ‘blind and reckless campaign’ to discredit the USSR:

No lie is too fantastic, no slander too stale, no invention too absurdly contrary to what is now common knowledge for employment by the more reckless elements of the British press.

The authors then gave their credentials, the experience that meant they could identify these lies:

We, the undersigned, are recent visitors to the U.S.S.R. […] We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation […]. Everywhere we saw a hopeful and enthusiastic working class, […] free up to the limits imposed on them by nature and a terrible inheritance from the tyranny and incompetence of their former rulers. [1]

The authors closed their letter with an appeal to:

[A]ll men and women of goodwill to take every opportunity of informing themselves of the real facts of the situation.

It is this notion of ‘goodwill’ that I wish to briefly talk about, via the subject of my current research, Gareth Jones.

Jones was born in Barry in 1905 and fluent in Russian (and four other languages). He was a liberal and a non-conformist, who believed in free trade, disarmament and developing bonds with other nations in the interest of peace. Fascinated by the idea of ‘Russia’, he visited the Soviet Union in the summers of 1930 and 1931, and a third and final time in March 1933. On this last trip he walked through Russian and Ukrainian villages ravaged by the famine caused by collectivisation, now known as the Holodomor. He wrote many notes on what he saw and heard, recording the words of starving peasants in pocket diaries

On leaving the USSR he stopped over in Berlin, where he announced his findings to a cadre of journalists who spread his news throughout Europe and the USA. These reports were soon supplemented by his own articles in the Daily Express and Cardiff’s Western Mail. On his return to Britain he was invited to speak on the state of the Soviet Union at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. His talk, entitled ‘Soviet Russia in March 1933’, went into some detail on the state of the Soviet government, the urban population and the suffering of the peasantry as he had seen it. He also outlined his views on the reason the Soviet secret police, the OGPU, had arrested British engineers on charges of ‘wrecking’ that January.

However, he also had a word for other visitors to the Soviet Union, and particularly those of his own political creed. In particular, he targeted the Manchester Guardian and the News Chronicle, and reserved his angriest words for the authors of the letter of 2 March. Jones, not prone to such intemperate outbursts, was furious. It is worth quoting him in full:

May I say as a Liberal in this regard how disgusted I am by liberal opinion in this country. The attitude of the Liberal press has been cowardly and hypocritical. The Manchester Guardian gets red in the face when there are some disgraceful events in Eastern Galicia, but when a hundred million peasants are condemned to hunger & serfdom, the Manchester Guardian is quiet. The Eastern Galician oppression is a fleabite compared with the events in Russia. There is no excuse, for the Manchester Guardian has had an excellent correspondent in Moscow. [2] I hold that that paper has betrayed the reliance which liberal people in the world have placed in it. The News Chronicle is not much better. It has had an admirable source of information, but it has remained cowardly in its attitude of tolerating any kind of tyranny in Russia, while getting violent about any form of oppression in Germany or Italy. Typical of liberal opinion is the letter to the Manchester Guardian of March 2nd. I read a translation of it in the Izvestia when I was in Moscow and it appeared farcical to me. Viewed from Moscow it was a mixture of hypocrisy, of gullibility and of such a crass ignorance of the situation that its signatories should be ashamed of venturing to express an opinion about something about which they know so little. I can add here that after Stalin Bernard Shaw is the most hated man in Russia among those who can read newspapers.

The reaction on the night to this part of his lecture is unknown.  Similar feelings appear in a letter from Jones to the Manchester Guardian of 8 May 1933, when he sought to defend Muggeridge’s own reporting of the Soviet famine from attack:

I hope that fellow-Liberals who boil at any injustice in Germany or Italy or Poland will just express one word of sympathy with the millions of peasants who are victims of persecution and famine in the Soviet Union.

So, by the reckoning of Shaw and his fellow signatories, could Jones be considered a man of ‘goodwill’? Politically he was no friend of the right: he had investigated the sufferings of the working classes in Depression-hit Britain and the United States, and he approached the Soviet Union with genuine, open curiosity. He had even remarked after two visits to the USSR that he preferred the ‘Communist outlook of work for society’ over rampant capitalist greed. He was not a ‘pro-‘ or an ‘anti-‘ before he went, and indeed he sought to record the good in the Soviet reality as much as the bad.

Jones experienced the privations and agonies being visited on the peasantry of the Soviet Union. He could not help but be appalled by them, and he tried to spread word of them as far as possible. This was very unwelcome for staunch defenders of the Soviet Union, such as the Anglo-American journalist Walter Duranty, who swiftly penned an indictment of Jones’s reports in the New York Times. For Duranty, the signatories of the letter of 2 March, and many others, ‘goodwill’ meant defending the Soviet Union against attacks, be they from conservatives, ‘social fascists’ or actual fascists.

At best this defense could point to genuine achievements of the Soviet Union. At points it entailed a certain equivocation, be it diminishing the guilt of one government or group, and emphasising the guilt of another – Stalin’s USSR against Mussolini’s Italy, or Pilsudski’s Poland, or the violence of the Nazis in Germany. At worst, it entailed an abstraction of human life into a brutal political equation, wherein a certain amount of lives could be lost if progressive goals were thus attained.

By this measure, Jones was not a man of ‘goodwill’, and what his story shows us is how the letter of 2 March makes an argument that obscures a very complex range of reactions to the Soviet Union (including a variety of positive responses). It blames ‘lies’ on a ‘reckless’ press, and opposes this apparent irresponsibility with an appeal to basic decency. ‘Goodwill’ is a common, positive, simple, humanising term that here cloaks a particular ideological viewpoint at a time of intense, complex, multi-faceted ideological disputes. The letter seeks to assault its twin: it defends the USSR with a passion that is matched by those who despised all the Soviet Union stood for.

Jones, whose position represents some of the complexity of feeling about the Soviet Union, sits between these twin poles. What is more, he had more experience of the Soviet Union’s darker side. He took issue with everything in the letter, but especially the ignorance of the signatories. Perhaps it would be unfair to criticise people for not condemning what they did not see, but one did not have to venture into the countryside to see suffering: Jones saw it in the city as well. The crucial point is that once Jones’s reports had been tarnished by Duranty’s response, his account could be rationalised on and by ideological precepts, or simply ignored in favour of other more favourable reports. The search for the ‘real facts of the situation’, the goal of every person of ‘goodwill’, was actually subordinate to other concerns.

Jones’s raw experiences in a world without decency reveal both the cracks in the signatories’ reporting of the Soviet Union, but also of the human story behind these arguments, which he, as a man of goodwill, could not pretend he had not seen:

He took me along to his cottage. His daughter & three little children. Two of the smaller children were swollen.

‘If you had come before the Revolution we would have given you chickens and eggs and milk and fine bread. Now we have no bread in the house. They are killing us. People are dying of hunger.’ […]

Child played with me, laughed, pale, glassy eyes, swollen stomach. […] I sang Ich bin v. Kopf and Jig. [3] Laughs.

 

Nicholas Hall

 

[1] It is interesting to note that only the ‘working class’ are referred to in the letter. Consciously or not, the peasantry are missing, either by elision with the ‘working class’, or by blunt omission.

[2] Malcolm Muggeridge.

[3] Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt or ‘Falling in Love again (I can’t help it)’, as it is known in English, sung by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 German film, The Blue Angel.

 

 

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