The Webbs on the Show Trials

In honour of Anthony Giddens’ fine essay from the New Statesman in 2006 on “The Colonel and his Third Way“, I repost my favourite passage from the second edition of the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation — the edition for which, famously, the question-mark was removed from the book’s original title:

“To many people in Great Britain, the outstanding feature of the record since 1934 is the series of trials of highly-placed Soviet citizens for high treason. That so many men in high official positions, mostly active participants in the revolution of 1917 and some of them companions of Lenin, should have committed such crimes has seemed to Western observers almost incredible. That in the course of the customary private investigations prior to the judicial trials the defendants should one and all have made full and detailed confessions unreservedly repeated in open court of the guilt not only of themselves but also of their fellow criminals seemed to raise the tragic story to the fantastic madness of a nightmare; it seemed that the confessions must have been forced on the prisoners by torture or the threat of torture.

“A distinguished Irishman hints that what needs explanation is the British procedure in criminal prosecutions, which differs so remarkably from that of all the other nations of Europe. In his view, the conduct of the prisoners in these Russian trials is in full accord with the Russian character. In England, our friend remarks, a prisoner indicted for treason is practically forced to go through a legal routine of defence. He pleads not guilty; his counsel assumes for him an attitude of injured innocence, demanding legitimate proof of every statement and setting up a hypothesis as to what actually happened which is consistent with the prisoner’s innocence. The judge compliments the counsel on the brilliant ability with which he has conducted his case. He points out to the jury that the hypothesis is manifestly fictitious and the prisoner obviously guilty. The jury finds the necessary verdict. The judge then, congratulating the prisoner on having been so ably defended and fairly tried, sentences him to death and commends him to the mercy of his God.

“May not this procedure, which seems so natural and inevitable to us, very intelligibly strike a Russian as a farce tolerated because our rules of evidence and forms of trial have never been systematically revised on rational lines? Why should a conspirator who is caught out by the Government, and who knows that he is caught out and that no denials or hypothetical fairy tales will help him to escape – why should he degrade himself uselessly by a mock defence, instead of at once facing the facts and discussing his part in them quite candidly with his captors? There is a possibility of moving them by such a friendly course: in a mock defence there is none. Our candid friend submits that the Russian prisoners simply behave naturally and sensibly, as Englishmen would were they not virtually compelled not to by their highly artificial legal system. What possible good could it do them to behave otherwise? Why should they waste the time of the court and disgrace themselves by prevaricating like pickpockets merely to employ the barristers? Our friend suggests that some of us are so obsessed with our national routine that the candour of the Russian conspirators seems grotesque and insane. Which of the two courses, viewed by an impartial visitor from Mars, would appear the saner?

“Nevertheless the staging of the successive trials, and the summary executions in which they ended appeared strangely inconsistent with the other actions of the Soviet Government. It must have been foreseen that this whole series of trials, the numerous shootings to which they led, the publicity and popular absue of the defendants which the Government apparently organised and encouraged, and especially the malignity with which Leon Trotsky, safe in far-off Mexico, was assailed, would produce a set-back in the international appreciation which the Soviet Union was increasingly receiving. The Soviet Government must have had strong grounds for the action, which has involved such unwelcome consequences.”

Source: Soviet Communism – A New Civilisation by Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Victor Gollancz, 1937), Postscript to the second edition.

4 Comments


  1. ‘The distinguished Irishman’ – is that George Bernard Shaw?

    Quote | Posted 23 February, 2011, 2:45 pm

  2. It could very well be, couldn’t it?

    Quote | Posted 23 February, 2011, 3:14 pm

  3. I particularly like that final twist, which surely has a name in some manual of bad argument. “This looks murderous and insane… but they must have known it would look murderous and insane… so they must have had very good reasons for doing it!”

    Quote | Posted 23 February, 2011, 6:35 pm

  4. It probably was George Bernard Shaw. Didn’t he throw his packed lunch out of a Soviet train window in the early 30s after he realised there was indeed no famine?

    David Caute’s ‘Fellow Travellers’ needs a new chapter. Giddens serenading Gaddafi, Galloway giving Ahmadinejad a back-rub and Pilger exchanging sweet-nothings with Chavez.

    Quote | Posted 13 March, 2011, 11:20 pm

Leave a reply


3 × four =


biannual