January 15, 2024   6 mins

Vladimir Lenin has a way of confounding Marxist historians, many of whom generally — and with good reason — attach odium to Great Man History. For he was that rare thing: an individual instigator of historical change. A hundred years after his death, hagiographies and obloquies continue pouring off presses as once did concrete to erect statues of Uncle Volodya. But even his most hostile critics would be churlish to dismiss his outsized role during the heady months leading to Red October.

Yet there is another achievement that Lenin was inadvertently, indeed perversely, responsible for: the Western welfare state. That we rarely recognise this owes to a common misperception. Very many of us regrettably buy that Labour conceit, hawked by spin doctors and court historians, that celebrates Clement Attlee and William Beveridge as the co-fathers of our welfare state. But as the historian David Edgerton reminds us, it is in fact the Liberal-Tory coalition of David Lloyd George in the immediate aftermath of the First World War that we ought to be thanking. These were the years when the major strides in education, healthcare, and insurance were made. Post-war, all that was left for Labour to do was to extend it to one and all. Already covering some 80% of the population, welfare was brought to the remaining one-fifth of Britain by Beveridge.

More importantly, it was neither paternalism nor prodigality that prompted these early stirrings of dirigisme. Rather it was red contagion. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, a concatenation of revolts detonated across the globe. Bolshevism spread westwards, from Vienna through Budapest and Sofia to Kiel. The Bavarian Soviet Republic was briefly established in April 1919, before the far-Right Freikorps did it in. Britain wasn’t immune to the ferment. Between the February and October Revolutions, the Leeds Soviet did indeed appear to be the beginning of something. That nothing came of it was down to Lloyd George’s unsentimental pragmatism. Many of the workers’ demands were duly conceded, taking the sting out of union radicalism, even as many leaders were put behind bars.

Two years later, Lloyd George’s Bolshevik bugbear was to return with a vengeance, when shipbuilders stormed the Glasgow City Chambers. With hindsight, it is obvious that “Red Clydeside” was never, in any meaningful sense, a harbinger of “Red Britain”: the radicalism of Glaswegian trade unions on either side of the River Clyde was never going to spread to the rest of the country. Yet at the time, the red threat was all too real. “This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since,” Lloyd George would later recall of the police and prison officers’ strike. London and Birmingham were spared, but Merseyside had rocked to the sound of rioting and looting. Violence was brought to a halt only when the army was brought in.

It is difficult for us to conceive what the “peace” after the armistice actually looked like. Yet Simon Webb’s 1919: Britain’s Year of Revolutions reconstructs a society teetering on the brink of collapse: soldiers roughing up workers; martial law in Luton; tanks cruising the streets of Liverpool. The Italians call the two years immediately following the war the biennio rosso, and it seems fair to speak of a red biennium in Britain as well. For one thing, it would be impossible to understand British domestic and foreign policy without reference to that singular neurosis of the interwar ruling class. While cavorting with the antisemitic Whites to crush the Reds in Russia, Westminster and Whitehall were at the same time crushing the unruly bolshies back at home. Churchill, then minister for war, put forward the government line with characteristic crassness: “kill the Bolshie, kiss the Hun.”

As it must in democracies, with the stick also came the carrot. Yes, the workers were brutally put down. But they hadn’t protested in vain. Gone were the Gladstonian days of cheese-paring Liberalism. Lloyd George’s Liberals were an altogether different beast: by turns technocratic, interventionist and ambitious. They were, no doubt, building on pre-war precedent, in particular the health and insurance schemes of 1911, and making good on wartime promises, but they were above all trying to make peace with the bad, mad and dangerous Brits on the streets.

To begin with, they gave a great many people a greater share in government, shepherding them from the barricades into polling stations. Universal male suffrage in 1918 enfranchised unpropertied men — that is, two in five men — as well as propertied women over 30. The same year, the Education Act, lobbied by Lancashire unionists, raised the school-leaving age from 12 to 14 to forestall cotton bosses from battening on benighted boys. And in 1919, the Housing and Town Planning Act put in motion the construction of what became that instantly recognisable feature of the British urban landscape: the council estate.

Bettered by Attlee and Harold Wilson, battered by Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, the early interwar consensus around the welfare state survives to this day. Both under Labour and the Tories, truculent workers with ideas above their station have been shown their place: from Ramsay MacDonald’s disciplining of the “communistic” trade unions in 1924 through Thatcher’s thwarting of the miners in 1984 to Keir Starmer’s disavowal of organised labour in 2024. Likewise, since 1945, both parties have shown a general commitment to public spending around the 40% of GDP mark. Creaking, underfunded, “our NHS” continues nevertheless to be spoken of only in hallowed whispers.

Time and again, our rulers have let slip the real reason why welfare matters. Here’s Attlee in Margate in 1950: “our policy of democratic socialism is the only dynamic alternative to totalitarian communism.” Is it any surprise that two of the most robust welfare states across La Manche were created in societies that boasted a formidable communist presence? The Parti Communiste Français in 1946 counted some 800,000 members, and the Partito Comunista Italiano nearly two million. It is true that the Communist Party of Great Britain never had much to recommend it, but the strength of the post-war British Left — independent of Labour — is undeniable. It was the miners who brought down Edward Heath in 1974.

As with the British welfare state, so with British intellectual life. Our republic of letters would have been a dreary landscape of conformity were it not for the Russian Revolution, which fired three generations of Anglo-Marxists. The interwar years were a time when communists could rise to the very top of the cultural establishment. E.H. Carr, for example, became a leader writer and deputy editor of The Times, a perch from which he preached the gospel of collectivist planning and conciliation with Stalin. His monumental History of Soviet Russia — running to 7,000 pages and 14 volumes — remains the best account of the early years of the revolutionary regime.

Even such a sceptic of the state as George Bernard Shaw was swept away by Russomania. By 1931, with Britain reeling from the Depression, he was singing Stalin’s praises. Fabian gradualism, his old creed, wasn’t going to cut it in the 20th century. MacDonald’s Labour had evidently failed, he reflected in a new preface to Fabian Essays in Socialism. What was needed was “swift effectiveness” — Soviet-style. A trip to Moscow was written up in glowing terms in The Rationalisation of Russia.

In a manner of speaking, the remoter reaches of the ivory tower, too, succumbed to the Soviets. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix inaugurated what was by far the most arresting development in classical studies. A child of empire born in Macau, “Croicks” turned his back on his “thoroughly Right-wing upbringing” on the “lunatic fringe of Christianity” — as he later put it — in the Twenties. A romp across the Soviet Union in 1937 with Intourist, the Soviet travel agency, left him critical of Stalinism but committed to Marxism, on the strength of observing the peasants of the Caucasus. Thereafter, he became a “thoroughgoing Marxist”, tutoring a generation of students at New College, Oxford, who, in their own writings, were to remain alert to class in the classics. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World appeared in 1981.

Such profiles can be indefinitely multiplied. Suffice it to say that most of the smartest minds of the interwar period were on the Left. This would soon change with the emigration of Eastern and Mitteleuropean conservatives to Britain — Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Lewis Namier, Ernest Gellner — producing a more balanced intellectual division of labour. But before that, Left hegemony was unrivalled. John Strachey was undoubtedly among the most important political commentators of the Thirties. His father was the editor of The Spectator for nearly 40 years, and Strachey’s best man was Oswald Mosley, then still on the Left. When Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, Strachey led some of the largest demonstrations against him.

As it was, the Marxist Strachey lost the battle of ideas to the Liberal John Maynard Keynes, who famously had no truck with communism: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and intelligentsia who, with all their faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement?” Yet Keynes could do little to prevent one of his Cambridge protĂ©gĂ©s, Maurice Dobb, from taking up the cudgels for the boorish proletariat.

Communism gained a bridgehead in Cambridge thanks to Dobb, who edited The Plebs, a Marxist magazine, in the Twenties. He extolled Lenin as a “stern realist” blessed “with all the Jesuit’s sincerity and idealism”. By contrast, “non-Marxists” were “as silly as pre-Darwinian biologists”. He helped found the Communist Party Historians Group, and set up Kim Philby — of the Cambridge Five ring of spies — with the NKVD. Later students included Amartya Sen and Eric Hobsbawm, whose own Oxbridge appointments were blocked by Tory dons.

Paradoxically, then, Soviet communism unwittingly fortified British capitalism. The unintended upshot of Anglo-Marxism was to make the Establishment more heedful of working-class interests. The same went for the welfare state. Peace was preserved between the classes. Redistribution took the edge off class conflict. What’s more, an educated and healthy workforce proved good for business. Moderately progressive taxation was a tiny insurance premium to keep the workers in working condition and the barbarians at bay. These days, barring a few libertarian crackpots, Tory radicals, Bridesheady (Saltburny?) nostalgics, and campus Marxists, nearly everyone is united in confirming the wisdom of this arrangement. The simple fact is that most Brits like their politics dull.

Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.