Webb [née Potter], (Martha) Beatrice
(18581943), social reformer and diarist
, and Sidney James Webb
, Baron Passfield (18591947), social reformer and politician
, were among the most prominent and productive pioneers of social science in Britain. Beatrice, as she was always known, was born on 22 January 1858 at Standish House in Gloucestershire, the eighth of the ten children (nine of them daughters) of Richard Potter (18171892), businessman and railway director, and his wife, Lawrencina Heyworth (18211882). was an elder sister. Sidney was born on 13 July 1859 at 45 Cranbourn Street, near Leicester Square in London, the second of the three children (two of them sons) of Charles Webb (1828/91891), variously described as an accountant, a perfumer, and a hairdresser, and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Stacey (1820/211895), hairdresser and dealer in toiletries. Each made a substantial independent contribution to the infant science of society in Britain, but it was the work of the Webb partnership, after they met in 1890, that established their significance.
Beatrice Potter's early life
Beatrice was born into wealth. Her father, Richard Potter, had inherited a fortune in French stocks which he had lost in the commercial crisis of 1847 and had largely rebuilt through his partnership in a timber firm during the Crimean War. Knowledge of Beatrice's early life comes largely from her first volume of autobiography, My Apprenticeship
(1926), written in the early 1920s when her rejection of the capitalist system was crystallizing. It is impossible to tell how far her depiction of a father rigorously honourable in business but with no clear vision of the public good and a mother brought up in the strictest set of Utilitarian economists was heightened for effect (My Apprenticeship
, 1938 edn, 23, 31), but it is clear that Beatrice was brought up in comfort and that she sought, from an early age, to question her circumstances. Her upbringing encouraged this. Richard Potter was the only man I ever knew who genuinely believed that women were superior to men (ibid., 27), and all his daughters were endowed with an intellectual training far beyond the conventional needs of a Victorian wife. If only I had been brought up to know how to cook and clean, she lamented during the Second World War, when servants were hard to find (diary, 24 Feb 1942; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.479). Instead a succession of resident governesses had trained her in music and painting, languages and literature, mathematics, and philosophy, and the young Beatrice acquired a precocious knowledge of the French encyclopaedists, English political economy, Buckle and Lecky, Mill and Comte, and above all Herbert Spencer, a family friend. Intellectual debate flourished in a household in which neither reading nor discussion was censored.
The surviving correspondence between Beatrice and her father suggests a relationship which was not only affectionate but also less deferential than was usual between Victorian fathers and daughters. Her relationship with her mother was more complex. Lawrencina Heyworth had been reared by and with men, and she disliked women (My Apprenticeship
, 29), but she was cursed with nine daughters and only one son, who died in infancy. She dismissed Beatrice as the only one of her children to display below-average intelligence. There was, though, much of her in Beatrice: she anticipated in herself Beatrice's central conflict between the search for a rational guide to life and the search for spiritual comfort.
Beatrice grew to adulthood in the years of the Victorian crisis of faith, and the tensions inherent in this post-Darwinian mood are evident in the diary account of her early life. Though brought up as a Unitarian, she followed her father into the Anglican faith, being confirmed in March 1875, during her only spell of formal education, a few months spent at Miss Tapp's establishment, Stirling House, in Bournemouth. Significantly, this step was taken during one of the depressions that afflicted her throughout her life, and her commitment to conventional Christianity was even then qualified: she found the doctrine of atonement repugnant and expected Christ to save the world not so particularly by His death, as by His Word (diary, 27 March 1875; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.20). In the years after 1876, during which she toyed with scientific explanations of the meaning of life, she also experimented with an alternative form of religious emotion, as the Eastern scholar Brian Hodgson introduced her to Hinduism and Buddhism (My Apprenticeship
, 105 ff.). But she did not convert: all that happened was my detachment from Christianity (ibid., 110). In 1915, under the clouds of war, she explicitly rejected Christianity and tried instead to conceptualize the Ideal that moves me … an Abstract Being divested of all human appetite but combining the quality of an always working intellect with an impersonal love (diary, 14 Nov 1915; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.242). Her younger sister maintained correctly that for most of her life she was what one might call a religious minded agnostic & did believe in some sort of spiritual force at work in the universe (R. H. Dobbs to R. H. Tawney, 3 June 1947?, Tawney papers, BLPES, 24/2). Whatever she considered this force to be, she prayed to it throughout her life.
During the formative but stressful decade of the 1880s, Beatrice's wish to reconcile her religious outlook with her faith in scientific method led her first to the doctrines of Herbert Spencer and later to those of Auguste Comte. Spencer had been an associate of Beatrice's maternal grandfather, and nurtured her as an intellectual protégée in his old age. Coming to his work at the time when she was dabbling in Eastern religions, Beatrice was initially fascinated by Spencer's mystical side. In time, though, she became convinced that Spencer's interest in God the unknowable was pursued at the expense of a concern for humanity that Beatrice herself could not disavow. His attempt to impose biological laws upon social conduct was not only bogus but also inhumane, leading him to an extreme individualism which she could not accept. She continued to value his methodin particular the collection of facts and the concern to establish patterns of evolutionary developmentbut his philosophy only sealed my conviction in the bankruptcy of science when it attempts to realise the aim or the cause of human existence (diary, 8/9 Dec 1903; My Apprenticeship
Comte's positivism offered a more pleasing synthesis of humanism and scientific method. An encounter with his catechism induced Beatrice to begin a new diary volume with the sentence our harmony as moral beings is impossible on any other foundation but altruism (diary, 8 Sept 1884; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.119). She resisted conversion to the Religion of Humanity, but Comte's philosophy remained an enduring influence. His inadequate understanding of that superhuman force towards which Beatrice strove did not deter her from the transference of the emotion of self-sacrificing service from God to man (My Apprenticeship
, 153). With hindsight she identified her mother's death in 1882 as the point at which she made this change: believing that I could alter the conditions of human life for the better I began to love humanity (diary, 1 Jan 1901; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.190). The immediate outcome was a devotion to philanthropy, and in 1883 she began an unrewarding spell of work for the Charity Organisation Society (COS) among the poor of Soho, in central London.
Beatrice was conjuring with notions of service to humanity and of the meaning of faith at an age when many women of her class were more concerned with the London marriage market. Exposure to London society convinced her that convention was more numbing upon female intellect at this than at any other social level. The marriage question imposed itself more disturbingly upon her in 1883, when she became drawn into a corrosive infatuation with the radical politician Joseph Chamberlain. Elegant and forceful, Chamberlain was also more than twenty years older than Beatrice, and it appears likely that her obsession was the kind of crush suffered by a young woman emotionally close to her father. It is unlikely that Chamberlain became seriously committed. Twice widowed, he was a man in want of a wife (Nord, 98), and his visit to the Potter household in January 1884 was probably a routine enquiry, stifled immediately by Beatrice's unwillingness to play the submissive spouse. This unwillingness was final. Beatrice recognized that Chamberlain was an enthusiast and a despot who denied his sisters and daughter freedom of expression and would be certain to curb her own heterodoxies. But this rational understanding left uncurbed the emotional force behind the attraction. Beatrice was unsettled by the deadly fight between the intellectual and the sensual that her encounter with Chamberlain had provoked in her (diary, 10 Dec 1886; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.189). His eventual third marriage in 1888 and, more painfully, rumours of a separation in 1901, when Beatrice was herself married, threw her into spells of profound depression. Meeting Chamberlain had been, she wrote in a self-scrutinizing diary entry heralding the new century, the catastrophe of my life (diary, 1 Jan 1901; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.190).
Beatrice and feminism
With an irony that Beatrice noted in her autobiography, her father's open-mindedness towards women had turned all the Potter sisters into anti-feminists. The most contentious manifestation of this in Beatrice's case was her decision to add her name to a petition of women opposing female suffrage, published in the Nineteenth Century
in 1889. Beatrice had inherited her father's hostility to democracy (Richard Potter had moved from radicalism to toryism over the second Reform Act
in 1867). It did not oblige her to oppose female suffrage, but the underlying sentiments governing her view of the voteher objection to that false metaphysical idea of rights (diary, 1 Feb 1885, 29 June 1889; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.131, 288)ran deep. Having seen the conditions of sweated female workers in the London tailoring trades in the 1880s, she became hostile to the then dominant strain of feminism that placed civic equality before economic emancipation. As female suffrage rose up the political agenda, it became more difficult for Beatrice to maintain her opposition. She recanted in 1906, and in 1913 the Webbs wrote that the Socialist takes for granted not only an extension of the suffrage to all adults but also the entire removal of artificial disabilities for duty or office (New Statesman
, 5 July 1913). Beatrice's conversion was none the less inhibited by the fact that the female suffrage campaign intensified while the Webbs were developing their own thesis that representative democracy was an inadequate expression of man's complex role as producer, consumer, and citizen. Even after her recantation, Beatrice continued to reject narrowly constitutional conceptions of women's rights. We shall never understand the Awakening of Women until we realise that it is not mere feminism
, she wrote in 1913 (New Statesman
, 1 Nov 1913).
Beatrice did not take up the women's issue in earnest until 191214, when the constitutional suffragists moved, like herself, closer to the Labour Party. She interpreted this realignment as part of a growing revolt against an essentially masculine capitalism. The suffrage movement was democratizing itself: it no longer reflected the vested interests and personal prejudices of the existing order, but comprised nearly all that is mentally active and personally energetic in the whole female population (New Statesman
, 14 Feb 1914). Her new stance implied support for constitutional suffragism rather than militancy. Just as the Webbs counselled the labour movement against syndicalism, so Beatrice criticized the militant suffragists. When most women were enfranchised, in 1918, she noted that the vote held no glamour for her; there is no indication in her diary that she ever used the vote once she had gained it. She found her solution to the women question in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, where emancipation was never thought of as merely the removal of legal disabilities … the economic and even the household subjection of women had equally to be abolished (S. Webb and B. Webb, Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation?
, 1935, 81415). In the meantime her feminism remained cautious and selective.
Social observation and socialism
In the wake of the Chamberlain episode Beatrice recorded her admiration for those independent women prominent in the world of philanthropy such as Octavia Hill and Emma Consthese governing and guiding women … who give up their lives to the management of men (diary, 12 Aug 1885; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.136). Yet she was aware from her Soho experience that the field of philanthropyand particularly the casework approach of the COSwas already being characterized as ladies' work. Beatrice wanted, as Professor Nord puts it, to do the kind of work that she did not see other women doing (Nord, 136). This view reinforced the awareness instilled by her spell with the COS that most social workers understood little of poverty. The result was a move away from philanthropy towards social diagnosis (diary, 5 Nov 1883; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.96), in the hope that by applying Spencer's methods of observation and classification she could develop a more scientific understanding of poverty.
Beatrice's first such exercise was a visit in November 1883 to Bacup, in east Lancashire (where she had maternal relatives), disguised as Miss Jones, the daughter of a Welsh farmer. The decision to visit a small manufacturing town had been motivated by the belief that London's slums did not provide a representative cross-section of the English working class, and her attention in Bacup was accordingly directed towards the institutions of working-class association and self-help in the town. Most prominent were the dissenting chapels and the co-operatives. The chapel impressed her as a self-governing community, regulating not only chapel matters but overlooking the private life of its members, and in the process educating this class for self-government (Beatrice Webb to Richard Potter, November 1883; Letters
, 1.19). Still more impressive, because largely unfamiliar, were the co-operative stores. She described to her father the operation of one of these stores, which over twenty years had never paid less than 12.5 per cent to its working-class shareholders, noting at the same time the failure of co-operative mills. This part of Lancashire was the cradle of consumer co-operation in England, and Beatrice noted that co-operation was far stronger than trade unionism in Bacup. Her encounter with co-operation left a lifelong impression: the belief that co-operation was superior to trade unionism as an associational force, and the lesson that consumer co-operatives succeeded where producer co-operatives failed, influenced her life's work. Immediately, though, she stressed the moral benefits of the conjunction of the ethos of the chapel and the practice of co-operation in Bacup.
Beatrice made a second trip to Bacup in 1886, but before then she had joined the ranks of middle-class missionaries to the East End of London, then emerging as Britain's poverty capital. During 1885 she worked as a rent collector in a new block of working-class dwellings, Katherine Buildings, in Whitechapel, which provided the material for her first publication, a letter in the Pall Mall Gazette
in February 1886 entitled A lady's view of unemployment at the east. She saw East Enders in modish Darwinist terms, as a constantly decomposing mass of human beings, few rising out of it but many dropping down dead, pressed out of existence in the struggle (diary, 8 March 1885; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.132). The contrast with Bacup's respectability clearly guided her thoughts, so that broad moral conclusions were drawn from what were essentially the differences between a small industrial town and an inner-city district. By east London standards the residents of Katherine Buildings, though hardly affluent, were relatively comfortable, and they took exception to Beatrice's description of them as the lowest class of working poor (Lewis, 114).
However misconceived, though, Beatrice's work in Katherine Buildings cast as long a shadow as her Bacup trips. She developed observational techniques in her case studies of tenants, particularly through the device of the questionnaire, which became a permanent part of the Webbs' investigative armoury. She gained an understanding of the structural nature of poverty: the main point of her Pall Mall Gazette
letter was to emphasize the effects on employment of the de-industrialization of the London waterside. Above all, she learned that private philanthropy was largely ineffective in the face of poverty on an East End scale. It was at this point that Beatrice understood the limitations of the COS's policy of targeting help at the deserving poor. Many of the poor of Katherine Buildings owed their poverty to invalidity, industrial accident, or similar acts of God. They might well be deserving, but no amount of personal attention could repair their infirmity. The COS could not dissipate its limited funds on the long-term sick, however deserving, and consequently consigned them to the poor law. Beatrice did not losewould never loseher belief that something-for-nothing charity merely exacerbated poverty, but she formed in these years her enduring belief that much poverty was caused by factors beyond the control of the poor, and could be tackled only by public agencies.
Beatrice's Whitechapel work was curtailed by the paralysing stroke suffered by her father in November 1885, which forced her, as the eldest unmarried daughter, to become his nurse and household manager for eight months in the year. For the remaining four months her sisters deputized, allowing her sabbaticals in which to continue her studies of the East End. She was one of the original members of the team gathered by Charles Boothher cousin by marriageto carry out his pioneering study of east London poverty from 1886, and was detailed to investigate dock labour and the tailoring trade. In April 1888 she offered her services as a jobbing tailoress in the Mile End Road to gain knowledge of London's principal sweated trade. This was one of the more implausible deceits perpetrated by Victorian social observers, but she gathered a comprehensive understanding of the operation of the trade and the material for two articles published in the journal Nineteenth Century
in autumn 1888. Her study of dock labour had appeared in the same journal in the previous year, and it, along with one of the tailoring articles and a new essay on the East End Jewish community, appeared under Beatrice's name in the first volume of Booth's survey, published in 1889.
The articles varied in quality. Beatrice herself later dismissed the docks essay as an inferior piece of work (My Apprenticeship
, 356). It actually provides a valuable anatomy of the casual labour system, but contrasts in its sententiousness and occasionally lurid style with the rest of Booth's survey. The piece on tailoring was weightier, destroying by careful analysis of the trade's structure the myth of the exploitative middleman. The essay on the Jewish community was an odd production, marked both by a pervasive sympathy with individual JewsBeatrice believed herself to have Jewish bloodand by the racial stereotyping typical of middle-class English opinion in this period. In each of the three pieces, though, there are signs of the directions that Beatrice's social thought was taking. The essay on London's Jews contained a eulogy of the Chevras, religious associations with secular benefit functions, combining the moral and material roles which Beatrice feared would be separated in English co-operatives. In the docks essay she predicted that the East End's leisure class of demoralized unemployed was a pointer to the future of our great cities. She warned that the extensive charitable assistance doled out in the metropolis was the principal cause of this malaise, but her principal remedy was not the traditional COS prescription of charitable continence but a kind of municipal socialism, the creation of a public trust to regulate dock labour (Life and Labour of the People, 1: East London
, ed. C. Booth, 1889, 204, 206, 207). Still more pointedly, the essay on tailoring attributed sweating not to the elusive middleman but to the system which sustained him: the real sweater had a threefold personalityan ignorant consumer, a grinding and fraudulent wholesaler or retail slop trader, a rack-renting landlord, but the sweater's true soul was the evil spirit of the age, unrestrained competition (ibid., 238).
Though much of Booth's survey might be read as an indictment of individualism, Beatrice was the most outspoken contributor in this vein. The triumphant diary declarationat last I am a socialist! (1 Feb 1890; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.322)was predicted by her intellectual development over the previous decade: by her rejection of Spencer's individualism, her adoption of Comtean humanism, her enthusiasm for the moralized collectivism of the Bacup co-operatives, and her revulsion at the social debasement produced by individualism in the East End.
This was, as many of Beatrice's twentieth-century admirers failed to understand, a socialism with a substantial moral freight. It followed that she rejectedindeed scarcely consideredthe hedonistic prescriptions of class warfare and revolutionary socialism. Gradualism was inherent in the developmental framework which she had derived from Spencer and Comte, and the journal version of the docks essay had concluded with the Comtean sentiment that all things are in the process of becoming, and the yesterday vies with today as a foreteller of tomorrow (quoted in Nord, 162). Booth had omitted the sentencehis project was a snapshot rather than a history, let alone a predictionbut it reflected Beatrice's wish to place observation in an evolutionary setting. For that reason, on reading the collection of Fabian Essays in Socialism
edited by George Bernard Shaw for the Fabian Society in 1889, she was most impressed by the essay by Sidney Webb, as he has the historic sense (My Apprenticeship
, 453). A few months later she met him. She had resolved to write a study of co-operation, placing it in its historical context. Seeking an expert on the history of the British labour movement, she was put in contact by her second cousin Margaret Harkness with a young man already possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of British labour history. On 8 January 1890 she met Sidney Webb at Harkness's house in Great Russell Street.
Sidney Webb's early life
Sidney Webb's background, though nowhere near as opulent as Beatrice's, was comfortable. His father was a man of local substancea rate collector, a guardian and a sergeant in the volunteersand the family employed a live-in servant. Sidney attended what his brother described as a first class middle class Day school in St Martin's Lane (C. Webb to R. H. Tawney, n.d., Tawney papers, BLPES, 24/2), run by Mr Pincher, and his parents were later able to send him abroad to extend his education, first at Herveville, Switzerland, from 1871 to 1873, and from 1873 to 1875 near Wismar in Mecklenburg-Schwerin. These ventures gave him a lifelong competence in French and German. Ten days after returning to England, Sidney gained a position in a colonial broker's office. Such was his ability there that he was offered an interest in the business, which he declined in order to seek entry to the civil service. He gained a post in the War Office in 1878, then moved to the Inland Revenue in 1879 and to the Colonial Office, as a first-division clerk, in 1881. Meanwhile he continued his education through extension classes at the City of London College and enrolment at no fewer than four other continuing education institutions in London, membership of the London Library, and prodigious reading at the British Museum. A story of extraordinary success in competition for academic prizes culminated in the award of one of the Whewell scholarships at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1883. Prevented by his Colonial Office work from living in college as required, he was unable to take up the scholarship, a disappointment which perhaps explained his complex, but basically antipathetic attitude towards Oxbridge in his subsequent educational work (Harrison, 12).
Sidney's intellectual evolution
This episode ended Sidney's academic ambitions and confined him to what he called the Impasse du bureau des Colonies (Sidney Webb to G. Wallas, 2 July 1885; Letters
, 1.87). Creative life continued outside the Colonial Office, though, in the numerous debating societies of late Victorian London, most prominently the Zetetical (truth-seeking) Society of Conduit Street. This club was a venue for political and philosophical discussion. Its members included several who later became prominent in the Fabian Society, and it was at a Zetetical meeting in 1879 that Sidney first encountered George Bernard Shaw. Participation in the life of the Zetetical, the Lambeth Parliament, and other discussion groups fostered Sidney's continuing intellectual evolution. His background was a familiar mid-Victorian mixture of evangelicalism on his mother's side and utilitarian radicalism on the side of his father, who had worked for John Stuart Mill's election to parliament as MP for Westminster in 1865. There was much utilitarianism in Sidney himself. Beatrice famously claimed that Bentham was certainly Sidney's intellectual godfather (diary, 25 Jan 1901; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.200), and early references by Sidney to the beneficial influence of Bentham and James Mill support this. Throughout his life Sidney displayed Edwin Chadwick's habit of arguing by means of a fusillade of statistics, and his first significant publication, the Fabian tract Facts for Socialists
(1887), made its case by mining blue books and statistical dictionaries for official measurements of rent, national income, pauperism, and other economic indicators. Throughout his life he invoked J. S. Mill as an authority, though almost invariably the later Mill, the convert to socialism of the 1860s.
Mill's most substantial intellectual bequest to Sidney Webb was the law of rent, the idea of a differential profit or advantage enjoyed by the monopoly possessor of a commodity, normally land. Mill had not invented this law, which had an eighteenth-century pedigree, but he had, towards the end of his life, given it a sharp radical edge by attacking parasitical urban landlords, whose incomes are rising while they are sleeping by their possession of land made valuable by the exertions of the community (A. Offer, Property and Politics, 18701914
, 1981, 183). This doctrine, most obviously pertinent to London, influenced Sidney as a young metropolitan radical. It remained central to his thought for the remainder of his life, making him resistant to Marxian economics. Critically, though, Sidney distanced himself from mainstream radicalism in the 1880s by refusing to see the law of rent merely as an indictment of landlordism. He argued that monopoly ownership of industrial enterprises excluded the mere worker from economic benefit just as effectively as monopoly ownership of land: the proprietor of this so-called capital seems to me but the old landlord writ large (Church Reformer
, 1, Jan 1889; 2, March 1889). Sidney remained lukewarm towards land nationalization, which he saw as a partial panacea being offered as a comprehensive solution. He further broadened the concept of rent to include what he termed rent of abilitythe return to educated brain-workers like himself and to others privileged by their expertise. The concept of rent was thus turned from a radical weapon against aristocratic landlordism into something broaderthe justification for the view that those privileged by fortune should acknowledge and make good their obligations to the community.
This demonstrated the lasting, if less obvious, presence in Sidney of the evangelical conscience. Although the adult Sidney became a convinced freethinker and remained so throughout his life, he retained an evangelical ethical sense. This manifested itself in some of his early works, in his habit of invoking examples of social inequity to shame his readership, and even in occasional use of biblical language. Passages in some of his early unpublished lectures strike an unfamiliar note to those used to the colourless style of his later work (see, for example, his lecture The way out, 1884/5, Passfield papers, BLPES, 6/19, fol. 8). Like many lapsed evangelicals in the 1880s, Sidney found his way through free thought to Comtean positivism. Like Beatrice Potter he took what he wanted from positivism, stressing its scientific approach and its emphasis upon social altruism. Comte's view that social solidarity grew as society became more complex underpinned Sidney's essentially optimistic approach to society's problems. He rejected Marx's materialism for failing to take into account the non-economic motives driving men and thus retarding the growth of public spirit. The Comtean Sidney saw a moralized civic spirit as the only means of securing social justice in an economic system that was inescapably inequitable.
The gradualism which characterized Sidney's thought for the rest of his life had its foundations in Comte's model of phased progress towards social improvement. Sidney argued for a slow but steady evolution of sentiment. He stressed in particular that rent of ability accounted for as great a share of the national product as the other two monopoly rents, and that the middle class had therefore to accept its share of social responsibility. This explains his belief that simple expropriation of private property was pointless without an attendant moralization of the propertied, and that by the time such moralization had been achieved, socialism would be redundant. He was avowedly not a socialist when he first spoke to the Fabian Society in March 1885, or even when he joined the society two months later (the Fabians did not make socialism a condition of membership until 1887). At a time when socialism most frequently implied revolutionary Marxism or anarchism, he was indeed caustic about its impracticability.
None the less, Sidney's collectivism, his asceticism, and his stress on public morality were self-evidently compatible with strains of non-revolutionary socialism, and his acceptance of the label socialistby January 1886 at the latestwas achieved with little éclat
. This move was apparently prompted by a growing pessimism about the possibility of moralizing the monopolist without the sort of compulsion that could be applied only by public agencies. An increasing emphasis upon the citizen's public obligations became evident in the late 1880s. A lecture on ancient Rome, delivered in two instalments at Hampstead in July and August 1888, described an ascetic ideal of civic duty which remained a Webbian constant. In late nineteenth-century Britain natural selection ensured that at the highest levels of civilization social organization had superseded physical strength and even mental culture as society's prime requirement. We must abandon, therefore, the self-conceit of imagining that we are independent units, and bend our proud minds … to this subjection to the higher end, the Common weal (Rome: a sermon in sociology, pt 2, 88, BLPES, Passfield papers, 6/34).
This was a pointed rejection of individualism even by the standards of the 1880s. Sidney was able to maintain his gradualist faith, and to avoid coercive state socialism, by arguing that society was already evolving spontaneously in a socialist direction. In his contribution to the Fabian Essays in Socialism
in 1889 and still more markedly in Socialism in England
(1890), he outlined the extent to which English society had already socialized itself through the regulation of industry and the municipal acquisition of public services. In his evidence (17 November 1892) to the royal commission on labour he depicted the process not as a humanitarian brake upon enterprise, but as the very root of industrial prosperity. Industrial growth thus brought the silent spread of collectivism, endorsed by tories as well as Liberals. The speculative Comtean faith in moralizing the monopolist yielded in Sidney's mind to a confidence that society was unconsciously moralizing itself. The Sidney Webb whom Beatrice Potter met in January 1890 was already a man of assured convictions.
The early partnership
The pair were not obviously well matched. Sidney's shortcomings included not only his unattractiveness, which Beatrice depicted with little restraint in her diary, but also his lower-middle-class origins: his tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, cockney pronunciation, poverty, are all against him (diary, 26 April 1890; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.32930). His socialism deterred some of Beatrice's sisters and the Booths. Bruised by the Chamberlain episode, Beatrice originally envisaged little more than intellectual contact with him. Temperamentally and spiritually they appeared to have little in common, and only the development of the partnership over half a century would demonstrate the compatibility of opposites. Beatrice suffered the mental restlessness of one anxious for spiritual assurance but lacking a settled faith and a supportive church; Sidney's spiritual outlook was simpler: Canon Samuel Barnett believed that if Sidney had a soul, he had buried it deep in his pocket (Hobhouse to Tawney, Tawney papers, BLPES, 24/2). Beatrice was psychologically frail and occasionally depressive; Sidney's rationalism produced in him a faith in human nature and human progress. This helped him to sustain his wife in her weaker moments, when she could be steadied by Sidney's cockney injunction to keep your hair on, missus (Our Partnership
Beatrice's determination to give a candid account of her own inner turmoil in her diaries may have led her to simplify Sidney's natureto depict her husband as a man of uncomplicated serenity. There is anger and self-doubt in some of Sidney's early letters; he suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was forced to abandon work for three months in 1922, and it is likely that occasional overheating was the price of his general placidity. Yet the Webbs' secretary F. W. Galton could remember only two or three occasions in fifty years when he saw Sidney annoyed or flustered, and he does seem to have been impressively capable of self-control. The stability of the Webbs' marriage suggests that their emotional characteristics were complementary, allowing the partnership to succeed above the level of mere intellectual collaboration that Beatrice had once envisaged.
Intellectually Beatrice and Sidney had much in common. Both were intrigued by the prospect of constructing a science of society, and from the start of their relationship this shared aim neutralized latent party political differenceshis radical Liberal background, her family's anti-democratic toryism. Leonard Woolf later noted that they had drawn for themselves a circle which enclosed certain subjects and departments of human life. Those subjects were their
subjects; they studied them closely and continually (Political thought and the Webbs, in M. Cole, ed., The Webbs and their Work
, 25960). These subjectsco-operation, trade unionism, collectivism, social policy, public administrationformed the basis of a doctrine of social evolution which altered very little over their lifetime. Founded upon analysis of underlying structures and systems and consequently deterministic in tone, this doctrine proved resistant to the ebb and flow of political events.
Beatrice joined the Fabian Society at Sidney's prompting in January 1891, and the pair dominated the organization for the next half-century, butat least until they committed themselves to the Labour Party, shortly before the First World Warthey distanced themselves from party politics. The corollary was an often surprising indifference to political issues with no place in their scheme. They were largely unmoved by questions of foreign affairs and observed an odd reticence on many contentious issues of economic policy. My wife and I have never felt able to deal properly with economic theory, Sidney admitted to Karl Kautsky in 1933 (Sidney Webb to Karl Kautsky, 17 Oct 1933, Karl Kautsky papers, D xxiii, 75, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam), but they were manifestly better versed in economic questions than many who were less hesitant, and their limited contribution to the public debates over, for example, tariffs and monetary policy remains striking. A conviction that the advance of collectivism was a silent but irresistible trend absolved them from analysis of what they considered transient political details, though it made their rejection of the Westminster system all the more fundamental when British collectivism failed them.
The Webbs' differing ideological ancestries made each of them sympathetic to the reassessment of laissez faire
in the late Victorian period. Both had been touched by Comtean positivism, in its English form. Both had been influenced by Herbert SpencerBeatrice the more directlybut had rejected the extreme individualism that Spencer had reached in the 1880s. Their anti-individualism led each of them to emphasize the need for individual devotion to the common gooda doctrine that germinated in their joint work and culminated in their encomia to the Soviet system in the 1930s. The emphasis in British idealist thought in the late Victorian period upon the organic nature of community touched both. Though neither appears to have devoted much time to studying T. H. Green, let alone Hegel, their writings display an Idealist residue beneath their positivist methodology (S. Den Otter, British Idealism and Social Explanation
, 1996, 71), reflected particularly in Sidney's stress upon the interdependence of society's members. This emphasis upon the need to look to the well-being of the community as a whole was the most distinctive feature of Webbian socialism, distancing the Webbs not only from the advocates of revolutionary violence but also from those socialists who sought to privilege the industrial working class.
Beatrice initially repelled the advances of the sexually unappetizing Sidney. But the Chamberlain episode had left her, as she admitted, susceptible to real deep devotion (diary, 6 Nov 1890; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.343). She yielded slowly to Sidney's unrelenting enthusiasm for her, persuading herself that it is only the head that I am marrying (Harrison, 194). Their engagement in May 1891 remained secret, for fear that the ailing Richard Potter would be hastened to his grave by learning that Beatrice intended to marry into the lower middle class. When Potter died in January 1892 and the engagement was duly publicized, many of Beatrice's intimates did indeed see the connection as socially eccentric. Today it is perhaps the self-parodic asceticism of the courtship that appears unusualBeatrice's warning that the permanence and worth of a relationship depends on the consciousness in both partners that moral and intellectual growth arises out of it (Beatrice to Sidney, 16 June 1890; Letters
, 1.149) or Sidney's seductive claim that together they could transform economic theory (diary, 27 July 1890; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 1.337). Fittingly, the marriage, which took place at St Pancras vestry hall on 23 July 1892, was delayed by the collection of material for their trade union history, and the couple spent part of their honeymoon working on Irish trade union records.
Sidney and London politics
The resolution of Sidney's youthful emotional turmoil coincided with the onset of the most fruitful period of his public life. The couple had resolved after Richard Potter's death to keep themselves on the private income of about £1000 per annum that Beatrice had inherited, freeing Sidney for writing and public work. Believing that he could learn more about public administration by gaining election to a public body, he stood successfully for the London county council (LCC) in 1892. He represented Deptford, a working-class area of south-east London, and joined the ruling Progressive Partya Liberalradical group with a labour wing, which had pioneered municipal social policy in the capital since the council's creation in 1889. He proved well suited to council work, based as it was upon toil in committee, where his civil service experience and innate manipulative skills proved invaluable. He graduated rapidly to the party committee, effectively constructing the policies which the dominant Progressive group pushed through the council. He also found his own niche as chairman of the LCC's new technical education board (TEB). The board, enjoying considerable autonomy, became Sidney's vehicle, allowing him to reshape London education. In pressing upon the council the conclusions of a report commissioned from Hubert Llewellyn Smith in 1892, Webb argued that London, with the largest artisan population in Britain, had fallen behind not only foreign centres but also British provincial cities in the quality of its industrial training. The intended implication was that London's industrial economy depended upon technical education, but Sidney always saw the board's role as promoting something closer to a broader secondary curriculum. Helped by an understanding Liberal minister in A. H. D. Acland, Sidney defined technical education extremely broadlyincluding all sciences, the arts, foreign languages, modern history, economics, geography, commercial education, domestic economy and what not (Our Partnership
, 80)with the result that the technical education board became a de facto
secondary education authority for London. Webb hoped to have constructed the greatest capacity-catching machine that the world has ever yet seen (speech of 1897, quoted in Brennan, 29).
Sidney used the scholarship system as a ladder to raise able London children from elementary school to intermediate or even university education. London's tertiary provision was providentially boosted by a windfall in the form of a legacy to the Fabian Society from a wealthy member, H. H. Hutchinson, in 1894, earmarked for the promotion of socialist propaganda. Another piece of free translation by Sidneysubsequently vehemently criticized by Shawinduced the society to devote the cash to the formation of the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1895. Sidney had visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on his visit to the United States in 1888, and was familiar with the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris: he hoped to develop in London a comparable example of modern university education in a major commercial centre. He believed that the ancient universities had been enervated by the divorce of thought from action and considered that London conditions were highly favourable to the promotion of research-based disciplines to produce both social scientists and public administrators. Lectures and classes at the LSE commenced in October 1895; vocational courses, alien to Oxbridge, in such subjects as railway economics, were always prominent in its curriculum. The school's first director, W. A. S. Hewins, enticed from an Oxford fellowship by the Webbs, sketched the school's principal disciplines as economics, statistics, commerce, banking and finance, commercial law, political science and public administration, and after the formation of the University of London in 1900, the LSE dominated its faculty of economics and political science.
The intellectual partnership
Sidney's single-minded commitment to the municipal tasks at hand allowed him to bear a council workload as great as that of a cabinet minister, though at the cost of playing only a supportive role in the intellectual work of the partnership. The letters he wrote to Beatrice in the first years of their marriage contain repeated apologies for his limited contribution to the projected trade union history. That it appeared at all was due to Beatrice's own enthusiasm, which Sidney never fully shared, for the processes of archival research and interviewing, the lonely pursuits to which she devoted herself in the mid-1890s. There was a degree of displacement here. In choosing what was in effect a professional career as a researcher and writer, she had to come to terms with a childless future. The couple had decided against children soon after marriage. Beatrice, dried up at thirty-five after ten years' stress and strain (diary, 25 July 1894; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.52), felt physically unable to bear children, and she remembered that her mother had produced ten children at the cost of her own career as an intellectual (diary, 28 April 1932; Diaries, 19241932
, 306). More conscious than most of the duty owed by the individual to society, Beatrice remained uncomfortable with her failure to undertake the duty of motherhood.
Are the books we have written together worth (to the community) the babies we might have had?, Beatrice wondered in 1901 (diary, 24 April 1901; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.207). If they were, the Webbs were very good citizens. The British Library catalogue lists thirty-eight jointly authored works, including eighteen full-length books, and almost all the works published under a single Webb name after 1890 involved some degree of collaboration. Beatrice had essentially compiled her study of co-operation before the intellectual partnership with Sidney took root, but even that work shows Sidney's influence upon the finished product, in particular the passage in which municipal government was depicted as a Spencerian functional adaptation of co-operation: obligatory rather than voluntary association to supply public services as the co-operatives provided consumer goods.
Much of Beatrice's little book on co-operation laid the foundations for the life work of the Webbs: the conjunction of consumer and municipal co-operation formed the basis of their conception of civic socialism, and it is impossible to understand their progressive rejection of profit-making capitalism without acknowledging the centrality of the consumer co-operative movement to their thought. Beatrice's underlying message was that co-operation rested on a profoundly different foundation from capitalism: the book's early sections emphasized Robert Owen's belief that the one legitimate object of society is the improvement of the physical, moral and intellectual character of man (B. Potter, The Co-Operative Movement in Great Britain
, 1899 edn, 20), an anti-individualist argument that anticipated the Webbs' later doctrine of the national minimum. The rejection of producer co-operatives also cast a long shadow. Lacking capital, custom, and administrative expertise, they came to act like small masters, who were the worst employers in industry. Years later she modestly described her differentiation of the two types of co-operative as perhaps the most pregnant and important piece of classification in the whole range of sociology (The Discovery of the Consumer
, 1928, 5). It underpinned the Webbs' subsequent treatment of co-operation, and lay behind their consistent hostility to doctrines of worker control, in the form of syndicalism, guild socialism, or early Bolshevism. Consumer co-operatives could embrace the whole community, including its women; worker co-operatives served only the workers.
The co-operation study also pointed the Webbs towards their first shared undertaking, their study of trade unionism. In co-operative-dominated Bacup, Beatrice had found trade unionism relatively weak, but in the nation as a whole, unions were already the strongest arm of the labour movement, inviting study. Beatrice envisaged a more extensive, empirically founded, historical study of trade unions than she had produced for co-operatives. Mindful of her frailty, Sidney asserted that you are not fit
to write this big book alone: you will never get through it (Sidney to Beatrice, 14 Sept 1891; Letters
, 1.299), and the production of the trade union history, which appeared in 1894, demonstrated what became the usual Webbian division of labour. With Sidney tied to London and the LCC, Beatrice toured the country to unearth minute-books, in which generations of diligent, if unlettered, secretaries, the true historians of a great movement, have struggled to record the doings of their committees (S. Webb and B. Webb, The History of Trade Unionism
, 1894, preface, xi); Sidney's capacity for sustained writing was deployed to produce the final text. The work embodies the virtues of the Webbs' historical writing. Elaborate archival detective work enabled them to trace the origins of trade unionism to a periodthe late seventeenth centuryfar earlier than contemporaries would have expected, and to carry the development forward to the late Victorian era. Their reliance upon unions' own records gave the History
an institutional emphasis which modern labour historians have criticized, but their chronology of union evolution from the late eighteenth centurythe clandestine years of the early nineteenth century, the emergence of new model unionism in the mid-Victorian period, the battle between exclusive old unionism and inclusive new unionism in the 1880sremains central to historical study of the movement.
At the time and subsequently, the Webbs contrasted their own rigorous, demythologizing approach with the weaknesses of the forensic method adopted by the contemporaneous royal commission on labour, whose unfocused questioning of trade union witnesses failed to establish with any reliability the most fundamental facts about unionism. Beatrice attributed her empiricism to Herbert Spencer: he taught me to look on all social institutions exactly as if they were plants or animals, things that could be observed, classified and explained (diary, 9 Dec 1903; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.307). Sidney was an empiricist by temperamentone reason why he was bored by religious discussion was, supposedly, that there were so few established facts on which to form a hypothesis (K. Martin, in M. Cole, ed., The Webbs and their Work
, 300). A characteristic rhetorical tactic in his early writings was to attack the advocates of revolutionary socialism by aggregating the number of enterprises collectivized as if by stealth, stunning the reader with an inventory of gasworks, waterworks, and so on already in public hands. Their empiricism led the Webbs towards inductive techniques familiar to present-day historians: the search for archival evidence either in person or through research assistants, the isolation of evidence from potentially misleading context, and the attempt to extrapolate a pattern of development from the evidence thus accumulated.
This scientific history contrasted starkly with the literary approach familiar to the Victorian reader. The Webbs made few concessions to their public, and whatever appeal their empirical rigour carried was offset by an unalluring prose style. If this was a stylistic fault, though, it was more Sidney's than Beatrice's. Her two volumes of autobiography, My Apprenticeship
(1926) and the posthumously published Our Partnership
(1948), read fluently, as does her diary. But Sidney was the scribe of the partnership. This made sense, given his formidable productivity, but it meant that much of the Webbs' work displayed Sidney's unwelcome mannerisms, notably an addiction to subordinate clauses and a tendency to repetition. Some of his sentences read like parliamentary statutesunambiguous, no doubt, but unwieldy and indigestible. H. H. Asquith noted that the Webbs had jointly produced some twenty solid, though for the most part unreadable books (R. Jenkins, Asquith
, 1964, 518). H. G. Wells, parodying the pair as Oscar and Altiora Bailey in The New Machiavelli
(1911), made the point with barbed irony:
Their first book, The Permanent Official, fills three plump volumes, and took them and their two secretaries upwards of four years to write. It is an amazingly good book, an enduring achievement. In a hundred directions the history and the administrative treatment of the public service was clarified for all time. (Everyman edn, 1994, 151)
The Webbs were not, though, writing to entertain a salon readership. They underwrote the sale of 19,000 copies of the 1920 reissue of the History of Trade Unionism
to the trade union movement in a cheap edition so that it should be read by the right people (diary, 25 Dec 1919; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.354). Inter-war surveys found Sidney Webb among the authors most familiar to working-class readers.
Nor did Beatrice and Sidney wish
to write Macaulayan history; Beatrice noted that in his seven volumes Macaulay included only one chapter on the condition of the people. All their historical writing was intended to illustrate their distinctive view of social and political evolution, and the most wounding criticism of their work was that they jeopardized scientific objectivity in promoting their political message. Bernard Bosanquet, husband of Beatrice's adversary on the poor law commission of 19059, felt that the forensic isolation of facts central to the Webbian method allowed them to select evidence to suit their argument: index cards bearing inconvenient information might fall from their office table. The relationship between the Webbs' facts and their hypotheses was often more complex than that which they presented. Neither Webb was above presenting monstrous claims in the form of hard fact.
Such creative thinking was more frequent, though, in the Webbs' polemical speeches and pamphlets than in their full-scale histories. The latter usually rested upon solid scholarship: footnotes in the Webbs' history English Local Government
serve even today as primary sources for students of eighteenth-century administration. But the Webbs were evolutionary socialists who believed that the study of the past vindicated their analysis of the present: they could not comfortably neutralize their history by divorcing it from their political aims. What might now appear their most objective writing, their study of the eighteenth-century local state, seems to have satisfied them least: Beatrice dismissed The Parish and the County
, from the local government series, as a ponderous volume (Our Partnership
, 152). When their work was forged in the heat of controversy, however, as with their studies of poor-law history and policy for the royal commission, the autonomy of fact and hypothesis came under threat. What most worried the Webbs about their writing, however, was that the wood might be concealed by the treesthat voluminous factual research might obscure underlying arguments of principle. Only after the publication of their trade union study, with its patient excavation of a hidden history, did they realize to our surprise that we had no systematic and definite vision of how trade unionism actually operated (Methods of Social Study
, 1932, 94).
In response Beatrice and Sidney embarked upon another volume, shuffling trade union facts until a theory of unionism emerged. Industrial Democracy
(1897) displayed not only that definite vision but also a didactic prescription for the Webbian state. The lengthy final section of this work amounted to a response to a modern capitalism which, they argued, was becoming as monopolistic as landlordism had long been. Arguing that free competition in these circumstances tends to the creation and persistence in certain occupations of conditions of employment injurious to the nation as a whole (Industrial Democracy
, 1897, 767), they called for the extension of the trade union Common Rule, that is the concept of a union rate within an individual trade, to the nation as a whole.
This was the first full exposition of one of the Webbs' central doctrines, that of the national minimuma minimum level of wages and of quality of life to which the worker was entitled as citizen and below which he could not, as a citizen, be allowed to fall. The idea embodied both the insistence that a living wage was conducive to productivity and the belief in the individual's obligation to societythe unproductive individual lowered the efficiency of society as a whole. In the democratic state, they argued, no man minds his own business: Robinson Crusoe had been the last to enjoy such autonomy (Industrial Democracy
, 1897, 8456). Any trade unionist battling to the end of the work would have realized that the role envisaged for unionism was somewhat residual: unions would police the national minimum and seek by collective bargaining to raise particular groups above it, but there must be no more Luddism, and unions' benefit role would dwindle. Perhaps all industrial unionism would dwindle: strikes injurious to the community were proscribed, and the model union of the future was taken to be the white-collar National Union of Teachers, concerned with professional standards and operating in the public service. The Webbs' guarded view of trade unionism could hardly have been clearer: Industrial Democracy
was a collectivist statement by socialists who considered traditional collective bargaining a random and partial way of promoting social progress.
Having completed their trade union studies, the Webbs embarked almost immediately upon research into local government. This was predetermined. Beatrice's study of co-operation had pointed to municipal government as the extension of co-operation into the civic sphere just as it had obviously steered her towards trade unionism. The Webbs' conception of the triple identity of man as producer, consumer, and citizen dominated their work. Local government had a longer history than trade unionism and had kept fuller records; in consequence the Webbs suffered drastic research creep, as the scope of the study continued to expand. The result was to push their focus ever backwards. Intending to examine Victorian local government from the revolution of 18345 (the new poor law and the Municipal Corporations Act
), they were driven to investigate first the early nineteenth century and then the eighteenth century in order to understand later developments. As their material proliferated, the survey exploded. It ran eventually to nine volumes, the last of which was not published until 1929 (a tenth was intended but unwritten), and it became essentially an eighteenth-century study. Material compiled by Beatrice for the royal commission of 19059 carried poor-law history into the twentieth century, and there is a brief, suggestive section on Victorian municipal evolution in the unappealingly titled Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes
(1922), but, the Webbs regretfully acknowledged, the evolution of parish and borough and county into twentieth-century local government had to be left for younger authors to describe.
Believing, like many late Victorians, that local government was overtaking central government in importance, the Webbs set out to study a new form of state … the housekeeping state as distinguished from the police state (Our Partnership
, 14950). Sidney had seen the Municipal Corporations Act
of 1835 as the critical moment at which government by guildsor, using Beatrice's terminology, municipal associations of producershad been superseded by modern corporationsmunicipal associations of consumersfor the purpose of satisfying their common needs (The Cambridge Modern History
, 12: The Latest Age
, 1910, 733). He had seen municipal ownership of public services as the means by which collectivism would spread painlessly in Britain. But study of the provincial authorities provided little evidence of this silent revolution. Finding some jobbery and much inefficiency, Beatrice acknowledged by 1902 that our work in local government will be a big indictment, not only of the eighteenth century, but also of the present-day (diary, July 1902; Our Partnership
, 173). Still more seriously, their investigations gradually revealed a very different model of local government from that which they had envisaged. The burden of local taxation had engendered a ratepayer democracy, while the non-payment of members imposed a de facto
property qualification. Authorities were consequently dominated by shopkeepers, builders and publicans in the towns, and farmers in the country, ensuring that the municipal revolution of the 1830s failed to make the Ratepayers' Democracy co-extensive with the consumers of the public services which it had collectively to provide (Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes
, 1922, 477, 480).
Not all authorities, in other words, resembled the LCC, where a high proportion of the electorate did not pay rates directly, and the extension of municipal services had proved electorally popular. The discovery raised awkward questions. If municipalities could not be depended upon as vehicles for collectivism, the question of how man could achieve civic collectivism became more pressing. Socialists have contributed so far very little to the theory or practice of Democracy, Sidney wrote in 1919 (New Statesman
, 28 Nov 1919, 2); the claim was certainly true of him. The Webbs eventually produced their answer to current constitutional questions in Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain
(1920), but in the 1900s their attitude to the state remained ad hoc
and untheoretical. The lack of any clear thinking about questions of democracy and accountability accentuated élitist impulses always present in their thought.
Expertise and efficiency
This became evident as the Webbs plunged into national politics in the 1900s, first in their veneration of the bureaucratic expert and second in their attempts to influence policy by manipulating the possessors of power. They will always be identified with the ideal of government by enlightened expert. Their preference for order over chaos was rooted in their rejection of utopian socialism: as Douglas Cole remembered, the world, they would say, was made up of A's and B'sanarchists and bureaucrats; and they were all on the side of the B's (G. D. H. Cole, 7). Their more specific reverence for expertise reflected an aversion to the casual ways of Britain's ancien régime
; problematically, Britain's political leaders tended to be expert in issuessuch as diplomacy and denominational matterswhich left the Webbs cold, but unversed in those social policy areas which did concern them. Their conviction was really forged as Britain's statesmen made heavy weather of education reform in the 1890s, and was understandable in that context, but it left the Webbs open to the allegation that they preferred unaccountable bureaucrats to elected politicians.
This charge was levelled at Sidney and Beatrice in the Fabian Society's internal disputes of the 1900s, when the society's young turks accused its old guard of centralizing and anti-democratic tendencies. The core of the criticism, voiced by H. G. Wells and others, that the Webbs wished the nation to be run by a samurai class consisting of themselves and those who thought like them, was plausible. The Webbs had promoted efficiency in government in their writings of the 1890s, and became the leading exponents on the left of the national efficiency drive generated by Britain's South African War embarrassments in the early 1900s. They did cultivate a gaggle of approved administratorsSir Robert Morant at the Board of Education, William Garnett at the technical education board, the public health expert George Newman, and later the Indian administrator John Hope Simpsonand they did tend to assume the existence of administrative solutions to essentially political problems.
The charge, though, that the Webbs sought to create a British boffinocracy misrepresents their administrative thinking, which was rooted in their Spencerian understanding of social development. Society's evolution towards greater organizational efficiency did not entail, as they explained in 1913, the subordination of a whole class of laymen to a separate expert class, but the subordination of the person who does not know to the person who knows, whoever that might be. The prime minister in his automobile would thus be directed through the Piccadilly maelstrom by the police constable earning 25s
. per week (New Statesman
, 3 May 1913). In fact the Webbs cannot adequately be described as statists. Their bureaucracy was never étatisme
, suggested Douglas Cole, it claimed much for the State but much for the group also. Only the individual seemed somehow to get left out (G. D. H. Cole, 7). They generally advocated municipal rather than national control of industry, and early Fabian programmes limited nationalization proper to the railways, canals, and mines. The insight that municipal enterprises could be equated with co-operatives, as a compulsory rather than a voluntary association of consumers, was of catalytic significance. It mattered because associations of consumers constitute an automatic democracy (New Statesman
, 24 May 1913), evolving from below. In essence the Webbs remained faithful to Mill's classic prescription that power may be localized, but knowledge, to be most useful, must be centralized (J. S. Mill, Considerations on representative government, 1861, in Three Essays
, 1975, 377), though they never stated their position so clearly. They took a fitful interest in forms of direct democracy on their tour of India in 191112 before finding their solution in the participatory democracy of the Russian soviet. In short, enthusiasm for the enlightened expert was only one side of the Webbian coin, but the charge of élitism was reinforced by their attempts to short-circuit the democratic process by suborning men of power.
The Grosvenor Road salon
Personally I see no objection to what is called wire-pulling, Beatrice protested in 1929 (diary, 27 Oct 1929; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.199). Since most citizens were uninterested in most political issues, it was more profitable to work on the knowledgeable and the influential. In 1902 the Webbs formed a small but high-powered dining club known as the Coefficients, whose name reflected contemporary concern with national efficiency following South African War embarrassments, and whose glittering membership list included Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Edward Grey, Leopold Amery, and Halford Mackinder. Sidney remained a member for the five years or so for which the club survived, but the somewhat formal procedure of this association, which met at the neutral venue of the Ship tavern in Whitehall, did not provide the opportunity for intellectual permeation of the élite that the Webbs gained from their own dinner parties. During the 1900s many of that élite were drawn into the political salon that the Webbs established in their Grosvenor Road home. The dinner party, which became the partnership's principal weapon in these years, was deployed with Webbian efficiency: a typical week in 1906 saw thirty persons pass through Grosvenor Road for lunch or dinner, with a further six coming to tea, nearly all of the lot being on business of some sort (diary, 2 July 1906; Our Partnership
One consequence of this dining offensiveand a reason why the Webbs played most of their social games at homewas Beatrice's increasing dietary fastidiousness. She began to impose a frugal food regime upon herself in October 1901, and during 1903 she became a vegetarian, declaring herself against flesh, fish, eggs, alcohol, coffee, and sugar. She was unable to abandon smoking, though, suggesting that her concerns about food were another symptom of her nervous disposition. She remembered as a girl being detestably aware of my body (diary, 1 Jan 1901; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.18990); there are hints of eating disorders in her memory of over-exhaustion and over-eating followed by exhaustion and under-nourishment (ibid.), in such assertions as the less I eat the better I am (diary, 12 Nov 1904; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.333), and in the cessation of her periods for six months in 1902. Her dietary asceticism became a lifelong commitment, and she lost weight steadily. As the pair aged, the tall but willowy Beatrice formed an ever starker contrast to her tubby husband. Though she attempted sporadically to regulate Sidney's diet, she did not force her philosophy of food on her guests: the meals appear to have been simple but wholesome rather than actively repellent. Gastronomy was not Beatrice's concern; her guests were all there with a purpose, as she admitted to Herbert Samuel forty years later (Viscount Samuel, Memoirs
, 1945, 293), acknowledging that that purpose was generally political manipulation.
A frequent guest was Arthur Balfour, Conservative prime minister from 1902. With education high on his agenda, he became a treasured contact as the Webbs sought to mould legislation on one of their subjects. They could not greatly influence the shape of the Education Act
of 1902, the outlines of which had been clear since the mid-1890s, though they doubtless encouraged Balfour to resist nonconformist protests over the funding of Anglican schools from local taxation. Nor could they do much to shape the extension of the 1902 measure to London in the following year: Sidney was prominent in opposing Conservative back-bench suggestions that the second-tier metropolitan boroughs be made education authorities, but the small scale of some of these authorities made devolution of education to them a fantasy. The Webbs controversially promoted the bill of 1903 which extended the 1902 measure to London. Sidney was conscious of the low standard of denominational education in London, and did not believe that the schooling of 218,000 of the capital's children should effectively depend upon private charity. His Progressive Party colleagues in the LCC included, though, a sizeable nonconformist contingent bitterly unhappy with the measure, but unable in practice either to amend the bill or to abjure the responsibilities of a local education authority once it had passed. Aware that the Webbs had been coquetting with Balfour, the nonconformists vented their frustration on Sidney, who relished the image of a conspirator.
Sidney's view of the inevitable spread of collectivism had long convinced him that reform was as likely from Conservatives as from Liberals, while Beatrice, with her tory background, maintained that it is only Conservatives who can make revolutions nowadays (diary, 26 July 1897; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.120). Sidney's Progressive colleagues, most of whom were conventional Liberalradicals, did not take this flouting of party allegiance so lightly. His standing in the party never really recovered from the education controversy, particularly as the cost of education, and in particular the council's growing responsibilities for secondary education, left the Progressives open to ratepayer attack. He was thrown off the party committee in 1905, and although he remained a councillor until 1910, his municipal career really ended at that point. It had encompassed his most successful public work, though, and even after the furore of 1903 he was able to take advantage of the LCC's unified control of education to construct a new London scholarship ladder that lasted in essence until comprehensivization in the 1970s. Approved by the council in February 1905, the scholarship scheme was Sidney's last substantial piece of municipal work.
The poor-law commission and the minority report
Beatrice, though, was about to venture more deeply into public life. Her friendship with Balfour brought her nomination to the royal commission on the poor laws, the appointment of which in 1905 was one of the last acts of the Conservative ministry. This was the first time she had been called upon to serve upon a public body, but she displayed none of the deference of a novice. Fearing that as a woman she would be ignored by the male majority, and that the commission as a whole would be steered by the permanent officials of the Local Government Board (whom she considered part of the poor-law problem), she resolved from the start that she would have
to make myself disagreeable in order to reach my ends (diary, 15 Dec 1905; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.18). This made her slow to understand that the majority of the commission (whose leading thinker was also a woman, Helen Bosanquet) included many with experience of poor-law practice or theory, who were neither slavish advocates of the principles of 1834 nor tools of the Local Government Board. She consequently succeeded in making herself disagreeable but failed to win over many of her colleagues. Halfway into the four-year investigation, she resolved to write a separate minority report, which would be a thoroughly Webbian document (diary, 9 Dec 1907; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.82).
The poor-law problem was really two problems. The legislation of 1834 had intended to isolate the genuinely destitute by making conditions in the workhouse so deterrent as to drive all who could work into employment. In practice at most times the poor law's clientele included both those actually unable to workthe elderly, the chronically sick, the disabled, young mothers, and orphansand the able-bodied unemployed who could not find work. It was difficult to assess both groups equally, and the commission's fractious atmosphere left most members reluctant to try.
Bosanquet and the majority of the commissioners tended to emphasize the problem of the unemployed: Bosanquet's modernized Hegelianism stressed the need to reclaim the destitute for the community and warned of the danger that indiscriminate doles would produce a demoralized underclass. She was prominent in the Charity Organisation Society, which had for more than thirty years sought to save the poor from unfocused philanthropy by restricting charity to those with the character and strength to respond to measured assistance. So far as the COS succeeded in controlling the flow of private charity, the dangeras the society believedincreased that poor-law guardians would become an alternative source of indiscriminate relief. The COS was therefore determined to keep the able-bodied poor at the heart of the question of poor-law reform.
The Webbs, conversely, had always approached the reform issue from the angle of the deserving categories. They believed that the principle of deterrence upon which the act of 1834 had been based had failed because it made no distinction between voluntary and involuntary destitution; their emphasis was always upon the involuntarily destitute. Sidney, who claimed that a fifth of the London population died in the workhouse or a poor-law hospital, had argued since the early 1890s for the separation of the sick from the poor-law system, a pension scheme for the aged, and a more humane treatment of pauper children. This was the basis for the break-up of the Poor Law for which the Webbs campaigned for the next twenty years, and which Beatrice developed on the commission. Her east London experience twenty years earlier had left her convinced of the particular contribution of sickness to poverty, and the sick became the focus of her own attack upon the principles of 1834. Medical relief under the poor law had been steadily stripped of its stigma, and had not been punished by disfranchisement since 1885. By the 1900s the poor-law medical service had become an embryonic public health service for much of the working classnot merely paupersbut it was patchy in its coverage and neglected preventative medicine.
The COS commissioners wished, however, to prevent medical relief clouding the question of the able-bodied poor, and argued for poor-law medical relief to be restricted to the genuinely destitute. This revanchiste
proposal goaded Beatrice into a Pauline moment, convincing her that the object should rather be the extension of medical inspection and treatment to all sick persons, paupers or not, than its restriction to the pauper sick. In a phrase which conjured up the earlier case for the national minimum, she argued that illness should be considered a public nuisance to be suppressed in the interests of the community (diary, 17 June 1906; Our Partnership
, 348). The insight that sicknessincluding pauper sicknesscould be better handled outside the poor law pointed naturally to the conclusion that other deserving groupsthe aged, the disabled, and the childrenshould also be taken out of the hands of the guardians and treated by specialist departments of local authorities.
The idea of breaking up the poor law was, to Beatrice, exhilarating in its radicalism. The Webbs believed that the guardian boards, concerned with a purely deterrent and repressive treatment of destitution and vagrancy (S. Webb and B. Webb, Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes
, 1922, 484), had failed to attract creative administrative talent, and that their accumulation of power had consequently been damaging. The prospect of breaking them up therefore appealed, but it raised problems the significance of which Beatrice was reluctant to acknowledge, namely those of the widow with young children and the able-bodied unemployed. Both groups now dogged the Webbs' attempt to sweep away the guardians. Proposals to consign pauper children to specialist children's agencies of local authorities suggested that the breakup of the poor law could be achieved only by the breakup of the pauper family. The Webbs responded that this was already the case with the treatment of truants, fever patients, and lunatic children, but their hard-nosed approach to family solidarity was a liability.
The unemployed proved even more intractable. If the COS exaggerated their centrality, the Webbs were inclined to minimize them: Sidney dismissed the able-bodied in 1907 as only a few tens of thousands among the mass of paupers (United Parish Magazine
, Nov 1907, 2). The minority report countered the emphasis of the COS upon moral elevation by stressing the need for physical improvement of the emaciated and flabby unemployed (Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress
, 1909, 3.669). Which of us, indeed, is not
capable of improvement by careful testing and training?, wrote the unathletic Sidney (ibid., 3.670). But greater understanding of the problems of structural unemployment had, by the 1900s, demonstrated the inadequacy of this solution. In the event the minority report developed a solution as radical as that of the breakup of the poor law, arguing that public authorities, national and local, should schedule their major capital projects so as to offset the ebb and flow of the trade cycle. The involuntarily unemployed would be absorbed by these means, leaving only a core of work-shy people to be dealt with by coercive methods.
As the commission approached its conclusion, Beatrice was unworried by the prospect of competing reports, as mine would be the best (Beatrice to Sidney, 2 May 1908; Letters
, 2.313). The majority report was far better received than the Webbs had expected, but they still set about lobbying for their own proposals. A national committee for the prevention of destitution was formed to campaign for the minority report. Beatrice took voice production lessons and practised orating to the Waves (Beatrice Webb to Georgina Meinertzhagen, 8 Aug 1909, Letters
, 2.332) at Harlech. The campaign was impressive by the standards of such exercises, and Beatrice found an unexpected talent for public speaking, but the voice of poor-law reform was drowned by the protracted furore over the people's budget and the future of the House of Lords in 190911.
The Webbs' greatest problem, though, lay in the determination of the Liberal government to tackle poverty by other means. Old-age pensions had been enacted in 1908, before the commission had reported. Low pay was attacked by the Trade Boards Act
in 1909, and 1911 saw the key measure of Liberal social reform, a scheme for insurance against unemployment and sickness, based upon contributions from workers, employers, and the state. The Webbs considered national insurance an illegitimate short cut, giving the state nothing in return for its contribution. National insurance offended Beatrice's rooted prejudice to relief instead of treatment (diary, 13 May 1911; Our Partnership
, 474); it did nothing to prevent sickness, covered only a fraction of the unemployed, and left both sick and unemployed at the mercy of the poor law when their entitlement expired. But it thwarted the minority report.
The whole episode demonstrated the failure of the Webbs' attempts to influence the powerful. Churchill and Lloyd George, along with other leading Liberals, had been regular visitors to the Grosvenor Road salon, but in the three years in which these men reshaped British social policy, the Webbs were hardly consulted. Their attempts to lobby ministers for poor-law reform merely proved how irksome they could be: Churchill declined the Local Government Board in 1908 for fear of being shut up in a soup kitchen with Mrs Sidney Webb (R. S. Churchill, Young Statesman: Winston S. Churchill, 19011914
, 1967, 243); Lloyd George resolved that he did not
feel inclined to consult Sidney Webb much more after a harangue on the evils of compulsory insurance in 1911 (Lloyd George's Ambulance Wagon: being the Memoirs of William J. Braithwaite, 191112
, ed. H. N. Bunbury, 1957, 117). In fact the comprehensiveness which Beatrice so valued in the minority report impeded its acceptance. The breakup of the poor law might have been feasible if accompanied by more conventional provision for the able-bodied, but the contra-cyclical works proposals were unrealistic, as Beatrice privately acknowledged in 1910.
The Webbs' departure on a tour of India and the Far East in June 1911 marked their implicit abandonment of the poor-law campaign. They made few more attempts to prescribe detailed social policy. Beatrice served with limited enthusiasm and to little effect on a committee investigating women's wages during the First World War, and to greater effect with the new Ministry of Reconstruction, planning post-war Britain, from 1917. The failure of the minority report diminished, though, her faith in the tactic of permeating the governing élite: Beatrice later described the report as the high-water mark of Reformist Socialism, and the book The Prevention of Destitution
, written to publicize it, as the Webbs' final statement of this policy of Compensation for the capitalist system (Beatrice to W. A. Robson, 26 Oct 1934; Letters
At least two substantial pieces of policy innovation were stillborn as a result. The minority report had sketched out a theory of partnership between state and voluntary agencies in the field of philanthropy, by which the latter would be used as testing grounds for experiments in social-work practice. It also sketched out a solution to the problem of centrallocal relations in the targeted use of central grants-in-aid to local authorities, weighted in favour of poor districts. Such initiatives went unheard as the minority report failed to take root, and detailed policy making of this sort tended, in the Webbs' future works, to give way to more ambitious criticism of the capitalist system.
The Far Eastern tour, 19111912
When the Webbs had toured the Anglo-Saxon world in 1898 it never occurred to us that we were engaged in scientific research (S. Webb and B. Webb, Methods of Social Study
, 1932, 199). Their tour of India and the Far East in 191112, however, acted as a powerful ferment, altering and enlarging our conception of the human race, its past, its present and its future (The Webbs in Asia
, 2). Their jointly written diary provides occasional echoes of the Victorian travel journals, but in general the Webbs were less absorbed by the conventional tourist sites than by their inspections of schools, factories, municipal tramways, and even the famine relief works at Godhra, where they noted that none who were adult and ablebodied were given … doles (Indian Diary
In unfamiliar societies the Webbs could adopt a more detached observer status than was open to them in Britain. The result was a schematic treatment of social organization that contrasted with their empirical studies of British trade unionism and local government. Occasionally their broad-brush accounts of civilizations only briefly visited could be disappointingly crude. The Chinese incurred the full force of their social Darwinisma striking example of arrested development, evocative of the sophisticated insect, which has gone very far, but … along a line in which further progress seems to be impossible (Crusade
, March 1912, reprinted in The Webbs in Asia
, 371)while Korea showed how a whole nation may take a long turn and steadily decline in civilisation (The Webbs in Asia
Japan and India received, though, more mature consideration. Japan fascinated the Webbs as reproducing, with minute accuracy, all the features of the industrial England of 17901840 (Crusade
, January 1912, reprinted in The Webbs in Asia
, 362); they deplored the exploitation of women silk workers in Nagano and the slums of Osaka. Japan needed a national minimum, but the Webbs were heartened by the efficiency of its centralized government and the extraordinary idealism or mysticism in the Japanese character (The Webbs in Asia
, 61, 153).
India was less strikingly dynamic, but two features of Indian society struck the Webbs especially forcibly. The first was the example of local democracy evident in village government, presented to them as a pure, pre-raj form of Indian self-rule, and contrasting with the restricted ratepayer democracy that they had observed in England. Primitive democracy was attractive in itself, counteracting, as they believed, the divisive force of caste. Moreover, it reinforced the view which the Webbs had formed from their local government research that any government, however mechanically perfect, will fail to take root in the minds of the mass of the people … unless it is in some way grafted on the spontaneous groupings of the people themselves (S. Webb, introduction to J. Matthai, Village Government in India
, 1916, xii). True Indian self-government, they concluded, would result not from a nationalist capture of the central imperial institutions or even provincial government, but through the development of the Village Council, the District Board and the Municipality (ibid., xviii).
The second striking feature of Indian life was the Arya Samaj, a sect of Hindu modernizers whom the Webbs depicted as Vedic protestants, seeking to combat superstition and such anti-social rites as childhood marriage, and active in the relief of destitution. The Asian tour provoked the Webbs into speculations upon national spirituality of a kind that they would never have attempted in Britain, but which reflected Beatrice's enduring concern with the moral purpose of social organization. Much Indian popular religion was, in the Webbs' terms, superstitious and superficial, but the followers of the Arya Samaj displayed self-effacement in the service of Hindu society and self-reliance towards the outer world (S. Webb, introduction to L. Rai, The Arya Samaj
, 1915, xiii). Here was the epitome of the life of selfless social commitment for which Sidney had called in his essay on Rome in the 1880s and which Beatrice had drawn from Comte. The Webbs would find it again in soviet Russia.
Few, if any, of the Webbs' social opinions had been changed by their Far Eastern trip, but they were drawn to a broader view of British social development by the opportunity to compare Britain with other societies. From that point they thought less of detailed social-policy prescriptions and more of the problems intrinsic to capitalism as a system. They also committed themselves to Labour Party politics.
The Webbs embrace Labour
The Webbs' attitude towards independent labour representation had previously been ambivalent. At heart they feared that a separate party founded purely as a vehicle for the working class would be sectional, and would conflict with their social collectivism. Sidney had, though, co-written with Shaw the article To your tents, oh Israel!, published in the Fortnightly Review
of November 1893, which called upon the trade unions to give their financial and organizational support only to independent labour and socialist candidates. The article reflected Sidney's disenchantment with the last Gladstone government, which had just wasted a parliamentary session on the lost cause of Irish home rule. It was also, though, informed by the Webbs' trade union researches, which had demonstrated the political efficacy of the junta of new model union leaders in the 1870s and the continued political role of the larger unions. The reluctance of the Trades Union Congress in 1894 to support separate Labour candidates caused the Webbs to pause, while the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893 had aroused more interest in provincial than in London Fabians. The Webbs, unimpressed by the utopian programme adopted by the ILP in the general election of 1895, regarded them as amateurs. It is therefore unsurprising that the Webbs barely noticed the effective creation of the Labour Party in 1900, with the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, embracing unions, ILP, and socialist societies.
The Fortnightly Review
article of 1893 therefore proved, in the short term, a blind alley. The Webbs' disenchantment with the Liberal Party steered them not towards independent labour politics but rather towards their ad hoc
lobbying of the influential. Indeed, during the debates over the Fabian Society's future in the mid-1900s, it was the old guard's opponents, explicitly critical of the Webbs' élitism and obsession with administrative solutions, who called for the society to turn itself into a middle-class affiliate of the ILP. It was the failure to convince either major party of the merits of the minority report that persuaded the Webbs to look to third-party politics, and thus to Labour: the Labour Party exists and we have to work with it, Beatrice wrote unenthusiastically, A poor thing but our own (diary, Christmas 1912; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.184).
What was most conspicuously poor about Labour was the quality of its trade unionist MPs. Beatrice feared that the party's middle-class membership, hopelessly outnumbered, had settled for the self-deceit that respectable but reactionary Trade Union officials are the leaders of the Social Revolution (diary, 12 Feb 1914; Diaries, 19121924
, 19). Her conclusion that there was a clear call to leadership in the labour and socialist movement to which we feel that we must respond (diary, 11 Oct 1912; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.179) appears bumptious, but the intellectual leadership that Beatrice surely meant was indeed needed by a Labour Party in the process of reassessing its relationship to Liberalism.
Two initiatives embodied the attempt to provide this intellectual guidance. The first was the creation of a Fabian Society committee, which Beatrice chaired, to report upon the public control of industry. With a three-figure membership comprising Fabians, co-operators, and trade unionists, it evolved into the Fabian research department and, in 1917, into the Labour research department. The second initiative was the founding of a political weekly journal, the New Statesman
. The New Statesman
was launched in April 1913 under the editorship of Clifford Sharp, formerly editor of the anti-poor law campaign journal The Crusade
. Beatrice saw it as primarily an organ of research and secondarily a general weekly paper (diary, 8 March 1914; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 3.198). It could, accordingly, be dauntingly cerebralH. G. Wells thought it as dull as a privet hedge in Leeds (Smith, 44)particularly in what the Webbs considered its most important feature, the special supplements analysing current political issues and surveying recent official publications. Its first twenty-two issues carried the Webbs' series What is socialism?, the first comprehensive expression of the partnership's social thought since their horizons had been broadened in the Far East. This series rested upon familiar foundations. The three pillars of the Webbs' collective democracy were reinforcedconsumer co-operation as the successor to individualism, municipalities as agents of the housekeeping state, trade unions as the expression of man's identity as producerbut the Webbs now avoided detailed policy prescriptions in favour of a broader analysis of social and economic structure. With it came a doctrinal fundamentalism, immanent in their earlier works but now expressed with full force.
The What is socialism? articles formed a more explicit criticism of capitalism than the Webbs had produced before, invoking the moral decay that Beatrice had feared since the 1880s. They stressed the social rights of women and children, whose lot in poverty had become clearer to Beatrice from her poor-law investigations. They ventured a Fabian view of empire, which promised a higher stage of administrative organisation than any local particularism can achieve, and charged the great powers with the protection of the non-adult races, some of which they had studied in the Far East, from the private trader, the unchartered adventurer, or even the missionary (New Statesman
, 26 July, 2 Aug 1913). One of the Webbs' motives in founding the journal had been to counter propaganda from Fabian guild socialists, and they duly took the opportunity for another attack on syndicalism and anarchism. Anarchism had simply refused to recognize that developed societies required more elaborate government; syndicalism failed to cater for those groups outside the factory (women, children, the sick, and the elderly), whose needs had been made evident to the Webbs during the poor-law inquiry. In a subtle dilution of their former bureaucratic élitism, the Webbs concluded by arguing that the emergence of a vast army of … head workers rather than hand workers had been the most telling social feature of the last hundred years, and that it was this anonymous body of minor professionalsan extraordinarily honest, habitually unbribable, continuously devoted, and increasingly efficient class of subordinate officialswho were fostering the growth of collectivism (New Statesman
, 6 Sept 1913). The intention to publish the series in book form was thwarted by the outbreak of the First World War.
War and the Webbs
In a rare aside upon foreign affairs in the New Statesman
series, the Webbs had warned that the intensification of global capitalism threatened to develop in the international relations of all the Great Powers a Bismarckian Imperialism naked and unashamed, leading to constantly increasing armaments and to periodical wars of a destructiveness that the world has never witnessed (New Statesman
, 30 Aug 1913). They were none the less taken aback by the outbreak of war in 1914. Beatrice was in fact devastated by the conflict, lapsing into depression and hypochondria. Sidney, who thought Britain to be in the right in declaring war in 1914, also regarded the conflict as a setback to hopes of social reconstruction, but the realization that the war was encouraging a form of ad hoc
collectivism in Britain soon revived his optimism. It also allowed him to regain the national political role that appeared to have been lost with the collapse of the poor-law campaign, and to help direct the emergent Labour Party.
War effectively released Labour from its pre-war dependence upon the Liberal party and allowed it to go beyond the limits of Liberal social policy. With Westminster politics dominated by war issues, the focus of labour politics shifted from parliament to the shop floor and the working-class home, where the effects of the war economy were felt most keenly. The War Emergency Workers' National Committee, a federal group of representatives of the Labour Party and the wider labour movement, was formed in August 1914 to shield the working class from wartime economic disruption. For the first two years or so of the war, it wasfar more than the parliamentary Labour Partythe principal outlet for working-class grievances induced by wartime privations. It allowed Sidneyone of six members elected to the committee at its inaugural conferenceto become Labour's intellectual leader. He formulated much of the policy of the committee, which lobbied the wartime governments directly for measures against mass unemployment, for curbs on profiteering employers and landlords, for public control of key industries and of food supplies, and for support for trade unions in the face of industrial dislocation.
The war brought rent control, food rationing, and the nationalization of strategically important industries, all avowedly temporary, all adopted in a somewhat expedient manner, but all representing striking departures from pre-war habits. Sidney was characteristically disposed to see these developments as harbingers of a new collectivist Britain, which he sketched in a New Statesman
series, The rebuilding of the state, in the spring of 1917. In Webb's post-war Britain the trade unions would accept the permanent loss of pre-war restrictive practices in return for government pledges to prevent unemployment (which is quite practicable) and to protect standard rates of pay. A ministry of health would give the nation at last … an organised service of health and healing. A national scholarship system would help revitalize the education system. Successful education authorities would receive enhanced grants, knighthoods for their officials, and a visit by the King to present a shield of honour, while failing ones would be mulcted of aid and held up to public opprobrium. Exchequer grants would also be used, on a massive scale, to replenish the nation's housing stock. Such had been the drift of public opinion since 1914 that few of Sidney's sentiments appeared unrealistic in the reconstructionist climate that prevailed towards the end of the war.
Beatrice, initially floored by the onset of war, took on worthy public work, becoming one of the Labour nominees to the statutory pensions committee, charged with compensating disabled servicemen. She also chaired a war cabinet committee on male and female pay, for which she produced a minority report which Margaret Cole considered one of the best statements of the case for equal pay (Diaries, 19121924
, 148 n. 3). Invited in 1917 to serve on the reconstruction committee, planning post-war reform, Beatrice found her niche on two subcommitteeson local government and the machinery of central governmentwhich enjoyed substantial autonomy and survived the replacement of the committee by a full-scale ministry in July 1917. She succeeded in persuading the local government committee to produce a report in January 1918 advocating most of the proposals of the 1909 minority report. No legislation had appeared before the committee was wound up, but another minority report proposal, the call for a ministry of health, was clearly an idea whose time had come. Beatrice had no difficulty pressing it upon the machinery of government committee, under Haldane, though it was actually accepted by the Lloyd George government before the committee reported, following the recommendation of a separate parliamentary inquiry.
The Labour Party constitution and programme
During 1917 the need to refashion the Labour Party became evident. The Liberals' split in 1916 had diminished their plausibility as a party of government, while the end to the war, whenever it came, would also end the party electoral truce. The war emergency committee accordingly dwindled in significance as the task of building a unified national Labour Party out of the federal creation of 1900 became more urgent. Sidney worked closely and harmoniously on this task with Arthur Henderson, evicted from Lloyd George's coalition government in 1917. Webb provided the basis for the intellectual refurbishment of Labour in 191718, drafting virtually all the party's policy statements as it prepared for peace and reconstruction. The most important of them was the briefest: the socialist commitment which became clause 4 of Labour's constitution of 1918. This pledged the party to secure for the producers by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the Common Ownership of the Means of Production. Webb was working in the knowledge that one outcome of Labour's overhaul would be the tightening of trade union control over the party, in return for greater financial help: his clause aimed to guard against what he considered the conservatism and narrow horizons of the union leadership by seeking to broaden the party's electoral base. He stressed that clause 4 was designed only to injure the so-called idle rich and that Labour hoped to attract many men and women of the shopkeeping, manufacturing and professional classes who are dissatisfied with the old political parties (The New Constitution of the Labour Party
, 1918, 2, 3). In the interests of inclusiveness the old feud with syndicalism was suspended: the wording of clause 4 echoes, in fact, the definition of the aims of the more class-conscious of its members in the Webbs' pre-war pamphlet criticizing the movement (What Syndicalism Means
, 138). Sidney stressed that all forms of common ownership and control of industry were feasible.
Uninhibited in his criticism of Russian Bolshevism, which he interpreted as a gigantic adventure in the futility of worker control, Sidney was radical in his own policy proposals. The Labour Party manifesto Labour and the New Social Order
, which he drafted in 1918, was described by him as an essentially anti-Bolshevist programme (New Statesman
, 7 Dec 1918). It sought to combat Lenin's British emulators by combining radical policies with a commitment to parliamentary methods. The bulk of the programme echoed the Webbs' New Statesman
articles of 1913. Onto a familiar Webbian corethe national minimum, a public works programme on minority report lineswas grafted common ownership of land and a call for the progressive elimination from the control of industry of the private capitalist by means of the nationalization of railways, mines, and power. The most innovative feature was a fiscal programme more explicit than anything the Webbs had produced before 1914. Previously fiscal policy had been oddly marginal to the Webbs' thinking, but the war had revealed the constricting nature of pre-war finance. It was now no longer true to say that the nation could not afford social reform, Webb argued: an increase in public expenditure to attain the national minimum would be an investment resulting in increased productivity. The introduction of military conscription in 1916 had fuelled demands within the labour movement for the conscription of riches; in that year a Fabian inquiry under Sidney's chairmanship called for a 10 per cent levy on the capital value of all property to pay off war debt and an 80 per cent tax on incomes above £100,000. During 1917 Sidney pressed on the war emergency committee a sweeping fiscal programme entailing a doubling of income tax on the very rich, the capital levy, and the sequestration of unearned incomes. The capital levy resurfaced in Labour and the New Social Order
, along with the direct taxation of the incomes above the necessary cost of family maintenance, a 95 per cent tax on millionaires' incomes, and the steeper graduation of death duties (Labour and the New Social Order
, 1918, 11, 12, 17).
These proposals lay at the root of middle-class fear of labour after 1918. So far as Sidney's own thought was concerned, when combined with the national minimum they made explicit an egalitarian tendency implicit in his work from the 1880s onwards. The Webbs' mischievously straight-faced suggestion in 1920 that the pleasant but expensive country houses of the wealthy could be converted into the holiday homes and recreation grounds of the urban toilers by hand or brain (A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain
, 1920, 2656) reflected this shift. They believed the war to have emphasized the sharp division of our community into a party of the haves and a party of the have nots (ibid., 2745), and their response was an overt disavowal of the capitalist order, well before they committed themselves to soviet communism.
A belief that war had fatally undermined capitalism suffused most of the works produced by the partnership after 1918. Assuming that the post-war order would bring the confiscation of Beatrice's unearned income and thus jeopardize their writing, the Webbs produced a remarkable creative burst in the years after the armistice. In 1920 they brought their trade union history up to date. They also experimented ambitiously with constitutional prescription in their Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain
, which argued for two separate parliamentsa social parliament to deal with welfare issues, and a political parliament handling judicial and diplomatic affairs. In 1921 they revisited co-operation in The Consumers' Co-Operative Movement
. In 1922 appeared Special Authorities for Statutory Purposes
, the volume which the Webbs themselves considered the most important of the local government series, and in 1923 they published a lively essay entitled The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation
, which, like the Constitution
, borrowed some material from the What is socialism? articles of 1913. Except for the detached Special Authorities
, these works reflected the Webbs' heightened conviction of the evil of capitalism; the revisions to the trade union history, for example, contrasted with the relatively dispassionate tone of the original.
The Webbs now doubted whether the pre-war consent that the social order had to be gradually changed, in the direction of a greater equality in material income and personal freedom could any longer be relied upon (The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation
, 1923, 1756). Unashamedly cartelistic, capitalism possessed a power that threatened social progress; it brutalized the poor and vulgarized the rich. Mental degradation (through the capitalist press), prostitution and vice, food adulteration and environmental damagea new Webbian concernwere laid at its door.
Yet the Webbs also believed that capitalism was in decline, dissolving before our eyes as feudalism had dissolved before it (The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation
, 1923, 1), and counselled patience in the context of the fevered labour politics of the post-war years. Both the revised trade union history and the new co-operation study rehearsed familiar arguments against syndicalism and worker control: the Labour Party remained the appropriate vehicle for worker aspirations. So did parliament: to protect ourselves from Bolshevism we must, at all costs, maintain the popular faith and confidence in the House of Commons (New Statesman
, 7 Dec 1918). As if to emphasize the point, Sidney sought a parliamentary career himself. Having contested the London University seat unsuccessfully in 1918, he gained in 1920 the Labour nomination for the mining seat of Seaham in co. Durham.
Sidney's return to public life
Until the previous year, Sidney would have appeared an unlikely nominee for a mining constituency, but in February 1919 he had been induced by Lloyd George to serve on the royal commission appointed under Sir John Sankey to investigate the troubled coal industry. There he worked with R. H. Tawney, Chiozza Money, and the nominees of the Miners' Federation to torment the slow-footed and under-prepared representatives of the industry. This resulted in, first, unanimous recommendations for higher wages and shorter hours, and subsequently, proposals from the chairman and from the miners' representatives for nationalization of the industry. The aftermath proved anticlimactic. The miners' material gains diminished their appetite for nationalization, which the government was able to reject in August 1919, and the material gains largely disappeared with the collapse of the industry's profitability after 1921, but Sidney had gained popularity with rank-and-file miners. It led to an invitation to contest Seaham, which was eventually confirmed in the face of the misgivings of the Durham Miners' Association, which had hoped to place a union man in the seat. Characteristically, Sidney sought to propitiate the union by writing a popular history of it, The Story of the Durham Miners, 16621921
(1921). Liberalism's collapse in industrial England made Seaham a safe Labour seat, and Sidney was returned comfortably in 1922, 1923, and 1924 before retiring from the Commons.
Shaw described Sidney's parliamentary years as the only years he ever wasted (The Webbs, in S. Webb and B. Webb, The Truth about Soviet Russia
, 1942, 13). The committee skills that he had brought to the LCC could not easily be deployed in parliament, and Sidney proved a poor chamber speaker, easily wounded by barracking from the more vulgar of the [Tory] young bloods (diary, 20 Feb 1925; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.48). Beatrice played the constituency wife with more diligence than enthusiasm, helping Sidney campaign and producing a series of newsletters, initially distinctly patronizing, for the women of Seaham. She regretted the demands on Sidney's time and the disruption of the partnership's work, but she spent her own time profitably, compiling her first volume of autobiography. Covering life before Sidney, it was published as My Apprenticeship
in 1926. A classic of female autobiography, it drew extensively upon the diary which Beatrice had kept since 1873. The modern image of Beatrice owes much to the publication of diary extracts, first in the 1950s and then in a four-volume selection emerging between 1982 and 1985. The later edition revealed her spiritual uncertainties, her obsession with Chamberlain, and her insecurity under pressure, as on the poor-law commission. It displayed the frustrated novelist in Beatrice, particularly in a demanding appraisal of personalities (Wasted gifts is writ large over Bertrand Russell's life (diary, 20 July 1936; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.373)) that was virtually absent from the Webbs' joint works. The Chamberlain fixation and the more uninhibited personal judgements were omitted from My Apprenticeship
, but the work still displayed a sensitive, vulnerable womana woman unfamiliar to those who, as she acknowledged, respected her without liking her.
Sidney's ministerial career
The unpredictable three-party electoral system of the 1920s ensured that Labour was twice thrust into minority office. In a party short of administrative expertise, Sidney twice became a cabinet minister. By an irony which did not escape Beatrice, he occupied the first and last cabinet posts held by Joseph Chamberlain, becoming president of the Board of Trade from January to November 1924 and colonial secretary from June 1929 to August 1931.
The life of the first Labour government was so brief that few of its ministers made much of a mark in office. Sidney had originally been earmarked for the relatively new Ministry of Labourappropriately, as that ministry was a partial answer to the minority report's call for an agency to tackle able-bodied unemployment. He was switched at the last minute to the Board of Trade, but still chaired a cabinet committee on unemployment. There, as the deputy cabinet secretary complained, all Sidney Webb … has been able to prescribe as a remedy, after 30 or 40 years of reflection on the problem, is a revival of trade. He concluded that Webb's mountainous brain always succeeded in producing an infinitesimal mouse (T. Jones, Whitehall Diary
, 1, 1969, 274). The board's own tally of its achievements in 1924 boasted only mice, including a bill to regulate petrol pumps and a measure to compel the sale of bread by weight.
Sidney's spell at the Colonial Office, in Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government of 192931, was longer and less relaxed. His public career had been prolonged by accident. Having retired from the Commons in May 1929 he was summoned suddenly to the Lords in June 1929, after the formation of MacDonald's administration, because convention required two secretaries of state in the upper house. He adopted the title Baron Passfield, after Passfield Corner, the Hampshire house which the partnership had bought in 1923, but he refused a coat of arms, and Beatrice declined to call herself Lady Passfield. Aged almost seventy, Sidney had to master an area of policy that had scarcely previously concerned him. Widely assumed, even by Beatrice, to be a tool of his civil servants, he contrived to apply a watered-down version of the broadly humanitarian colonial policy elaborated by a Labour Party which had itself thought little about colonial affairs. In the two territories which proved most contentious during his spell of office, this meant protecting African interests in British east Africa and protecting the interests of the Arab community in Palestine.
In each case the fear, at least as expressed by Beatrice, was that the settler community was set upon expropriating the indigenous one to produce a landless proletariat and a cheap labour force. With this in mind, the Webbs found attractive the colonial variant of Tory paternalism expressed by the great imperial administrator Sir Frederick Lugard, whom they had met and admired on their pre-war Eastern tour, when he was governor of Hong Kong. They accepted Lugard's view that self-government, the traditional staple of the nineteenth-century Colonial Office, was inappropriate to areas where the inhabitants are broken up into communities whose economic interests, religious faith or manners and customs are irreconcilable (diary, 13 Aug 1929; Diaries, 19241932
Sidney inherited a complex situation in Kenya, where tension existed not only between the British and Indian settler communities, but between the settlers and the Kikuyu natives. The British settlers sought to maintain their constitutional ascendancy over the more numerous Indians, who called for a common electoral roll for the Kenyan legislative council, and their economic ascendancy over the Kikuyu, who wanted both equitable representation and the protection of tribal lands. Whitehall's policy was unsettled in 1929. The previous secretary of state, Leopold Amery, had promoted a closer union of Britain's east African possessions for reasons of imperial strategy, but the white settler community in Kenya had sought to make assent to this conditional upon the reinforcement of their ascendancy in the legislative council, with the ultimate aim of white-dominated self-government. This threatened Whitehall's power to implement its policy of trusteeship, defined in 1923 as the protection and advancement of the native races (Gregory, 5).
Sidney, in line with the paternalistic attitude towards non-adult races expressed in the What is socialism? series before the war, assumed that democracy was a hundred years away in Kenya, and made no attempt to encourage black enfranchisement. Trusteeship was rather promoted through attempts to protect black economic interests, crystallized in the Memorandum on Native Policy in East Africa
, published in June 1930. This provided that, when the interests of Africans and those of the immigrant races (British and Indian) conflicted, the former should prevail (P. S. Gupta, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 19141964
, 1975, 1867). A second white paper, published in the same month, sought to promote closer union in east Africa by establishing a single high commissioner with full power over native policy and substantial control over the colonial legislatures in other respects.
The result of these two statements was the comprehensive alienation of the British settlers in Kenya, whose lobbying in London ensured not only that the closer union policy was referred to a joint committee of both houses of parliament, as had always been intended, but that the Native Policy
memorandum was as well. Webb ineptly allowed the committee to be tory-chaired and tory-dominated. It recommended maintaining the status quo
, effectively undermining Sidney's attempts to protect black interests and sowing the seeds of Mau-Mau rebellion in 1948.
The situation in Palestine was still more difficult. However valid Beatrice's materialistic analysis of settler motives, the rise of political Zionism had given the Jewish cause an idealism and articulacy scarcely evident among the Kenyan white population. Beatrice, for all her professed affinity to the Jews, thought talk of a return to a 2000-year-old inheritance sheer nonsense, and believed that the promise of a Palestinian Jewish home in the Balfour declaration of 1917 implied the gradual marginalization of the Palestinian Arabs. She considered that the case for the Arab has not yet been heard; whilst the case for the Jew has been vehemently and powerfully pressed on the Government (diary, 2 Sept 1929; Diaries, 19241932
, 218)on only his second day in office Sidney received visits from the British Zionist sympathizers Leopold Amery and W. G. Ormsby-Gore. The change of government also, though, stimulated the Palestinian executive to send a delegation to London, which opened negotiations with the colonial secretary in March 1930. These did little to settle Palestinian concerns over Jewish immigration, but did lead to a promise of an official investigation into the sale of Palestinian land to Jews. Sir John Hope Simpson, the model Indian administrator discovered by the Webbs in 1912 and a land expert, was appointed to conduct the investigation. Simpson's report of October 1930 stressed the paucity of cultivable land in Palestine and the extent of Arab unemployment, arguing against further settlement until agricultural productivity had been improved. As Sidney put it to the principal Zionist leader, Dr Weizmann, do you not realise there is not room to swing a cat in Palestine? (The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann
, ed. B. Litvinoff, 1984, 2, B, 116). When Simpson's conclusions were embodied in the Passfield white paper of 1930, however, the intensity of Zionist protest in Britain produced a retreat, in the form of an open letter from MacDonald to Weizmann in February 1931, reasserting the government's commitment to establish a Jewish national home. The letter heralded a change in attitude which, in Weizmann's words, enabled us to make the magnificent gains of the ensuing years (quoted in R. John and S. Hadawi, The Palestine Diary
, 1: 19141945
, 1970, 233). Sir John Chancellor was replaced as high commissioner by Sir Arthur Wauchope, who opened the doors to mass Jewish immigration, while the Palestinians learned the need for pan-Arab support (B. M. Nafi, Arabism, Islamism and the Palestine Question, 190841
, 1998, 106).
In both areas Sidney had made policy broadly consistent with Labour's objectives, only to see the results overturned by external lobbying. In both cases he had received little support from MacDonald. When later he accused MacDonald of the gross error of listening to outsiders' complaints about ministers, which he took up and made himself unpleasant about (memoranda on the crisis of August 1931, BLPES, Passfield papers, IV/26/1), Sidney surely had his own experience in mind. In May 1931, weighed down by the pressures of office, he sought to retire as soon as some means could be found of maintaining the requisite government presence in the House of Lords.
No solution had been found before the government was overwhelmed by the financial crisis of August 1931. Sidney's entrapment in colonial affairs left him a marginal figure in the economic debates in the cabinet and the wider labour movement. In the party's internal battles he remained broadly loyal to MacDonald: his instinct is to obey the orders of his chief, as Beatrice put it (diary, 28 Nov 1929; Diaries, 19241932
, 230). He felt frustrated by the most irritating self-righteous superiority displayed by the Labour left and by the TUC's demands for prior consultation on industrial matters (memoranda on the crisis of August 1931, BLPES, Passfield papers, IV/26/1). Escalation of the financial crisis during the summer of 1931 brought an uncharacteristic display of impatience with the refusal of the TUC's general council to agree to cuts. In fact Sidney led a successful protest in cabinet against a proposal to transfer half a million transitional benefit recipients to the poor law, but in the critical cabinet vote which destroyed the government he supported MacDonald's proposal for reductions in unemployment benefit (though Beatrice appears to have believed that he voted with Henderson against them (diary, 25 Aug 1931; Diaries, 19241932
, 284 n. 1). He was undaunted by the prospect of the government's collapse, which he had long foreseen, but he had expected its replacement by the Conservative opposition in the conventional way. It was MacDonald's decision to go into an emergency coalition with leading Conservatives and Liberals which really irked him, causing Sidney to conclude that such coups as the capture of MacDonald represented the last ditch in the defensive position of the British rentier
class (Political Quarterly
, 3, 1932, 16). Sidney retired from public life, to join his wife in the promotion of soviet communism.
A new civilization?
Away from the pressures of government, Beatrice assessed the developing crisis in strategic terms, in the context of the apparent collapse of capitalism after 1929. The period of the second Labour government and the months after its fall saw her conversion to the new civilisation of soviet communism.
For most of the 1920s soviet communism had embodied what the Webbs most feared in the totalitarian state. During their post-war battles with the revolutionary left they had argued that the Bolsheviks' dictatorship of the proletariat meant that the proletariat was dictated to, and the government prisons were as full, and its rifles as active, as those of the Tsardom (The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation
, 1923, 161). In 1927 Beatrice warned that soviet communism might delay economic democracy in Britain by half a century. She later maintained to John Parker that she had warmed to the USSR once Lenin abandoned worker control, but in reality she remained hostile to the soviet system after Lenin's death, and her conversion owed more to her despair over the British system than to any substantial change in the Soviet Union.
Great Britain for the ten years since the War, Beatrice wrote in 1931, has been governed exclusively
in the interest of the rentier
(diary, 2 Feb 1931; Diaries, 19241932
, 265). The 1920s had seen a steady retreat from the high point of collectivism reached during the war. Sidney had, in his youth, been fond of pointing out that no collectivist measure had ever been reversed, but as the decade wore on, it became clear that de-control was a lasting feature of post-war Britain, and that the Conservativeor Conservative-dominatedgovernments which presided over the explosion of unemployment after 1920 would suffer little political penalty. Moreover, the post-war deflation questioned the power of other engines of democracy. The Webbs' 1921 study of co-operation celebrated the rapid numerical growth of the movement, but the evidence of the co-operatives' arrested development was inescapable. They had made little headway in larger cities or among the middle class. Co-operative retailing had been slow to move beyond the basic staples of groceries and clothes, and as a result the average co-operator was spending a lower proportion of his income in the co-operative store in 1921 than in 1913. Worse was the moral and intellectual atrophy of the movement. Co-operative libraries stocked the cheapest, often the trashiest … novels (The Consumers' Co-Operative Movement
, 85), the central organs of the movement underpaid their brainworkers, and, as the membership succumbed to complacency, the internal democracy of the movement had decayed.
The co-operative movement had been slow to adopt a political role, and by the 1920s there could be no doubt that trade unionism rather than co-operation formed the leading sector of the labour movement. The Webbs' recurrent doubts about unionism were reinforced by the drift of many unions into militancy in the early 1920s, culminating in what Beatrice considered the monstrous irrelevance of the general strike in 1926 (diary, 4 May 1926; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.77). These doubts were reinforced in the 1920s as collectivism faltered in the face of deflation and mass unemployment. Although Sidney, chairing the Labour Party conference in 1923, had invoked the inevitability of gradualness in holding the party to the parliamentary road, over the next few years first Beatrice, then Sidney, lost faith in the coming of the socialist state in Britain.
Mass unemployment weighed heavily on Beatrice. She saw whole sections of fellow countrymen … slowly becoming a harmless but worthless mass of low-grade humanity (diary, 9 Sept 1930; Diaries, 19241932
, 252). She understood that their existence made the national minimum unattainable but also acknowledged, in 1927, that the remedies for unemployment proposed in the minority report had been inadequate. She sought some treatment of the unemployed which will be less eligible than wage labour without being blatantly inequitable to the men and their families who are out of work through no fault of their own and resented their semi-starvation, but she still considered the maintenance of the able-bodied in idleness ultra-dangerous to society (diary, 5 March 1927, 30 May 1928; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.1178, 146). When the collapse of world trade after 1929 intensified an unemployment problem already chronic in Britain, Beatrice anticipated a far deeper cleavage between the Haves
and the Have Nots
throughout the world than we have as yet experienced (Beatrice to Sidney, 9 Feb 1931; Letters
This situation accentuated the clear choice between capitalism and its alternative. Beatrice compared the position to that in the medieval period, when Christianity and Islam had competed for the soul of Europe. The contemporary choice was unappetizing: the USA offered a strident capitalism which had always repelled her, but the Soviet Union, enduring the five-year plan, offered grim austerity. Beyond this judgement, though, lay a growing interest in the soviet ethos of self-denial and a growing enthusiasm for the soviet transformation of society.
In the summer of 1930 Beatrice had been impressed by two studies of Russia written by American fellow travellers, M. G. Hindus's Humanity Uprooted
(1929) and W. H. Chamberlin's Soviet Russia: a Living Record and a History
(1930). They convinced her that the USSR exemplified the Mendelian view of sudden jumps in biological evolution as against the Spencerian vision of slow adjustment (diary, 22 June 1930; Diaries, 19241932
, 245). The significance of this challenge to assumptions to which she had subscribed since girlhood cannot be exaggerated. Spencer's model of social evolution lay at the root of the philosophy of the inevitability of gradualness. The rapid soviet transformation of one of the most dishonest and dishonourable of peoples (diary, 30 June 1931; Diaries, 19241932
, 274) into a nation prepared to endure indefinite austerity for the common good challenged Webbian gradualism. It did not turn the pair into revolutionariesrepelled by violence, they expected the soviet model to be adopted through willing emulation rather than by forcebut it demonstrated the scope for political leadership, moved by faith in the perfectibility of man, to change social mores. Soviet citizens had, Beatrice believed, been induced to spurn the medieval sin of covetousness … a sin which was turned into a virtue by the economists of the Industrial Revolution. It is greed
, pecuniary self-interest, which is the Soviet Devilthe source of all wickedness (diary, 30 June 1931; Diaries, 19241932
It was this collective altruism which engaged Beatrice, as the economic crisis occasioned further assaults upon the condition of the poor in Britain. The proposals of the 1931 May report for cuts in social expenditure showed the strength of the British rentier
, depriving the poor of necessities while the consumption of luxuries by the rich went unchecked. Meanwhile the Soviet Union propagated consumers' economics: production for a known demand (diary, 17 Jan 1932; Diaries, 19241932
, 299) of the sort that the Webbs had expected the co-operative movement to generalize in Britain. It was gratifying to learn from Shaw, who visited Russia in the summer of 1931, that the soviets had given up workers' control for the Webbs' conception of the threefold statecitizens', consumers' and producers' organisations (diary, 8 Aug 1931; Diaries, 19241932
, 278), but Beatrice was now more interested in the soul of soviet Russia than in its constitution.
Beatrice inferred that the strain imposed by soviet economic planningupon both the leaders required to devise it and the workers obliged to suffer its stringencywas sustainable only through the cultivation of a collective faith providing almost a religious motive and discipline. The Communist Party had accordingly become a secular priesthood, playing a guiding role lost to capitalist society but one which she had previously ascribed to the Arya Samaj in India. When in 1934 Arthur Henderson suggested, with some acuity, that the Webbs had foreshadowed the soviet constitution in the last chapter of Beatrice's book on the co-operative movement, she replied Ah! But we forgot the Communist Party … We discovered the body but left out the soul (diary, 22 Aug 1934; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.338). This moral direction was paramount.
Like many whose views had formed in the 1880s, Beatrice had spent much of her life seeking a social system ethically equipped to counter acquisitive individualism. She readily identified the communist creed with the positivist religion of humanity that had fascinated her since girlhood, though she remained disturbed by the fear that the quasi-religious enthusiasm of soviet communism carried the seeds of intellectual intolerance. Less of an enthusiast by nature, Sidney was slower to devote himself to communism. His immediate reaction to the events of 1931 was, given the scale of Labour's catastrophe, relatively optimistic; he believed the party to have been purified and made more definitely socialist in its policy. He appeared less defeatist than Beatrice at this point, and it is likely that his final conversion to soviet communism awaited his experience of the system in action. It is unlikely, though, that that conversion was painful: the man who in 1888 had praised the Roman republic, in which in every age the individual is ruthlessly sacrificed to the mass, and the whole generation to the common weal (BLPES, Passfield papers, 6/34), found nothing alien in Beatrice's stringent conception of soviet communism.
The Russian trips
In May 1932 the Webbs joined the queue of Western tourists inspecting soviet Russia. They toured the country together in 1932, and Sidney made a follow-up visit, accompanied by Beatrice's niece Barbara Drake, in 1934, gathering material for their last major work. It appeared as Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation?
in 1935, a second edition appearing, without the question mark in the title, two years later. They found, as Beatrice recorded in 1934, that the problem we have been seeking to solve for the last fifty yearspoverty in the midst of plentyis today being solved, and very much as we should have solved it, if we had had our way (diary, 7 Jan 1934; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.322). What they saw in soviet Russia was a multiform democracy, which recognized not only man's civic function but his function as a producer and as a consumer. They rejoiced that the Soviet Trade Union Movement is, in fact, first and foremost, not machinery for collective bargaining about hours and wages, but a huge social welfare organisation (text of article for The Listener
, 28 Sept 1932, BLPES, Passfield papers, 6/86). Soviet trade unions, not formed to fight anybody, and embracing managers as well as workers now that class distinctions had been abolished, worked to enhance productivity and welcomed labour-saving machinery. Better still, the co-operative movement was flourishing, with a magnificent new store in Leningrad offering 25,000 different commodities. Citizen, producer, consumerthe three aspects of Webbian man appeared undisguised in soviet Russia. The party proved more elusive. It proved extraordinarily difficult to get any descriptive detail of how this organisation actually works, as soviet officials were very cautious about giving information about the Communist Party (Beatrice to Harold Laski, 12 March 1935, Laski papers, 27.2, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam), though this information vacuum did nothing to still Beatrice's enthusiasm for the party as she conceived it.
The Webbs looked at the Soviet Union on two levels. First they saw it as a settled and successful system. During the trip of 1934 Barbara Drake noted Sidney observing the country with the relish of a scientist whose theoretical proposition has stood the test of practical experiment: See, see, it works, it works (The Webbs and Soviet communism, in M. Cole, ed., The Webbs and their Work
, 227). It worked, he believed, by abolishing involuntary unemployment: centralized planning had succeeded in smoothing the cycle of boom and slump as the Webbs had sought to do in the minority report. The Soviet Union has quite obviously grown richer in the very years in which most, if not all, other countries have grown poorer (Soviet Communism
, 651). Throughout their lives the Webbs had seen material comfort as the essential precondition of moral improvement. Now they were convinced that Stalin's government worked not merely to benefit the people whom it served but actually to transform them (ibid., 805), through the educative agency of the Communist Party.
This moral purpose was what made the Soviet Union a new civilization. Party members observed higher standards than the rest of the population, and were subjected to harsher penalties if they strayed. The Webbs clearly valued the participatory democracy of the soviets and considered it superior to Western parliamentarianism; the party was creating an earnest community, schooled in asceticism and social duty. They noted approvingly that the soviet newspaper contains no society news and no gossip (Soviet Communism
, 1028), while spooning in public is not done in the USSR (ibid., 1061). What they most valued in the soviet constitution of 1936 (which appears to have prompted the removal of the question mark from their second edition) was the provision in article 12 that all should be required to work. Thus resurfaced a theme running throughout their own writings, from Beatrice's early emphasis upon obligations over rights and Sidney's attacks upon rentiers
to the strictures of the minority report.
A month before their joint trip, in March 1932, the Webbs had finished the manuscript of their Methods of Social Study
, a manual for social researchers. There they recognized that bias was inescapable in humans observing human actions, but urged the investigator to choose methods of approaching the subject … that will, for the time being, throw [his] bias out of gear (Methods of Social Study
, 1932, 447). In their soviet studies, the Webbs' bias was stronger than in any of their previous academic work and the scholarly apparatus to curb that bias was, by their standards, unusually weak. They could not read Russian and did not, in their seventies, attempt to learn the language. They had no way of verifying official statistics and other soviet material likely to have been less reliable than the British official publications with which they were familiar. In Russia they found themselves honoured guests, on the grounds that Lenin himself had translated their trade union history, but their movements were still controlled by their hosts, and the country was too vast for septuagenarians to cover much ground in two months. These constraints left obvious marks on the book: the frequent borrowing of large chunks of text from fellow travellers' accounts of the USSR, for instance, and an occasional un-Webbian lack of evidential rigour.
The Webbs' visit in 1932 was made at a relatively placid moment in Stalinist history, before that year's disastrous harvest. The class warfare in the early years of the 1929 plan had waned, making Russia safer for the previously persecuted technocrats whom the Webbs so valued. Sidney's return came after the healthy harvest of 1933, so that neither Webb witnessed directly the catastrophic famine of 19323. This perhaps enabled them to accept and repeat official explanations for the causes of the famine. A deadening of the senses is evident in their blithe discussion of the treatment of local officials held culpable for the famine and in their response to the culling of the old Bolshevik élite in the show trials from 1936. The Webbs oscillated between accepting the official versionthat Kamenev and Zinoviev had indulged in a crazy conspiracy, that the military leadership had been intriguing with the Germans, and, in 1940, that Trotsky was murdered by one of his followersand deploying a more sophisticated argument that such blood-letting was the inevitable consequence of a protracted revolutionary struggle, comparable to Judge Jeffreys's bloody assizes in England in the 1680s. Had they known the scale of the terror, the Webbs could hardly so readily have depicted the Soviet Union as a successfully functioning society, or avoided a more searching appraisal of Stalinist power. As it was, the eventual disclosure of the regime's horrors damaged their posthumous reputation. Their defenders were forced to treat their soviet infatuation as a senile aberration, but it was never that. They saw what they wanted to see, no doubt, but the soviet Russia they saw was the closest approximation in practice to their exemplary socialist societythe Webbian design that they had sketched, with little deviation, over a period of fifty years.
The Webbs' enthusiasm for soviet communism relieved a gloomy old age. Sidney suffered a stroke in January 1938 which left him able to read but not write, condemned, as he saw it, to a do-nothing life (diary, 25 Jan 1939; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.427). The Nazi-soviet pact of August 1939 appeared incomprehensible, a great disaster to all that the Webbs have stood for (diary, 25 Aug 1939; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.4389). Beatrice longed for a German to bomb the aged Webbs out of existence (Beatrice to H. G. Wells, 7 July 1942; Letters
, 3.459), but the Nazis left Passfield Corner unscathed, and she clung to life for fear of leaving Sidney alone. They derived consolation, though, from the turning of the tide of war at Stalingrad, concluding that it validated the soviet system. Beatrice's inner turmoil subsided:
we have lived the life we liked and done the work we intended to do; and we have been proved to be right about Soviet Communism: a new civilisation. What more can we want than a peaceful and painless ending of personal consciousness? (diary, 25 March 1943; Diaries, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.495)
Beatrice, who had had a kidney removed in 1934, died of renal failure at Passfield Corner on 30 April 1943. Sidney survived for four more years, still reading voraciously, though his memory became increasingly sporadic (Viscount Samuel, Memoirs
, 1945, 293). He lived long enough to see, and to resent, the divergence between Britain and the USSR in the early cold war, dying of heart disease at Passfield Corner on 13 October 1947. He was, like Beatrice, cremated, and the ashes of both were buried initially at Passfield Corner until, at Shaw's suggestion, they were reinterred together, somewhat incongruously, in Westminster Abbey on 12 December 1947.
What moves me is a desire to get things done
. I want to diminish the sum of human suffering, Sidney wrote to H. G. Wells on 15 June 1907 (Letters
, 2.264). Establishing what the Webbs got done is straightforward. The foundation of the LSE, the relaunching of the Labour Party, the remodelling of London education, the invigoration of the Fabian Society, even the creation of the New Statesman
were substantial and durable achievements. Assessing how far the Webbs succeeded in their wider aim of diminishing human suffering is, however, more difficult. In the years after their deaths, when Fabian stock stood at its highest, they were hailed as the intellectual founders of the post-war welfare state: so much of the policy for home affairs which the Webbs worked out over fifty years is now accomplished fact, wrote Margaret Cole in 1956 (introduction, Diaries, 19241932
, xvii). Her husband, writing Sidney's obituary, claimed that in Great Britain, Webb's influence has been as pervasive as Bentham's, and as deep (G. D. H. Cole, 8). Millions are living fuller and freer lives today, Clement Attlee asserted at the re-interment ceremony, because of the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Muggeridge and Adam, 258).
The claim was plausible enough as Attlee's Britain took shape: the nationalization programme, the health service, and the welfare state could all be said to have Webbian roots. In detail, though, it requires qualification. The public corporations running the nationalized industries might have appeared superficially Webbian, and they certainly avoided worker control, but commanding heights nationalization fell far short of the conception of the socialized economy envisaged in clause 4 of the Labour Party's constitution of 1918. The Webbs' influence was apparent in the foundation of the National Health Service: indeed the official historian of the service states that the minority report was the effective blueprint for virtually all steps taken towards socialized medicine between the wars (C. Webster, The Health Services since the War
, 1, 1988, 1718). But the wider welfare state, based upon the Beveridge report of 1942 and its proposals for social insurance from cradle to grave, was not Webbian. The Webbs remained, from 1911, steadfast opponents of compulsory social insurance. Beatrice expected a Beveridgean welfare system merely to increase the number of unemployed while diminishing the nation's capacity to support them: hence it is destined to fail (diary, 6 Dec 1942; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.48990). The sad fact is that the better you treat the unemployed, the worse the unemployment will become, she wrote (Co-operative News
, 19 Dec 1942).
This was hardly the language of the welfare consensus, but by 1942 the Webbs had put the minority report far behind them, and rejected the concept of welfare capitalism. The Webbs' intellectual progress had led them to a faith in a soviet system whose other admirers were on the marginalized left of Attlee's Labour Party. Consequently they had few, if any, political heirs. They had once fêted Herbert Morrison as a direct disciple of the Sidney Webbs, but by 1940 he was dismissed as able and incisive but reactionary (diary, 14 March 1934, 29 Feb 1940; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 4.330, 448). Webbian technocrats of that sort were usually to be found on the Labour right and generally had little affection for the Soviet Union. Labour distanced itself from the USSR as cold war tensions worsened, and in the 1950s, punished electorally for its association with bureaucracy and post-war austerity, it removed the Webbs from its pantheon. Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism
, bible of the 1950s revisionists, brought an attack upon the priggish puritanism and administrative preoccupations of the Webbs: total abstinence and a filing system are not now the right signposts to the socialist utopia (A. Crosland, The Future of Socialism
, 1956, 523). The first battle for the modernization of Labour was fought in 1959 over the retention of clause 4. It was lost by the modernizers, but the clause survived for thirty-five more years as little more than a symbol.
The deepening of the cold war, the discovery of the murderous extent of Stalin's tyranny, and the eventual collapse of the soviet experiment served to discredit Russia's inter-war admirers, including the Webbs. There is rough justice in this: the Webbs' determination to believe in the eventual success of the Soviet Union left them vulnerable when the USSR failed to display either the efficiency or the social justice that they had predicted. Their infatuation with the Soviet Union was not simply a matter of backing the wrong horse, but reflected deeper methodological tensions. It was, of course, impossible for them to operate as they urged others to operate, as disinterested processors of observed facts. Like anybody, they needed a structure to their thought. Perhaps they needed one more than others, as the scale of their empirical research threatened to overwhelm them. In the event they avoided the sin of eclecticism by enclosing their material in a tight framework formed by their own impulses and insights.
The principal impulse was the search, from the 1880s on, for an alternative to what they considered the amorality and inefficiency of Victorian individualism. The guiding insight was the realization in their early works on co-operation and trade unionism that citizenship in a modern democracy should embrace man's role as consumer and producer as much as his role as votera genuine insight at a time when much of Britain was struggling even to comprehend the implications of franchise extension. In constructing a model reflecting the three facets of citizenship, the Webbs created a structure which was coherent and thus defensible, but over time it also became a mental prison, a habit of thought from which it became ever harder to escape, even as British society moved in other directions. Rather than adapt their prescriptions, the Webbs became over-receptive to an emergent society elsewhere which could plausibly be taken to exemplify their multiform democracy, which effected a scientific approach to government, which implemented a national minimum, and which claimed to be animated by the spirit of self-sacrifice for the community.
However dogmatic the Webbs became in their own work, they never lost their intellectual curiosity. This ensured that, whatever tension there might have been between observation and prescription, their commitment to investigation for its own sake remained wholehearted. Part of the Webbs' achievement lay not only in establishing agencies for social investigation but also in letting them follow their own independent course: the Fabian research department, the New Statesman
, and the London School of Economics all drifted from their Webbian moorings during the Webbs' lifetimes. Indeed, the LSE's first two directors, chosen by the Webbs, were both tories. Many of its luminariesBeveridge, Tawney, Laski, W. A. Robsonmight be seen as the Webbs' intellectual protégés, but they could hardly be described as their acolytes. The Webbs enjoyed gathering clever men from the universities around them (Muggeridge and Adam, 203), but they made no attempt to establish a Webbian school. The Millite Sidney remained committed to Mill's central doctrine of the free play of ideas: he could listen as well as talk, Douglas Cole recalled, and pursue your thought as well as his own (G. D. H. Cole, 3). Beatrice was a good deal more dogmatic (ibid.), but she was no less committed to intellectual debate: her one recurrent concern about the soviet system was that its quasi-religious enthusiasm would bring the suppression of free thought, without which sciencethat supreme manifestation of the curiosity of manwould wither and decay (diary, 4 Jan 1932; Diaries, 19241932
In that respect the Webbs may best be seen as the originators of an ethos of social research that has proved more pervasive than most of their doctrines. Beatrice maintained in the 1890s, the collectivists alone have the faith to grind out a Science of Politics (diary, 18 Jan 1897; Diaries
, ed. Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 2.106), but a century later the Conservative minister Sir Keith Josephno Fabianinvoked the Webbs as the influence behind his establishment of the Centre for Policy Studies in the 1970s (private information). The practice of empirical investigation has become central to British political science and sociology in the twentieth century. It is arguably the Webbs' most enduring legacy.