Beatrice and Sidney Webb
Beatrice and Sidney Webb; drawing by David Levine

Anyone who writes about Beatrice Webb is faced with a difficulty. On the one hand there is the tireless social investigator and reformer; the pioneer Fabian socialist; the woman who at the time of the women’s rights movement was herself the unanswerable evidence that her sex was a match in ability, hard work, and political dexterity for any man. She has been hailed as a spiritual descendant of the noble meliorism of John Stuart Mill and George Eliot. On the other hand, there is the tyrannical, overbearing, drill sergeant, inspired by a sweeping sense of her own rectitude and superiority, determined to improve by compulsion the morals as well as the condition of the working classes, contemptuous of inferiors, insufferable to her equals, convinced that everyone else’s motives were corrupt while hers were lily-pure, willing to stoop to intrigue and even chicanery to achieve her ends, and finally, in old age, scornful of democracy and blinded by an absurd reliance upon Soviet statistics, maintaining that Stalinist Russia was the only state of the future.

What did she achieve? Did she convert to collectivism the puzzled rulers of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and did she save the Labour Party from syndicalism by giving it a backbone of bureaucratic pragmatism and a cadre of young intellectuals who would keep the wild trade unionists in their place? Or was she the dupe of the cynical Edwardian politicians who used just as much of her expertise as was necessary to save their capitalist skins, and has her influence upon the Labour Party and the creation of the welfare state been overestimated?

Historians have on the whole preferred to treat her as undoubtedly she would have wished to be treated: not as an individual but as part of a bicephalic creature called the Webbs. It is therefore a relief to read a biography which does not attempt to be a piece of social and political history in disguise, but shows from the copious evidence in her diaries and papers how the Fabian and the woman were one. Kitty Muggeridge is well qualified to do so. For not only is she the wife of Britain’s leading nihilist, and therefore unlikely to write hagiography, but she is also Beatrice Webb’s niece. Her mother was the youngest of the Potter sisters and in every way was the opposite of her famous sister: improvident, bohemian, content to support on her unearned income a pleasure-loving husband, true to the family tradition only in being outspoken. Rose Potter is given the role of a Greek chorus who appears from the wings to make a wayward telling comment at any time when her Aunt Bo appears to be getting away with it. That she is not going to get away with it is clear from the Introduction where Kitty Muggeridge recollects the first time she met her aunt and uncle:

…and presently there sailed into view, pedalling vigorously, a small beetle-like figure crouched over the handlebars of a bicycle made for two, and perched majestically behind him, what appeared to be a large grey bird. “Ah, there you are!” shouted my mother, and my aunt shouted back, “Ah, Rosy, here we are!” There was something brave and nautical in their call, like sailors calling to each other in a high wind. My aunt…embraced us all unaffectionately, with a politician’s kiss; a greeting with rather less in it than met the eye.

And yet both authors in fact do Beatrice Webb full justice when they describe her youth. The struggle to release herself from the contradictions in her character racked her. She was intensely religious and could not believe; she was seduced by the gossip and the competition of Society and yet she despised it; she sought Truth with Herbert Spencer and was an inveterate fibber; she yearned for love but preferred power. How, moreover, was she to break the conventions and make her mark in the masculine Victorian world? Her situation had been foretold by George Eliot in her introduction to Middlemarch when she lamented that a woman with the character of St. Theresa could find no outlet in Victorian life and so often became “foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering upon some long-recognizable deed.”

But if Herbert Spencer looked like Casaubon, she did not find her Ladislaw in the man whom she fell for at the age of twenty-five. Joseph Chamberlain was in a sense her mirror image: he was handsome, ruthless, and a radical. What was more, he held Casaubon’s views on marriage: he would submit to no one, least of all to a woman. Beatrice welcomed submission—but from men. The authors accept the story, which Beatrice put about, that he proposed and she refused him, but Shirley Letwin’s researches when writing Pursuit of Certainty suggest that Chamberlain never did propose, and, understanding both the extent of her infatuation and her lust for power, honorably kept his distance.


Nevertheless Beatrice may have got more from Chamberlain than she would ever have been prepared to admit because, while Beatrice was still an individualist and working in the East End with the Charity Organisation Society, he was a collectivist—the first she had known with the exception of Frederic Harrison and the Comtists. For fifteen years she sought for a cause that would exalt her, for an explanation of the bewildering phenomenon of poverty, for a man whom she could admire and love. Improbably she found them in the Fabians and Sidney Webb. Webb, she noted, dropped his aitches, snored, looked like a tadpole, was conceited; and to marry him was to declass herself. But having told him all his failings, she conquered her hesitations; what mattered was the work they could do together. For his part he had no doubts: Webb was singularly susceptible to female beauty. Oddly enough she might have had Shaw for the asking, but she regarded him as “a cold philanderer.”

Marriage, as she used often to say, was the waste-paper basket of the emotions. In the early days, however, Shaw described how the Webbs would work together for hours, when Beatrice would “hurl herself on her husband in a shower of caresses which lasted until the passion for work resumed its sway; then they wrote and read authorities for their footnotes until it was time for another refresher.” She detested sexual adventures; indeed sex itself was sanctified only if it was the product of intellectual companionship. This was, of course, the cause of her great row with Wells when he got the girl whom he personified in Ann Veronica pregnant, though Ann Veronica herself was not a whit dismayed. One of the most frequent phrases of disapproval in her diaries was to describe someone as an unclean beast. “I prefer,” she later wrote, “the hard hygienic view of sex and the conscious subordination of sexuality to the ‘building up Socialism’ characteristic of Soviet Russia.” She was equally determined to put a curb and snaffle upon the emotions in politics. To the old working-class leader, Keir Hardie, socialism was not economics. “It is life for dying people.” To Beatrice Webb socialism meant something very different. She did not want to rescue people, she wanted to save and change them. The Fabian and the woman were one.

The determination to compel people to be good is a venerable tenet in socialist and collectivist thought. It is at the heart of Rousseau’s concept of the General Will, it runs riot in Fourier and St. Simon, and it appears thinly disguised in the apocalyptic passages in Marx. Indeed the last 150 years of political thought consist of numerous attempts to reconcile (unsuccessfully) the notion of individual freedom with the notion of using the state, or other social organizations, to compel individuals to do certain actions and refrain from others, in the interests of the common good. Our horror of the degrading ways in which totalitarian regimes have compelled their citizens to be “good,” and our disgust at the dialectical equivocations used to justify this compulsion, have made this particular tenet of socialism suspect. Not only was Beatrice Webb the individual a busybody and a thumping prig. Beatrice Webb, the omniscient do-gooder in Fabian politics, wished to redesign the State in her own image. Although her onetime allies, the Charity Organisation Society, became her opponents over the reform of the Poor Law, she was as keen as they on coercing the poor to lead more responsible lives. They differed only in the method of coercion—the old Victorian philanthropists believed that the inexorable economic laws of the market would compel men and women to be thrifty, diligent, and sober, while Beatrice Webb, disbelieving in the efficiency of these laws, wanted the State to undertake the task.

It was this commitment that led to her humiliation over the reform of the Poor Law. Everything at first seemed to be going her way. As a member of the Royal Commission she was consulted by politicians of both parties, counted Haldane her ally and Balfour her friend, outmaneuvered her colleagues by her superior techniques of investigation, and reveled in her power. At one point she was almost caught fudging evidence; a nervous breakdown saved her from exposure, and she recovered her nerve. When her Minority Report was published, she turned it into a best-seller. Then one evening Haldane scoffed at her habit of prayer; Asquith and Churchill began to avoid her; and the political world began to cut her. The word had gone round that the Webbs were to be dished.


Lloyd George and Churchill, in so far as they were capable of following her argument, cottoned on to the fact that she had shown that the problem of poverty had to be treated in a new way. But as Liberals they were determined to reject her authoritarianism. They opted for social insurance to which both employer and employee contributed, but they refused to make the payment to the insured conditional on good behavior. To Beatrice this was to betray the cause of redemption. She did not merely advocate medical insurance, she would have allocated patients to doctors and compelled them to follow whatever treatment was prescribed. She did not merely accept “the boy Beveridge’s idea of Labour Exchanges” (after Sidney had explained to her that it was really their own idea), she was as determined as a Tudor Justice of the Peace that the sturdy beggar was to be whipped from town to town and forced to work. Her kind of socialism despised Keir Hardie’s sentimental attitude to the poor; and it was no wonder that another Liberal Minister, C. F. G. Masterman, “prayed that above all things he might never fall into her hands as an unemployed.” The bum, the lush, the deviant had no place in her world. They had a place in the world of Masterman and Churchill.

And yet it would be grotesque to judge Beatrice Webb’s contribution to British socialism solely on these grounds. It is only in the world of the Beatles that love solves all social problems. Turgenev, who understood so well the different types who make up the Left, wrote of one of his characters, “Marianna belonged to a special class of unhappy persons…. Justice satisfies them but does not rejoice them, while injustice which they are terribly keen in detecting revolts them to the very depths of their being.” Hatred of the outworn social conventions and structure that institutionalize injustice, contempt for the inefficiency of capitalist society, rage at its bland refusal to take drastic action to abolish gross poverty, conviction that economic and political rearrangements will transform this injustice and inefficiency, are driving forces which may not make socialists very agreeable people for literary critics to study, but are essential if any shape is to be given to social change. Beatrice Webb holds a special place in the history of British socialism. She was unfettered by ideology, indeed unsympathetic to numbers of contemporary progressive causes, such as women’s suffrage, free trade, anti-imperialism; but she was devoted to the principle of social investigation—in other words of bringing the mind to bear upon social problems and in doing so using all available techniques such as statistical analysis or evaluation of evidence.

This was what she did on the Poor Law Commission and it will not do to denigrate that achievement. She transformed the then accepted notions of “the poor” and the procedures for dealing with their condition. By so doing she materially changed the quality of British culture. She persuaded even her opponents that the poor were not an amorphous mass, not even a separate class, but groups of people; some sick, some widowed, some too old or too handicapped to work, all suffering from identifiable but different types of calamity. Each group posited its own peculiar problem and demanded its own separate remedy or palliative. This was a landmark in social administration. The landmarks in the history of the social sciences, such as the division of labor or effective demand, or Durkheim’s analysis of suicide, present themselves at the time as daring paradoxes; in the same way, when orthodox social administrators were still arguing that medical relief should be restricted to the completely destitute, Beatrice Webb in a flash, without consciously remembering Erewhon, discerned that illness should be treated as a public nuisance “to be suppressed in the interests of the community.”

This has been cited as evidence that she cared little for the individual sick and put the interests of that abstraction, the community, before theirs. But social administrators are forced by the nature of their subject to abstract human beings into categories, and Beatrice Webb understood that destitution and illness were two sides of the same coin: not something which needed to be relieved but a condition whose causes may lie in social relationships and can therefore be treated by altering those relationships. Of course the Webbs were not the sole architects of the welfare state nor the dominant intellectual force within the Labour Party. It is arguable that between the two wars Tawney was more influential than they. Certainly their plans for a socialist commonwealth and the reform of Parliament were politically naïve. But none of this alters the fact that theirs was the Fabian tradition of patiently investigating social problems and through their analysis putting forward specific proposals for political action. This tradition molded Labour policies and still does so today. Beatrice Webb is criticized for failing to understand that socialism had a soul, and trade unionists hearts, but perhaps it was as well that at the beginning of the century she was at hand to urge that compassion for the poor was useless unless social investigation was carried out to reveal how their lot could be improved.

The Webbs deserve to be remembered not as moralists or politicians but as pioneers in social administration. They perceived how important it was to any modern reformist movement. When a dotty philanthropist left a sum of money to promote Fabianism, Shaw wanted to use it to establish a Fabian trade-unionist party in Parliament. The Webbs, however, founded the London School of Economics. How far the School has lived up to their expectations is a nice matter. With an imperialist as its first Director, it became the citadel of right-wing laissez-faire economics and of left-wing social investigation. Both these disciplines, and other newer social sciences, were out-numbered by the historians, philosophers, political theorists, and other scholars in the traditional humanities. If it fell short of their hopes during their lifetime, it was the only major center in Britain until the 1950s for social studies. The Webbs bequeathed their home to the LSE as a rest place for tired sociologists; but such is the resilience of the staff that none has ever been known to go there.

This excellent book is without pretensions. It does not claim to be erudite. The Index is inadequate and the bibliography mentions hardly one of the legion of monographs on the role of the Fabian movement in the rise of the Labour Party and of the influence of the Webbs on Fabian thought and socialist practice. The sheer volume of the Webbs publications, their pioneer work on trade unionism and local government and their innovations in the technique of social investigation flicker into view but remain shadows. But the sureness of touch, the irony and the humor are beyond praise. By treating their subject as comedy (not as farce) the authors achieve their object—which was to reconcile the two sides of Beatrice Webb’s character—far more subtly than a moralist could have done. They convey a world of experience which more sober historians have not explored—the world of the Shavian progressives with their frugal vegetarianism, their marathon walks, their prolonged talks, their successive causes, their vigorous and narrow enthusiasms tinged by the religion of humanity. Beatrice was a fervent believer in prayer, which she thought “reveals to man the ends he should pursue if he desires to harmonise his own purpose with that of the universe.” To whom or what she prayed was obscure. When G. M. Trevelyan married the daughter of Mrs. Humphry Ward, both dedicated agnostics, they thought the union should be hallowed by some sort of service, and in order that there should be no compromise with truth, the prayers, so it is said, all began: “O, Thou, if Thou dost exist….” Beatrice Webb believed in the large and imprecise notion that there was a spirit of love at work in the universe; and it was this effusive religiosity, no doubt, which persuaded the Establishment to grant her and Sidney an apotheosis.

Fitly enough the apotheosis was proposed by Shaw. Soon after the war Shaw urged in public that their ashes, which lay buried in the garden of their house, should be moved to Westminster Abbey. In the presence of the Labour Cabinet and scores of Fabian MPs the two caskets were interred near the bust of Joseph Chamberlain. As they disappeared from view, Beatrice’s youngest sister in a clear upper-class voice said: “Which is Sidney and which is Beatrice?”—and then as an after-thought: “They should have left them where they were.” Should they? To Malcolm Muggeridge, whom the authors quote, Beatrice Webb’s progress to the adulation of Stalinism was inevitable. Where else could her secular mysticism lead other than to the worship of power? What other form could her benevolence take than that of contempt and arrogance toward those she wished to help? To Shaw, on the other hand, she was a “world-betterer” and fit to lie beside kings, captains, and poets. The authors leave the reader to decide for himself; but until the West becomes converted to the ideal that contemplation and self-abnegation are the sole good in life, and that sweet maids should be good rather than clever, there can scarcely be any doubt.

This Issue

November 21, 1968