v. 2 Dec 2016 20:30     [ Main Site ]

From C. N. Parkinson's 'Left Luggage' Chapter 4, Tangled Webb:

Sidney and Beatrice Webb         ... {60} Beatrice Potter (1858-1943) was the daughter of a financier of Yorkshire and Puritan origin whose very intellectual wife died in 1882. Beatrice (aged 24) had moved in Gloucestershire and London society until then and now became a hostess in her own right. Tiring quickly of this existence, she began to visit the East End slums. Other ladies then did the same, but Beatrice Potter graduated from London to Lancashire, visiting the industrial region from which her mother's family had come. Among her Bacup relatives she learnt of the Co-operative Movement and its close association with methodism. She thought it offered an ideal training for local government—itself a useful defence, she thought, against the 'socialistic tendency of the coming democracy'. By 1884 she had decided to devote her life to sociological research. While Octavia Hill and Canon Barnett were labouring for the good of the poor, Beatrice (who knew these philanthropists well) preferred, like Charles Booth, to collect the facts upon which future policy should be based. She was sufficiently well known to give evidence in 1888 before the House of Lords Select Committee on Sweating. Moving among people who were concerned over social evils, she inevitably met members of the Fabian Society. According to George Bernard Shaw, she considered a number of these as possible husbands, inviting them in turn for weekends at her home near Gloucester. Her choice fell on Sidney Webb (1859-1947), a civil servant in the Colonial Office, and they became engaged in 1891. The marriage took place the following year, when her father's death left her with an independent income of £1,000 a year. Sidney Webb resigned from the Colonial Office, and they went to live at 41, Grosvenor Road. With F. W. Galton as his private secretary, Sidney began to campaign for election to the L.C.C.; a preliminary, it seemed, to his candidature for Parliament. He was already a known socialist, a man of lower-middle-class origin who had risen by competitive examination. Summing up the situation after their engagement, Beatrice wrote:
We are both of us second-rate minds, but we are curiously combined. I am the investigator and he the executant; between us {61} we have a wide and varied experience of men and affairs. We have also an unearned salary. These are unique circumstances. A considerable work should result if we use our combined talents with consistent purpose. {Mary Agnes Hamilton, Sidney and Beatrice Webb: a study in contemporary biography, London, 1933.}

They were childless, their first offspring being The Co-operative Movement of Great Britain by Beatrice Potter (1st ed. 1893) and its logical sequel The History of Trade Unionism by Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1894). It was the latter work which made them famous.
        In observing that 'the firm of Webb' was unique in its assets, Beatrice was not overstating the case. Descended from nonconformists and liberals, it was her nonconformist conscience which drove her to the Lancashire factories and London slums. Unique already in knowing both (in contrast with Karl Marx who knew neither), she made herself the accepted authority on the Co-operative Movement. She then married a Fabian Civil Servant and candidate for the L.C.C. who helped her to become, with him, the accepted authority on the trade unions. In an exceptional way the Webbs thus united in themselves the elements which were to make the British Labour Party. [Note: Parkinson does not mention Jews as a separate interest group, though some of his remarks, for example in East and West, show he had some awareness. I'm tempted to compare the 'Labour Party' with the NAACP in the USA, a manipulative concern with undisclosed aims-RW] More than that, they were aware of their opportunity in being uniquely acceptable to the housewives as consumers, the workmen as producers, the Civil Service as experts and the intellectuals as fellow theorists. His skill on committee was backed by her position in society, her aggressiveness tempered by his modesty. It was no accident that when he finally entered Parliament he was the only intellectual to represent a mining constituency. When they studied the intersecting circles which bounded the groups they could regard as progressive, they saw themselves as uniquely included in all of them. They covered between them the whole movement from the Co-operatives to the T.U.C., from local government to the Civil Service, from Toynbee Hall to the Methodist chapel, from Bernard Shaw to H. G. Wells. To crown the whole they had only to add (as they {62} chose to do) the London School of Economics and the New Statesman.
        The London School of Economics dedicated to 'sociological investigation' was founded in 1895, occupying two small hired rooms in John Street, Adelphi. Its move from there to 10 Adelphi Terrace was financed by Mrs Bernard Shaw. When the University of London was reorganized by Haldane and Sidney Webb in 1899-1900, the London School of Economics was made one of its constituent Colleges, with Webb himself as Professor (unpaid) of Public Administration. The objects of this institution were excellent, but its critics felt that the sociological evidence collected there was to prove the case for a socialism which was not so much defended as assumed. Future graduates and members of its teaching staff were to include Graham Wallas, L. T. Hobhouse, Sir William Beveridge, Clement Attlee, Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton, R. H. Tawney, Kingsley Martin and Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders. The New Statesman came much later in the Webbs' career, in 1913, and was originally financed by them, by Ernest (afterwards Lord) Simon, Edward Whitley, H. D. Harben and by George Bernard Shaw. It had, initially, a circulation of 2,500, which rose afterwards to 14,830 in 1931 and which stands now [1967ish] at about 90,000. The name chosen for this weekly was intended to emphasize the solid respectability of socialism. Clifford Sharp was the first editor, Desmond MacCarthy the dramatic critic and Shaw an expected contributor who seldom, in fact, contributed. The actual quality of its contents has fluctuated considerably, its tone being too often tiresome and querulous. It forms, nevertheless, part of the 'considerable work' which was to result, and did result, from the Webbs' partnership. The Labour Party as we know it is largely the work of their hands.
        It is important to realize, nevertheless, that their achievement was partly accidental. Believing as they did in socialist planning, they would have been content to see this introduced by the Liberals; or even, for that matter, by the Conservatives. Well known from 1895, the Webbs made a reputation for {63} themselves as wire-pullers, with Haldane as 'a steadfast fellow-conspirator for the public good'. Close association with R. B. Haldane over the University of London Bill brought Sidney much into Liberal Opposition circles. But when the Liberals split over the Boer War, Sidney's friendship with Haldane brought him into the Imperialist camp as represented by Asquith and Grey; thus gaining the hostility of Harcourt, Morley and Lloyd George. Worse still was his association from 1900 with Rosebery and Balfour; with the right-wing Liberals and indeed with the Conservatives. The main result was to gain the distrust of the Radicals, like J. Ramsay MacDonald, who began to undermine Sidney's position on the L.C.C. Wrote Beatrice in her diary for 14 March 1903:

I have been pondering over the question whether I could have done anything to stop the 'slump in Webbs' on the Progressive side. Of course, our attention has been absorbed in getting hold of forces in the enemy's camp, and our frequent coming and going has excited suspicion in our own. They have not the wit to see that, if a Government is in power with an overwhelming majority, it is no use fighting it—at least not unless the other way has proved unavailing. {Diary extracts from Our Partnership, London, 1948}

What these suspicions might be is fairly indicated by further extracts from the same ingenuous source:

Went into dinner with Winston Churchill...
        Our season ended with a brilliant little dinner here to meet Mr Balfour. ... I placed Charles Booth next to him—I doubt from his manner whether he knew who Charles Booth was—wondered perhaps that a Salvationist should be so agreeably unsettled in his opinions! Bright talk with paradoxes and subtleties, sentiments and allusions, with the personal note emphasised, is what Mr Balfour likes—and what I tried to give him!

Whether she succeeded must be a matter for surmise. But the Prime Minister had not the slightest interest—as she soon discovered—in the economic and social problems by which she was obsessed. All that her party-giving achieved was a suspicion about her motives. Aware of this distrust, she {64} asked H. G. Wells to account for it. He explained fairly bluntly that Sidney's tactical skill was too obviously 'foxy' and that Beatrice herself was insufficiently radical. She thereupon decided against trying 'to run the show' for at least some years. The sequel is best told in her own words:

June 10 [1905].—The Progressives have turned Sidney off the party committee.5 We have slipped into a sort of friendliness with Balfour.
        He comes in to dinner whenever we ask him.
        November 23rd.—Appointed to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law.... Yesterday evening we dined with Lord Lucas. ... Mr Balfour was announced.. .. He was looking excited and fagged on the eve of resignation.
        November 29th.—Yesterday A.J.B. lunched with us, and went afterwards to G.B.S.'s new play Major Barbara. The vanishing Prime Minister was looking particularly calm and happy ... seemed like one with a load lifted off his mind.

It is not the resigning Prime Minister with whom the rising politician likes to be seen. When Campbell Bannerman took office on December 5th his Cabinet included more talent than any formed since that date. With Grey and Asquith, Haldane and Morley, Lloyd George and Sydney Buxton—with Winston Churchill and Herbert Samuel among the Under-Secretaries—the government was one of extraordinary distinction. The Local Government Board was headed, however, by John Burns and not by Sidney Webb. In the Liberals' landslide victory, moreover, of January 1906, the 377 seats they gained included none for Sidney. Beatrice could busy herself with her Poor Law Minority Report in 1906-9, but the Webbs had lost touch by then with both Liberals and Conservatives. They had turned to the Labour movement, not solely from choice but as the result of failure in another direction. The whole history of British socialism would have been different had Sidney Webb been given office in 1905. He and Beatrice were forced, as it were, into the role for which they were so uniquely fitted. {65}
        The exclusion of Sidney Webb must have seemed a minor decision at the time. The major problem was to decide how far to the left the government should go. The trade unions, as we have seen (p.3i), had gone into politics in 1900. Meeting in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London, on 27 February, their representatives had agreed to set up a Labour group in the House of Commons as distinct from the Liberals. Fifteen of their candidates stood, but Keir Hardie, at Merthyr Tydfil, was the only Labour member returned. There was better success in the election of 1906 but largely through a Lib-Lab alliance, and John Burns' acceptance of office seemed to give sanction to an arrangement by which Labour should pass, for the time being, as Liberal. This relationship was, in fact, precarious. The Liberal leaders had, therefore, two alternatives. They could stand by their principles and let the trade unions go their own way, or else they could adopt such Labour measures as would gain them trade union support. They tried, inevitably, to compromise, some inclining one way and some the other. They were uneasily aware that their original programme, the work of Jeremy Bentham, had been carried out. Their impetus had gone and with it the magic which once surrounded 'Peace, Retrenchment and Reform'. To stand against the socialists would be to lose what looked like a tidal wave of potential support. To adopt socialist policies would be ultimate suicide. The two alternatives were presented, respectively, by Asquith and Lloyd George. In October 1906, the latter told a Welsh audience that the Labour Party could sweep Liberalism away if the government failed to 'remove the national degradation of slums and widespread poverty', check 'the waste of our national resources in armaments' and 'tackle the landlords and the brewers and the peers, as they have faced the parsons'. A year later Asquith tried to explain at what point Liberals must make their stand against socialism. This is the point when liberty in its positive sense is threatened, as it must be, by a socialist reconstruction of society. Even he concluded, however, that 'the real danger lies in leaving evils unredressed and problems unsolved on the {66} ground that, except by revolutionary expedients, it is beyond the competence of statesmen to deal with them'. The drift towards socialism had thus fairly begun. {S. Maccoby, English Radicalism. The End. London, 1961, p. 42.}
        The turning point, Fred Jowett used to say, was a by-election in the Liberal stronghold of Huddersfield towards the end of 1906, when reports reached London that Mr Russell Williams, the I.L.P. candidate, was likely to win. This was the 'writing on the wall'. Mr Winston Churchill, then embarking on his Left Liberal phase, was sent post-haste to the constituency to announce the Government's intention to introduce Old Age Pensions. The Labour Party had won an important demand, but the Liberals won the election by the margin of 340 votes and regained the initiative. From this point onwards Mr Lloyd George dominated Liberal policy, cleverly manoeuvring Labour into a junior partnership in a half-hearted struggle against the House of Lords. {Fenner Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years. The Life of Jowett of Bradford (1864-1944). London, 1946, p. 78.}
        While the Liberals were thus dragged, struggling, towards socialism, the Labour Party pulled further away from all that is liberal. In this move the leadership came not from the Webbs but from their close friend, Mr George Bernard Shaw. 'I am not a big man,' complained Sidney Webb at one moment of crisis, and the same thought occurred to him as early as 1894 when he admitted as much before the Fabian Society. 'Though we cannot count among our ranks any men of the calibre of Bentham and James Mill... I take it that the work set before us is analogous to theirs.' So indeed it was, but one may question whether the Fabian Society was as weak as he seems to imply. For if Webb was no genius, George Bernard Shaw certainly was. At least on the literary side the Fabians could boast of a giant. He had more influence over them, moreover, than they were always ready to admit. And whereas Webb would have taken office under the Liberals—had he been given the chance—Shaw was more ruthless in every way. An intellectual with little use for the proletariat, {67} Shaw's approach was to the middle class; and it was Liberalism that stood in his way. Granted, moreover, that he was influenced by Webb, it is no less certain that Webb was influenced by him. That Webb was out of favour by 1905 was partly his own fault but partly the result of Shaw's persuasion. The process began with the publication, in November 1893, of the Fabian Society Manifesto. Under the title 'To your Tents, O Israel!' it appeared in the Fortnightly Review, signed jointly by Webb and Shaw, and was reprinted afterwards (1894) as a pamphlet entitled A Plan of Campaign for Labour. In it the joint author s attacked the right wing of the Liberal Party, alleging that its more enlightened members (Asquith, Acland, Rosebery, Ripon and Bryce) had been constantly opposed by the die-hards (Harcourt, Fowler and others) as also by 'the doctrinaire "Manchesterism" and pettish temper of Mr John Morley ... by the ignorance, indifference and inertia of the Whig peers, Lords Spencer and Kimberley, backed by such obsolescent politicians as Mr Shaw-Lefevre and Mr Arnold Morley.' The workers were urged, therefore, to form 'a Trade Union political Party of their own' with at least fifty candidates for Parliament. This they did soon afterwards, as we have seen, with results ultimately fatal to Liberalism.
        It was the great tradition of the Fortnightly, founded by Anthony Trollope, that every contribution had to be signed, the editor accepting no responsibility for the contributor's views. In this instance there was a joint signature but all internal evidence points to Shaw as the actual author. The composition is characteristic, more especially where the literary style is allowed to influence the invective. The words chosen—'ignorance, indifference and inertia'—were in the tradition of Jonathan Swift; an author to whom high office was always denied. Corning well enough from Shaw, who had no political ambitions, they were fatal to Sidney Webb. Were he to take office under the Liberals—and as late as 1904 he could see no other possibility—these pettish and obsolescent men would be his colleagues. They not unreasonably decided to do without him; a decision which was to have {68} a significant sequel. But if Shaw was responsible for driving Webb into the Labour Party, he was equally responsible for steering the Fabian Society away from Marxism. Were we to adopt the Marxist terminology (which heaven forbid) we might conclude that Liberalism, the thesis, clashed with Marxism, the antithesis; their mutual destruction producing Socialism, the synthesis. It was Shaw who steered the Labour Party on its central course, avoiding the rocks on either hand. The aims of Liberalism had been mostly achieved by 1895, and Jeremy Bentham had no further message, silent as he was in his glass case at University College, London. Karl Marx had a new gospel to preach, one which involved a workers' rising against the middle class. In Lenin's hands this became a potent influence in the more backward countries, where peasants still formed the bulk of the population. It was wildly inapplicable to an industrialized country in which peasants and artisans would soon be hopelessly outnumbered by the bourgeoisie they were supposed to massacre. And while Shaw had a rather excessive veneration for Karl Marx, he had no poor opinion of himself. The doctrine he preached was essentially his own, therefore, and addressed to the middle class of which he was a member. Unfortunately for his legend, it was also addressed to a country in which Shaw chose to remain (like Marx) a foreigner; to people with whom he was never quite identified.
        Shaw's platform was the Fabian Society, a group of left-wing intellectuals who came together in 1884. Elected to membership soon afterwards, Shaw joined the Executive Committee in January 1885. The Society's views were first announced in Fabian Essays in Socialism, published privately in 1889, the frontispiece by Walter Crane and the cover by May Morris. When 2,000 copies had been sold, it went into a shilling edition of 25,000 copies, with an American edition in 1894 and a sixpenny edition in 1908. It had, altogether, a considerable influence. These Essays marked the rejection of Marxism and the acceptance of a socialism which would be built upon existing institutions, existing society and the existing school of economic theory. Socialism is little more {69} than the application of democratic principles to an industrial society. 'Socialism,' wrote Sidney Webb), 'is the economic side of the democratic ideal', and its aim can be achieved only by democratic means. And while Shaw advocated the formation of a Labour Party he never disdained the tactics of permeation. The Liberal Party was under socialist pressure from 1888, with social reform among its professed objects. The Conservatives' resistance was as feeble. And although it was 1923 before Webb announced the 'inevitability of gradualness', the infiltration was well advanced before he dared call attention to it. In the long run it was mainly the Conservatives who introduced socialism into Britain.
        The socialism in which Shaw believed was implicit in most of his plays but is more explicit in Major Barbara (1905); the play in which he singles out poverty as the chief evil of the day.

... The universal regard for money is the one sound spot in our social conscience. Money is the most important thing in the world. It represents health, strength, honour, generosity and beauty as conspicuously and undeniably as the want of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness and ugliness. {From the Preface of Major Barbara}        

Brusquely discarding the Christian or charitable view of the subject, Shaw thought of the poor (and indeed the whole working class) as a public nuisance to be abolished. Whereas sentimentalists bewailed the fact that the poor were unhappy, Shaw thought they might well be as happy as drunkards or pigs. Making no secret of his dislike he explained that they were a source of infection and dirt and that 'mere poverty will not hurt them half as much as it will hurt their innocent neighbours'. The only remedy, he explained, is to pay every-one the same wage; not because that plan would be particularly fair but because the alternatives are impracticable, anarchical, impossible or absurd. He summed up his views on this subject in 1928, no better summary being published before or since. {cf. The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, London, 1928, pp. 19, 43, 95.} {70} He explained at the same time that Hyndman and Morris had failed in their efforts to convert the working class—of which, for one thing, they knew too little.

... The Fabian Society succeeded because it addressed itself to its own class in order that it might set about doing the necessary brain work of planning Socialist organization for all classes, meanwhile accepting, instead of trying to supersede, the existing political organization which it intended to permeate with the Socialist conception of human society.
        The existing form of working-class organization was Trade Unionism. Trade Unionism is not Socialism; it is the Capitalism of the Proletariat.{Ibid.}

Shaw's influence was considerable but mostly negative. He killed Marxism so far as Britain was concerned. He killed Liberalism as an intellectual force. He killed middle-class humanitarianism as applied to the poor. What was left after the massacre was the Labour Party as inspired by Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
        Thrown aside by the Liberals, the Webbs had joined the Labour Party. Their moment of vision may have come in March, 1911, when Beatrice wrote as follows:

I am not sure that the time may not have arrived for a genuine Socialist Party with a completely worked-out philosophy and a very detailed programme.
I am not sure whether we had better not throw ourselves into constructing a party with a religion and an applied science. {Our Partnership. London, 1948, p. 471.}

This, in effect, was what they did. The task was made the easier in that World War I prepared the way for socialism. Its potential opponents mostly died in action and the restrictions of wartime could be turned into the regimentations of peace. For the Labour leaders (many of them conscientious objectors) the war of 1914-18 was a period of planning. They were ready, therefore, when their opportunity came in 1924. By a fitting coincidence it was at the Webbs' house that the crucial decision was made. {71} ... From the start, Arthur Henderson urged acceptance of office. At a dinner in the Webbs' home, the six top leaders cast the die. Beatrice Webb noted: 'Sidney reports that they have all, except Henderson "cold feet" at the thought of office, though all of them believe that J.R.M. might not refuse.' Snowden's account agrees: Labour, it was felt, 'had no choice' but to accept office, despite all the hazards, for to do otherwise 'would obviously have been regarded as an act of cowardice'. {Richard W. Lyman, The First Labour Government. London, 1957, p. 88.}
Scanning, selection, HTML by Rae West. There are many parallels with the 'Frankfurt School', 'progressive' Jews in Germany whose institution was closed, and who left for the USA. Whether Beatrice Potter was 'Jew-aware' is not known to me; I would guess not.