C.L.R. James

Beatrice Webb, Reformist

(May 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, pp. 133–134; signed A.A.B.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell in 2009.

In April, Beatrice Webb died. She was the wife of Sidney Webb, co-author with him of many famous books on the labor movement. Her career deserves examination.

She was born in 1858, the daughter of an English finance capitalist of international connections. She had both intelligence and character, and was expensively educated.

To appreciate the career of the Webbs, in this case Beatrice Webb, we must bear in mind the particular stage of development of European civilization in general, especially British capitalism, at the time when she grew to maturity. She was twenty-two in 1880, when European capitalism arrived at a consciousness of its own difficulties and inaugurated the age of imperialism by the division of Africa and other colonial areas.

During the ensuing years, Marxism as an intellectual force enjoyed an immense prestige in Europe. In Germany, the Marxists were the official opponents of bourgeois thought. In Austria, Francis Joseph’s financial minister, Bohm-Bawerk, devoted his literary life to the refutation of Marx. In Italy, Labriola, one of its most distinguished professors, was an open adherent; Gentile was for a time sympathetic to Marx; and Benedetto Croce, the greatest European scholar of his day, accepted in an academic way substantial elements of the doctrine. Masaryk thought it necessary to produce a ponderous volume against Marxism. We know what Marxism was in Russia; and even in France, Sorel, though no Marxist, was an apostle of violence and the class struggle.

Nor was this the interest of intellectuals only. In 1889, the Second International was organized under the aegis of Marxism. If in Britain there was only the unskillful pillage of Marx by Hyndman, there were sufficiently ominous signs. The growing loss of Britain’s position on the world market threw the British economy into disorder; and the interest culminated in two great strikes, the dock strike and the strike of the match girls, both in 1889, when the semi-skilled and the unskilled became organized for the first time.

To this historical milieu, Beatrice Potter, rich, able, cultured, well informed, idealistic and British, reacted with a political program that perfectly expressed the contradiction of her type. The thing to note is that it was conscious. She set herself to guide the British working class along the road of gradual, peaceful, constitutional progress to something she called “socialism,” and at the same time she waged an implacable war against Marxism and the doctrine of the class struggle. Her activities in the first sphere are widely known; not so well known are her activities in the second. In 1885, in one of her earliest writings, she denounced Marx’s economic theory and the doctrine of class struggle and revolution. At the same time she was carrying on an agitation against the living conditions of the poorer London workers which gained special prominence owing to her social position. She actually lived among them for some months in order to be able to speak with the necessary knowledge and authority.

In 1890 she married Sidney Webb, a brilliant young Oxford man and a British civil servant. In a most literal sense they were agents of the British ruling class, finance and administration, in the working class movement. Together they wrote the books which made them famous all over the world, their studies of the trade union movement, of English local government, and the Poor Law. They were neither passionate nor brilliant writers, but they were conscientious, they were thorough and they were able to do research with an expensive apparatus. They sincerely hated the obvious evils of capitalism. The harsh realities of the early struggles in the trade union movement and the corruption of early English local government forced its way through their essentially conservative temperament and stood out in their writings. The British labor movement was built ideologically on these works more than on any other, and Lenin, in exile in Siberia, studied the Webbs. The Webbs did distinguished work on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. They drew up a famous minority report to this commission, which accomplished results and enhanced their reputation.

Opponents of Marxism

But these two people knew what they were doing. Their psychology may be left to future Marxist biographers. But this much is certain: that, while negatively they guided the working class in a reformist direction, positively they built an intellectual barrier against the powerful Marxist current on the continent. They spent time, money and influence in founding the London School of Economics for the special purpose of combating Marxism. Webb tor a time lectured there. Thus over forty years ago, with truly remarkable prescience, these two leaders of the British workers were creating new weapons tor safeguarding the intellectual foundations of bourgeois society. In one of the rooms of the London School are two large portraits of them, a testimony to human futility, for the London School in its time became a center of Marxist and neo-Marxist study, especially among the student body.

It is their subsequent career which enables us to see their earlier activities with the proper comprehensiveness. The Webbs supported the war of 1914-18; as soon as they war was over, they published books on the decay of capitalist civilization, and the outline of a socialist constitution for Great Britain. But against the Russian Revolution, Marxism in the flesh, they were as hostile as they had been to Marxism in the spirit, and they saw no difference between the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky and the Italy of Mussolini.

Against Lenin and Trotsky; for Stalin

How clear-sighted these well educated members of the English ruling class were is proved by the latest phase of their consistent political career.

In 1932, Russia as a source of revolution was still a subject of violent hatred and fear all over the bourgeois world. The Communist International was in the throes of the third period, preaching revolution today, not tomorrow, in every civilized country. Yet all this time, the Webbs divined the fundamental conservativeness of the Russian bureaucracy. They settled down to years of devoted labor and produced in 1936 a study of Russia entitled Soviet Communism, a New Civilization? It is stated that they received all the necessary documents from the Soviet government itself or at least from its representatives. They visited Russia and, as early as 1932, Beatrice Webb was talking enthusiastically over the British radio about the USSR. The book, inordinately long, can be described in a sentence. It was a compilation of all the plans – considered as accomplished facts – of the Soviet bureaucracy and its promises to the Russian people. With ignorance, dishonesty and with an ill-concealed malice, the book attacked Trotskyism. It said that the new civilization would spread its doctrine best by showing the world what it could do, instead of by the Trotskyist doctrine of world revolution.

The volume was well timed. In 1933 the British labor movement was in ferment and at the Brighton Conference voted by an overwhelming majority never to support British imperialism in another imperialist war. But in May, 1934, the USSR applied for membership in the League of Nations. The British labor bureaucrats, quaking at the Brighton vote, mobilized all their forces to swing British labor back into the imperialist fold under the smoke-screen of collective security, and the chief bait was Russia’s entry into the League. But the job was not easily done, and as tar as books and personal influence helped, the Webbs’ endorsement exercised enormous weight. They ended as they had begun, friends and advocates of anything which would help the workers, as long as they remained in their place; and enemies of everything which would help them to realize that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

The Socialism of the Webbs

A curious episode later in her career illuminates the mental process of this very typical social democratic English woman. When the Labor Party took over the government in 1929, Sidney Webb was made Colonial Minister; and as the Labor Party was weak in the House of Lords, he assumed the title of Lord Passfield and entered the upper house. This for Beatrice Webb became a principled question. To become Lady Passfield was treason to socialism. But to remain Beatrice Webb was to insult the traditions of the British ruling class, her class (in her early life she had been presented at Court).

Here was a problem tor this septuagenarian. She could not solve it herself, and finally went to, above all people. Lord Balfour, a man who, in every possible respect, even in his personal appearance, was the most characteristic example extant of the traditional British aristocracy. He, the British earl, was to solve this socialist problem. As Marx found in his analysis of the commodity the clue to all the contradictions of capitalism, so you can see in this minor incident the clue to the Webbs’ politics. Balfour snubbed her with amused contempt, said he didn’t think the question was important. For her it was. She decided to remain Mrs. Webb, and the philistines applauded.

For us, she has a more than merely historical importance Lenin, puzzled at the contrast between the quality of Sidney Webb’s books and his apparently inane politics, once asked if the British bourgeoisie bribed him. Today, after forty years, we have no need to ask such questions. After 1914 and the long record of the post-war Social-Democracy, we deserve the branding iron if we are caught unawares by any of these people. Whatever their record, whatever their services, they are enemies of working class emancipation, and more conscious than we thought. They deserve from us no more and no less than the same unwearied, undeviating enmity that they have always shown to Marxism and the social revolution.

Last updated on 24 May 2015