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The New International, October 1946


A. Victor

Book Review

Beatrice Webb


From New International, Vol. XII No. 8, October 1946, p. 255.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Beatrice Webb
by Margaret Cole
Harcourt Brace, $3.00

The life of Beatrice Webb had two facets which contained something of the remarkable. The first was her curious devotion to gathering facts for reformist Socialists; the second, her even more curious apologies for the Stalinist regime in Russia. Some slight study of her intellectual and emotional development, however, soon reveals that these two facets of her personality are less curious than appears on the surface and that they are certainly not remarkable.

Beatrice was the daughter of a wealthy Victorian upper class family; under the stimulation of her father’s liberal intellectualism she turned to social studies as an outlet for her much needed self-expression. She first devoted herself to the cooperative movement, then to conditions among the workers as interesting fields for study and finally, in February, 1890, read Fabian Essays in Socialism and became a Fabian, one of the most provincial, useless, boring and bombastic kind of reformist Socialist.

It was at about the same time that she met Sidney Webb, a pedantic civil servant who knew a million facts about a limited number of subjects and who, with George Bernard Shaw, Olivier and Wallas, formed the real leadership of the Fabian Society. The meeting of Beatrice and Sidney was a meeting of minds more devoted to research into the number of toilet seats per slum dwelling in the East End of London, or the “incidence of sickness during pregnancy” and related subjects, than anything else under the sun. That this relationship should have developed into marriage and a life-long partnership of devotion to the gathering of many hundreds of thousands of such statistics is due to a certain philosophy held in common by the two.

Beatrice and Sidney Webb believed that if they could accumulate a mountain of information high enough to be seen by the entire world, relating to the evils of existence under British capitalism, even the bourgeoisie would be forced to retreat from its adamant defense of all capitalist institutions. The Webbs believed in the milk-and-water doctrine of achieving Socialism by education and they led a milk-and-water existence propagating this doctrine. It must be admitted, of course, that they knew the value of facts and figures – and that this prevented them from being as utterly loose in their political thinking as some of the other figures in the Fabian movement.

With their approach to socialism, the Webbs fitted into the newly formed British Labor Party in 1918 like slender hands into the most tight-fitting of gloves. They played a very large part in drafting its constitution and framing its political program. There were innumerable jobs for them to do in the editorial and research departments of the Labor Party apparatus.

Margaret Cole’s biography of Beatrice Webb is enlightening because the life of the Webbs explains so clearly the weaknesses of the British Labor Party, not in terms of its politics, of course, but in terms of the people who hold its political point of view. Is it any wonder that a party which was founded with the assistance of an ex-clerk from the British Colonial Office who believed that one could eliminate the evils of capitalism simply by educating people to the statistics of working class poverty – is it any wonder that such a party should allow itself to become the instrument of British imperialism in China, in India and in Palestine? Sidney Webb transferred the psychology of the Colonial Office into his marital partnership and then into the offices of the British Labor Party. He was a Fabian throughout and consistent with the ideas of reformist socialism throughout.

And when Ramsay Macdonald proved to all the world that a coalition of Labor bureaucrats with the bourgeoisie merely, played into the hands of the latter class, is it any wonder that the Webbs were able to swing toward the Stalin bureaucracy as a solution for the world’s ills? There was no longer any revolutionary substance in the men who composed the upper circles of the Kremlin. They no longer desired workers’ power in England any more than the Webbs did. When the latter visited Russia they found themselves in complete harmony with this society despotically governed by a hierarchy of privileged clerks and statisticians which we have now come to call bureaucratic collectivism. To Sidney it appeared less efficient, no doubt, but essentially of a piece with the atmosphere of the British Colonial Office or the Research Office of the British Labor Party and the Webbs felt at home in it.

Margaret Cole’s biography is worth reading; it conveys with a fair amount of faithfulness the nature of the Webb partnership. The thing it suffers from politically is the author’s inability to evaluate, from a Marxist point of view, the ideas of the Webbs on socialism.

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