Poverty and Compassion, by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Revising the Victorians
Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians.
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Knopf. 466 pp. $30.00.
Ever since Lytton Strachey’s 1918 hatchet job, Eminent Victorians, the Victorian age has had a bad press among bien-pen-sant intellectuals: the very adjective has come to be synonymous with all that is repressed, hypocritical, moralistically meddlesome. The same view holds in the area of social reform: the Victorians oppressively imposed their bourgeois values on a reluctant working class, and were particularly addicted to the habit which American liberals now call “blaming the victim.”
This disagreeable stereotype has been challenged before, but never in a more exhaustive and sustained fashion than by the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. In book after book she has brilliantly illuminated the Victorian period of British history—to the point where those who have followed her career have begun to think of that period as the Himmelfarbian age—and in the process she has demonstrated just how short the stereotype falls of complex reality. The present book picks up the story at the point where Miss Himmelfarb left it at the end of The Idea of Poverty (published in 1984). There she dealt with the social thought and social programs of the early Victorians; here she deals with their successors in the latter part of the century, and with the continuities and discontinuities with what had gone before.
The most important continuity lies in the quality of moral fervor which characterized both Victorian cohorts as they attacked whatever they considered to be a social problem. These were very serious people indeed, whose moral commitment remained very much in evidence even when they were claiming to go about the business of reform in a scientific manner. Their fervor clearly had its roots in the stern morality of Evangelical Protestantism, in that “Nonconformist conscience” which had animated the campaigns against the slave trade and against child labor, and which arguably was at the basis of most if not all the reform initiatives of the early 19th century.
But the late Victorians differed from their predecessors in two important respects. First, the impulse of compassion had become considerably secularized, severed from its religious roots. And second, a shift had occurred in the definition of the social problem itself—more specifically, a shift in the categorization of those deemed to be the proper targets of benevolence.
Miss Himmelfarb discusses the first difference quite extensively, but it is the second that interests her more. She exemplifies it by comparing two works, each of which had a great influence in its respective period: Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1849, and Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London, the first volume of which was published forty years later, in 1889.
Both authors studied various groupings within the lower classes, but Mayhew’s reformist intentions were primarily directed toward what we would today call the underclass—in his words, “Those That Will Not Work.” It was they who, to Mayhew’s mind, constituted the problem. The larger population of the poor was not a problem in itself, since poverty was after all a natural condition; rather, the issue here was to prevent these poor from becoming altogether pauperized and thus falling into the lower depths of the underclass.
For Booth, too, the core of the problem was the underclass, which had to be massively (and rather harshly) dealt with. But his benevolent interest was directed at the groupings above the underclass, the people whom he affectionately called “my poor.” Their poverty was not considered by him a natural condition about which nothing should be done; on the contrary, these “respectable” poor should be helped to improve their position—albeit in such a way as not to undermine their “respectability,” which consisted precisely in their sense of individual responsibility and their willingness to take care of themselves.
Beatrice Webb, Booth’s cousin by marriage, would describe him as a perfect representative of what she called the “Time-Spirit,” both because of his devotion to an allegedly scientific method and because he had switched the impulse to serve from God to man. As Gertrude Himmelfarb portrays him, he was indeed a prototype, and a very influential one at that. A successful businessman, he was engaged full-time in running the steamship company he owned. By all accounts he enjoyed his life as a businessman. But, driven both by conscience and (one may assume) by innate curiosity, and despite persistent ill health, he devoted all his spare time to the gigantic enterprise that eventually filled seventeen volumes (the last one came out in 1902). His conscience, as Beatrice Webb accurately observed, was a highly secularized one. Booth was a Unitarian (his wife remained a churchgoing Anglican and the two prudently decided not to discuss religion), but he also described himself as a Positivist. “As to religion,” he wrote in a lofty and quite nebulous confessional statement, “I mean that I worship Humanity.”
Booth distinguished four classes below the poverty line. Class A was what we would call the underclass. Class B were people with casual earnings, the “very poor.” Classes C and D, those with intermittent and those with regular but low earnings, together constituted the “poor”—his poor. There were further differentiations above the poverty line, but they did not figure in his definition of the social problem.
What did Booth propose to do about each of these various categories? Only the lowest two classes, A and B, were to be objects of state policy, of “socialism” (a pejorative term in his usage). Class A, indeed, was already being taken care of by the laws against pauperism and vagabondage, as exemplified in the institution of the workhouse. Class B too was similarly to be put under “socialist” tutelage, housed in “state industrial homes” and compelled to work on state projects under threat of being remanded to the even more restrictive regime of the workhouse. Those in classes C and D, however, were to be respected as “individualists,” objects not of state policy but of private (and typically intermittent) help that would allow them to lead better lives despite their poverty, a condition for which (unlike the denizens of the lowest classes) they should not be blamed.
Miss Himmelfarb discusses at length many other actors in the late Victorian drama of compassion. There was the Charity Organization Society, or COS, founded in 1869 to help the “deserving poor.” This became the most important private agency of social welfare, basing its activities on “social science” (defined as “the science of doing good and preventing evil”!) and originating the casework method. There was the Salvation Army, founded in 1878 by William Booth (no relation to Charles) and marked by an unreconstructed Evangelical emphasis. And then there was a long line of individuals whom she sharply profiles: the founders and activists of Toynbee Hall (a sort of university for the poor), T.H. Green (who gave Hegelianism a quaintly English twist), Alfred Marshall (creator of an “economics of chivalry”), and a motley crowd of socialists (Marxist and otherwise), utopian visionaries, and socially conscious cranks. Toward the end appear the Fabians, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb but also comprising a great number of more or less endearing eccentrics, from George Bernard Shaw to Annie Besant, the founder of the international Theosophical movement. It is impossible to do justice here to this colorful gallery, but it should be observed that Miss Himmelfarb’s book can be read for the pleasure of the company she presents even if one has no great interest in the larger issues.
The Fabians constitute the bridge between Victorian social reform and the 20th-century British welfare state. They—for whom, of course, “socialism” ceased to be a pejorative term—sharply repudiated the individualistic ethic of Charles Booth and his kind and gave a collectivistic turn to the moral fervor of the Victorians. It is clear that Miss Himmelfarb is not overly fond of them, and perhaps her portrait of them is not quite accurate. Still, one must wonder about the moral sensibilities of someone like Beatrice Webb, who could approvingly cite a plan for the underclass as “a great social drainage scheme” which would “get rid of the festering heaps and scientifically treat the ultimate residuum.” No wonder that she, along with her husband and many of their fellow-Fabians, were later to be counted among the most uncritical admirers of the Soviet Union.
Out of the Fabian version of socialism came William Beveridge and other theorists of the welfare state. Here the concept of poverty was both de-moralized and relativized. Questions of individual responsibility were to be separated from social policy, and the poverty line was to be ongoingly movable. The problem now was no longer the poor, however categorized, but the working class as a whole. Eventually, the issue would no longer be defined as one of poverty at all, but as one of equality. All of society would become the object of social reform on the part of the state—precisely what Charles Booth and his contemporaries had denigrated as “socialism.”
An argument that recurs throughout this book concerns the “moral imperialism” of Victorian social thought. It has been a common notion, and not only on the Left, that the Victorian reformers sought to impose middle-class values and styles of life on the poor. Miss Himmelfarb rejects this view. The “respectability” so dear to the Victorians was not just a value of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it was at the core of the aspirations and the culture of the working class itself. Booth and most of the others discussed by Miss Himmelfarb were very solicitous of that culture.
Thus, Booth opposed the temperance movement because it showed a lack of understanding of the social role of the public house, and the COS warned its caseworkers against any show of condescension or disrespect toward the poor. The two exceptions were the Salvation Army—and later on, the Fabians. The Salvation Army put on its banner the motto “Blood and Fire”—referring to Evangelical notions of salvation. It took the socialism of the 20th century to concretize, in an ironic and horrible way, the idea that the poor were indeed to be saved by blood and fire.
Early in this book Miss Himmelfarb warns us against the “Whig fallacy” of looking at the past in terms of the present. But in her conclusion, while reiterating that the problems of the Victorians were different from our own, she does look at the “lessons” they may hold for us. Most importantly, she proposes that the Victorians were right in insisting that poverty is a multi-layered phenomenon, and right in insisting that it has a centrally important moral component. Both insights have been lost in much of 20th-century social thought and policy. It is not the Victorians but many of our own contemporaries who can be fairly described as “moral imperialists.” In Miss Himmelfarb’s own words:
After making the most arduous attempt to objectify the problem of poverty, to divorce poverty from any moral assumptions and conditions, we are learning how inseparable the moral and material dimensions of that problem are. And after trying to devise social policies that are scrupulously neutral and “value-free,” we are finding these policies fraught with moral implications that have grave material and social consequences.
For clarifying these hard truths with incomparable learning and persuasiveness, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s superb study performs a necessary service not only of historical rectification but of great social and even moral import.