Commentary Magazine

Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858-1943, by Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam


Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858-1943.
by Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam.
Knopf. 271 pp. $6.95.

In an earlier biography, Margaret Cole, a long-time friend and political associate, wrote that Beatrice Webb, like “happy countries,” had “almost no personsonal history.” There is a sense in which this is true: the story of Mrs. Webb's life is significantly the history of her times. But it was nonetheless an exceedingly personal history and what is fascinating to watch is the transmutation of that personal history into a social history of such moment to her contemporaries and to ourselves. It is also fascinating to watch what biographers of different political bent make of that personal and social history.

One episode of that personal history, which any biographer might be expected to relish, is the affair of (not quite with) Joseph Chamberlain. Beatrice Potter was twenty-five when she met and fell in love with Chamberlain, then forty-seven, an attractive, dapper Member of Parliament who gave promise of repeating on the national stage the phenomenal success he had had as mayor of Birmingham. He proposed to her and she very reluctantly declined after he made it clear that he expected from his wife total subservience of intellect and will. Yet she continued to cherish a great passion for him in spite of the indecent haste and obvious relief with which he transferred his attentions to a more docile young lady, and even after her own marriage to the much younger (younger than herself) and considerably less personable Sidney Webb.

With something of the same haste and relief with which Chamberlain had dismissed Beatrice, Mrs. Cole, in her biography, dismissed the thought of Chamberlain. The marriage, she was convinced, would have been a disaster: “Except for the very remote contingency that Beatrice as a stepmother might have some influence for good upon his son Neville, there seems nothing to be said in its favor.” Beatrice would have had to witness Chamberlain's deterioration from a “radical to an imperialist,” and she would have had to give up her own role as “social investigator” in order to assume the uncongenial one of “political hostess.” “The Socialist and social student,” Mrs. Cole gratefully concluded her two-page account, “cannot but be profoundly grateful” that Beatrice chose to become Mrs. Webb, the “joint leader and maker of Socialist thought,” instead of the “comparatively useless and certainly miserable” Mrs. Chamberlain.

It is the great virtue of the present biographers, Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, that they do not pretend to know their subject better than she knew herself. In place of Mrs. Cole's grudging two pages, we are given the chapter that corresponds more closely to the importance of the episode in her life. Nor is there here any attempt to cut Beatrice down to size, the size deemed seemly to the respectable “Socialist and social student.” Beatrice's infatuation is seen for what it was: an infatuation with Chamberlain precisely as a public figure—a “desperate clutch at power, power to impress and lead,” as she herself confessed. Had Mrs. Muggeridge and Mrs. Adam cared to take issue with previous biographers, they might have pointed out that the very qualities of a Mrs. Chamberlain that Mrs. Cole found incongruent for Mrs. Webb were, in fact, most characteristic of Mrs. Webb. For it was precisely Beatrice Webb's forte to be both imperialist and radical, both political hostess and social investigator, and (like Chamberlain, which is perhaps why she could not marry him) both authoritarian and radical.


We must also be grateful to the present biographers for restoring the “personal history” that Mrs. Cole had dismissed so cavalierly. Mrs. Muggeridge is uniquely qualified to do this, since she knew Beatrice Webb not only as the “joint leader and maker of Socialist thought” but also as “Aunt Bo,” her mother's older sister. Happily, Mrs. Muggeridge is not content simply to exploit this relationship. Instead of the picturesque and eccentric Aunt Bo who would have made for good Sunday-supplement reading, we are given Aunt Bocum-Mrs. Webb, a single persona whose private and public identities were, as they are not always, peculiarly similar. When Aunt Bo reproaches Kitty Muggeridge's parents for leading a vain and idle existence in the playgrounds of Europe, one hears the voice of Mrs. Webb threatening to legislate out of the Socialist Commonwealth the parasites of society. When her guests rise hungrily from her meager dinner-table to engage in the purposeful conversation in which she firmly directs them, one realizes how entirely in keeping this is with the austere regimen of life and labor she would have imposed on the citizens of her good society. And the unobtrusive attendance at these dinner parties of the proper complement of properly attired servants recalls her conception of the ideal social order, in which an equality, preferably a minimal equality, of goods would cohere with a substantial inequality of persons.

Mrs. Muggeridge,1 then, in invoking the memory of Aunt Bo, is also restoring the portrait of Mrs. Webb. Curiously enough, however, her work of restoration depends more upon political perspicuity than upon personal knowledge. This is, indeed, her great advantage over Mrs. Cole. Thus Mrs. Cole, in her history of Fabianism, felt obliged to relegate a large measure of Fabian thought and policy to the dubious status of “aberrances.” “Fabian ‘Aberrances’” was the title of the chapter describing their approval of imperialism, protectionism, and church-controlled education; and any irony conveyed by the quotation marks was dispelled by the text. And other Fabian characteristics—their antipathy to women's suffrage, trade-unionism, even democracy and liberty—appear under the same aspect of aberrations or anomalies. Mrs. Muggeridge has no need for such a category because she has no political illusions or commitments. She does not think it necessary to justify Fabianism in terms of socialism, and she does not assume that either Fabianism or socialism is a repository of all political virtue and wisdom. There are no “aberrances” in her account but only a clear perception of what Fabianism actually was.


What it actually was may be illustrated by the Minority Poor Law of 1909, a major document in Beatrice Webb's life and, indeed, in recent English history. The opening paragraph of Mrs. Muggeridge's chapter on this subject unfortunately echoes the familiar claim of Mrs. Cole and other commentators that Beatrice Webb “lived to see most of her ideas accepted, in the Beveridge Report of 1942, but died before they were implemented in postwar Britain.” Fortunately the rest of the chapter redeems this lapse and effectively belies this claim. As against the common view that Beatrice Webb revolutionized our view of the poor by demolishing the old moralistic, paternalistic, authoritarian attitudes, we are presented here with her own unambiguous statement of first principles: “What has to be aimed at is not this or that improvement in material circumstances or physical comfort but an improvement in personal character.” Under her plan medical aid would have been available to all—and would have had to be availed of by all whether they wished it or not. Patients would not have been free to choose their doctors nor, by the same token, free to reject their advice; the compulsion to take the prescribed medicine or undergo the recommended operation would have been as absolute as the similar compulsion to accept a proffered job at the Labor Exchange She did not specify the punishment for a recalcitrant patient, but she did specify that for the recalcitrant unemployed: “If it was discovered by actual observation of the man's present behavior that there was in him a grave moral defect not otherwise remediable, he would have to submit himself, in a detention colony, to a treatment which would be at once curative and deterrent.”

Long before this attempt to devise a comprehensive program for the prevention and cure of all social ills, when Beatrice Webb was still Beatrice Potter and had only begun to dabble in social work, she explained that she was “not led into the homes of the poor by the spirit of charity,” but rather by the “time-spirit”—a sense of what was historically appropriate. Her methods were to change but not her motivation. She is generally praised for her efforts in “breaking up the Old Poor Law”—that is, separating out the several categories of the old, the sick, the unemployed, the neglected children, etc., and creating new agencies to deal with each. This was her declared intent and in part her achievement. Yet had her scheme prevailed in its original form and impulse, she would have succeeded in undermining the most crucial distinctions among these groups. Where the “spirit of charity,” or simple compassion, obliges us to distinguish, differentiate, individualize, her “time-spirit” would have dissolved the whole into one mass of misfits to be whipped into shape by society. Her argument for compulsory medical aid—compulsory not only for the poor but for all those who were judged to be sick—was based on the explicit assumption that sickness was “a public nuisance to be suppressed in the interests of the community.” The interests of the community, not of the sick. And the moralism that pervaded her attitude to sick, old, unemployed, and children alike had the same communal basis. It was a moral commitment to society rather than to the particular unfortunates who were being assisted—or rather to the time spirit of society, the Zeitgeist that tells us that such “public nuisances” as sickness, laziness, or neglect need no longer be tolerated, that society had reached that positivist stage (her affinity to Comte has not been properly appreciated) where life could finally be organized, rationalized, perfected.


In fact, the time-spirit eluded Beatrice Webb, as it eludes most of those who pursue it too ardently. Her basic principle did not prevail in her time nor, contrary to popular impression, was it “accepted” in the Beveridge Report and “implemented” since then. On the contrary, it was the principle of her opponents, the principle of “social insurance” advocated by Lloyd George and the young Winston Churchill, that won out then and is with us today. And Beatrice Webb bitterly opposed the idea of social insurance for the very reason that people then and now find it so attractive: its “unconditionality,” the fact that it makes relief an unconditional right.

I tried to impress on them that any grant from the community to the individual, beyond what it does for all, ought to be conditional on better conduct and that any insurance scheme had the fatal defect that the state got nothing for its money—that the persons felt they had a right to the allowance whatever their conduct.

The sickness insurance is wholly bad and I cannot see how malingering can be staved off. . . . What the government shirks is the extension of treatment and disciplinary supervision—they want merely some mechanical way of increasing the money income of the wage-earning class in times of unemployment and sickness. No attempt is made to secure an advance in conduct in return for the increased income. [Italics in original.]

In contrast to her opponents, Beatrice Webb is generally credited with a comprehensive, consistent scheme of reform that went to the roots of the problem and proposed radical solutions to it. There is some truth in this image, but a partial truth that may obscure the larger truth. The Minority Report was comprehensive, consistent, and radical, but this is not necessarily to say that it was what we would now regard as “progressive.” And while Beatrice Webb advertised it as being more concerned with “prevention” than “cure,” with the “causes” of social ills rather than their mere “relief,” she knew as little about prevention or causes as anyone else (she was notably ignorant of and even uninterested in the economic analysis of unemployment), so that, in the end, like everyone else, she was forced to settle for some system of relief. The issue between her and her opponents was between two systems of relief, and the fact that one was more thoroughgoing than the other does not necessarily make it the more meritorious. At the same time that Mrs. Webb was insisting upon the principle of conditionality, Winston Churchill was putting forward the dissenting view:

I do not feel convinced that we are entitled to refuse benefits to a qualified man who loses his employment through drunkenness. He has paid his contributions; he has insured himself against unemployment, and I think it arguable that his foresight should be rewarded irrespective of the cause of his dismissal, whether he has lost his situation through his own habits of intemperance or through his employer's habits of intemperance. I do not like mixing up moralities and mathematics.

A disposition to overindulgence in alcohol, a hot temper, a bad manner, a capricious employer, a financially unsound employer, a new process in manufacturing, a contraction in trade, are all alike factors in the risk. Our concern is with the evil not with the causes. With the fact of unemployment, not with the character of the unemployed.

Which, I wonder, strikes us now as the more humane as well as the more modern view?

In the space of a relatively brief biography (it makes such interesting reading that it seems briefer than in fact it is), Mrs. Muggeridge can hardly tell us as much as we would like to know about this or similar matters. And we would like to know a great deal more, partly because we have so much to unlearn, and partly because the Webbs occupy an important place in recent intellectual and social history. It is not easy to define their importance or their place. On the one hand, like Bentham (whom Beatrice aptly described as “Sidney's intellectual godfather”), the Webbs were not in the mainstream of English thought or of English social policy. On the other hand, again like Bentham, they had a peculiar attraction for English intellectuals and policy-makers, as if they represented an ideal to be preserved and cherished however much it might be violated in mind and fact. It is time that we inquired more closely into both the ideal and the fact.


1 For the sake of simplicity, I shall use “Mrs. Muggeridge” to stand for both authors, partly because she is evidently the senior author and partly because she provides the personal details that are one of the distinctions of this book. (The introduction is signed by her alone.)

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