In her recent election campaign, replying to a television interviewer who observed, rather derisively, that she seemed to be approving of “Victorian values,” Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically agreed: “Oh exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great.” Quite suddenly, “Victorian values” seized the headlines and became an election issue.
To Mrs. Thatcher those values were self-evident (She preferred to call them “virtues,” but the more modish word prevailed.) How could one not approve of hard work, diligence, thrift, responsibility, civility, devotion to family, respect for law and order—all those good old virtues?
A remarkable number of people thought otherwise. Neil Kinnock, the leader of the opposition, declared that those were the inhuman, selfish, materialistic values that Dickens had so memorably portrayed in Oliver Twist and Hard Times—the values of an England where women and children labored in cotton mills and mines while the rich wallowed in luxury and preached the gospel of hard work. Church leaders quoted texts from the New Testament designed to prove that the Victorian values were not Christian values. Editorial writers protested against the confusion of religious and secular values (this in a country that has an offical state church). Journalists cited unemployment statistics suggesting that hard work was irrelevant if there was no work available. Prince Charles toured inner-city areas and intimated that self-help was not helping very much. Literary critics objected that Victorianism was a species of sanctimonious piety and hypocritical morality. Historians pointed out that the Victorian values were not uniquely Victorian—they were Christian values, or Puritan values, or Methodist values, or bourgeois values—and in any case, no one, ever, and least of all the Victorians, observed them.
After my own essays were mentioned in newspaper editorials and columns, I received moving letters from people nostalgically recalling their own Victorian parents and grandparents. When I was asked by an adviser to Mrs. Thatcher to participate in a conference on Victorian values—this only a few weeks before the general election—it occurred to me that perhaps all this was camouflage to avoid addressing more urgent issues and that the fuss would die down once the election was safely over. In fact, the controversy continues, thanks to the Prime Minister herself who has returned to the subject again and again, declaring it to be at the heart of her program.
It is a curious and rare phenomenon: a Prime Minister, having achieved significant economic and political goals in her preceding terms of office, enters her third term determined to consolidate those achievements by rooting them in the moral principles and practices which, she firmly believes, can alone sustain them. She has made morality the issue not for rhetorical effect or partisan advantage but as a matter of policy and conviction. She is not content to cut taxes, privatize industry, encourage home-ownership, stimulate trade, and otherwise promote a free and prosperous economy. She feels it necessary to legitimize and, so to speak, moralize that agenda, to show that it is not only practical and expedient but also right and proper.
Capitalism has always required moral legitimization but has not always received it, certainly not from politicians in high places. It did not even always receive it in Victorian England, before socialism usurped the high moral ground by claiming a monopoly of social justice and compassion. Even then the critics of capitalism—Cobbett and Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris—were often more articulate and passionate than the defenders. What the Victorians did have, however, was an ethos—a generally accepted (although not always observed) code of behavior—which was congenial to capitalism and which implicitly sanctioned and validated it.
The historian who denies that there was such a code by citing all the deviations from it is surely missing the most elementary fact about morality, which is that it can remain a reality even when it is violated in practice. Hypocrisy, La Roche-foucauld reminds us, is “the homage that vice pays to virtue.” The Victorians, who went to such efforts to conceal their sexual “irregularities,” as they delicately put it, or, when concealment was not possible, sought to domesticate them, to give them the appearance of propriety, were surely testifying to the power of a code that continued to bind them even as they bent it to meet their special circumstances. One thinks of George Eliot whose nonmarriage to George Lewes (because he could not be divorced from his wife) was as domestic and conventional an arrangement as any legal marriage. They did not flout their irregular relationship; on the contrary, they tried desperately to regularize it. In the true meaning of that much abused expression, the code was “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.”
And so too with the other values (as they are now called) that Mrs. Thatcher attributed to the Victorians—work, thrift, prudence, temperance, above all self-reliance and personal responsibility. Of course these were not uniquely Victorian values. In her address a few months ago to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Mrs. Thatcher described them as “Judaic-Christian” values, and elsewhere she associated them with John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism. But it was in the 19th century that they acquired a special urgency. For it was then, when the social and moral order (and to a lesser extent the political order as well) was threatened by the accelerated pace of industrialism and capitalism, that these values helped stabilize, legitimize, and “moralize” that order.
There was perhaps no virtue more often invoked, more idealized and revered by the Victorians than work. “Work is worship,” Carlyle declared. “All true work is sacred; in all true work . . . there is something of divineness. . . . No man has worked, or can work, except religiously; not even the poor day-laborer, the weaver of your coat, the sewer of your shoes.” And not even, Carlyle continued, the industrialist and capitalist, the “working aristocracy” and “captains of industry,” who were “virtually the captains of the world; if there be no nobleness in them, there will never be an aristocracy more.” Carlyle, as usual, was being melodramatic; but he was also, as usual, expressing a sentiment that was widely held—by radicals and conservatives, by workers and capitalists. He knew, as everyone did, that there were idlers among the rich—“master un-workers,” he called them—as well as among the poor—the habitual vagrants, beggars, and paupers whom contemporaries spoke of as the “undeserving poor.” But these were seen as excrescences, deformities. They did not define the prevailing ethos; they defined the deviations from it, the abnormal rather than the norm.
Some historians do not deny the prominence of work in the Victorian ethic: what they deny is the legitimacy of the ethic itself. There is a theory popular among radical historians because it accounts for a variety of phenomena that do not lend themselves to conventional Marxist interpretations—this is the “social-control thesis.” According to this thesis, the “work ethic” and all the values associated with it—thrift, prudence, diligence, punctuality, self-discipline, self-reliance—were “middle-class values,” “bourgeois values,” which were foisted upon the working class by the middle class for purposes of “social control”: to imbue the workers with the values that would make them productive members of the labor force and docile members of society as well.
The implications of this thesis are rarely confronted by these historians. If these were middle-class values, alien to the working class, what were the values that were presumably indigenous to the working class? Were the workers, by nature or preference, indolent rather than industrious, profligate rather than frugal, drunk rather than sober, promiscuous rather than faithful, dependent rather than independent? And how did this perversion of their natural values come about? Why did the working class betray its own values and embrace those of its enemy—values designed to exploit and subjugate it?
The obvious explanation is the familiar Marxist one: that the working class was the victim of “false consciousness.” Just as it did not (still does not) always understand its true interests—hence the absence of a proletarian revolution—so it did not understand its own values. Unwittingly it adopted the values of the ruling class, of the dominant, “hegemonic” (as the Marxist says) culture, the bourgeois culture. The difficulty with this explanation is that it is not very flattering to the working class.
It must be remembered that the social-control thesis—together with its corollary, the theory of false consciousness—is advanced not by reactionary historians seeking to denigrate the working class but by radical historians ostensibly sympathetic to it, historians who, as one eloquently said, want to rescue the poor and the oppressed from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” But who is guilty of this condescension? Is it the so-called bourgeois historian who attributes to the working class the values professed by the rest of society and which he himself holds dear? Or the radical historian who assigns to the working class a distinctive set of values which he does not dare define—and which he himself does not share because he is not of that class? Is it more condescending to credit workers with a true knowledge of their values and interests? Or to portray them as ignorant of their own values and interests, as the deluded, unhappy victims of “false consciousness”?
And who is more faithful to the historical reality: the historian who requires a theory of false consciousness to account for the inconvenient fact that most Victorian workers (like most workers today) did seem to share those supposedly middle-class values? Or the historian who recognizes and respects that fact—who knows, moreover, that it was not only the “labor aristocracy,” as is sometimes claimed, who shared those values but many less skilled workers as well, even if they less often realized them in practice? The memoirs of the most militant and radical workers, the Chartists, provide poignant testimony to their efforts to be temperate and thrifty—“respectable,” as they said. That much maligned word, “respectability,” was at the heart of the Victorian ethos, the ethos of the working class as much as of the middle class. Indeed, the central tenet of Chartism, universal suffrage, was based on the claim to respectability, for political equality presupposed moral equality—which is to say, respectability.
Radical historians are contemptuous of those eminent Victorians who, they say, patronized the poor by trying to make them respectable: housing reformers who provided apartments at low rents but insisted upon the prompt payment of rent; sanitary reformers who installed sewage and running water and preached the virtues of cleanliness; educational reformers who passed a public-education act to promote literacy; settlement-house workers who gave adult-education courses that would be the equivalent of an American college degree today; social workers who distributed charity while dispensing lessons in domestic economy; philanthropists who organized and subsidized societies for the relief of every variety of affliction and misfortune—all acting on the assumption that the poor had only to be helped to help themselves, that the poor wanted for themselves the same things that the reformers wanted for them.
The reformers may have been unrealistic in their actions, intentions, and expectations. But are they to be condemned for “imposing” (if that is the right word) upon the poor the values they imposed on their own families? Were they patronizing or condescending when they assumed that the poor had the ability and the will to act upon those values? Were they small-minded or mean-spirited when they upheld a single standard of values for all classes rather than the double standard that had prevailed for so long—a double standard, incidentally, implicit in the social-control thesis? So far from keeping the working class in a condition of inferiority and subservience, that single standard was an invitation to economic improvement and social mobility. It implied that there were not “two nations” but one, united by a single ethos, a common morality. Whatever class differences there were—and they were considerable—they were just that: class differences, economic and social differences, not fundamental moral differences, not differences of character or nature or spirit.
There is, as it happens, a fascinating document, written exactly a hundred years ago, testifying to the values of one group of Victorian workers. If that group is not typical of all workers, the document itself is typical in revealing the values of an eminently Victorian reformer and commentator. The author of the document, I must confess, is not one of my favorite eminent Victorians. Beatrice Webb was not, in fact, so much a reformer as a “social engineer,” exhibiting all the disagreeable traits of that species: she was officious, presumptuous, humorless, ruthless. Early in his career, Winston Churchill, rejecting an offer to head the Local Government Board, explained that he did not want to be “shut up in a soup-kitchen” with Mrs. Webb—a sentiment one can well understand. Yet she produced some memorable works, one of them written before she became Mrs. Webb—that is, before she married Sidney Webb, joined the Fabian Society, and proceeded to hector people like Churchill. She was Beatrice Potter then, serving her “apprenticeship,” as she called it, in the craft of social research by assisting Charles Booth prepare his mammoth survey of the Life and Labor of the People of London. The first volume of that work, published in 1889, contains a fascinating chapter by Beatrice Webb (I shall call her by that familiar name although she was not yet married) on the Jewish community in the East End of London.
Some historians have accused Beatrice Webb of being anti-Semitic1 I have never seen persuasive evidence of this, although she was certainly, later in life, anti-Zionist, as so many socialists were, including her husband. In any case, her essay on the Jewish community in East London is anything but anti-Semitic. Written at a time when the Jews of the East End were popularly identified with “sweated labor” (both as workers and as employers), and when there were vociferous demands to limit or prohibit their immigration and even to expel them, the essay was distinctly philo-Semitic. It is a remarkable document, remarkable not only for its account of the practices and beliefs, the manners and morals, of this generation of immigrant Jews, but also for its revelation of the attitudes and values of at least one shrewd and unsentimental English observer.
The essay opens with a brief historical account of the several waves of Jewish immigrants who came to England in modern times—most recently from Poland and Russia. It describes the institutions devised by them to provide for their religious and communal needs: the Board of Deputies that was recognized by the government as the official representative body, the Beth Din that administered religious law, the Board of Guardians that coordinated relief and social services, and the synagogues that catered to the various classes of Jews of varying religious practices and commitments. It is a notably sympathetic account of the difficult circumstances under which the Jews came to England and of the community they created in that alien land.
If there are expressions in that account which a sensitive reader might interpret as snide or disparaging, it is because the reader is unfamiliar with Beatrice Webb’s own values and rhetoric. When she commended, for example, the Jewish Board of Deputies for “the skill, the tenacity, and above all, the admirable temper with which our Hebrew fellow-countrymen have insinuated themselves into the life of the nation, without forsaking the faith of their forefathers or sacrificing as a community the purity of their race,” there is nothing suspect in the term “purity of their race.” To Mrs. Webb, as to most Victorians, “race” was an innocent word and “purity of race” an admirable ideal. Nor was the word “insinuated” meant to be pejorative; the Fabians commonly used that word to describe their own political strategy. “I could insinuate myself,” Beatrice Webb once boasted, “into smoking-rooms, business offices, private and public conferences, without rousing suspicion.” After a moving description of the Polish Jew who “suffers oppression and bears ridicule with imperturbable good humor” and remains silent in “the face of insult and abuse,” she put the rhetorical questions: “For why resent when your object is to overcome? Why bluster and fight when you may manipulate or control in secret?” These last sentences have been cited as “clearly anti-Semitic,” in suggesting something like a Jewish conspiracy against Western society. But this was not at all Mrs. Webb’s intention. In fact she was praising, not disparaging the Jew. For this too was the conscious policy of the Fabians: to “overcome” by quiet persistence, to “manipulate or control in secret”
Beatrice Webb herself had a strong religious streak, so it is not surprising to find her appreciative of Judaism—all the more because she saw Judaism as her kind of religion, a preeminently this-worldly religion. The strength of the Jewish religion, she said, was that it provided “a law of life on this earth, sanctioned by the rewards and punishments of this world.” The Beth Din, for example, adjudicated not only questions of kashruth but also family quarrels, trade and labor disputes, breach-of-promise suits, and the myriad issues that arose in “everyday life.”
Thus too the local community organization, or Chevrah (she used that word to describe both the group and its meeting place), was part synagogue, part school, part social center, part benefit club assisting its members in times of sickness or death. She described the efforts of some well-intentioned leaders of the Anglo-Jewish establishment to replace the small, overcrowded, unsanitary Chevrahs by a single grand synagogue, and was pleased to report that wiser counsels prevailed and the idea was abandoned. Sanitation and crowding were relative matters, she observed, and in this case the smallness and closeness of the Chevrahs were more virtues than vices. For they were “self-creating, self-supporting, and self-governing communities; small enough to generate public opinion and the practical supervision of private morals, and large enough to stimulate charity, worship, and study by communion and example.”
There was a still poorer class of Jews, she pointed out, who did not belong to any Chevrah but who nevertheless clung “with an almost superstitious tenacity to the habits and customs of their race.” Although the class itself was permanent, the individuals comprising it were in a constant state of flux, the older immigrants rising out of it while newer immigrants were entering it But even this lowest class was not without resources, for it was “united to the Jewish middle and upper class by a downward stream of charity and personal service, a benevolence at once so widespread and so thoroughgoing, that it fully justifies the saying, ‘All Israel are brethren.’”
Jewish benevolence was also of a special kind. The Jewish “Free School,” she said, was the largest school of its kind in all of England, “a striking example of the admirable organization peculiar to Jewish charity.” And the Jewish Board of Guardians was unlike any of the other Boards of Guardians which supervised the distribution of public relief. Privately organized and financed, it raised £13-14,000 annually, of which only £2,000 was given in the familiar form of poor relief—money or vouchers for the purchase of coal, clothes, or other necessities. Smaller sums went for emigration, sanitary inspection, special workrooms for girls, and the like. And well over half was given to individuals for trade and business, most of it in the form of capital. The intention was to enable the recipients to become self-supporting, and the success of this policy was such that of the 3,313 cases dealt with by the Board in 1887, only 268 had previously been applicants. Thus there was not in the Jewish community, Mrs. Webb observed, as there was in England at large, a “chronically parasitic class of ‘paupers.’” Either because of “the character of those who take” or “the method of those who give,” Jewish charity did not have the demoralizing effects that relief had on the rest of the population.
“Every country,” Beatrice Webb cited the familiar saying (it was apparently familiar a century ago), “has the Jew it deserves.” In the case of England, she maintained, this was patently untrue, for England received its most recent contingent of Jews “ready-made” from a country diametrically different from itself. Because one could not understand the peculiarities of English Jews without knowing something of the country they came from, Mrs. Webb interrupted her account of the English Jewish community to describe the conditions in Russia, where “oppression and restriction have assumed every conceivable form.” There no Jew could own land or, often, rent it; in one place he could not enter a profession, in another could not establish a business, in still others, he had no right of domicile; and everywhere he was subject to religious and social persecution, living “in daily terror of the petty tyranny of a capricious governor.” Yet in spite of this “systematic oppression,” the Jews multiplied and prospered in every trade and profession open to them. Even the penal laws were ineffectual against the “superior mental equipment” of the Jews, driving them into “low channels of parasitic activity,” where they survived sometimes to the detriment of their “Christian fellow-subjects.” Finally, the Russian government changed its tactics and deliberately encouraged “mob violence of a brutal and revolting character” as a means of expulsion.
It was this history of oppression and persecution, described with brutal candor but also compassion, that Beatrice Webb saw as the formative experience of the latest generation of Jewish immigrants. Their adversities were the source of their virtues. “Social isolation has perfected home life; persecution has intensified religious fervor; an existence of unremitting toil, and rigid observance of the moral precepts and sanitary and dietary regulations of the Jewish religion have favored the growth of sobriety, personal purity, and a consequent power of physical endurance.” Having lived among a half-civilized people and been deprived of a secular education, they focused all their thoughts and feelings in the literature of their race, “in the Old Testament, with its magnificent promises of universal dominion; in the Talmud, with its minute instructions as to the means of gaining it.” The child on its mother’s lap lisped passages from the Talmud; the old man tottering to his grave still sought in it the secret of existence. The Talmud, Mrs. Webb quoted a Jewish authority of the time, was “an encyclopaedia of law, civil and penal, ecclesiastical and international, human and divine”—in effect, a Jewish Corpus Juris. Beyond that law, “the pious Israelite recognizes no obligations; the laws and customs of the Christians are so many regulations to be obeyed, evaded, set at naught, or used according to the possibilities and expediencies of the hour.”
It is curious to find this mixture of idealized romanticism—the child on its mother’s lap (surely it should be its father’s) lisping portions of the Talmud—and plain-spoken realism—Christian laws to be obeyed or evaded as expediency dictated. To Mrs. Webb they were opposite sides of the same coin: the same circumstances that made the Jews so meticulous in the observance of their own laws, customs, and obligations made them less than respectful of the laws, customs, and obligations of Christian societies, where they had managed to survive a long history of persecution only by a strategy of obedience, evasion, or violation. She hastened to add that she was speaking only of the recent immigrants who were fresh from those foreign experiences, not of the older Jewish community which had long enjoyed “the freedom, the culture, and the public spirit of English life.”
The process of acculturation, as she described it, was rapid. The “greenest” of the immigrants eked out a bare existence either from the charity of co-religionists or by working day and night for a small contractor in return for a place to sleep and a loaf of bread. After a few weeks or months, having learned a trade, the worker found a job where he received some pittance of pay. Within a year he joined a Chevrah, and, if he managed to resist the “Jewish passion for gambling,” he was on his way to becoming a petty trader or a “tiny capitalist,” earning a living by his own labor and by that of a few employees. He then found lodging in a “model dwelling” (a privately financed housing project) where he and his family lived comfortably and decently. At this point Mrs. Webb’s picture verges on the the idyllic. “He treats his wife with courtesy and tenderness, and they discuss constantly the future of the children.” He never goes to a public house, although he does sometimes enjoy a glass of rum and a game of cards with friends. “In short, he has become a law-abiding and self-respecting citizen of our great metropolis, and feels himself the equal of a Montefiore or a Rothschild.”
This achievement was all the greater, according to Mrs. Webb, because it was in stark contrast to the “drunkenness, immorality, and gambling” that infected the East End. Set in the midst of the “very refuse of our civilization,” the Jewish workers moved upward and onward, leaving to others the poorest jobs, the worst workshops, the dirtiest lodgings. Why was it, Mrs. Webb asked, that they were so successful? And why was that success so resented by the Christians with whom they came into contact?
Above all what distinguished the Jewish immigrant from the English laborer—I must emphasize that this is Beatrice Webb speaking, not I—was his intellect. “The poorest Jew has inherited through the medium of his religion a trained intellect.” Unlike Christian nations with their sharp class distinctions, “the children of Israel are a nation of priests.” From earliest childhood a Jew has been taught the rites and ceremonies, the laws and poetry, of his people; he has learned to master an ancient tongue and comprehend the subtleties and “fantasies” of the Talmud. He was not, to be sure, “cultured,” in the sense of having a wide knowledge and appreciation of the cultural experiences of others; on the contrary, his focus was entirely on the past and present of his own race. But his intellectual faculties—memory, reason, calculation—were highly cultivated. This was true among all classes of Jews, with the result that there was a striking equality among them, a uniformly high, if narrow, level of intellectual training. And these intellectual accomplishments, originating in their religious training, were intensified by a process of natural selection, the long history of persecution having the effect of weeding out the less competent and the less intelligent. Thus the Jewish workers in the East End were a “race of brain-workers” in contrast to the non-Jews who were “manual laborers.” For Jews, manual labor was “the first rung of the social ladder, to be superseded or supplanted on the first opportunity by the estimates of the profit-maker, the transactions of the dealer, or the calulations of the money lender”—provided, of course, that they did not fall prey to that “vice of the intellect,” gambling.
Their intellectual superiority, Mrs. Webb explained, was only one factor contributing to their success. More important was the “moral and physical regimen” which every pious Jew, male and female, was subjected to from birth—a regimen that “favors the full development of the bodily organs, protects them from abuse and disease, and stimulates the growth of physical self-control and mental endurance.” Unlike Christianity or Buddhism, which seek spiritual exaltation through the mortification of the flesh, the religious and dietary laws of Judaism “accentuate the physical aspect of life”; they are intended not as a preparation for another world but as a “course of training adapted to prolong the life of the individual and to multiply the number of his descendants.” This moral discipline was naturally centered on the family; it prescribed obedience toward parents, devotion to children, chastity for the girl, and support and protection for the wife. Thus the religious Jew was “a being at once moral and sensual; a creature endowed with the power of physical endurance, but gifted with a highly-trained and well-regulated appetite for sensuous enjoyment”
It was this combination, then, of intellectual aptitude, moral rectitude, and physical stamina that accounted for the Jew’s success. And it was the fact of his success that exposed him to oppression and ridicule, insult and injury, all of which he endured with “imperturbable good humor.” Unfettered by any fixed standard of living, he adjusted readily to opportunity; he was neither “depressed by penury” nor “demoralized by gain.” Unmoved by the passions that led to drink or crime, by the humors that came from “unsatisfied emotions,” he could pursue his purposes without distraction or despair. “Is it surprising,” Mrs. Webb concluded, “that in this 19th century, with its ideal of physical health, intellectual acquisition, and material prosperity, the chosen people, with three thousand years of training, should in some instances realize the promise made by Moses to their forefathers: ‘Thou shalt drive out nations mightier than thyself, and thou shalt take their land as an inheritance?”
That rhetorical question would seem to be sufficient answer both to Beatrice Webb’s first question—Why was the immigrant Jew so successful?—and to her second—Why was that success so resented by others? But she went on to propose another reason for that resentment. The immigrant Jew, it appeared, for all his virtues, was deficient in “that highest and latest development of human sentiment—social morality.” She hastily explained that she did not mean that the Jews violated the laws and conventions of either social or commercial life. On the contrary, they were among the most law-abiding inhabitants of the East End. “They keep the peace, they pay their debts, and they abide by their contracts; practices in which they are undoubtedly superior to the English and Irish casual laborers among whom they dwell.” And they did so for good reason, because they knew that “‘law and order’ and the ‘sanctity of contract’ are the sine qua non of a full and free competition in the open market,” and that they themselves could succeed “by competition, and by competition alone.” (Her father, she wrote in her autobiography, “believed in the Jewish maxim—a maxim he often cited—that a bargain is not a good bargain unless it pays both sides.”)
But while the foreign Jew, she said (presumably in contrast to the native-born, acculturated Jew), observed the law and the sanctity of contract, he was unrestrained by considerations of personal dignity, class loyalty, or trade integrity. The small manufacturer often rose to the rank of capitalist by bad and dishonest production; the petty dealer or money-lender, intent upon buying cheap and selling dear, took advantage of the weaknesses of his customers; the worker, trying to become a small master, was prepared to underbid his fellow workers. “In short, the foreign Jew totally ignores all social obligations other than keeping the law of the land, the maintenance of his own family, and the charitable relief of co-religionists.”
It was a subtle point Mrs. Webb was making, for within the same paragraph she described the immigrants as scrupulous in obeying the law and abiding by contracts, knowing these to be the conditions of a free, open, and competitive economy—and thus of their own success. Yet a few sentences later she charged them with producing inferior goods, taking advantage of their customers, and ignoring “all social obligations.” These social, as distinct from legal, obligations were obviously meant to signify a more sophisticated, civilized order of obligation, one that came more naturally to Englishmen than to foreigners, especially foreigners whose survival had not allowed them the luxury of such niceties. It was this distinction that Maurice Samuel was to describe so poignantly in his book, The Gentleman and the Jew, which drew upon his own experiences as an immigrant trying to accommodate to English society. (Samuel came to England as a child from Rumania only a dozen years after Beatrice Webb wrote her essay.)
No one has ever mistaken an East European immigrant Jew for an English gentleman. What is interesting about Mrs. Webb’s account is not so much the failure of the Jew to reach that highest level of “social morality” characteristic of the gentlemanly ethos, as his success in reaching the not inconsiderable level of personal and communal morality that she associated with the Jewish ethos. What is also interesting is her identification of that Jewish ethos with the ethos of capitalism. The final paragraph of her essay makes the point explicitly and dramatically:
Thus the immigrant Jew, fresh from the sorrowful experiences typical of the history of his race, seems to justify by his existence those strange assumptions which figured for man in the political economy of [David] Ricardo—an Always Enlightened Selfishness [these last words capitalized], seeking employment or profit with an absolute mobility of body and mind, without pride, without preference, without interests outside the struggle for the existence and welfare of the individual and the family.
The Jew as “economic man”—homo economicus. Where have we heard that before? From Marx, for one, whose essay “On the Jewish Question,” published in 1844, has had more echoes in the socialist movement than some socialists would like to think. There has been much controversy about whether that essay is anti-Semitic or simply anti-capitalist; but since Marx equates the Jew with the capitalist—not accidentally or circumstantially but metaphysically and religiously—the distinction is academic. Would we be arguing that question today if posters appeared, in the Soviet Union let us say, bearing the following message:
Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may exist. . . . The god of the Jews has been secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the Jew’s actual god. . . . What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Bargaining. What is his worldly god? Money. Very well! Emancipation from bargaining and money, and thus from practical and real Judaism would be the self-emancipation of our era.
It is interesting to compare Marx and Beatrice Webb on this subject Both portray the Jew as “economic man”—but how different the image is in the two cases. Mrs. Webb was, if not a full-fledged socialist, then at least an incipient socialist. But she was a Victorian socialist, and at this time a Victorian more than a socialist. It was the Victorian in her that responded favorably to those values—hard work, thrift, intelligence, sobriety, fidelity, self-reliance, self-discipline, devotion to family, loyalty to community, respect for law—which she saw as conducive to economic and social improvement and to a decent, moral existence.2 Her economic man, the economic man she identified with the Jew, exemplified an “Always Enlightened Selfishness”—enlightened because his “selfishness” embraced his family and community (he took upon himself, for example, the care of the poorer members of his community), and because it promoted values that were not only in his self-interest but also good in themselves.
There was, by contrast, nothing “enlightened” about Marx’s economic man. The key word Marx used to describe him was “alienated”: the Jew was dominated by an “alien essence”; his religion was a fraud and an illusion: his only god was money and the bill of exchange. As for his much vaunted family life—the wife, for example, whom Mrs. Webb depicted as loved, protected, and respected—according to Marx that wife was nothing more than an “object of commerce,” a woman to be “bought and sold.”
If Beatrice Webb’s portrait of the Jew-qua-economic man is so different from Marx’s, it is not only because she was a Victorian—thus almost by definition a moralist—but also because she was deeply religious. One of the great tragedies of her life was that she was never able to reconcile religion and socialism: the religion that she believed to be the metaphysical and emotional mainstay of life, the end and purpose of existence; and the socialism that she saw as the science of social engineering, the rational means of reforming and reorganizing society for the greatest good of all. But whatever her failure to reconcile the two, her own sense of religiosity was deep and enduring. She regularly prayed at home and less regularly, but often enough, attended services and took communion at St Paul’s. Thus she could respect, even admire, the Jew who also prayed, attended services, and observed the laws and rites of his religion. Religion was no “illusion” to her—not her own religion or anyone else’s.
She also appreciated, as even a great many non-believing Victorians did, the relationship between religion and morality. Valuing morality as highly as the Victorians did—valuing it even, as I have said, when they violated it—they welcomed any support for morality. And traditionally the strongest support, the ultimate sanction, came from religion. For Mrs. Webb, Judaism was an especially effective instrument of morality because it was a this-worldly religion. In this sense Judaism transcended the duality that she found so disturbing in her own life, the duality between religion and socialism, between ultimate ends and proximate means. In Judaism, as she saw it, there was no such dichotomy. Life was all of a piece—ritual and law, individual and community, personal salvation and social obligation, moral conduct and economic advancement.
I must repeat that this is Beatrice Webb, not myself, describing the Jewish immigrant community in England a century ago. I do not know how credible her account is. I have no reason not to credit it, although I am suspicious of some of her more effusive statements and sweeping generalizations. There were surely Jews who were drunkards as well as gamblers (the only vice she allowed them), who abandoned their wives and children, who did not support their poorer brethren, who never rose above the lower rungs of the economic ladder, who were not notably intelligent, or moral, or successful. (There were also, as she must have known, Jews for whom success was an invitation to cease being Jews.) But these, by all accounts, constituted a relatively small number of the Jewish immigrants—and a still smaller number relative to the non-Jewish laborers of the East End. And even these Jewish deviants, so to speak, did not challenge the ethos; they only violated it, from weakness of character or misfortunes of circumstance.
But whether and to what extent the Jews actually conformed to the ethos Mrs. Webb attributed to them, there is little doubt of the nature of that ethos or of her own esteem for it. Nor is there any doubt that this is remarkably akin to the ethos Margaret Thatcher has in mind when she calls for a return to “Victorian values.” Mrs. Thatcher would not like to be compared with Mrs. Webb—and with good reason. I myself find it odd to be writing of Mrs. Webb as warmly as I am now doing. But whatever other reservations I may have about her, I do appreciate (as the Anglo-Jewish press did at the time) her sympathetic portrait of Jewish immigrants in an alien country, stoically, courageously coping with poverty and adversity. And I appreciate even more her sympathetic account of the ethic that governed their behavior and the religion that inspired that ethic.
That ethic is more familiar to us today under the label of the Protestant or Puritan ethic. When Max Weber popularized these terms in 1904, in the first of his essays later published under the title The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he mentioned Judaism only in passing, and only to distinguish between the Judaic ethic which encouraged a “speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism,” and the Puritan ethic which was the source of the more rational “bourgeois capitalistic ethic.” Seven years later Werner Sombart described essentially the same ethic, this time attributing it to the Jews, in his provocative book, The Jews and Modern Capitalism. By now the subject has become one of those staples of controversy that transforms normally phlegmatic historians into passionate partisans. The terms of the debate shift and blur, Protestantism mutating into Calvinism, Calvinism into Puritanism, Puritanism into Judaism, Judaism into the Judaic-Christian tradition. And the relation between the terms changes: sometimes it is the religious ethos that is thought to inspire capitalism, sometimes capitalism that is presumed to determine the religious ethos, sometimes a secular ethos that is said to shape both religion and capitalism.
I do not propose to enter into any of these controversies. Certainly I would not say, as Sombart did, that “Puritanism is Judaism,” or, as Weber is sometimes accused of saying, that the Protestant ethic caused the rise of capitalism. Nor would I venture any opinion on whether the Judaic ethic derived primarily from Mosaic and talmudic law or from the historical experience of the Jews. For my purposes here, what is interesting about the ethos of this Jewish community in the 1880’s is its relation to the Victorian ethos, and this, in turn, to the capitalist ethos.
It is ironic that this study of the Jews should have been written by a woman who was even then sympathetic to socialism and who, after she became a committed socialist, continued to cherish the values—capitalist values, as she herself recognized—she had found among those poor Jewish immigrants. It is as if she wanted to superimpose those values upon socialism itself; as if the values that make for a successful, and ethical, capitalism are also required for a successful, and ethical, socialism. The very idea, of course, is self-contradictory. An ethic of “Always Enlightened Selfishness” predicates, as Ricardo said, “an absolute mobility of body and mind.” It is a free, competitive, acquisitive ethic, placing no limits (apart from those set by law and religion) upon the exertions or sacrifices an individual chooses to make or the commensurate rewards he expects to receive. It encourages workers to earn as much as they are capable of earning, to save as much of their earnings as they think proper, to invest their savings in enterprises they hope will be profitable, to reap the profits of those enterprises and pass them on to their families, and to discharge their communal responsibilities in accord with their religious precepts and voluntary desires. Such an ethic is hardly compatible with the kind of planned, controlled, regulated—regimented, an unfriendly critic might call it—society that was the avowed aim of Fabian socialism (to say nothing of Marxism).
Mrs. Thatcher has no such problem. Her Victorian values are entirely compatible with capitalism as she envisages it—and with the Jewish ethos as Beatrice Webb described it. When Mrs. Thatcher wants to epitomize those values, she cites the famous sermon by John Wesley on “The Use of Money”—delivered, incidentally, before his almost entirely working-class flock. “Gain all you can,” he exhorted them. “Save all you can. Give all you can.” That is pretty close to the ethic Beatrice Webb ascribed to the Jews—including the last part of that trinity, “Give all you can.”
It may be said that this is not an exalted or heroic ethic. That is certainly true. But those of us who have had some experience of exalted and heroic ethics may be reassured by the modesty of this one. A philosophy of “Always Enlightened Selfishness” does not sound as inspiring as a philosophy of “Always Altruistic Socialism,” but it turns out to be a good deal more humane in practice. One is no longer surprised at the failure of socialistic experiments; one would not be terribly distressed if they merely failed. What is distressing is the fact that all too often they succeed all too well—succeed in establishing and perpetuating a regime which is anything but altruistic, which is, in fact, oppressive and tyrannical.
A regime based upon the ethic of “Enlightened Selfishness” has the undeniable advantages of producing a more efficient and prosperous economy and a freer polity and society. It is also, I would venture to say, more genuinely (as distinct from rhetorically) moral, because it requires no violation or transformation of human nature. It takes people as they are and as they always have been, as human beings capable of being enlightened as well as selfish—enlightened precisely because they are selfish, because their “self” (properly understood, as Tocqueville would say) naturally embraces family and community, religion and tradition, interests and values.
If this is a capitalist ethos, it is also a democratic ethos. Those modest, mundane, lowly virtues—hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—are within the capacity of everyone. They do not assume any special breeding, or social status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They are common virtues within the reach of common people. They are preeminiently democratic virtues.
They are also (in the old sense of that term) liberal virtues. By putting a premium on ordinary virtues attainable by ordinary people, the ethos locates responsibility and authority within each individual. In an aristocratic age, only the exceptional, heroic individual was seen as a free moral agent, the master of his fate. Now all individuals are assumed to be free moral agents, hence then-own masters. It is no accident that the Victorian ethos put such a premium on the self: self-interest, self-help, self-control, self-reliance, self-respect, self-discipline. A liberal society, the Victorians believed, requires a moral citizenry. The more effective the voluntary exercise of morality on the part of each indidvidual, the more internalized that morality, the less need there is for the external, coercive instruments of the state. Just as law, in a civilized society, is a substitute for force, so morality is a surrogate for authority.
Yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism. Today it is Mrs. Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative party, who has reaffirmed those Victorian values in the name, as she told the elders of the Church of Scotland, of the “Judaic-Christian tradition.” Recalling Mrs. Webb’s account of the Jewish community, we may be forgiven for thinking that those Victorian values are perhaps more Judaic than Christian.
1 It has also been said that she herself was, or believed herself to be, one-quarter Jewish; but this is highly speculative, derived from the fantasies of a grandmother who, when she was released from a lunatic asylum, took upon herself the mission of leading the Jews back to Jerusalem, and got as far as Paris before she was rescued by her family. There may be an allusion to this in a letter written by Beatrice Webb while she was preparing her essay on the Jewish community. She had been meeting with Jews “of all classes,” she said, “and on the whole I like and respect them—I almost think I have a true feeling for them.”
2 There was one ambivalent note in all of this. The socialist-to-be could not resist pointing out that the “Hebrew economist” who promoted this image of economic man also doomed most “manual workers” to a “bare subsistence wage”; the allusion, of course, is to Ricardo's “iron law of wages.” Socialists commonly cited Ricardo as the archetypical political economist, rather than Adam Smith, who did not subscribe to the iron law of wages, but who believed, on the contrary, that the wages of even the lowest class would rise in an expanding economy.