The Woman Behind the Welfare State


The Diary of Beatrice Webb, Vol. 2, 1892–1905: "All the Good Things in Life", edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 376 pp., $25.00

Beatrice Potter was a brilliant, middle-class beauty with a small private income, who had an agonizing relationship with the Liberal political leader Joseph Chamberlain, whom she loved but would not marry because she disagreed with his political ideals. Instead, she was drawn to the ideas of Sidney Webb, a brilliant, ugly Cockney, who had been one of the founders in 1884 of the Fabian Society, that British intellectual group organized like an exclusive club and dedicated to bringing about socialism without revolution by permeating the existing political establishment instead of confronting it.

The Webbs married in 1892, when The Diary of Beatrice Webb, volume 2, begins. They immediately plunged into a working relationship so close that she described it as "almost a joint existence." Their aim was to create a body of information and ideas that could influence whichever politicians were in power at the moment. Together they founded and nurtured the London School of Economics and wrote monumentally detailed books that promoted socialism. They preferred to call it "collectivism," perceiving this as a term at once more general and less apt to arouse negative reactions in those whom they sought to influence. But they promoted it as the only truly scientific approach to society.

This diary can be looked at in many ways. It is the record of an intellectual woman, childless by choice and determined to devote her life to research, but torn about the importance of motherhood and the emerging movement for women's rights. It is a gossipy record of the lives and thoughts of some of the most interesting and influential writers and politicians of the late Victorian era. And it is the psychological story of the successful struggle of a person who felt profoundly torn between her heart and her head and was determined to mold her life and work into more efficient patterns, just as she wished to mold society.

But precisely because permeation of the existing political establishment was such a spectacular success and the Webbs were to see in their lifetime the introduction of many of the trappings of the welfare state in Britain, it is the political saga that must remain the most important thread of this diary. This volume deals with the ascendancy of the Webbs' influence, from their marriage when she was 34 through the publication and critical success of their first two joint books, The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy. We see them move from small meetings with equally obscure comrades to fame and dinner parties with prime ministers, from trying to influence local schools to being unofficial advisers on national policy.

Beatrice Webb held that elite thinkers (like the Fabians) not only would have to discover the principles of efficient administration but would have to impose them from the top down. That was why she wanted to transform British government into the rule of the expert, "to extend the sphere of government by adding to its enormous advantages of wholesale and compulsory management, the advantage of the most skilled entrepreneur." Nor was she slow to notice that really large and efficient entrepreneurs seemed to be no enemies of government regulation. She was authoritarian in many ways: an advocate of church establishment, an opponent of letting women vote, and a supporter of the Liberal imperialists ("They have no prejudice against our view of social reform, whilst their general attitude toward the Empire as a powerful and self-conscious force is one with which we are in agreement").

On the other hand, she was working at a time when no one foresaw the grey world of the British welfare state, in which the individual disappeared and rights and privileges pertained only to members of groups. Hers was the world of free trade and Social Darwinism, in which Beatrice tried to rid herself of "laissez faire bias" in order to combat "bigoted individualists." As a young woman doing social work in her twenties, it was the family friend Herbert Spencer who was her mentor. In this diary we see Spencer as an old man, querulous and ill, whom she continues to visit not just because of the pull of old ties but because his method is incorporated in all her work. "He taught me to look on all institutions exactly as if they were plants or animals, things that could be observed, classified and explained and the action of which could to some extent be foretold if one knew enough about them."

How had a disciple of the individualist Herbert Spencer become a champion of collectivism? Her criticism of utilitarian ethics and of Spencer's "strangely crude vision of human life as a series of hard bargains" led her to mistrust deductive reasoning and abstractions. The utilitarian, she charged, "never asked—is it so?"

By contrast, the Webbs worked by the inductive method, hammering out hypotheses from masses of facts that they were trying to explain. And Beatrice thought it was their gathering and analysis of facts that would last, not the hypotheses, which she was convinced would be "either truisms or fallacies in a generation's time." The individualists of the past who had wanted to limit government were "to a large extent right" in their day, she mused, though hindsight showed that the corruption they were opposing was not "any necessary characteristic of state action." She conceded that the principle of collectivism might also have limits in its application; but turn-of-the-century England, she said, was nowhere near those limits, so "we can cultivate this principle vigorously for all it is worth." It was a point of pride with her that "the men and women of today distrust general principles even though they are prepared to use them."

So we're left with permeation, a brilliant strategy and a blueprint for successful political change that is still valid today. Change doesn't come from organizing unthinking people around slogans; it comes from providing evidence and argument to convince thinking people that certain policy changes will be beneficial. But to do that, one needs to pay as much attention to what beneficial means as to the facts of the policy. Beatrice Webb didn't do that. Her hypothesis that socialism would combine maximum efficiency with maximum consent was unexamined and unproved; her principle of collectivism, little better than a slogan. Perhaps it's not accidental that she, who began as an admirer of Herbert Spencer, was by the time she died in 1943 an admirer of the Soviet Union and of Joseph Stalin. This diary doesn't give us a map for that seemingly incredible intellectual journey (the diary ends in 1905), but it does give us some clues about why the journey may have taken place.

She saw utilitarian principles as being without factual support. So she went to the other extreme and chose to deal instead with facts without principles or with "distrusted" principles whose value was therefore primarily for propaganda effect. Science became the only abstraction she trusted—and science, she noted several times, cannot determine ends; it can only show how they can be achieved. It's not that Beatrice Webb had a faulty vision of what all this activity was going to lead to. She had no vision of the future. The reader, having seen what lies at the end of the road, is not so fortunate.

Joan Kennedy Taylor is publications director of the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.