Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Seventeen

“Sidney and Beatrice Webb,” pages 105-110

The Webbs were very tightly joined, despite an aversion to a romantic view of marriage. They understood marriage to be instrumental, society’s method to shape instinct within a legal framework. Russell knew Sidney before the marriage, and saw the immense value added to Sidney by Beatrice; Russell oversimplified their collaboration as one where Beatrice developed the ideas and Sidney did the spade work. “He was perhaps the most industrious man that I have ever known [pages 105-106].” Beatrice’s broader interests extended to other human beings, and she was religious though not part of any organized branch of religion. She was brought up by a father committed to Herbert Spencer’s theories of education. Beatrice had a reputation (at least with Bertie’s mum!) as a bit of a social butterfly, and her interest in Fabianism led her to connections with Webb, Shaw, and Graham Wallas. “There was something like the Judgment of Paris with the sexes reversed, and it was Sidney who emerged as the counterpart of Aphrodite [p. 107].” The three rivals and Beatrice together founded the London School of Economics.

Beatrice’s family fortune allowed the Webbs to devote their lives to research and activism; the resulting books, and the London School of Economics, met with great success. Russell “liked and admired [p. 107]” Beatrice, while objecting to some of her political stands. At the core of Fabianism lies State worship. Hence the Webbs (and Bernard Shaw) were overly tolerant of fascism, and admiring of Soviet socialism. The Webbs were “fundamentally undemocratic, and regarded it as the function of a statesman to bamboozle or terrorize the populace [p. 109].”

The Webbs despised H. G. Wells, both because of his flouting of Beatrice’s Victorian-style morality and his competition for leadership of the Fabians. Nor did they care for the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The Webbs were not lifelong Labour supporters, having had early flirtations with both the Conservatives and the Liberals.

They possessed their peculiarities. Mrs. Webb followed a regimen of fasting, which involved her not eating breakfast and having but a small dinner. Sidney used mildly unscrupulous methods to win his point within a committee. Their influence on the Labour Party was similar to the Benthamite influence on the radicals in the 19th Century – their aversion to emotion echoed the Benthamites, too. The Webbs’s rationalism kept the Labour Party from becoming unhinged, to the lasting benefit of democracy in Britain.

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