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Martha Beatrice Webb, Lady Passfield (née Potter; 22 January 1858 – 30 April 1943), was an English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer. Her husband, Sidney Webb, was created Baron Passfield in 1929. Along with her husband and numerous others, Webb co-founded the London School of Economics and played a crucial role in forming the Fabian Society. She coined the term "collective bargaining".
Beatrice Potter was born in Standish House in the village of Standish, Gloucestershire, the daughter of a businessman Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth, a Liverpool merchant's daughter. Her older sister became the social worker Catherine Courtney, Baroness Courtney of Penwith, while her grandfather was Liberal Party MP Richard Potter, co-founder of the Little Circle which was key in creating the Reform Act 1832.
From an early age Beatrice was self-taught and cited as important influences the cooperative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer (with whom she became acquainted after an early stay with relatives in Lancashire). In 1882, she had a relationship with Radical politician Joseph Chamberlain, by then a Cabinet minister, but the relationship ultimately failed.
Beatrice Potter then took up social work and assisted her cousin Charles Booth who was carrying out a pioneering survey of the Victorian slums of London. She also became a rent-collector in the model dwellings at Katherine Buildings, Aldgate, operated by the East End Dwellings Company. When her father died, Potter inherited an endowment of £1,000 pounds a year which she used to support herself during this research project.
In 1890 Beatrice Potter was introduced to Sidney Webb, whose help she sought with her research. In 1891 Beatrice published The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, based on her experiences in Lancashire. They married in 1892, and until her death 51 years later shared political and professional activities.
The Webbs became active members of the Fabian Society. With the Fabians' support, Beatrice Webb co-authored books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement including The History of Trade Unionism in 1894 and Industrial Democracy in 1897. In 1895, the Fabians used a donation from Henry Hutchinson, a solicitor from Derby, to found the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Webb made a number of important contributions to political and economic theory of the co-operative movement. She coined the terms "Co-operative Federalism" and "Co-operative Individualism" in her 1891 book Cooperative Movement in Great Britain. Out of these two categories, she identified herself as a co-operative federalist; a school of thought which advocates consumer co-operative societies. She argued that consumers' co-operatives should form co-operative wholesale societies (by forming co-operatives in which all members are co-operatives, the best historical example being the English Co-operative Wholesale Society) and that these federal co-operatives should undertake purchasing farms or factories. Webb dismissed the idea of worker co-operatives where the people who did the work and benefited from it had some control over how it was done, arguing that – at the time she was writing – such ventures had proved largely unsuccessful, at least in ushering in her form of socialism led by volunteer committees of people like herself. Examples of successful worker Cooperatives did of course exist then as now. In some professions they were the norm. However, Webb’s final book, The Truth About The Soviet Union, as discussed below, celebrated central planning.
Minority report to Royal Commission
Between 1905 and 1909, Beatrice Webb was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905-09. The Conservative government of AJ Balfour established the Commission, which issued its final report to the Liberal government of HH Asquith. Webb headed the minority report which outlined a welfare state which would "secure a national minimum of civilised life ... open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes, by which we meant sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged". William Beveridge, who was later to author the Beveridge Report in 1942, worked as a researcher for the Webbs on the Minority Report.
New Statesman and leftist schisms
In 1913, both Webbs co-founded the New Statesman, a political weekly edited by Clifford Sharp with contributions from many philosophers, economists and politicians of the time including George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes. In late 1914, the Webbs became members of the Labour Party. At this time, their leadership of the Fabian Society faced opposition from H.G. Wells, who lampooned them in his 1911 novel The New Machiavelli as 'the Baileys', a pair of short-sighted, bourgeois manipulators. Other opponents from the left in the Labour Party included the Guild Socialists and the historian and economist G.D.H. Cole. During this time, Webb collaborated with her husband in his writings and policy statement such as Labour and the New Social Order in 1918, as well as his election in 1922 to the parliamentary seat of Seaham in Durham.
Later career and critics
In 1928 the Webbs retired to Liphook in Hampshire, where they lived until their deaths in the 1940s. In 1932, Sidney and Beatrice travelled to the Soviet Union and later published their support of the Soviet economic experiment, including Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?(1935) and The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942). Her left-wing commitments led Webb to justify some of Joseph Stalin's atrocities: for example, in speaking of the Moscow Trials, she described her satisfaction that Stalin had "cut out the dead wood". Subsequent historians have criticised the Webbs and their books for their uncritical view of Stalin's conduct, during brutal agricultural collectivisation, as well as extensive purges and the creation of the gulag forced labour system. A. J. P. Taylor later referred to Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? as "the most preposterous book ever written about Russia", and Marxist historian Al Richardson described the same book as "pure Soviet propaganda at its most mendacious".
Sidney and Beatrice Webb had no children of their own. In retirement Beatrice reflected upon this, as well as the success of their symbolic children, the London School of Economics and New Statesman. On 14 September 1936, Beatrice wrote: "In old age it is one of the minor satisfactions of life to watch the success of your children, literal children or symbolic. The London School of Economics is undoubtedly our most famous one; but the New Statesman is also creditable – it is the most successful of the general weeklies, actually making a profit on its 25000 readers, and has absorbed two of its rivals, The Nation and the Week-end Review".
Webb's nephew, Sir Stafford Cripps, became a well-known Labour politician in the 1930s and 1940s, serving as British ambassador to Moscow during World War II and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee. His daughter, Peggy, went on to marry Nana Joe Appiah, a noted African statesman and tribal chieftain who served as something of a founding father of the Republic of Ghana. Her niece, Barbara Drake, was a prominent trade unionist and a member of the Fabian Society. Another niece, Katherine Dobbs, married the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge whose experience reporting from the Soviet Union later made him highly critical of the Webbs' optimistic portrayal of Stalin's rule. Her sister Margaret Hayworth Potter married the Liberal politician Henry Hobhouse, making Webb an aunt of peace activist Stephen Henry Hobhouse and Liberal politician Arthur Hobhouse.
When Beatrice Webb died in 1943, the casket containing her ashes was buried in the garden of their house in Passfield Corner. Lord Passfield's ashes were also buried there when he died four years later. Shortly afterwards, George Bernard Shaw launched an ultimately successful petition to have both reburied to Westminster Abbey. Today, the Webbs' ashes are interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, close to those of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin.
Beatrice Webb's papers, including her diaries, are among the Passfield archive at the London School of Economics. The Webb Diaries are now digitised and available online at the LSE's Digital Library. Posts about Beatrice Webb regularly appear in the LSE Archives blog, Out of the box.
Works by Beatrice Webb:
- Cooperative Movement in Great Britain (1891)
- Women and the Factory Acts (1896)
- The abolition of the Poor Law (1918)
- Wages of Men and Women: Should they be equal? (1919)
- My Apprenticeship (1926)
- A new Reform Bill (1931)
- Our Partnership (1948)
Works by Beatrice and Sidney Webb:
- History of Trade Unionism (1894)
- Industrial Democracy (1897)
- The Webbs' Australian Diary (1898)
- English Local Government Vol. I-X (1906 through 1929)
- The Manor and the Borough (1908)
- The Break-Up of the Poor Law (1909)
- English Poor-Law Policy (1910)
- The Cooperative Movement (1914)
- Works Manager Today (1917)
- The Consumer's Cooperative Movement (1921)
- Decay of Capitalist Civilization (1923)
- Methods of Social Study (1932)
- Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935) (the 2nd and 3rd editions of 1941 and 1944 did not have "?" in the title)
- The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942)
- "A Timeline of Events in Modern American Labor Relations". Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (United States). Archived from the original on 2 August 2010. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
1891: The term "collective bargaining" is first used by Mrs. Sidney Webb, a British labor historian.
- Potter, Beatrice, The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1891.
- BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour discussion on 1909 Minority Report http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2008_05_wed.shtml
- From the Workhouse to Welfare, edited by Ed Wallis (Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust, 2009)
- Snyder (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. p. 74.
- See, e.g., Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror (1968 and subsequent editions).
- Paul Laity, Left Book Club Anthology Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001 ISBN 0575072210 (p. xvii)
- Al Richardson, "Introduction" to C. L. R. James, World Revolution 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. Humanities Press, 1937 ISBN 0391037900
- Beatrice Webb diary entry 14 September 1936
Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Volume 1, The Green Stick, pp. 206-210, Collins 1972
- 16x16px Media related to Beatrice Webb at Wikimedia Commons
- Spartacus Educational
- Archival material relating to Beatrice Webb listed at the UK National Archives
- Richard Potter Chairman of the Great Western Railway
- The History of Standish House
- The Webb Diaries full digital versions
- The Webbs on the Web bibliography
- Works by Beatrice Webb at Project Gutenberg
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