Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb (1858–1943)

Beatrice Webb was a member of the Fabian Society and believed that socialism would evolve peacefully through a combination of political action and education.

The main ideas of Beatrice Webb were as follows:

● ‘The inevitability of gradualness’ was an evolutionary socialist belief that parliamentary democracy and not revolution would deliver the inevitable socialist society. It was inevitable because universal suffrage would lead to political equality as democracy would work in the interests of the working-class majority.

● Webb’s ideas were therefore as fundamental as revolutionary socialism. However, she sought the overthrow of capitalism via the ballot box rather than through revolution.

Social democracy was the revisionism of democratic socialism and had its origins in Germany and the UK after the Second World War. Socialism faced hostility in the West as the Cold War unfolded and revisionist socialists had to deal with the reality that the post-war economic boom was increasing prosperity and living standards. Rather than alienating the working class, capitalism was delivering tangible benefits.

● Social democrats therefore argued that capitalism should be reformed and not replaced, which was a significant break with democratic socialism, which envisaged a fully socialist state.

● Social democracy attempted to utilise the wealth created by the free market by using state intervention to ensure that the proceeds were more fairly distributed across society. This would be done by:

supporting a mixed economy of both nationalised state industry and privately owned companies, which Attlee’s Labour governments delivered between 1945 and 1951 economic state intervention, via Keynesian regulation of the economy, to ensure permanent full employment and growth the welfare state, used to redistribute wealth and challenge poverty and social inequality.

● Following these reforms, Anthony Crosland argued that capitalism was no longer a system of oppression and that social justice was more important than common ownership.

● Crosland argued that social democracy must manage and maintain economic growth to pay for welfare spending, balancing economic efficiency and egalitarianism.

● Webb argued that the working class would vote for socialist parties, which would begin to instigate social, economic and political reform, resulting in a socialist society.

● The expansion of the state was vital to deliver socialism as it would ‘silently change its character…from police power to housekeeping on a national scale’. The state would develop a highly trained elite of administrators and specialists to organise the socialist society.

● Equality of ownership, described in Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution, would equate to extensive state nationalisation and not the workers taking direct control.

● Equality of ownership would involve high taxation of the wealthy so that the state could redistribute resources to the less well-off via an extensive welfare state.

Inspired by the revisionist socialist writer Bernstein, who was also very inspired by them, Beatrice Webb and her husband, Sidney, rejected revolution as violent and destructive and saw education and reform as the key to creating a more equal society . Although they were highly critical of capitalism, they argued that Marx’s analysis was now outdated and that a piecemeal, step-by-step approach to socialism would be both more humane and more successful than violent revolution . As supporters and founder members of the Labour Party in 1901, they saw the state as a neutral body, an essential tool that could be used to create a more equal and just society, rather than as a bourgeois creation . The Webbs were opposed to Marx’s stark class-based analysis . To them, socialism should be an inclusive ideology and they argued that a socialist society would appeal to those of all classes and all would benefit . This was linked to their belief in the central importance of education and the spread of knowledge . The Webbs founded the Fabian Society, which still holds influence over the Labour Party today, the London School of Economics and New Statesman magazine . The Webbs were strongly in favour of state intervention in the economy . In the 1930s they visited the Soviet Union, where they were impressed by the improvements in health and education, but noted the lack of political freedoms . Their sociological studies on poverty can be seen as providing ideas and plans for the creation of welfare provision, many years before the Beveridge Report .

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