A revolutionary partnership. The most famous marriage in Labour history was almost aborted when Beatrice Webb fell in love with Joseph Chamberlain. Michael Foot explains why the affair didn't prosper

The life and times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb 1858-1905: the formative years

Royden J Harrison <

"And what exactly is the daily life you ought to live if you wished to be, and to be thought to be, a genuine revolutionary?" This was the question that Beatrice would occasionally ask Sidney Webb in the later years of their supposedly ideal marriage. A strong streak of irony must have been present in the wife's inquiry, if not in the husband's evasive reply. And yet the two contributed mightily to the socialist upheavals of the past century and, most directly, to the notorious Clause Four of the Labour Party's constitution which later leaders have found so offensive to their ideas or injurious to their electoral prospects.

Royden Harrison, with the full weight of evidence at his disposal, claims that the Beatrice-Sidney collaboration was "the most fruitful partnership in the history of the British intellect". Sometimes their methods of spreading their ideas succeeded; sometimes they failed. But Harrison examines the balance sheet with an unfailing fairness similar to that of the partnership itself at its most honest and lucid.

Beatrice and Sidney were equally skilful in presenting their case for the kind of revolution in which they believed and the kind of institutions they thought necessary for the purpose - not merely the Labour Party, but also the London School of Economics, the New Statesman and several others still surviving to serve no less commendable purposes.

The Webbs' classic study of the co-operative movement was the first introduction to the history of trade unions that many of us encountered. A third volume, Industrial Democracy, displayed their combined talents still more fruitfully. The leading historian Eric Hobsbawm hailed the lasting significance of this volume, and it was through reading this book that two would-be students of Labour politics in the 1930s - Barbara Betts (later Castle) and the writer of this review - grappled with the Webbs for the first time. We read Industrial Democracy together at Barbara's flat in Coram Street; and Beatrice in that mood almost distracted us away from our first thrilling introduction to Karl Marx.

For years Beatrice kept a diary which she brilliantly transmuted much later into a volume proudly called Our Partnership. The most moving part of the diary, however, was suppressed until quite recently. It describes her passionate longing for Joseph Chamberlain, at a time when he was declaring war on the most powerful institutions of the age with a fervour that Sidney never aspired to. His targets included royalty and, since he knew them at first hand, the class that melded both the power and the wealth. If Beatrice had left Sidney for him then, it would have been a sensation of the first order.

One of the chief reasons why the affair did not prosper - beneficially for humanity at large - was Chamberlain's attitude to women. He made it clear that, despite his genuine radical instincts on so many other subjects, he had no sympathy with the aspirations of women whose cause was gathering irresistible logic. But Beatrice herself, at that particular moment, seemed to share some of his strange prejudices. It was to take another kind of man altogether to challenge this strand in her nature. That man was another famous Fabian, H G Wells. He sent her a copy of In the Days of the Comet, in which he argued that socialists of the modern age ought to embrace the challenge of sexual politics. Wells would sometimes say that what he was doing was putting the case of the passionate daughter. He had no idea then of how Beatrice had suppressed her own passions.

No doubt Harrison, like Wells and other critics before him, would have wished to see the two revolutionaries moving much faster towards their socialist goals. It was the besetting sin of the Fabians to allow themselves to become too much enmeshed with existing institutions. Above all, youth cried out for something much more adventurous, something truly revolutionary, not only in politics but across the whole field of human relationships. Such was the message that Wells sent to Beatrice in his Days of the Comet.

All these various aspects of the Webbs' lives are covered afresh in Harrison's long-awaited, authorised biography. Don't be misled, however, by the long wait or the official sanction. Every judgement in these pages has been weighed, every incident bears retelling and every word counts. This particular volume takes us no further than 1905, before the Fabians had reached the peak of their influence - a time when Beatrice's own natural generosity of spirit made her confess that she had changed her mind on the thorny issue of women's rights.

Wells's views on the Webb entourage were most famously revealed in his novel The New Machiavelli. This was published in the long Edwardian twilight before 1914 when discussions were dominated by the question of how the new idea of socialism - Fabian or of any other brand - was actually to be applied, both in Britain and elsewhere. In the novel, Wells records how a loving, truly revolutionary partnership was born and how it had the vitality to carry the crusade further afield. At the climax, when it seems that a conventional scandal may wreck the hero's parliamentary career, the woman takes command: "She was amazingly sharp and quick and good. I had never dreamt there was such talk in the world." Did Beatrice read the climax of the lover's story in The New Machiavelli and see something of her own life in the mirror of Wells's prose?

The Wells who had sent his Comet to Beatrice some years before was entitled to claim that he had applied his adventurous mind to the subject of women's rights as well as any rival. The New Machiavelli was the proof that he understood the truly revolutionary nature of the women's movement in the best sense of that word, and how nothing must be allowed to block its path. Careful readers of these volumes today may see how Beatrice came to understand the thrust of Wells's message, and how Wells himself empathised with her understanding.

Harrison's The Life and Times is a fine book, a notable addition to the riches in our socialist library. Its powerful message shows how partners can act together and how, indeed, they will be needed to save our stricken world.

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This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end