Himmelfarb on the Fabians
By Alberto Mingardi
I’m an unabashed admirer of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of the many. Her work is always illuminating, erudite, and typically a rather splendid read. I was most happy to see a new book by her, published in 2017 by Encounter Publishers. Past and Present. The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorian to the Postmodernists brings together a few scattered essays, which all pursue the aim of setting the (British) past and (American) present in a dialogue.
In chapter six, “Churchill’s Welfare State – and Ours”, Himmerlfarb deals with Obamacare and with the welfarist policies favoured by Winston Churchill as a young politician, namely the Labour Exchanges Act and the National Insurance Act. Himmelfarb focuses on Sydney and Beatrice Webb’s criticism of these measures, which were deemed insufficient. Yet they established the true foundations of the British Welfare State.
Fabianism is generally described as a moderate, reformist type of socialism, achieving its ends not by class war and revolution but by persuasion and ‘permeation’. Yet in a sense it was more radical than Marxism because it sought control not so much of the economy or polity as of society itself. It is fitting that the Fabian Society should have been founded, in 1884, as a society, not a party, for its primary focus was the ‘social organism’, and its ultimate purpose the ‘regeneration of society’, the ‘reconstruction of the Social System’.
Sydney and Beatrice Webb, she argues, had little faith in “the avarega sensuale man” and didn’t “believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances”. For this very reason they aimed to “introduce into politics the professional 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”.
Contrasting the Webbs with a young Churchill, Himmelfarb maintains that
The Webbs wanted to organise society in order to curb the anarchy of individualism and create a rational society in which the average sensual man would be prevented from indulging his whims and vices. Churchill wanted to organise society in order to create the condition in which individualism would thrive and the average sensual man – that is to say, everyman – could live his life freely, whims, vices, and all.
I can’t comment on young Churchill’s flirtation with “Tory democracy”, to use a term quite familiar to him.
But, leaving Churchill aside, I think Himmelfarb is hinting here at an important truth. Quite often, advocates of interventionism are not so much interested in alleviating some _particular_ problems but are pursuing the grander goal of moving up from the “anarchy of production”, which is: the seemingly acephalous system that the free market is. For the Webbs, explains Himmelfarb, the anarchy of production was paralleled by an anarchy of society, which needed to be reined in to check its lack of order and redundancy in order to realise the alleged “greater good” of society. Readers of Thomas Leonard‘s Illiberal Reformers won’t be surprised.
In this context, it is certainly true that there are at least two different kinds of social reformers: the control freaks which cover their desire for a top down plan of society with whatever social goals spark interest at the moment, and those interested in dealing with particular problems, who are often wise enough to understand that it might be easier to alleviate than altogether to “solve” them. A more open question is if the good work of the latter reduce the scope for the ambitions of the first, or inadvertently grow them instead.