Often only those people who have been personally devoted to a leader will undertake to write his or her biography. Certainly Margaret Cole, who worked with Beatrice Webb in the Fabian Society, is too closely connected with the British Socialist movement to maintain even an aura of scholarly objectivity. The author seems more concerned with justifying each particular action of her idol than with evaluating her various campaigns in the light of her announced objectives. This, plus a rather careless style, makes "Beatrice Webb" more of an expanded pamphlet than a work of research, but Mrs. Cole's observations are nevertheless valuable to the student of British socialism.
Beatrice Webb was thoroughly British in her experimentalism: observing the evil effects of the haphazardness and irrationality of the economic processes of the 1880's, she refused to echo Marx in attributing the evils to economic factors alone, but tried through methodical research to discover the causes of poverty and unemployment, and to improve social conditions gradually, through an extension of the existing state machinery. Measurement and publicity were her key words, and her approach was almost mathematical in her passion for statistics, and her belief that once statistics were published and brought to nation-wide attention, social reform would naturally follow.
The book describes Mrs. Webb's numerous investigations and reports, on trade unions, education, slum conditions and the inadequacies of the Poor Laws; we also got a picture of her continuous battle with the radical Socialists, first in the form of anarchistic trade union leaders near the turn of the century, later with the guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole, and after the war with supporters of the Russian revolution.
Mrs. Webb was at first highly suspicious of the Russian movement, but when, past 70, she and her husband Sidney were invited to Russia, she did a quick about-face, and in her "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization" glorified the Soviet state, lightly passing over the violence and terrorism which she had formerly repudiated.
This transformation is difficult to explain, and Margaret Cole not only avoids it, but seems unaware of the challenge it presents to the belief that socialism can be achieved peacefully within the framework of political democracy. The present British government would tend to substantiate Beatrice Webb's earlier theories, but it is still too early to evaluate the permanency of her contribution.