I read this a number of years ago now, but still it surprised me that it should be written in 1973. Before I was born. I forget just how long Western white folks have known we were hurtling into climate crisis, though I know our indigenous kin have been voicing their warning since Europeans set foot in their ‘new world’ and began the first wave of extinctions and genocide.
This is a book critiquing economics as they are (still are, despite all good sense and years of warning) and providing a vision of economics as they could be. I feel that there are so many people rethinking economics now, writing for popular audiences with books splashed across Waterstones’ tables, that it is almost encouraging. But this analysis of the modern world as Schumacher sees it is still a good place to start, and I’ve been meaning to come back to it for a while.
He begins with the very European separation of man (because it was almost always man after all, and that was always a part of the problem) from nature.
In 1950 Richard Titmuss (1907-1973) took up the first Chair of Social Administration at LSE, where he remained for the rest of his career. Superficially this was a surprising appointment since he had no formal educational qualifications. But three factors explain his coming to the School. First, Titmuss was, and remained, extremely good at networking. In the 1930s, for instance, he had joined the Eugenics Society where he rubbed shoulders with prominent social scientists and academic leaders such as William Beveridge (LSE Director 1919-37) and Alexander Carr-Saunders (LSE Director 1937-57). Second, in the late 1930s, although employed by an insurance company, Titmuss was nonetheless carrying out independent, and well-regarded, research. His particular interests were in what he saw as the threat to Britain’s future population growth and structure and the state of the population’s health. Third, in the early 1940s he was commissioned to write one of the official histories of the British experience on the ‘Home Front’ during the Second World War, Problems of Social Policy. This volume, which appeared in 1950, remains an invaluable source of data about the wartime social services while also setting out what Titmuss argued must be achieved by post-war social reconstruction. For him, this should be based on the British people’s wartime social solidarity and social cohesion. [LSE history blog]
I don’t even know what to do with that biography. I’m one of those as thinks the right kind of experience in a field is generally equal to educational qualifications. But kicking it with Beveridge in the Eugenics Society? Just one of those unsurprising surprises that always seems to lurk in the closets of this empire.
So this is just going to focus on what I found interesting about what he saw and documented about the Welfare State, which is as useful in some ways as the Beveridge Report damn it. Considered a classic, these essays published in book form in 1958 contain another unsurprising surprise about just how far back current debates go. This is a collection of talks really, covering quite a lot of ground and looking at the many different aspects of poverty and working class demographics impacting on costs and policies of the welfare state. Not all them were useful to what I’m working on, but give such a good sense of how things began, which explains so much about how we have ended up where we are.
The titles give a great sense of the wealth of historical data and discussion to be found here.
Social Administration in a Changing Society
First, just a brief excerpt on this new department of the LSE, and the drive behind its founding — the expected appearance of the Fabian Webbs, the unexpected appearance of funding from Tata and the welcome transition from a moral inquiry into symptoms to a depper inquiry into causes:
This department for the study of social administration was founded at a time when fundamental moral and social issues were being debated with vigor and a new sense of purpose. It was a product of the ferment of inquiry to which the Webbs, Charles Booth and many others contributed so much. Poverty, on the one hand, and moral condemnation of the poor on the other, were being questioned. Inquiry was moving from the question ‘why are they poor?’ Professor Tawney, aware, as he has repeatedly taught us, that the most important thing about a man is what he takes for granted, was in his element when he gave his inaugural lecture as Director of the Ratan Tata Foundation… (17) it was a period when social policies were being shaped by diagnoses which took account of the presenting symptoms rather than of the causes of contemporary social ills. (18)
The Social Division of Welfare
So here we have the principal contemporary critiques of the Welfare State:
‘The Welfare State’ was ‘established’ too quickly and on too broad a scale. the consequences, it is argued, have been harmful to the economic health of the national and its ‘moral fibre’.
Ah, the old moral fibre. That’s one they keep coming back to.
Against this background, compounded of uneasiness and complacency, criticism has mainly focused on the supposedly equalitarian aims or effects of the social services. it is said that the relief of poverty or the maintenance of a national minimum as an objective of social policy should not mean the pursuit of equality…The error of welfare state policies since 1948 has been, according to this diagnosis, to confuse ends and means, and to pursue equalitarian aims with the result that the ‘burden’ of redistribution from rich to poor has been pushed too far… (35)
We can’t all be equal is another. Not that a bit of redistribution is the same thing.
Titmuss notes that the widespread nature of these criticisms have
produce[d] in the public eye something akin to a stereotype or image of an all-pervasive Welfare State for the Working Classes. Such is the tyranny of stereotypes today that this idea of a welfare society, born as a reaction against the social discrimination against the poor law may, paradoxically, widen rather than narrow class relationships. As Gerth and Mills have pointed out ‘… if the upper classes monopolize the means of communication and fill the several mass media with the idea that all those at the bottom are there because they are lazy, unintelligent, and in general inferior, then these appraisals may be taken over by the poor and used in the building of an image of their selves’. That is one danger…a second emanates form the vague but often powerful fears that calamity will follow the relaxation of discipline and the mitigation of hardship…(37)
I just…again, the more things change the more they stay the same. Turns out the upper classes did monopolize the media, did (further) propagate the idea that poverty was caused by being lazy and inferior. Our prime minister and cabinet are still spouting these things today like a stream of poisoned water out of a Flint water fountain.
What the welfare state was meant to achieve on the other hand? I rather like this, it feels a short rather conservation definition of the welfare state, yet one that takes as a starting place that the residents of the country form a whole, and that they are all part of one society:
All collectively provided services are deliberately designed to meet certain socially recognised ‘needs’; they are manifestations, first, of society’s will to survive as an organic whole and, secondly, of the expressed wish of all the people to assist the survival of some people. ‘Needs’ may therefore be thought of as ‘social’ and ‘individual’; as inter-dependent, mutually related essentials for the continued existence of the parts and the whole. No complete division between the two is conceptually possible…(39)
Pension Systems and Population Change
This is a talk about pensions and the impact of a changing population, the ‘long-term shift from an ‘abnormally’ youthful population in the nineteenth century to a more ‘normal’ age structure… (60) Are we really STILL having that same conversation? Yet at the same time it really brings home the horrors of working class life and early death before the welfare state was put in place. Also the fact that it was believed possible after the war, how much more should it be possible now?
All the adjustments involved in changing over to a different population structure can only be made with the minimum of social friction if the redistributive effects are equitably shouldered. They are as much a national affair as war or mass unemployment. It thus behooves us to take account of the total complex apparatus of social policy in relation to old age…(61)
It’s hard to believe this was written at a time when equality was growing, even if slowly…
The outlines of a dangerous social schism are clear, and they are enlarging. The direction in which the forces of social and fiscal policy are moving raises fundamental issues of justice and equality; not simply issues of justice between taxpayers as a separate class, or between contributors as a separate class, but between all citizens. Already it is possible to see two nations in old age; greater inequalities in living standards after work than in work; two contrasting social services for distinct groups based on different principles, and operating in isolation of each other as separate, autonomous, social instruments of change. (74)
Those days are long since gone, and it is steadily widening again. People still are worried about those pensions penciling out though.
War and Social Policy
Ah, another issue that remains an issue. Yet WWII moved everything in a new direction even as every war since seems to have been part of the pendulum swing back. On the Education Act 1944, Beveridge Report 1942, National Insurance, Family Allowances, National Health Service Acts:
All these measures of social policy were in part an expression of the needs of war-time strategy to fuse and unify the conditions of life of civilians and non-civilians alike. In practice, as we have seen, this involved the whole community in accepting an enlargement of obligations–an extension of social discipline–to attend to the primary needs of all citizens… as war has followed war in an ascending order of intensity, so have the dependent needs of wives and children been increasingly recognized. The more, in fact, that the waging of war has come to require a total effort by the nation the more have the dependent needs of the family been recognized and accepted as a social responsibility. (84)
‘The Position of Women’
A whole essay! On women! Amazing! Not particularly deep or insightful, why am I even excited, but it exists. Titmuss writes:
Few have been concerned with the working-class woman, and particularly with the conditions of life of the working class mother. (88)
He’s not wrong either. Shocking given the next fact:
At the beginning of this century, the expectation of life of a woman aged twenty was forty-six years. (91)
You really need to look at work done by people like Pember-Reeves and Harkness and Higgs to understand just how much hardship is contained in such statistics, but I am curious about the changes he notes here around marriage — not least because I had always assumed Victorians married younger and were more likely to marry period. Wrong.
No doubt the political and legal emancipation of women has contributed to these changes in what is expected from marriage. A more socially equal relationship was foreseen by the leaders of the Women’s Movement but what they could hardly have envisaged is the rise in the popularity of marriage since about 1911. (99)
Married life has been lengthened not only by declining mortality but by earlier marriage…In 1911 24 per cent of all girls aged twenty to twenty-four were married; by 1954 this proportion had risen to 52 percent. … There are now fewer unmarried women aged fifteen to thirty-five in the country than at any time since 1881… (101)
Industrialization and the Family
Not only does Titmuss give thought and space to the particular circumstances and hardships faced by women, but also of the family (perhaps following Engels here):
Industrialization demanded the breakdown of the mutual relationships of the extended family; paradoxically, the poor law struggle–though ineffectually–to maintain them… Authoritarian patterns of behaviour, sanctioned in the factory, were carried into the home. (110)
This is curious, were families less authoritarian really before factories? I wonder. He also tries to tackle the meaning of unemployment, citing Bakke’s Citizens Without Work on the idea ‘that a man’s job was not simply something that brought him money; it was an activity that gave him a place in the social world and in large measure gave meaning to his life‘. (113)
This of course is one of the underpinnings of Labour’s goal of full employment which in turn supports the welfare state economically.
The Hospital and Its Patients
He spends most time on the NHS here, full of facts and figures that I confess made me nod off just a little. The juicy bits were in the next section
The National Health Service in England
Like this one:
Among all the ideas of the 1930s and 1940s which led to the creation of the Health Service the one which increasingly dominated the mind of the public and the profession alike was the idea of prevention; the prevention of ill-health and incapacity. (140)
And what the hell happened to this idea of territorial justice?
‘Perhaps the most important argument in the planning approach [to the NHS] was the need for ‘territorial justice’–more equality of access to medical care services for people living in different parts of the country. In other words, a geographically comprehensive hospital service could not, it was thought, be provided under the aegis of some 2,000 separate, independent and often competing hospitals. (143)
But always fighting the everpresent argument that costs were spiraling out of control. In 1950 the BMJ’s headline went:
The National Health Service is heading for the bankruptcy court…and we are facing bankruptcy because of the Utopian Finances of the Welfare State. (2 December, 1950 — 148)
But this was from the time doctors hated everything about the NHS.
The other point of interest comes when Titmuss emphasizes the importance of practitioners spending time with patients…ah, imagine those days. How did we ever come to the 10 minute rule? Absurd. But that happened long after his time.
The Irresponsible Society
This was the most interesting piece I thought, from the point of view of today. Saved for last of course. He outlines some of the issues and guess what…they feel remarkably contemporary. Like this one Titmuss expected to be sorted in the 60s:
One of the most important tasks of socialists in the 1960s will be to re-define and restate the inherent illogicalities and contradictions in the managerial capitalist system as it is developing within the social structure of contemporary Britain. Much of the doctrine of Victorian Marxism is no longer applicable to a different set of fundamental illogicalities in a different age. (215)
In highly complex and wealthy societies like our own almost all social forces tend to encourage the growth of conformism unless checked by strong, continuing and effective movements of protest and criticism. If these do not come from socialists and if they are not stated in terms of power they will not come at all. (219)
Socialists fighting conformism! Encouraging multiple strands of criticism and protest! It’s the socialism I would have loved to see, if only that had happened!
This is just depressing:
We did not understand that government by the people could mean that power in the government, the Cabinet and the City, could lie almost permanently in the hands of those educated at Eton and other public schools. (220)
And finally, words against the solution that continues to be put forward today but its remarkably prescient on housing:
These problems will not and cannot be solved by the private insurance market, by property speculators, by forcing land values to insanely prohibitive levels, or by any criteria of profits and tax-free gains. Private enterprise is only building about 1,000 new dwellings a year in the county of London, for example, and most of them are luxury flats for the rich. Nor will they be solved by growth of the ‘social welfare firm’… (229)
If only New Labour could pay attention.
Titmuss, Richard M. ( 1976) Essays on ‘The Welfare State’ Third Edition. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
This was part two of Yvonne Kapp’s enormous biography of Eleanor Marx, and I confess, not as enjoyable as the first (you can read about that one here).
Perhaps this is partly because so many of the grand personalities are dead or moved away by the end of the first volume, and there is not the immediacy of family drama. That is undoubtedly part of it. You know the rest will die by the end.
But really, mostly, I think it’s due to the deadly and boring factionalism of the left between 1884 and 1898, after all, that’s what I had to plod through in Morris’s biography as well. A few highlights shine through like the organising of the gas worker’s union and their victory in obtaining the 8 hour day, or the dockers’ first strike, and of course Eleanor is there supporting them. Why I love her. But she spends so much time trying to bring male egos together, to create movement, to keep schisms from growing ever further.
Unless we’re talking about the anarchists. That is one bridge she is busy burning rather than trying to put back together again. I’m still not sure I can wrap my head around the politics of those days, but I didn’t try too hard. Many of the descriptions and long detailed accounts of infighting here made my eyes glaze over I confess…I am also rather jaded by the continuing dose of them still fracturing movement today.
Still, this is well worth a read. Even if you can’t make yourself care about all that the way many still seem passionately to do. So here are some highlights of what I did love — from the frivolous to the important.
Frivolous, but cool: to find out that Eleanor and Edward Aveling spent their sort-of honeymoon in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, where Mark and I just were for our own holiday and loved enormously. We weren’t at the Nelson Arms, and in Wirksworth proper, but still. A lovely place.
There’s some lovely scatterings of social history on the East End:
The fight for free speech and the right of assembly had a long and stormy history. In the early ‘eighties, the East End Radicals who held regular meetings on Mile End Waste in Stepney were constantly chivied by the police. They then adjourned to Limehouse where an open air meeting in Piggot Street, off the junction of the Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road, was addressed by a member of the SDF. it was stopped by the police for causing and obstruction. Thereafter both Radical Club and SDF speakers took to nearby Dod Street, mainly occupied by factories and warehouses and thus deserted on summer Sunday mornings. (69)
The importance of these East End Radical Clubs — which covered the boroughs from Poplar and Hackney, Bermondsey and Stepney as far west as Islington and Finsbury, with their local Federations — lay in that they drew together politically conscious working men…(196)
On Sunday 27th September 1885, 60,000 people marched from Stepney Green to take possession of Dod Street to protest ongoing arrests.
I loved how theatre and literature never ceased being important parts of Eleanor’s life — and Aveling never stopped trying to make his fortune through plays either, curiously enough.
The impact of Ibsen upon Eleanor and her immediate circle was violent: as violent as the sense of outrage felt by the majority of English critics at the first performance of his plays. This new “social drama” stunned them — though not into silence — by its complete break with the theatrical conventions of the time, both in manner and content. (100)
Although it seems that Eleanor lost many of her female friends (a tragedy that I am sure put her more at the mercy of her own depression and Aveling’s moods — though it was Aveling that was the most likely cause), it does seem that at one time, Eleanor met them regularly to go to the theatre– herself, Dolly Radford, Olive Schreiner, Honor Brooke and Edith Lees would pour out afterwards and argue and talk on and on about them.
There a number of curious little views into the left society of her time — like the programme for an Arts Evening to raise funds for the SDF. G.B. Shaw and Kathleen performed in a piano duet composed by Mendelssohn, Aveling read Shelley’s Men of England, Mother Wright read from Adam Bede (!), Bax played Schumann (and went on too long apparently), Morris read his own poetry (went down very well), and a dramatic piece filling the 2nd half saw Eleanor and Aveling playing main roles in In Honour Bound.
There are some interesting asides on Marx’s papers as well, such as Engles ruminating on the translation of Capital, and the difficulties of it:
To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literature of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too… but there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too… Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms requires the corresponding new terms in English… (113)
Then there was that time Michael Davitt refused to meet Aveling because he was an atheist, while both were speaking at the Easter Sunday ‘gigantic demonstration’ in Hyde Park, 1887. Maybe there were other reasons, he is the constant unsettling rather unprincipled presence that seems to taint everything. This in spite of Kapp trying to be rigorously fair. But he causes drama and discord everywhere he goes, undoing every effort by Eleanor.
At least they are equals in calls for speaking, Eleanor spoke at that same rally with Aveling and Davitt, and there is a constant whirl of public speaking engagements that continues through the whole of her life. More than I can possibly imagine.
Returning to 1887, a brilliant description of direction action tactics I wish I’d thought of:
One of the “small matters” which had become “a great question” was the conduct of the unemployed. Some of them had hit upon novel ways of drawing attention to their plight, such as holding church parades in various parts of the country, marching into places of worship to swell the congregation which they treated as a public meeting, objecting loudly and strongly whenever they did not agree with the sentiments of the speaker in the pulpit. (219)
We are also coming to what Kapp believes was a pivotal moment in Eleanor Marx’s life, she writes to her sister Laura that the year is harder than any within recent memory, and quotes Maggie Harkness as a source. Later she writes to her friend Dolly Radford:
…in the streets here one sees so many starving people — people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched… (222)
This is the background for Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square, that day that so impressed everyone on the left, but in very different ways. Eleanor writes in a letter to Laura:
Last Sunday the troops had ammunition ready and stood with fixed bayonets. Next Sunday I think it very possible they will actually fire. That would be very useful to the whole movement here. It would complete the work some of us have been doing this long while past, of winning over the better Radical element to Socialism. (230)
She is determined to march, to provoke. Kapp’s interpretation is rather lovely, but I am not sure she is entirely right about these being Eleanor’s thoughts:
In Eleanor’s view only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly. Revolution for her did not have a “a very big R”: it was a process inherent in the small act of standing your ground, asserting and extending your rights, defending your dignity as a human being in every situation and in all the circumstances of daily life. In that way, and that way alone, would men and women change their conditions, their circumstances and, in doing so, themselves. (231)
This was also a pivotal moment for Morris, but from it he took the lesson of retrenchment and building the revolution more seriously. Many felt that way, many experienced and understood the day not as Eleanor did, but as Shaw’s letter to Morris revealed, dated 22 November:
you should have seen that high hearted host run. Running hardly expresses our collective action. We skedaddled and never drew rein until we were safe on Hampstead Heath or thereabouts. Tarlton found me paralysed with terror and brought me on to the Square, the police kindly letting me through in consideration of my genteel appearance. On the whole, I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one. (footnote, 231)
A report of a meeting at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green on what to do following Bloody Sunday from George Standring, editor of the Radical (who later became a member of the Fabian Society in 1893) describes her thusly:
In front of the platform sat Lady Macbeth Aveling and the redoubtable Edward, S.Sc. They were, of course, in favour of a spirited dash at Trafalgar Square; and very fine it was to see the lofty scorn of Lady Macbeth when any speaker on the pacific side rose to address the meeting. When the resolution proposing the Hyde Park meeting was read Lady Macbeth turned to Edward, D.Sc., and hissed ‘C-o-w-a-r-d-s!’ between her teeth. It was very fine indeed… (233)
It’s not flattering, and hard to tell how much the caricature is personal and political, but throughout reading this biography I wondered how much that love of the stage translated into everyday life. I still don’t have an answer.
1888 sees final split of the Socialist League. Important I know, but still. Yawn. But also this continued Eleanor’s evolution, and finally she begins to spend more time with actual working class people and their struggles.
1888 was a year of trade recovery and the great wave of demonstrations subsided. But it was something beyond the ill-usage of the unemployed that now produced a shift in her attitude to the working class. She had begun to explore the East End, sometimes alone, occasionally with Margaret Harkness, not as a speaker nor a demonstrator but more as an explorer, and what she discovered left her deeply and personally involved with the lives of the people. They were not any less the downtrodden and exploited “masses”…but they were no longer featureless crowds… (261)
In letter after letter written at that time, whether from London or the country, this preoccupation with suffering is reflected. (262)
To go to the docks is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts–not men–and all to earn at best 3d. or 4d. an hour! Si serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron palings with wooden ones–the weaker men got impaled in the crush!…You can’t help thinking of all this when you’ve seen it and been in the midst of it… (263)
This is the year of the match girls strike, Eleanor becomes fast friends with Will Thorne, labour leader of the gas workers to victory. After reading his biography and without this assumed familiarity, it was funny to read this:
At that time Thorne was not the stout and stolid figure familiar at the House of Commons to later generations. (323)
As Eleanor shifts her work to focus on working class struggle in the East End, there are some more cool glimpses of history, like this of Silvertown:
In 1852 S.W. Silver & Co., “the well-known outfitter of Cornhill”, bought one acre of land between Bow Road and Braking Creek to which it removed its small waterproofing works from Greenwich. It was the oldest factory on the waterfront. Seven more cares were added in the next few years and, by 1860, the premises were so extensive “that the name of Silvertown was given to the district of which they formed the centre.” (336)
There’s a fascinating aside (possibly just to me) about the transportation links available to Eleanor when she was going to Silvertown daily from Chancery Lane in support of the strike:
Metropolitan and Inner Circle line running 6 am to midnight, taken from Farringdon to Aldgate, connecting to Great Eastern or Blackwall Railways to Silvertown.
North Metropolitan Company tramcars between Aldgate and Bow, Stratford and Dockland.
A Blue Bus from fleet St or Ludgate Hill, a Green Bus from Holborn every ten minutes.
Eleanor became secretary of the Silvertown Women’s Branch of the Gasworkers’ Union in October 1889, and remained connected to them for many years, being elected time and time again to office.
Another little interesting fact from the Trades Union Congress, Liverpool, 1890 — Eleanor was excluded though elected by the Gas Workers and General Laborers’ Union, because she was not a working woman. The representative included 447 men and only 10 women, representing eight womens’ unions with 2610 members. 1300 of them belonged to the Matchmakers Union.
The highlights really, of the whole book, are the letters between Tussy (Eleanor’s childhood nickname) and the General (good old Engels), stories told off the cuff and in great often hilarious detail of the congresses and people attending, and others simply full of personalities, politics and daily life. You remember how much you like her as you read them, a feeling sometimes lost in the detail of the history.
It is even more sad, then, when Engels begins to fail. All the personal drama that surrounds him, and puts Marx’s papers at risk — and god did he have a curious relationship with women. The blow of finding out Freddy is actually her illegitimate brother, tarnishing her view of her father. Aveling was always fairly horrible, and then he goes and marries some very very young woman even though he has an open abscess in his side (I don’t have words for either the ethics or the logistics of that), but Eleanor continues to take care of him, old friends are ill and dying, I’m still unsure of how close her relationship with her sister was, some of their letters are wonderful but not at all personal. She cuts herself off from those who might have been wise and supportive.
And then all the drama at the end. Such immense sadness. The role Aveling may or may not have played. I wanted always a different life for her, but she did so much, spoke to so many people in so many places, supported most humbly working class organising and struggle, tried to bring together a movement across the insularity of different factions and organisations…
Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.
When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:
The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal.
I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:
I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).
A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.
She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:
However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).
I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:
England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).
What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)
This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:
In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).
There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:
Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).
Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):
In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).
Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:
I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).
We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:
Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).
But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):
Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).
Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.
Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:
So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)
Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.
Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.
A Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) London & NY: Routledge
This was a brilliantly detailed look at some of the archive material for the London County Council, and it signposts the collections beautifully in exploring some of the lived experience of its workers through the Progressive period. The founding legislation for the LCC was the Local Government Act of 1888, and it brought together the Municipal Board of Works and the justices. Pennybacker writes:
The Progressives led the London County Council, the worlds largest municipal authority of its time, from its founding in 1889 until their defeat in 1907; an unbroken period of Conservative control followed until 1934. The Progressives’ ethics and their political strategy prescribed a redemptive role for the government of the imperial capital, a social mission in the secular metropolis. This book assesses the LCC’s success in attempting such a mission and in doing so offers a selective portrait of the Council’s work…. (3)
The characters of this story are John Benn, John Burns, Sidney Webb and Ben Tillett among others, and they embody all the contradictions of Progressivism including its eugencism and ‘drive for racial fitness’.
There is also some sense, though not enough I don’t think, of the earlier fragmentation of governance in the metropolis, particularly in relation to the power of the City:
John Benn was not the first to assault the City Corporation. Since the 9th century, its accumulated wealth and power has stymied and obstructed attempts at incremental reform. From 1688 onward, this single square mile’s control of the river traffic, its absorption of the coal dues, its exemption from the powers of the Metropolitan police, its livery companies, its guilds and lucrative estates, were formidable barriers to equitable and comprehensive government (6).
It is indeed ironic that they now hold the LCC archives.
Some of the basics: the LCC was directly elected — the first apart from London School Board. Its boundaries were the same as for parliamentary constituencies — each electing 2 LCC Councillors and 1 MP. Important to remember is, contrary to what I had heard, ‘only in limited, exemplary terms was the LCC an organ of popular democracy; it simply was not a body mandated under universal suffrage’ (26). There still existed tremendous limits on the franchise, I always forget how recently these have shifted to become universal.
In evaluating their legacy, Pennybacker looks at their ‘most notable endeavours’: Holborn to Strand improvement & opening of Kingsway, Boundary Street estate, acquisition of trams, Blackwall Tunnel, and briefly passenger steam boat service (11). Alongside this is their innovative labour policy, fair wages and direct employment of labour rather than through contractors . The LCC works department, for example, had 12,000 employees by 1904, when the acquisition of the scool board added another 35,000. By WWI it was London’s largest employer. What they didn’t achieve? Control over utilities like gas, water or electricity, municipalisation of the docks, acquisition of police control, control of markets or expansion of public sector housing to more than 15%.
‘But in terms of this book, the greatest achievement of the Porgressive period was the way in which the early LCC tested the outside parameters of what can be categorised as ‘social-democratic’ and ‘municipal socialist’ reform in its infancy, in prototype (19).
I like that she does this without shrinking from London as an Imperial Metropolis — the LCC impacted by national anxieties around the Boer War, the movement for national efficiency, and a focus on motherhood alongside a horrific infant mortality rate of 20,000 every year after 1900. She writes:
‘No municipal aspiration, however selfless in its articulation, could be entirely separated from a will to efficiency, to racial uplift and to competitive zeal, or from the desire to ‘catch-up’ and to achieve order at home while maintaining hegemony abroad (23)…Fabian and other socialists shared these ideals; those who dissented were a minority. In the capital, advocates of the rights of women, votes for women and the causes of labour and of the trade unions employed rhetoric of ‘Englishness’ and committed themselves to the cause of bettering those whom they saw as their racial and social inferiors. Far from being marginal or incidental aspects of ‘municipal socialism’ or of the feminisms of the period, these were central purposes and principles (23).
Below are just a collection of interesting quotes pulled from the three case studies
Both the Civil Service and the LCC required candidates for advertised clerkships to sit examinations under a scheme administered through City of London College. Sample papers were sold to the public so that prospective candidates could prepare them in advance. Candidates for the fourth class were required to be 18 to 23 years of age and British-born. (This provision took on special significance as a criterion of employment and it was enforced even after 1945. When West Indian nurses arrived in London after the Second World War, they found no posts available at the LCC) (39).
Some samples of the essay questions — I love them as a window into government expectations of what their clerks should know and have well-formed opinions on:
– Is war ever justifiable?
– The effect of science on literature
– Methods for dealing with the unemployed.
– ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
– Is compulsory military service desirable?
– Imperialism (40).
From the first moment it was apparent that the women hired had not replaced men per se, but instead comprised a new, cheaper form of labour in the clerical divisions; their work was of a different character (43).
Blackcoated workers were concentrated in London where they tended to reside in the outer suburbs less by choice than because of rising rents in the desirable central areas (47).
LCC Works Department
One side maintains with zeal that the council the working man’s best friend, a model employer, and the best representative of progress in London. Trams, model dwellings, the Works Department, and several quite inaccurate statistics are fleeing at other speakers’ heads. John Burns is prominently to the front. ..then the other side gets a word in edgeways. ‘The County Council? Look what they’ve done down Clare Market way! Pulled down half the houses, turned the people out of the other half as insanitary, and then let tenants into ’em and sent all the respectable people yo go an crowd into Holborn as best they can. When they get up their new buildings will they let ’em to you or me? Not much. Look what they charge down in Shoreditch. They’ll let us go to Tottenham, that’s what they’ll do’ (96).
— Reverend HGD Latham ‘Nights at Play’ The Cornhill Magazine, 12, 1902 677-685
The arguments for and against the Department reflected the first concerns about ‘socialism’ as an institutional political project to appear since the time of the Owenite communities. It had been decades since property was held in common for the useful production of services to a community of producers and consumers who were constituted (somewhat) democratically and who were in a position to exercise even indirect control over their conditions and terms of labor (97).
The Works Department was now seen as a test case of municipal socialism or, as some would have it, as a new adjudicator of the ‘labour question’ in London (114).
The balancing act between government, the contractors and the building trades, sought so desperately by Burns and many other Progressives, proved a sham not because of financial insolvency but because of the moral and political conflicts invariably arising from an attempt to reconcile bureaucratic organisation and public service with the need to compete effectively on a labour market in London’s key industry (120).
I love that the LCC agreed to pay the rates and uphold the hours set by the unions following a conference held after the 1891 Carpenters and Joiners’ strike in London (124). This agreement was extended in 1897 to recognise negotiated scales, including maximum hours and minimum rates.
That said, this is an immensely detailed chapter on some of the scandal and controversy and argument surrounding the Works Department, but I wished this, as well as the chapter that followed it perhaps, had been set against a little more background of actual conditions of the people whom the policies were to help. Most working men in the building trades and their families were subsisting close to starvation levels (read Tressell’sRagged Trousered Philanthropists, or Maud Pember Reeve‘s careful account of some of the conditions of working men and their salaries, or Margaret Harkness or many another work). It is easy to get lost in her accounts of theoretical controversy over the effectiveness of the LCC, I wanted it more grounded in the conditions the LCC was fighting to change.
The third case study is on inspectors — titled ‘The appetite for Managing Other People’s Lives’
LCC social and cultural policy had its formative years in the Porgressive era and was part of the national restructuring of welfare provision. Social purity, National Efficiency, racial purification and maternalism formed the broader context in which specific projects were undertaken by the Council (159).
I found the sentence below curious:
Nineteenth-century London remained largely prostrate and impoverished, open to assault and subversion by the new municipal body (160).
I am still unsure what I think of the marshaling of Foucault to look at the phenomenon of inspections, torn by the class-based and moral judgments, and the feeling that something, anything had to be done to make things better. Landlords needed to be forced to fix their buildings. Factory owners needed to be forced to improve working conditions. I cannot be sad the state moved to enforce such things, I wish critiques of inspections offered a more critical analysis of why and how such things happened in such a damaging way, what it would have taken beyond inspections to change them for the better. I am most interested in change.
Another example is the new, healthy, affordable housing that needed to be built on a tremendous scale…for the tenants in the slums that were displaced. I have read some conflicting things about whether or not this happened, I tend to the side of the disbelievers supported by this:
Chief sanitary Inspector of Bethnal Green explained in 1898: ‘The conditions and rents the Council impose, render it simply impossible for poor people to live in their houses.’ He claimed that the building of the Boundary Street Estate had resulted in the displacement of thousands of neighbourhood residents; not even 5 per cent of the original inhabitants could afford to return and were now creating overcrowding of lesser, nearby accommodations (189).
–Lessons from the Bethnal Green Calamity’, London, 6 Jan 1989 p 5
I didn’t have the same reservations about the discussion of the hypocrisy and morality that put restrictions on activities in the parks on Sundays, even though they were the only day off for many. This was most telling, as was the discussion of the ways in which the regulation of music halls took place. I’m not sure it was fully brought together here, but a good start on thinking things through.
A quick quote to summarise the conclusion, and the decline and demise of the London County Council:
This study suggests at least three areas of failure that account for the decline of the vision and for its increasing lack of credibility in its own time: the failure of economy, of the fiscal; the failure in the realm of the political, which was in part a failure to preserve a distinctiveness of doctrine; and a failure in social terms, as captured by the LCC’s inability to eradicate London poverty or to relieve much of the distress of its inhabitants. Instead, intrusion and supervision were substituted for grander programmes of social amelioration or cultural enlightenment (241).
It ends with a wonderful section that serves as a guideline to the archives themselves, so much of which remain to be explored…
In the words of my partner, a corker. It left me with a number of impressions.
The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.
‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)
No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:
I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).
The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).
Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes
‘I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)
I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).
Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)
On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:
In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)
Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:
The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)
He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:
The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).
The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.
If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)
He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:
The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)
And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:
The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)
He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.
He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.
The inhabitants have not only been disturbed by the noise of the trams and the tremendous increase of people on our common thereby, but apparently are now to have this additional annoyance of socialistic lecturers with their vans. I know perfectly well that these vans have been allowed in the public parks for years past, but we can hardly look upon Streatham, Wandsworth or Clapham in exactly the same way as you can London Parks.
–Streatham resident, LCC register of complaints, 1900ish,
Found on p 201-202 of Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) A Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment
Sweet Fabian Jesus, was Shaw ever unbearable when he wrote An Unsocial Socialist! It is from his early(ish) years (1884), I grant him, and in his preface he draws a line between himself as young novel writer and the older playwright and man of political experience. I try not to confuse authors with characters, especially whey they are attempting a vaguely humourous novel. Trefusis may well be something of a caricature. Still, the heavily expository nature of this novel seems to indicate that in the main these are essentially Shaw’s views on Socialism, the position of wealth, the workings of class and most abysmally, the nature of women.
I hate it when wit, satire and misogyny get confused.
Trefusis has more public school arrogance than what he mocks in others, a great desire to constantly hear his own voice, and the emotional reach of a twig. Small wonder the Fabians didn’t get far with the working classes. That said, he was right (and occasionally witty) on a number of points.
At Cambridge they taught me that his profits were the reward of abstinence…Then came the question: what did my father abstain from? The workmen abstained from meat, drink, fresh air, good clothes, decent lodging, holidays, money, the society of their families and pretty nearly everything that makes life worth living, which was perhaps the reason why they usually died twenty years or so sooner than people in my circumstances. Yet no one rewarded them for their abstinence. The reward came to my father, who abstained from none of these things, but indulged in them all to his heart’s content (94).
Pages 272-273 contain as good an account of globalisation and the move of industry to countries of cheaper labour as any written today, though he believed the workers would follow the jobs. He writes:
As the British factories are shut up, they will be replaced by villas; the manufacturing districts will become fashionable resorts for capitalists living on the interest of foreign investments… (273)
It did take a while for this to happen, but I got a little chill reading that.
On the other hand, had I written down every grating insult to women phrased as wit contained in these pages, this post would have been as long as the book. I don’t know why these two in particular called me to mark them as I feel sure there was worse, but still:
But we Socialists need to study the romantic side of our movement to interest women in it. If you want to make a cause grow, instruct every woman you meet in it. She is or will one day be a wife, and will contradict her husband with scraps of your arguments. A squabble will follow. The son will listen, and will be set thinking if he be capable of thought. And so the mind of the people gets leavened. I have converted many young women. Most of them know no more of the economic theory of Socialism than they know of Chaldee; but they no longer fear or condemn its name (283).
On reflection, the quote below might just have been the most infuriating. I hadn’t wanted to punch an author in the stomach this much since reading Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but that feeling started up from the very beginning when he abandons his wife and commences flirting with several 17-year old school girls.
Yes; you sometimes have to answer a woman according to her womanishness, just as you have to answer a fool according to his folly (333).
Socialist women certainly had their work cut out for them in fighting for respect, a place and a voice in this movement. It makes the efforts of those like Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women’s group all the more impressive, and I now blame Shaw and his ilk entirely for their steadfast seriousness and abandonment of any kind of ‘femininity’ as they battled to overturn the image of flighty, emotional society women incapable of serious thought presented here. What a waste of women’s effort.
The geographies of this? From a countryside finishing school to London houses in Belsize Park and St John’s Wood and back out to a baron’s country house…far from the London I know and love.
A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.
I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.
So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press, bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.
The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.
Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).
I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:
There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).
The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:
the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)
The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:
TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.
At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.
They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).
The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).
The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).
The description of the study, and social experiment, is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:
A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).
As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:
It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).
And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):
the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).
There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:
Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).
And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:
The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).
There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:
At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).
It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:
The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).
I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:
strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).
That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.
I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:
Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).
The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).
I quite loved this:
If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).
I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:
if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).
There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):
She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)
It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:
Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).
It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.
I love it. I love it, and yet there is so little about it. We saw it shining on the mountain while looking out over the city, and of course, we had to go.
It’s so brilliantly SF, half spaceship half future cityscape. You take a tram from the city up to the mountain, a funicular up to the base. Look at this amazing television tower/restaurant/hotel up close:
There is a long blurb on the architect from penccil – a rather fascinating site of modern art and design and fashion (it allows you to create your own page on the site to show your own portfolio, you could get drawn in there for a while…)
The unique Jested tower, designed by architect Karel Hubacek, is a modernist architectural landmark of the Czech Republic. Combining television transmission tower and mountain hotel, it is a 94 meters tall rotational hyperboloid built on top ofJested mountain near Liberec in the Czech Republic, built between 1966 and 1973. Liberec (then called Reichenberg) was until the end of WW1 in 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a traditional Austrian mountain hotel was perched on top of Jested (then called Jeschken) mountain. Karel Hubacek (23 February 1924 – 25 November 2011) graduated in 1943 and was then sent to forced labor in Nazi Germany, where he worked for the Askania Werke precision instrument factory in Berlin, which after allied bombings moved underground into salt mines south of Helmstedt, Germany. Askania produced the flight control systems for the V1 and V2 rockets and movie cameras which had been used in shooting the famous movie “Der Blaue Engel” with Marlene Dietrich. In 1945, he returned to Prague. In 1951, he got a job at the (then communist) regional institute for city planning in Liberec, where he worked until 1968, when he became a co-founding member of SIAL (Association of Engineers and Architects in Liberec). From 1994-1997 he was head of the Department of Architecture at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Technical University in Liberec.
There are some wonderful photos — far better than what I managed as it was heaving with people on a sunny November holiday, though bitterly windy and cold. Still, I got a few:
There is a martian as well! A particularly well-endowed one
And the sun started setting and the world was just beautiful, you can see the shadow of our space building fall across Liberec:
The hotel website (I do wish we had stayed there, the furniture, the fittings, everything looks amazing, but we didn’t) talks about this as a symbol of Liberec, and how wonderful? How wonderful to create this amazing building so playful with our dreams of the future, that could have been a simple ubiquitous television tower but instead becomes this amazing place. This is in some ways what the dream of socialism should have been, brilliant design, care, and attention to innovative detail to make something so functional also serve city residents as an escape from the city, a place to step out of the ordinary, to look out over the city and the countryside and think about the world’s form and your place in it. A place for everyone, though I don’t know if that’s how it worked when it was first built. But it felt like that while we there, full of both Czechs and tourist families, couples, young folks. It was lovely, but god, it was cold.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.