The Intellectual in Politics: The Case of the Webbs

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "The Intellectual in Politics: The Case of the Webbs." Journal of Contemporary History 6, no. 3. 1971.


In some obvious respects, the Webbs were the very quintessence of the ‘intellectual in politics’, the latter-day version of the philosopher-king. They themselves were given to more prosaic language. Beatrice Webb described their marriage as a ‘partnership’, and Sidney gave as their aim the ‘permeation’ of politics. And like good intellectuals, they were not satisfied simply to permeate; they developed a theory of ‘permeation’ to explain how and why they were permeating. What is more – and this was part of their theory – they permeated incessantly, at meetings of parliamentary committees and the London County Council, at soirees and dinner parties at other people’s houses and their own. Beatrice Webb prided herself on her subtlety and ingenuity in converting social occasions into political ones, but she seems to have deceived no one. H. G. Wells described her home as a ‘political factory’, and other of her guests confessed that on entering her parlour they were uncomfortably reminded of the parable of the spider and the fly.

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