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Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians.

With Poverty and Compassion, Professor Himmelfarb concludes her remarkable two-volume assessment of the Victorian responses to poverty. The entire project now ranges from Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus in the 1780s to T. H. Green, Alfred Marshall and Charles Booth in the 1880s. The first volume, The Idea of Poverty (1983), was rightfully acclaimed as an original, challenging and sympathetic reconstruction of the history of those who thought about poverty in the early industrial age. In what essentially was a series of individual biographies, introduced by an intriguing re-appraisal of the economist Adam Smith, Himmelfarb insisted that what led Victorian writers and thinkers to perceive poverty as a problem, and to offer support to Smith's Invisible Hand, was not the fear of Chartism and revolution (as Frederic Engels claimed) but the prevailing "moral imagination" concerning the poor. In keeping with this preoccupation with the "pressure of ideas," the companion volume explains the transition from laissez-faireism to collectivism in the late Victorian period in terms of an enlarged compassion towards the poor, a moral yet unsentimental "Religion of Humanity," common to philanthropists, investigators and reformers across the political spectrum. Once more, Himmelfarb rests her case largely on institutional and individual biographies, and again offers a scrupulous reconstruction of the moral sensibilities of the time (although leftward-leaning Victorians and modern-day social historians get much rougher handling). Once more too, we only see those who lived in dread of "the hunger-wolf anear" refracted through the lens of philanthropist and reformer; we only dimly perceive the connections between thought and legislative action concerning poverty. But there is an essential difference between the books. Where the first volume was original, striking and challenging, this final volume has a more derivative, fragmentary and predictable quality. Of course, nothing Professor Himmelfarb writes, with her hallmark of elegance, could conceivably come out with a whimper; but the climax of this monumental project falls short of the anticipated bang.

Poverty and Compassion opens with a paradox. Not the conventional one of the coexistence of wealth and poverty embodied in Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879), but the paradox of a distinct improvement in the condition of the working classes coinciding with an intellectual and social agitation about the problem of poverty. Himmelfarb surely exaggerates when she claims that the share of income going to wages increased at the expense of business profits between 1850 and 1880. Still, we can concede that at the very moment the working classes began to reap some dividend from industrialism, a "new consciousness of sin," in Beatrice Webb's legendary phrase, spawned charitable associations, model dwellings, settlement houses and socialist societies. Why so? Because, says Himmelfarb, expectations outran improvements, and severe housing and unemployment conditions undermined the evidence of improvement. In addition, those dedicated to public service lost faith in the "industrial organization" for failing, as Mrs. Webb said, "to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain."

At the very heart of this new social consciousness, uniting the scientific method with the "Religion of Humanity," was Charles Booth, whose leviathan social survey, Life and Labour of the People in London (17 vols., 1889-1902) re-oriented the debate on poverty. Historians, says Himmelfarb, have wrongly emphasized the finding in Life and Labour that 35.2 per cent of East Londoners (or 30.7 per cent of all Londoners) were living at or beneath the level of bare subsistence; a "submerged third" whose plight could not be remedied by private charity alone. She highlights, instead, what she believes both Booth and contemporary reviewers considered cardinal: that just over half of the London working classes lived in comfort, that another 22.3 per cent were "poor," due mainly to irregular employment, and that these could be rescued from poverty by placing the 7.5 per cent of the "very poor," the only ones in "chronic want," under "State slavery" in labor colonies. By this small dose of "State Socialism," Booth declared, further collectivism could be avoided. All this is vintage Himmelfarb: vivid detail allied with keen discernment; the upending of accepted interpretations by a meticulous attention to the evidence and an appreciation of the moral sensibilities of the age. To suggest it is downhill from this point on would be too harsh a judgment, but the author never again achieves the same intellectual acuity and engagement.

Himmelfarb then turns to the compassionate individuals who gave their time, energy and money in the service of the poor. They did so under the auspices of the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.), the housing schemes of Octavia Hill, the Salvation Army and Toynbee Hall, all of which (with the exception of the Salvation Army) drew inspiration from the philosophical idealist T. H. Green, whose "positive" brand of Liberalism urged individuals to cultivate their "best self" and to pursue the "common good." Himmelfarb tries hard to rehabilitate the C.O.S. by stressing its devotion to a respectability" the poor independently coveted. It is difficult to extend "moral imagination," however, to an organization which, by attacking free medical relief, labor yards for the unemployed and outdoor relief for the aged poor, displayed so little imaginative insight itself into the seasonal rhythm of the metropolitan economy and the associated problems of the poor.

In this section too, the author rattles the cages of those who suggest that these charitable organizations were instruments of social control. I am charged, in addition, with inconsistency, arguing first that the Salvation Army was an enemy of the working class, only later to contend that it was an ally of the working class. In fact, my arguments were more consistent and a good bit more nuanced than she allows. My first article suggested that the riotous opposition to the Salvation Army was strongest in non-industrialized towns where the working class was most traditional, and where the labor movement and working-class consciousness were less developed; the second article pointed to some areas of compatibility between the Salvationists and the organized labor movement in the first phase of the latter's development.

In the final and least satisfactory section of the book, on the socialist societies, Himmelfarb's "moral imagination" seems a little threadbare. She has no time for the Social Democratic Federation, whose Marxism, she maintains, had marginal influence on the political culture. The Christian socialists get a better press, but, inexplicably, no mention is made of the Independent Labour Party, the most effective and quintessentially English of all the socialist societies in this period. Himmelfarb reserves her fiercest attack however, for the Fabian socialists, the apostles of a planned society, the supposed architects of a welfare state drained of all morality. Himmelfarb's case would carry more conviction if the welfare state bore any resemblance to the various Fabian proposals. Clement Attlee, prime minister, Toynbee Hall president and Fabian socialist, may well have launched the welfare state in 1945, but the acknowledged architect William Beveridge, was no Fabian, and his social security scheme was no Fabian blueprint. Rather, it extended the concept of contributory insurance, which the Webbs vehemently opposed in the late-Victorian and Edwardian years.

Whoever bears responsibility for the welfare state, however, Himmelfarb obviously prefers the voluntary beneficence of compassionate citizens to the legal and universal provision of social services. Yet the latter continues to attract considerable support from all social classes in Britain. The belief that health and social security are proper areas of public provision dies hard. For that very reason, Thatcherite offensives to introduce market economics into the allocation of welfare have been thrown back. The "triumphalist right" is not yet all-triumphant.
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Author:Bailey, Victor
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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