Science, religion, and a curious note from history: the sad, small Maharaja of Chhatarpur meets a founder of the cooperative movement and is impressed

An early and influential English thinker about the theoretical underpinnings of the cooperative movement, Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), is better known for her unique marriage to a fellow socialist and social reformer, Sidney Webb. She was born rich and beautiful, an eccentric daughter — with eight sisters — of an industrial magnate. Sidney was an undistinguished-looking member of the middle class and, when they met, working as an obscure government bureaucrat.

Theirs was a childless partnership, but her inheritance and their exceptional intellectual fusion created an unparalleled record for translating ideas into action. One editor of a selection of entries from the diaries they wrote together over several decades (archived here), Niraja Gopal Jayal, has listed among their ‘brainchildren’: the Welfare State, the Labour Party, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the New Statesman.

Discussions of cooperatives and founding cooperatives of various stripes — a subject of special interest on our blog — are inevitable, whenever there is acute, widespread worry about social inequality and have-nots faring badly in capitalism, as in the early 20th century, and today. Perhaps because the Webbs were as effective on the practical plane as in refining abstractions, their diaries also contain the most lapidary delineation of what distinguishes science from religion that we at post-Gutenberg have ever read.

The context for that definition, for which Sidney credits only Beatrice, is just as unforgettable.

They were travelling in India, on an expedition that stretched out over several months. On the 14th of February in 1912, they visited the five foot-tall Maharaja of Chhatarpur in central India – described in the diary entry for that day as ‘a rather pathetic figure … sickly and weak, who had been married at 16 to the young daughter of a neighbouring little Maharaja like himself, who had borne him no children …’. He is depressed. ‘Without children, without anyone to talk philosophy to, without friends, without faith, he had (we were told and he almost confessed to S.W.) taken to sexual malpractices, and was profoundly unhappy and unable, as he said, to “find peace”.’

Then, the entry continues,

B.W. captivated him by explaining the difference between science and religion — the one demanding a perpetual striving after making our order of thought correspond with the order of things; the other supplying the purpose of life to be gained by aspiration or communion or prayer, whereby our order of thought, in the realm of purpose, is brought into harmony with a higher order of thought, the great spiritual force that we hope and trust is above and behind all the worlds.

That is remarkable enough in itself, and more so when you consider that B.W. had had to educate herself — because, as Niraja Jayal explains, ‘even a girl with a lively intellectual curiosity was, in Beatrice’s time, denied access to formal education.’

Sidney (1859-1947), on the other hand, had studied law at London University, and was called to the Bar at the age of twenty-six. This was how Beatrice characterised their peculiar mind-meld — in a masterpiece of self-deprecation:

We are both of us second-rate minds; but we are curiously combined. I am the investigator and he the executant; between us we have a wide and varied experience of men and affairs.

Her Wikipedia entry describes this autodidact as a sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer.

Of course the Webbs would have got nowhere without what she described as their ‘unearned salary,’ and — as Jayal says — her upbringing in a household ‘visited not only by the captains of industry but also by politicians, pastors and philosophers’.

Still, how many other well-placed not-exactly-trustafarians put their stipends and connections in service to such ideals?