The founding of the Fabian Society in 1884 was to a large extent a response to the burgeoning of socialism in 19th century Europe. It evolved out of an entity called The Fellowship of the New Life, founded in 1883, whose philosophy was the inculcation of ideas that would enhance individual character and, eventually, society. The same paternalistic attitudes informed the small group of middle-class intellectuals—including Edith Nesbit, Herbert Bland, and Edward Pease—that met in October, 1883 to discuss how socialist ideas could more particularly improve society. They were joined by the Quaker Frank Podmore the following year, and it was he who suggested calling the group the “Fabian” society. He had in mind the tactics of the Roman General Fabius Cunctator (the delayer) who, in his wars with Hannibal, advocated a withering conflict of attrition rather than any full-frontal attack. A particularly English phenomenon—indeed, a particularly metropolitan and middle-class one, based as it was in and around London and run by a coterie of intellectuals—the Fabians propagated the idea that socialism and a socialist state were best achieved by “gradualist” methods. This was in contradistinction to the more revolutionary and confrontational methods adopted by traditional Marxism in continental Europe and the strategies favored by the English strain of these revolutionary movements embodied in H. M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation.
The Fabians preferred the method of “permeation,” or what Margaret (Postgate) Cole termed the “honeycomb” effect. Instead of undetaking direct confrontational action, for example, by aligning themselves with working-class trade unionism or other militant socialists, the Fabians sought to change the system from within, and would achieve this by a process of infiltration. Through their great intellectual weight, they would “persuade” members of government (whatever the Party), civil servants, and other people in power that ameliorating the plight of the less fortunate in society was a necessary and just cause. They achieved a measurable success at this because they possessed among their small number some of the best minds and celebrities of the time. These included Beatrice (Potter) Webb, Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, G. D. H. Cole, Edith Nesbit, Rupert Brooke, Arnold Bennett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Eleanor Marx, and others. Besides meeting their goals through friendly persuasion, the Society also disseminated their gradualist philosophy though voluminous publications, one of the first volumes being Fabian Essays (1887) by Webb, Shaw, and others. This volume was criticized severely by the socialist William Morris, who particularly took issue with the Fabian notion of permeation, which he deemed to be “impractical.” Such criticism notwithstanding, the Fabians were able to effect considerable social change, which is impressive given their small membership (only about sixty members two years after their foundation and thereafter never great in number) and given the fact that they never aligned themselves with any one Party or center of power. Indeed, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the Fabians were in a very significant way responsible for many of the social reforms that culminated in the post-war British welfare state.
However, the great minds and personalities that gave sustenance to the early years of the Fabian Society could not sustain its unity. Its narrow base, both in terms of class membership and geographical breadth, led to the resignation of some its best ideologues. H. G. Wells, who wanted to establish branches of the Society in the provinces, and G. D. H. Cole were two of the better known members to go their own way, Cole eventually turning to Guild Socialism, a social system that was essentially a tamer version of French syndicalism. But even earlier than this, fractures in the Society became apparent because of the Webbs’ and Shaw’s pro-imperialist stance on the Boer War. Later, in the 1930s, the Webbs further alienated a section of the membership by idolizing Stalin’s soviet republics; their book titled Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? dropped the question mark in the second edition of 1937. Of all the reasons for the weakening of the Fabian Society’s influence—and these include the strengthening of the working-class movement and its political ally the Labour Party, the rise of Keynesian economics, and the loss of the Fabians’ control of the London School of Economics—it is undoubtedly the Society’s elitist and paternalistic attitude toward the very class they were attempting to help that led to their alienation from the working class and the diminution of their power. G. D. H. Cole called this elitism “a singular blindness to the importance or relevance of working class organization,” and the great English historian A. J. P. Taylor termed the Fabian Society a “socialism for snobs.” The revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in his book Whither England? (1925), characterized the Society in the following way: “Together with theological literature, Fabianism is perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation. . . . The cheaply optimistic Victorian epoch, when it seemed that tomorrow would be a little better than today, and the day after tomorrow still better than tomorrow, found its most finished expression in the Webbs and other Fabians. . . . [These] bombastic authorities, pedants, arrogant and ranting poitroons systematically poison the Labour Movement, befog the consciousness of the proletariat, and paralyse its will.”
Despite its unpopularity among more vehemently militant and class-oriented revolutionary movements, the Fabians’ philosophy of a “gradualist” approach to societal change did produce results. Indeed, it could be argued that the Society became the victim of its own success. The Labour Party (and some would say, more particularly, “New Labour”), which largely supplanted the Fabians, came about to a great extent because of the Society’s efforts. Fabians were instrumental in bringing about the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and it was Sidney Webb who penned the “famous” (infamous for those on the Right) “Clause Four” which committed Labour to socialist principles, especially the nationalization of British industries. Thus, in the words of G. D. H. Cole, one of its early members as well as one of its later critics, “while Fabianism was not a working class movement it helped to bring an independent working class party into being and gave that party its collective support.” Describing itself as a “left-of-centre think tank,” the Fabian Society today sees itself as continuing this tradition. Visit them at: http://www.fabians.org.uk/
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Figure 1: “Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire.” The stained glass window pictured here, which has the motto “Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire,” can be seen at the Beatrice Webb House in England. It seems to depict (among other allegorical figures) Sidney Webb and G. B. Shaw “remoulding” the world on an anvil.
Figure 2: “The Fabian Society at the London School of Economics.” This picture used to appear on the Fabian Society page on the London School of Economics website. The LSE was founded by the Fabians.
- Cole, G. D. H. “Fabianism.” The Working Class Movement Library
- Pease, E. R. History of the Fabian Society. London, 1925.
- Trotsky, Leon. Whither England? New York: International Publishers, 1925.