Fabian Society

Fabian Society

Socialist society founded in the winter of 1883-1884 in London by a few obscure youth living in London, having as its goal the establishment of a democratic Socialist state in Great Britain and spreading socialist ideas among the educated public and ultimately establishing government based on socialist priniciples. Their ambitious goal was the "reconstructing society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities". It is now considered an English socialist educational organization, affiliated with the British Labor Party and, formerly, with the Labor and Socialist (Second) International. The Fabians at first attempted to permeate the liberal and conservative parties with socialist ideas, but later they helped to organize the separate Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party (1906). The Fabian Society has played an important role in the development of the English socialist and labor movements; and its influence is strong in the program of the Labor Party which, after its victory in the general election of 1945, aimed at effecting a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism by Parliamentary enactments.

The Fabian Society was formally constituted with R. Pease as secretary, on January 4, 1884 by a group of young men who, several months before, had broken away from the Fellowship of the New Life, a study circle created by the Scottish reformer Thomas Davidson. Davidson's socialist aims for a better world had attracted the future Fabians, and, although the revolutionary ideas of Marxian socialism seemed to them ill-suited to the time, they believed that a continuation of the struggle for a more equitable society and for socialism was necessary. Thomas Davidson advocated for an immediate, perhaps violent revolution, and the founders found it difficult to accept this theory. The Fabians put their faith in evolutionary socialism rather than in revolution. They named themselves after Fabius Cunctator, as they realized "long taking of counsel," was necessary before they could decide how to achieve their goal. Further taken in context the ancient Roman consul Fabius called Cunctator, "the Delayer," or "the Slow-goer," because of his policy to avoid immediate battles during the Second Punic War, avoiding decisive engagements with the Carthaginian general Hannibal and of wearing down his strength by continual harrassments. Quintus Fabius Maximus Cuncatator's patient and elusive tactics in avoiding pitched battles secured his ultimate victory over the stronger forces of Hannibal. The founders of the Fabian Society wished to make their approach to socialist society gradual and constitutional.

The founders repudiated all violent and revolutionary methods, favoring instead a policy of gradual change, achieved through democratic politics and persuasion. The society itself was involved minimally in national politics. Its main influence was through tracts and lectures. Its aims chiefly were toward reorganization of society by transfer of property by class and individual ownership to the community for general benefit. These doctrines appealed primarily to middle class intellectuals. Its peak influence was in the shaping of the Labour Party before World War I but declined in power thereafter.

Fabian Society
Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943; Sidney Webb, 1859-1947; and Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, founding members of the Fabian Society. (Daily Herald, London)

Among the first Fabians the only person of note appears to have been Edward R. Pease, who was secretary of the society from its birth until 1912, and who wrote The History of the Fabian Society (1915). The society might have had only an ephemeral existence had it not enrolled as members a number of men and women who later achieved prominence as writers, economists, historians, teachers, parliamentarians, and labor leaders. Overshadowing all the rest were the economist Sidney Webb (later Lord Passfield) who became a Fabian in 1885 and, subsequently, the principal formulator of the body of doctrine and ideas known as Fabianism; and the writer George Bernard Shaw who had joined the society in 1884 and who became the most brilliant expositor of Fabian ideas. Among other notable Fabians who contributed significantly to the society's ideas and activities were the theosophist Annie Besant; Keir Hardie, the principal found of the Independent Labor Party and first labor member of Parliament; the statesman Ramsay McDonald who was later prime minister of Great Britain; the political scientist Graham Wallas who authored books on political economy; the sociologist, and wife and collaborator of Sidney Webb, Beatrice Potter Webb; and the novelist H.G. Wells. Shaw and Webb joined the society late, by way of Webb's wife Beatrice.

Formulation of the basic theoretical views of the Fabians began in 1887 with the publication of a declaration of principals, called the Basis, which, modified only slightly, was elaborated in later years. Among the characteristic tenets of Fabianism are rejection of capitalism and advocacy of socialism; and revocacy of eclectic economic views. The general outline of the principals of the Society rejected the economic views of Marxism as expounded by the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1881 and proposed economics based on William Stanley Jevons, David Ricardo, Henry George, John Stuart Mills and others. Shaw propounded both the marginal-utility theory of value of William Stanley Jevons and the theory of rent of David Ricardo, and was influenced by the ideas of the single-tax advocate Henry George; Webb accepted and extended the theory of John Stuart Mill. Especially characteristic of the Fabian movement was the rejection of the Marxian theory of the class struggle and of Marxian political methods and organizational forms, and the adoption of the principal that "the transition from capitalism to socialism would never be carried out by the Fabian Society or any other socialist organization, or by any separate body of persons, but . . . would be accomplished by the nation as a whole, acting by a majority of citizens . . .".

Sidney and Beatric Webb
The efforts of Sidney and Beatrice Webb contributed extensively to founding the Fabian Society.
Brown Brothers, N.Y.
The Webbs were indefatigable Fabians, and played an instrumental role behind the scenes in developing the British Labor movement. The Labour Party's 1918 program Labour and the Social Order, was drafted by Sidney Webb and remained the basis of Labour Party policy until the general election in 1950. New Fabian Essays in 1952 reflected more up-to-date trends in socialist thinking.

The Fabians therefore, consistently refused to constitute themselves a political party. For the most part, they confined themselves to the dissemination of their ideas among all organizations, educational institutions, municipal, county, and national administrative bodies, and the government itself. The chief means of this policy of permeation was by lectures and the writing of general propaganda for socialism and on specific important contemporary political, economic, and social questions. In 1889, the Fabian Essays appeared and were edited by Shaw, created a considerable stir in radical circles and have since become classics of English socialist thought. The revolutionary Socialism of that period was Marxian in thought and followers of Hyndman and even William Morris based their propaganda on the Marxian law of value. Fabians rejected Marxian doctrines both in economics and politics, holding that Socialism was not a scheme to be adopted on the morrow of revolution, but rather a principal already embodied in municipal and central government with furtherance by existing political parties. The Essays were followed by several hundred separate pamphlets, called collectively Fabian Tracts and distinguished by their scholarship and literary quality. The Fabian Essays of 1889 were followed by the New Fabian Essays edited by Richard H.S. Crossman in 1952.

The publication of the Essays led to the foundation of Fabian societies throughout England, which were later turned into branches ofthe new Independent Labour Party, a socialist society which was Fabian except in its political ideas.

The Fabian Society became affiliated with the Labor and Socialist International in 1891. Two years later it was influential in shaping the program and policy of the newly founded Independent Labor Party of England. In 1900 the society participated in the establishment of, and affiliated with, the Labor Representation Committee, which, in 1906, became the Labor Party. From 1906 to 1915 the Fabian Society weathered a series of crises over attempts made by H.G. Wells and others to change its basic policy. During its early period the society devoted much of its time and energy to arguments against capitalism and in favor of Socialism, also stressing the importance of local government as a means of promoting collective ownership.

In 1918 the Labor Party adopted a program drafted by Sidney Webb embodying the essential ideas of Fabianism; thereafter the Fabian Society became in effect an educational arm of the Labor Party. The impact of the Communist International, founded in 1919, on the English socialist and labor movements during the 1920's, and the effects of the world-wide economic depression of the 1930's, gave rise to stormy controversies within the Fabian Society. During the 1920's and later, the Fabian Society was at times disrupted by the members who wished it to adhere to the policies of the Communist International. The younger members demanded a more militant policy but were defeated. In 1931 the New Fabian Research Bureau was established as an independent body. The bureau and the society amalgamated in 1938 to restructure itself into a new Fabian Society. Since then, research has formed an important part of the society's work.

Following the victory of the Labor Party in the election of 1945, the Fabian Society experienced a fresh growth of activity as calls on it for lecturers and literature multiplied; its membership rose to a peak of about 4500 and included more than one hundred members of Parliament. The national membership of the Fabian Society has never been very great (at its peak in 1946 it had only about 8,400 members), but the importance of the society has always been much greater than its size suggests. Generally, nearly half the number of Labour members at Parliament in the House of Commons and a majority of Party leadership figures are Fabians. In the 1980's there were more than 80 local Fabian societies were affiliated with the parent body. (See articles on Communism and Socialism).

Principal activities of the Fabian society consist of continued publication of literature including books, pamphlets and periodicals. Regularly the society promotes meetings, lectures, discussion groups, conferences and summer schools; carrying out research into political and economic and social issues. The goal is the furtherance of Socialism through education of the public along Socialist lines.

Many practical reforms can be traced in part to the work of Fabians; but much of the impact of Fabianism has been through the gradual spread of their philosophies by teachers, civil servants, politicians, union officials and others of influential position.

Also see Collectivism, Labor Movement, Labor Party, Socialism


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