The first conference of the ‘moderate socialist’ Fabian Society was held in Essex Hall, off the Strand, in central London, over the 6th/7th February 1892. That the Fabians didn’t hold another conference for over twenty years suggests the experience wasn’t either useful or comfortable. The first history of the Society was prepared for this conference, by George Bernard Shaw, and later reproduced as Fabian Tract no. 41.
The tone of the conference reflected a growing move away from the socialist groups that the Fabians uneasily co-existed with – speakers were hostile to the Social Democratic Federation and generally anti-Marxist. The main political issue – whether to support only specifically socialist groups – was rejected. The Society’s links to the more mainstream and moderate Liberal Party continued.
Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their origins, as a more ‘politically oriented offshoot of the puritan self-improvers of the Fellowship of the New Life.
The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action clashed with the more spiritual and ‘lifestylist’ Fellowship quite early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which like the older group met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (It’s not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)
Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”
Eventually joining the Labour Party, by orthodox accounts, the Fabians became a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in the post 1945 ‘Labour landslide’ Parliament, with Prime Minister Clem Atlee, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians.
However, Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks: 10% of the male membership in 1892.
He identifies their main claims to influence as
- having destroyed the influence of revolutionary Marxism in Britain
- to have inspired the Labour party
- to have laid the foundations of the welfare state, or at least municipal reform, through the London County Council.
Hobsbawm dismisses these claims as largely self-mythological.
They didn’t destroy the influence of Marxism in Britain – there wasn’t ever really a substantial Marxist strand in the British socialist movement, compared to explicitly reformist trends.
Neither were they inspirers, or even pioneers of the Labour Party. In contrast to other 1880s-90s socialist groups they in fact opposed the idea of an independent working class party… Only when their other projects failed did they join, not really till the 1910s.
As to the welfare state: they did exercise their greatest influence in drafting propaganda on welfare reform for labour movement, and leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were in regular contact with actual or future policymakers in government, opposition or civil service… BUT while their fact finding etc was respected, their own proposals were rarely adopted, in fact most welfare reforms were implemented in specifically non-Fabian forms… (The left wing Liberal tradition influenced by the ‘Cambridge Marshalians’ and JA Hobson were far more influential in the fundamental Liberal Party 1906 welfare reforms for example).
Even their claims for role in municipal social change are exaggerated.
The Fabians emerged not from the working class or the radical-liberal traditions that dominated nineteenth century left movements, nor adhered to newer ideas like Marxism. They were at odds with most other socialist groups, opposed to even the popular idea of independent working class party, supported imperialism, wouldn’t take position on Boer War, and wobbled on important questions of trade unionism and workers rights etc. They lacked contact with workers; though the Society attracted an inflow of workers in 1892 after the ‘new unions’ upsurge, and many affiliated regional societies formed (which could in theory have formed the nucleus of a socialist party), the leadership blew it or couldn’t have pulled it off, and most of its provincial societies joined the Independent Labour Party, formed the following year.
But the Fabians were equally out of tune with Liberals, though permeation of the Liberal Party was pretty much their policy for years. In fact a substantial anti-Liberal element drove away Liberal intellectuals and economists attracted to them early on, who developed the left wing liberalism that developed the ideas on which social welfare reforms of 1906 and 1911 were based (a strand which also began to reject laissez faire economics); the socially critical, left wing intellectuals like JA Hobson, WH Massingham, who even after the effective demise of the Liberal Party in the 1920s developed social democratic theory: leading on to Beveridge, Keynes, and Marshal.
Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:
- members of the traditional middle and upper classes who had developed a social conscience or rebelled against/disliked modern bourgeois capitalism;
- self-made professionals, and civil servants: including journalists, writers, professional politicos and organisers, managers, scientists… “brainworkers”;
- independent women, reasonably newly ’emancipated’, often earning their own living, most often as writers, teachers, or typists…
‘New’ men or women, then, rising through social structure, or creating new ones; the new intellectual or literary or professional strata; mostly salaried middle classes, uncommon then but growing rapidly, an administrative, scientific, would-be technocratic elite. This group dominated the Fabian leadership, and Fabian theory; its social composition directly gave birth to the Fabian conception of socialism (especially the Webbs) to be administered by an enlightened professional managerial caste.
By the 1880s a separation between ownership and management was growing in private firms, with a corresponding huge rise in the numbers and importance of professional salaried managers, admin workers; there was also a steep growth in the civil service, journalism, and so on.
The Webbs were keen observers of this, and of the ethos of this emerging ‘caste’, especially efficiency, They thought middle class professionals would play a big part in achieving socialism, bigger in their eyes than workers. Ramsay Mac called for “a revolution directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need but of intellectual development, to be in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do.”
The Fabian conception of socialism never theorised the working class as the only or even the main agents of change, or based their views on class struggle. In practice they fell back on usual vague ideas of education, progress, enlightenment in all classes, the general growth of unselfishness and social conscience. A vaguely expressed idea of a gradual evolution in rational self-interest and social consciousness among the right sort of people… The middle classes wouldn’t oppose socialism as they would perceive its necessity and reasonableness, and their own self-interest, in such a society, that “this form of social organisation really suited them just as well if not better than the capitalist.”
The Fabians theorised a new society, but based this new society very much on themselves, their actual practice, and sense of their mission, their own importance, their role in this society.
Hobsbawm warns that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”, but suggests we have to see the Fabian Society “in terms of the middle class reactions to the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties, the rise of new strata, new structures, new policies within British capitalism: as an adaptation of the British middle classes to the era of imperialism.”
The upsurge in public and private administration, science, journalism, professional writing and statistics/social sciences, from the 1870s on, did mean these people were in new and uncertain social positions, and hadn’t necessarily developed identification with existing structures or classes. There also was hostility and class snobbery from the old political and social upper classes towards salaried professionals, which you can see in the sneering at clerks and socially ambitious bourgeoisie that permeates Late Victorian literature.
As Hobsbawm says “the middle class socialism of the Fabians reflects the unwillingess, or the inability, of the people for whom they spoke, to find a firm place in the middle and upper class structure of late Victorian Britain.”
Which implies alienation, or not fitting in, both discomfort from from their side, and disdain from the existing structures; there may, though Hobsbawm doesn’t say this, also have been a sense of their own importance and abilities and a feeling of being unappreciated, and some element of knowing their own superiority over what they saw as a useless idle rich class.
Despite their origins in the Fellowship of the New Life, and the influence of William Morris on some of their early thinkers, the Fabians came to some radically different conclusions than both their ‘parent’ group and Morris. To some extent, like Morris and his sometime mentor John Ruskin [of whom hopefully more in a couple of days], the core of the Fabians were expressing the mid/late 19th century crisis in the new middle classes, the ‘bourgeois’ alienation from their own existence – but Ruskin and Morris, and their disciples, resolved their dissatisfaction with modern capitalist modes of production by going somewhat medievally-craftsy, while Fabians embraced the social and structural changes capitalism brought, though did see the possibility of a new political order. Certainly William Morris had a vision of really different society socially and economically, while the Fabian vision is not immediately very attractive.
Sidney Webb thought there were no practical reasons (though many historical and social ones) for this new class or caste to adhere to capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety; THEY are crucial to the functioning of modern economy, both in the private and public sector, but neither private enterprise or the profit motive is crucial to THEM or their work…
BUT as Hobsbawm points out, the type of ‘socialism’ they were likely to be attracted to was then likely to aspire towards the technocratic, hierarchical, if meritocratic, based on management by an elite: fulfilling their vision of their own role in current and possible future societies. “So we can confidently predict that… [the manager] will remain for all time an indispensable functionary, whatever may be the form of society.” (from S. Webb, The Works Manager To-day, 1917.) This concept of socialism also goes some way to explaining the later enthusiasm of some leading early Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, for the Stalinist USSR; Lenin and the Bolsheviks also saw socialism as a question of management by the proper authorities, not of a transformation of daily life organised from below.
All of which does provoke two questions – how much did the Fabians really speak for these castes, and did this sense of not fitting in, or not being appreciated, dissolve over subsequent decades, ie were these groups happier with rewards of capitalism and more integrated later? Clearly only a small minority of these new professional and managerial strata joined the ‘socialist movement’, though others expressed alienation in different ways.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar