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The Rise and Fall of England: 11. The Fabian Thrust to Socialism

Clarence Carson

The Fabian Society was orga­nized January 4, 1884. Its organi­zation resulted in the split-up of a group that had formed the year before and would be called "The Fellowship of the New Life." There were probably nine mem­bers of the Fabian Society at the outset.’ This was the motto adopted by the Society:

For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.

The significance of the Fabian Society is not immediately appar­ent. It was only one among nu­merous collectivist and socialist or­ganizations at its inception. At a conference held in 1886 fifty-four such societies had representatives, and the Marxist Social Democratic Federation was not even in at­tendance. There were such organi­zations as the Socialist League, the Socialist Union, the Guild of St. Matthew, the Anarchist Group of Freedom, the Land Restoration Leagues, the Land Nationalization Society, and the National Secular Society.” Not only was the Fabian Society only one small group among many other socialist groups at the beginning, but even after more than sixty years of existence (1947) it had only about 8,000 members.[3]

The importance of the Fabian Society did not arise from the number of its members. Instead, it became so influential because it attracted into its ranks men and women who were leaders or would become leaders in a variety of in­tellectual fields. Shortly after its founding, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas, and Beatrice Potter (who married Webb) joined the Society. Over the years, many other prominent English intellectuals and politi­cians would belong. In the 1920′s, for example, it numbered among its adherents those who were or would become prominent such as Clement Atlee, Stafford Cripps, R. H. Tawney, Michael Oakeshott, Ernest Barker, Rebecca West, C. E. M. Joad, Bertrand Russell, Malcolm Muggeridge, Harold Las­ki, and G. D. H. Cole.[4] Of equal, or greater, importance, the Fa­bians had an idea, and it was this idea which helped to draw so many intellectuals into their ranks. The idea can be succinctly stated: The Fabians linked reformism by gov­ernment action with socialism, the latter to be achieved gradually by way of the former.

So stated, the idea may not now be very impressive; certainly, it may not strike us as original, unique, or anything but obvious. That is because we are more or less familiar with it, because it has become a part of that baggage of ideas we carry around with us. This was not the case in the 1880′s and 1890′s. Socialism and reform­ism were antithetical currents whose advocates were usually in dogmatic opposition to one another. To appreciate what they did, it will be helpful to go a little into the background of these antitheti­cal dogmas.

The French Had Help

Modern socialism was conceived in the midst of the French Revolu­tion and was shaped within a few decades following the Napoleonic Wars. It was the work mainly of Frenchmen: of Saint Simon, Charles Fourier, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Auguste Comte, and Louis Blanc. Men from other na­tions also contributed: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Robert Dale Owen, and William Godwin, among others. At the time of the found­ing of the Fabian Society, there were three main streams of socialism: communitarian, revolu­tionary, and anarchistic.

Many of the early socialists were communitarians. That is, they proposed to achieve socialism instantly, as it were, by living in communities separated from the rest of society. An example of such a community would be Robert Dale Owen’s New Harmony com­munity in America, but there were many other such experiments. In these communities, there would be no private property; all would share in useful work; all would receive from the goods produced and the services provided. These communities were quite often con­ceived as places where men having taken care of their brute needs could devote most of their energies to intellectual and esthetic fulfill­ment. They were conceived as vol­untary efforts, and if they were to become universal it would be because of their success as a way of life.

There were also the revolution­ary socialists, of whom Karl Marx was to become the most famous. Marx spoke of his as scientific socialism—denouncing others as utopians—but that facet of his work need not concern us here. He envisioned—predicted or scien­tifically calculated, he might have said—a time in the future when the proletariat would rise up, cast off their chains, and destroy the bour­geois state and all its parapherna­lia. Socialism would somehow re­place it in that last great stage of history.

Anarchism was most famously propounded by William Godwin and Prince Peter Kropotkin. Its central notion was that the state was unnecessary, that formal gov­ernment employing force was equally unnecessary, that if it were abolished, society would take over and manage its own affairs peace­fully. Some anarchists went about attempting to destroy the state in the most direct fashion, i. e., by political assassination. This was generally intended as a terrorist tactic, to so terrorize those in government that they would abdicate and all others would be afraid to take on their jobs. Not all anar­chists, of course, pursued their ob­jective in such a forthright man­ner.

Societism Unbridled

What gave these people title to be called socialist? What did they have in common that made them socialists? The point has long since been lost sight of largely, but it is this: they proposed that government or the state could be abolished and that soci­ety would wholly replace it by subsuming its functions. This doc­trine might be clearer if it were referred to as societism rather than socialism. Generally speaking, early socialists abstracted from liberal doctrine the idea that the state, or government, existed to protect property. (Liberals did not, of course, hold that this was the only, or even the underlying, reason for the existence of gov­ernment.) Property—individual­ist, private property—, then, was the occasion for the state with its oppression, wars, and dislocative impact upon society. Abolish pri­vate property, and the state would no longer have any function. Or, abolish the state, and there would no longer be any private property.

There was, then, a deep hatred of and animus against the state by most socialists. The communi­tarian would abandon the state to its own devices, so far as possible. The revolutionists would assault it directly, and for Marx it would wither away. The anarchists would make it impossible. This at­titude prevailed among many so­cialists down to the end of the nineteenth century, or beyond. (Indeed, it can be argued—con­clusively, so far as semantics are concerned—that once they ac­cepted the state and began to use it they ceased to be socialists.)

Out of the Ashes

This was the state of socialism when the Fabians began to study it in the 1880′s. Socialists were nowhere in power in any land, and it is difficult to see how they could have been, considering their animosity to government. Such communities as had been tried had been failures, usually abysmal failures. Their revolutions had aborted, as, for example, that of the Paris Commune in 1848. Anar­chists were widely recognized as a menace, and of interest gen­erally to the police. Socialists were fragmented into numerous groups, their antipathy a product both of temperamental differences among their leaders and their pen­chant for nit picking over fine points of doctrine. Their doctrines had been repudiated by most men who had heard of them, the esti­mate of them ranging from think­ing of them as downright silly to being profoundly dangerous. Their leaders were frequently personae non gratae in their native lands. The inevitability of the triumph of socialism had no direct evidence with which to sustain the faith­ful.

Yet, there was a great ferment of ideas at work in England, and elsewhere, in the last three dec­ades of the nineteenth century. The Victorian Way was under at­tack, as has been shown. Men were losing confidence in the validity of ancient certainties. There was a depression in the 1870′s, which became known as the Great Depression. Reports of poverty and suffering were beginning to make an impact. Neomercantilism and nationalism were gaining sway in many countries. New ideas were being applied in many fields. Re­formers, reform ideas, and reform organizations abounded.

The early Fabians were social­ists searching for a modus oper­andi by which to achieve their goal. This distinguished them from most other socialists; these had very definite ideas about how utopia would be achieved; by way of communities, following some great revolutionary upheaval, by political assassination, via labor organization, by a revival of peas­antry, and so on. In like manner, reformers were usually wedded to a favorite panacea: inflation, a single tax on land, a redivision of the land, urban housing projects, settlement houses, and such like. The Fabians were not encumbered by any such fixed ideas as regards means (though some would even­tually become attached to nation­alization in this manner). It would be unjust to them to suggest that they were all willing to use any means for attaining socialism, but they were certainly open to the use of a great variety of means to the eventual socialization of England. They had no bias in fa­vor of revolution, nor any in op­position to government. Ameliora­tive reform was quite acceptable, so long as it thrust England in the direction of socialism.

So it was that the Fabians acted as a kind of filter for the currents of ideas and movements sweeping about them, eclectically taking from whatever sources whichever ideas or programs suited their purposes. It would not be appro­priate here to trace down all the sources of their ideas, but it will help to see what they did—and to see why they were eventually so successful—to note how they took from or flowed with certain currents that were already under way.

Reform by Force

One of the elements of Fabian­ism, as has been noted, was re­formism, the willingness to use government power to make changes of a limited nature. The stage had been set for this by the liberals in the course of the nine­teenth century. They had given re­form a good name generally and had shown how, when it is applied in a limited manner, it can be made to work. The main impetus of liberal reforms, of course, had been to remove government re­strictions, regulations, and pre­scriptions—to establish liberty—, such as the lowering of tariffs, removing religious qualifications for office holding, repeal of the navigation acts, repeal of wages legislation, freeing of the press, and so on.

But there was also a minor strain of interventionism in Eng­lish liberal thought. This can be best approached by noting that there were two distinct currents that went into nineteenth century English liberalism. They were, re­spectively, the natural law philoso­phy and utilitarianism.

Those who adhered to the natu­ral law philosophy—David Ricardo, for example—were not interven­tionists, at least not in the first half of the century. They believed in a naturally harmonious universe in which to intervene was but to bring about dislocations.

The Radical Nature of Utilitarians

The utilitarians had a quite dif­ferent foundation for their be­liefs, though they frequently ar­rived at similar conclusions. They are usually characterized as phil­osophical radicals. The leading figures among utilitarians were Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, in that chrono­logical order. Bentham repudiated natural law, saying of those who had attempted to uphold it that they "take for their subject the pretended law of nature; an ob­scure phantom, which in the im­aginations of those who go inchase of it, points sometimes to manners, sometimes to laws; some­times to what law is, and some­times to what it ought to be."[5] In its place, he substituted happiness or utility as his standard of meas­urement for what ought to be done. This cut away any absolute measure or standard by which to judge what action should be taken. (Utilitarians inclined toward democracy, toward determination by the majority of what would conduce to the greatest happi­ness.) This opened the way for re­form in many directions.

At any rate, Bentham and his followers were enthusiastic re­formers. One historian notes that "Bentham had a genius for prac­tical reform. From his tireless pen flowed a series of projects for the practical reform of everything: schools, prisons, courts, laws…. By sheer energy and perseverance, Bentham and his followers… forced upon the public constant consideration of the question, `What good is it? Can it be im­proved?’ "a John Stuart Mill edged closer and closer toward some de­gree of some sort of socialism as he grew old, and was for a con­siderable while under the influ­ence of Comte’s thought.[7] The thrust of the utilitarians was to­ward the extension of the suffrage, educational opportunity for every­one, reform of the Constitution, reform of the laws, and so on. By the time of William Gladstone and the emergence of the Liberal par­ty, these ideas were bearing fruit in proposals to restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages and the sup­planting of church controlled edu­cation for some state variety.

Democratic Change Rendered Respectable

The utilitarian influence or bear­ing on Fabianism was threefold, then. The utilitarians made reform respectable, and established a bent in that direction. The utilitarians championed political democracy (and Mill especially emphasized freedom of expression) which would be taken up by the Fabians. Thirdly, Fabians harked back to particular thinkers in support of some of their ideas. One writer says, "The derivation of Fabian ideas from the Liberal tradition has always been stressed by his­torians, and the Fabians themselves insisted on it, sprinkling their writings plentifully with footnotes and other references to John Stuart Mill, the contemporary Liberal economists and other respectable authors."

But there was an important in­fluence on the Fabians—or a cur­rent which they could use—from the natural law side of liberalism too. This may be a good place to note that any idea of philosophy can have some aspect of it ab­stracted so as to be used for quite different ends than its general tendency. This was what happened, at any rate, to an aspect of the natural law philosophy. A line of thought was developed in this way that led to the justification of a major government intervention. Several people traveled a similar route to this conclusion, but for reasons that will appear the Amer­ican Henry George’s thought may be used to exemplify this particu­lar usage.

The Georgist Influence

Henry George was in the line of natural law thought. More specif­ically, he was a latter-day Physi­ocrat. The Physiocrats had sought for a natural order for economy, and they had placed great empha­sis upon land and agriculture. George started from these premis­es and arrived at the conclusion that rent on land, or some portion of it, is unearned by the landlord—is an "unearned increment"—, is not rightfully his, and should be appropriated by the government to be used for the benefit of society, which is the original source of this rent. The Fabians were early acquainted with this doctrine, though they were more inclined to use Marx’s phrase "surplus value" than George’s "unearned incre­ment." Even so, George’s reform­ism by way of taxation was grist for their mill.

George’s Progress and Poverty was published in 1879. He made speaking tours in England in 1882 and again in 1884. One writer goes as far as to say that "four-fifths of the socialist leaders of Great Britain in the ‘eighties had passed through the school of Hen­ry George."9 Another historian declares that George’s Progress and Poverty was the starting point for Fabian socialism."’ Another says, more circumspectly: "His eloquent writings and lec­tures brought many young men of the ‘eighties, including some Fa­bians, to think along lines which were to lead them to Socialism."[11] If any doubt of his influence re­mains, George Bernard Shaw’s testimony should clinch the argu­ment. "I am glad to say," Shaw wrote, "that I have never denied or belittled our debt to Henry George."[12]

Conservative Party Role

The Conservative party pre­pared the way and helped to estab­lish the tendency for reformism in England also. This was espe­cially true of it under the leader­ship of Benjamin Disraeli. In his novels Disraeli displayed his in­terest in and concern for poverty. One writer says that "he believed that the conditions of the common man could be improved by govern­ment action. He was, indeed, a be­liever in the maxim that much should be done for the people but very little by the people."[13] In 1875, when Disraeli finally had an assured parliamentary major­ity behind him as Prime Minister, he began to press through a num­ber of reform measures. A Trade Union Act was passed, an Arti­sans’ Dwellings Act, a Food and Drugs Act, and a Public Health Act.[14]

But of equal or greater impor­tance than the Conservative cham­pioning of reformism, usually dubbed "Tory paternalism," was something which the Fabians must have imbibed from conservative philosophy. The gradualist ap­proach to socialism is rooted in an abstraction from conservative sociology, whose progenitor was surely Edmund Burke. Implicitly, Burke tells us much about how society must be changed, to the extent that it can be successfully changed. Society is an organism, Burke held, and it cannot be changed or altered casually, or at will. Such changes as occur must not be offensive to the system as it is, should be in accord with it, and must be introduced slowly so as not to shock it. Now Fabians really had no objection to a social­ist revolution, at least most did not, but they did not believe that this could be accomplished in Eng­land. Thus, their gradualist tac­tics at least accorded with a wide­spread English belief which owed much to conservative thought, however offensive what they in­troduced might actually be to the English system.

Theories of Evolution

Another element that went into the Fabian view, a current which they could turn into their own stream, was the evolutionary the­ory of development. For several decades prior to the organization of the Society, the evolutionary conception of things had been gaining sway, particularly as a re­sult of Hegel’s philosophy of his­tory, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Descent of Man. Evolutionary theories were particularly important to utopians and socialists because they could be interpreted so as to give the impression that every­thing was changing, that nothing was fixed, and that all things were possible. This was another source and support, too, of the notion of making changes gradually. In view of the currency of these ideas, "it was only to be expected that the Fabians would avail themselves of these ideas to justify their pro­gramme. The extent to which they did so may be seen in several theoretical Tracts written for the Society at different times by Sid­ney Webb, and also in Fabian Essays…."[15]

The Fabians Motivated by Marxist Ideals

Marxism was a major influence on the Fabians. In this case, how­ever, the adoption of Marxist ideas did not give added impetus to the Fabian cause. On the contrary, they would be an impediment at this time. Hence, Fabians were disinclined to ascribe ideas to Marx or to credit him where cred­it was due. But the Fabians were socialists, and there is good rea­son to believe that their socialism was informed by Marxist ideas. The Marxist influence can be shown both by external and in­ternal evidence. H. M. Hyndman, leader of the Social Democratic Federation in England, was great­ly influenced by Marx.[16] He pub­lished two books at a crucial time which were largely cribbed from Marx’s writings: England for All (1881) and Historical Basis of Socialism in England (1883). A number of the early Fabians were deeply involved with the Social Democratic Federation. Not only that but also early reading lists for the Society indicate that sev­eral of Marx’s works were avail­able and presumably read. As one writer says, "The particular kind of Marxist works in currency amongst the Fabians had an effect on the development of their own theory…."[17] He notes that the Fabian Essays reveal "a number of elements taken over from Marx­ist theory. In addition to the em­phasis on the role of the working-class in bringing Socialism into existence, the doctrines of the narrowing of the numbers of the capitalist class and the increasing misery of the working-class can both be found there…."[8] It is worth noting, too, that both George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb virtually embraced Russian com­munism later in their lives.’[9]


One other current present at the time greatly assisted the Fabians in the spread of socialism. It was utopianism. The great age of uto­pian literature, particularly the utopian novel, in English was from 1883 to 1912. Some seventy-four works appeared during this period.[20] According to one historian, the most influential of these works on British socialists were two books by Americans: Laurence Gronlund’s Co-operative Common­wealth (1884) and Edward Bel­lamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But the English also published important works of the genre: William Morris, News from No­where (1891), and Robert Blatch­ford, Merrie England, the latter selling over a million copies.[21] It is important to keep in mind, too, that utopian literature was fre­quently vague about how socialism was to be obtained but provided glowing pictures of the ideal so­ciety that would emerge. This helped greatly in popularizing so­cialist goals.

A Witches’ Brew

From these elements, however disparate and antagonistic they may have been at the time, the Fa­bians concocted a blend which has come to be known as Fabianism. They fatefully linked government action (reformism) with the thrust to socialism. By so doing, they provided a modus operandi for achieving their goals which became increasingly believable to many people. By riding certain currents that were underway, they began to achieve respectability for their doctrines. In contrast to America, "socialism" became a word to conjure with in England rather than a dirty word. This should be attributed mainly to the Fabians and their methods. More­over, they linked gradualism and democracy to the movement to­ward socialism, thus making it that much more acceptable. The Fabians were not so much original in conceiving any of the elements as they were successful fusionists and propagandists. It was by their efforts, more than any others, that England was bent toward so­cialism.

And, there is a clear connection between the rise of socialism in England and the decline and fall of England from world leadership and greatness within a few dec­ades. Chronologically, the rela­tionship is about as close as it could be. But it must be made clear that it was not simply an accident that the rise of socialism in England paralleled the decline of that country. To do that, the Fabian methods and program must be examined, the movement to power told, and the erosive impact of all this on British institu­tions and practices explored.

The next article of this series will further explore "The Fabian Program."


1. Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (Stanford: Stanford Univer­sity Press, 1961), pp. 3-5.

2. A. M. McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics (London: Cam­bridge University Press, 1962), p. 23.

3. Cole, op. cit., p. 273.

4. Sister M. Margaret Patricia McCar­ran, Fabianism in the Political Life of Britain (Chicago: Heritage Foundation, 1954, 2nd ed.), pp. 41-45.

5. Quoted in John Bowle, Politics and Opinion in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, A Gal­axy Book, 1964), p. 66.

6. Roland N. Stromberg, European In­tellectual History Since 1789 (New York: Appelton-Century-Crofts, 1968), p. 53.

7. Ibid., pp. 72-73.

8. McBriar, op. cit., p. 8.

9. M. Beer, A History of British So­cialism, II (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953), 245.

10. R. C. K. Ensor, England: 1870-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 334.

11. McBriar, op. cit., p. 30.

12. Anne Freemantle, This Little Band of Prophets (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 34.

13. Salo W. Baron, "George Bandes and Lord Beaconsfield" in George Bandes, Lord Beaconsfield (New York: Crowell, 1966), p. vii.

14. Ensor, op. cit., pp. 35-36.

15. McBriar, op. cit., pp. 60-61.

16. Beer, op. cit., pp. 67-69.

17. McBriar, op. cit., p. 11.

18. Ibid., p. 62.

19. Ibid., p. 92; C. Northcote Parkin­son, Left Luggage (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1967), p. 94.

20. Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick, The Quest for Utopia (New York: Henry Schuman, 1952), pp. 19-22.

21. Ensor, op. cit., p. 334. 

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