Fabian Society

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The Fabian Society is a British socialist organization whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary, means.[1][2] It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning late in the 19th century and continuing up to World War I. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party and subsequently affected the policies of states emerging from the decolonisation of the British Empire, especially India.

Today, the society functions primarily as a think tank and is one of 15 socialist societies affiliated with the Labour Party. Similar societies exist in Australia (the Australian Fabian Society), Canada (the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation and the now disbanded League for Social Reconstruction) and in New Zealand.


Organisational history


Fabian Society was named after "Fabius the Delayer" at the suggestion of Frank Podmore, above.
Tortoise is the symbol of Fabian Society, representing its goal of gradual expansion of socialism.[1]

The Fabian Society was founded on 4 January 1884 in London as an offshoot of a society founded in 1883 called The Fellowship of the New Life.[3] Fellowship members included poets Edward Carpenter and John Davidson, sexologist Havelock Ellis and the future Fabian secretary Edward R. Pease. They wanted to transform society by setting an example of clean simplified living for others to follow, but when some members also wanted to become politically involved to aid society's transformation, it was decided that a separate society, the Fabian Society, also be set up. All members were free to attend both societies. The Fabian Society additionally advocated renewal of Western European Renaissance ideas and their promulgation throughout the rest of the world.

The Fellowship of the New Life was dissolved in 1899,[4] but the Fabian Society grew to become the pre-eminent academic society in the United Kingdom in the Edwardian era, typified by the members of its vanguard Coefficients club. Public meetings of the Society were for many years held at Essex Hall, a popular location just off the Strand in central London.[5]

The Fabian Society, which favoured gradual change rather than revolutionary change, was named – at the suggestion of Frank Podmore – in honour of the Roman general Fabius Maximus (nicknamed "Cunctator", meaning "the Delayer"). His Fabian strategy advocated tactics of harassment and attrition rather than head-on battles against the Carthaginian army under the renowned general Hannibal.

An explanatory note appearing on the title page of the group's first pamphlet declared:

"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."[6]

Immediately upon its inception, the Fabian Society began attracting many prominent contemporary figures drawn to its socialist cause, including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, Hubert Bland, Edith Nesbit, Sydney Olivier, Oliver Lodge, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf, Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline Pankhurst. Even Bertrand Russell briefly became a member, but resigned after he expressed his belief that the Society's principle of entente (in this case, between countries allying themselves against Germany) could lead to war.

At the core of the Fabian Society were Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Together, they wrote numerous studies[7] of industrial Britain, including alternative co-operative economics that applied to ownership of capital as well as land.

The first Fabian Society pamphlets[8] advocating tenets of social justice coincided with the zeitgeist of Liberal reforms during the early 1900s. The Fabian proposals however were considerably more progressive than those that were enacted in the Liberal reform legislation. The Fabians lobbied for the introduction of a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of a universal health care system in 1911 and for the abolition of hereditary peerages in 1917.[9]

Early Fabian views

Fabian socialists were in favour of reforming Britain's imperialist foreign policy as a conduit for internationalist reform and a welfare state modelled on the Bismarckian German model; they criticised Gladstonian liberalism both for its individualism at home and its internationalism abroad. They favoured a national minimum wage in order to stop British industries compensating for their inefficiency by lowering wages instead of investing in capital equipment; slum clearances and a health service in order for "the breeding of even a moderately Imperial race" which would be more productive and better militarily than the "stunted, anaemic, demoralised denizens...of our great cities"; and a national education system because "it is in the classrooms...that the future battles of the Empire for commercial prosperity are already being lost".[10]

In 1900 the Society produced Fabianism and the Empire, the first statement of its views on foreign affairs, drafted by Bernard Shaw and incorporating the suggestions of 150 Fabian members. It was directed against the liberal individualism of those such as John Morley and Sir William Harcourt.[11] It claimed that the classical liberal political economy was outdated, and that imperialism was the new stage of the international polity. The question was whether Britain would be the centre of a world empire or whether it would lose its colonies and end up as just two islands in the North Atlantic. It expressed support for Britain in the Boer War because small nations, such as the Boers, were anachronisms in the age of empires.[11] In order to hold onto the Empire, the British needed to fully exploit the trade opportunities secured by war; maintain the British armed forces in a high state of readiness to defend the Empire; the creation of a citizen army to replace the professional army; the Factory Acts would be amended to extend to 21 the age for half-time employment, so that the thirty hours gained would be used in "a combination of physical exercises, technical education, education in civil citizenship...and field training in the use of modern weapons".[12]

The Fabians also favoured the nationalisation of land rent, believing that rents collected by landowners were unearned, an idea which drew heavily from the work of American economist Henry George.

Many Fabians participated in the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 and the group's constitution, written by Sidney Webb, borrowed heavily from the founding documents of the Fabian Society. At the Labour Party Foundation Conference in 1900, the Fabian Society claimed 861 members and sent one delegate.

Second generation

In the period between the two World Wars, the "Second Generation" Fabians, including the writers R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole and Harold Laski, continued to be a major influence on social-democratic thought.

But the general idea is that each man should have power according to his knowledge and capacity. [...] And the keynote is that of my fairy State: From every man according to his capacity; to every man according to his needs. A democratic Socialism, controlled by majority votes, guided by numbers, can never succeed; a truly aristocratic Socialism, controlled by duty, guided by wisdom, is the next step upwards in civilization.

—Annie Besant, a Fabian Society member and later president of Indian National Congress, [13]

It was at this time that many of the future leaders of the Third World were exposed to Fabian thought, most notably India's Jawaharlal Nehru, who subsequently framed economic policy for India on Fabian socialism lines. After independence from Britain, Nehru’s Fabian ideas committed India to an economy in which the state owned, operated and controlled means of production, in particular key heavy industrial sectors such as steel, telecommunications, transportation, electricity generation, mining and real estate development. Private activity, property rights and entrepreneurship were discouraged or regulated through permits, nationalization of economic activity and high taxes were encouraged, rationing, control of individual choices and Mahalanobis model considered by Nehru as a means to implement the Fabian Society version of socialism.[14][15][16] In addition to Nehru, several pre-independence leaders in colonial India such as Annie Besant - Nehru's mentor and later a president of Indian National Congress - were members of the Fabian Society.[17]

Obafemi Awolowo, who later became the premier of Nigeria's defunct Western Region was also a Fabian member in the late 1940s. It was the Fabian ideology that Awolowo used to run the Western Region but was prevented from using it on a national level in Nigeria. It is less known that the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an avid member of the Fabian Society in the early 1930s. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, stated in his memoirs that his initial political philosophy was strongly influenced by the Fabian Society. However, he later altered his views, considering the Fabian ideal of socialism as impractical.[18] In 1993, Lee said:

"They (Fabian Socialists) were going to create a just society for the British workers - the beginning of a welfare state, cheap council housing, free medicine and dental treatment, free spectacles, generous unemployment benefits. Of course, for students from the colonies, like Singapore and Malaya, it was a great attraction as the alternative to communism. We did not see until the 1970s that that was the beginning of big problems contributing to the inevitable decline of the British economy."
—Lee Kuan Yew interview with Lianhe Zaobao[18]

In the Middle East, the theories of Fabian Society intellectual movement of early-20th-century Britain inspired the Ba'athist vision. The Middle East adaptation of Fabian socialism led the state to control big industry, transport, banks, internal and external trade. The state would direct the course of economic development, with the ultimate aim to provide a guaranteed minimum standard of living for all.[19] Michel Aflaq, widely considered as the founder of the Ba'athist movement, was a Fabian socialist. Aflaq's ideas, with those of Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Zaki al-Arsuzi, came to fruition in the Arab world in the form of dictatorial regimes in Iraq and Syria.[20] Salāmah Mūsā of Egypt, another prominent champion of Arab Socialism, was a keen adherent of Fabian Society, and a member since 1909.[21]

Among many current and former Fabian academics are the late political scientist Bernard Crick, the late economists Thomas Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor and the sociologist Peter Townsend.

Contemporary Fabianism

Through the course of the 20th century the group has always been influential in Labour Party circles, with members including Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman, Tony Benn, Harold Wilson and more recently Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Gordon Marsden and Ed Balls. The late Ben Pimlott served as its Chairman in the 1990s. (A Pimlott Prize for Political Writing was organised in his memory by the Fabian Society and The Guardian in 2005 and continues annually). The Society is affiliated to the Party as a socialist society. In recent years the Young Fabian group, founded in 1960, has become an important networking and discussion organisation for younger (under 31) Labour Party activists and played a role in the 1994 election of Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Following a period of inactivity, the Scottish Young Fabians were reformed in 2005.

The society's 2004 annual report showed that there were 5,810 individual members (down 70 from the previous year), of whom 1,010 were Young Fabians and 294 institutional subscribers, of which 31 were Constituency Labour Parties, co-operative societies, or trade unions, 190 were libraries, 58 corporate and 15 other—making 6,104 members in total. The society's net assets were £86,057, its total income £486,456 and its total expenditure £475,425. There was an overall surplus for the year of £1,031.

On 21 April 2009 the Society's website stated that it had 6,286 members: "Fabian national membership now stands at a 35 year high: it is over 20% higher than when the Labour Party came to office in May 1997. It is now double what it was when Clement Attlee left office in 1951."

The latest edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (a reference work listing details of famous or significant Britons throughout history) includes 174 Fabians. Four Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw founded the London School of Economics with the money left to the Fabian Society by Henry Hutchinson. Supposedly the decision was made at a breakfast party on 4 August 1894. The founders are depicted in the Fabian Window[22] designed by George Bernard Shaw. The window was stolen in 1978 and reappeared at Sotheby's in 2005. It was restored to display in the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics in 2006 at a ceremony over which Tony Blair presided.[23]

Young Fabians

Members aged under 31 years of age are also members of the Young Fabians. This group has its own elected Chair and executive and organises conferences and events. It also publishes the quarterly magazine Anticipations. The Scottish Young Fabians, a Scottish branch of the group, reformed in 2005.

Influence on Labour government

With the advent of a Labour Party government in 1997, the Fabian Society has been a forum for New Labour ideas and for critical approaches from across the party. The most significant Fabian contribution to Labour's policy agenda in government was Ed Balls' 1992 pamphlet, advocating Bank of England independence. Balls had been a Financial Times journalist when he wrote this Fabian pamphlet, before going to work for Gordon Brown. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston, in his book Brown's Britain, calls this an "essential tract" and concludes that Balls "deserves as much credit – probably more – than anyone else for the creation of the modern Bank of England";[24] William Keegan offers a similar analysis of Balls' Fabian pamphlet in his book on Labour's economic policy,[25] which traces in detail the path leading up to this dramatic policy change after Labour's first week in office.

The Fabian Society Tax Commission of 2000 was widely credited[26] with influencing the Labour government's policy and political strategy for its one significant public tax increase: the National Insurance rise to raise £8 billion for National Health Service spending. (The Fabian Commission had in fact called for a directly hypothecated "NHS tax"[27] to cover the full cost of NHS spending, arguing that linking taxation more directly to spending was essential to make tax rise publicly acceptable. The 2001 National Insurance rise was not formally hypothecated, but the government committed itself to using the additional funds for health spending.) Several other recommendations, including a new top rate of income tax, were to the left of government policy and not accepted, though this comprehensive review of UK taxation was influential in economic policy and political circles.[28]


In the early 1900s Fabian Society members advocated the ideal of a scientifically planned society and supported eugenics by way of sterilization. This is credited to the passage of the Half-Caste Act, and it subsequent implementation in Australia, where children were systematically and forcibly removed from their parents, so that the British colonial regime could "protect" the Aborigine children from their parents. In an article published in The Guardian on 14 February 2008, (following the apology offered by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd to the "stolen generations"), Geoffrey Robertson criticised Fabian socialists for providing the intellectual justification for the eugenics policy that led to the stolen generations scandal.[29][30] Such views on socialism, inequality and eugenics in early 20th century Fabians was not limited to one individual, it was a widely shared view in Fabian Society.[31][32]

Further reading

See also

Fabian press


  1. ^ a b George Thomson (1 March 1976). "THE TINDEMANS REPORT AND THE EUROPEAN FUTURE". http://aei.pitt.edu/10796/1/10796.pdf. 
  2. ^ Margaret Cole (1961). The Story of Fabian Socialism. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0804700917. 
  3. ^ Edward R. Pease, A History of the Fabian Society. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1916.
  4. ^ Pease, 1916
  5. ^ "''The History of Essex Hall'' by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D. Lindsey Press, 1959, chapter 5". Unitarian.org.uk. http://www.unitarian.org.uk/support/doc-EssexHall0.shtml. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  6. ^ Quoted in A.M. McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884–1918. [1962] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966; pg. 9.
  7. ^ See The Webbs on the Web bibliography
  8. ^ A full list of Fabian pamphlets is available at the Fabian Society Online Archive
  9. ^ Fabian Society[dead link]
  10. ^ Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895–1914 (New York: Anchor, 1968), p. 63.
  11. ^ a b Semmel, p. 61.
  12. ^ Semmel, p. 62.
  13. ^ Annie Besant. "The Future Socialism". Bibby's Annual (reprinted by Adyar Pamphlet). OCLC 038686071. http://kingsgarden.org/English/Organizations/TS.GB/Besant/FutureSocialism/FutureSocialism.htm. 
  14. ^ Padma Desai and Jagdish Bhagwati. "Socialism and Indian economic policy". World Development (4\date=April 1975): 213–221. doi:10.1016/0305-750X(75)90063-7. 
  15. ^ B.K. Nehru (SPRING 1990). "Socialism at crossroads". India International Centre Quarterly 17 (1): 1-12. JSTOR 23002177. 
  16. ^ Arvind Virmani (October 2005). "POLICY REGIMES, GROWTH AND POVERTY IN INDIA: LESSONS OF GOVERNMENT FAILURE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS". Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi. http://icrier.org/pdf/WP170GrPov11.pdf. 
  17. ^ "From Radicalism to Socialism: Men and Ideas in the Formation of Fabian Socialist Doctrines, 1881–1889". History: Reviews of New Books 3 (10): 263. 1975. doi:10.1080/03612759.1975.9945148. 
  18. ^ a b "Lee Kuan Yew's Fabian Phase". Australian Journal of Politics & History 46 (1): 110–126. March 2000. doi:10.1111/1467-8497.00088. 
  19. ^ Amatzia Baram (Spring, 2003). "Broken Promises". Wilson Quarterly (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars). http://www.mafhoum.com/press7/188C33.htm. 
  20. ^ L. M. Kenny (Winter, 1963/1964)). "The Goal of Arab Unification". International Journal 19 (1): 50-61. JSTOR 40198692. 
  21. ^ Kamel S. Abu Jaber ((Spring, 1966)). "Salāmah Mūsā: Precursor of Arab Socialism". Middle East Journal 20 (2): 196-206. JSTOR 4323988. 
  22. ^ Press release, A piece of Fabian history unveiled at LSE, London School of Economics & Political Science Archives, Last accessed 23 February 2007
  23. ^ Andrew Walker, Wit, wisdom and windows, BBC News, Last accessed 23 February 2007
  24. ^ Mark Wickham-Jones (2005). PARTY OFFICIALS, EXPERTS AND POLICY-MAKING: THE CASE OF BRITISH LABOUR. r/ French Political Science Association. http://www.afsp.msh-paris.fr/archives/congreslyon2005/communications/tr4/wickham.pdf. 
  25. ^ Sunder Katwala. "Observer review: The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown by William Keegan | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books". Politics.guardian.co.uk. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/bookshelf/story/0,,1041487,00.html. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  26. ^ Andrew Rawnsley, columnist of the year. "Honesty turns out to be the best policy". The Observer. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/2001review/story/0,,623139,00.html. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  27. ^ "Think tank calls for NHS tax". BBC News. 27 November 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1042801.stm. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  28. ^ "In defence of earmarked taxes – FT 07/12/00". Samuelbrittan.co.uk. 15 December 1994. http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text65_p.html. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  29. ^ Geoffrey Robertson (13 February 2008). "We should say sorry, too". http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/14/australia. 
  30. ^ L.J. Ray (1983). "Eugenics, Mental Deficiency and Fabian Socialism between the Wars". Oxford Review of Education 9 (3). doi:10.1080/0305498830090305. 
  31. ^ Diane Paul (Oct-Dec, 1984). "Eugenics and the Left". Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 45 (4). JSTOR 2709374. 
  32. ^ Christopher Badcock (2008). "Eugenics". London School of Economics and Political Science. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3079/1/Eugenics_(LSERO).pdf. 

External links