The Fabian Society, Britain's most durable socialist organization, an offshoot of the utopian Fellowship of the New Life, was launched by Edward Reynolds Pease (1857–1955) and Frank Podmore (1856–1910) in January 1884. Its name is an allusion to the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator (d. 203 b.c.e.), who purportedly defeated Hannibal through a strategy of cautiously waiting for the right moment and then striking hard. Less a manifestation of the socialist revival of the 1880s than of alienation from the certainties of Christianity and Victorian capitalism, the Fabian Society, its several hundred members drawn from among intellectuals and the salaried middle class, had few ties to organized labor or to such rival socialist bodies as the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842–1921). Its intellectual roots showed a stronger affinity to the ideas of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) than to those of Karl Marx (1818–1883), and its earliest political links were to London radicals seeking to implement collectivist municipal reforms.
Despite some initial flirtations with revolutionary doctrines, by 1886 the Society declared itself unequivocally in favor of constitutionalism, of working through parliamentary action. Given their skepticism about the prospects for a working-class party in the foreseeable future, Fabians believed that their best hope for implementing programs was by persuading the existing political parties to adopt socialist measures. All members of the Society were obliged to subscribe to the set of innocuous doctrines known as the Fabian "basis," but it was not until George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Sidney James Webb (1859–1947) became intellectually dominant that the Fabians began to formulate a distinctive ideological perspective. In the Fabian Essays (1889), Shaw, Webb, and four other members offered a reasoned exposition of socialism that would provide an alternative to a revolutionary program. While anticipating the eventual elimination of private property, the essayists postulated a gradual evolution based on the extension of democracy and forms of public control that had already been initiated. The essays asserted that progress toward socialism was inevitable, but that it must be pursued gradually in order to suit the inclinations of the British. While they hoped to transform the economic structure, they believed that socialism could be accommodated within existing British political institutions.
During its first decades, the Fabian Society was preoccupied with research into economic and social problems, the dissemination of ideas through lectures and tracts, and permeation of political parties by experts. In contrast to most radicals, Fabians largely ignored foreign affairs and the threat of armed conflict. Indeed, during the Boer War, they generally supported the British military effort and the civilizing mission of imperialism. After 1905, the old guard—especially Shaw—resisted a scheme advanced by author H. G. Wells (1866–1946) to transform the Fabian Society into a militant mass organization, but it was soon reenergized in various ways. In 1895, Sidney and Beatrice Potter Webb had used a bequest to the Society to found the London School of Economics, and in the decade before 1914, the Fabian Nursery (for younger members), the first Fabian summer school, the Fabian Women's Group, the Fabian Research Department, and the New Statesman were all launched. Although the Society remained aloof from the embryonic Labour Party, its influence in political circles continued to grow.
Cole, Margaret. The Story of Fabian Socialism. Stanford, Calif., 1961.
McBriar, A. M. Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1962.
Shaw, George Bernard, ed. Fabian Essays. London, 1889.
Fred M. Leventhal