In January 1884, in London, about two dozen intellectuals created the Fabian Society. It has never had more than 80,000 members. Still, it has a universal significance in the history of social sciences that has been recognized even by its most outspoken critics.
The immediate antecedent of the creation of the society was a London visit of the New York philosopher Thomas Davidson. His twenty to thirty followers created the Fellowship of the New Life, which wanted to create a community of modest, unselfish people who with their way of life based on mutual love, tolerance, and wisdom would set an example for society. They hoped that the perfection of the individual would in turn lead to a perfection of the society. Some of the members, however, were also interested in direct political action. They created the Fabian Society, aimed at the gradual, democratic socialist transformation of British society. Being convinced of the inevitability of gradual change versus revolutionary turmoil, they adopted the name of the Roman general Fabius Cunctator (c. 280–203 BCE), who successfully delayed battles against the Carthagians in order to gain strength. In its 2004–2005 program the society defined itself as “Britain’s leading left of centre think tank and political society committed to creating the political ideas and policy debates which can shape the future of progressive politics.”
The founders and early members included some of the wittiest and brightest British minds of the time such as George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Edward Pease, Sydney Olivier, and Graham Wallas. The first Fabians were trying to pave the way toward the implementation of their ideas via the liberal and the conservative parties. In 1900 they participated in setting up the Labour Representation Committee, which was to become the Labour Party in 1906. They wanted to permeate society with their ideas; this aim was served by the publication of various small sized clearly worded tracts. Their first major publication, the Fabian Essays in Socialism of December 1889, gave them fame. In a year and a half the circulation reached 27,000, a number that previous socialist publications had never reached.
The Fabians defined their political profile as socialist but clearly distanced themselves from Marxist socialism and socialists. They denied the necessity of a revolution for the transition from capitalism to socialism. The full realization of social and economic reforms (such as factory acts, housing acts, education acts) and legislation about the improvement of working conditions, together with a progressive taxation of capitalists’ income, would—they argued—smoothly lead to socialism. As pointed out by G. D. H. Cole in his 1932 essay on Fabianism in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences : “The economic problem was … presented as a question of the socialisation of monopoly incomes through social ownership of the monopolies.… [There] was no fundamental difference between land and capital or in the incomes derived from them. Both were mainly the results of differential monopoly” (i.e., the extra profit due to variety of land qualities and the potentiality of industrial production). According to the Fabian argument, the social control and fair distribution of income could guarantee the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Fabians assumed that all classes of society could be convinced of the efficiency and utility of their reform proposals. Even after the shocking experiences of various forms of labor unrest they did not adopt any class point of view.
Fabians were keen on the scientific approach to practical political problems. The Webbs initiated such large-scale empirical social studies as Life and Labour of the People in London (by Charles Booth, 17 volumes, 1902–1903) or The History of English Local Government (9 volumes, 1906–1929).
It was also four Fabians—the two Webbs, Graham Wallas, and George Bernard Shaw—who decided to create the London School of Economics on August 4, 1894. They believed that the systematic scholarly investigations of the functioning of their society needed a new, independent institution that also offered evening classes to workers who wanted to understand the limits and possibilities of political action.
Their impact was not limited to Britain. Eduard Bernstein in Germany wrote the introduction to the German edition of the Webbs’ Industrial Democracy. The same book was translated into Russian by Vladimir Lenin. What appealed to both Bernstein and Lenin was the Fabian call for the professional leadership of workers. Fabianism was echoed in Asia as well. Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, developed an economic policy along Fabian lines. The founder of Pakistan, its first governor Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a devoted member of the Fabian Society in the early 1930s. The first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, also admits to having been influenced by Fabianism during his formative years.
A great number of people learned of Fabian ideas of social criticism from George Bernard Shaw’s plays, such as Pygmalion, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Major Barbara. When presenting examples of shocking dishonesty and hypocrisy of capitalist exploiters in his works before World War I, with his sharp, witty style, Shaw called for reforms along Fabian lines. In and after 1917 Shaw celebrated the program of the Bolshevik revolution as the incarnation of his ideas. Together with some other Fabians, such as H. G. Wells or later in the early 1930s, the Webbs, he believed in the Soviet model of the forceful implementation of a society without exploitation. This led to a split among the Fabians, as during the interwar period the majority of the members of the society were highly critical of the Soviet agenda. The splits were further aggravated by the conflicts over the evaluation of British imperialism. The Fabian founders hoped that the empire could create resources for easing social tensions: The imperial destiny would call for public expenditure to rear the imperial race. A number of second-generation Fabians were critical of British imperial policy.
Since 1918 when Sydney Webb drafted the Labour Party’s first major policy statement (New Social Order ), Fabian policy has been adopted by the Labour Party and the Society has been affiliated with the party. Leading figures of the party, such as Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Harold Wilson, and even Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been members of the Society.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Fabian Society had about 7,000 members. The Society continues to be affiliated with the Labour Party and its main focus is on fighting inequality and child poverty.
An overall evaluation of the Fabian achievement must recognize that Fabians contributed to reshaping the British party landscape, made socialism an acceptable option in British politics, and have substantially shaped the development of empirical social sciences. In the history of political thought they are perhaps the last to follow the enlightened tradition of believing in the possibility of, and acting for, the reasonable reconstruction of government and society on what they perceive as a scientific basis.
SEE ALSO Blair, Tony 1953–; Bolshevism; Class, Rentier; Communism; Imperialism; Income Distribution; Jinnah, Mohammed Ali; Labour Party (Britain); Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Monopoly; Nehru, Jawaharlal; Socialism; Syndicalism
Cole, G. D. H. 1935. Fabianism. In Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.
Cole, Margaret. 1961. The Story of Fabian Socialism. London: Heinemann; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1964. The Fabians Reconsidered. In Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, ed. Eric Hobsbawm, 250–271. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; New York: Basic Books, 1965.
MacKenzie, Norman and Jeanne. 1977. The First Fabians. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; New York: Simon and Schuster.
McBriar, A. M. 1972. Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884–1918. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.