Fabian Fallacies, or the Sorrows of Bernard Shaw

Fresh from a vain attempt to show that our Transatlantic comrades of the “Western Socialist” do not understand Socialism, Mr. G. B. Shaw has enlivened the columns of the Times (February 1, 1944) with a letter teaching the Chancellor of the Exchequer how not to suck the financial eggs of capitalism, and the Foreign Secretary the A.B.C. of using Quislings to run the new European governments to be set up at the heels of the departing Germans. Though the connection may not be obvious, the two pieces of advice are based on the same old Fabian principle that you cannot destroy an existing system unless you already have experts and machinery to operate a new one.

Mr. Shaw has raised the flag of revolt on behalf of the downtrodden dukes of England, the impoverished millionaires, and the payers of Excess Profit Tax. He and other rich men are being ruined by excessive taxation. So he implores the Chancellor to exempt from surtax “all legitimately earned incomes exceeding £20,000,” re-introduce the income tax three-years average system to meet the hard case of “the wretch who makes £21,000 in one year, and a bare subsistence in the years preceding and following,” and “abolish the Excess Profits Tax root and branch.” So long as we have pampered rich, he says, “we must pamper them for all they are worth, and far from crying that nobody must profit commercially by war, make war the most profitable of all businesses until it ends in victory.”

A paragraph from Mr. Shaw’s letter will make his argument clear, especially if read in conjunction with a statement made by him in a further letter to the Evening Standard : —

“It may be finally desirable to get, rid of landlordism; but while we have landlords let us have rich ones, and encourage them to be richer, rather than poor and persecuted ones. And what applies to private farming enterprise applies to all enterprises.” (Times, Febrnary 1).
“The question at issue is whether private factories are to be closed and private farmers evicted before the Government is ready to carry on the work they are doing without a day’s intermission. I say no.” (Evening .Standard, February 10).

His advice to the Foreign Secretary is based on the same principle, that when governments are overthrown on the Continent new ones will not be able to function unless they retain the services of the trained functionaries who have served the previous German-controlled governments. Shaw has in mind men like the late Admiral Darlan, “the citizen who will obey and faithfully serve the established government of his country, no matter how often it changes.”

It is not our concern to enter into discussion about Shaw’s advice to the Cabinet—probably they appreciate the force of his arguments as well as he does. What we are concerned with is a deeper issue, one that Shaw ignores.

On the surface, the Fabian Society has been a superb success. Its ideas moulded the Labour Party and I.L.P., and some of its leading men reached high office and wielded great influence in the Labour Party and in Liberal and Labour Governments. It has claimed that those who rejected Fabian theories have never made any headway. What, then, were the theories .of the Fabian Society? They are well stated in “The History of the Fabian Society,” by Mr. E. R. Pease, its secretary for 25 years (published in 1916 by A. C. Fifield). Professing Socialism as its aim, the Fabians rejected the view “Make Socialists and you will make Socialism” (the view held by the S.P.G.B.), and declared instead that Socialism was a principle already in part embodied in the constitution of capitalist society. As Fabians and Fabian ideas permeated other parties, this Socialist principle would, they said, gradually be extended. Mr. H. G. Wells, who quarrelled with them over this, defined their attitude fairly enough when he said that they believed “the world may be manoeuvred into Socialism without knowing it” and that “society is to keep like it is … and yet Socialism will be soaking through it all, changing without a sign.”

Mr. Pease says in his “History,” “The work of the Fabian Society has been not to make Socialists, but to make Socialism” (p. 255).

Then the Fabians believed in government by the expert —”what it demanded was partly, indeed, a more efficient and expert central government . . . but primarily an expert local civil service in close touch with and under the control of a really democratic municipal government” (p. 248). Critics of the Society used to charge their largely civil service membership with being concerned with creating careers for themselves. As one leading member once said, “The government of the future will be by experts, and we, naturally, want to be the experts” (Mr. H. Snell, quoted in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, February, 1907).

It will be noticed that Mr. Shaw is still worried about having somebody, the experts, to carry on in place of factory owners, landlords, farmers and government officials, and this brings us to the utter failure of 60 years of Fabianism. They were going to smooth the road to complete Socialism. Writing in 1889, Mr. Shaw declared that the transfer of private property to the nation had already been in progress tor 15 years (“Fabian Essays,” p. 180), yet now, after a further 55 years, making a round century in all, we are told in effect that we are helpless to do anything because the propertied men in control are still indispensable. Shaw’s slogan now is “Dukes are better landlords than needy freeholders” (Times, February 1, 1944).

The Fabian experts half a century ago, like their Labour Party imitators afterwards, had a vision of municipal and state enterprises extending everywhere under their guiding hand and driving private concerns out of business. Wages of workers in the nationalised undertakings would rise, and landlords and capitalists would disappear. Mr. Shaw airily rounded it off thus in his “Transition” (Fabian Essays, 1889, p. 199) : —

“It is not necessary to go further into the economic detail of the process of the extinction of private property. Much of that process as sketched here may he anticipated by sections of the proprietary class successively capitulating, as the net closes about their special interests, on such terms as they may be able to stand out for before their power is entirely broken.”

We shall not be accused of exaggeration if we say that something seems to have gone wrong with the time-table. This has not escaped the notice of the Fabians, and Mr. Pease and Mr. Shaw have both had their say about the actual results of Fabianism. Mr. Pease wrote, in 1916 : “It must be confessed that we have made but little progress along the main road of Socialism. Private ownership of capital and land flourishes almost as vigorously as it did 30 years ago. Its grosser cruelties have been checked, but the thing itself has barely been touched” (p. 241).

That is as true now as it was in 1916, and note, too, that whereas in 1889 it was the Fabians who were very cleverly—as they thought—permeating the Liberal and Radical parties with their reform programmes, now the boot is on the other foot, and it is the Liberal Sir William Beveridge who is permeating the Labour Party with his scheme for removing a new batch of grosser cruelties in the campaign to make the world safe for capitalism.

Mr. Shaw lias been just as frank as Mr. Pease. In reply to the question whether Socialism had made progress during his lifetime, he replied to the News-Chronicle (January 6, 1936) : —

“Yes; but it is the capitalists who exploit it for their own profit everywhere except in Russia . . . The Socialists here broke down the old capitalist policy of laissez-faire, and showed that State help was indispensable in modern industry. Accordingly, the capitalists now will not build a Queen Mary unless the State helps them out; and mines are registered as Public Utility Societies instead of private ventures. Excellent Socialism for capitalists; but the sailors and miners get nothing out of it.”

So after half a century of building “Socialism for capitalists” but without making Socialists, we find that things are very much as they were. Vital change is still impossible because there is something lacking. We must, says Mr. Shaw, bolster up our dukes and landlords, pamper the rich, and depend on Continental Quislings to keep capitalism going. There is something lacking; Socialists are lacking. The Fabians never held with making Socialists, yet it is surely obvious that if the enormous effort devoted to advising the capitalists how to adapt their system to the changing circumstances of the past half-century had been devoted to making Socialists here and abroad, Mr. Shaw’s twin problem would be non-existent and his advice superfluous.

The early Fabians, the I.L.P. and the Labour Party were wrong, and the S.P.G.B. was right. The problem was not, and is not, one of extending state and municipal capitalism—(incidentally the present drift is towards monopolistic public utility corporations under some sort of state supervision, not towards state operated enterprises)—-nor is it one of finding experts and superior brains. There is no lack of able and experienced workers in industry, farming and the civil service to carry on, nor was there 60 years ago. All that is lacking is a Socialist working class to give orders to its delegates in Parliament and on the local councils for the ending of the private property basis of society. Socialism is still not here, but that is only because the workers are still not Socialists. What society needs now, as when the Fabians began their slow march to nowhere, is not Fabian experts to show the capitalists what changes are necessary to keep capitalism going, but a majority who understand Socialism and are determined to achieve it, through gaining control of the machinery of government.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, March 1944)

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