Book Review: The Fabian “Socialists”
This book sets out to show the value of permeation, and what it has accomplished, through the efforts of the Fabian Society. What in fact it does is to illustrate how the permeators were permeated until they became innocuous. Even more than that, the work they did threw up barriers to the growth of Socialist ideas, gave entirely wrong interpretations of them, and hindered their development.The Fabian Society was formed in January, 1884. It arose out of meetings of a group in the rooms of Edward Pease in 1883 to discuss the “New Life” ideas of Thomas Davidson, an American who was visiting London. Hubert Bland and Frank Podmore, along with Pease, who was its Secretary for most of its existence, took part in the formation. They were later joined by Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, Sydney Oliver, Graham Wallas and Annie Besant. Apart from Pease and Podmore, these six along with William Clarke, were the original Fabian Essayists. The Essays were published in December, 1889, with a cover design by Walter Crane.
Although the Society had already printed a number of “Tracts” the publication of the Fabian Essays really put them on the map as they had a wide circulation. These essays were a conglomeration of confused and mistaken ideas, without influence on the Socialist movement except that in places they showed up the shortcomings and hypocrisy of existing social arrangements. To the authors Socialism signified nationalisation or state ownership, beginning with land, and they aimed at the gradual transformation of society in this direction. It may be added that subsequent rewriting of the Fabian Essays up to 1957 not only go no farther but are even worse. Margaret Cole herself points out how poor the original Essays were (page 26), but then goes on to say:
All this is true enough. But it is also true that, even in the slighter essays, and eminently in the contributions of Shaw himself, Webb (catalogues notwithstanding), and William Clarke, the Fabians of 1889 laid down an exposition of Socialist thought that was sufficiently definite without being dogmatic, (page 27)
Well, well, well! So definite that their efforts produced three capitalist Labour Governments, a multitude of futile Fabian reforms, housing, slum, and poverty problems, in some respects greater than ever, and a society on the brink of a catastrophic H. Bomb War!
That the Fabian Essays and general attitude were confusing is not surprising. The Society did not debar members from joining other political parties. Hubert Bland and W. G. Bland were “Tory Democratics,” Shaw was on the Liberal Party executive, Tom Mann belonged to the S.D.F., others belonged to different parties and groups. As Margaret Cole says: Many Fabians were Liberals and some Tories.”
On an earlier page (86) she says this:
‘Permeation’. with the existing party system, ought logically to be carried to the extent of actually converting party leaders to Socialist policy. The obvious candidate for permeation, in the nineties, was the Liberal Party. Already, in London, the Progressive Party was as near as no matter Fabian in its approach.
In 1893 the Fabian Society, along with various other groups, took part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party, but did not lose its own identity, although some of its members joined. Margaret Cole, however, makes this observation :
The Fabian executive, on the return of the delegates, formally welcomed the new Society without great enthusiasm or, it seems, anticipation that it would before long quickly absorb the bulk of its own provincial membership. (page 44)
Later in 1893 a move was made to form a united party. A joint conference of the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party was held, and a manifesto issued called “Manifesto of English Socialists.” Delegates from each of the Societies signed on behalf of their group. This manifesto, as might have been expected from those who took part in it, is a complete muddle. Here are some quotations from it which will illustrate the point:
Meantime small improvements made in deference to the ill-formulated demands of the workers, though for a time they seem almost a social revolution to men ignorant of their own resources and of their capacity for enjoyment, will not really raise the condition of the whole people . . .
On this point all socialists agree. Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport,, the means of manufacture, the mines, and the land. Thus we look to put an end for ever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.
They then go on to state that the first step in the transformation must be the carrying out of certain measures. They proceed to list some of these measures, every one of which has since come into operation, and follow on with this statement:
The inevitable economic development points to the direct absorption by the State, as an organised democracy, of monopolies which have been granted to, or constituted by, companies, and their immediate conversion into public services. But the railway system is of all the monopolies that which could be most easily and conveniently so converted.
How little the Fabian Society appreciated even the best that was in this Manifesto was soon made clear after they had withdrawn from the unity movement. In 1896 there was an international conference in London. To this the Fabian Society sent a manifesto which contained the following extracts quoted by Margaret Cole:
‘It [the Fabian Society] has no distinctive opinion on Peace or War, the Marriage question, Religion, Art, Abstract Economics. Historic Evolution, Currency, or any other subject than its own special business of practical Democracy and Socialism.’! (page 92).
Socialism it defines as ‘ the organisation and conduct of the necessary industries of the country, and the appropriation of all forms of economic rent of land and capital, by the nation as a whole, through the co-ordinated agency of the most suitable public authorities, parochial, municipal, local, national (Irish, Scottish. Welsh), and central.
‘The freedom of individuals ’, it says specifically, ‘to engage in industry independently of the State, and even in competition with it, is . . . as highly valued by the Fabian Society as Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, or any other article in the charter of popular liberties ’ . . . it condemns such phrases as ‘the abolition of wages ’, as nonsense, wishing rather to establish standard allowances ‘for the maintenance of all workers’, and it ‘resolutely opposes all pretensions to hamper the socialisation of industry with equal wages, equal hours of labour, equal official status, or equal authority for everyone.’ (page 93)
From the Boer war to the last war the Fabian society declined to state an attitude on war beyond saying that it was no business of theirs. In 1900 a vote was taken of the membership on whether a pronouncement on the Boer war should be made. By majority vote it was decided to make no pronouncement but leave members a free hand, and that has held good since then.
The Myth of Planning
All kinds of movements are described by Margaret Cole as “ Socialist” and so are people of the most divergent views. The Fabians were attracted by any form of government planning and state or municipal ownership, looking favourably on the authors of them. Shaw was favourably impressed by Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin; and Webb finally lost his heart to Russian State Capitalism, as the author points out. But to Margaret Cole herself Russia is still Socialist.
Again, writing in the Tribune (30/6/40) she referred to Kemal Ataturk of Turkey as seeing the need—
to establish the amount of ‘totalitarianism’ or ‘Socialism’ — call it what you will—which is imperative to the twentieth century. This necessity has been demonstrated in Italy, Germany and Russia; under stress of war it has been demonstrated in this country and in France.
In “A Guide to Modern Politics,” by G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, published in 1934, the authors give ample illustration of Fabian confusion. In the preface they say;
The authors are. as they have often stated in other works, international Socialists. That is to say, they believe that present-day economic conditions are demanding an internationally-planned Society, in which competition as we now understand it and the exploitation of communities or sections of communities for the benefit of others will eventually cease. In this belief they are at one with the bulk of the members of Socialist and Communist societies throughout the world, (page 11)
Towards the end of his life Cole himself wrote a very pessimistic article for an American periodical The Nation (23/4/55) in which he said that the Socialist movement had lost its way and was not what it was when he joined it in his early days. He overlooked the fact that this was largely the work of Fabians. He put forward ideas for a new movement and, believe it or not, it was the same futile old Fabianism. He had learnt nothing, in spite of the fact that he had been instrumental in the formation of about forty abortive societies ini the past. He still believed in the “intelligentsia” that had ruined so many hopes: “Besides, mass parties cannot think; they can only be influenced by the thinking of individuals or small groups of people who are prepared to think for them.”
He wrote an enormous amount in his life, so perhaps he didn’t have time to think clearly about the relatively simple solution to social problems. He was too immersed in Fabian “ planning.”
In the Story of Fabian Socialism, Margaret Cole relates how joyful the Fabian Society was at the result of the 1945 General Election, that she—
in an ecstatic statistical study (pre-psephologist) of the election results joyfully listed the number of Fabians newly come to the seat of power—229 out of 394 M.Ps. elected as Labour, ten Cabinet Ministers, including the Premier, thirty five Under-Secretaries and other office of State, and eleven parliamentary private secretaries. ‘Why’ said John Parker’s wife on being introduced to the next Parliamentary Party, ‘it looks just like an enormous Fabian School! ’ The comment was not wide of the mark.” (page 301)
This was the moment the Fabians had awaited in order to put their planning into operation. What did they do with the power thrust into their hands? Administered capitalism like every other capitalist government. And like every other government they were turned out of office when they could not fulfil their promises. It was the Fabian Cripps who was instrumental in reducing the workers’ wages by devaluing the currency; and a Fabian government that urged the workers to abstain from wage claims which would upset their “planning.”
The Fabian Society welcomed people of all shades of opinion who would carry out research work in various directions, and gloried in the fact that they were free from what they called “dogmatism.” The result was that, having no sheet anchor, they got lost in detail work, and, in reality, contributed little to the growth of Socialist ideas. It is true that some of their members produced good books and studies of history and on various aspects of capitalism—some of which helped governments to smooth out difficulties—but so did other writers who made no claim to be Socialists. It is significant that leading Fabians arose to high positions in capitalist governments and in government service; many achieving peerages and other honours. Margaret Cole herself recognises that the work they did opened up careers for ambitious young people, many of whom obtained well paid positions in the service of capitalist governments. It may be added that the two Labour Prime Ministers. MacDonald and Attlee, were Fabians and so is the present leader of the Labour Party, Gaitskell.
Thus, although the author is satisfied that the Fabian Society and the work of its members had a great impact on society in various ways this impact was not in the direction of Socialism hut rather in the direction of confusion. Even the state ownership they pressed so much has proved to be a broken reed. After all the “uplifting” work they put in, and the adoption of most of their projects. we are still faced with the main problems that afflicted society at the time they started out—poverty, slums, insecurity and war. The latter two problems are greater than ever they were.
The author writes excitingly of the early and enthusiastic work, at all hours of the day and night, by herself and other voluntary workers; some of whom were hard put to it to get a living. It is sad to think that this energy was put into work that, so far as revolutionising the basis of society is concerned, was largely wasted. And yet this was the dimly seen aim that the society set out to accomplish. “Planning ” was their bugbear, and they had a sneaking sympathy for every government that laid down plans, however futile, for production, distribution and government.
However, as a history of the Fabian Society. Margaret Cole has done an excellent job. There is a good deal of the history of the last half-century in the book that is useful and worth reading about.
The curious thing is that, although nearly every radical movement and party is mentioned—sometimes in great detail—the author never once mentions the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which was formed in 1904, before the Labour Party, and is the only one of the parties claiming to be Socialist that has remained basically unchanged since its formation. One after another the others have died or changed whilst we have remained true to our object and have grown, if indeed slowly, in numbers and social impact. This in spite of the fact that we are just working men and women with no so-called great men to attract the support of the uninformed.
Ours is the only message worth listening to, and the only one that holds a real promise of the final end of privilege, insecurity, poverty and oppression in all its forms. It is not permeation that is required but a revolution in the basis of society.