Fabian Society

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The Fabian Society is a British socialist intellectual movement, whose purpose is to advance the socialist cause by gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning in the late nineteenth century and then up to World War I. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party during this period; subsequently, it affected the policies of newly independent British colonies, especially India, and is still in existence today, one of 15 socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party. Similar societies exist in Australia (the Australian Fabian Society), Canada (the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation and in past the League for Social Reconstruction), and New Zealand.

The Fabian Society represented the more evolutionist element of socialism. Unlike the more revolutionary Marxists, the emphasized the gradual reform of capitalism to greater meet the needs of the working class.


The society was founded on January 4, 1884 in London as an offshoot of a society founded in 1883 called The Fellowship of the New Life (Pease 1916). Fellowship members included poets Edward Carpenter and John Davidson, sexologist Havelock Ellis, and future Fabian secretary, Edward R. Pease. They wanted to transform society by setting an example of clean simplified living for others to follow. When some members also wanted to become politically involved to aid society's transformation, it was decided that a separate society, The Fabian Society, would also be organized. All members of the Fellowship were free to attend both societies.

The Fellowship of the New Life was dissolved in 1898 (Pease 1916), but the Fabian Society grew to become the pre-eminent intellectual society in the United Kingdom in the Edwardian era.

Immediately upon its inception, the Fabian Society began attracting many intellectuals 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(husband to modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Even Bertrand Russell later became a member. Two members, including the twentieth century's most pre-eminent economist, John Maynard Keynes, and Harry Dexter White were delegates at 1944's United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference.

At the core of the Fabian Society were Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Sidney wrote numerous tracts for the society, including Facts for Socialists in 1887, Facts for Londoners in 1888, and The Eight Hour Day in 1891. He argued for the abolishing of the laissez-faire economics and for active role of government in economics. He rejected the Marxist notion of revolution as the necessary requirement for social change and advocated instead the need for reforms.

In 1892, Webb married Beatrice Potter, who shared his interests and beliefs. The money she brought with her had enabled him to give up his clerical job and concentrate on his political activities. Together, they wrote numerous studies of industrial Britain, alternative economics applied to capital as well as land.

The group, which favored gradual creeping change rather than revolutionary change, was named — at the suggestion of Frank Podmore — in honor of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus (nicknamed "Cunctator," meaning "the Delayer"). He advocated tactics involving harassment and attrition rather than head-on battles against the Carthaginian army under the renowned general Hannibal Barca.

The first Fabian Society pamphlets were written to lobby for a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of the National Health Service in 1911, and for the abolition of hereditary peers in 1917.[1]

Fabian socialists were in favor of an imperialist foreign policy and a welfare state modeled on the Bismarckian German model; they criticized Gladstonian liberalism both for its individualism at home and its internationalism abroad. They favored a national minimum wage in order to stop British industries compensating for their inefficiency by lowering wages; slum clearances and a health service in order for "the breeding of even a moderately Imperial race" which would be better militarily than the "stunted, anaemic, demoralised denizens...of our great cities"; and a national education system because "it is in the class-rooms that the future battles of the Empire for commercial prosperity are already being lost" (Semmel 1960, 71-73).

The Fabians also favored the nationalization of land, believing that rents collected by landowners were unearned, an idea which drew heavily from the work of American economist Henry George. The Webbs' admiration of the Soviet Union stemmed partly from Stalin's "efficiency" at acquiring this rent.

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.

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.

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 one-fifth of humanity on Fabian social-democratic lines. It is a little-known fact that the founder of Pakistan, Barrister 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, believing the Fabian ideal of socialism to be too impractical.


Through the course of the twentieth 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 and Gordon Brown. The late Ben Pimlott served as its Chairman in the 1990s. (A Pimlott Prize for Political Writing was organized 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 organization 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.

The latest edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (a reference work listing details of famous or significant Britons throughout history) includes 174 Fabians.

London School of Economics

Four Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas, and George Bernard Shaw founded the London School of Economics with money left to the Fabian Society, including a bequest of £20,000 by Henry Hutchinson. The decision supposedly was made at a breakfast party on August 4, 1894, although that may be apocryphal. The founders are depicted in the Fabian Window[2] 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.[3]

The LSE was established to further the Fabian aim of bettering society, focusing on research on issues of poverty, inequality and related issues. This led the Fabians, and the LSE, to be one of the main influences on the UK Labour Party.[4]

The school was founded with the initial intention of renewing the training of Britain's political and business elite, which seemed to be faltering due to inadequate teaching and research—the number of postgraduate students was dwarfed by those in other countries. A year before the founding, the British Association for the Advancement of Science pushed for the need to advance the systematic study of social sciences as well. In fact, Sidney and Beatrice Webb used the curriculum of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (best known as Sciences Po), which covered the full-range of the social sciences, as part of their inspiration for molding the LSE's educational purpose. LSE was opened in October 1895 at No. 9 John Street, Adelphi.

The school expanded rapidly and was moved along with the British Library of Political and Economic Science to No. 10 Adelphi Terrace after a year. The LSE was recognized as a Faculty of Economics within the University of London in 1900. The school began enrolling students for bachelor degrees and doctorates in 1900, as it began to expand into other areas of social sciences, including international relations, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The school moved to its current site near the Aldwych—not far from Whitehall—in 1902. The Old Building, which remains a significant office and classroom building, was opened on Houghton Street in 1922.

During these years and under the directorship of William Beveridge, future father of the welfare state and the National Health Service, LSE redefined the study of economics and the new conception of the study of economics as "a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses" is looked to as the norm. LSE in this sense must be looked at as the father of modern economics studies. Under Beveridge, Friedrich Hayek was appointed as a professor and he brought about the ascendancy of the LSE through his famous debates with John Maynard Keynes. The famed Keynes-Hayek debates which occurred between Cambridge and the LSE still shapes the two major schools of economic thought today as nations still debate the merits of the welfare state versus an economy solely controlled by the market. LSE's influence upon modern economics is undeniable since it both formed the very basis for economic thought as well as shaped modern perception of free market economics. Hayek's works continue to influence the study of economics across the globe. At the other extreme, during these years Harold Joseph Laski, a professor of political science at the LSE was influential in British politics as an advocate of far left policies. Many renowned world leaders including John F. Kennedy studied under his guidance at the LSE.

While LSE's initial reputation was that of a socialist-leaning institution, this had changed by the 1960s, with LSE Director Walter Adams fighting hard to remove LSE from its Fabian roots. This led to many student protests, which also involved Lionel Robbins, who had returned to LSE as chairman of governors, having been a member of staff for many years.

Anthony Giddens, the former director of the LSE, was the creator of the 'Third Way' followed by both Tony Blair (who unveiled the Fabian Window at LSE in 2005) and Bill Clinton. His policy created a balance between the traditional welfare state and the belief in total free market economics. This policy is being put into effect by governments all across the world as free market economies continue to deal with wealth inequalities and bettering the welfare of the general population.

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 organizes 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

Since Labour came to office 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"; William Keegan offers a similar analysis of Balls' Fabian pamphlet in his book on Labour's economic policy[5]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[6] 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 NHS spending. (The Fabian Commission had in fact called for a directly hypothecated 'NHS tax'[7] 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[8]


  1. Fabian Society, Fabian Society. Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  2. Press release, "A piece of Fabian history unveiled at LSE," London School of Economics & Political Science Archives [1] Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  3. Andrew Walker, "Wit, wisdom and windows," BBC News [2] Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  4. A piece of Fabian history unveiled at LSE, LSE. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  5. Inside a deep Brown study, Guardian News and Media Limited, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  6. Honesty turns out to be the best policy, Guardian news and media Limited, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  7. Think tank calls for NHS tax, BBC, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  8. In defence of earmarked taxes, Andrew Heavens. Retrieved March 5, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Mackenzie, Norman Ian, and Jeanne Mackenzie. The Fabians. Simon and Schuster, 1977. ISBN 978-0671223472
  • Pease, Edward R. A History of the Fabian Society. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1916. OCLC 1011817
  • Semmel, Bernard. Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914. London: Allen and Unwin, 1960. OCLC 3197645

External links

All links retrieved August 8, 2017.


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