Fabians at 140

Lenin described George Bernard Shaw as a good man fallen among Fabians. None, indeed, of all the various paths to socialism could be less like the Bolshevik one than that of the Fabian Society which was founded by a group of high-minded middle class intellectuals140 years ago.

Fabians at 140


Lenin described George Bernard Shaw as a good man fallen among Fabians. None, indeed, of all the various paths to socialism could be less like the Bolshevik one than that of the Fabian Society which was founded by a group of high-minded middle class intellectuals140 years ago. Not for the Fabians the Bolshevik road of conspiracy, confrontation and violent revolution; their chosen model was instead that of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, who earned the last part of his name by his delaying tactics in the second Punic war which wore down Hannibal’s army while giving his own forces time to recover their strength and take the offensive.

The original aim of the founding Fabian fathers (the bestknown being Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw) was to establish democratic socialism in Britain by permeating the Liberal and Conservative parties with socialist ideas. When this early form of entryism did not work, they hitched their wagon to the star of the newly formed Labour Party. In the stained-glass window that Shaw commissioned for the Fabians, the Society was more threateningly shown as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When HG Wells quarreled with the Fabian old guard (mainly Shaw and Webbs) he used yet another animal metaphor.

He said the Fabians had permeated English society with their socialist ideas about as much as a mouse may be said to permeate a cat. No one has been able to discover quite what the quarrel between the old guard and Wells was all about, but everybody concerned got tremendously hot under the collar, and the upshot was that Wells was crushed by Shaw’s vastly superior rhetorical skills. GDH Cole was yet another who quarreled violently with the old guard resigning from the society no fewer than four times. Such flaming rows were hardly surprising since the Fabians always consisted of people with markedly different personalities and policies. Some of them were extremely puritanical.


The 1890 annual meeting was firmly instructed that it “must not conclude with a dance”, that there would be “no ices” and cigarettes only after 6 pm. Rebecca West wrote of the dullness of most of the members and noted that they suffered from a malady of the spirit. Norman and Jean Mackenzie, historians of the early Fabians, wrote of their emotional poverty. One of the things that Beatrice Webb liked about Stalin’s Russia was that “there is no spooning in the parks”. She wrote incredibly cruel letters to Sidney, who looked like a tadpole: “No dear, I do not even look at your photograph.

It is too hideous for anything… let me have your head only ~ it is the head only that I’m marrying.’ Nye Bevan described Fabian Hugh Gaitskell as a desiccated calculating machine, but Fabian Tony Crosland took a more hedonistic line. “Never forget the virtues of enjoyment and leisure,” he said, and remarked on the Webbs’ considerable “indifference to all forms of art and culture, their lack of temptation towards any of the emotional or physical pleasures of life”. There was also a marked difference between the lifestyles of the early Fabians and the causes they espoused.

When Beatrice Webb was writing the minority commission report on the Poor Law, she was staying at the house of Sir Julius Wernher where there were 54 gardeners, 30 house servants and 10 electricians. When Sidney Olivier, a founding Fabian, asked whether it was sound socialist morality, he replied that “the most wholesome and satisfactory solution in such cases is that the work should be done by unmarried relations.”

Contrasts of personality were compounded by differences of policy. It was hard for many members to follow Shaw in his admiration for this century’s great figures like Stalin, Lenin and Mussolini. The Webbs were quite besotted with Soviet Russia and there was a Fabian pamphlet with an unquestioning title Soviet Russia: a New Civilization. The enthusiasm for totalitarianism was completely at odds with the Kropotkin-William Morris kind of anarchism which was an important ingredient in the thought of the early Fabians who discussed topics like the abolition of money. The result of many patient years of meetings, lectures, discussions, publications and quiet persuasion among not just politicians but also teachers, civil servants and trade union officials, paid off.

The 1945 landslide general election brought to Parliament 229 Fabian members and 10 cabinet members, including the Prime Minister. The influence of the Fabian Society at that time was out of all proportion with its membership which, at 8,400 in 1946, was at an all-time peak. Its creations included the New Statesman and the London School of Economics. Through the influence of its ideals on the Beveridge Report and on the Attlee government it could claim much of the credit for creating the welfare state. How much the Fabians have contributed to thinking about social policies and politics in our time can only be suggested by naming such members as Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton, Tony Crosland, Richard Titmus, GDH Cole, RH Tawney, Michael Young, Peter Townsend, Brian Abel Smith and so on.

For nearly a hundred years the Fabian Society was broad enough and tolerant, too, to contain widely different people like Crosland and Crossman, Shirley Williams and Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley and Mikardo. Then came the SDP’s departure from the Labour Party. All of the Gang of Four had been Fabian executive members. A ballot of members decided that full membership could not be held by people who were ineligible for Labour Party membership. With the Gangsters went a few hundred members including some big benefactors . It was an unhappy time and worse than the HG Wells and GDH Cole rows.

Not only was there a financial problem but also the problem of ideas. In the years of Harold Wilson’s government, pragmatism was the important thing; ideas were frowned on. Electoral defeat was demoralizing. It also saw the flourishing of ideas both in the stupid party (as John Stuart Mill called the Tories) but also to the left with the militants and the Bennites, and with such groups as the feminists and the environmentalists. One could argue that both the Thatcherites and the Bennites served up passion dressed as ideas rather than the real thing, but this does not disguise the fact that in the following years the Fabians could not prove to be the intellectual powerhouse they used to be.

In the 1990s, the Fabian Society was, of course, a major influence in the modernisation of the Labour Party. Its report on the constitution of the party was instrumental in the introduction of “one member one vote” and made the original recommendation for the replacement of Clause IV. A Fabian pamphlet by Ed Balls proposed independence for the Bank of England. Since the 1997 general elections there had been around 200 Fabian MPs in the Commons, among whom numbered nearly the entire Cabinet, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Jack Straw. The Society’s two-year Commission on Taxation and Citizenship criticized Labour’s reluctance to discuss taxation and earmarked tax for the NHS. The fall of the Labour government and the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010 marked a new era for the Society.

The Fabians played their traditional role of feeding new ideas into the party, completing major policy commissions on public spending and food poverty. After the 2015 elections and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the Society’s role as a pluralistic, non-factional forum within the Labour movement came to the fore. It became a platform for ideas for Labour politicians and hosted its independent review on the legal aid policy of the Bach Commission. However, Labour’s defeat in 2019 saw the party turn back towards its Fabian roots.

The leadership passed to Keir Starmer, MP; the first time a serving member of the Fabian Society became leader of the party. In 2020, the Society’s membership increased to an all-time high of well over 8,000. Although HG Wells was a member of the Fabian Society from 1903 to 1908, he critiqued its operation and claimed that it was a middle-class talking shop. However, as an important influence on the Labour Party which grew from it, the Society has had a powerful influence on British politics.

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)