From the April 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Fabian Society is a century old. As a matter of fact, the Fabians have always seemed old — a sort of intellectual remnant from the days when it was fashionable for well-intentioned people of affluence to proclaim the moral desirability of socialism. The Society derives its title from an old Roman General called Fabius Cunctator who believed that the way to win a battle is to defeat the enemy bit by bit. One hundred years after the Fabians came on the political scene the advance to socialism by means of gradualist legislation is so imperceptible that we can safely assume that the Fabian army is not even on the field of battle, let alone close to victory.
The men and women who formed the Fabian Society did not set out to abolish capitalism; their expressed purpose was to persuade the capitalists to act in line with humanitarian principles. So, when Sidney Webb announced his “conversion to socialism”, he explained what he meant by the term in a lecture to the Fabian Society delivered on 14 January. 1886:
I call myself a Socialist because I am desirous to remove from the capitalist the temptation to use his capital for his own exclusive ends.
“We must bring home to the monopolist the sense of his trusteeship” stated Webb in this lecture. Entrusting the minority capitalist class with a monopoly over the means of wealth production and distribution, the aim of Webb and his naive colleagues was to encourage the exploits of wage labour to invest their profits for the good of all. The idea of leaving nothing to trust by placing the productive machinery in the hands of all was never accepted.
Oozing with guilty moralism, the founding Fabians were anxious to bring home to the capitalists "a consciousness of the sin of affluence". It was for this purpose that the Fabian, J B Bright, formed the Ransom Society, which was intended to allow “members of the leisure class to redeem themselves” of the moral crime of privilege by “offering money and personal services . . . to the poor”. Poor old Arnold Toynbee felt so bothered by his affluence that he was impelled to deliver a confession to the working class:
We have neglected you . . . we have wronged you; we have sinned against you grievously . . . : but if you will forgive us we will serve you . . . we will devote our lives to your service. . .
Similarly, Annie Besant, for whom “socialism” took the form of a religious ethic, wrote to J W Ashman on 13 March, 1887:
In sober truth, I love the poor — those rough, coarse people, who have paid their lives for our culture and refinement, and 1 feel that the devotion to them of my abilities cultivated at their cost is the mere base debt that I owe, for my class, to them. (Her emphasis.)
Some of the Fabians tried to make themselves feel better by giving up their wealth and living in poverty. For example, Edward Pease ceased stockbroking which he said was “immoral”, and became a cabinetmaker in Newcastle. Charlotte Wilson, who was married to a wealthy stockbroker, abandoned her comfortable life for a cottage in Hampstead (which was supposed to look like a rustic peasant dwelling) and devoted her energies to raising poultry.
Of course the Fabians, for all their intellectual pretensions, did not understand the nature of the capitalist system. George Bernard Shaw, in the 1930s who was to regard Stalin's Russian Empire as “socialism”, thought that capitalism did not need to be destroyed because it was about to collapse. Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Shaw foresaw the self-destruction of capitalism:
Our profits are vanishing, our machinery is standing idle, our workmen are locked out. It pays now to stop the mills and fight and crush the unions when the men strike, no longer for an advance but against a reduction . . . The small capitalists are left stranded by the ebb; the big ones will follow the tide across the water and build their factories where steam power, water power, labour power and transport are now cheaper than in England . . . As the British capitalists are shut up they will be replaced by villas; the manufacturing districts will become fashionable resorts of capitalists living on the interest of foreign investments; the farms and sheep runs will be cleared for deer forests . . . a vast proletariat, beginning with a nucleus of those previously employed in the export trades, with their multiplying progeny, will be out of work permanently. (An Unsocial Socialist, pp.214-5. 1930 ed. First published in 1884.)
Like many others who then and since have predicted the collapse of capitalism, with the workers having historical transformation imposed upon them, Shaw’s prediction was quite wrong.
Without working class action based on socialist consciousness, there can be no social transformation. The Fabians, however, regarded majority consciousness as an impossibility and addressed their propaganda to the capitalists. This policy was known as permeation — the assumption being that if the educated and morally superior capitalists could be persuaded of the need to produce for use there would be no requirement for the “rough, coarse people" of Annie Besant’s fantasies to bother their uncultivated minds about establishing a new social order. Like all proposals to change society for the working class, Fabianism displayed a contempt for the potential of workers' intelligence.
The Fabian concept of “socialism" involved no more than state control over capital — state capitalism. Annie Besant explained what she thought socialism meant when she wrote:
The State has interfered with factories and workshops, to fix the hours of labour, to insist on sanitary arrangements, to control the employment of the young. (Why I Am A Socialist, 1886.)
She was clearly unaware that such legislation had been introduced by Lord John Russell's Whig government as early as the 1830s. Far from having anything to do with socialism, state interference in the running of production was simply a means of regulating the efficient robbery of the wage slave class.
In 1887 the Fabians advocated
. . . a peaceful and expeditious path to Socialism, through such measures as Nationalisation of Railways. Municipaiisation of Ground Rents and of industries connected with local transit, and with supply of gas and water in the towns.
When the Labour Party was formed in 1906, the Fabians gave it their support. seeing it as the best vehicle for the enactment of their “gas and water socialism". Since then the Fabian demands for state capitalist reform have been met: the railways are nationalised and the local transport services are run by the municipal authorities — the statist notion of “socialism” has been tested and found to be no different from capitalism in private hands.
Since 1906 the Fabian Society has existed as an advisory body, trying to influence, the Labour Party to make humanitarian changes to capitalism. It has published hundreds of Fabian tracts, each packed from cover to cover with futile schemes for making the profit system decent. Their peak membership was in the 1940s, when it was felt that, with sufficient intellectual counselling, a Labour government would be able to eradicate the social evils of capitalism. Since then most people, including Labourites, have regarded the Fabians as rather dull and ineffective preachers of palliation, whose open advocacy of “gradualism” is something of an embarrassment after all the years of gradual failure. All sorts of people have been in the Fabian Society: Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Benn, half of all current Labour MPs — even the founders of the SDP were members of the Society, demanding their right to remain until it was decided that only Labour Party reformists were allowed to be members. Even the Mayor of the self-proclaimed “Socialist Republic” of Islington is a card-carrying Fabian, and we must admit that the Town Hall revolutionaries of that borough do seem to have fallen somewhat under the influence of old Fabius. Writing about the Fabians in the Observer (11 March 1984). Roy Hattersley points out that
While the poor bloody infantry of the local Labour parties footslogged from door to door, the Fabians were providing their ideological bullets.
With politicians like Hattersley as the ideological gunslingers, we are bound to ask who these bullets were aimed at — and who, in practice, they hit.
When the Socialist Party was formed the Fabians were dismissed with the sort of comments that a master chef might pass on someone struggling to open a can of baked beans. Eighty years later the Fabians are still in the business of moving elegant amendments to the Act of Class Monopoly. For socialists, the existence of these moralising do-nothings has been an obstacle to the urgent task which confronts us. It has not escaped our attention that the Latin word Cunctator has a specific definition: the delayer.