The Fabians were a small but influential group of British social theorists during the period from the 1880s to the 1920s. They espoused their own form of socialism and had a major influence social thought, especially on the British Labour Party and through it on British social and economic policies. The loosely organized Fabian Society included numerous prominent intellectuals, and, with diminished influence, is still active in the 21st century.
The founders of the Fabian Society named it after the Roman general Fabius, known as "the delayer," because he used delaying tactics and attrition rather than direct battles to wear down the stronger forces of the enemy. The founders wished to make the approach to socialism gradual and constitutional, as opposed to radical change or social revolution. The Fabian Society was formally founded on January 4, 1884, with R. Pease as secretary. Sidney Webb joined in 1885, and became the leading Fabian theorist and expositor. Other early and influential members include George Bernard Shaw; Annie Besant; Keir Hardie, the founder of the Independent Labour Party and the first Labour member of Parliament; Ramsay MacDonald, later prime minister; Graham Wallas, writer of books on political theory; author H.G. Wells; and Beatrice Potter, who married Sidney Webb.
The principles of the Society were first presented in the book known as Basis (1887). It rejected the economic views of Marxism as expounded by the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. The essential aim of Fabian socialism was the extension of state control in economic and social matters by gradualist methods of propaganda and organization. The first of the books which made the Society famous was Fabian Essays, (1889), edited by Bernard Shaw. The many hundreds of short pamphlets which have appeared under the collective title of Fabian Tracts had even more effect upon British socialism. Mainstream economists largely ignored the Fabians and paid more attention to Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes.
The political strategy of the Fabians was to influence public opinion in the direction of their ideal. They emphasized that their ideas were not at all radical, but logical extensions of the best practices already under way. They sought influence not through mass organization but rather by the selective education of the powerful few. In 1895 the Webbs founded the "London School of Economics" (LSE), which became a major intellectual center for the Society.
In 1891 the Society became affiliated with the Labour and Socialist International, and in 1893 it played a leading part in the foundation of the Independent Labour Party. In 1900 the Society helped establish the Labour Representation Committee, which was to become the British Labour Party in 1906. From that date until 1915 the Society went through various crises owing to the attempts of certain members, led by H.G. Wells, to change its basic character; but when the Labour Party in 1918 adopted the program drawn up by Sidney Webb, the Society became an unofficial educational branch of the party. During the 1920s and later, the Fabian Society was at times disrupted by the members who wished it to adhere to the policies of the Communist International. With the coming to power of the Labour Party in 1945, the Society received a new impetus, and its membership rose to a peak of about 8,400 in 1946.
The essence of Fabian doctrine lay in Sidney Webb's theory of the continuity of development from capitalism to socialism. Webb argued that the economic position of the workers had improved in the 19th century, was still improving and might be expected to continue to improve. Fabians literature seems to ignore class distinctions and shows no belief at all in a class struggle as the instrument of change. Fabians opposed direct workers' control of socialized industries and favored exclusive parliamentary control.
The "Fabians" avoided the revolutionary tactics of more orthodox Marxians. The middle-class Fabians were more directly involved with politics and practical gains — through contacts not only in the "International Labor Party", trade unions and cooperative movements, but also throughout the entire British political apparatus (Liberals and Tories included).
In comparative terms the Fabians were the British counterpart of the German Marxian revisionists and influenced by the English Historical school. The Social Gospel movement in the United States bore some resemblance.
Although Fabians plunged into the most complex economic problems of their time, they did so while having a target in mind: to find a foundation for their revolutionary economic aims without destroying democratic political ideals. They were eclectics; they accepted what seemed to be reasonable and their writings bear the marks of all schools of economic theory.
Sidney J. Webb and his wife, Beatrice Potter Webb (married 1892), stood at the core of the Fabian Society. They wrote numerous studies of industrial Britain, alternative economic arrangements (especially cooperatives) and pamphlets for political reform. Their system was based on the Ricardian theory of rent which they applied to capital as well as land (and labor as well — their opposition to high labor incomes was also an issue). Their conclusion was that it was "the state's responsibility to acquire this rent". They were known "to combine an ounce of theory with a ton of practice".
The Fabians importance faded in the 1930s. The Webbs' admiration of Soviet Russia was highly controversial in the Society. The ascendancy of the British Labour Party on the back of trade union activism rendered the Fabians superfluous. They lost control of the LSE when Cannan and Robbins turned it onto a decidedly Jevonian track and finally their intellectual influence during the 1930s was overshadowed by that of Liberal John Maynard Keynes. Nevertheless a small group of enthusiastic fabians is still active in Britain..
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