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Laboring Fabians

The Fabians

by Norman MacKenzie, by Jeanne MacKenzie
Simon and Schuster, 446 pp., $12.95

Nobody can hope to understand modern British politics without some insight into the extremely peculiar structure of the Labor Party; nobody can acquire that insight without looking into the history of the party; and nobody can do that without trying to grasp the part played in it by the Fabian Society, the subject of Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s book. Any attempt to describe that part briefly is bound to fail, but it might be useful at the outset to state, very provisionally, that in so far as British Labor is nonsocialist and middle-class, inclined to gradualism and the preservation of the mixed economy, it is so in great measure because of its powerful Fabian strain.

In fact, the party has always been an uneasy coalition of conflicting interests; the right wing predominates, and since every period of office coincides with a crisis that calls for cooperation with private industry and the deferment of socialist programs, Labor moves right when in government and left when in opposition. At this moment, it may be correctly inferred, movement rightward is fast, and accompanied by the usual complaints that the left, by objecting, is rocking the boat.

It is noteworthy that the controversy within the party proceeds along lines very firmly drawn in previous quarrels. The casus belli of the immediate moment is the election of Andy Bevan, a member of the Trotskyite Militant Group, to the post of youth officer of the party. Prime Minister Callaghan opposed this appointment on the curious (but Fabian) ground that the party’s civil servants should be “politically neutral.” Mr. Tony Benn, a leftist member of the cabinet, defended the appointment. Marxism, he explained, has always been accepted as one of the sources of the British Labor movement, “together with, though much less influential than, Christian Socialism, Fabianism, Owenism, trade unionism or even radical Liberalism.” (He could have added more isms to this list, including Henry Georgism.) “All that we require by way of political allegiance from party members or paid officials,” added Mr. Benn, “is that they should accept the policy and program of the Labor Party and thus commit themselves to advancing socialism through parliamentary democracy.” To suspect the motives of Marxists would be no more justifiable than to question those of followers of Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud, or Milton Friedman. And anyway, Benn concluded, the notion that the party is increasingly dominated by Marxists, about to be taken over by a group dedicated to the violent achievement of a one-party state, is simply a Tory delusion.

Tories have always had difficulty in understanding an adversary party which simultaneously believes and disbelieves in the mixed economy, is not Marxist but contains Marxists. Lord Chalfont warns readers of The Times that Mr. Bevan is a “subversive individual” who means to bring about left-wing totalitarianism and social revolution. On the same page of the same issue Eric Heffer, a Labor left-winger no longer in the government, explains to the same middle-class readers that Marxism is not a subversive doctrine but “a perfectly respectable philosophy taught in universities throughout the world” (Times, December 20, 1976). Marxism was, moreover, a bigger influence on the early history of the Labor Party than Benn had allowed. For although the Fabians were not Marxist, H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation was; and the influence of that group is undeniable, even though it left the party almost as soon as it was founded, in 1900.

Heffer is of course right in saying that Marx was never far out of sight in those early days; yet the Labor Party was never avowedly socialist until 1918, and has never abandoned the view, held by Marx himself, that the British social revolution could be a peaceful one. That is why Marxists and Fabian gradualists have managed to coexist; but when there is friction we see how uneasy the indigenous left wing is with the more continental socialism of some of its brothers.

Such disputes must seem to American eyes very English, very domestic. But Lord Chalfont says they are of international importance; that the cuts in the defense budget, which he regards as ruinous, are directly related to the triumph of Andy Bevan. “by the left, quick march to suicide or surrender,” runs his headline. He seems amazed that the Labor Party should contain so many socialists. Mr. Bevan probably thinks it contains few or none.

Historically there is no necessary relation between socialism and the Labor Party. Fabians, for example, favored a policy of “permeation”—getting into the counsels of the Liberals, or even of the Tories, and working through them. They were very hesitant about supporting a working-class party, and so were the trade unions. It is doubtless a historical consequence of this early state of affairs that the modern party, committed both to a redistribution of wealth and to the maintenance of a profitable private sector, has usually, when in office, to call for sacrifices from the workers. A favorable interpretation of this practice is that which holds it right for Labor to accept the obligation to serve both class and national interests—hence its endless quest for compromise.1 The compromise operating at present will prove very difficult to sustain, since the “national” interest, as at present understood by the Labor government leaders themselves, demands increasing unemployment and a fall in the real standard of living. People are always saying that this government is at the mercy of the Trade Union Congress, without stopping to reflect that the TUC has indeed been merciful.

And it must sometimes appear that the other side is less habitually concessive, that a ruling class, which not only has the capital but also provides most of the top civil servants, is capable of very protracted resistance to gradualist approaches which ask them to surrender power and privilege voluntarily. Stafford Cripps, in 1931, was firm about this: “The idea that if the Labor Party is gentle and well behaved it will persuade the capitalists to hand over the economic power to the Government is quite fantastic.” Yet the idea persists; and it was there from the beginning, in the Fabian program, and in all the tactical concessions the left found it necessary to make to get a foothold in Parliament. Indeed, David Coates, in a rather gloomy recent book,2 thinks that the original decision of the Independent Labor Party to help sustain a non-socialist party for this purpose is the origin of all the subsequent difficulties of the Labor left. They joined a league in which they were a permanent minority; they surrendered to the gradualists; they made it possible for the Labor right always to treat left-wing activism as a threat to the party’s electoral chances and its stability in government.

So far as I know, Henry Pelling’s Origins of the Labour Party3 is the most lucid and thorough introduction to the complex story of those early days; and perhaps one should look at it before reading the MacKenzies’ new book, so as to keep the Fabians in perspective. Pelling points out that although the years of the party’s origins in the 1880s are called the years of the Great Depression, real wages actually rose; this is not to say there was no more hard-core poverty, only that there was certainly no increase in poverty, such as might call for revolutionary remedies; and indeed there was remarkably little activity on the left. Then H.M. Hyndman, a Tory radical, read Marx, and founded the Social Democratic Federation. His recruits included William Morris. Slowly, the movement gathered force. The death of Marx in London in 1883 passed almost unnoticed; but on its first anniversary the SDF procession to his grave contained between two and three thousand people.

Eighteen-eighty-four was the Fabian foundation year. At first a few serious people met to talk; then they set themselves up as the Fellowship of the New Life—a hazily Utopian group, nostalgic for Christianity, closely interested in psychical research, and quite unconcerned with Marx. There was a proposal to establish a commune in Southern California. At the first meeting it was resolved “that an association be formed whose ultimate aim shall be the reconstruction of Society in harmony with the highest moral possibilities.” Two months later the spiritualist Frank Podmore suggested the name “Fabian”; Fabius Cunctator was the Roman who, by delaying, thwarted Hannibal and restored the state, cunctando restituit rem. Podmore soon left, because he saw that the Fabians, though probably very good at delaying, would perhaps be less willing, when the time came, to strike. But the Society began to work, in its own way, for the reconstruction of the state. Sixty years later, in 1945, it saw elected what was virtually its own government, with a Fabian program and a huge majority, largely made up of Fabians, to carry it out. Along the way they had founded the London School of Economics and The New Statesman, given thousands of lectures and published dozens of books and tracts. To this day most English intellectuals are Fabians, whether they belong to the society or not.

The Fabians were unashamedly elitist, as well they might be; the Webbs, Shaw, Annie Besant, Wells, and Ramsay Mac-Donald (the first Labor prime minister) are only the most familiar names. Their policies look more timid now than in the 1880s: evolution, not revolution; “permeation”; collaboration with anybody in power who seemed accessible; endless research to discover, in detail, what it was that must be changed. They opposed the plan to form a labor party, and distrusted all political activism, especially in the provinces. The working-class labor party had to make itself without them, though it found the Fabians an indispensable source of information and education. The Fabians themselves did not much care for the working classes, except as cases and statistics; their own social connections tended to be grand, often ministerial. Henry Pelling thinks they did the essential job of “adapting Marxism to a form compatible with British constitutional practice,” but it is easy to guess what a Marxist might say about that formula.

The Fabian founders themselves wrote incessantly, and have been much written about, yet this new study draws on abundant manuscript material hitherto unused. It is full of political history, but it also describes the personal lives of the Webbs and Shaw in considerable detail, and often critically. The MacKenzies do not write particularly well, and their interpretation of character rarely seems profound; but this is a strong book, based on enormous, as it were Fabian, labors, and a very reasonable introduction to a complex subject.

The prime mover of the Fabian Society was Edward Pease, who had left a business career to become, under the influence of William Morris’s ideas, a cabinetmaker, and then, in 1891, the secretary of the Society. In opposition to the activist Hyndman, Pease believed that the true aim of such persons as himself should be a moral reform which would cause the rich to desire to give up their wealth. As we have seen, this notion, inherited from the religious past and thriving in the late Victorian atmosphere of high thinking and bad conscience, was to play a considerable part in twentieth-century British history. Pease soon gathered together very intelligent people who thought as he did. Shaw, the most brilliant and complicated of them, was still under thirty and virtually unknown, though he had already manifested extraordinary talents. Converted by a reading of Henry George to an interest in economics, he thenceforth saw all his previous intellectual interests—secularism, evolution theory, etc.—as trifling middle-class amusements. A reading of Capital (in French) completed his conversion, though he could not accept the theory of Surplus Value. Shaw drew up the first Fabian Manifesto, and was often the Society’s writer; but of all the services he did the Fabians, one was preeminent: he introduced to it Sidney Webb, “the ablest man in England.”

Webb was a formidable civil servant, “a social engineer” as his wife Beatrice was to call him—an investigator, a draftsman, a man of committees. He was sure poverty could be abolished; what was needed was research and moral education. In practice he became, as his wife remarked, a wirepuller: “his keenness took the form of persistent permeation.” Among the Fabian bohemians—for Aveling, Shaw, Bland, and Wells each in his different way deserved that name—Webb was an ascetic. At first neither he nor the others had much idea how to proceed, but the failure of the SDF in London local elections (they were tricked by the Tories), and the failure of mass labor demonstrations in 1886, established the Fabian faith in moral improvement and gradual reform as preferable to move active measures. Webb’s exhausting program of research, education, and patience prevailed. The Fabians worked away at the minutiae of local government, and wrote their tracts. In 1889 Shaw edited a book called Fabian Essays, which was unexpectedly a huge best seller.

One of the admirers of that book, and especially of Webb’s contribution, was Beatrice Potter. She met and liked Webb, but found him unbeautiful and lower-class (she noted his “tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner and cockney pronunciation”). Miss Potter had been in love with Joe Chamberlain, later colonial secretary with responsibility for the Boer War; but at thirty-two, she had given up the idea of marriage, and was already known as a blue-stocking and social investigator. Eventually Sidney won her, though she sent back his photograph, saying, “Let me have your head only—it is the head only that I am marrying.” She had income enough for both, and Sidney went into London local politics. The great partnership (“two typewriters clicking as one,” as A.G. Gardiner remarked) was under way. A checklist of the Webbs’ output between 1892 and 1911 includes 170 entries, some of them large books, few of them trifles.

Though it had in Shaw an inspired publicist, who converted first Ibsen and then Wagner into Fabians, and though it went on “permeating” and pulling wires, the Society began to lose ground. It kept its distance from the working class; “an army of light,” said Shaw, “is no more to be gathered from the human product of nineteenth-century civilization than grapes are to be gathered from thistles.” It maintained its more exalted connections. Charlotte Payne-Townshend, the latest woman to subject herself to the sexual teasing of Shaw, was rich and generous, for example to the London School of Economics. “Superior societies,” as the MacKenzies remark, “could only be built by superior people.” But meanwhile the Labor movement seemed to be going on without them, and they seemed scarcely to mind.

It is easy now to find fault with the Webbs. Their high-mindedness, even their mutual devotion, seem inseparable from a snobbery they often exhibited, for instance on their trips to the US and Australia. Their enormous consciences were a kind of vanity. They could not bring themselves to condemn outright the Boer War; like social reform it was part of the imperial destiny. By 1902 they had alienated not only the left but the Liberals. Their political maneuvering got them a reputation for unreliability; so did Shaw’s, for his conduct certainly did not grow more sober as he became rich and famous. Meanwhile Ramsay MacDonald had, prudently as it appeared, left the Fabians, and formed that union of socialists with trade unionists that made possible a Labor Party. The Fabians seemed left behind.

In 1903 Wells came, “the only outsider who successfully worked his way to something like equal status with the old gang.” His plan for government by a scientific elite, the “Samurai” as he called them, was in itself not unattractive; but he lacked political skill, Shaw mauled him in debate, and his takeover bid was defeated. He took his revenge with The New Machiavelli. He might have transformed the Society, but he had not the patience to do it gradually.

Eventually membership picked up again as more and more middle-class idealists discovered in Fabianism a form of socialism they could take to—a variety without working-class connections. It was already old-fashioned. While the Webbs, who knew so much about poverty, still thought that the poor ought to be worthy before they got helped, the Liberal politician Lloyd George, not pausing to reflect whether the relief of destitution and the improvement of character ought to go together, brought in the first National Insurance Bill. Still the Webbs worked indefatigably at their own pace, turning out a stream of statistics and middle-class disciples. And in 1912 Beatrice announced that they would henceforth concern themselves not with reform but with socialism.

The war broke their rhythm, but in 1915 Sidney joined the Labor Party executive, a significant step in the direction of modern labor politics. In 1929, though over seventy, he became colonial secretary in the second Labor government; but urgent front-line political problems were not his forte, and he failed. By now the Webbs recognized that they had made mistakes; that government by experts was not a practical possibility; that they had relied too heavily on “permeation”; and that they had paid too little attention to Marx. When Shaw went to Russia in 1931 he described what he found there as “applied Fabianism”; and when the Webbs followed in the next year, Soviet society seemed to them very close to their own ideals. The MacKenzies suggest that the Soviet system touched deep places in their personalities; it appealed to their elitism, to their intellectual dogmatism, to their need for an all-embracing faith, above all to their desire for planning and order. The Russian lack of sympathy for ordinary people, and distrust of their capacity to govern themselves, were incapable of repelling them, and they were unmoved by Stalin’s purges. When their great electoral moment came in 1945 the Webbs were not much interested; they went on listening to Moscow radio. Later Sidney became a baron, and later still got the Order of Merit. He and Beatrice are buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Webbs were very English, very much the sort of more or less amiable, useful monsters our strange system used to produce, with enlarged intellects and consciences, terribly principled, always aware how few other people were quite “right.” They were like missionaries in the dark continent of poverty, aware of it as missionaries are aware of sin, though with no personal feeling for the individual poor. This book gives one a glimpse of their mountainous works, but also a sense of their personalities, even of their happiness together. It reminds us also that they represent a past we still have to live with. As I end this review I read (London Times, December 22) of the resignation of a right-wing Labor minister, Mr. Reg Prentice, from Mr. Callaghan’s government. He thinks that moderates do not get a proper hearing, that the government is constantly having to compromise with the left and with the TUC. Mr. Callaghan, in a letter accepting Prentice’s resignation, claims that “we have governed in the interests of Britain as a whole. Of course we have considered the reactions of our supporters….” Serving both national and class interests, which almost never seem compatible, is the perennial task of the party whose structure and thinking derive, in such large measure, from the Fabians.


Sticking to the Union June 23, 1977

Help the Fabians May 12, 1977

No Wonder April 28, 1977

  1. 1

    The argument of Leo Panitch, Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy (Cambridge University Press, 1976).

  2. 2

    The Labor Party and the Struggle for Socialism (Cambridge University Press, 1975).

  3. 3

    The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900 (Oxford University Press, 1965).

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