We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Fabian Society founders (act. 1884–1900) established a political group that advocated social reconstruction. Named after a doubtful reference to the Roman general Fabius Cunctator's supposed combination of patience and forcefulness, it operated as a discussion circle, as a disseminator of political argument, through lectures and publications, and as an information bureau, especially on questions concerning local government. Central to its publications were the Fabian Tracts, a series of pamphlets addressing various policy debates, and a best-selling collective volume, Fabian Essays in Socialism, in 1889, the success of which importantly raised its profile. Founded on 4 January 1884, unlike similar organizations of the time it endured into the twentieth century and beyond. Both as a collective body, and through its members, it has been a fertile generator of research and ideas on the left of British politics.

The origins of the Fabian Society are complex and, in part, unclear. Many of its founder members came together through the rich but poorly documented world of debating clubs and societies, often radical in politics and heterodox in religion, established in London in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The Progressive Association and the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation) were important channels through which early Fabians met. A discussion group devoted to exploring the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Davidson (whether Davidson ever formally joined the society is debated) brought together many of the first Fabians as a group. It is within this context that the Fabian Society was formed. The precise relationship between the society and the related Fellowship of the New Life has been a matter of dispute, generated principally by uncertainties over how best to date the origins of the fellowship. What is clear is that both emerged from the same milieu, and that much of the initial—and at points overlapping—membership of each came from the circle around Davidson.

Early meetings were held in the rooms of Edward Reynolds Pease at 17 Osnaburgh Street. Pease had met Frank Podmore through his cousin Emily Ford at a spiritualist gathering in 1881. Encouraged by Podmore, Pease had a brief involvement with the Society for Psychical Research. Podmore and Pease joined Percival Ashley Chubb (1860–1960) and Havelock Ellis in membership of the Progressive Association, founded in November 1882 to advance ethical aims. In 1881 Chubb had met Thomas Davidson at the Aristotelian Society. Chubb spread interest in Davidson's ideas, helping to forge connections that played an important role in the early history of both the Fellowship of the New Life and the Fabian Society. Pease was involved in the Democratic Federation, and knew H. H. Champion, R. P. B. Frost, and the former Eton schoolmaster James Leigh Joynes (1853–1893). The discussion group around Davidson also included Maurice Adams, Havelock Ellis, and William J. Jupp. Adams, Ellis, and Jupp all contributed to the Fellowship of the New Life, usually seen as more ethically orientated than the Fabian Society. It is, however, important to note that moral questions received significant attention in early Fabian discussion, and that some individuals, such as Adams or the civil servant Joseph Francis Oakeshott (1861–1945), father of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, retained membership of both groups.

Of those who would later contribute to Fabian Essays in Socialism the first to join the society was Hubert Bland, who had been part of the Davidson circle, and who acted as notional treasurer for the society until 1911. Bland's early tory politics distinguished him from most Fabians. He attributed his own conversion to socialism to the influence of Hyndman and Henry George, along with Davidson. Bernard Shaw, who already knew Bland, began attending in May 1884, and formally joined in September of that year. Like many early members Shaw had experience of the radical London debating scene, notably through the Zetetical Society, where he and Sidney Webb met in 1879, and on whose committee several early Fabians served. Webb combined his civil service career with prodigious educational feats, and an intense involvement in the intellectual life of radical London. He began attending the Fabian Society in March 1885, and was elected to membership in May of that year. The highest-profile early recruit was Annie Besant, who met Shaw at the Dialectical Society, a forerunner of the Zetetical Society, in January 1885, and who joined later that year. The world of work as well as that of leisure (albeit a strenuously conceived form of leisure) supplied connections. Sydney Olivier came to know Webb through employment in the Colonial Office, and it was when looking for his university friend Olivier in Downing Street that Graham Wallas in turn met Webb. Olivier joined the society in May 1885; Wallas a few months later. The last of the essayists to embrace membership was William Clarke, another alumnus of the Progressive Association and a member of the original Davidsonian group, who joined in 1886.

The contemporary success and enduring fame of the Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889) directs attention to the seven essayists, but others also played important roles in the first years of the society. Charlotte Wilson was a prominent member of the executive, an anarchist whose views commanded real support in the early years of the society, and the host of the Karl Marx Club, later the Hampstead Historic Society, which was an important site in the development of Fabian ideas, notably about economics. The exploratory spirit of the early years was also apparent in the journal the Practical Socialist, edited by the research chemist and expert on photography Thomas Bolas (1849–1932), which reported in detail on meetings of the society and debated socialist strategies. The writer Edith Nesbit, who was married to Hubert Bland, was a frequent presence at early meetings. The republican printer and free thinker George Standring (1855–1924) and the Somerset House official Oakeshott featured regularly on the elected executive through the 1890s. The novelist Emma Brooke served on the executive in the mid-1890s, as did the cleric and socialist Stewart Headlam, and the public health reformer Honnor Morten held office in the later 1890s. Beatrice Webb became a member in 1891, though she was not on the executive in these years. While the Webb partnership was in full swing in the 1890s, evident especially in their joint publications, Beatrice Webb's own involvement in the corporate life of the Fabian Society really took off after 1900.

The appearance of the Essays was undoubtedly an auspicious moment in the history of Fabian ideas, but the first years of the society are not best understood as a mere prologue to their publication. In its earliest phase, between 1884 and 1886, the views of many of its members were in considerable flux, and the character of its debates was quite distant from subsequent images of the bureaucratic Fabian mind. The initial intention according to William Clarke was a small group of proselytizers, dedicated to educating first themselves, and then others. The ethical concerns of the founders were certainly evident in these years. Graham Wallas spoke on ‘Personal Duty’ and urged his audience to simplify their lives. The society's aim ‘was to help forward the reconstruction of the social system in accordance with the highest moral possibilities’ (‘Aim’, Our Corner, July 1886, 60). It was ‘only a general sense of high duty’ that permitted the attainment of ‘true justice’ (‘Methods’, Our Corner, July 1886, 60). Much debate turned on to how best to re-moralize both individuals, including themselves, and the functioning of society. The appeal of anarchism was in part as what Charlotte Wilson called ‘a theory of human development’ with selfless striving as its end point (Practical Socialist, January 1886, 12). Early Fabian discussion of economic rent emerged as part of a critique of anarchist assumptions about natural harmony between individuals, but also contributed to a broader debate about equality and distributive justice in which assessing the entitlements of the educated loomed large. The appropriate extent, form, and engine of social amelioration were discussed. In defining socialism before the society in May 1886 Sidney Webb was careful to treat collectivism as but one species of socialism, and to insist that socialism was not reducible to any scheme for reform: it was simultaneously a faith, a scientific theory, and ‘the judgment of morality upon the facts of life’ (Practical Socialist, June 1886, 90).

It was in 1887 that the basis of the society was made explicitly socialist, though it remained deliberately inclusive, saying little about what form ‘the emancipation of land and industrial capital from individual and class ownership’ would take. By the end of 1886, anarchist and revolutionary visions of socialism were much diminished within the society, the former evident in Charlotte Wilson's departure from the executive in April 1887. The title of Thomas Bolas's journal, the Practical Socialist, which first appeared in January 1886, reflected the perspective of a Fabian opposed to anarchism; its subtitle from January 1887, ‘a monthly review of evolutionary or non-revolutionary socialism’, embodied an enhanced attachment to gradualism. Annie Besant played a central role in the consolidation of constitutional and collectivist currents in Fabian thinking, not least through the debates over political participation in November 1886. There remained, however, persistent tensions in Fabian attitudes towards party politics, which are not best understood purely by reference to ‘permeation’—a term that can obscure disagreements over and deviations in political strategy. The late 1880s witnessed a growing emphasis on municipal politics as an arena for the advancement of collectivist goals evident in much of the Essays. Detailed advice on the conduct of municipal campaigns would be a feature of the Fabian tracts of the early 1890s.

At the start of the 1890s considerable energy was committed to developing Fabian socialism outside London. This activity has been portrayed as a detour from the true course of Fabianism, but this view underestimates the effort expended upon it, and presents too tidy a picture. Sidney Webb proclaimed in 1891 in Nottingham that the aim of the society was the conversion of the entire country to socialism, and urged his audience to create their own local society rather than subscribe individually to the London grouping. Many of the leading Fabians, including Sidney Webb and William Clarke, took an active part in lecturing outside the metropolis. The early 1890s saw a number of local societies founded, inspired in part by the success of the Fabian Essays in Socialism which had sold around 25,000 by the end of 1890. Membership of the parent London society increased rapidly during the early and mid-1890s, though growth was weak in the late 1890s, reflecting, as Fabian membership tended to, broader political trends. Two of the essayists, Annie Besant and William Clarke, withdrew from the executive in the early 1890s. Besant's departure was due to her deepening involvement with theosophism; Clarke, described by the diligent and well-organized Pease as ‘no good on committees’, came to find the Rainbow Circle, of which he was a founder member, a more congenial intellectual home (Pease, ‘Webb and the Fabian Society’ in Cole, ed., The Webbs and their Work, 20).

Throughout the 1890s disagreement persisted among Fabians about political strategy. Broadly speaking, three main positions can be discerned, though it is worth emphasizing that most individuals altered their views over time. Some Fabians, notably Bland and sometimes Shaw, leant towards the creation of a separate political party. This view commanded considerable support among the broader ranks, especially outside London, which helps explain the journey of many into the Independent Labour Party in 1893–4. Others, particularly those with attachments to political radicalism like Olivier (and sometimes Shaw), wished to work with the left of the Liberal Party. There were others, perhaps most clearly Beatrice Webb, who, particularly once the hopes of the early 1890s were dashed by Conservative electoral success in 1895, wished to focus on advancing policies through whichever politicians were willing to implement them. In practice it was the first two of these that were more attractive to most Fabians, and in local contexts, such as London progressivism, it might be possible to combine the two. National politics presented greater difficulties, as the lurch towards and then retreat from independent action, associated with the publication and aftermath of ‘To your tents, oh Israel!’ in 1893, testifies.

The early years of the twentieth century were difficult ones for the society, with membership in decline for the first time, prior to the revival of 1906, which has often been identified as a new phase in the society's history, witnessing the advent of a new generation of Fabians. The painful ruptures over the South African War, along with the dwindling number and activity within the society of the earliest members, suggests the turn of the century as a reasonably convenient end point for a collective appraisal of the founding generation.

Aside from Annie Besant all the Fabian essayists were born in the 1850s, and much commentary, starting with the protagonists themselves, has identified the makers of the society as drawn together by shared experiences of a generationally specific kind. There is a long-standing tradition, again originating with the early members, of viewing the Fabians as a nouvelle couche sociale of educated brain workers lacking independent means. It is, though, important not to overstate the commonalities, given variations in circumstances, especially if the focus is extended beyond the best-known and most prolific Fabians. While the emergence of an institutional forum for women came after 1906, women represented about 20 per cent of the membership of the parent society in the period before 1900.

The first Fabians were enthusiastic chroniclers of their own history. These depictions from Shaw's 1892 lecture to Pease's more substantial history in 1916 remain valuable and revealing. The complex origins of the society are reflected in divergent narratives of its earliest days. Unsurprisingly, however, as the historical study of Fabianism flourished in the second half of the twentieth century many of the claims of the founding generation were disputed. Pease's official history offered a maximalist account of the society's influence by which he claimed that the Newcastle programme of 1891, the Education Act of 1902, and the policies of the London county council were all largely shaped. Subsequent writers have subjected these claims to extensive criticism, and prevailing estimates of the immediate political impact of the early Fabians, especially on national politics, are now considerably lower.

Assessments of the founding generation have developed in other ways too. Pease's estimation of Sidney Webb could not have been higher—he once wrote that Webb was ‘always right and wise’—and he presented the society accordingly as almost a mirror of Webb's mind (Pease, ‘Webb and the Fabian Society’ in Cole, ed., The Webbs and their Work, 22). This view encountered difficulties in dealing with the very early history of the society before Webb joined, but also tended to overstate agreement among Fabians, and to identify Fabianism too closely with the ideas of Sidney Webb. The literature of the 1970s painted a messier picture of the early Fabians as a more heterogeneous bunch, and markedly raised the importance of some, notably Annie Besant and Graham Wallas. More recently, while the differences between Fabians have received further attention, the main departure has been a renewed stress on their debt to radicalism, and on the distinctively metropolitan milieu in which they came together.

While their direct political impact is now often downplayed the contribution of the early Fabians to the political and social thought of the late nineteenth-century continues to attract attention, particularly that of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In the second half of the twentieth century Fabianism was sometimes cast as a bureaucratic centrist creed—the late-nineteenth-century analogue of classical utilitarianism. Whatever its merits as a characterization of Fabian doctrines in the twentieth century this is unhelpful in understanding the more ethically inclined and locally orientated debates of the founding generation. It makes it hard, for instance, to understand the inclusion and character of Sydney Olivier's chapter on socialism and morality in Fabian Essays in Socialism. Nor does it readily capture the emphasis on the municipality evident through much of that volume.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the founders was the Fabian Society itself. The middle-class origins and metropolitan habits of the first generation have been widely invoked, but the Fabians were scarcely unique among late-nineteenth-century political societies in these respects, especially as far as the leadership is concerned. Where the Fabian Society departed most sharply from the myriad, often overlapping, coteries and clubs of the late Victorian metropolis was in its staying power—few others survived the century, let alone endured into the new millennium. While there were many and significant alterations over that long period, not least in the society's relationship with the Labour Party, the institution building of its energetic founders—Sidney Webb foremost among them—underpinned the efforts of later generations. While ‘think tanks’ proliferated in British politics from the 1970s onwards the early Fabians' combination of detailed policy proposals with serious political thought has proved less common. It reflected sustained intellectual engagement, even among the most playful Fabians, inspired by hopes for social reform and powered by strong ethical convictions.

James Thompson

Sources  

Annual Reports [Fabian Society] (1889–1900) · Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889) · S. Webb, Socialism in England (1890) · S. Webb, The Fabian Society: its objects and methods (1891) · W. Clarke, ‘The Fabian Society’, New England Magazine (1894), 89–100 · G. Wallas, Men and ideas (1940) · W. Knight, ed., Memorials of Thomas Davidson (1907) · Seed-time (1889–98) · N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, The first Fabians (1977) · E. R. Pease, The history of the Fabian Society (1916) · W. Wolfe, From radicalism to socialism: men and ideas in the formation of Fabian socialist doctrines, 1881–9 (1975) · A. M. McBriar, Fabian socialism and English politics, 1884–1918 (1962) · A. M. McBriar, An Edwardian mixed doubles: the Bosanquets versus the Webbs, a study in British social policy, 1890–1929 (1987) · P. Pugh, Educate, agitate, organize: 100 years of Fabian socialism (1984) · P. F. Clarke, Liberals and social democrats (1978) · S. Pierson, British socialists: the journey from fantasy to politics (1979) · E. J. Hobsbawm, The lesser Fabians (1962) · M. Cole, The story of Fabian socialism (1961) · M. Cole, ed., The Webbs and their work (1949) · I. Britain, Fabianism and culture: a study in British socialism and the arts, c.1884–1918 (1982) · S. Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: a life of liberty and love (2008) · G. D. H. Cole, The Fabian Society: past and present (1942) · Essays by Hubert Bland: ‘Hubert’ of the ‘Sunday Chronicle’, ed. E. N. Bland (1914) · A. Besant, Annie Besant: an autobiography (1893) · H. S. Salt, Seventy years among savages (1921) · H. Ellis, My life (1939) · W. J. Jupp, Wayfarings: a record of adventure and liberation in the life of the spirit (1918) · P. Chubb, On the religious frontier (1931) · John Henry Muirhead: reflections by a journeyman in philosophy on the movements of thought and practice in his time, ed. J. W. Harvey (1942) · C. Waters, British socialists and the politics of popular culture, 1884–1914 (1990) · M. Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, 4 vols. (1988–93) · R. Harrison, The life and times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 1858–1905: the formative years (2000) · W. S. Smith, The London heretics, 1870–1914 (1967) · E. Rhys, Wales England wed (1940) · N. Dearmer, The life of Percy Dearmer (1940) · S. G. Hobson, Pilgrim to the left: memoirs of a modern revolutionist (1938) · W. S. Sanders, Early socialist days (1927) · H. Burrows and J. Hobson, eds., William Clarke: a collection of his writings (1908) · D. M. Ricci, ‘The conceptual foundations of Fabian socialism’, PhD diss., Harvard, 1967 · J. Lawrence, ‘Popular radicalism and the socialist revival in Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), 163–86 · P. Weiler, ‘William Clarke: the making and unmaking of a Fabian socialist’, Journal of British Studies, 14/1 (1974–5), 77–108 · S. Yeo, ‘A new life: the religion of socialism in Britain, 1883–1896’, History Workshop Journal, 4 (1977), 5–56 · M. Bevir, ‘The Marxism of George Bernard Shaw, 1883–89’, History of Political Thought, 2 (1992), 299–318 · M. Bevir, ‘Sidney Webb: utilitarianism, positivism and social democracy’, JMH, 74 (2002), 217–52 · M. Bevir, ‘Fabianism, permeation and independent labour’, HJ, 29 (1996), 179–96 · N. MacKenzie, ‘Percival Chubb and the founding of the Fabian Society’, Victorian Studies, 23 (autumn 1979), 34–5

Archives  

BLPES |  BLPES, Wallas papers · Wisconsin Historical Society, Demarest Lloyd papers


Likenesses  

B. Newcombe, group portrait, sketch, 1895 ([George Bernard Shaw with friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Graham Wallas]), Mary Evans Picture Library, London