One chilly October evening in 1883—the same year a Prussian-born war correspondent, free-lance economist and lifelong conspirator named Karl Marx died obscurely in London lodgings—sixteen young Britishers met for a parlor discussion of the higher things of life. They were guests of a twenty-six year old junior stockbroker, Edward R. Pease, who was bored with his job and with typical Victorian rectitude sought grounds for condemning it as immoral.
All were young, earnest, ambitious, of middle class origins and decent if by no means glamorous ancestry. All were groping for some sort of secular faith to replace the old God-given certainties as a basis for living and shaping their future careers. Like many restless young people of our own day, they hoped to find it in an atmosphere of mingled culture and social change. About half were personal friends of Pease and the rest were members of a budding cultural group called the Nuova Vita.
They had come to hear Thomas Davidson, a Scottish-born American and itinerant schoolmaster then visiting England, give a talk on “The New Life.” Known as the Wandering Scholar, Davidson was a man of considerable learning and personal magnetism. He had toyed with the philosophy of Rosmini, an Italian priest who tried to fuse the systems of St. Thomas Aquinas and Hegel. At the moment, te was also flirting with a species of Utopian Socialism in the manner of Robert Owen, who favored setting up ideal communities of choice and noble souls. (1) (With Owen, an Englishman who visited America, the term “Socialist” first came into general use in 1835. )
When Davidson returned to the New World to preside at various impromptu summer schools and to found the Educational Alliance on New York City’s lower East Side, he had left behind him in London a lasting monument to his visit. From that casual gathering on October 24, at 17 Osnaburgh Street, the Fabian Society of London was born. Its character, however, was not immediately apparent. After a few meetings, at which the possibility of forming a religious-type community without benefit of religion was discussed, the group voted to remain in the world.
Within a few years the more bohemian elements from the Nuova Vita drifted away. Among them were Edward Carpenter, the future poet laureate of British Socialism, and Havelock Ellis, harbinger of free love and forthright sexual discussion, whose impact on the morals of young intellectuals in his own time would prove similar to that of Freud after World War I. Leaders of the Fabian Society at a later date viewed Ellis uneasily as a threat to that image of respectability which was to prove their most highly prized asset. An examination of the early minutes book of the Fabian Society suggests that the name of Havelock Ellis has been carefully removed from the list of original signers of its credo. Scandals provoked by the unconventional love-life of certain early Socialist leaders evidently convinced the Fabian high command that an appearance of prudery was preferable.
From the outset, the nine young men and women who remained to found the Fabian Society had grandiose plans. Quite simply, they wanted to change the world through a species of propaganda termed “education,” which would lead to political action. To a rather astonishing degree they have been successful. For over three generations, members and friends of the Fabian Society have dedicated themselves to promoting an anglicized version of Marxism. Started as a discussion club, the Society has become the most important and long-lived Socialist organization in England. Without advertising the fact, it has also assumed leadership of a world-wide Socialist movement and is today the dominant influence in the Socialist International. Its originality lies in the techniques it has developed for permeating established institutions and penetrating political parties in order to win command of the machinery of power. Historically speaking, perhaps its most remarkable feat has been to endow social revolution with an aura of lofty respectability.
The hole-and-corner beginnings of the Fabian Society offered no clue to its destiny. In the tranquil and prosperous British Empire of the early eighteen-eighties, the future of Socialism appeared dim. The working classes were docile and churchgoing, the landed aristocracy was firmly entrenched. Only the middle class seemed apt for the Socialist bait, particularly the younger intellectuals and professionals. Lacking any profound group loyalties, their religious convictions shaken by popularized versions of Darwinism and scientific materialism, many yearned for some new creed to make life worth living. All over London discussion clubs, debating clubs, study clubs sprang up and bloomed ephemerally. Movements like Psychical Research, Vegetarianism, Spiritism and Theosophy flourished for a decade or two and declined.
Edward Pease, who in due time became the perennial general secretary and chronicler of the Fabian Society, had dabbled in such diversions and found them disappointing. During a Psychical Research expedition to a haunted house in Hampstead, where he tried and failed to locate a ghost, he struck up a friendship with Frank Podmore, the man who subsequently provided the Fabian Society with a name and a motto…. But it lent a touch of classical elegance to a tiny left wing organization, few of whose original members had attended England’s better public schools and universities.
The Fabian Society was named for Quintus Fabius Maximus, a Roman general and dictator who lived in the third century B.C. In his lifetime Fabius was nicknamed “Cunctator”—the Delayer—because of his delaying tactics against Hannibal in the second Punic War. By avoiding pitched battles at a time when Rome was weak, he won time for the Republic to build up its military strength. Though Fabius eventually met and defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Tarantum, he was not, in spite of what is often said today, “the patient vanquisher of Hannibal.” In fact, he died before Hannibal was decisively vanquished and Carthage destroyed. The final blow was dealt by a more aggressive and ruthless Roman, Scipio Africanus, a detail omitted from references to Fabius in the Society’s literature. In this respect, also, Fabius’ strategic role resembles that of the Society which has borrowed his name. (One cannot help wondering how the Roman patriot would have responded to the far from patriotic question posed by a well-known early Fabian, Graham Wallas: “When a man dies for his country, what does he die for?”)
The motto of the Fabian Society, published on page 1 of Fabian Tract No. 1, stressed the value of delayed action. It stated: “For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes, you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.” Time and repetition have given this motto a spurious patina of antiquity, but no one has ever been able to cite a Latin text as its source. On the cover of many a Fabian publication it was shortened to read, “I wait long, but when I strike, I strike hard.” Usually it accompanied a sketch of an angry tortoise by the Fabian artist, Walter Crane, which first appeared on a Fabian Christmas card and has since been reproduced on literally millions of Fabian tracts and pamphlets distributed throughout the English-speaking world. So the tortoise became the heraldic device of the Society—emblem of persistence, longevity, slow and guarded progress towards a (revolutionary) goal. Not until the nineteen-sixties, for reasons best known to the Fabians themselves, did this tell-tale emblem abruptly cease to appear on the covers of most official Fabian publications.
Both name and motto were adopted on January 4, 1884, which may be presumed to be the actual founding date of the Society. It was half a dozen years before the program and leadership assumed definitive shape. Meanwhile, the deliberate tempo and very British complexion of the new Society distinguished it from the numerous small groups of foreign revolutionaries who took refuge in London throughout the nineteenth century and which invited surveillance by the police of several countries. Clever young Englishmen with a world to win obviously could not afford to be identified with foreign radicals, not if they hoped to attract any substantial following in Britain.
And yet, contrary to general belief, the gradualist policy of the Fabians did not conflict essentially with the doctrines of the lately deceased leader of world Socialism, Karl Marx. Had not Marx himself told German Communists in 1850 that it would take years “of civil strife and foreign wars not only to change existing conditions, but to change yourselves and make yourselves worthy of world power”? At an open meeting in Amsterdam reported by the Leipzig Volkstaat of October 2, 1872, Marx also said, “We know that we must take into consideration the institutions, the habits and the customs of different regions, and we do not deny that there are countries like America, England and—if I knew your institutions better I would perhaps add Holland—where the workers can attain their objectives by peaceful means. But such is not the case in all other countries.”
At least one original leader of the Fabian movement had been definitely exposed to Marxist doctrines before joining the Society. In May, 1884, when the organization was still in its infancy, there appeared at its meetings an impertinent young Irishman with flame-red hair and beard, of whom nobody had yet heard. The name of this apparition was George Bernard Shaw, and he claimed to be looking for a debate. In September of the same year he was admitted to membership and the following January was elected to the Fabian Executive.
Shaw was then twenty-eight years old, a free-lance journalist living on an occasional stipend. For nine years he had drifted from one leftist group and radical colony in London to another. In later life he was fond of telling how he was suddenly converted to Socialism in 1882 as the result of hearing a London lecture by Henry George, the American single-taxer and foe of “landlords.” Obviously, Shaw’s experiences as a penniless youth in the metropolis had not disposed him to love landlords, but he was stretching the truth when he dated his interest in Socialism from that lecture.
As early as 1879 he had joined the Zetetical Society, an offshoot of the Dialectical Society formed to explore the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, though its alleged purpose was to discuss the works of John Stuart Mill. Before coming to the Fabians, Shaw had also belonged to a Marxist reading circle, politely called the Hampstead Historical Club, and had been at least a candidate member of the militantly Marxist Social Democratic Federation whose leader, Henry Mayers Hyndman, trailing clouds of costly cigar smoke, often visited Karl Marx at home.
Thereafter Shaw proceeded to school himself and others by making speeches on all the current issues about which he wished to be informed. For twelve years after joining the Society, he spoke as often as three times a week to audiences small and large, ranging from soapbox speeches on street corners to public debates in crowded halls, from formal papers before the nascent British Economic Association to four-hour addresses at large open-air meetings. As his mentors, he preferred to cite Henry George, or John Stuart Mill, the British Utilitarian; Professor W. S. Jevons, or David Ricardo, the early nineteenth century English economist from whom Marx derived his theory of surplus value.
Whether Shaw was ever personally acquainted with Karl Marx is not recorded. He could hardly have failed to see the ponderous Prussian in the reading room of the British Museum, where Marx was a fixture for nearly thirty years. Before and after joining the Fabians, Shaw, too, frequented the British Museum almost daily. There he read the first volume of Das Kapital in French and was vastly impressed by it; and there he became friendly with Marx’s daughter Eleanor, a dark, rather striking young Socialist, working as a copyist in the reading room for eighteen pence a day. It is hard to see how he could have avoided meeting her father—the more so because, throughout his long career, Shaw never displayed the least reticence about introducing himself to anyone he wished to know.
Failure to mention meeting or even seeing a man whose work had impressed him so profoundly is a significant omission, especially on the part of a notorious name-dropper like Shawl He refers casually to having once met Frederick Engels, Marx’s alter ego who remained in London to edit the posthumous portions of Das Kapital until his own death in 1892.
The possibility has been raised—and remains an interesting subject for speculation—that George Bernard Shaw, the self-styled mountebank with his Mephistophelian eyebrows and carefully cultivated air of diabolism, who in his later writings equated Jesus and Lenin, as spiritual leaders,(2) was commissioned by the fathers of Marxian Socialists to help found a select company for the propagation and defense of their Socialist views. Early in the game, Shaw confided to the German Socialist, Eduard Bernstein, that he wanted the Fabians to be “the Jesuits of Socialism.”(3)
Any serious consideration of Fabian Socialism must allow for the very real possibility that Communists early saw their opportunity to introduce Communism into America through the Anglo-Saxon tradition: enter at stage Left, the Fabian Society!
In any event, Shaw came into the Fabian Society as if propelled; promptly pushed himself into a position of leadership where he remained for decades; and to the end of his days retained a paternal and financial interest in its affairs. This was true even after his meteoric success as a playwright and propagandist prevented him from participating in its day-to-day activities. The average American of today, who knows Shaw chiefly as the author of Pygmalion, on which the libretto of My Fair Lady is based, may be surprised to learn that Socialism was the consuming passion of his rather anemic, vegetarian life.
Acidly outspoken on some matters, frankly blasphemous on others, the one subject on which he ever waxed sentimental was the Fabian Society. As a speaker, playwright and essayist, Shaw did more than any other human being to establish the fiction that the polite conspiracy called Fabian Socialism is a “peaceful, constitutional, moral and economical movement,” needing nothing for its “bloodless and benevolent realization except that the English people should understand and approve of it.”(4)
In January, 1885, Shaw introduced a friend into the Society whose contribution was to be as fateful as his own. This was Sidney Webb, a squat, dark, determined young clerk in the Colonial Office, with a photographic memory, a gift for assembling statistical data and a taste for political manipulation. Because his father, a bookkeeper from Westminster, had once served as a committeeman for John Stuart Mill, Webb claimed to have unique knowledge that Mill had died a Socialist.
As a boy Sidney Webb attended schools in Germany and Switzerland and presumably read German as fluently as English; yet he always took pains to disclaim any knowledge of or interest in the works of Karl Marx—although Shaw noted in his diary that in August, 1885, he and Webb together read the second volume of Das Kapital, just published in German. Webb’s disclaimer can therefore be doubted, especially in view of his monumental, if masked, contribution to the practical advancement of Marxist programs in England during his lifetime and the fact that his final work (written jointly with Mrs. Webb and the Soviet Foreign Office (5)) was a paean to the “new civilization” of the Soviet Union. Even his loving wife in her Diaries has charged Sidney with possessing a most “robust conscience.”
Shaw and Webb had met in 1879 at the Zetetical Society, when both were exploring the uses of Marxian dialectic as a weapon in debate. As Fabians, they formed a two-man team pacing each other like a pair of well-gaited carriage horses. They collaborated smoothly in the production of pamphlets, essays, and reports, drafted plans for political activity, and formulated internal and external policies of the Society in advance of executive meetings. Sidney Webb supplied the direction, George Bernard Shaw, the literary style.
Soon they were joined by a third friend, Sydney Olivier (afterwards Lord Olivier), also a clerk in the Colonial Office, who, many years later, was to become the Fabian-inspired Secretary of State for India. Like Sidney Webb, Olivier proved to be a fertile source of confidential information gleaned from official contacts in government service.(6) With the advent the next year of Graham Wallas, M.A.— future missionary-in-chief of Fabian-type Socialism in the United States—the first Fabian high command was complete.
The facility with which that oddly assorted quartet captured and retained the Society’s top leadership bears some resemblance to the methods of Marxist-Leninist factions in front organizations of the nineteen-thirties. It suggests that the Fabian Society may, in fact, have been the first Marxist innocent front in history. True, members of the Fabian Executive did not hesitate to damn the ghost of Karl Marx as they saw fit. With equal impunity they “damned each other’s eyes twelve months of the year,” yet remained loyal to the Society and its secrets. (7) Differences of opinion and verbal battles between individual Fabians were routine, yet did not preclude the factor of Fabian discipline. The half-humorous insults they tossed back and forth so lightly only served to veil the deadly seriousness of their common objectives.
These objectives were broadly outlined in the Basis, a credo to which every member from 1887 on was obliged to subscribe. With a single change it survived until 1938, when it was recast to become the constitution of the Society. All three versions began by announcing, “The Fabian Society consists of Socialists.” The original Basis went on to say:
“It [the Fabian Society] therefore aims at the reorganisation of society by the emancipation of land and Industrial Capital from individual and class ownership, and the vesting of them in the community for the general benefit…. The Society accordingly works for the extinction of private property in land…. The Society further works for the transfer to the Community of such Industrial Capital as can conveniently be handled socially. For the attainment of these ends the Fabian Society looks to the spread of Socialist opinions, and the social and political changes consequent thereon…. It seeks to achieve these ends by the general dissemination of knowledge as to the relation between the individual and Society in its economic, ethical and political aspects.”
Like other movements small in their beginnings but destined to cast a long shadow, the Fabian Socialist movement, which was called a Society, has never strayed from its original objectives. What the Basis proposed was nothing less than social revolution, to be achieved by devious means over a period of time rather than by direct action. Violence as an ultimate measure was not renounced—it simply was not mentioned. Religion was not attacked—it was merely ignored.
Cautiously phrased to disarm the unwary and to reassure any who might consider the term “social revolution” indiscreet, the Basis was probably the most genteel war cry ever uttered—but it was a war cry for all that! Propaganda and political action were the twin weapons by which Great Britain’s unwritten constitution was to be subverted and the traditional liberties of Englishmen exchanged for a system of State Socialism. More precise instructions for putting into effect the Fabian scheme for nationalization-by-installments were issued many years later in a volume by Sidney and Beatrice Webb boldly entitled A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain.
For so ambitious a plan to be launched by so small a group must have seemed slightly absurd at the start. Certainly it caused no alarm in 1887 among authorized spokesmen of an Empire on which the sun never set. How could a few conceited young people hope to overturn the basis of England’s mercantile power and, in fact, of civilization itself? And yet, less than twenty years before, an equally obscure group of assorted radicals had contrived to set up the Commune and ended by delivering Paris into the hands of the invading Prussian armies. That happened in France, however, a notoriously excitable country. Englishmen did things in a quite different fashion.
From the start, Fabian leaders were fully aware of the stamina of the system they hoped to abolish. They did not imagine, any more than Karl Marx or Lenin did, that Socialism could be achieved at one bound in a nation as strong as nineteenth century England. They did believe, however, that with some help, the people of Great Britain, and eventually the world, could be persuaded psychologically to accept Socialism as inevitable. It might take a long while, a full fifty years or more, but Fabians were willing to work and wait. Their time to strike, and strike hard, would come later.
In their first years the Fabians displayed as much irritation as the bearded Prussian, Karl Marx, had displayed towards some of his more impatient followers. They were furious at Henry Mayers Hyndman and his openly Marxist Social Democratic Federation for predicting so positively that the world-wide social revolution would take place on July 14th, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.
Failure of this widely advertised event to occur proved indirectly helpful to the early Fabian Society by bringing a number of embarrassed radicals and nervous liberals into the gradualist camp. Just before Christmas, the first edition of Fabian Essays, edited by Shaw and written by members of the Fabian inner circle, was published. On the strength of favorable book reviews by Fabian journalists (8) in such respected publications as the London Star, the Chronicle and the Edinburgh Review, the Essays attracted readers and stimulated some interest in Socialism. By 1890 the Fabian Society was definitely on its way, and it has never stopped since.
1. In a letter written some years afterwards to Morris R. Cohen eventually to occupy a chair of Philosophy at City College of New York, Davidson said: “That you are attached to Socialism neither surprises nor disappoints me. I once came near being a Socialist myself and in that frame of mind founded what afterwards became the Fabian Society. But I soon found out the limitations of Socialism. . . . I have not found any deep social insight or any high moral ideals among the many Socialists I know.” Memorials of Thomas Davidson, William Knight, ed., (Boston and London, Ginn and Company, 1907), p. 142.
2. George Bernard Shaw, “Preface on Bosses,” Complete Plays. With Prefaces (New York, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1962), Vol. VI, p. 202. (Dated August 28, 1935.)
3. Eduard Bernstein, My Years of Exile (New York, Harcourt & Co., 1921), p. 226.
4. George Bernard Shaw, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” Seven Plays. With Prefaces and Notes (New York, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1951), p. 710.
5. Hearings of the Subcommittee on Internal Security of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Testimony of Col. I. M. Bogolepov, April 7, 1952.
6. Cf. S. G. Hobson Pilgrim to the Left (London, Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1938). (See chap. VIII.)
8. Hubert Bland, H.. Massingham, and Harold Cox, M. P.