That year, in the flush of his first faint triumph, Sidney Webb began courting Beatrice Potter, a statuesque and well-heeled bluestocking. The contrast between them, both in station and stature, was acute. Beatrice was one of eight daughters of a Canadian-railway magnate; while the mother of her pint-sized suitor had been a London hairdresser. Beatrice once dreamed of a quite different future, but an earlier romance with Joseph Chamberlain, the great reformist Mayor of Birmingham, proved ill-starred. Sidney would channel her pent-up intellectual energies and resentments into a lifelong attack against the social class which had wounded her pride.
In 1892 this formidable couple—”very clever, very conceited,” as an acquaintance remarked—agreed to merge their differences. The marriage was something of a milestone in Fabian history. It was not only because Beatrice, by a fortunate coincidence, had inherited an income of one thousand pounds a year in Canadian railway stocks, which relieved Sidney of the necessity of earning a living and enabled him to concentrate with quiet intensity on undermining the system that sustained him. Their union was also the prototype of a menage soon to become characteristic of the Fabian set—the husband-and-wife “partnership” that applied itself with peculiar devotion to shattering the existing scheme of things and remolding it nearer to the (Fabian) heart’s desire. It permitted a pattern of radical feminism combined with domesticity, and it proved appealing to ladies of strong views. The Fabian movement always emphasized the importance of female support, both personal and financial—though it alienated some by its insistence that all but the most prominent women should do their own housework.
With the publication of their History of Trades Unionism (which Lenin translated into Russian for his followers) the names of Sidney and Beatrice Webb began to appear jointly on a series of ponderous volumes intended to conduct the English-speaking world along the road to Socialism. Their intellectual progeny were numerous, and the effect on their own and succeeding generations was considerable. In addition, Beatrice Webb was closely identified with the development of a product known as Fabian Research. Organized fact-finding designed to lend weight to predetermined opinions was to provide the basis for Fabian propaganda, educational and political.
Fabian “research” as practiced by Beatrice Webb and her school combined the turgid German type of scholarship, noted for massive detail and much admired by nineteenth century intellectuals, with a kind of airy legerdemain. It specialized in reaching conclusions on social and economic topics which were quite unrelated to the facts themselves. These dangerous non sequiturs escaped challenge because the preliminary facts were often obtained from unimpeachable official sources and because they were so voluminous.
The Fabian way was to bury an opponent, when possible, under mountains of exhaustive detail. Fabian research supplied the content for the “educational” material distributed by the Society, a good deal of it in the form of tracts and pamphlets presenting the Fabian stand on successive issues of the day. At a later date Beatrice Webb was made formally responsible for setting up the Fabian Research Department, which in due time became infiltrated by Communists and in the end was abandoned to them.
The decade of the eighteen-nineties has been poetically referred to as the period of the Society’s “first blooming.” The phrase is apt if one recognizes the movement to be a species of deadly nightshade rather than a wholesome growth. It is true that provincial affiliates of the Society sprang up all over England and Scotland, and general membership soon exceeded two hundred—not a very impressive figure. In 1891, the Society began publishing the Fabian News, “for members only,” which is still published today.
A scattering of Fabians sat on town councils where, as “gas and water Socialists,” they agitated for municipal control of public utilities. They got themselves named to local school boards, where they did their bit towards steering the education of the common-school masses into Socialist channels. In London, Sidney Webb became a member of the County Council and Graham Wallas headed the School Management Committee of the School Board.
In those years Fabian lecturers roamed the hinterland. Book boxes and tracts were shipped in bulk from the newly-opened headquarters at Clement’s Inn. All that bleak superficial bustle helped to create an impression, still carefully fostered in the general press, that the Fabian Society was no more than a small, rather harmless, busybody organization chiefly involved in fraternal squabbles. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, the Society took only a passing interest in the new members who had drifted rather aimlessly into its ranks, and soon released many of them to other radical organizations of lesser status.(1) While it was concerned at all times with creating a favorable climate for Socialist opinion, the particular mission of the Fabian Society was to develop a Socialist elite—in short, to discover and mold the leaders of an evolving Socialist world.
It is on this point, rather than on their gradualist procedure, that the Fabians appear to differ most obviously from classic Marxists, though the difference may be more apparent than real. Fabians have insisted from the start that in advanced capitalist countries like England and the United States, Socialism must begin at the top and meet the industrial masses half way.
Hence, the Fabians’ emphasis on leadership, and their solicitude for higher education through which the leaders of the future were to be formed. The Fabian Society, which ceased publishing membership lists in 1945 to “assure privacy” to its many notables, has always contained the elite of left wing society, open and covert. It was no coincidence that when the Labour Party finally came to power in England, figures like Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, Herbert Morrison and a host of equal and lesser luminaries were found to have been Fabian-trained.
There was jubilation at Fabian headquarters when the first— though by no means the last—student group at Oxford was formed back in 1895. This one small chick caused more rejoicing than the whole brood of new provincial societies, since England’s great universities were traditionally the hatcheries for Members of Parliament and the Civil Service. By 1900 there were three more university groups, and as one academic generation followed another, quite a number of England’s future rulers submitted to brainwashing by Socialist tutors. In 1912, university students accounted for more than one-fifth of the Society’s membership, (2) with the Cambridge group led by such obviously coming young men as Hugh Dalton, a future chairman of the Labour Party, and Clifford Allen, later chairman of the Independent Labour Party. The priority which the Fabian Society gave to this proselytizing is evident from the fact that such leading members as R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, afterwards president of the Society, former Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker and Prime Minister Harold Wilson taught for years at Oxford, shaping the young mind to the Socialist idea.
Another pilot operation begun in the nineties and steadily expanded to the present day is the London School of Economics. The circumstances of its founding are worth examining because they furnish so clear an example of Fabian duplicity at work.
A benefactor of the Fabian Society, Henry Hutchinson, M.P., had committed suicide in the summer of 1894, leaving a hastily drawn will in which he bequeathed a trust of nine thousand pounds to further the “propaganda and other purposes of the Society.” As chairman of the Society, Sidney Webb was to be chairman of the Trust, but the will did not specifically authorize him to administer outlays. Without informing his colleagues of the precise terms of the will, Sidney proceeded to use the bulk of the money to establish the London School of Economics and Political Science. Nominally, the school was not established under the auspices of the Society, which, however, retained indirect control.
Before taking this step, Sidney privately consulted the well-known legal authority R. B. Haldane, Q.C. Haldane asked Webb point-blank if he was still a Socialist, and if the new school would really advance the cause of Socialism. On getting an affirmative answer to both questions, Haldane advised going ahead.
Nevertheless, the first Director of the School, who had been selected by Webb, solemnly assured the London Chamber of Commerce that “the School would not deal with political matters and nothing of a socialistic tendency would be introduced.(3) That this pledge was honored chiefly in the breach is evident from an entry in Beatrice Webb’s Diary of March, 1898. “The London School of Economics,” (4) she confided, “is growing silently but surely into a center of collectivist-tempered research and establishing itself as the English school-of economic and political science.”(5)
Since the Webbs themselves taught at the London School, it can be assumed that Beatrice knew the facts. Many other prominent Fabians have since served on its staff, including such leading lights of Socialism as Harold Laski, chairman of the Fabian Society from 1946 to 1948. Among Professor Laski’s students at the London School were two sons of a United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James: Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. in 1933 34 and John F. Kennedy in 1935-36.
Like the Catholic Society of Jesus—which the Fabian Society, being secular and materialistic in its approach, does not otherwise resemble —the basis for future action was so firmly defined in its first years that its subsequent growth was assured. A contemporary once said of Ignatius of Loyola, “When Ignatius drives a nail, no one can pull it out!”
Without attributing supernatural motives to the freethinking authors of the Fabian Society, it can be noted that the essential elements of purpose, organization and method on which the development of the Fabian movement depended were defined in its first decades, primarily by those two profane zealots, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw. Despite the increased tempo and range of its present-day activities, the Fabian Society has not deviated in any essential way from the patterns initially devised for it. It remains today, as it was at its inception, a dangerously subtle conspiracy beneath a cloak of social reform.
Organizationally, the movement operated in ever-widening circles, like ripples in a pond. The Fabian Society of London was the mother society, source of programs, directives and propaganda which were handed down to the more variable local societies. The Executive Committee of the London Society constituted an inner circle with which the general membership enjoyed only fleeting contacts, at lectures, meetings, Easter, New Year’s, and Summer Schools or weekend seminars. Then came the handpicked membership. And finally, there was a very much larger and continually expanding ring of sympathizers, who supported immediate or long-range programs of the Society, in whole or in part.
The influence of the Fabian movement, which has always been more real than apparent, cannot be measured by the Society’s limited membership, but must be gauged by other factors. Such factors, for instance, as the practical influence each member was able to exert in his chosen profession or field of action. Even during the days when membership lists were published, the Society already operated to a large extent as an invisible and toxic force. As the Machiavellian Webb so often said, with an air of candid innocence, “the work of the Fabian Society is the sum of its members’ activities.”
At the heart of those concentric circles, ringed around and shielded from scrutiny, was the small, hard core of the Fabian leadership, which acknowledged no responsibility for the sometimes contradictory acts of individual members—even after stimulating such action. For almost fifty years Sidney Webb remained the guiding force of the Society, discreetly controlling its rather loose organizational reins and seldom letting his right hand know what the left was doing. Edward R. Pease, who replaced Sydney Olivier as general secretary from 1890 to 1924, remained Webb’s faithful watchdog, enforcing the authority and masking the often devious maneuvers of his small master.
The Society’s function from its earliest years coincided perfectly with the formula of Wilhelm Liebknecht, nineteenth century German Marxist: “to forecast a practical program for the intermediate period; to formulate and justify measures that shall be applicable at once and that will serve as aids to the new Socialist birth.” Grafting itself on the century-old British reform movement, the Fabian Society combined sociology with politics in an effort to propel its members into positions of national influence.
Unlike their European Socialist comrades, the Fabians established themselves as a private Society of limited membership rather than a political party. The Society was neither doctrinaire nor given to philosophical hairsplitting. All it exacted was a broad pledge of allegiance to Socialist goals, leaving each member free to justify them by any logic or philosophy he preferred. He was also free to join any political party he chose, provided he utilized every possible opportunity to further the Fabian cause. In fact, he was encouraged to do so, for political activity was only second to education on the Fabian agenda.
The practice of joining a political party for the sake of advancing Fabian programs, and of placing Fabians in elective and appointive posts, became known as “penetration.” Since the first loyalty of Fabians was to the Society, rather than to any party, their motives were sometimes suspect. Thus, Edward R. Pease was almost ejected from the Bradford Conference of 1893, when the Independent Labour Party was formed. He managed to remain and some years later was able to report that two-thirds of the Fabian Society belonged to the Independent Labour Party.(6)
After 1919 Fabians transferred their allegiance en bloc to the British Labour Party, at whose foundation other Fabians had assisted—and for all practical purposes the Independent Labour Party was no more. It remained a mere wandering voice on the far Left, calling for militant action when more “peaceful” Fabian programs seemed in danger of bogging down and, in effect, winning liberal support for the Fabian way as being “less dangerous.”
Fabian penetration of the Liberal Party of Great Britain, though less extensive, proved no less lethal. From 1903 Sir L. G. Chiozza-Money, a member of the Fabian Executive, went to Parliament as a Liberal. When Liberals came to power in the elections of 1906, twenty-nine seats in Parliament were held by Fabians. By 1911, forty-two Fabian Socialists sat on the Liberal-Labour benches. Eventually their intimate knowledge of Liberal constituencies enabled Fabians to divert a number of election districts to the upcoming Labour Party, and to aid the Labour Party in detaching trade union support from the Liberals. Penetration created new political alignments more profitable to the cause of Socialism.
What George Dangerfield called the strange death of liberal England (7) was hastened by the fact that the Fabian Society—on the strength of “tips” from its members in the Liberal Party, as well as gossip leaked from government offices—was able to release a steady barrage of printed matter politically damaging to Liberalism and its leaders. The intention and the effect was to build up the Fabian-dominated Labour Party that emerged full-blown after World War I.
A twin to “penetration” was the time-honored Fabian practice called “permeation.” Much favored by the ladies—Beatrice Webb actually believed she had invented it!—Fabian permeation dates from an era before women could vote. Permeation meant getting the ear of important or key persons and inducing them to push through some action desired by Fabians. It was not considered necessary that such persons be Fabians. Often it was preferable that they should be outsiders. The important thing was that they should act on the advice and instructions of Fabians. The rather startling appointment of Beatrice Webb to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law from 1905 to 1909 was an example of something achieved at second hand by permeation; for the unhappy official who named her to that post was neither aware of the lady’s Socialist bias nor her forceful nature. Permeation failed at this time to get her recommendations written into law, but the unauthorized printing of her Minority Report was a propaganda coup for the Society. Interestingly enough, the copy that went to the printer was in Sidney’s handwriting.(8)
One advantage of permeation, developed to a fine art by the Fabians, was that it could be practiced almost anywhere—at teas, dinners and weekend house parties, as well as in committee and board meetings. Doubtless the same black art was known under other names to the Medes and Persians, and was old in Cleopatra’s day. It has even been seen to rear its head along the social circuit in modern Washington. The Fabian Society, however, appears to have been the first organization ever to advocate this technique openly as an instrument of political policy.
A final pattern for the future, established by those two long-lived patriarchs of the Fabian Society, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, solved the problem of where Socialism is going. When all is said and done, where could it go? With many of the preliminary steps accomplished and the end plainly in sight, only one road would be open to the Socialists and it would lead inexorably to the Left. After the Directory, the Terror. After July, October. That is the historic pattern, and to date it has never varied.
Shaw and Webb, both hardened professionals, pointed out the way to their followers. It was no accident of old age that led them separately in 1931-32 to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and to full-throated capitulation. After some earlier expressions of distaste for Communist violence and the iron hand of Communist Party discipline, they could no longer restrain themselves from making public professions of their allegiance.
Perhaps they had always known what the journey’s end must be. Perhaps in their secret hearts they had been there all the time. At the turn of the century, Joseph Fels, a soap magnate from Philadelphia and an early member of the Fabian Society, (9) had, in 1907, loaned money to Russian revolutionaries at the time when Lenin quarreled with the majority of Russia’s Social Democrats and formed the “Bolshevik” wing of the party. In those struggling early days there had seemed to the Fabians to be no enemies on the left, and perhaps it has remained so.
Weighted with years and honors, the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw traveled royally to Moscow to announce their full support for the Soviet system of rationalized barbarism. Shaw, by then the dean of English letters, told Stalin that the words “the inevitability of gradualness” should be engraved on Lenin’s tomb. Webb, now Baron Passfield, exchanged ideas on colonial policy with Stalin, who had launched his own public career with a study of subject nationalities. In 1929-30 Webb had served as Britain’s Secretary of State for the Dominions and Colonies, and in 1930-31 as Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Among the poisoned fruits of the Webbs’ sojourn in the Socialist Fatherland was a two-volume work entitled Soviet Socialism—A New Civilization? (The question mark was dropped in later editions.) Even before publication, portions of the manuscript placed in the right hands helped to spark a movement leading to United States recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. The Webbs had known Maxim Litvinoff, the Soviet Foreign Minister, and his British-born wife, the former Ivy Low, during that couple’s years of “exile” in London.
Like the character in Stendhal’s historical novel who rode through the Battle of Waterloo without being aware of it, the Webbs were present at a wholesale slaughter and did not see or choose to see it. Their visit to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1932 coincided with the huge man-made famine that swept the Ukraine and Crimea, where a minimum of two to three million persons was deliberately starved to death in order to hasten the Soviet program of farm confiscations. Such horrors were handily omitted from the Webbs’ encyclopedic volumes, whose publication was withheld until after the 1935 British elections. Their index refers to “famine, alleged.”
The actual sources of this book were revealed some years later, in testimony given to the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Appearing before that body on April 7,1952, Colonel I. M. Bogolepov, a former Soviet Army officer who had been attached from 1930 to 1936 to the Soviet Foreign Office, recalled his dealings with the Webbs. He stated bluntly that the entire text of the Webbs’ book had been prepared in the Soviet Foreign Office. Material for the chapter on Soviet prison camps, stressing the “humane” methods employed in those factories of death and minimizing the vast scale of their operations, was specially compiled by the Secret Police and also delivered through the Foreign Office to the learned couple. The Colonel happened to know these things because, as he explained with some amusement, he had done most of the ghostwriting himself in the line of duty.
Colonel Bogolepov added that after fleeing to the West he read the Webbs’ book with much interest and found they had used his prepared material almost verbatim. “Just a few changes for the English text, just a little bit criticizing!” he remarked ironically. Which is almost, but not quite, the last word on Fabian Research!
For some reason, their gyrations did not estrange the Webbs from the Fabian Society, or vice versa. When Sidney died in 1947, a few years after Beatrice, he left their joint estate of thirty thousand pounds to the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics. For services rendered, a grateful Labour Government interred the ashes of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who had been practicing atheists most of their lives, in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. Concerning the final disposition of Beatrice, who once wrote that “the character of Jesus has never appealed to me,” Shaw commented on a postcard to her niece, Barbara Drake: “B. must be sizzling to hear the name Jesus spoken over her!” Shaw, (10) carrying his defiance of everything holy into the hereafter, ordered his ashes to be scattered in the garden of his home at Ayot St. Lawrence “to make the soil of England more fertile for the growth of Socialism.”
At the Beatrice Webb House in Surrey, used today for Fabian Summer Schools and weekend conferences, there is a rather grotesque stained glass window ordered by Shaw in 1910. It depicts himself and Webb smashing the world with workingmen’s hammers. Among the Fabians kneeling below in attitudes of mock adoration is the novelist H. G. Wells, thumbing his nose irreverently but still close to the old gang. On a streamer overhead is the legend, “Remould it nearer to the hearts desire.” That much-quoted line comes, of course, from a quatrain in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam:
Dear Love, couldst thou and I with fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits, and then
Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire
To an outsider those verses might seem no more than a quaintly Victorian literary relic, but to the Fabians they are still a literal statement of destructive intent.
1. By 1893, in addition to the mother society in London, there were about 1,500 members organised in over seventy societies. But on its formation the Independent Labour Party absorbed most of these and by 1897 only eleven local groups remained. Fabian News (September, 1959).
2. One-third of the present-day membership is composed of university students.
3. Minutes of the Chamber’s Commercial Education Committee: Janet, Lady Beveridge, An Epic of Clare Market (London, Bell Publishers, 1960), p. 27.
4. Shortened form, in popular usage for London School of Economics and Political Science.
5. Beatrice Webb, Our Partnership (New York, Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 145.
6. Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society (London, A. C. Fifield, 1916), p. 208.
7. Also the title of his book.
8. Pease, op. cit., p. 213.
9. Listed as a Fabian in Fabian News (March, 1905).
10. In a letter dated January 14, 1948, and written just a few years before his death to Miss Fanny Holtzmann, a New York attorney, Shaw stated: “My dear Fanny: I am not a Cobdenite Liberal, but the very opposite, a Communist, though not a member of the so-called Communist Party.” Washington Post (February 3, 1948).