The future of the left since 1884

Onwards and upwards – Vol 3

The third online instalment of Onwards and Upwards, a celebration of 140 years of Fabianism originally published in the Spring 2024 Fabian Review. Featuring Michael Crick, Eli Harris, Faridah Zaman and Chris Renwick.



The Fabian Society and young people

Michael Crick

I first joined the Young Fabian executive in 1978 when I was still at Oxford. My abiding memory is of the young Peter Mandelson, then a 25-year-old ITV producer. He diligently sat through our rather tedious meetings, always accompanying Jenny Jeger, a future chair of the society – rather naively, I wondered if Jenny was Peter’s girlfriend. Yet, curiously, he scarcely uttered a word. So why bother? Simple. He needed us to nominate him as our rep on the British Youth Council, where Mandelson served as national chairman for a few years, one of the first steps in his long ascent to influence.

If the Young Fabians were helping to sow the seeds of the Third Way, we were no less buffeted by the turmoil that preceded it. As chair of the Young Fabians from 1980–81, I found myself sitting on the national Fabian executive just as Labour’s civil war expanded to the society. After the party’s 1979 election defeat, two prominent members of the Callaghan Cabinet – Tony Benn and Shirley Williams – had been elected to the Fabian executive, and all the acrimony of Labour’s time in office, fuelled further by a bitter postmortem, spilled over into proceedings at Fabian HQ, then housed on Dartmouth Street. Benn – a former chairman of the society – was at the peak of his power, successfully steering Labour to the left, while Williams – a former Fabian general secretary – was openly thinking about leaving the party to join Roy Jenkins and others in the proposed SDP. I witnessed first-hand how unpleasant the two sides were to each other in executive meetings – even such normally courteous characters as Benn and Williams. One point of contention was that Williams and her allies wanted people who defected to the new party to be allowed to remain as Fabian members, partly as a possible route to reconciliation between the two parties in the long term. But allowing members of a rival party to remain in full Fabian membership was clearly untenable given the society’s affiliation to the Labour party.

For me, the highlight of the Young Fabian calendar was the yearly summer school. In 1976, the 34-year-old Neil Kinnock directed the school over a very hot weekend at Sheffield University, accompanied by his wife Glenys and their two young children, Stephen and Rachel. I had never met Kinnock before, but he was easily identifiable as a future star – friendly, engaging, intelligent, and full of stories, insights and naughty gossip. When I returned to my local Labour branch in Stockport I proposed we should vote for him in that year’s NEC elections. “Who’s Neil Kinnock?” they asked.

My favourite YF anecdote, though, doesn’t involve me, starring instead my daughter Catherine, who in November 2008, aged 20, went on a YF trip to Ohio to help the Obama election campaign. On their third day they discovered – almost too late – that Obama was due to address a huge rally downtown. By the time they arrived it was packed to the rafters with people who’d been waiting in line for hours, but the organisers were so impressed by these ‘young Brits’ that they found them a row of seats on the stage itself, underneath where Obama was due to speak. Not only did they get a close-up view of the great orator in full flow, but after the cheers and razzmatazz, Barack and his wife Michelle went along the line of Young Fabians greeting Catherine and the others one by one. Two days later, boosted no doubt by this encounter, Obama was elected president.

Happy days.

Michael Crick is a journalist and author. He was political editor of Newsnight and political correspondent at Channel 4 News. He currently runs the Tomorrow’s MPs social media account

Eli Harris

If you are reading this article, there is a strong chance that you have seen the artwork titled The Worker’s Maypole by Walter Crane, published in 1894. In this illustration, men and women dance around a maypole, with ribbons inscribed with slogans such as “Leisure for all”, “No starving children”, and “Employers’ liability”. The most often-referenced banner is the one reading “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”. The drawing – published a decade before the Fabian Society was founded – captures the swelling urgency in Victorian Britain to challenge the injustices baked into society.

One hundred and forty years later, though the workhouses are long gone and rights for children have been achieved, young people today are still calling for some of the same things. We call for a decent standard of living, a world where our labour is compensated fairly, and for protection from runaway profiteering.

We cannot be complacent in thinking that younger generations will be attracted to Fabianism simply by virtue of having lived their formative years during brutal Conservative austerity. The reality of brain-drain looms around the corner as talented young workers seek opportunities elsewhere outside of Britain.

Fabianism must offer a vision of hope, where leisure and work can coexist in one’s life. Where our jobs are secure and our terms are not at the whims of exploitative bosses. Most importantly, a vision of a life where one does not spend their waking hours just trying to survive, but where there is the possibility to thrive.

Eli Harris is a human rights activist with a background in climate diplomacy. She is the queer network coordinator of the Young European Socialists

Confronting a chequered past

Faridah Zaman

In February 1900, the playwright and Fabian Society luminary George Bernard Shaw delivered arguably the clearest articulation of the relationship between Fabianism and imperialism. “Every Fabian,” Shaw told the audience at a large public meeting, “was necessarily an Imperialist.” His reasoning was that Fabianism and imperialism were both based on “a sense of the supreme importance of the Duties of Community, with State Organisation, Efficient Government, Industrial Civil Service, Regulation of all private enterprise in the common interest, and dissolution of Frontiers through international industrial organisation.” ‘Imperial Federation,’ the thinking went, was the only practical vehicle for promoting these concepts and overcoming the narrow conceits of national self-interest.

One might already sense some tension between this broad, expansive vision of imperialism and the liberal and progressive tradition which birthed the Fabian Society, which was committed to championing gradualist reform through local, voluntarist and, above all, cooperative institutions. For many Fabians of this period, however, there was no contradiction: political and social progress was best achieved by incorporating more of the world into a political entity with Fabian ideals, rather than profit, at its heart. Fabians of the early 20th century were thus “socialist imperialists”: consistent advocates of a better form of empire rather than for a (scarcely imaginable) world without empire at all.

The acceleration of anticolonial movements across the British Empire in the mid-20th century made clear that a world without empire was not only imaginable but impending. Fabians, along with much of the British establishment, were slow to adjust. The Fabian Colonial Bureau, founded in 1940 by Rita Hinden and Arthur Creech Jones, worked expeditiously to promote colonial welfare and ‘development,’ and achieved a significant degree of influence when Labour came to power in 1945. While this period saw a deeper Fabian engagement with the spirit of cooperation, and colonial subjects began to be recognised as independent agents of change, for the most part, paternalism proved resilient.

Notably, this period saw some future postcolonial leaders drawn to Fabianism (with newly independent states such as India prioritising Fabian-inspired central planning over individual freedoms). Yet for the most part, Fabians approached the myriad challenges in Britain’s colonies through the tools they knew best: research, committees, and countless reports recommending gradual reform. From the vantage point of the present, it is salient to remember how often seemingly benign ideas, such as progress, efficiency, and development, can sustain forms of illiberalism – and that sometimes, gradual reform just isn’t quick enough.  

Faridah Zaman is associate professor of the history of Britain and the world at the University of Oxford

Chris Renwick

In 1883, in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, Francis Galton –Charles Darwin’s cousin – coined a word to describe a project he’d been working on since the early 1860s. Derived from the Greek word eugenes, meaning “good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities”, “eugenics” was the name for a programme for human and social improvement that Galton hoped would transform politics. The following year, the Fabian Society was founded. The proximity of these two events was no coincidence.

By the first decade of the 20th century, eugenics was a mainstream topic in Britain, discussed openly by the press, politicians, social reformers, and the intellectual class. Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw were just two examples of early Fabians who wrote about eugenics during these years, ranging from worries about a declining birthrate leading to depopulation to the kinds of crude concerns about “stock” that we might today associate with the movement. The fact the early Fabians – and they were not alone on the left – should be interested in eugenics should be no surprise. The society and its founders considered themselves to be modern, scientific, and forward-facing. Though we might struggle to see it now, primarily because we know where it would head in the middle decades of the 20th century, this was also how eugenicists liked to see their work.

The intersection of Fabian socialism and eugenics was complicated. To be sure, some Fabians were drawn to ideas about ridding Britain of any number of groups they held a prejudice against. For others, however, including influential members of the Fabian Society and academics at the London School of Economics, which the society had founded to spread their ideas, eugenics meant something different: a way to show how inefficient social structures, like barriers to educational advancement, stood in the way of working-class potential being realised – an issue for both individual aspiration and the country’s management of its human capital. In this sense, eugenics’ attraction for the early Fabians is something we cannot overlook, not least because it reveals the ethical and political complexities that have featured in the effort to root social reform within modern values and scientific insight.

Chris Renwick is professor of modern history at the University of York


Illustrations: Matt Holland

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