The future of the left since 1884

Permeating politics

The early Fabians soon earned a big reputation – even if it was not always an entirely positive one, as Phoebe Downing explains.


The Fabians form, in a theoretical respect, an exceedingly cloistered little world, deeply provincial, despite the fact that they live in London. Their philosophical inventions are necessary neither to the Conservatives nor to the Liberals. Even less are they necessary to the working class, for whom they provide nothing and explain nothing. These works in the final reckoning serve merely to explain to the Fabians themselves why Fabianism exists in the world. Along with theological literature this is possibly the most useless, and certainly the most boring, type of literary activity.
Leon Trotsky, The Fabian ‘Theory’ of Socialism (1925)

Any commentary on the early history of the Fabian Society has first to confront the perception that it is an interminably dull topic. In his 1925 essay, Leon Trotsky famously berated the ‘literary methods’ of the Fabians not just for betraying the socialist movement, but for being ‘boring’, ‘useless’ and irrelevant.

Trotsky was rehearsing a familiar characterisation. Similar portrayals of the jejune Fabian technocrat populate the writing of academics, notably Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, who defined a century of British political historiography. Indeed, cultural critic Richard Hoggart could in 1970 coin the colourful (if inelegant) phrase ‘doctrinaire, anti-imaginative Fabiansterile single vision’ to describe the ‘assured narrowness of some intellectuals’ because of the almost Dickensian stature of the Fabian bureaucrat.

A simple roll-call of early members is enough to start unpicking this Fabian stock character. Aside from the most famous early Fabians, such as Bernard Shaw and H G Wells, the early society boasted scores of professional writers, including Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland; novelists Emma Brooke, Grant Allen and Arnold Bennett; dramatists Harley Granville Barker, Alfred Orage and Ashley Dukes; translator Constance Garnett and her husband, critic Edward Garnett; writers and translators Aylmer and Louise Maude; and literary critic Holbrook Jackson, to name but a few.

But this short commentary does not seek to argue that the Fabians were professionally engaged in the arts. Rather, it is to highlight just how removed the popular figure of the Fabian technocrat is from the society’s earliest reputation, and to suggest a few reasons for how and why this caricature emerged.

From their first entrance into public life in 1884, the Fabians had to fight to establish who they were, what they stood for, and where they belonged relative to established political poles. London in the 1880s and 1890s was an international political haven. England’s liberal printing laws attracted political émigrés from around the world who flourished alongside British radicals, socialists, freethinkers, Liberals, Conservatives and everything in between. But the founding Fabians entered this vibrant scene from a weak position: they needed to find a voice and an audience in this highly contested intellectual and political field.

The Victorian and Edwardian periodical press is rich with articles by and about the Fabians as they first entered public life. With online periodical databases, we can for the first time systematically analyse this discourse to paint a clearer picture of who the Fabians were, how they presented themselves, and how their contemporaries responded – a necessary first step in questioning their eventual portrayal in subsequent scholarship.

Indeed, the early Fabians themselves wanted to know what was being said about them and by whom in the contemporary press. In 1893, the Fabian executive authorized a subscription to the print-media clipping agency, Romeike and Curtice, to find out just this. And the results are surprising.

The early Fabian Society was popularly regarded as a literary society, an image they cultivated themselves. Writing in the Fortnightly Review in 1891, for instance, Grant Allen advised readers that ‘the Fabians are mostly art-critics, designers, musicians, men of letters.’ Earlier, Sidney Webb had introduced the society through its intellectual and creative credentials:

“They are the intellectual Proletariat of England, composed of men like George Bernard Shaw, the fine musical critic, novelist, economist, and speaker; Graham Wallas, an Oxford graduate and political historian; Grant Allen, the disciple of Herbert Spencer, a biologist and a famous novelist; May Morris, the daughter of William Morris, himself a fine artist; and many others, poets and journalists, economists and historians…”

Another Fortnightly commentator wrote in 1908 that ‘a few young littérateurs founded the Fabian Society’ as a more ‘academic’ alternative to the socialist movement. And a 1909 Times piece claimed that while ‘11 Fabians are members of Parliament, and the society supports the Labour party… its real work lies outside of politics, and is carried on chiefly by the distribution of literature and lectures. It contains several well-known writers, and may almost be called a literary society.’

This characterisation was common before the 1920s, and explains why literary modernists including Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf targeted the ‘scrubbing and demolishing… elderly’ Fabian ‘experts’ in their own efforts to seize cultural authority in the 1890s and 1900s.

But this ‘literary’ image exposed the Fabians to attack from political commentators when they did intervene in organised politics. When in 1893 for instance Bernard Shaw called on English voters to abandon the Liberal party, one Liberal observer warned it was a ‘distressing’ signal that ‘the Fabians would come down from the clouds and enter the field of practical politics.’

The early Fabians at times struggled to communicate how they balanced their intellectual composition with practical engagement, partly because they rejected recognisable political ideology in favour of the as yet ill-defined notion of ‘Fabianism.’ Bernard Shaw described their unique modus operandi in an 1896 pamphlet:

[The Fabian Society] brings all the pressure and persuasion in its power to bear on existing forces, caring nothing by what name any party calls itself, or what principles, Socialist or other, it professes, but having regard solely to the tendency of its actions, supporting those which make for Socialism and Democracy, and opposing those which are reactionary.’

This quintessentially Fabian theory of action – ‘permeation’ – confused some contemporaries, and angered others. When the Fabians publicly claimed credit for the ‘unsectarian demands’ and ‘amendments’ in the London Education Act passed by Balfour’s Conservative government in 1902, for instance, it was roundly denounced as a gross act of ‘Tory Fabianism’ by the left and right alike.

Britain’s first Labour prime minister and one-time Fabian Ramsay MacDonald voiced a widely held view that this instance of ‘permeation’ illustrated the ‘futility of socialism as a practical political guide when propounded by the bureaucratic experts who lead the Fabian Society.’

And denying the Fabians were ‘socialist’ by any accepted definition, Conservative commentator John Beattie Crozier complained to Fortnightly readers in 1908 that ‘unless the Fabians and the ‘Intellectuals’ of the Socialist party are bent on confusing and confounding all possible categories and issues, they have no right to lend the weight of their prestige, their intellectual status, or their authority among the cultivated, to the name Socialism as a separate political party in the State.’

These few press clippings show the seeds of the eventual Fabian caricature. They were ‘useless,’ because they operated ‘outside practical politics’; ‘boring,’ because they chose ‘persuasion’ over revolution; and ‘bureaucratic,’ because they collaborated with any party to further their goals.

But the press did protest too much: the Fabians’ reputation emerged specifically because the founding members held significant political and cultural capital at the turn of the twentieth century.


Phoebe Downing

Phoebe Downing is currently a senior associate at Learning First, a global social policy research and consulting firm. She completed her DPhil on the early history of the Fabian Society at the University of Oxford in 2015.

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