Fabian Society

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The Fabian Society is a British socialist intellectual movement, whose purpose is to advance the socialist cause by gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning in the late 19th century and then up to World War I. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party during this period; subsequently, it affected the policies of newly independent British colonies, especially India, and is still in existence today, one of 15 socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party. Similar societies exist in Australia (the Australian Fabian Society), Canada (the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation and in past the League for Social Reconstruction), and New Zealand.

History

The society was founded on January 4, 1884 in London as an offshoot of a society founded in 1883 called The Fellowship of the New Life.[1]
Fellowship members included poets Edward Carpenter and John Davidson, sexologist Havelock Ellis, and future Fabian secretary, Edward R. Pease. They wanted to transform society by setting an example of clean simplified living for others to follow. But when some members also wanted to become politically involved to aid society's transformation, it was decided that a separate society, The Fabian Society, also be set up. All members were free to attend both societies.

The Fellowship of the New Life was dissolved in 1898[2], but the Fabian Society grew to become the preeminent intellectual society in the United Kingdom in the Edwardian era.

Immediately upon its inception, the Fabian Society began attracting many intellectuals drawn to its socialist cause, including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, Hubert Bland, Edith Nesbit, Sydney Olivier, Oliver Lodge, Leonard Woolf, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Even Bertrand Russell later became a member. The two members John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White were delegates at 1944's United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference.

At the core of the Fabian Society were Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Together, they wrote numerous studies of industrial Britain, alternative economics applied to capital as well as land. Their later admiration of the Soviet Union stemmed partly from Stalin's "efficiency" at acquiring this rent.

The group, which favoured gradual creeping change rather than revolutionary change, was named — at the suggestion of Frank Podmore — in honour of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus (nicknamed "Cunctator", meaning "the Delayer"). He advocated tactics involving harassment and attrition rather than head-on battles against the Carthaginian army under the renowned general Hannibal Barca.

The first Fabian Society pamphlets were written to lobby for a minimum wage in 1906, for the creation of the National Health Service in 1911, and for the abolition of hereditary peers in 1917 (Fabian Society).

Fabian socialists were critical of free trade and embraced protectionism in the interests of protecting the realm from foreign competition.

The Fabians also favored the nationalization of land, believing that rents collected by landowners were unearned, an idea which drew heavily from the work of American economist Henry George.

Many Fabians participated in the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, and the group's constitution, written by Sidney Webb, borrowed heavily from the founding documents of the Fabian Society. At the Labour Party Foundation Conference in 1900, the Fabian Society claimed 861 members and sent one delegate.

In the period between the two World Wars, the "Second Generation" Fabians, including the writers R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, and Harold Laski, continued to be a major influence on social-democratic thought.

It was at this time that many of the future leaders of the Third World were exposed to Fabian thought, most notably India's Jawaharlal Nehru, who subsequently framed economic policy for one-fifth of humanity on Fabian social-democratic lines. It is a little-known fact that the founder of Pakistan, Barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an avid member of the Fabian Society in the early 1930s. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, stated in his memoirs that his initial political philosophy was strongly influenced by the Fabian Society. However, he later altered his views, believing the Fabian ideal of socialism to be too impractical.

Legacy

Through the course of the 20th century the group has always been influential in Labour Party circles, with members including Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman, Tony Benn, Harold Wilson, and more recently Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The late Ben Pimlott served as its Chairman in the 1990s. (A Pimlott Prize for Political Writing was organized in his memory by the Fabian Society and The Guardian in 2005, and continues annually). The Society is affiliated to the Party as a socialist society. In recent years the Young Fabian group, founded in 1960, has become an important networking and discussion organisation for younger (under 31) Labour Party activists and played a role in the 1994 election of Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Following a period of inactivity, the Scottish Young Fabians were reformed in 2005.

The society's 2004 annual report showed that there were 5,810 individual members (down 70 from the previous year), of whom 1,010 were Young Fabians, and 294 institutional subscribers, of which 31 were Constituency Labour Parties, co-operative societies, or trade unions, 190 were libraries, 58 corporate, and 15 other—making 6,104 members in total. The society's net assets were £86,057, its total income £486,456, and its total expenditure £475,425. There was an overall surplus for the year of £1,031.

The latest edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (a reference work listing details of famous or significant Britons throughout history) includes 174 Fabians.

Four Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas, and George Bernard Shaw founded the London School of Economics with the money left to the Fabian Society by Henry Hutchinson. Supposedly the decision was made at a breakfast party on 4 August 1894. The founders are depicted in the Fabian Window [3] designed by George Bernard Shaw. The window was stolen in 1978 and reappeared at Sotheby's in 2005. It was restored to display in the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics in 2006 at a ceremony over which Tony Blair presided.[4]

Young Fabians

Members aged under 31 years of age are also members of the Young Fabians. This group has its own elected Chair and executive and organizes conferences and events. It also publishes the quarterly magazine Anticipations. The Scottish Young Fabians, a Scottish branch of the group, reformed in 2005.

Influence on Labour government

Since Labour came to office in 1997, the Fabian Society has been a forum for New Labour ideas and for critical approaches from across the party. The most significant Fabian contribution to Labour's policy agenda in government was Ed Balls' 1992 pamphlet, advocating Bank of England independence. Balls had been a Financial Times journalist when he wrote this Fabian pamphlet, before going to work for Gordon Brown. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston, in his book Brown's Britain, calls this an ‘essential tract’ and concludes that Balls ‘deserves as much credit – probably more – than anyone else for the creation of the modern Bank of England'; [quoted here; http://www.afsp.msh-paris.fr/archives/congreslyon2005/communications/tr4/wickham.pdf] Wlliam Keegan offers a similar analysis of Balls' Fabian pamphlet in his book on Labour's economic policy [3], which traces in detail the path leading up to this dramatic policy change after Labour's first week in office.

The Fabian Society Tax Commission of 2000 was widely credited [4] with influencing the Labour government's policy and political strategy for its one significant public tax increase: the National Insurance rise to raise £8 billion for NHS spending. (The Fabian Commission had in fact called for a directly hypothecated 'NHS tax' [5] to cover the full cost of NHS spending, arguing that linking taxation more directly to spending was essential to make tax rise publicly acceptable. The 2001 National Insurance rise was not formally hypothecated, but the government committed itself to using the additional funds for health spending). Several other recommendations, including a new top rate of income tax, were to the left of government policy and not accepted, though this comprehensive review of UK taxation was influential in economic policy and political circles [6]

References

  1. Pease, Edward (1916). A History of the Fabian Society. New York: E.P. DUTTON & COMPANY. 
  2. Pease,1916
  3. Press release, "A piece of Fabian history unveiled at LSE," London School of Economics & Political Science Archives [1] Last accessed 23 February 2007
  4. Andrew Walker, "Wit, wisdom and windows", BBC News [2] Last accessed 23 February 2007

External links

References