The Fabian Society

Economist and historian Sidney Webb coined the phrase “the inevitability of gradualness” to describe the Fabian Society's approach to socialism. Founded in 1884, the Fabian Society believed that the transformation of British society from capitalism to socialism could be best achieved through what Sidney Webb described as “permeation of the nation's intellectual and political life.” Although they agreed with Marx that this transformation was inevitable, they disagreed about the process. The Fabians believed that the transformation of society would be gradual and experimental, the result of parliamentary reforms rather than revolution.

Fact

The Fabian Society took its name from Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Cuncator, who earned the nickname “Fabius the Delayer” during the Punic wars, when his tactics of avoiding pitched battles allowed him to wear down, and ultimately defeat, the stronger Carthaginian forces.

The ultimate goal for society, outlined by Beatrice Webb in the Minority Report to the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws (1909), was a democratically elected, centralized socialist state which would guarantee its citizens a “national minimum standard of civilized life.” The Fabians envisioned the establishment of public enterprises at the local, regional, and state level, which would be financed by taxes on rent, as defined by David Ricardo.

Since these public enterprises would be funded through taxes, they would not be burdened with some of the expenses common to private enterprises and could therefore offer better wages and working conditions. The Fabians also proposed that public utilities, common carriers, and businesses that were already under the control of private monopolies should be nationalized.

For the most part, the Fabians were middle-class intellectuals, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and playwright George Bernard Shaw. The society's membership was never large: only 8,400 at its height in 1946.

Fact

The London School of Economics and Political Studies was founded in 1895 by the Fabian Society for the purpose of creating a better society through the study of poverty issues. In the early twentieth century, the school became a training ground for third-world leaders.

The main activities of the society were intended to educate the public about socialist issues. The Fabians sponsored public lectures, discussion groups, and summer schools. They carried out research into political, economic, and social problems, producing studies that moved the discussion of economic and social problems from abstract ideology to facts. Lots and lots of facts. They published a flood of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. Even Shaw's enormously popular plays were at some level socialist tracts.

Rather than founding a political party, the Fabians preferred to influence existing parties. In 1900, the Fabians helped organize the Labour Representative Committee, which became the Labour Party in 1906.

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