Fabian Society Is Founded

Founded as a British socialist society, the Fabian Society became the most influential voice and meeting place of socialists in late nineteenth century Britain. During the early twentieth century, it evolved into the Labour Party, becoming a major force in British politics.

Summary of Event

During the late nineteenth century, British socialism consisted of an aggregation of different theories and political positions with no guiding force or program. In January, 1884, a group of social thinkers and activists led by Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and Graham Wallas set out to rectify this lack of focus among British radicals by articulating a coherent vision of political practice and reform. The group called itself the Fabian Society, and the vision of its members would later be adopted by the Labour Party and successive Labour governments. Fabian Society
Socialism;Fabian Society
Great Britain;socialism
Webb, Beatrice
Webb, Sidney
[kw]Fabian Society Is Founded (Jan., 1884)
[kw]Society Is Founded, Fabian (Jan., 1884)
[kw]Founded, Fabian Society Is (Jan., 1884)
Fabian Society
Socialism;Fabian Society
Great Britain;socialism
Webb, Beatrice
Webb, Sidney
[g]Great Britain;Jan., 1884: Fabian Society Is Founded[5370]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan., 1884: Fabian Society Is Founded[5370]
[c]Government and politics;Jan., 1884: Fabian Society Is Founded[5370]
[c]Social issues and reform;Jan., 1884: Fabian Society Is Founded[5370]
Shaw, George Bernard
[p]Shaw, George Bernard;and Fabian Society[Fabian Society]
Wallas, Graham
Wells, H. G.

The members of the Fabian Society were influential both as writers and as organizers. The society attracted the greatest thinkers and authors of the day, such as H. G. Wells, Wells, H. G. and by 1889, when it published Fabian Essays in Socialism, it won its place as Great Britain’s leading socialist organization. Fabian summer schools educated the younger members and nonmembers alike, so writers such as Rebecca West carried the Fabian message into such other radical journals as The Freewoman and The Clarion.

The Fabians opposed the status quo and the policies of the Conservative and Liberal governments that dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fabians also opposed revolution, however, and they repudiated the idea of class struggle that informed Karl Marx’s model, arguing that the gradual permeation of their ideas into British institutions would bring about the natural evolution and dominance of socialism. At first, the Fabians took little notice of trade unionism, but their attitudes changed when Beatrice Potter married Sidney Webb and became one of the central forces in the Fabian movement. Through her efforts, the society established working-class connections that developed into the Labour Representation Committee (1900), the precursor of the Labour Party. Labour Party (Great Britain)

Under Sidney Webb’s leadership, the Fabians argued against the expropriation of property and for progressive taxation, the means by which the state would be able to institute social, economic, and political reforms. Elected to the London County Council in 1892 and a founder of the London School of Economics in 1895, Webb put his ideas into practice, pointing out that socialism would triumph on both the local and national levels if its adherents sought both to articulate socialist policies and to attain political offices in which they could implement socialism.

Beatrice Webb acquired experience as a rent collector, investigated dock labor, and testified before Parliament about the poor conditions of the working class. She spoke for socialism with a religious fervor and used her private income to support several research projects, resulting in books such as The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897). These books attacked the liberal, nineteenth century idea of individual contracts between employer and employee. Modern mass society could no longer function on the basis of such agreements, the Webbs argued, because the individual laborer lacked the power to negotiate a decent wage with huge industries. Consequently, they said, labor unions must develop comprehensive demands for a system that ensured the health, education, and economic well-being of workers and all other members of the public.

Through his plays and essays, George Bernard Shaw Shaw, George Bernard
[p]Shaw, George Bernard;and Fabian Society[Fabian Society] furthered the Fabian program. In Major Barbara (pr. 1905, pb. 1907), for example, he ridiculed the futility of organizations such as the Salvation Army, which depended on public charity to help the indigent and homeless. The piety of such organizations sentimentalized the poor but did nothing to change the structure of society that rendered them impoverished in the first place. The capitalists in Shaw’s plays are often the most dynamic and fascinating characters, because, like the Webbs, he saw in them the power to change society, and he believed there was a way to harness that power to the socialist cause.

The Webbs practiced the equivalent of Shaw’s romance with the capitalists by establishing a kind of salon to which they invited Liberals and Conservatives in power to come to discuss the Fabian program for social reform. H. G. Wells criticized the Webbs, Shaw, and other Fabians for indulging in what he regarded as a too cozy intrigue with the establishment. Wells then tried to take over the society, planning to broaden its membership, but he was ostracized as an interloper and adventurer.

Although there is no doubt that the Webbs exerted significant influence on the establishment, Wells’s points were well taken. Despite their role in its formation, the Webbs and other Fabians were very slow to take the emerging Labour Party Labour Party (Great Britain) seriously. In this respect, the Webbs narrowed the scope of socialism. Even worse, they would become apologists in the 1930’s for the Soviet brand of socialism. If they did not approve of revolution, they nevertheless lauded Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph and apparently blinded themselves to his tyranny, so intent were they in finding a society that they believed had established the modern welfare state. Shaw Shaw, George Bernard
[p]Shaw, George Bernard;and Fabian Society[Fabian Society] joined them in this pro-Soviet line, willfully ignoring the evidence of Stalin’s mass murders and coercive government.

Indeed, the Webbs and many of the other Fabians were a curious and not always salutary combination of pragmatic and idealistic qualities. They were formidable researchers and could submit social conditions to penetrating analysis, but they could easily blind themselves to the implications of their ideas and the consequences of a socialism unchecked by democratic values and a respect for human rights. The Fabians formed their own elite aimed at changing society for the better, and yet as an elite they removed themselves from many of the realities of the socialism they advocated.


The vigor of Fabian socialism persisted throughout the early twentieth century, as evidenced by the founding in 1913 of The New Statesman, which became a central organ for socialist thinkers and activists. The founding of the magazine coincided with the Webbs’ disillusionment with the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) and their move to support Labour instead. By 1916, Sidney Webb was a member of the Labour Party executive committee, and he assisted in the formulation of its policies throughout the post-World War I period.

By the mid-1930’s, the Webbs and their fellow Fabians had been thoroughly absorbed by the Labour Party. The Webbs, close to the end of their work, were regarded more as sacred monuments than as vital influences. Their fawning comments about the Soviet Union seriously damaged their reputation, leading to speculation that their support of Soviet-style socialism revealed an excessive fondness for bureaucracy. However, their pro-Soviet line was adopted by many Fabians and Labour Party Labour Party (Great Britain) activists, who believed that capitalism was crumbling and that a workers’ state was in the offing. This wishful thinking—a corruption of the turn-of-the-century Fabian position that rejected Marxism—resulted, as Rebecca West predicted in 1924, in the degradation both of socialism and of the Labour Party.

West, never a member of the Fabians, was a product of its summer schools and a believer in the original Fabian idea that socialism should be an indigenous British program, working for the gradual transformation of society at the grass-roots level, starting with local government and building toward a national movement. She believed that by the 1920’s and the advent of the first Labour government, the Fabians had taken a wrong turn, relying increasingly on a centralized state and a top-heavy bureaucracy to enforce social, political, and economic change.

Further Reading

  • Cole, G. D. H. Fabian Socialism. London: Frank Cass, 1943. An account of one of the early Fabians, with chapters on persons and politics, socialism, the Fabian program for industry, the society’s view of equality, foreign affairs, and democracy.
  • Cole, Margaret. The Story of Fabian Socialism. London: Heinemann, 1961. An extensive history by one of the society’s important members, covering Fabian policies and personalities, the conflict with H. G. Wells, and the organization’s impact on society and on political parties. Includes an index of persons.
  • Freemantle, Anne.’This Little Band of Prophets’: The Story of the Gentle Fabians. London: Allen & Unwin, 1960. A concise narrative history with photographs of the principal Fabian leaders.
  • Jeffreys, Kevin, ed. Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Contains biographies of every leader of the Labour Party, beginning from its founding under the influence of the Fabian Society.
  • Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne Mackenzie. The Fabians. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. The most comprehensive and scholarly history of the society. Extensive notes.
  • Nord, Deborah Epstein. The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. A careful study of Beatrice Webb’s ideas and of her writing. Includes a detailed chronology and notes.
  • Pease, Edward R. The History of the Fabian Society. London: Frank Cass, 1963. A reprint of the 1918 edition. A firsthand account by one of the founders of the society. See especially the first chapter on the ideas of the 1880’s that influenced the early Fabians.
  • Vernon, Betty D. Margaret Cole, 1893-1980: A Political Biography. Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm, 1986. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the Fabian Society and the relationships between the Coles and the Webbs. Includes biographical notes and select bibliography.

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Socialism;Fabian Society
Great Britain;socialism
Webb, Beatrice
Webb, Sidney