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The History of the Fabian Society By Edward R. Pease Characters: 43316

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The Early Days: 1884-6

The use of the word Socialism-Approval of the Democratic Federation-Tract No. 1-The Fabian Motto-Bernard Shaw joins-His first Tract-The Industrial Remuneration Conference-Sidney Webb and Sydney Olivier become members-Mrs. Annie Besant-Shaw's second Tract-The Tory Gold controversy-"What Socialism Is"-The Fabian Conference of 1886-Sidney Webb's first contribution, "The Government Organisation of Unemployed Labour."

The Fabian Society was founded for the purpose of "reconstructing society," based on the competitive system, "in such manner as to secure the general welfare and happiness." It is worth noting that the word "Socialism" had not yet appeared in its records, and it is not until the sixth meeting, held on 21st March, 1884, that the word first appears in the minutes, as the title of a paper by Miss Caroline Haddon: "The Two Socialisms"; to which is appended a note in the handwriting of Sydney Olivier: "This paper is stated to have been devoted to a comparison between the Socialism of the Fabian Society and that of the S.D.F." The Society, in fact, began its career with that disregard of mere names which has always distinguished it. The resolutions already recorded, advocating the reconstruction of society on a non-competitive basis with the object of remedying the evils of poverty, embody the essence of Socialism, and our first publication, Tract No. 1, was so thorough-going a statement of Socialism that it has been kept in print ever since. But neither in Tract No. 1 nor in Tract No. 2 does the word Socialism occur, and it is not till Tract No. 3, published in June, 1885, that we find the words "the Fabian Society having in view the advance of Socialism in England." At this stage it is clear that the Society was socialist without recognising itself as part of a world-wide movement, and it was only subsequently that it adopted the word which alone adequately expressed its ideas.

At the second meeting, on 25th January, 1884, reports were presented on a lecture by Henry George and a Conference of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation); the rules were adopted, and Mr. J.G. Stapleton read a paper on "Social conditions in England with a view to social reconstruction or development." This was the first of the long series of Fabian fortnightly lectures which have been continued ever since. On February 29th, after a paper on the Democratic Federation, Mr. Bland moved: "That whilst not entirely agreeing with the statements and phrases used in the pamphlets of the Democratic Federation, and in the speeches of Mr. Hyndman, this Society considers that the Democratic Federation is doing good and useful work and is worthy of sympathy and support." This was carried nem. con. On March 7th a pamphlet committee was nominated, and on March 21st the Executive was reappointed. On April 4th the Pamphlet Committee reported, and 2000 copies of "Fabian Tract No. 1" were ordered to be printed.

This four-page leaflet has now remained in print for over thirty years, and there is no reason to suppose that the demand for it will soon cease. According to tradition, it was drafted by W.L. Phillips, a house-painter, at that time the only "genuine working man" in our ranks. He had been introduced to me by a Positivist friend, and was in his way a remarkable man, ready at any time to talk of his experiences of liberating slaves by the "Underground Railway" in the United States. He worked with us cordially for several years and then gradually dropped out. The original edition of "Why are the many poor?" differs very little from that now in circulation. It was revised some years later by Bernard Shaw, who cut down the rhetoric and sharpened the phraseology, but the substance has not been changed. It is remarkable as containing a sneer at Christianity, the only one to be found in the publications of the Society. Perhaps this was a rebound from excess of "subordination of material things to spiritual things" insisted on by the Fellowship of the New Life!

The tract had on its title page two mottoes, the second of which has played some part in the Society's history. They were produced, again according to tradition, by Frank Podmore, and, though printed as quotations, are not to be discovered in any history:-

"Wherefore it may not be gainsaid that the fruit of this man's long taking of counsel-and (by the many so deemed) untimeous delays-was the safe-holding for all men, his fellow-citizens, of the Common Weal."

"For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless."

It has been pointed out by Mr. H.G. Wells, and by others before him, that Fabius never did strike hard; and many have enquired when the right time for the Fabians to strike would come. In fact, we recognised at that time that we did not know what were the remedies for the evils of society as we saw them and that the right time for striking would not come until we knew where to strike. Taken together as the two mottoes were first printed, this meaning is obvious. The delay was to be for the purpose of "taking counsel."

Tract No. 1, excellent as it is, shows a sense of the evil, but gives no indication of the remedy. Its contents are commonplace, and in no sense characteristic of the Society. The men who were to make its reputation had not yet found it out, and at this stage our chief characteristic was a lack of self-confidence unusual amongst revolutionaries. We had with considerable courage set out to reconstruct society, and we frankly confessed that we did not know how to go about it.

The next meeting to which we need refer took place on May 16th. The minutes merely record that Mr. Rowland Estcourt read a paper on "The Figures of Mr. Mallock," but a pencil note in the well-known handwriting of Bernard Shaw has been subsequently added: "This meeting was made memorable by the first appearance of Bernard Shaw."

On September 5th Bernard Shaw was elected a member, and at the following meeting on September 19th his first contribution to the literature of the Society, Pamphlet No. 2, was read. The influence of his intellectual outlook was immediate, and already the era of "highest moral possibilities" seems remote. Tract No. 2 was never reprinted and the number of copies in existence outside public libraries is small: it is therefore worth reproducing in full.


17 Osnaburgh Street, Regent's Park

Fabian Tract No. 2


"For always in thine eyes, O liberty,

Shines that high light whereby the world is saved;

And though thou slay us, we will trust in thee."


George Standring, 8 & 9 Finsbury Street, E.C.



THE FABIANS are associated for spreading the following opinions held by them and discussing their practical consequences.

That under existing circumstances wealth cannot be enjoyed without dishonour or foregone without misery.

That it is the duty of each member of the State to provide for his or her wants by his or her own Labour.

That a life interest in the Land and Capital of the nation is the birthright of every individual born within its confines and that access to this birthright should not depend upon the will of any private person other than the person seeking it.

That the most striking result of our present system of farming out the national Land and Capital to private persons has been the division of Society into hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme and large dinners and no appetites at the other.

That the practice of entrusting the Land of the nation to private persons in the hope that they will make the best of it has been discredited by the consistency with which they have made the worst of it; and that Nationalisation of the Land in some form is a public duty.

That the pretensions of Capitalism to encourage Invention and to distribute its benefits in the fairest way attainable, have been discredited by the experience of the nineteenth century.

That, under the existing system of leaving the National Industry to organise itself Competition has the effect of rendering adulteration, dishonest dealing and inhumanity compulsory.

That since Competition amongst producers admittedly secures to the public the most satisfactory products, the State should compete with all its might in every department of production.

That such restraints upon Free Competition as the penalties for infringing the Postal monopoly, and the withdrawal of workhouse and prison labour from the markets, should be abolished.

That no branch of Industry should be carried on at a profit by the central administration.

That the Public Revenue should be levied by a direct Tax; and that the central administration should have no legal power to hold back for the replenishment of the Public Treasury any portion of the proceeds of Industries administered by them.

That the State should compete with private individuals-especially with parents-in providing happy homes for children, so that every child may have a refuge from the tyranny or neglect of its natural custodians.

That Men no longer need special political privileges to protect them against Women, and that the sexes should henceforth enjoy equal political rights.

That no individual should enjoy any Privilege in consideration of services rendered to the State by his or her parents or other relations.

That the State should secure a liberal education and an equal share in the National Industry to each of its units.

That the established Government has no more right to call itself the State than the smoke of London has to call itself the weather.

That we had rather face a Civil War than such another century of suffering as the present one has been.

It would be easy in the light of thirty years' experience to write at much length on these propositions. They are, of course, unqualified "Shaw." The minutes state that each was discussed and separately adopted. Three propositions, the nature of which is not recorded, were at a second meeting rejected, while the proposition on heredity was drafted and inserted by order of the meeting. I recollect demurring to the last proposition, and being assured by the author that it was all right since in fact no such alternative would ever be offered!

The persistency of Mr. Shaw's social philosophy is remarkable. His latest volume[10] deals with parents and children, the theme he touched on in 1884; his social ideal is still a birthright life interest in national wealth, and "an equal share in national industry," the latter a phrase more suggestive than lucid. On the other hand, he, like the rest of us, was then by no means clear as to the distinction between Anarchism and Socialism. The old Radical prejudice in favour of direct taxation, so that the State may never handle a penny not wrung from the reluctant and acutely conscious taxpayer, the doctrinaire objection to State monopolies, and the modern view that municipal enterprises had better be carried on at cost price, are somewhat inconsistently commingled with the advocacy of universal State competition in industry. It may further be noticed that we were as yet unconscious of the claims and aims of the working people. Our Manifesto covered a wide field, but it nowhere touches Co-operation or Trade Unionism, wages or hours of labour. We were still playing with abstractions, Land and Capital, Industry and Competition, the Individual and the State.

In connection with the first tracts another point may be mentioned. The Society has stuck to the format adopted in these early days, and with a few special exceptions all its publications have been issued in the same style, and with numbers running on consecutively. For all sorts of purposes the advantage of this continuity has been great.

* * *

On January 2nd, 1885, Bernard Shaw was elected to the Executive Committee, and about the same time references to the Industrial Remuneration Conference appear in the minutes. This remarkable gathering, made possible by a gift of £1000 from Mr. Miller of Edinburgh, was summoned to spend three days in discussing the question, "Has the increase of products of industry within the last hundred years tended most to the benefit of capitalists and employers or to that of the working classes, whether artisans, labourers or others? And in what relative proportions in any given period?"

The second day was devoted to "Remedies," and the third to the question, "Would the more general distribution of capital or land or the State management of capital or land promote or impair the production of wealth and the welfare of the community?" The Fabian Society appointed two delegates, J.G. Stapleton and Hubert Bland, but Bernard Shaw apparently took the place of the latter.

It met on January 28th, at the Prince's Hall, Piccadilly. Mr. Arthur J. Balfour read a paper in which he made an observation worth recording: "As will be readily believed, I am no Socialist, but to compare the work of such men as Mr. (Henry) George with that of such men, for instance, as Karl Marx, either in respect of its intellectual force, its consistency, its command of reasoning in general, or of economic reasoning in particular, seems to me absurd."

The Conference was the first occasion in which the Fabian Society emerged from its drawing-room obscurity, and the speech of Bernard Shaw on the third day was probably the first he delivered before an audience of more than local importance. One passage made an impression on his friends and probably on the public. "It was," he said, "the desire of the President that nothing should be said that might give pain to particular classes. He was about to refer to a modern class, the burglars, but if there was a burglar present he begged him to believe that he cast no reflection upon his profession, and that he was not unmindful of his great skill and enterprise: his risks-so much greater than those of the most speculative capitalist, extending as they did to risk of liberty and life-his abstinence; or finally of the great number of people to whom he gave employment, including criminal attorneys, policemen, turnkeys, builders of gaols, and it might be the hangman. He did not wish to hurt the feelings of shareholders ... or of landlords ... any more than he wished to pain burglars. He would merely point out that all three inflicted on the community an injury of precisely the same nature."[11]

It may be added that Mr. Shaw was patted on the back by a subsequent speaker, Mr. John Wilson, of the Durham Miners, for many years M.P. for Mid-Durham, and by no means an habitual supporter of Socialists.

The stout volume in which the proceedings are published is now but seldom referred to, but it is a somewhat significant record of the intellectual unrest of the period, an indication that the governing classes even at this early date in the history of English Socialism, were prepared to consider its claims, and to give its proposals a respectful hearing.

* * *

The early debates in the Society were in the main on things abstract or Utopian. Social Reconstruction was a constant theme, Hubert Bland outlined "Revolutionary Prospects" in January, 1885, and Bernard Shaw in February combated "The proposed Abolition of the Currency."

On March 6th a new departure began: a Committee was appointed to collect "facts concerning the working of the Poor Law," with special reference to alleged official attempts to disprove "great distress amongst the workers." It does not appear that the Report was ever completed.

On March 20th Sidney Webb read a paper on "The Way Out," and on the 1st May he was elected a member along with his Colonial Office colleague Sydney Olivier. On May 15th is recorded the election of Harold Cox, subsequently M.P., and now editor of the "Edinburgh Review."

The Society was now finding its feet. On April 17th it had been resolved to send a delegate "to examine into and report upon the South Yorkshire Miners"! And on the same day it was determined to get up a Soirée. This gathering, held in Gower Street, was memorable because it was attended by Mrs. Annie Besant, then notorious as an advocate of Atheism and Malthusianism, the heroine of several famous law cases, and a friend and colleague of Charles Bradlaugh. Mrs. Besant was elected a member a few weeks later, and she completed the list of the seven who subsequently wrote "Fabian Essays," with the exception of Graham Wallas, who did not join the Society until April, 1886.[12]

But although Sidney Webb had become a Fabian the scientific spirit was not yet predominant. Bernard Shaw had, then as now, a strong objection to the peasant agriculture of his native land, and he submitted to the Society a characteristic leaflet addressed: "To provident Landlords and Capitalists, a suggestion and a warning." "The Fabian Society," it says, "having in view the advance of Socialism and the threatened subversion of the powers hitherto exercised by private proprietors of the national land and capital ventures plainly to warn all such proprietors that the establishment of Socialism in England means nothing less than the compulsion of all members of the upper class, without regard to sex or condition, to work for their own living." The tract, which is a very brief one, goes on to recommend the proprietary classes to "support all undertakings having for their object the parcelling out of waste or inferior lands amongst the labouring class" for sundry plausible reasons. At the foot of the title page, in the smallest of type, is the following: "Note.-Great care should be taken to keep this tract out of the hands of radical workmen, Socialist demagogues and the like, as they are but too apt to conclude that schemes favourable to landlords cannot be permanently advantageous to the working class." This elaborate joke was, except for one amendment, adopted as drafted on June 5th, 1885, and there is a tradition that it was favourably reviewed by a Conservative newspaper!

The Society still met as a rule at 17 Osnaburgh Street, or in the rooms of Frank Podmore at 14 Dean's Yard, Westminster, but it was steadily growing and new members were elected at every meeting. Although most of the members were young men of university education, the Society included people of various ages. To us at any rate Mrs. James Hinton, widow of Dr. Hinton, and her sisters, Miss Haddon and Miss Caroline Haddon, seemed to be at least elderly. Mrs. Robins, her husband (a successful architect), and her daughter, who acted as "assistant" honorary secretary for the first eighteen months, lent an air of prosperous respectability to our earliest meetings. Mr. and Mrs. J. Glode Stapleton, who were prominent members for some years, were remarkable amongst us because they drove to our meetings in their own brougham! The working classes, as before mentioned, had but a single representative. Another prominent member at this period was Mrs. Charlotte M. Wilson, wife of a stock-broker living in Hampstead, who a short time later "simplified" into a cottage at the end of the Heath, called Wildwood Farm, now a part of the Garden Suburb Estate, where Fabians for many years held the most delightful of their social gatherings. Mrs. Wilson was elected to the Executive of five in December, 1884 (Mrs. Wilson, H. Bland, E.R. Pease, G. Bernard Shaw and F. Keddell), but after some time devoted herself entirely to the Anarchist movement, led by Prince Kropotkin, and for some years edited their paper, "Freedom." But she remained throughout a member of the Fabian Society, and twenty years later she resumed her Fabian activity, as will be related in a later chapter.

All this time the Socialist movement in England was coming into public notice with startling rapidity. In January, 1884, "Justice, the organ of the Democratic Federation," was founded, and in August of that year the Federation made the first of its many changes of name, and became the Social Democratic Federation or S.D.F. The public then believed, as the Socialists also necessarily believed, that Socialism would be so attractive to working-class electors that they would follow its banner as soon as it was raised, and the candidatures undertaken by the S.D.F. at the General Election in November, 1885, produced widespread alarm amongst politicians of both parties. The following account of this episode from Fabian Tract 41, "The Early History of the Fabian Society," was written by Bernard Shaw in 1892, and describes the events and our attitude at the time far more freshly and graphically than anything I can write nearly thirty years later.

After explaining why he preferred joining the Fabian Society rather than the S.D.F., Mr. Shaw goes on (pp. 4-7):-

"However, as I have said, in 1885 our differences [from other Socialists] were latent or instinctive; and we denounced the capitalists as thieves at the Industrial Remuneration Conference, and, among ourselves, talked revolution, anarchism, labour notes versus pass-books, and all the rest of it, on the tacit assumption that the object of our campaign, with its watchwords, 'EDUCATE, AGITATE, ORGANIZE,' was to bring about a tremendous smash-up of existing society, to be succeeded by complete Socialism. And this meant that we had no true practical understanding either of existing society or So

cialism. Without being quite definitely aware of this, we yet felt it to a certain extent all along; for it was at this period that we contracted the invaluable habit of freely laughing at ourselves which has always distinguished us, and which has saved us from becoming hampered by the gushing enthusiasts who mistake their own emotions for public movements. From the first, such people fled after one glance at us, declaring that we were not serious. Our preference for practical suggestions and criticisms, and our impatience of all general expressions of sympathy with working-class aspirations, not to mention our way of chaffing our opponents in preference to denouncing them as enemies of the human race, repelled from us some warm-hearted and eloquent Socialists, to whom it seemed callous and cynical to be even commonly self-possessed in the presence of the sufferings upon which Socialists make war. But there was far too much equality and personal intimacy among the Fabians to allow of any member presuming to get up and preach at the rest in the fashion which the working-classes still tolerate submissively from their leaders. We knew that a certain sort of oratory was useful for 'stoking up' public meetings; but we needed no stoking up, and, when any orator tried the process on us, soon made him understand that he was wasting his time and ours. I, for one, should be very sorry to lower the intellectual standard of the Fabian by making the atmosphere of its public discussions the least bit more congenial to stale declamation than it is at present. If our debates are to be kept wholesome, they cannot be too irreverent or too critical. And the irreverence, which has become traditional with us, comes down from those early days when we often talked such nonsense that we could not help laughing at ourselves.


"When I add that in 1885 we had only 40 members, you will be able to form a sufficient notion of the Fabian Society in its nonage. In that year there occurred an event which developed the latent differences between ourselves and the Social-Democratic Federation. The Federation said then, as it still says, that its policy is founded on a recognition of the existence of a Class War. How far the fact of the working classes being at war with the proprietary classes justifies them in suspending the observance of the ordinary social obligations in dealing with them was never settled; but at that time we were decidedly less scrupulous than we are now in our ideas on the subject; and we all said freely that as gunpowder destroyed the feudal system, so the capitalist system could not long survive the invention of dynamite. Not that we are dynamitards: indeed the absurdity of the inference shows how innocent we were of any practical acquaintance with explosives; but we thought that the statement about gunpowder and feudalism was historically true, and that it would do the capitalists good to remind them of it. Suddenly, however, the Federation made a very startling practical application of the Class War doctrine. They did not blow anybody up; but in the general election of 1885 they ran two candidates in London-Mr. Williams, in Hampstead, who got 27 votes, and Mr. Fielding, in Kennington, who got 32 votes. And they made no secret of the fact that the expenses of these elections had been paid by one of the established political parties in order to split the vote of the other. From the point of view of the abstract moralist there was nothing to be said against the transaction; since it was evident that Socialist statesmanship must for a long time to come consist largely of taking advantage of the party dissensions between the Unsocialists. It may easily happen to-morrow that the Liberal party may offer to contribute to the expenses of a Fabian candidate in a hopelessly Tory stronghold, in order to substantiate its pretensions to encourage Labour representation. Under such circumstances it is quite possible that we may say to the Fabian in question, Accept by all means; and deliver propagandist addresses all over the place. Suppose that the Liberal party offers to bear part of Mr. Sidney Webb's expenses at the forthcoming County Council election at Deptford, as they undoubtedly will, by means of the usual National Liberal Club subscription, in the case of the poorer Labour candidates. Mr. Webb, as a matter of personal preference for an independence which he is fortunately able to afford, will refuse. But suppose Mr. Webb were not in that fortunate position, as some Labour candidates will not be! It is quite certain that not the smallest odium would attach to the acceptance of a Liberal grant-in-aid. Now the idea that taking Tory money is worse than taking Liberal money is clearly a Liberal party idea and not a Social-Democratic one. In 1885 there was not the slightest excuse for regarding the Tory party as any more hostile to Socialism than the Liberal party; and Mr. Hyndman's classical quotation, 'Non olet'-'It does not smell,' meaning that there is no difference in the flavour of Tory and Whig gold once it comes into the Socialist treasury, was a sufficient retort to the accusations of moral corruption which were levelled at him. But the Tory money job, as it was called, was none the less a huge mistake in tactics. Before it took place, the Federation loomed large in the imagination of the public and the political parties. This is conclusively proved by the fact that the Tories thought that the Socialists could take enough votes from the Liberals to make it worth while to pay the expenses of two Socialist candidates in London. The day after the election everyone knew that the Socialists were an absolutely negligeable quantity there as far as voting power was concerned. They had presented the Tory party with 57 votes, at a cost of about £8 apiece. What was worse, they had shocked London Radicalism, to which Tory money was an utter abomination. It is hard to say which cut the more foolish figure, the Tories who had spent their money for nothing, or the Socialists who had sacrificed their reputation for worse than nothing.

"The disaster was so obvious that there was an immediate falling off from the Federation, on the one hand of the sane tacticians of the movement, and on the other of those out-and-out Insurrectionists who repudiated political action altogether, and were only too glad to be able to point to a discreditable instance of it. Two resolutions were passed, one by the Socialist League and the other by the Fabian Society. Here is the Fabian resolution:

"'That the conduct of the Council of the Social-Democratic Federation in accepting money from the Tory party in payment of the election expenses of Socialist candidates is calculated to disgrace the Socialist movement in England,'-4th Dec., 1885."

The result of this resolution, passed by 15 votes to 4, was the first of the very few splits which are recorded in the history of the Society. Frederick Keddell, the first honorary secretary, resigned and I took his place, whilst a few weeks later Sidney Webb was elected to the vacancy on the Executive.

In 1886 Socialism was prominently before the public. Unemployment reached a height which has never since been touched. Messrs. Hyndman, Champion, Burns, and Williams were actually tried for sedition, but happily acquitted; and public opinion was justified in regarding Socialism rather as destructive and disorderly than as constructive, and, as is now often said, even too favourable to repressive legislation. In these commotions the Society as a whole took no part, and its public activities were limited to a meeting at South Place Chapel, on December 18th, 1885, addressed by Mrs. Besant.

In March, 1886, the Executive Committee was increased to seven by the addition of Mrs. Besant and Frank Podmore, and in April Tract No. 4, "What Socialism Is," was approved for publication. It begins with a historical preface, touching on the Wars of the Roses, Tudor confiscation of land, the enclosure of commons, the Industrial Revolution, and so on. Surplus value and the tendency of wages to a minimum are mentioned, and the valuable work of Trade Unionism-sometimes regarded by Guild Socialists and others nowadays as a recent discovery-is alluded to: indeed the modern syndicalist doctrine was anticipated: the workman, it is said, "has been forced to sell himself for a mess of pottage and is consequently deprived of the guidance of his own life and the direction of his own labour." Socialist opinion abroad, it says, "has taken shape in two distinct schools, Collectivist and Anarchist. English Socialism is not yet Anarchist or Collectivist, not yet definite enough in point of policy to be classified. There is a mass of Socialist feeling not yet conscious of itself as Socialism. But when the conscious Socialists of England discover their position they also will probably fall into two parties: a Collectivist party supporting a strong central administration, and a counterbalancing Anarchist party defending individual initiative against that administration. In some such fashion progress and stability will probably be secured under Socialism by the conflict of the uneradicable Tory and Whig instincts in human nature."

It will be noticed that even in this period of turmoil the Society was altogether constitutional in its outlook; political parties of Socialists and Anarchists combining progress with stability were the features of the future we foresaw.

By this time the Society was thoroughly aware of its relation to international socialism, and the remaining six pages of the tract are occupied by expositions of the alternatives above alluded to. "Collectivism" is summarised from Bebel's "Woman in the Past, Present, and Future," and is a somewhat mechanical scheme of executive committees in each local commune or district representing each branch of industry, elected by universal suffrage for brief periods of office and paid at the rate of ordinary workmen; and of a central Executive Committee chosen in like manner or else directly appointed by the local Communal Councils. The second part consists of "Anarchism, drawn up by C.M. Wilson on behalf of the London Anarchists." This is a statement of abstract principles which frankly admits that "Anarchists have no fears that in discarding the Collectivist dream of the scientific regulation of industry and inventing no formulas for social conditions as yet unrealised, they are neglecting the essential for the visionary,"

This tract was never reprinted, and, of course, it attracted no attention. It was however the first of the long series of Fabian tracts that aimed at supplying information and thus carrying out the original object of the Society, the education of its members and the systematic study of the reconstruction of the social system.

The spring of 1886 was occupied with arrangements for the Conference, which was held at South Place Chapel on June 9th, 10th, and 11th.

Here again a quotation from Bernard Shaw's "Early History of the Fabian Society" is the best description available:-


"You will now ask to be told what the Fabians had been doing all this time. Well, I think it must be admitted that we were overlooked in the excitements of the unemployed agitation, which had, moreover, caused the Tory money affair to be forgotten. The Fabians were disgracefully backward in open-air speaking. Up to quite a recent date, Graham Wallas, myself, and Mrs. Besant were the only representative open-air speakers in the Society, whereas the Federation speakers, Burns, Hyndman, Andrew Hall, Tom Mann, Champion, Burrows, with the Socialist Leaguers, were at it constantly. On the whole, the Church Parades and the rest were not in our line; and we were not wanted by the men who were organizing them. Our only contribution to the agitation was a report which we printed in 1886, which recommended experiments in tobacco culture, and even hinted at compulsory military service, as means of absorbing some of the unskilled unemployed, but which went carefully into the practical conditions of relief works. Indeed, we are at present trying to produce a new tract on the subject without finding ourselves able to improve very materially on the old one in this respect. It was drawn up by Bland, Hughes, Podmore, Stapleton, and Webb, and was the first of our publications that contained any solid information. Its tone, however, was moderate and its style somewhat conventional; and the Society was still in so hot a temper on the social question that we refused to adopt it as a regular Fabian tract, and only issued it as a report printed for the information of members. Nevertheless we were coming to our senses rapidly by this time. We signalized our repudiation of political sectarianism in June, 1886, by inviting the Radicals, the Secularists, and anyone else who would come, to a great conference, modelled upon the Industrial Remuneration Conference, and dealing with the Nationalization of Land and Capital. It fully established the fact that we had nothing immediately practical to impart to the Radicals and that they had nothing to impart to us. The proceedings were fully reported for us; but we never had the courage even to read the shorthand writer's report, which still remains in MS. Before I refreshed my memory on the subject the other day, I had a vague notion that the Conference cost a great deal of money; that it did no good whatever; that Mr. Bradlaugh made a speech; that Mrs. Fenwick Miller, who had nothing on earth to do with us, was in the chair during part of the proceedings; and that the most successful paper was by a strange gentleman whom we had taken on trust as a Socialist, but who turned out to be an enthusiast on the subject of building more harbours. I find, however, on looking up the facts, that no less than fifty-three societies sent delegates; that the guarantee fund for expenses was £100; and that the discussions were kept going for three afternoons and three evenings. The Federation boycotted us; but the 'Times' reported us.[13] Eighteen papers were read, two of them by members of Parliament, and most of the rest by well-known people. William Morris and Dr. Aveling read papers as delegates from the Socialist League; the National Secular Society sent Mr. Foote and Mr. [John M.] Robertson,[14] the latter contributing a 'Scheme of Taxation' in which he anticipated much of what was subsequently adopted as the Fabian program; Wordsworth Donisthorpe took the field for Anarchism of the type advocated by the authors of 'A Plea for Liberty'; Stewart Headlam spoke for Christian Socialism and the Guild of St. Matthew; Dr. Pankhurst dealt with the situation from the earlier Radical point of view; and various Socialist papers were read by Mrs. Besant, Sidney Webb, and Edward Carpenter, besides one by Stuart Glennie, who subsequently left us because we fought shy of the Marriage Question when revising our 'Basis.' I mention all this in order to show you how much more important this abortive Conference looked than the present one. Yet all that can be said for it is that it made us known to the Radical clubs and proved that we were able to manage a conference in a businesslike way. It also, by the way, showed off our pretty prospectus with the design by Crane at the top, our stylish-looking blood-red invitation cards, and the other little smartnesses on which we then prided ourselves. We used to be plentifully sneered at as fops and arm-chair Socialists for our attention to these details; but I think it was by no means the least of our merits that we always, as far as our means permitted, tried to make our printed documents as handsome as possible, and did our best to destroy the association between revolutionary literature and slovenly printing on paper that is nasty without being cheap. One effect of this was that we were supposed to be much richer than we really were, because we generally got better value and a finer show for our money than the other Socialist societies."[15]

Three members of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh, William Saunders, and Dr. G.B. Clark, took part. The Dr. Pankhurst mentioned was the husband of Mrs. Pankhurst, later the leader of the Women's Social and Political Union.

The reference in the foregoing passage to the report on "The Government Organisation of Unemployed Labour," prepared concurrently with the organisation of the Conference, is by no means adequate. The Report attracted but little attention at the time, even in the Society itself, but it is in fact the first typically Fabian publication, and the first in which Sidney Webb took part. Much subsequent experience has convinced me that whenever Webb is on a committee it may be assumed in default of positive evidence to the contrary that its report is his work. Webb however maintains that to the best of his recollection the work was shared between Podmore and himself, the simple arrangement being that Podmore wrote the first half and Webb the second. The tract is an attempt to deal with a pressing social problem on constructive lines. It surveys the field, analyses the phenomena presented, and suggests practicable remedies. It is however a very cautious document. Webb was then old as an economist, and very young as a Socialist; none of the rest of the Committee had the knowledge, if they had the will, to stand up to him. Therefore we find snippets from the theory of economic "balance" which was universally regarded as valid in those days.

"In practice the government obtains its technical skill by attracting men from other employers, and its capital in a mobile form by attracting it from other possessors. It gets loans on the money market, which is thereby rendered more stringent; the rate of interest rises and the loans made to other borrowers are diminished,"

But the particular interest of the Report at the present day is the fact that it contains the germs of many ideas which more than twenty years later formed the leading features of the Minority Report of the Poor Law Commission.

At that time it was universally believed that the slum dwellers of London were mainly recruited by rural immigrants, and this error-disproved several years later by the painstaking statistical investigations of Mr. (now Sir) H. Llewelyn Smith-vitiates much of the reasoning of the Report.

After analysing the causes of unemployment on lines now familiar to all, and denouncing private charity with vehemence worthy of the Charity Organisation Society, it recommends the revival of social life in our villages in order to keep the country people from crowding into the slums. The Dock Companies are urged to organise their casual labour into permanently employed brigades: and it is suggested, as in the "Minority Report," that "the most really 'remunerative' form of 'relief' works for the unemployed would often be a course of instruction in some new trade or handicraft" Technical education is strongly recommended; Labour Bureaux are advocated; State cultivation of tobacco is suggested as a means of employing labour on the land (private cultivation of tobacco was until recently prohibited by law), as well as municipal drink supply, State railways, and "universal military (home) service" as a means of promoting "the growth of social consciousness,"

The Report is unequal. An eloquent but irrelevant passage on the social effects of bringing the railway contractor's navvies to a rural village was possibly contributed by Hubert Bland, whilst the conclusion, a magniloquent eulogy of the moral value of Government service, written, according to Webb's recollection, by Frank Podmore, is evidently the work of a civil servant who has not got over the untamed enthusiasms of youth!

The Report shows immature judgment, but also in parts remarkable foresight, and a complete realisation of the right scientific method. With State tobacco farms and the public organisation of a corps of peripatetic State navvies, the childhood stage of the Fabian Society may be said to conclude.

My own connection with the Society also changed. In the spring of 1886 I gave up my business on the Stock Exchange and in the summer went to Newcastle-on-Tyne, where I lived till the autumn of 1890. My account of the Society for the next three years is therefore in the main derived from its records. Sydney Olivier succeeded me as "Acting Secretary," but for some months I was still nominally the secretary, a fact of much significance to my future, since it enabled me if I liked to deal with correspondence, and it was through a letter to the secretary of the Society, answered by me from Newcastle, that I made the acquaintance of the lady who three years later became my wife.


[10] "Misalliance: with a treatise on parents and children," 1914.

[11] Industrial Remuneration Conference. The Report, etc. Cassell, 1885, p. 400.

[12] William Clarke had attended some early meetings but dropped out and was actually elected to the Society in February, 1886.

[13] Presumably a "Times" reporter was present; but his report was not published.

[14] Later M.P. for Tyneside and a member of Mr. Asquith's Government.

[15] Contemporary accounts of the conference can be found in the July numbers of "To-day" and "The Republican," the former by Mrs. Besant, and the latter, a descriptive criticism, by the Editor and Printer, George Standring.

* * *

From a photograph by Elliott and Fry, W.


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