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The History of the Fabian Society By Edward R. Pease Characters: 26264

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

"Fabian Essays" and the Lancashire Campaign: 1890-3

"Fabian Essays" published-Astonishing success-A new presentation of Socialism-Reviewed after twenty-five years-Henry Hutchinson-The Lancashire Campaign-Mrs. Besant withdraws-"Fabian News."

Volumes of essays by various writers seldom have any durable place in the history of thought because as a rule they do not present a connected body of ideas, but merely the opinions of a number of people who start from incompatible premises and arrive at inconsistent conclusions. A book, to be effective, must maintain a thesis, or at any rate must be a closely integrated series of propositions, and, as a rule, thinkers strong enough to move the world are too independent to pull together in a team.

"Fabian Essays," the work of seven writers, all of them far above the average in ability, some of them possessing individuality now recognised as exceptional, is a book and not a collection of essays. This resulted from two causes. The writers had for years known each other intimately and shared each other's thoughts; they had hammered out together the policy which they announced; and they had moulded each other's opinions before they began to write. Secondly the book was planned in advance. Its scheme was arranged as a whole, and then the parts were allotted to each author, with an agreement as to the ground to be covered and the method to be adopted, in view of the harmonious whole which the authors had designed. It is not often that circumstances permit of a result so happy. "Fabian Essays" does not cover the whole field of Fabian doctrine, and in later years schemes were often set on foot for a second volume dealing with the application of the principles propounded in the first. But these schemes never even began to be successful. With the passage of time the seven essayists had drifted apart. Each was working at the lines of thought most congenial to himself; they were no longer young and unknown men; some of the seven were no longer available. Anyway, no second series of Essays ever approached completion.

Bernard Shaw was the editor, and those who have worked with him know that he does not take lightly his editorial duties. He corrects his own writings elaborately and repeatedly, and he does as much for everything which comes into his care. The high literary level maintained by the Fabian tracts is largely the result of constant scrutiny and amendment, chiefly by Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw, although the tract so corrected may be published as the work of some other member.

Although therefore all the authors of "Fabian Essays" were competent, and some of them practised writers, it may be assumed that every phrase was considered, and every word weighed, by the editor before the book went to press.[24]

A circular inviting subscriptions for the book was sent out in the spring, and three hundred copies were subscribed in advance. Arrangements with a publisher fortunately broke down because he declined to have the book printed at a "fair house," and as Mrs. Besant was familiar with publishing-she then controlled, or perhaps was, the Freethought Publishing Company, of 63 Fleet Street-the Committee resolved on the bold course of printing and publishing the book themselves. A frontispiece was designed by Walter Crane, a cover by Miss May Morris, and just before Christmas, 1889, the book was issued to subscribers and to the public.

None of us at that time was sufficiently experienced in the business of authorship to appreciate the astonishing success of the venture. In a month the whole edition of 1000 copies was exhausted. With the exception of Mrs. Besant, whose fame was still equivocal, not one of the authors had published any book of importance, held any public office, or was known to the public beyond the circles of London political agitators. The Society they controlled numbered only about 150 members. The subject of their volume was far less understood by the public than is Syndicalism at the present day. And yet a six-shilling book, published at a private dwelling-house and not advertised in the press, or taken round by travellers to the trade, sold almost as rapidly as if the authors had been Cabinet Ministers.

A second edition of 1000 copies was issued in March, 1890: in September Mr. Walter Scott undertook the agency of a new shilling paper edition, 5000 of which were sold before publication and some 20,000 more within a year. In 1908 a sixpenny paper edition with a new preface by the editor was issued by Walter Scott, of which 10,000 were disposed of in a few months, and in all some 46,000 copies of the book have been sold in English editions alone. It is difficult to trace the number of foreign editions and translations. The authors made over to the Society all their rights in the volume, and permission for translation and for publication in the United States has always been freely given. In that country we can trace an edition in 1894, published by Charles E. Brown of Boston, with an Introduction by Edward Bellamy and a Preface of some length on the Fabian Society and its work by William Clarke: and another edition in 1909, published by the Ball Publishing Company of Boston, also with the Introduction on the Fabian Society. A Dutch translation by F.M. Wibaut was published in 1891; in 1806 the Essays, translated into Norwegian by Francis Wolff, appeared as a series of small books; and in 1897 a German translation by Dora Lande was issued by G.H. Wigand of Leipzig.

The effect of "Fabian Essays" arose as much from what it left out as from what it contained. Only the fast-dwindling band of pioneer Socialists, who lived through the movement in its earliest days, can fully realise the environment of ideas from which "Fabian Essays" showed a way of escape.

The Socialism of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, the two societies which had hitherto represented Socialism to the general public, was altogether revolutionary. Socialism was to be the result of an outbreak of violence, engineered by a great popular organisation like that of the Chartists or the Anti-Corn Law League, and the Commune of Paris in 1871 was regarded as a premature attempt which pointed the way to future success. The Socialist Government thus established was to reconstruct the social and industrial life of the nation according to a plan supposed to be outlined by Karl Marx. "On the morrow of the revolution" all things would be new, and at a bound the nation was expected to reach something very like the millennium.

The case for this project was based, strange to say, not on any history but on the Marxian analysis of the origin of the value of commodities, and no man who did not understand this analysis, or pretend to understand it, was fit to be called a "comrade." The economic reasoning which "proved" this "law" was expressed in obscure and technical language peculiar to the propagandists of the movement, and every page of Socialist writings was studded with the then strange words "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie."

Lastly, the whole world, outside the socialist movement, was regarded as in a conspiracy of repression. Liberals (all capitalists), Tories (all landlords), the Churches (all hypocrites), the rich (all idlers), and the organised workers (all sycophants) were treated as if they fully understood and admitted the claims of the Socialists, and were determined for their own selfish ends to reject them at all costs.

Although the Fabian propaganda had no doubt had some effect, especially amongst the working-class Radicals of London, and although some of the Socialist writers and speakers, such as William Morris, did not at all times present to the public the picture of Socialism just outlined, it will not be denied by anybody whose recollections reach back to this period that Socialism up to 1890 was generally regarded as insurrectionary, dogmatic, Utopian, and almost incomprehensible.

"Fabian Essays" presented the case for Socialism in plain language which everybody could understand. It based Socialism, not on the speculations of a German philosopher, but on the obvious evolution of society as we see it around us. It accepted economic science as taught by the accredited British professors; it built up the edifice of Socialism on the foundations of our existing political and social institutions: it proved that Socialism was but the next step in the development of society, rendered inevitable by the changes which followed from the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.

It is interesting after twenty-five years to re-read these essays and to observe how far the ideas that inspired them are still valid, and how far the prophecies made have been fulfilled.

Bernard Shaw contributed the first Essay on "The Economic Basis of Socialism," and also a second, a paper read to the British Association in September, 1888, on the "Transition to Social Democracy." His characteristic style retains its charm, although the abstract and purely deductive economic analysis on which he relied no longer commends itself to the modern school of thought. Sidney Webb's "Historic Basis" is as readable as ever, except where he quotes at length political programmes long forgotten, and recounts the achievements of municipal socialism with which we are all now familiar.

William Clarke in explaining the "Industrial Basis" assumed that the industry would be rapidly dominated by trusts-then a new phenomenon-with results, the crushing out of all other forms of industrial organisation, which are but little more evident to-day, though we should no longer think worthy of record that the Standard Oil Company declared a 10 per cent cash dividend in 1887!

If the Essays had been written in 1890 instead of 1888 the authors would have acquired from the great Trade Union upheaval of 1889 a fuller appreciation of the importance of Trade Unionism than they possessed at the earlier date. Working-class organisation has never been so prominent in London as in the industrial counties, and the captious comments on the great Co-operative movement show that the authors of the Essays were still youthful, and in some matters ignorant.[25]

Sydney Olivier's "Moral Basis" is, in parts, as obscure now as it was at first, and there are pages which can have conveyed but little to most of its innumerable readers. Graham Wallas treated of "Property" with moderation rather than knowledge. Time has dealt hardly with Mrs. Besant's contribution. She anticipated, as the other Essayists did, that unemployment caused by labour-saving machinery would constantly increase; and that State organisation of industries for the unemployed would gradually supersede private enterprise. She apparently supposed that the county councils all over England, then newly created, were similar in character to the London County Council, which had already inaugurated the Progressive policy destined in the next few years to do much for the advancement of practical socialism. The final paper on "The Outlook," by Hubert Bland, is necessarily of the nature of prophecy, and in view of the difficulty of this art his attempt is perhaps less unsuccessful than might have been expected. He could foresee the advent neither of the Labour Party, mainly formed of Trade Unionists, nor of Mr. Lloyd George and the policy he represents: he assumed that the rich would grow richer and the poor poorer; that Liberals would unite with Tories, as they have done in Australia, and would be confronted with a Socialist Party representing the dispossessed. Possibly the developments he sketches are still to come, but that is a matter which cannot be discussed here.

* * *

I can find no trace in the records of the Society that the first success of their publication occasioned any elation to the Essayists, and I cannot recollect any signs of it at the time. The Annual Report mentions that a substantial profit was realised on the first edition, and states that the authors had made over the copyright, "valued at about £200," to the Society; but these details are included in a paragraph headed "Publications," and the Essays are not mentioned in the general sketch of the work of the year.

In fact the obvious results of the publication took some months to materialise, and the number of candidates for election to the Society showed little increase during the spring. It is true that great changes were made in the organisation of the Society at the Annual Meeting held on March 28th, 1890, but these were in part due to other causes. The Executive Committee was enlarged to fifteen, and as I happened to be available I was appointed paid secretary, half time, at the modest salary of £1 a week for the first year. The newly elected Executive included the seven Essayists, Robert E. Dell, now Paris correspondent for several journals, W.S. De Mattos, for many years afterwards an indefatigable organiser for the Society, and now settled in British Columbia, the Rev. Stewart D. Headlam, Mrs. L.T. Mallet, then a prominent member

of the Women's Liberal Association, J.F. Oakeshott, of the Fellowship of the New Life, and myself.

The lectures of the early months of 1890 were a somewhat brilliant series. Sidney Webb on the Eight Hours Bill; James Rowlands, M.P., on the then favourite Liberal nostrum of Leasehold Enfranchisement (which the Essayists demolished in a crushing debate); Dr. Bernard Bosanquet on "The Antithesis between Individualism and Socialism Philosophically Considered"; Mrs. Besant on "Socialism and the School Board Policy"; Mr. (now Sir) H. Llewellyn Smith on "The Causes and Effects of Immigration from Country to Town," in which he disproved the then universal opinion that the unemployed of East London were immigrants from rural districts; Sydney Olivier on "Zola"; William Morris on "Gothic Architecture" (replacing a lecture on Morris himself by Ernest Radford, who was absent through illness); Sergius Stepniak on "Tolstoi, Tchernytchevsky, and the Russian School"; Hubert Bland on "Socialist Novels"; and finally on July 18th Bernard Shaw on "Ibsen." This last may perhaps be regarded as the high-water mark in Fabian lectures. The minutes, which rarely stray beyond bare facts, record that "the paper was a long one," nearer two hours than one, if my memory is accurate, and add: "The meeting was a very large one and the lecture was well received." In fact the lecture was the bulk of the volume "The Quintessence of Ibsenism," which some regard as the finest of Bernard Shaw's works, and it is perhaps unnecessary to say that the effect on the packed audience was overwhelming. It was "briefly discussed" by a number of speakers, but they seemed as out of place as a debate after an oratorio.

* * *

On June 16th Henry H. Hutchinson of Derby was elected a member, an event of much greater importance than at the time appeared. Mr. Hutchinson had been clerk to the Justices of Derby, and when we first knew him had retired, and was with his wife living a somewhat wandering life accompanied by a daughter, who also joined the Society a few months later. He was not rich, but he was generous, and on July 29th it is recorded in the minutes of the Executive that he had offered us £100 or £200, and approved the suggestion that it should be chiefly used for lectures in country centres.

A fortnight later the "Lancashire campaign" was planned. It was thoroughly organised. An advanced agent was sent down, and abstracts of lectures were prepared and printed to facilitate accurate reports in the press. Complete lists of the forthcoming lectures-dates, places, subjects, and lecturers-were printed. All the Essayists except Olivier took part, and in addition Robert E. Dell, W.S. De Mattos, and the Rev. Stewart Headlam. An account of the Society written by Bernard Shaw was reprinted from the "Scottish Leader" for September 4th, 1890, for the use of the audience and the Press.

A "Report" of the campaign was issued on November 4th, which says:-

"The campaign began on September 20th and ended on October 27th, when about sixty lectures in all had been delivered ... not only in Lancashire, at Manchester, Liverpool, Rochdale, Oldham, Preston, Salford, and the district round Manchester, but also at Barnsley, Kendal, Carlisle, Sheffield, and Hebden Bridge.

"In thus making our first attack upon the stronghold of the old Unionism and the new Toryism, we would have been contented with a very small measure of success, and we are much more than contented with the results obtained. The lectures, except for a few days during the contest at Eccles, were extremely well reported, and even the 'Manchester Guardian' (the 'Daily News' of the manufacturing districts) came out with an approving leader. The audiences throughout the campaign steadily increased and followed the lectures with close and intelligent attention. In particular the members of Liberal working men's clubs constantly declared that they had never heard 'the thing put so straight' before, and complained that the ordinary party lecturers were afraid or unwilling to speak out. Men who frankly confessed that they had hesitated before voting for the admission of our lecturers to their clubs were enthusiastic in welcoming our message as soon as they heard it. The vigorous propaganda in the manufacturing districts of the S.D.F. branches has been chiefly carried on by means of outdoor meetings. Its effect upon working-class opinion, especially among unskilled labourers, has been marked and important, but it has entirely failed to reach the working-men politicians who form the rank and file of the Liberal Associations and Clubs, or the 'well-dressed' Liberals who vaguely desire social reform, but have been encouraged by their leaders to avoid all exact thought on the subject."

* * *

The lectures were given chiefly in sets of four in consecutive weeks, mostly at Liberal and Radical Clubs: others were arranged by Co-operative Societies, and by branches of the S.D.F. and the Socialist League. The subjects were "Socialism," "Where Liberalism Fails," "Co-operation and Labour," "The Future of Women," "The Eight Hours Bill," "The Politics of Labour," and so on. Those arranged by Co-operative Societies were, we are told, the least successful, but it is hoped "that they will bring about a better feeling between Socialists and Co-operators," a state of things which on the side of the Socialists was, as we have previously indicated, badly wanted. It should be noted that much of the success of the campaign was due to friendly assistance from the head-quarters of the Co-operative Union and the National Reform Union.

There is no doubt that this campaign with the series of lectures on the same lines which were continued for several years was an event of some importance, not only in the history of the Fabian Society but also in English politics. Hitherto the Socialism presented to the industrial districts of England, which are the backbone of Trade Unionism and Co-operation, to the men who are meant when we speak of the power and independence of the working classes, was revolutionary and destructive, ill-tempered and ungenerous. It had perhaps alarmed, but it had failed to attract them. It had made no real impression on the opinion of the people. From this point a new movement began. It first took the form of local Fabian Societies. They were succeeded by and merged into branches of the Independent Labour Party, which adopted everything Fabian except its peculiar political tactics. A few years later the Labour Party followed, more than Fabian in its toleration in the matter of opinions, and virtually, though not formally, Fabian in its political policy. No doubt something of the sort would have happened had there never been a Lancashire campaign, but this campaign may be fairly described as the first step in an evolution, the end of which is not yet in sight.

* * *

Her lectures in the Lancashire campaign and the formation of the branches were Mrs. Besant's last contributions to the Socialist movement. Early in November she suddenly and completely severed her connection with the Society. She had become a convert to Theosophy, which at that time accepted the Buddhist doctrine that spiritual conditions alone mattered, and that spiritual life would flourish as well in the slum amidst dirt and starvation as in the comfortable cottage, and much better than in the luxurious mansion. Twentieth-century theosophy has receded from that position, and now advocates social amelioration, but Mrs. Besant thought otherwise in 1890. Some twenty years later she lectured on several occasions to the Society, and she joined her old friends at the dinner which celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its foundation, but in the interval her connection with it completely ceased.

The Fabian Society and British Socialism owe much to Mrs. Besant for the assistance she gave it during five important years. Her splendid eloquence, always at our service, has seldom been matched, and has never been surpassed by any of the innumerable speakers of the movement. She had, when she joined us, an assured position amongst the working-class Radicals in London and throughout the country; and through her Socialism obtained a sympathetic hearing in places where less trusted speakers would have been neglected. She was not then either a political thinker or an effective worker on committees, but she possessed the power of expressing the ideas of other people far better than their originators, and she had at her command a certain amount of political machinery-such as an office at 63 Fleet Street, and a monthly magazine, "Our Corner"-which was very useful. Her departure was a serious loss, but it came at a moment of rapid expansion, so rapid that her absence was scarcely felt.

* * *

On the Society itself the effect of the Essays and the Lancashire Campaign was considerable. As the Executive Committee report in April, 1891: "During the past year the Socialist movement has made conspicuous progress in every respect, and a constantly increasing share of the work of its organisation and extension has fallen to the Fabian Society." The membership increased from 173 to 361, and the subscription list-thanks in part to several large donations-from £126 to £520. Local Fabian Societies had been formed at Belfast, Birmingham, Bombay, Bristol, Huddersfield, Hyde, Leeds, Manchester, Oldham, Plymouth, Tyneside, and Wolverhampton, with a total membership of 350 or 400. The business in tracts had been enormous. Ten new tracts, four pamphlets and six leaflets, were published, and new editions of all but one of the old ones had been printed. In all 335,000 tracts were printed and 98,349 distributed. The new tracts include "The Workers' Political Programme," "The New Reform Bill," "English Progress Towards Social Democracy," "The Reform of Poor Law," and a leaflet, No. 13, "What Socialism Is," which has been in circulation ever since. It should be added that at this period our leaflets were given away freely, a form of propaganda which soon proved too expensive for our resources.

In March, 1891, just before the end of the official year, appeared the first number of "Fabian News," the monthly organ of the Society, which has continued ever since. It replaced the printed circulars previously issued to the members, and was not intended to be anything else than a means of communicating with the members as to the work of the Society, and also in later years as to new books on subjects germane to its work. It has been edited throughout by the Secretary, but everything of a contentious character relating to the affairs of the Society has been published by the express authority of the Executive Committee.

It may be mentioned that from this time forward the documents of the Society are both fuller and more accessible than before. For the period up to the end of 1889 the only complete record is contained in the two minute books of the meetings. No regular minutes of Executive Committee meetings were kept, and the Annual Reports were not printed until 1889. From 1890 onwards the meetings of every committee were regularly recorded: the Annual Reports were printed in octavo and can be found in many public libraries, whilst "Fabian News" contains full information of the current doings of the Society. It will not therefore be necessary to treat the later years with such attention to detail as has seemed appropriate to the earlier. The only "sources" for these are shabby notebooks and the memories of a few men now rapidly approaching old age. The later years can be investigated, if any subsequent enquirer desires to do so, in a dozen libraries in Great Britain and the United States.


[24] Shaw demurs to this passage, and says that he did not revise the papers verbally, especially those by Mrs. Besant and Graham Wallas, but that he suggested or made alterations in the others. I am still disposed to suspect that my statement is not far from the truth.

[25] The opinions of some of the Essayists about co-operation were apparently modified by some small meetings with leading co-operators on March 27th, April 17th, and May 22nd, 1889. Bernard Shaw tells me that he thinks that they were held at Willis's Rooms, that he was in the chair, and that Mr. Benjamin Jones (whose name I find as a speaker at Fabian Meetings about this period) played a prominent part on behalf of the Co-operative Wholesale Society.

The first printed Annual Report presented on 5th April, 1889, mentions that "the Society is taking part in a 'Round Table Conference' to ascertain amongst other objects how far the various Co-operative and Socialist bodies can act together politically," a problem, thirty years later, still unsolved. It is a pity that the references to Co-operation in "Fabian Essays" were not modified in the light of the Conference which was held after the lectures were written but before they were published. No record of the Conference seems to have been preserved.

* * *

From a photograph by Van der Weyde


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