Barriers to Socialism: The Fabians.

Hostility to all other parties

The political struggle to establish socialism is reflected in the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s seventh Principle:

That all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interests of the working class is diametrically opposed to all interests of the master class the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party

The hostility clause extends its remit to include all political parties, groups and individuals who claim to represent or further the class interests of workers but who, in theory and in practice, do no such thing. There are, of course, some groups who want to abolish capitalism but who reject the idea that the political machinery of government must be secured through the revolutionary use of the vote by a socialist majority and the sending of socialist delegates to Parliament. Others agree with the need for socialism, as understood by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, but reject the necessity of first forming a socialist majority.

Our opponents can only hurl abuse at our decision to have nothing to do with political groups who propose either social reform programmes, various forms of direct action, or political objectives other than the socialist object of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. “Sectarians”, they call us. However, abuse is only abuse. It is no argument. Our decision not to have anything to do with other political parties, “whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist” remains sound and valid. If our opponents have a better suggestion for establishing socialism, where is it?

Take, for example, Andrew Collier, in his paper “Materialism and Explanation in the Human sciences”, in ISSUES IN MARXIST PHILOSOPHY, ed. J Mepham and D H Rubin (Harvester p. 55, 1979), claims it is “ludicrous” of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to claim it alone in this country represents or expresses the political interests of the working class and that all other parties must therefore be “bourgeois”. Yet, what does Mr Collier’s “socialism” amount to?

Well, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has been around for a long time; much longer than Mr Collier. Socialists have seen the consequences other political parties and groups, all claiming to be socialist, have done to working-class politics and socialist understanding. And the effect has not been to bring socialism any closer: quite the reverse. These organisations have all held socialism back. They have distorted what socialism means. They have done more harm to the establishment of socialism than any free market fanatic from the Adam Smith Institute or the Institute of Economic Affairs has ever done.

The early SOCIALIST STANDARDS, from 1904-1914, were quite clear as to the organisations the Socialist Party of Great Britain was hostile to. And this was clearly stated in THE MANIFESTO OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN published on June 12th 1905. The list included not only the Tories and Liberals, both of whom openly defended capitalism, but also the anarchists, the Socialist Labour Party, the Independent Labour party, and the De Leonists such as Syndacalists, Industrial Unionists, and the Wobblies (IWW), The Fabians, The Social Democratic Federation, The British Socialist Party, The Labour Party. By the 1920’s this list included the British Communist Party – the CPGB and its derivatives in the myriad Trotskyist organisations.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain’s position is correct. All these political parties and groups have impeded our efforts to disseminate an important set of interrelated political propositions socialists put to the working class:

* A definition of capitalism, how and why the capitalist class exploits the working class and what causes the class struggle.

* That capitalism continually causes economic and social problems for the working class

* That capitalism cannot function in the interest of all society

* How capitalism can be changed by democratic, class-conscious and political organisation by the working class

* That parliament can be used for revolutionary political purposes to gain control of political power

* The role of the capitalist state and machinery of government

* What Socialism means and why workers should become socialists and then join the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

All seven propositions are presented and argued for by socialists in a clear and unambiguous manner. These seven propositions form the basis of the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

Socialists propagate socialist ideas in order to persuade our fellow workers to become socialists. The more socialists there are in the world, the weaker capitalist propaganda becomes.

For socialism to be possible a socialist majority first has to exist. This is not the case for our opponents. For their own political ends they distort, misinform and confuse. They use any means to undermine the socialist case against capitalism and reject the urgent need to establish common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

The Fabian Society

The Fabian Society is a good example of a confused and confusing organisation claiming to be socialist. The Fabian Society particularly the founders, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, have sowed confusion since its inception in 1884. The Fabian Society was named after Q. Fabius Maximus, the Roman commander who defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians by avoiding a decisive battle and gradually wearing them down. For the Fabians opportunistic and reformist gradualism became a principle.

The Fabian Society came into existence during a severe economic depression in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with high unemployment and acute poverty. But at the same time a growing number of workers were entering into revolutionary politics and coming into contact with and reading the works of Marx and Engels. The Great Depression, as it was called, also led to a pessimism within the ruling class about the economic and political standing of British capitalism on the world market against its competitors, particularly Germany and the United States.

The policy and programme of the Fabians took a variety of social reforms throughout every aspect of social and economic life. Their aim was to secure a more ordered and less conflict-ridden capitalism where production and exchange took place on more efficient and competitive lines drawn up in a planned way by the State.

The policies of the Fabians were also designed to counter the ideas of Marx and Engels and dampen the revolutionary working class politics the Webbs and other Fabians saw within the Social Democratic Federation and, for a brief time, in the short-lived Socialist League. In her diaries, Beatrice Webb writes with utter contempt of the members of the SDF from the working class that she came into contact with in the East End of London. She dismissed them as “utopians”.

The vast Civil Service machinery of Empire with its “enlightened legislators, policy makers and administrators” was, for Sydney Webb, to be used to solve the problems facing British capitalism. Webb, after all, was part of this government machinery, having passed the Civil Service Open Examination in 1882, was promoted into the First Division of the Civil Service and was then selected for the Colonial Office where he spent the next ten years.

If the Webbs had described their politics and those of the Fabians as Liberal then fine –they would have joined a long list of openly capitalist reformers. However, the Webbs, for political reasons, chose to describe themselves as collectivists or socialists and the Fabian Society as a socialist organisation with a socialist doctrine.

Yet to all intents and purposes they were Liberals. The Fabians were supporters of Joseph Chamberlain whose “unauthorised programme” for the Liberals of 1885, with its municipal reforms, was seen by the Fabians as a “socialistic document” (see MAKERS OF THE LABOUR MOVEMENT, M. Cole, 1948, p. 234)

From the 1880s and 1890s the literature of the period describes the policies of the Fabians as “State Socialist”. This meaningless phrase was used to describe the Fabians ‘ “top-down” policy of using reform legislation to attain their political objectives. To the Webbs way of thinking, every social problem had an attendant social reform which only needed the right legislation, the right politician and the right policy maker for it to be a success, whether they were a Liberal or Tory.

Engels and the Fabians

The Fabian believed that a policy of “permeation” could infuse British politicians and civil servants with social reform proposals. The policy was an utter failure. The liberals did introduce reforms but they were enacted within the framework of capitalism and the interests of the capitalist class. The policy of “permeation” was attacked by Frederick Engels. He wrote:

(The Fabians) tactics are to fight the Liberals not as decided opponents, but to drive them on to socialistic consequences, therefore to trick them to permeate Liberalism with socialism….(Quoted in “RISE OF THE LABOUR PARTY 1880-1943”, P. Adelman, 3rd ed. P.74)

And what was this spurious “socialism”? What did it amount to? In 1888, Webb made the fatuous remark that “England was the most Socialist of all the European countries” (ibid p. 86).

Yet, everywhere in Britain at the time, there were capitalists and workers; wages and class exploitation, class ownership of the means of production and distribution along with a coercive capitalist State protecting class privilege.

The Webbs misuse of “socialism”, of course, was using the word to define the interference of the State in the economy. This misuse of the word is obvious from his Fabian pamphlet “PROGRESS OF SOCIALISM: A LECTURE” (1888) where he said:

The State now registers, inspects and controls nearly all the industrial functions which it has not yet absorbed…On every side he (the capitalist) is being registered, inspected, controlled, and he is compelled in the meantime to cede for the public purpose, an ever-increasing share of his rent and interest (p.7).

This is hardly socialist! The regulation of capitalism is not the same as the abolition of capitalism and class society. Taxing interest and rent is not the same as the abolition of the wages system. And the “public purpose” is nothing other than the interest of the capitalist class as a whole.

Engels warned of the dangers of Fabian politics to the working class. In a letter to Kautsky he wrote:

The means employed by the Fabian Society are just the same as the corrupt parliamentary politicians, money, intrigue and careerism…These people are immersed up to their necks in the intrigues of the Liberal party, hold Liberal jobs, as for instance Sidney Webb, who is in general, a genuine British politician. These gentry do everything the workers have been warned against (Marx: Engels letters p. 423, Moscow edition).

And Engels ridiculed the facile expression “State Socialism”;

…since Bismarck went in for state ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious socialism has arisen…that without more ado declares all state ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic (SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, Moscow 1974 ed. P. 70).

Engels went on to remark, ironically, that if the taking over by the tobacco industry is “socialistic” then Napoleon and Matternick must be numbered among the founders of socialism.

Engels’s comment on the Fabian Society’s danger to working class politics should not be underestimated. The danger and repercussions can be seen in the actions of subsequent Labour Governments;

* The misrepresentation of state capitalism or nationalisation as socialism

* The misguided belief that social reforms can resolve the problems facing the working class

* The fallacious belief that the State can intervene in the economy thereby mitigating the anarchy of capitalist production for profit.

* That nationalisation can buy-off the class struggle by making workers believe they have a stake in the industries they work in.

* That “industrial democracy” would make workers less prone to strike, to become more industrious and bury their class difference with their employers.

* The influential and uncritical support by the Fabians, particularly the Webb’s, for Russian capitalism of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

* An utter contempt for the working class and the possibility that workers could organise themselves consciously and politically to establish Socialism

* The pursuit of an alternative theory to Marx’s Labour theory of Value, a theory that focussed on the psychological preferences of consumers, markets and prices rather than; exploitation through the generation of “surplus value” and class struggle; class relations and the private ownership of the means of production.

Let us pick a few of these at random.

The Fabians and Eugenics

On the utter contempt for the working class we only have to consider the Fabian’s flirtation with eugenics.

Beatrice Webb, after seeing a performance of Shaw’s Man and Superman, was moved to write in her diary:

We cannot touch the subject of human breeding – it’s not ripe for the mere industry of induction, and yet I realise that it is the most important of all questions, this breeding of the right sort of man (G. R. Searle: EUGENICS AND POLITICS IN BRITAIN 1900-1914, p. 54 Leydon 1976)

Eugenics, not surprisingly made a strong appeal to other Fabians:

Jeffrey Weeks, in his book “SEX, POLITICS AND SOCIETY: THE REGULATION OF SEXUALITY SINCE 1800” (Longmans p. 981) had to say this of the Fabians:

H G Wells had a burst of enthusiasm on hearing Galton and advocated the “sterilisation” of failures. Sidney Webb, more soberly, as was his metier, warned that unless the decline of the birth-rate was averted the nation would fall to the Irish and the Jews. What Eugenists and Fabians shared…and what is characteristic of their appeal, is the belief in the planning and control of the population”.

Weeks went on to say:

It was inevitable that the Fabians would attend their beliefs in social regulation to fertility: reproduction was obviously too important to be left to individuals and Sidney Webb believed it could not be left to the residuum (the 19th century term for the underclass) to regulate their lives with Malthusian prudence, in 1907 a Fabian tract on The decline of the Birth Rate (…) had warned of the dangers of the differentiated birth rate where the thrifty limited their families and the residuum did not (p. 199).

Sydney Webb also argued that the State should adopt social policies which would induce the right sort of people to assume parenthood. We even have G. B. Shaw calling for a State department of evolution to pay the right women for their child rearing services and if necessary to regulate a “joint-stock human stud farm”: all this before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

Social Reform or Social Revolution

Reference to the social reform legacy of the Fabians also has to be considered.

Capitalism constantly throws up problems which have to be dealt with in order to try to facilitate the smooth working of commodity production and exchange and to secure its survival. The social reform programmes of the Fabians were just an example of this tradition. It had nothing to do with socialism.

We only have to ask the following question. What has been the effect, for the working class, of the work by social reformers like the Fabians in trying to reform capitalism for the better?

The answer is that for workers it has meant the continuation of class subservience, exploitation and social and economic problems peculiar to their class, like unemployment, poverty and millions of deaths in world wars. Social reforms to end poverty, war and unemployment, for example, have not furthered the interest of workers one iota.

These social reforms might be seductive but they cannot be realised because capitalism causes these problem in the first place. Periodic periods of high unemployment arise from the anarchy of commodity production and exchange for profit; poverty exists because of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution; and wars occur because capitalism is divided into competing nation states over raw resources, strategic points of influence and trade routes. These problems are immune to social reforms.

Social reforms that have been enacted have either been repealed later as being too expensive or counterproductive or have had unintended consequences. For the capitalists, though, the success of the Fabian Society has meant the retention of the private ownership of the means of production; of privilege and wealth for a minority and the continuation of the anti-social pursuit of profit.

Where social reforms have taken place because of the needs of the capitalist class as a whole they can be considered as a kind of insurance policy for which the capitalists have to bear the cost. They do not like this burden; they do not like the cost in the form of taxation. But that is there problem not ours.

The position of the SPGB was quite clear:

The Socialist Party of Great Britain will not barter its independence for promise of reform. For, no matter whether the promises are made sincerely or not, we know that the immediate need of our class is emancipation, which can only be achieved through the establishment of Socialism. (QUESTIONS OF THE DAY p. 21 1942)

The Fabians and War

Then there was The Fabian Society support for the Boer War in 1899 even though it led to the resignation of Emmeline Pankhurst among others.

In 1900 the Fabian Society published a pamphlet by George Bernard Shaw, Fabianism and Empire which supported British Imperialism. In the pamphlet the Fabians stated:

The British Empire, wisely governed, is invincible. The British Empire, handled as we handled Ireland and the American colonies, and as we may handle South Africa if we are not careful, will fall to pieces without the firing of a foreign shot (p.15).

While Hubert Bland defended British imperial policy arguing that:

England was the only country fit to pioneer the blessings of civilization.” (Porter, Bertrand. Critics of Empire: British Radicals and the Imperial Challenge 2008 p. 108).

Socialists do not take part in capitalism’s war nor do they support Empires. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, the Executive committee of the Socialist Party of Great Britain immediately published its anti-war Manifesto which concluded:

Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good-will and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.


The Fabians and Russia

Finally, there is the question of Russia cast such a dark shadow over working class politics for most of the 20th century. The Webbs fell in love with the Bolshevik dictatorship as did other Fabians. The Webbs published two vast volumes in support of Russian capitalism entitled “SOVIET COMMUNISM: A NEW CIVILIZATION?” That was in 1935 and at the time of the book’s publication the title had a question mark. By 1942 the question mark had been removed. Russian state capitalism was everything they believed in.

The Bolshevik experiment has, in the course of the past decade, demonstrated beyond all denial that neither the incentive of profit-making nor the existence of the capitalist class as the leaders and directors of industry is indispensable to wealth production on a colossal scale, or to its continuous increase

Compare this utter nonsense - which ignores class exploitation within the Russian State enterprises - with the critical analysis of Russian state capitalism by The Socialist Party of Great Britain. In a chapter called “The Russian Dictatorship” (1932 QUESTIONS OF THE DAY), the SPGB, without the benefit of a trip to Russia, concluded:

The Bolshevik’s attempt to usher in Socialism by “legal enactment” and by “bold leaps” before the economic conditions were ripe, and before the mass of population desired Socialism, has been a total failure. In course of time that failure will become obvious to the workers inside and outside Russia (page 66).

A failure that was not obvious to the intellectuals of the Fabian Society.

Ironically the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet on Russia was republished in the same year that the Webbs removed the question mark from their hagiography of Stalin and Russian State capitalism.

The Fabians: In who’s Class Interest?

How did the Fabians see themselves? Whose class interests did they serve? G. B. Shaw gives us an uncharacteristically open and frank answer.

In a congratulatory preface to the re-issue of “THE FABIAN ESSAYS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY”, Shaw rejoiced over the damage they, the Fabians, had inflicted on revolutionary socialism, the undermining of the ideas of Marx and Engels and complimented himself, the Webbs and others upon their achievement. The working class are still paying the price for the Fabian Society’s achievement today.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.