Hal Draper


The Two Souls of Socialism


6. The Fabian Model

In Germany, behind the figure of Lassalle there shades off a series of “socialisms” moving in an interesting direction.

The so-called Academic Socialists (“Socialists of the chair,” Kathedersozialisten – a current of Establishment academics) looked to Bismarck more openly than Lasalle, but their conception of state-socialism was not in principle alien to his. Only, Lassalle embarked on the risky expedient of calling into being a mass movement from below for the purpose – risky because once in motion it might get out of hand, as indeed it did more than once. Bismarck himself did not hesitate to represent his paternalistic economic policies as a kind of socialism, and books got written about “monarchical socialism,” “Bismarckian state-socialism,” etc. Following further to the right, one comes to the “socialism” of Friedrich List, a proto-Nazi, and to those circles where an anti-capitalist form of anti-Semitism (Dühring, A. Wagner, etc.) lays part of the basis for the movement that called itself socialism under Adolf Hitler.

The thread that unites this whole spectrum, through all the differences, is the conception of socialism as equivalent merely to state intervention in economic and social life. “Staat, greif zu!” Lassalle called. “State, take hold of things!” – this is the socialism of the whole lot.

This is why Schumpeter is correct in observing that the British equivalent of German state-socialism is – Fabianism, the socialism of Sidney Webb.

The Fabians (more accurately, the Webbians) are, in the history of the socialist idea, that modern socialist current which developed in more complete divorcement from Marxism, the one most alien to Marxism. It was almost chemically-pure social-democratic reformism unalloyed, particularly before the rise of the mass labor and socialist movement in Britain, which it did not want and did not help to build (despite a common myth to the contrary). It is therefore a very important test, unlike most other reformist currents which paid their tribute to Marxism by adopting some of its language and distorting its substance.

The Fabians, deliberately middle-class in composition and appeal, were not for building any mass movement at all, least of all a Fabian one. They thought of themselves as a small elite of brain-trusters who would permeate the existing institutions of society, influence the real leaders in all spheres Tory or Liberal, and guide social development toward its collectivist goal with the “inevitability of gradualness.” Since their conception of socialism was purely in terms of state intervention (national or municipal), and their theory told them that capitalism itself was being collectivized apace every day and had to move in this direction, their function was simply to hasten the process. The Fabian Society was designed in 1884 to be pilot-fish to a shark: at first the shark was the Liberal Party; but when the permeation of Liberalism failed miserably, and labor finally organized its own class party despite the Fabians, the pilot-fish simply reattached itself.

There is perhaps no other socialist tendency which so systematically and even consciously worked out its theory as a Socialism-from-Above. The nature of this movement was early recognized, though it was later obscured by the merging of Fabianism into the body of Labor reformism. The leading Christian socialist inside the Fabian Society once attacked Webb as “a bureaucratic Collectivist” (perhaps the first use of that term.) Hilaire Belloc’s once-famous book of 1912 on The Servile State was largely triggered by the Webb type whose “collectivist ideal” was basically bureaucratic. G.D.H. Cole reminisced: “The Webb’s in those days, used to be fond of saying that everyone who was active in politics was either an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ – an anarchist or a bureaucrat – and that they were ‘B’s’ ...”

These characterizations scarcely convey the full flavor of the Webbian collectivism that was Fabianism. It was through-and-through managerial, technocratic, elitist, authoritarian, “plannist.” Webb was fond of the term wirepulling almost as a synonym for politics. A Fabian publication wrote that they wished to be “the Jesuits of Socialism.” The gospel was Order and Efficiency. The people, who should be treated kindly, were fit to be run only by competent experts. Class struggle, revolution and popular turbulence were insanity. In Fabianism and the Empire imperialism was praised and embraced. If ever the socialist movement developed its own bureaucratic collectivism, this was it.

“It may be thought that Socialism is essentially a movement from below, a class movement,” wrote a Fabian spokesman, Sidney Ball, to disabuse the reader of this idea; but now socialists “approach the problem from the scientific rather than the popular view; they are middle-class theorists,” he boasted, going on to explain that there is “a distinct rupture between the Socialism of the street and the Socialism of the chair.”

The sequel is also known, though often glossed over. While Fabianism as a special tendency petered out into the larger stream of Labor Party reformism by 1918, the leading Fabians themselves went in another direction. Both Sidney and Beatrice Webb as well as Bernard Shaw – the top trio – became principled supporters of Stalinist totalitarianism in the 1930s. Even earlier, Shaw, who thought socialism needed a Superman, had found more than one. In turn he embraced Mussolini and Hitler as benevolent despots to hand “socialism” down to the Yahoos, and he was disappointed only that they did not actually abolish capitalism. In 1931 Shaw disclosed, after a visit to Russia, that the Stalin regime was really Fabianism in practice. The Webbs followed to Moscow, and found God. In their Soviet Communism: a New Civilization, they proved (right out of Moscow’s own documents and Stalin’s own claims, industriously researched) that Russia is the greatest democracy in the world; Stalin is no dictator; equality reigns for all; the one-party dictatorship is needed; the Communist Party is a thoroughly democratic elite bringing civilization to the Slavs and Mongols (but not Englishmen); political democracy has failed in the West anyway, and there is no reason why political parties should survive in our age...

They staunchly supported Stalin through the Moscow purge trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact without a visible qualm, and died more uncritical pro-Stalinists than can now be found on the Politburo. As Shaw has explained, the Webbs had nothing but scorn for the Russian Revolution itself, but “the Webbs waited until the wreckage and ruin of the change was ended, its mistakes remedied, and the Communist State fairly launched.” That is, they waited until the revolutionary masses had been straitjacketed, and the leaders of the revolution cashiered, the efficient tranquillity of dictatorship had settled on the scene, the counter-revolution firmly established; and then they came along to pronounce it the Ideal.

Was this really a gigantic misunderstanding, some incomprehensible blunder? Or were they not right in thinking that this indeed was the “socialism” that matched their ideology, give or take a little blood? The swing of Fabianism from middle-class permeation to Stalinism was the swing of a door that was hinged on Socialism-from-Above.

If we look back at the decades just before the turn of the century that launched Fabianism on the world, another figure looms, the antithesis of Webb: the leading personality of revolutionary socialism in that period, the poet and artist William Morris, who became a socialist and a Marxist in his late forties. Morris’ writings on socialism breathe from every pore the spirit of Socialism-from-Below, just as every line of Webb’s is the opposite. This is perhaps clearest in his sweeping attacks on Fabianism (for the right reasons); his dislike of the “Marxism” of the British edition of Lassalle, the dictatorial H.M. Hyndman; his denunciations of state-socialism; and his repugnance at the bureaucratic-collectivist utopia of Bellamy’s Looking Backward. (The last moved him to remark: “If they brigaded me into a regiment of workers, I’d just lie on my back and kick.”)

Morris’ socialist writings are pervaded with his emphasis from every side on class struggle from below, in the present; and as for the socialist future, his News from Nowhere was written as the direct antithesis of Bellamy’s book. He warned

“that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other ... Variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and ... nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom.”

“Even some Socialists,” he wrote, “are apt to confuse the cooperative machinery towards which modern life is tending with the essence of Socialism itself.” This meant “the danger of the community falling into bureaucracy.” Therefore he expressed fear of a “collectivist bureaucracy” lying ahead. Reacting violently against state-socialism and reformism, he fell backwards into anti-parliamentarism but he did not fall into the anarchist trap:

“... people will have to associate in administration, and sometimes there will be differences of opinion ... What is to be done? Which party is to give way? Our Anarchist friends say that it must not be carried by a majority; in that case, then, it must be carried by a minority. And why? Is there any divine right in a minority?”

This goes to the heart of anarchism far more deeply than the common opinion that the trouble with anarchism is that it is over-idealistic.

William Morris versus Sidney Webb: this is one way of summing up the story.


Last updated on 2.7.2006