Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Volume 2

Where is Britain Going?

The Fabian “Theory’
of Socialism

Let us overcome our natural aversion and read therough the article in which Ramsay MacDonald expounded his views a short time before leaving office. We warn the reader in advance that we shall have to enter a mental junk shop in which the suffocating odor of camphor has no effect on the work of the moths.

“In the field of feeling and conscience”, MacDonald begins, “in the realm of spirit, socialism is the religion of service to the people.” Behind these words there at once appears a benevolent bourgeois, a left Liberal who “serves” the people by coming in from outside, or rather – from above. Such an approach has its roots wholly in the distant past, when radical intellectuals settled in working-class districts of London to undertake cultural and educational work. What a monstrously anachronistic sound these words have when applied to today’s Labour Party, which rests directly upon the trade unions!

The word “religion” must be understood here not merely in an emotive sense. What is being discussed here is Christianity in its Anglo-Saxon interpretation. “Socialism is based upon the gospels”, proclaims MacDonald. “It is an excellently conceived [sic] and resolute attempt to Christianize government and society.” But are there not certain problems with this line of argument? Firstly: the peoples who are statistically reckoned to be Christian comprise approximately 37 per cent of mankind. How about the non-Christian world?

Secondly: atheism is having no small success even among the Christian peoples and especially among the proletariat. This is so far less noticeable in the Anglo-Saxon countries. But mankind, even Christian mankind, is not exclusively composed of Anglo-Saxons. In the Soviet Union which has a population of 130 million, atheism is the officially proclaimed state doctrine.

Thirdly: Great Britain has held sway over India for centuries now. European nations with this same Britain at their head long ago cleared a path to China. Nevertheless the number of atheists in Europe is growing faster than the number of Christians in India and China. Why? Because Christianity confronts the Chinese and Indians as the religion of oppressors, aggressors, slave-owners, plunderers breaking into someone else’s house. The Chinese know that Christian missionaries are sent to clear the path for the warships. That’s the real, historical Christianity! And this Christianity is to form the basis of socialism? For China and for India?

Fourthly: Christianity has, by the official reckoning, now been in existence for 1,925 years. Before becoming MacDonald’s religion it was the religion of the Roman slaves, of the barbarian nomads who settled in Europe, the religion of crowned and uncrowned despots and feudal lords, the religion of Charles Stuart – and, in a transmuted form, the religion of Cromwell who cut off Charles Stuart’s head.

Finally today it is the religion of Lloyd George, Churchill, The Times and, we must assume, of the devout Christian who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, to the greater glory of electing the Conservatives in the most Christian of democracies. But exactly how did the Christianity which took root in the consciousness of European peoples and became their official religion by means of sermons, schoolroom violence, threats of torments in the hereafter, hell-fire and the sword of the police – exactly how in the twentieth century of its existence did it lead to the most bloody and the most evil of wars, when the remaining nineteen centuries of Christianity’s history had already been centuries of bestiality and crime? And where precisely are there any reasonable grounds for hoping that “divine teaching” will, in the twentieth, twenty-first, or even the twenty-fifth century of its history, establish equality and brotherhood where it has earlier sanctified violence and slavery?

It would be futile to expect an answer to these schoolboy questions from MacDonald. Our sage is an evolutionist, that is to say, he believes that everything is “gradually” changing and, with God’s help, for the better. MacDonald is an evolutionist, he does not believe in miracles, he does not believe in leaps apart from a single one that took place 1,925 years ago: at that time a wedge was driven into organic evolution by none other than the Son of God and He put into circulation a certain quantity of heavenly truths from which the clergy collect a substantial terrestrial income.

The Christian basis of socialism is given in two crucial sentences in his article: “Who can deny that poverty is not only a personal, but a social evil? Who does not feel pity for poverty?” Here, behind a theory of socialism, is betrayed the philosophy of a socially-minded philanthropic bourgeois who feels “pity” for poor folk and makes a “religion of his conscience” out of this pity without, however, upsetting his business habits unduly.

Who does not feel pity for poverty? All Britain’s history is, as is well known, a history of the pity of the propertied classes for the poverty of the toiling masses. Without delving into the depths of time it is sufficient to trace this history merely, let’s say, from the sixteenth century, from the time of the enclosures of the peasants’ lands; the time, that is, of the conversion of the majority of the peasants into homeless vagrants, when pity for poverty expressed itself in the galleys, the gallows, the lopping-off of ears and other such measures of Christian compassion. The Duchess of Sutherland completed the enclosures in the north of Scotland at the beginning of the last century and the staggering tale of this butchery was given by Marx in immortal lines, in which we meet not snivelling “compassion”, but instead find the passion of revolutionary indignation. [1]

Who does not feel pity for poverty? Read through the history of Britain’s industrial development and of the exploitation of child labour in particular. The pity shown by the rich for poverty has never protected the poor from degradation and misery. In Britain, no less than anywhere else, poverty has only gained anything in cases where it has managed to take wealth by the throat. Does this really have to be proved in a country with an age-long history of class struggle, which was at the same time a history of niggardly concessions and ruthless reprisals?

“Socialism does not believe in force”, continues MacDonald, “Socialism is a state of mental health and not mental sickness ... and therefore by its very nature it must repudiate force with horror ... It fights only with mental and moral weapons.” This is all very fine, though not entirely new; the same ideas were set forth in the Sermon on the Mount and, what is more, in considerably better style. We have recalled above what this led to. Why should MacDonald’s prosaic re-hash of the Sermon on the Mount result in anything better? Tolstoy, who commanded rather more powerful resources of ideological conviction, did not manage to draw even members of his own landed family over to these evangelical precepts about the impermissibility of force. MacDonald gave us a lesson when he was in power. Let us remind our readers that during that period the police force was not disbanded, the courts were not abolished, the prisons were not demolished, and warships were not scuttled – on the contrary, new ones were built. And, insofar as I am any judge, the police, the courts, prisons, the army and the navy are organs of force. The recognition of the truth that “socialism is a state of mental health and not mental sickness” in no way prevents MacDonald from strutting round India and Egypt in the sacred footsteps of the great Christian, Curzon. MacDonald as a Christian recoils from violence “with horror”; as prime minister he applies all the methods of capitalist oppression, and hands over the instruments of force to his Conservative successor intact.

So what does the renunciation of force in the final resort signify? Only that the oppressed must not adopt force against a capitalist state: neither workers against the bourgeoisie, nor farmers against landlords, nor Indians against the British administration and British capital. The state. constructed by the violence of the monarchy against the people, the bourgeoisie against the workers, the landlords against the farmers, by officers against soldiers, AngloSaxon slave-owners against colonial peoples, “Christians” against heathens – this bloodstained apparatus of centuries-long violence inspires MacDonald with pious reverence. He reacts “with horror” only to the force of liberation. And in this lies the sacred essence of his “religion of service to the people”.

“There is an old and a new school of socialism”, MacDonald says. “We belong to the new school.” Mac Donald’s “ideal” (he does have an “ideal”) he shares with the old school, but the new school has a “better plan” for realising this ideal. What does this plan consist of? MacDonald does not leave us without an answer. “We have no class consciousness ... our opponents are the people with class consciousness ... But in place of a class consciousness we want to evoke the consciousness of social solidarity.” Beating the air, MacDonald concludes: “The class struggle is not made by us. It is created by capitalism, and will always be its fruit just as thistles will always be the fruit of thistles.”

That MacDonald lacks class consciousness, while the leaders of the bourgeoisie have such a consciousness, is absolutely beyond doubt, and it means that at present the British Labour Party is walking along without a head upon its shoulders, while the party of the British bourgeoisie does have such a head – and with a very thick skull and an equally solid neck at that. If MacDonald had confined himself to an admission that he is a little weak in the head as regards “consciousness’ there would be no grounds for argument. But MacDonald wishes to construct a programme out of his head and its weak “consciousness”. We cannot agree to that.

“The class war”, says MacDonald, “is created by capitalism.” That, of course, is false. Class war existed before capitalism. But it is true that the modern class war – between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – was created by capitalism. It is also true that “it will always be its fruit”, that is to say, that it will exist as long as capitalism exists. But in a war there are obviously two warring parties. One of them is composed of our enemies who, according to MacDonald, “stand for the privileged class and desire to preserve it.” It might seem that, since we stand for the destruction of a privileged class that does not wish to leave the scene, it is precisely in this that the basic content of the class struggle lies. But no, MacDonald “wants to evoke” a consciousness of social solidarity. With whom? The solidarity of the working class is the expression of its internal unity in the struggle against the bourgeoisie. The social solidarity that MacDonald preaches is the solidarity of the exploited with the exploiters, that is, the maintenance of exploitation. MacDonald boasts moreover that his ideas differ from the ideas of our grandfathers: by which he means Karl Marx. In fact MacDonald differs from this “grandfather” in the sense that he more closely resembles our great-grandfathers. The ideological hash that MacDonald puts forward as a “new school” marks – on an entirely new historical base – a return to the petty bourgeois, sentimental socialism that Marx subjected to a devastating criticism as early as 1847, and even before.

MacDonald counterposes to the class struggle the idea of the solidarity of all those charitable citizens who are trying to re-build society by democratic reforms. In this conception, the struggle of the class is replaced by the “constructive” activity of a political party which is built, not on a class base, but on the basis of social solidarity. The excellent ideas of our great-grandfathers – Robert Owen, Weitling and others – when completely emasculated and adapted for parliamentary use, sound particularly absurd in modern Britain with its numerically powerful Labour Party resting on the trade unions. There is no other country in the world where the class nature of socialism has been so objectively, plainly, incontestably and empirically revealed by history as in Britain, for there the Labour Party has grown out of the parliamentary representation of the trade unions, i.e. purely class. organizations of wage labour. When the Conservatives, and for that matter the Liberals, tried to prevent the trade unions raising political levies then, in so doing, they were not unsuccessfully counterposing MacDonald’s idealist conception of the party to that empirically class character that the party has actually acquired in Britain. To be sure there are, in the top layers of the Labour Party, a certain number of Fabian intellectuals and liberals who have joined out of despair, but in the first place it is to be firmly hoped that workers will sooner or later sweep this dross out, and in the second place the four-and-a-half million votes which are cast for the Labour Party are already today (with minor exceptions) the votes of British workers. As yet by no means all workers vote for their party. But it is almost solely workers who do vote for the Labour Party.

By this we do not at all mean that the Fabians, the ILPers and the Liberal defectors exert no influence on the working class. On the contrary, their influence is very great but it is not fixed. The reformists who are fighting against a proletarian class consciousness are, in the final reckoning, a tool of the ruling class. Throughout the whole history of the British Labour movement there has been pressure by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat through the agency of radicals, intellectuals, drawing-room and church socialists and Owenites who reject the class struggle and advocate the principle of social solidarity, preach collaboration with the bourgeoisie, bridle, enfeeble and politically debase the proletariat.

The programme of the Independent Labour Party [2] in full accord with this “tradition”, points out that the party strives “at a union of all organized workers together with all persons of all classes who believe in socialism”. This deliberately nebulous formula has the aim of slurring over the class character of socialism. No one, of course, is demanding that the party’s doors be closed to tested entrants from other classes. However their number is already insignificant, if one does not look only at statistics of the leadership but takes the party as a whole; and in the future, when the party enters on the revolutionary road, it will be even less. But the ILPers need their formula about 6 people of all classes” to deceive the workers themselves as to the real, class source of their strength, by substituting for it the fiction of a supra-class solidarity.

We have mentioned that many workers still vote for bourgeois candidates. MacDonald contrives to interpret even this fact in the bourgeoisie’s political interest. “We must consider the worker not as a worker, but as a man,” he teaches and he adds: “even Toryism has to some extent learnt ... to treat people as people. Therefore many workers voted for Toryism.” In other words: when the Conservatives, terrified by the pressure of the workers, have learnt to adapt to the most backward of them, to break them down, to deceive them, to play upon their prejudices and frighten them with forged documents – all this means that the Tories know how to treat people as people!

Those British labour organizations that are the most unalloyed in class composition, namely the trade unions, have lifted the Labour Party directly upon their own shoulders. This expresses the profound changes in Britain’s situation: her weakening on the world market, the change in her economic structure, the failing out of the middle classes and the break-up of Liberalism. The proletariat needs a class party, it is striving by every means to create it, it puts pressure on the trade unions, it pays political levies. But this mounting pressure from below, from the plants and the factories, from the docks and the mines, is opposed by a counter-pressure from above, from the sphere of official British politics with its national traditions of “love of freedom”, world supremacy, cultural primogeniture, democracy and Protestant piety. And if (in order to weaken the class consciousness of the British proletariat) a political concoction is prepared from all these components – then you end up with the programme of Fabianism.

Since MacDonald declares that the Labour Party, which openly rests upon the trade unions, is an organization above classes, then the “democratic” state of British capital has, for him, an even more classless character. He admits that the present state, governed by landowners, bankers, shipowners and coal magnates does not form a “complete” democracy. There still remain one or two defects in it: “Democracy and, for example (!!), an industrial system not governed by the people are incompatible concepts.” In other words, this democracy turns out to have one small snag: the wealth created by the nation belongs not to the nation but to a tiny minority of it.

Is this accidental? No, bourgeois democracy is the system of institutions and measures whereby the needs and demands of the working masses, who are striving upwards, are neutralized, distorted, rendered harmless, or purely and simply come to naught. Whoever says that in Britain, France and the United States private property is kept in being by the will of the people is lying. No one has asked the people about it. Labouring people are born and brought up in conditions not created by themselves. The state school and the state church inculcate them with concepts that are directed exclusively at maintaining the existing order. Parliamentary democracy is nothing but a resumé of this state of affairs. MacDonald’s party enters into this system as an essential component.

When events – generally of a catastrophic nature like economic upheavals, crises and wars – make the social system intolerable for the workers, the latter find themselves with neither the opportunity nor the wish to express their revolutionary anger within the channels of capitalist democracy. In other words: when the masses grasp how long they have been deceived they carry out a revolution. The successful revolution transfers power to them and their possession of power allows them to construct a state apparatus that serves their interests.

But it is precisely this that MacDonald does not accept. “The revolution in Russia”, he says, “taught us a great lesson. It showed that a revolution means ruin and calamity and nothing else.” Here the reactionary Fabian steps out before us in all his repulsive nakedness. Revolution leads only to calamities! Yet British democracy led to the imperialist war, not only in the sense that all capitalist states shared responsibility for the war, but also in the sense that British diplomacy had a direct responsibility, consciously and deliberately pushing Europe towards war. Had British “democracy” declared that she would intervene on the side of the Entente [3], Germany and Austria-Hungary would most probably have retreated.

But the British government acted otherwise: it secretly promised support to the Entente, and deliberately deceived Germany with the possibility of neutrality. Thus British “democracy” brought about a war whose devastation far exceeds the calamities of any revolution. Apart from that, what sort of ears and what sort of brains must one have to assert in the face of the revolution that toppled Tsarism, the nobility and the bourgeoisie, shook the church and aroused a 150 million strong people, forming a whole family of peoples, to a new life, that revolution is a calamity and nothing else? Here MacDonald is only repeating Baldwin. He does not know or understand the Russian revolution or even British history.

We are compelled to remind him as we reminded the Conservative prime minister. If the initiative in the economic field up to the final quarter of the last century belonged to Britain, then in the political field Britain has developed over the last century and a half in the wake of the European and American revolutions. The French revolution, the July revolution of 1830, the revolution of 1848, the American Civil War of the 1860s, the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – all pushed Britain’s social development ahead and set the landmarks of major legislative reforms in her history. Without the Russian Revolution of 1917, MacDonald would never have been prime minister in 1924. Of course we do not mean by this that MacDonald’s ministry was the highest conquest of October. But it was at all events largely its by-product.

And even children’s picture-books teach us that if you want to have acorns you must not dig up the oak tree. Besides, how ridiculous is this Fabian conceit: since the Russian Revolution has taught “us” (who?) a lesson, then “we” (who?) shall settle things without revolution. But why then did the lessons of all previous wars not permit “you” to manage without the imperialist war? In the same way that the bourgeoisie calls every successive war the last war. so MacDonald wants to call the Russian Revolution the last revolution. But why exactly should the British bourgeoisie make concessions to the British proletariat and peacefully, without a fight, renounce its property – merely because it has received in advance from MacDonald a firm assurance that, following the experience of the Russian revolution, British socialists shall never take the path of violence? Where and when has the ruling class ever given up their power and property by a peaceful vote, least of all a class such as the British bourgeoisie, which has behind it centuries of world-wide plunder?

MacDonald is against revolution and for organic evolution: he carries over poorly digested biological concepts into society. For him revolution, as a sum of accumulated partial mutations, resembles the development of living organisms, the turning of a chrysalis into a butterfly and so forth; but in this latter process he ignores just those decisive, critical moments when the new creature bursts the old casing in a revolutionary way. Here though it turns out that MacDonald is “for a revolution similar to that which took place in the womb of feudalism, when the industrial revolution carne to maturity”. MacDonald in his ignorance evidently imagines that the industrial revolution took place molecularly, without upheavals, calamities and devastation. He simply does not know Britain’s history (let alone the history of other countries); and above all he does not understand that the industrial revolution, which was already maturing in the womb of feudalism in the form of merchant capital, brought about the Reformation [4], caused the Stuarts to collide with parliament, gave birth to the Civil War and ruined and devastated Britain – in order afterwards to enrich her.

It would be tedious here to interpret the conversion of a chrysalis into a butterfly so as to establish the necessary social analogies. It is simpler and shorter to recommend MacDonald to ponder over the old comparison between a revolution and childbirth. Can we not draw a “lesson” here – since births produce “nothing” except pains and torment (the infant does not come into it!) then in future the population is recommended to multiply by painless Fabian means, with recourse to the talents of Mrs. Snowden as midwife.

Let us warn, however, that this is by no means so simple. Even the chick which has taken shape in the egg has to apply force to the calcareous prison that shuts it in; if some Fabian chick decided out of Christian (or any other) considerations to refrain from acts of force the calcareous casing would inevitably suffocate it. British pigeon fanciers are producing a special variety with a shorter and shorter beak, by artificial selection. There comes a time, however, when the new offspring’s beak is so short that the poor creature can no longer pierce the egg-shell: the young pigeon falls victim to compulsory restraint from violence; and the continued progress of the short-beaked variety comes to a halt. If our memory serves us right, MacDonald can read about this in Darwin.

Still pursuing these analogies with the organic world so beloved of MacDonald, we can say that the political art of the British bourgeoisie consists of shortening the proletariat’s revolutionary beak, thereby preventing it from perforating the shell of the capitalist state. The beak of the proletariat is its party. If you take a glance at MacDonald, Thomas and Mr. and Mrs. Snowden then it must be admitted that the bourgeoisie’s work of rearing the shortbeaked and soft-beaked varieties has been crowned with striking success – for not only are these worthies unfit to break through the capitalist shell, they are really unfit to do anything at all.

Here, however, the analogy ends, revealing all the limitations of such cursory data from biology textbooks in place of a study of the conditions and routes of historical development. Human society, although growing out of the organic and inorganic world, represents such a complex and concentrated combination of them that it requires an independent study. A social organism is distinguished from a biological one by, amongst other things, a far greater flexibility and capacity for regrouping its elements, by a certain degree of conscious choice of its tools and devices, and by the conscious application (within certain limits) of the experience of the past, and so on. The pigeon chick in the egg cannot change its over-short beak and so it perishes. The working class when faced with the question of whether to be or not to be can sack MacDonald and Mrs. Snowden and arm itself with the “beak” of a revolutionary party for the destruction of the capitalist system.

Especially curious in MacDonald is the coupling of a crudely biological theory of society with an idealist Christian abhorrence of materialism. “You talk about revolution and a catastrophic leap but take a look at nature and see how intelligently a caterpillar behaves when it is due to turn into a chrysalis, take a look at the worthy tortoise in its motion, you will find the natural rhythm of the transformation of society. Learn from nature!” And in this same vein MacDonald brands materialism “a banality, a nonsensical assertion, there is no spiritual or intellectual refinement in it ...” MacDonald and refinement! Isn’t this indeed an astounding “refinement: seeking the model for man’s collective social activity in a caterpillar, while at the same time demanding for his private use an immortal soul with a comfortable existence in the hereafter?

“Socialists are accused of being poets. That is correct,” explains MacDonald, “we are poets. There cannot be good politics without poetry. And in general without poetry there can be nothing good.” And so on and so forth in the same style. And in conclusion: “The world needs more than anything some political and social Shakespeare.” This drivel about poetry may not be so obnoxious politically as lectures on the impermissibility of violence. But MacDonald’s utter lack of intellectual talent is here expressed even more convincingly, if that is possible. A solemn, cowardly pedant, in whom there is as much poetry as in a square inch of carpet attempts to impress the world with Shakespearian grimaces. Here is where the “monkey-tricks” that MacDonald ascribes to the Bolsheviks really begin. MacDonald, as the “poet” of Fabianism! The politics of Sidney Webb as an artistic creation! Thomas’s ministry as the poetry of the colonies! And finally Mr. Snowden’s budget as the City of London’s song of love triumphant!

While drivelling about a social Shakespeare, MacDonald has overlooked Lenin. What a good thing for MacDonald, if not for Shakespeare, that the greatest English poet worked over three centuries ago: MacDonald has had sufficient time to see the Shakespeare in Shakespeare. He would never have recognized him had he been his contemporary. For MacDonald has overlooked – fully and completely overlooked – Lenin. Philistine blindness finds a dual expression: aimlessly sighing for Shakespeare, and ignoring his greatest contemporary.

“Socialism is interested in art and the classics.” It is amazing how this “poet” is able by his very touch to vulgarize an, idea in which there is, in itself, nothing vulgar. To be convinced of this it is enough to read his conclusion: “Even where great poverty and great unemployment exist as, unfortunately, they do in our country, the public must not begrudge the acquisition of pictures and in general anything that evokes ecstasy and elevates the spirit of young and old.” It is not, however, altogether clear from this excellent advice whether the acquisition of pictures is recommended to the unemployed themselves – this would presuppose an appropriate supplementary grant for their need- or whether MacDonald is advising the high-minded ladies and gentlemen to purchase pictures “despite the unemployment” and thereby to “elevate their spirit”. We must assume that the second is closer to the truth. But surely in that case we only see in front of us the liberal, drawing-room, Protestant clergyman who speaks a few tearful words about poverty and the “religion of conscience”, and then invites his worldly flock not to succumb completely to despondency but to continue their former way of life? After this let those who want to believe that materialism is vulgar, while MacDonald is a social poet yearning for Shakespeare. We consider that, if in the physical world there exists a degree of absolute cold, then in the spiritual world there must be a degree of absolute vulgarity which is equivalent to the ideological temperature of MacDonald.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb represent another variety of Fabianism. They are accustomed to assiduous work, they, know the value of facts and figures and this imposes a certain restriction on their diffuse thought. They are no less tedious than MacDonald, but they tend to be more instructive as long as they do not go beyond the bounds of factual research. In the sphere of generalizations they stand a little higher than MacDonald. At the Labour Party Conference in 1923 Sidney Webb recalled that the founder of British socialism was not Karl Marx but Robert Owen, who preached not the class struggle but the time-hallowed doctrine of the brotherhood of all mankind. To this day Sidney Webb regards John Stuart Mill as the classic figure of political economy and he accordingly teaches that a struggle must be waged not between capital and labour but between the overwhelming majority of the population and the appropriators of rent. This typifies the theoretical level of the Labour Party’s leading economist well enough.

As is well known the historical process, even in Britain, does not move as Webb dictates. The trade unions represent the organization of wage labour against capital. On the basis of the trade unions there grew up the Labour Party, which even made Webb a minister. He implemented his programme only in the sense that he did not conduct a struggle against the expropriators of surplus value. But he did not conduct one against the appropriators of rent either.

In 1923 the Webbs published a book, The Decay of Capitalist Civilization. The book represents in essence a partly diluted and partly renovated paraphrase of Kautsky’s [5] old commentaries on the Erfurt Programme. [6] Yet in The Decay of Capitalist Civilization the political tendency of Fabianism is expressed in its full hopelessness, and in this case semi-consciously. That the capitalist system must be changed, say the Webbs, there can be no doubt (to whom?). But the whole question is how it shall be changed. “It may by considerate adaptation be made to pass gradually and peacefully into a new form”. For this just one small thing is needed: good will from both sides. “Unfortunately”, our honourable authors relate, agreement cannot be reached with regard to how to change the capitalist system for “many” consider that the destruction of private property is tantamount to halting the rotation of the earth about its axis, “but they misunderstand the position”. There now, how unfortunate! Everything could be settled to the satisfaction of all by means of “considerate adaptation” if only workers and capitalists alike understood what needs to be done and how.

But since “so far” this has not been achieved, the capitalists are voting for the Conservatives. And the conclusion? Here the poor Fabians come unstuck altogether and even The Decay of Capitalist Civilization turns into a doleful “Decay of Fabian Civilization”. “Before the great war there seemed to be a substantial measure of consent”, the book recounts, “that the present-day social order had to be gradually changed, in the direction of greater equality” and so on. Whose consent? Where was this consent? – these people take their tiny Fabian anthill for the world.

“We thought, perhaps wrongly (!) that this characteristic (!) British acquiescence (!) on the part of a limited governing class in the rising claims” of the people “would continue and be extended” towards a peaceful transformation of society. “But after the War everything fell into desuetude: the conditions of existence worsened for the workers, we are threatened with the reestablishment of the veto power of the House of Lords, with the particular object of resisting further concessions to the workers” and so on.

What follows from all this? In the hopeless quest for a conclusion the Webbs have written their little book. Its closing lines are as follows: “In an attempt, possibly vain, to make the parties understand their problems and each other better ... we offer this little book.”

This is excellent: “a little book” as a means of reconciling the proletariat with the bourgeoisie! To sum up ... before the war there “seemed” to be consent that the existing system should be changed for the better; however there was not complete agreement on the nature of the change: the capitalists stood for private property, the workers against it; after the war the objective situation worsened and the political differences sharpened yet more: therefore the Webbs write a little book in the hope of bending both sides towards a reconciliation; but this hope is “possibly vain”. Yes, it possibly, very possibly is vain. These honourable Webbs who believe so much in the force of persuasion ought in our view, in the interests of “gradualness”, to have set themselves a simpler task, like, for example, that of persuading certain highly-placed Christian scoundrels to renounce their monopoly of the opium trade and their poisoning of millions of people in the East.

Poor, wretched, feeble-minded Fabianism – how disgusting its mental contortions are!

To attempt to turn over other philosophical varieties of Fabianism would be a futile task, since for these people “freedom of opinion” reigns only in the sense that each of the leaders has his own philosophy – which ultimately consists of the same reactionary elements of Conservatism, Liberalism and Protestantism but in differing combinations.

We were all surprised when, not so long ago, Bernard Shaw – such a witty writer! – informed us that Marx had long ago been superseded by Wells’s great work on universal history. [1*] Such discoveries, so surprising to all mankind, can be explained by the fact that the Fabians form, in a theoretical respect, an exceedingly cloistered little world, deeply provincial, despite the fact that they live in London. Their philosophical inventions are necessary neither to the Conservatives nor to the Liberals. Even less are they necessary to the working class, for whom they provide nothing and explain nothing. These works in the final reckoning serve merely to explain to the Fabians themselves why Fabianism exists in the world. Along with theological literature this is possibly the most useless, and certainly the most boring, type of literary activity.

In various spheres of life in Britain today the men of the “Victorian era” (i.e. public figures of the time of Queen Victoria) are spoken of with a certain contempt. Everything in Britain has moved on since that time but possibly the Fabian type has been the best preserved. The vulgarly optimistic Victorian epoch, when it seemed that tomorrow would be a little bit better than today and the day after that a bit better than tomorrow, has found its most finished expression in the Webbs, Snowden, MacDonald and the other Fabians. That is why they seem to be such clumsy and unnecessary survivals from an epoch that has suffered a final and irrevocable collapse. It can without exaggeration be said that the Fabian Society, which was founded in 1884 with the object of “arousing the social conscience”, is nowadays the most reactionary grouping in Great Britain. Neither the Conservative clubs, nor Oxford University, nor the English bishops and other priestly institutions can stand comparison with the Fabians. For all these are institutions of the enemy classes and the revolutionary movement of the proletariat will inevitably burst the dam they form. But the proletariat itself is restrained by precisely its own top leading layer, i.e. the Fabian politicians and their yes-men.

These pompous authorities, pedants and haughty, high-falutin’ cowards are systematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie continue to survive and even suppose themselves to be firmly in the saddle. The Fabians, the ILPers and the conservative trade union bureaucrats today represent the most counter-revolutionary force in Great Britain, and possibly in the present stage of development, in the whole world. Overthrowing the Fabians means liberating the revolutionary energy of the British proletariat, winning the British stronghold of reaction for socialism, liberating India and Egypt, and giving a powerful impetus to the movement and development of the peoples of the East.

Renouncing violence, the Fabians believe only in the power of the “idea”. If a wholesome grain can be sifted out of this trivial and hypocritical philosophy then it lies in the fact that no regime can maintain itself by violence alone. This applies equally to the regime of British imperialism. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population consists of proletarians the governing Conservative-Liberal imperialist clique would not be able to last a single day if it were not for the fact that the means of violence in its hands are reinforced, supplemented and disguised by pseudo-socialist ideas that ensnare and break up the proletariat.

The French “enlighteners” of the 18th century [7] saw their main enemy as Catholicism, clericalism and the priesthood, and considered that they had to strangle this reptile before they could move forward. They were right in the sense that it was this very priesthood, an organized regime of superstition, the Catholic spiritual police apparatus, that stood in the way of bourgeois society, retarding the development of science, art, political ideas and economics. Fabianism, MacDonaldism and pacifism today play the same role in relation to the historical movement of the proletariat. They are the main prop of British imperialism and of the European, if not the world bourgeoisie. Workers must at all costs be shown these self-satisfied pedants, drivelling eclectics, sentimental careerists and liveried footmen of the bourgeoisie in their true colours. To show them up for what they are means to discredit them beyond repair. To discredit them means rendering a supreme service to historical progress. The day that the British proletariat cleanses itself of the spiritual abomination of Fabianism, mankind, especially in Europe, will increase its stature by a head.

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1+. I must confess that until Bernard Shaw’s letter I had not even known of the existence of this book. Afterwards I acquainted myself with it – I cannot in good conscience say read it because an acquaintance with two or three chapters was quite enough to stop me wasting any more time. Imagine a complete absence of method, of historical perspective, of understanding of the interdependence of the different facets of social life, and of scientific discipline in general and then imagine a “historian” burdened with these qualities roaming far and wide over the history of a few millenia with the carefree air of a man taking his Sunday stroll. Then you will have Wells’s book, which is to replace the Marxist school. – L.D.T.


1. See Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Moscow 1965), pp.729-30, which includes the following passage about the Duchess of Sutherland’s tenants: “From 1814 to 1820 there 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically, hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, and their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of her hut, which she refused to leave.”

2. Established in 1893, the ILP aimed at securing Parliamentary and local government representation for the workers on the basis of reformist political aims. It played an important role in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and provided its main political life until constituency organizations of the Labour Party were firmly established in 1918. After this it put forward policies within the Labour Party opposed to the right-wing and eventually broke from it altogether in 1931. It then dwindled into centrist isolation, nevertheless providing an important focus for some debates on socialist strategy in the 1930s. [In the 30s it was one area in which Trotskyists operated. See Bornstein & Richardson, Against the Stream. Note by ERC]

3. The alliance of France, Russia and Britain that fought the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War. The Entente was later joined by Italy, Rumania, Portugal and the United States.

4. The break of Christianity from the power of the Papacy and some of its doctrines began with the work of Martin Luther (q.v., Chap.6 n.11) and was developed later by the Calvinists (q.v., Chap.3 n.3) among others. In Britain it was initiated by a political quarrel between Henry VIII and the Pope in the 1520s and developed by the expropriation of the monasteries in the following period and the establishment of a new, national Anglican Church.

5. Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) was one of the leading theoreticians of the German Social Democratic Party and the Second International. By the outbreak of the First World War he had abandoned revolutionary Marxism and took up an indecisive position between revolutionary opposition to the war and patriotic support for the German bourgeoisie. As such he became the theorist of “centrism” in the socialist movement and strongly opposed the Russian Revolution.

6. The Erfurt Programme of the German Social-Democratic Party was drafted by Kautsky in 1891 and, revised according to Engels’ criticism, was adopted as the official programme of the party and formed the model for the programme of the Russian and other Social-Democratic parties.

7. The eighteenth century philosophers and writers like Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau and others who anticipated the French bourgeois revolution in their ideological opposition to superstition and prejudice and propounded a materialist view of man and an idealist conception of the history of society.

Volume 2 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007