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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


David Cairns



From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, pp.39-40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884-1918
A.M. McBriar
Cambridge University Press

The thesis, implied in the title, of Joseph Clayton’s book, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain. 1884-1924, has much to commend it, in the sense that those crucial years witnessed the failure of the British labour movement, particularly its intellectuals, to consolidate the political and doctrinal gains of the nineteenth century, and to take advantage of the combination of economic and social circumstances that were so conducive to a real socialist breakthrough. As it is the period is a history of in-fighting and, most pitiful, of seduction; hence the plethora of books with such titles as From Crow-scaring to Westminster, From Workshop to War Cabinet, etc. It is the part played by the Fabians in this period that McBriar sets put to analyze. As he emphasises his book is not a history of the Fabian Society, nor is it concerned with individuals as such. What he tries to do is to grasp in its essentials that peculiar complex of middle class intellectualism known asFabianism’, which not only heavily influenced the Labour Party from the latter part of the 1914-18 War onwards, but also foreign socialists, such as Bernstein. The effort has proved to be well worthwhile; McBriar relates and interprets successfully the mass of Fabian writing, both official and unofficial. The later chapters on the precise nature of Fabian influence on the LCC, ILP, Liberal Party and Labour Party are less important than the first six chapters on Fabian economics, sociology, philosophy and ethics.

The lesson to be learned from this analysis is clear – that the middle class pragmatism and empiricism of formative Fabianism has left a burdening legacy on the British labour movement. Springing from awell-intentioned’ disapproval of the muddle ofhigh capitalism’ the Fabians offered solutions which aimed primarily at ordering British society in a more efficient way. This emphasis on promoting order, so aptly described by Orwell as being one of the worst types of socialist motive, became the crux of Fabian philosophy; yet for all that Fabianism has never had a clear-cut theory of its version of socialism. And this very failure is one of the most significant examples of the hopeless task of a social analysis that tries toget at the facts’ in the absence of a theoretical frame of reference.

Herein lies the roots of Fabian flirtations with, inter alia, deism, organicism and neo-fascism. As McBriar emphasises, the worst excesses of Fabianism have been exaggerated; but its permeative tactics, eclecticism and pragmatism, and its lack of sympathy with and appreciation of the role of the working class inevitably led it into the most obscure and distasteful realms of social thought. Even less coherent now than it was at the beginning of the century the influence of Fabianism in ideological terms is no less obvious in contemporary politics McBriar’s excellently compiled book should be read mainly for the negative lessons it has to teach.

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