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International Socialism, Summer 1966


Bernard Ross

Right Book Club


From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.32.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884-1918
A.M. McBriar
Cambridge, 17s 6d

The Fabian Society constitutes something of an enigma in the history of the British labour movement. Founded at the same time as the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, it soon adopted a position on the right flank of British Socialism. Proudly assuming a standpoint of unemotional, classless intellectualism, it insisted that Socialism could and must be reached through a gradual evolution based on existing Parliamentary institutions. Yet it would be hard to deny that the Fabians were Socialists; at least their forthright rejection of private capitalism, and the extent of their demands for social welfare, would place them far to the left of the Labour Party today.

McBriar’s book – a rather expensive paperback reprint of a work which first appeared in 1962 – is of considerable value in analysing the nature of Fabian Socialism and the attitude of the Society to the main issues which arose in the period up to 1918. More important perhaps, he explodes the myth that the Society deserves any credit for the formation of the Labour Party and its early development. Indeed, he shows that despite the faith which Fabians placed in ‘permeation’ of other organisations, the record of their influence in contemporary politics is one of notable failure. Although such contrasting figures as Mann, Tillett, Hardie and McDonald were for a time members of the Society, working-class labour leaders were easily antagonised by the apparent opportunism of the Fabians. Thus Fabian influence on the detailed policies of the Labour Party only begins where McBriar’s book ends.

As far as it goes, this book is unexceptionable; certainly it would be churlish to point to the few factual errors which mar McBriar’s careful documentation. But its value is considerably diminished by the points which the author fails to consider adequately. A minor point, but central to the book’s purpose, is the extent to which it is possible to distinguish a doctrine of Fabianism from the views of the main ideologues, the Webbs. But far more important a problem is the achievement of the Fabians in implanting their philosophy of constitutional gradualism in the vitals of the political and industrial labour movement. The explanation of this success lies in the political and economic background of the period; and McBriar, far from examining this, appears to consider it irrelevant to his work. The book suffers accordingly.

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