From International Socialism (1st series), No.10, Autumn 1962, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
With a new introduction by Asa Briggs
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This book is a monument – or is it a gravestone? – to British Socialism. Originally published in 1889, to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, its main task was to extinguish revolutionary fires – and it did its job exceedingly well. From that day to this, no. prominent or influential party in Britain has advocated social revolution. Meanwhile the Essays, their effect pervasive and prolonged, have been reprinted six times.
The famous theory of gradualism, the essence of Fabianism, is expounded in two distinct and conflicting ways. On the one hand, there is the idea that society is automatically socializing itself, that – as Webb says – ‘the economic history of the (19th) century is an almost continuous record of the progress of Socialism’, and that ‘there will never be a point at which a society crosses from Individualism to Socialism. The change is ever going forward; and our society is well on the way.’ (Besant) This theory leads them to contend that socialism permeates all classes and parties (‘we are all socialists now’, as Sir William Harcourt, a Liberal politician once said), and the only duty of an avowed socialist is to help this process along; there is no need for a separate socialist party, with an outlook and program all of its own.
The second theory, on the other hand, holds that, while powerful economic forces inevitably push society towards Socialism, the actual introduction of Socialism can only be brought about by a separately organised party. Its strategy must, or ought, to be struggling for piecemeal reforms; in time, brick by brick, reform by reform, a new socialist society will be built. This second theory, most clearly expressed in Hubert Bland’s essay, gives short shrift to the idea, implicit in the first, of permeating all political parties and sections of society.
To a left winger living in the cold disenchantment of the 1960s, the basic mistake of both schools of thought is that they equate Socialism with increasing state ownership and control. This error is not entirely their own property: the Fabians share this delusion with communists and latter-day Trotskyists. They fail to realise that capitalism is moving towards greater centralisation and state control because of an inherent tendency for a declining rate of profit; it should not be confused with Socialism, which involves a drastic change in the relationship of classes, with the workers gaining power. Writers workings in the Fabian tradition today – like Crosland. Douglas Jay, and Strachey – continue to advocate piecemeal reforms, although many critics would maintain that the pieces of meal are so small, so microscopic, as to involve little or no change to society’s structure. But the real contradiction in their stand is between home and foreign policy: in home affairs they are the chief apostles of gradualism, but in foreign affairs they are the chief advocates of a nuclear strategy. I might be wrong, but I don’t think that nuclear weapons – the equivalent of millions of tons of TNT – are the best means for achieving a gradual change.
Last updated: 19 March 2010