George Bernard Shaw - 1915

On the History of Fabian Economics

Written: 1915
First Published: 1916
Source: Edward Pease, The History of the Fabian Society (London, 1916), Appendix I.
Transcription:Steve Palmer
Markup: Steve Palmer
Proofread: Unknown
Copyleft: Internet Archive( 2009. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Mr. Barker's guesses greatly underrate the number of tributaries which enlarged the trickle of Socialist thought into a mighty river. They also shew how quickly waves of thought are forgotten. Far from being the economic apostle of Socialism, Mill, in the days when the Fabian Society took the field, was regarded as the standard authority for solving the social problem by a combination of peasant proprietorship with neo-Malthusianism. The Dialectical Society, which was a centre of the most advanced thought in London until the Fabian Society supplanted it, was founded to advocate the principles of Mill's Essay on Liberty, which was much more the Bible of English Individualism than Das Kapital ever was of English Socialism. As late as 1888 Henry Sidgwick, a follower of Mill, rose indignantly at the meeting of the British Association in Bath, to which I had just read the paper on The Transition to Social-Democracy, which was subsequently published; as one of the Fabian Essays, and declared that I had advocated nationalisation of land; that nationalisation of land was a crime; and that he would not take part in a discussion of a criminal proposal. With that he left the platform, all the more impressively as his apparently mild and judicial temperament made the incident so unexpected that his friends who had not actually witnessed it were with difficulty persuaded that it had really happened. It illustrates the entire failure of Mill up to that date to undo the individualistic teaching of the earlier volumes of his Political Economy by the Socialist conclusions to which his work on the treatise led him at the end. Sidney Webb astonished and confounded our Individualist opponents by citing Mill against them; and it is probably due to Webb more than to any other disciple that it is now generally known that Mill died a Socialist. Webb read Mill and mastered Mill as he seemed to have read and mastered everybody else; but the only other prominent Socialist who can be claimed by Mill as a convert was, rather unexpectedly, William Morris, who said that when he read the passage in which Mill, after admitting that the worst evils of Communism are, compared to the evils of our Commercialism, as dust in the balance, nevertheless condemned Communism, he immediately became a Communist, as Mill had clearly given his verdict against the evidence. Except in these instances we heard nothing of Mill in the Fabian Society. Cairnes's denunciation of the idle consumers of rent and interest was frequently quoted; and Marshall's Economics of Industry was put into our book boxes as a textbook; but the taste for abstract economics was no more general in the Fabian Society than elsewhere. I had in my boyhood read some of Mill's detached essays, including those on constitutional government and on the Irish land question, as well as the inevitable one on Liberty; but none of these pointed to Socialism; and my attention was first drawn to political economy as the science of social salvation by Henry George's eloquence, and by his Progress and Poverty, which had an enormous circulation in the early eighties, and beyond all question had more to do with the Socialist revival of that period in England than any other book. Before the Fabian Society existed I pressed George's propaganda of Land Nationalisation on a meeting of the Democratic Federation, but was told to read Karl Marx. I was so complete a novice in economics at that time that when I wrote a letter to Justice pointing out a flaw in Marx's reasoning, I regarded my letter merely as a joke, and fully expected that some more expert Socialist economist would refute me easily. Even when the refutation did not arrive I remained so impressed with the literary power and overwhelming documentation of Marx's indictment of nineteenth-century Commercialism and the capitalist system, that I defended him against all comers in and out of season until Philip Wicksteed, the well-known Dante commentator, then a popular Unitarian minister, brought me to a standstill by a criticism of Marx which I did not understand. This was the first appearance in Socialist controversy of the value theory of Jevons, published in 1871. Professor Edgeworth and Mr. Wicksteed, to whom Jevons appealed as a mathematician, were at that time trying to convince the academic world of the importance of Jevons's theory; but I, not being a mathematician, was not easily accessible to their methods of demonstration. I consented to reply to Mr. Wicksteed on the express condition that the editor of To-day, in which my reply appeared, should find space for a rejoinder by Mr. Wicksteed. My reply, which was not bad for a fake, and contained the germ of the economic argument for equality of income which I put forward twenty-five years later, elicited only a brief rejoinder; but the upshot was that I put myself into Mr. Wicksteed's hands and became a convinced Jevonian, fascinated by the subtlety of Jevons's theory and the exquisiteness with which it adapted itself to all the cases which had driven previous economists, including Marx, to take refuge in clumsy distinctions between use value, exchange value, labour value, supply and demand value, and the rest of the muddlements of that time.

Accordingly, the abstract economics of the Fabian Essays are, as regards value, the economics of Jevons. As regards rent they are the economics of Ricardo, which I, having thrown myself into the study of abstract economics, had learnt from Ricardo's own works and from De Quincey's Logic of Political Economy. I maintained, as I still do, that the older economists, writing before Socialism had arisen as a possible alternative to Commercialism and a menace to its vested interests, were far more candid in their statements and thorough in their reasoning than their successors, and was fond of citing the references in De Quincey and Austin's Lectures on Jurisprudence to the country gentleman system and the evils of capitalism, as instances of frankness upon which no modern professor dare venture.

The economical and moral identity of capital and interest with land and rent was popularly demonstrated by Olivier in Tract 7 on Capital and Land, and put into strict academic form by Sidney Webb. The point was of importance at a time when the distinction was still so strongly maintained that the Fabian Society was compelled to exclude Land Nationalizers, both before and after their development into Single Taxers, because they held that though land and rent should be socialized, capital and interest must remain private property.

This really exhausts the history of the Fabian Society as far as abstract economic theory is concerned. Activity in that department was confined to Webb and myself. Later on, Pease's interest in banking and currency led him to contribute some criticism of the schemes of the currency cranks who infest all advanced movements, flourishing the paper money of the Guernsey Market, and to give the Society some positive guidance as to the rapid integration of modern banking. But this was an essay in applied economics. It may be impossible to draw a line between the old abstract deductive economics and the modern historical concrete economics; but the fact remains that though the water may be the same, the tide has turned. A comparison of my exposition of the law of rent in my first Fabian Essay and in my Impossibilities of Anarchism with the Webbs' great Histories of Trade Unionism and of Industrial Democracy will illustrate the difference between the two schools.

The departure was made by Graham Wallas, who, abandoning the deductive construction of intellectual theorems, made an exhaustive study of the Chartist movement. It is greatly to be regretted that these lectures were not effectively published. Their delivery wrought a tremendous disillusion as to the novelty of our ideas and methods of propaganda; much new gospel suddenly appeared to us as stale failure; and we recognized that there had been weak men before Agamemnon, even as far back as in Cromwell's army. The necessity for mastering the history of our own movement and falling into our ordered place in it became apparent; and it was in this new frame of mind that the monumental series of works by the Webbs came into existence. Wallas's Life of Francis Place shows his power of reconstructing a popular agitation with a realism which leaves the conventional imaginary version of it punctured and flaccid; and it was by doing the same for the Chartist movement that he left his mark on us.

Of the other Essayists, Olivier had wrestled with the huge Positive Philosophy of Comte, who thus comes in as a Fabian influence. William Clarke was a disciple of Mazzini, and found Emerson, Thoreau, and the Brook Farm enthusiasts congenial to him. Bland, who at last became a professed Catholic, was something of a Coleridgian transcendentalist, though he treated a copy of Bakunin's God and the State to a handsome binding. Mrs. Besant's spiritual history has been written by herself. Wallas brought to bear a wide scholastic culture of the classic type, in which modern writers, though interesting, were not fundamental. The general effect, it will be perceived, is very much wider and more various than that suggested by Mr. Ernest Barker's remark that Mill was our starting point.

It is a curious fact that of the three great propagandist amateurs of political economy, Henry George, Marx, and Ruskin, Ruskin alone seems to have had no effect on the Fabians. Here and there in the Socialist movement workmen turned up who had read Fors Clavigera or Unto This Last; and some of the more well-to-do no doubt had read the first chapter of Munera Pulveris. But Ruskin's name was hardly mentioned in the Fabian Society. My explanation is that, barring Olivier, the Fabians were inveterate Philistines. My efforts to induce them to publish Richard Wagner's Art and Revolution, and, later on, Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man under Socialism, or even to do justice to Morris's News From Nowhere, fell so flat that I doubt whether my colleagues were even conscious of them. Our best excuse must be that as a matter of practical experience English political societies do good work and present a dignified appearance whilst they attend seriously to their proper political business; but, to put it bluntly, they make themselves ridiculous and attract undesirables when they affect art and philosophy. The Arts and Crafts exhibitions, the Anti-Scrape (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), and the Art Workers' Guild, under Morris and Crane, kept up a very intimate connection between Art and Socialism; but the maintenance of Fabian friendly relations with them was left mostly to me and Stewart Headlam. The rest kept aloof and consoled themselves with the reflection - if they thought about it at all - that the Utilitarians, though even more Philistine than the Fabians, were astonishingly effective for their numbers.

It must be added that though the tradition that Socialism excludes the established creeds was overthrown by the Fabians, and the claim of the Christian Socialists to rank with the best of us was insisted on faithfully by them, the Fabian leaders did not break the tradition in their own practice. The contention of the Anti-Socialist Union that all Socialists are atheists is no doubt ridiculous in the face of the fact that the intellectual opposition to Socialism has been led exclusively by avowed atheists like Charles Bradlaugh or agnostics like Herbert Spencer, whilst Communism claims Jesus as an exponent; still, if the question be raised as to whether any of the Fabian Essayists attended an established place of worship regularly, the reply must be in the negative. Indeed, they were generally preaching themselves on Sundays. To describe them as irreligious in view of their work would be silly; but until Hubert Bland towards the end of his life took refuge in the Catholic Church, and Mrs. Besant devoted herself to Theosophy, no leading Fabian found a refuge for his soul in the temples of any established denomination. I may go further and admit that the first problems the Fabians had to solve were so completely on the materialist plane that the atmosphere inevitably became uncongenial to those whose capacity was wasted and whose sympathies were starved on that plane. Even psychical research, with which Pease and Podmore varied their Fabian activities, tended fatally towards the exposure of alleged psychical phenomena as physical tricks. The work that came to our hands in our first two decades was materialistic work; and it was not until the turn of the century brought us the Suffrage movement and the Wells raid, that the materialistic atmosphere gave way, and the Society began to retain recruits of a kind that it always lost in the earlier years as it lost Mrs. Besant and (virtually) William Clarke. It is certainly perceptibly less hard-headed than it was in its first period.