In 1884 The Fabian Society was founded in England with the aim of bringing about a socialist society by means of intellectual debate, the publication of books and pamphlets, and the “permeation” of socialist ideas into the universities, the press, government institutions, and political parties. This was in marked contrast to the other means of bringing about socialism which was adopted by Marxist parties, namely the use of violence and revolution to overthrow capitalism. The Fabian Society was named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus who used tactics of attrition and delay (what we might now call guerrilla tactics) rather than direct military confrontation to defeat the enemy. Thus one might describe the tactics of the Fabian Society as one of “intellectual guerrilla warfare” against free market societies. Some of the Society’s early members included the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the writers and educators Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, and the novelist H. G. Wells.The Fabian Society has been enormously influential in British and Australian politics over the past 120 years: it used a bequest to found the London School of Economics in 1895 (it is rather ironic then that this is where
Friedrich Hayek taught from 1931 to 1950), it joined with the trade unions to found the British Labour Party in 1900, it founded the magazine the
New Statesman in 1913, it laid the intellectual foundations for the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War (over 220 Labour MPs elected in the landslide victory of 1945 were members of the Fabian Society), and it was important in the revitalisation of the Labour Party in the 1990s by publishing Tony Blair’s pamphlet on the “Third Way.”In 1889 the Fabian Society published a collection of essays,
Fabian Essays in Socialism edited by George Bernard Shaw, in order to present their ideas in a coherent form. The first print run was a conservative 1,000 copies but after 2 years the Society had sold over 27,000 copies of the book.Two years before the founding of the Fabian Society a group of supporters of individual liberty and free markets led by the Earl of Wemyss had founded the Liberty and Property Defense League. Whereas the Fabian Society wanted to turn socialism from a minority intellectual and political movement into a mainstream movement, the Liberty and Property Defense League was trying to prevent the slow degeneration of classical liberalism into a new form of liberalism which supported increasing amounts of government intervention in the economy. The League quickly recognised the importance of the Fabian Society’s intellectual challenge to free market ideas with the publication of the
Fabian Essays in Socialism and in response asked the ex-wine merchant and author Thomas Mackay to put together a collection of essays to defend the free market from the Fabians’s critique. The result were two volumes of essays,
A Plea for Liberty which appeared in 1891 and
A Policy of Free Exchange which appeared in 1894.Historically one might argue that the Fabian Society “won” the intellectual and political war against the individualists and free marketeers as classical liberalism was largely a spent force by 1914. For the next 75 years socialism in its various forms (Marxist, National, Fabian) was to be the dominant intellectual force. However, I would argue that the arguments put forward by the Liberty and Property Defense League have found a new significance and relevance after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the discrediting of the idea of centrally planned economies, and the rediscovery of market liberalism in the 1980s. Perhaps if societies had heeded the warnings and predictions of the dire consequences of socialism made by Mackay and his co-authors in the early 1890s some of the economic and political catastrophes of the 20th century might have been avoided.Dr. David M. Hart

Library of Economics and Liberty

April 2003Further Reading“The Fabian Society” at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) website.“A Short History of the Fabian Society” at the Fabian Society website“A History of the Fabian Society” at the Fabian Society website