Fabian Essays in Socialism
By George Bernard Shaw
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
H. G. Wilshire, American editor.
First Pub. Date
New York: The Humboldt Publishing Co.
Collected essays, various authors. Includes "Industry under Socialism," by Annie Besant.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
Preface to the American Edition,
by H. G. Wilshire
THE Fabian Society, which has already issued twenty-five thousand copies of this collection of essays, is an association of Socialists, including in their ranks some of the ablest of England’s economic writers, and having their headquarters in London, with affiliated independent branches in most of the principal cities and large towns of Great Britain and Ireland.
From the official statement of their principles, I quote as follows:
“The Fabian Society aims at the reorganization of Society by the emancipation of Land and industrial Capital from individual and class ownership, and the vesting of them in the community for the general benefit. In this way only can the natural and acquired advantages of the country be equitably shared by the whole people.
The Society accordingly works for the extinction of private property in land and of the consequent individual appropriation, in the form of Rent, of the price paid for permission to use the earth, as well as for the advantages of superior soils and sites.
The Society, further, works for the transfer to the community of the administration of such industrial Capital as can conveniently be managed socially. For, owing to the monopoly of the means of production in the past, industrial inventions and the transformation of surplus income into Capital have mainly enriched the proprietary class, the worker being now dependent on that class for leave to earn a living.
If these measures be carried out, without compensation (though not without such relief to expropriated individuals as may seem fit to the community), Rent and Interest will be added to the reward of labor, the idle class now living on the labor of others will necessarily disappear, and practical equality of opportunity will be maintained by the spontaneous action of economic forces with much less interference with personal liberty than the present system entails.
For the attainment of these ends the Fabian Society looks to the spread of Socialist opinions, and the social and political changes consequent thereon. It seeks to promote these by the general dissemination of knowledge as to the relation between the individual and Society in its economic, ethical, and political aspects.
The work of the Fabian Society takes, at present, the following forms:—
1. Meetings for the discussion of questions connected with Socialism.
2. Meetings of a more public character, for the promulgation of Socialist opinions.
3. The further investigation of economic problems, and the collection of facts contributing to their elucidation.
The publication of pamphlets containing information on social questions, or arguments relating to Socialism.
5. The promotion of Socialist lectures and debates in other Societies.
6. The representation of the Society in public conferences and discussions on social questions.
7. The organization of conferences of Social reformers, with a view to common action.
The purely political work of the Society is in the hands of its Political Committee.
The members, divided into local groups, are pledged to take part according to their abilities and opportunities in the general work of the Society, especially as regards their own localities, and although there is no compulsory subscription, are expected to contribute annually to the Society’s funds. The amount of each member’s subscription is known only to the Executive Committee.
The Society seeks recruits from all ranks, believing hat not only those who suffer from the present system, but also many who are themselves enriched by it, recognize its evils and would welcome a remedy.
The Society meets on the first and third Fridays in the month, at 8 p.m. Further information may be obtained from the Secretary, E. R. Pease, 276 Strand, W. C., London, England.”
To the American reader of these essays, it may prove a matter of surprise to learn that English Socialists find in the United States the most pronounced economic phenomena, which, to their eyes at least, seem to prognosticate
the near approach of the coming social revolution. I refer to the “Trusts.”
It may be remarked, however, that while they consider the “Trust” as a symptom that the competitive system is in its last throes, they wait for the appearance of similar industrial combinations in England to stir Englishmen to a revolt; and that Americans, as if to square the account of ’76, are to learn revolution from their trans-Atlantic cousins.
By “revolution” is to be understood, of course, not violence, but a complete change of system; and by “revolutionists,” those who advocate such a complete change. As Lassalle reminded us years ago, trifling reforms may be, and often have been, accompanied by excessive bloodshed, while revolutions have worked themselves out in the profoundest tranquillity.
It seems to be typical of all social revolutionists that national pride always asserts itself, no matter how much patriotism may be decried as mere racial selfishness whenever discussion arises as to which nation is to be the first to throw off the shackles of capitalism.
The Fabian essayists certainly make out a strong case in England’s favor.
The German points with pride to the million and a half votes polled by the Socialists at the last elections for the Reichstag.
The Belgian asks but for universal suffrage to show the world what he will do in the way of revolution.
I, as an American Socialist, put forth my patriotic plea in favor of my own country’s prospects of being the first to inaugurate the era of industrial emancipation.
There is one point upon which I think all Socialists are agreed, namely, that it is one and the same golden chain that fetters the proletariat of all nations, and that the weakest link in that chain is the measure of the strength of the present social system. Snap but one link in any country, and at the same moment the proletariat of the world are free.
The social revolution, when it does come, must soon be international, (though resting perhaps for a period upon national Socialism). I imagine, for instance, that on gaining universal suffrage, Belgium’s proletariat should expropriate the capitalists and inaugurate a successful coöperative commonwealth. Is it possible to conceive that workingmen of all nations would not make a successful demand for the establishment of a like social system in their own respective countries? Moreover, the general industrial condition of the great nations is approximately the same. All complain of overproduction. All are vainly trying to solve the question of the unemployed; in all the tendency to great social change is a marked feature. In all the great capitalists, crushing out their smaller rivals and concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands, are the true progenitors of the revolution.
The proletariat of the United States, the nation that certainly furnishes the best educational facilities for demonstrating the advantages of the concentration and crystallization of capital, should naturally and logically be the first to strike for economic freedom. To-day, in the United States, 50,000 people, out of a population of over sixty-three millions, own everything worth having in the whole country.
Four men, viz.: Gould, Astor, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, practically control, and, what is more important, are rapidly absorbing the wealth of this 50,000. The day is not so very far distant, and a sociologist can predict almost its exact appearance, just as an astronomer calculates the date of an eclipse of the sun, when, if no structural change in society takes place, these four men will be the sole owners of the United States. I think that, if such a state of affairs should come about, no one would differ with me when I say that it would force a reconstruction of society. In other words, the sixty odd millions of people in the United States may now rest undisturbed, and allow a plutocracy of 50,000 to own their country; but when it shall come to having only four own it, patience will cease to be a virtue.
That the tendency of the wealth of the United States is to concentrate into larger and larger masses, held by a constantly diminishing number of capitalists, is not disputed by anyone at all familiar with the statistics of the case. This process continued and followed to its logical
conclusion must lead inevitably to Socialism. If Jay Gould & Co. are not to own the railways and telegraphs, the land and machinery, there can be but one possible successor, viz.: the people, as represented by the National government. Hence, the only possible chance of retarding the approach of Socialism, is to stop the tendency of capital to congeal in a few hands. Some plan must be devised to prevent Gould and Vanderbilt gobbling up more railways; to keep Astor’s hands off city lots, and to check Rockefeller’s insatiable and omnivorous appetite for industrial plants. It requires but slight intelligence to comprehend that neither a high nor a low tariff, nor free trade, would appreciably affect Vanderbilt’s income. Fiscal legislation, whether it takes the form of free coinage of silver, lending money on crops, or increasing paper money until the circulation is $50 or $5,000 per capita, will never divert the Pactolian stream which flows into Mr. Gould’s golden reservoir.
Even the nationalization of the railways and telegraphs, although proposed as a reactionary measure calculated to enable farmers, by obtaining lower freight rates, to increase their margin of profit sufficiently to enable them to hold their own as independent producers, would, if put into effect, but precipitate the very event which it is hoped to retard. Governmental ownership of railways would involve the payment of several thousand million dollars to the present owners of railway securities, all of which must seek reinvestment. Senator Carlisle’s objection as to the difficulty of raising the money for such a purchase is
trivial. The credit of the United States is good enough to float bonds for many times the amount required, although to purchase at their present fancy valuation of watered stocks would be utterly unwise and unnecessary. The great problem to be solved is, as stated, for the present owners to find a safe and profitable place to reinvest the thousands of millions of dollars received in exchange for their railways. The channels for profitable investment of such a large amount of money are certainly not visible. It could not be spent in building new oil refineries, as Mr. Rockefeller, of the Standard Oil Trust, is armed with statistics to prove that there are too many oil refineries already. The same blockade to the entrance of fresh capital into the building of more sugar refineries is also sure to be encountered, as Mr. Havemeyer, of that trust, says that he is compelled to shut down part of the refineries already in existence, to prevent the unprofitable overproduction which would otherwise ensue. That there is absolutely no chance at all to-day to invest any considerable amount of capital in building
new machinery of production in the United States, is a palpable truism with financiers. The only chance for an individual to invest is to purchase existing plants, but that simply is shifting the solving of the investment problem from one capitalist to another, and usually from the large capitalist to the small one.
Nationalization of the railways in the United States would mean the immediate expropriation of all small capitalists by the big ones. If Gould, Vanderbilt & Co.
cannot own railways, they will invest their money, both principal and income, in flour mills, gas works, cotton mills, etc., and the pseudo-owners of those industries will soon be enlisted in the ranks of the proletariat under the banner of Socialism. Nationalization of the railways could not possibly be effected without causing the crystallization of all capital invested in the other industries of the United States in the hands of such a comparatively small number of owners that the advent of Socialism would certainly be almost instantaneous.
The problem of giving work to the unemployed, although just at present not a threatening one in the United States, is, however, destined soon to become one of the utmost importance, and at any time liable to come to the front.
There are, at present, according to Carroll D. Wright’s governmental statistics, on an average, over one million able-bodied men in the United States willing to work, yet unable to find employment. The pressure of these upon the ranks of the employed effectually prevents wages rising above the point of mere subsistence. Hence the very fact that we in the United States have such a fertile soil, in such unlimited quantities, such ingenious labor-saving machinery, together with an industrious and intelligent population, tends to make the problem of the unemployed but the more threatening, since these very elements only conduce to an enormous product per capita, with no corresponding methods of distribution. The old-time argument,
that our great farming population, with its members all owning their own homes, would always prove an inseparable barrier to Socialism in the United States, is completely out of date, now-a-days, seeing that the greater part of our farmers are already proletarians, while the few that still own their own farms are hopelessly in debt, and even they are demanding the most Socialistic measures, such as national warehouses for grain, and nationalization of railways. Considering how near at hand is the great social metamorphosis, I would earnestly advise the readers of these exceedingly clever and able essays to give them deepest thought. They express clearly the nature of the crisis through which we are now passing, a crisis in which none who well understand it can fail to be vitally interested. We are now swinging on the hinge of destiny, we are in the transition state of the greatest sociologic event that history has yet recorded. Let him who runs, read.
The Basis of Socialism, Historic, by Sidney Webb.