International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 2

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview

F

THE FABIAN SOCIETY . An organization formed in London in 1884, to combat widespread poverty and destitution and foster equality, through a reconstruction of the social order along socialist lines. Notable early Fabians included the sociologists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the political scientist Graham Wallas, the Colonial Office civil servant and future colonial governor Sydney Olivier and the dramatist and polemicist George Bernard Shaw.

The name Fabian was derived from the Roman General, Quintus Fabius Cunctator, whose delaying tactics and guerilla warfare enabled him to turn back Hannibal's invasion of Italy in the third century B.C.E. The Fabian Society's motto reads: "For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays, but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless." Sidney Webb summarized the Fabian approach in succinct and memorable terms as "the inevitability of gradualness." The society's emblem is a tortoise with its right front foot raised, over the motto "When I strike, I strike hard."

The aims of the Fabian Society were socialist, but its methods were evolutionary and reformist. The strength of the Fabians stemmed from their insistence on painstaking research and reasoned argument. Beatrice and Sidney Webb saw clearly that social reform would not be brought about by "shouting." "What is needed," they wrote in A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain in 1920, "is hard thinking" (p. 174). "Above all," the historian Ben Pimlott pointed out in his preface to Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought in 1984, "the Fabians believed in the power of ideas" (p. vii). The society adopted the tradition of social investigation, which Charles Booth exemplified in 1892 with Life and Labour of the People in London. It was axiomatic for the Fabians that careful examination of social problems would provide the basis for their solutions. The solutions, in turn, could be counted on to be along socialist lines. In the view of the Webbs, it was from the actual facts and coldly impassive arguments that socialism drew its irresistible energy. A list of key Fabian achievements drawn up by Margaret Cole -- chair of the Fabian Society in the years 1955-1956 and president from 1962 to 1980-includes "having insisted on laying a foundation of facts for all assertions" (p. 328).

Once facts had been accumulated and ideas and policies developed, the society had the further task of publicizing and disseminating them. The Fabian Basis -- a statement of objectives adopted in 1887 -- in part commits the society to further its objectives "by the general dissemination of knowledge as to the relation between the individual and society in its economic, ethical and political aspects." Fabian Essays in Socialism ( Shaw 1889) -- the society's first book -- sold 46,000 copies prior to World War I and is still in print. Shaw's preface to the 1931 edition describes the collection as "inextinguishable." The establishment of the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895 and the launching of the New Statesman, a weekly journal of fact and discussion, in 1912 were further Fabian initiatives, instigated by the Webbs in order to gain converts for socialism. An 1898 entry from Beatrice Webb's diary, in the edition prepared by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie in 1982, reads in part: "No young man or woman who is anxious to study or to work in public affairs can fail to come under our influence" (p. 132).


Political Influence

In the absence of a Labour Party, which was not formed until 1900, the Fabians used their facts and arguments to induce the Liberal Party and the Tories to adopt socialist ideas without recognizing their socialist implications. The tactic was known to the Fabian Society as "permeation." As Shaw ( 1892) recalled: "We permeated the party organisations and pulled all the wires we could lay our hands on with our utmost adroitness and energy" (p. 19). G. D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate in The Common People 1746-1946 see the Fabians as having managed in this spirit "to express an essentially Socialist philosophy in terms of immediate proposals which made a strong appeal to many reformers who were by no means Socialists" (p. 423). Permeation gained the Fabian Society a number of notable successes, such as the adoption of Fabian policies by the Liberal-dominated Progressive Party in the London County Council in the 1890s and the 1902 and 1903 enactment by Arthur Balfour's Tory government of the Education Acts, which are seen by Margaret Cole ( 1961) as "very nearly the dream of Fabian 'permeators' come to life -- proposals drafted by intelligent and hard-working Fabians, conveyed to puzzled or sympathetic administrators and carried into effect by a Conservative Government" (p. 107).

The Fabians also interested themselves extensively in improving public administration and the machinery of government. Fabian books and pamphlets routinely set out the administrative arrangements through which the society's proposals were to be given effect. Public administration was a key focus for the London School of Economics, where Sidney Webb was professor of Public Administration from 1912 until 1927. Official committees of inquiry into administrative issues -- such as the Haldane committee on the machinery of government in 1919 -- included Fabians among their members and took evidence researched for them by specialist Fabian groups. The society's centenary historian, Patricia Pugh, writes in a letter that the Fabians "came to believe that they knew how to run things far better than other people, and that their role was both to

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International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 2
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