Fabian Essay


"For the right moment you must wait, as Fabian did, most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays, but when the time comes you must strike hard as Fabian did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless."—Fabian Motto.

The Basis of Socialism

by Sidney Webb
LL.B., Barrister at Law, Lecturer on Political Economy at the City of London College.

The Development of the Democratic Ideal.


IN discussing the historic groundwork of Socialism, it is worth remembering that no special claim is made for Socialism in the assertion that it possesses a basis in history. Just as every human being has an ancestry, unknown to him though it may be; so every idea, every incident, every movement has in the past its own long chain of causes, without which it could not have been. Formerly we were glad to let the dead bury their dead: nowadays we turn lovingly to the records, whether of persons or things; and we busy ourselves willingly among origins, even without conscious utilitarian end. We are no longer proud of having ancestors, since every one has them; but we are more than ever interested in our ancestors, now that we find in them the fragments which compose our very selves. The historic ancestry of the English social organization during the present century stands witness to the irresistible momentum of the ideas which Socialism denotes. The record of the century in English social history begins with the trial and hopeless failure of an almost complete industrial individualism, in which, however, unrestrained private ownership of land and capital was accompanied by subjection to a political oligarchy. So little element of permanence was there in this individualistic order that, with the progress of political emancipation, private ownership of the means of production has been, in one direction or another, successively regulated, limited and superseded, until it may now fairly be claimed that the Socialist philosophy of to-day is but the conscious and explicit assertion of principles of social organization which have been already in great part unconsciously adopted. The economic history of the century is an almost continuous record of the progress of Socialism.


Socialism too, has in the record of its internal development a history of its own. Down to the present generation, the aspirant after social regeneration naturally vindicated the practicability of his ideas by offering an elaborate plan with specifications of a new social order from which all contemporary evils were eliminated. Just as Plato had his Republic and Sir Thomas More his Utopia, so Babœuf had his Charter of Equality, Cabet his Icaria, St. Simon his Industrial System, and Fourier his ideal Phalanstery. Robert Owen spent a fortune in pressing upon an unbelieving generation his New Moral World; and even Auguste Comte, superior as he was to many of the weaknesses of his time, must needs add a detailed Polity to his Philosophy of Positivism.


The leading feature of all these proposals was what may be called their statical character. The ideal society was represented as in perfectly balanced equilibrium, without need or possibility of future organic alteration. Since their day we have learned that social reconstruction must not be gone at in this fashion. Owing mainly to the efforts of Comte, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, we can no longer think of the ideal society as an unchanging State. The social ideal from being static has become dynamic. The necessity of the constant growth and development of the social organism has become axiomatic. No philosopher now looks for anything but the gradual evolution of the new order from the old, without breach of continuity or abrupt change of the entire social tissue at any point during the process. The new becomes itself old, often before it is consciously recognized as new; and history shows us no example of the sudden substitutions of Utopian and revolutionary romance.


Though Socialists have learned this lesson better than most of their opponents, the common criticism of Socialism has not yet noted the change, and still deals mainly with the obsolete Utopias of the pre-evolutionary age. Parodies of the domestic details of an imaginary Phalanstery, and homilies on the failure of Brook Farm or Icaria, may be passed over as belated and irrelevant now that Socialists are only advocating the conscious adoption of a principle of social organization which the world has already found to be the inevitable outcome of Democracy and the Industrial Revolution. For Socialism is by this time a wave surging throughout all Europe; and for want of a grasp of the series of apparently unconnected events by which and with which it has been for two generations rapidly coming upon us—for want, in short, of knowledge of its intellectual history, we in England to-day see our political leaders in a general attitude of astonishment at the changing face of current politics; both great parties drifting vaguely before a nameless undercurrent which they fail utterly to recognize or understand. With some dim impression that Socialism is one of the Utopian dreams they remember to have heard comfortably disposed of in their academic youth as the impossible ideal of Humanity-intoxicated Frenchmen, they go their ways through the nineteenth century as a countryman blunders through Cheapside. One or two are history fanciers, learned in curious details of the past: the present eludes these no less than the others. They are so near to the individual events that they are blind to the onward sweep of the column. They cannot see the forest for the trees.


History not only gives the clew to the significance of contemporary events; it also enables us to understand those who have not yet found that clue. We learn to class men and ideas in a kind of geological order in time. The Comte de Paris gives us excellent proofs that in absolute monarchy lies the only safety of social order. He is a survival: the type flourished in the sixteenth century; and the splendid fossils of that age can be studied in any historic museum. Lord Bramwell will give cogent reasons for the belief that absolute freedom of contract, subject to the trifling exception of a drastic criminal law, will insure a perfect State. His lordship is a survival from a nearer epoch: about 1840 this was as far as social science had got; and there are still persons who have learned nothing of later date. When I see the Hipparion at South Kensington I do not take his unfamiliar points to be those of a horse of a superior kind: I know that he is an obsolete and superseded pattern, from which the horse has developed. Historic fossils are more dangerous; for they are left at large, and are not even excluded from Downing Street or Westminster. But against the stream of tendencies they are ultimately powerless. Though they sometimes appear victorious, each successive struggle takes place further down the current which they believe themselves to be resisting.


The main stream which has borne European society toward Socialism during the past 100 years is the irresistible progress of Democracy. De Tocqueville drove and hammered this truth into the reluctant ears of the Old World two generations ago; and we have all pretended to carry it about as part of our mental furniture ever since. But like most epigrammatic commonplaces, it is not generally realized; and De Tocqueville's book has, in due course, become a classic which every one quotes and nobody reads. The progress of Democracy is, in fact, often imagined, as by Sir Henry Maine, to be merely the substitution of one kind of political machinery for another; and there are many political Democrats to-day who cannot understand why social or economic matters should be mixed up with politics at all. It was not for this that they broke the power of the aristocracy: they were touched not so much with love of the many as with hatred of the few; and, as has been acutely said—though usually by foolish persons—they are Radicals merely because they are not themselves lords. But it will not long be possible for any man to persist in believing that the political organization of society can be completely altered without corresponding changes in economic and social relations. De Tocqueville expressly pointed out that the progress of Democracy meant nothing less than a complete dissolution of the nexus by which society was held together under the old régime. This dissolution is followed by a period of anarchic spiritual isolation of the individual from his fellows, and to that extent by a general denial of the very idea of society. But man is a social animal; and after more or less interval there necessarily comes into existence a new nexus, differing so entirely from the old-fashioned organization that the historic fossil goes about denying that it is a nexus at all, or that any new nexus is possible or desirable. To him, mostly through lack of economics, the progress of Democracy is nothing more than the destruction of old political privileges; and, naturally enough, few can see any beauty in mere dissolution and destruction. Those few are the purely political Radicals abhorred of Comte and Carlyle: they are in social matters the empiricist survivals from a prescientific age.


The mere Utopians, on the other hand, who wove the baseless fabric of their visions of reconstructed society on their own private looms, equally failed, as a rule, to comprehend the problem of the age. They were, in imagination, resuscitated Joseph the Seconds, benevolent despots who would have poured the old world, had it only been fluid, into their new molds. Against their crude plans the Statesman, the Radical, and the Political Economist were united; for they took no account of the blind social forces which they could not control, and which went on inexorably working out social salvation in ways unsuspected by the Utopian.


In the present Socialist movement these two streams are united: advocates of social reconstruction have learned the lesson of Democracy, and know that it is through the slow and gradual turning of the popular mind to new principles that social reorganization bit by bit comes. All students of society who are abreast of their time, Socialists as well as Individualists, realize that important organic changes can only be (1) democratic, and thus acceptable to a majority of the people, and prepared for in the minds of all; (2) gradual, and thus causing no dislocation, however rapid may be the rate of progress; (3) not regarded as immoral by the mass of the people, and thus not subjectively demoralizing to them; and (4) in this country at any rate, constitutional and peaceful. Socialists may, therefore, be quite at one with Radicals in their political methods. Radicals, on the other hand, are perforce realizing that mere political leveling is insufficient to save a State from anarchy and despair. Both sections have been driven to recognize that the root of the difficulty is economic; and there is every day a wider consensus that the inevitable outcome of Democracy is the control by the people themselves, not only of their own political organization, but, through that, also of the main instruments of wealth production; the gradual substitution of organized coöperation for the anarchy of the competitive struggle; and the consequent recovery, in the only possible way, of what John Stuart Mill calls "the enormous share which the possessors of the instruments of industry are able to take from the produce." The economic side of the democratic idea is, in fact, Socialism itself.

The Disintegration of the Old Synthesis.


At the middle of the last century Western Europe was still organized on a system of which the basis was virtually a surviving feudalism. The nexus between man and man was essentially a relation of superiority and inferiority. Social power still rested either with the monarch, or with the owners of large landed estates. Some inroads had already been made in the perfect symmetry of the organization, notably by the growth of towns, and the rise of the still comparatively small trading class; but the bulk of the population was arranged in an hierarchical series of classes, linked to one another by the bond of Power.


We are apt to think of England as differing in this respect from continental Europe, and to imagine that our popular freedom was won in 1688, if not in 1648, or even as far back as Magna Charta itself. But as regards the people at large, this was, in the main, merely a difference in political form. In England the aristocratic oligarchy had prevailed over the monarch: In France the King had defeated the Fronde. For the mass of the people in either country there was nothing but obedience.


Even in England the whole political administration was divided between the king and the great families; and not one person in 500 possessed so much as a vote. As lately as 1831 one hundred and fifty persons returned a majority of the House of Commons (Molesworth, History of the Reform Bill, p. 347). The Church, once a universal democratic organization of international fraternity, had become a mere appanage of the landed gentry. The administration of justice and of the executive government was entirely in their hands, while Parliament was filled with their leaders or nominees. No avenue of advancement existed for even exceptionally gifted sons of the people; and the masses found themselves born into a position of lifelong dependence upon a class of superior birth.


The economic organization was of a similar character. Two-thirds of the population tilled the soil, and dwelt in lonely hamlets scattered about the still sparsely inhabited country. Though possessing the remnants of ancient communal rights, they were practically dependent on the farmers of the parish, who fixed their wages by a constant tacit conspiracy. The farmers themselves were the obedient serfs of the large proprietors, to whom they paid a customary rent. Though nominally free to move, both farmers and laborers were practically fettered to the manor by their ignorance and their poverty; and though the lord had lost the criminal jurisdiction of his manorial courts, his powers as Justice of the Peace formed a full equivalent. His unrestrained ownership of the land enabled him to take for himself as rent the whole advantage of all but the very worst of the soils in use; and the lingering manorial rights gave him toll even from that worst. Throughout the country-side his word was law and his power irresistible. It was a world whose nexus was might, economic and political, tempered only by custom and lack of stimulus to change. The poor were not necessarily worse off in material matters than they are now: the agricultural laborer, indeed, was apparently better off in 1750 than at any other time between 1450 and 1850. But it was a world still mainly mediæval in political, in economic, and in social relations: a world of status and of permanent social inequalities not differing essentially from the feudalism of the past.


The system had, however, already begun to decay. The rise of the towns by the growth of trade gradually created new centers of independence and new classes who broke the bonds of innate status. The intrusion of the moneyed city classes and the Indian "Nabobs" into the rural districts tended to destroy the feudal idea. The growth of new sects in religion made fresh points of individual resistance, degenerating often into spiritual anarchy or unsocial quietism. The spread of learning built up a small but active disintegrating force of those who had detected the shams around them. But the real Perseus who was to free the people from their political bondage was Newcomen or Watt, Hargreaves or Crompton, Kay or Arkwright, whichever may be considered to have contributed the main stroke toward the Industrial Revolution of the last century. From the inventions of these men came the machine industry with its innumerable secondary results—the Factory System and the upspringing of the Northern and Midland industrial towns, and the evangelization of the waste places of the earth by the sale of gray shirtings. Throughout one-third of England the manor gave way to the mill or the mine; and the feudal lord had to slacken his hold of political and social power in order to give full play to the change which enriched him with boundless rents and mining royalties. And so it happened in England that the final collapse of Mediævalism came, not by the Great Rebellion nor by the Whig Treason of 1688, nor yet by the rule of the Great Commoner, but by the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, which created the England of to-day. Within a couple of generations the squire faded away before the mill-owner; and feudalism lingered thenceforth only in the rapidly diminishing rural districts, and in the empty remnants of ceremonial organization. The mediæval arrangement, in fact, could not survive the fall of the cottage industry; and it is, fundamentally, the use of new motors which has been for a generation destroying the individualist conception of property. The landlord and the capitalist are both finding that the steam-engine is a Frankenstein which they had better not have raised; for with it comes inevitably urban Democracy, the study of Political Economy, and Socialism.


The event which brought to a head the influences making for political change was the French Revolution. The fall of the Bastille was hailed by all who had been touched by the new ideas. "How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world; and how much the best!" wrote Charles James Fox. It showed, or seemed to show, to men that a genuine social reconstruction was not only desirable but possible. The National Assembly, respectable old oligarchy as it was, pointed the way to legislative fields not even yet completely worked out.


When the rulers of England perceived that in France at least Humpty Dumpty was actually down, the effect at first was to tighten the existing organization. The mildest agitation was put down with a cruelly strong hand. The Whig party in the House of Commons sank to half-a-dozen members. Prices were kept up and wages down, while the heaviest possible load of taxation was imposed on the suffering people. Then came the Peace, and Castlereagh's "White Terror," culminating in the "massacre of Peterloo" (1819) and Lord Sidmouth's infamous "Six Acts." But the old order was doomed. The suicide of Castlereagh was not only the end of the man but also the sign of the collapse of the system. With a series of political wrenches there came the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828), Catholic Emancipation (1829), the beginnings of legal and administrative reform, and finally the great Reform Bill of 1832, by which the reign of the middle class superseded aristocratic rule. But the people were no more enfranchised than they had been before. The Factory had beaten the Manor for the benefit, not of the factory hand, but of the mill-owner. Democracy was at the gates; but it was still on the wrong side of them. Its entry, however, was only a matter of time. Since 1832 English political history is the record of the reluctant enfranchisement of one class after another, by mere force of the tendencies of the age. None of these enfranchised classes has ever sincerely desired to admit new voters to share the privileges and submerge the power which it had won; but each political party in turn has been driven to "shoot Niagara" in order to compete with its opponents. The Whig Bill of 1832 enfranchised the middle-class for Parliament: the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave them the control of provincial towns. After a generation of agitation, it was ultimately the Tory party which gave the townspeople in 1867 Household Suffrage. Eleven years later a Conservative majority passed Sir Charles Dilke's Act enfranchising the tenement occupier (1878). In 1885 the Liberals, intending permanently to ruin their opponents, gave the vote to the agricultural laborer; and last year (1888) it was the Tories, not to be outdone, who gave him the control of the local administration of the counties, and placed the government of London in the hands of a popularly elected council. Neither party can claim much credit for its reform bills, extorted as they have been, not by belief in Democracy, but by fear of the opposing faction. Even now the citizen is tricked out of his vote by every possible legal and administrative technicality; so that more than one-third of our adult men are unenfranchised, together with the whole of the other sex. Neither the Conservative party nor the self-styled "Party of the Masses" gives proof of any real desire to give the vote to this not inconsiderable remnant; but both sides pay lip-homage to Democracy; and every one knows that it is merely a waiting race between them as to which shall be driven to take the next step. The virtual completion of the political revolution is already in sight; and no more striking testimony can be given of the momentum of the new ideas which the Fall of the Bastille effectually spread over the world than this democratic triumph in England, within less than a century, over the political medievalism of ten centuries' growth.


The full significance of this triumph is as yet unsuspected by the ordinary politician. The industrial evolution has left the laborer a landless stranger in his own country. The political evolution is rapidly making him its ruler. Samson is feeling for his grip on the pillars.

The Period of Anarchy.


The result of the industrial revolution, with its dissolution of medievalism amid an impetuous reaction against the bureaucratic tyranny of the past, was to leave all the new elements of society in a state of unrestrained license. Individual liberty, in the sense of freedom privately to appropriate the means of production, reached its maximum at the commencement of the century. No sentimental regulations hindered the free employment of land and capital to the greatest possible pecuniary gain of the proprietors, however many lives of men, women and children were used up in the process. Ignorant or unreflecting capitalists still speak of that terrible time with exultation. "It was not five per cent. or ten per cent.," says one, "but thousands per cent. that made the fortunes of Lancashire."


Mr. Herbert Spencer and those who agree in his worship of Individualism, apparently desire to bring back the legal position which made possible the "white slavery" of which the "sins of legislators" have deprived us; but no serious attempt has ever been made to get repealed any one of the Factory Acts. Women working half naked in the coal mines; young children dragging trucks all day in the foul atmosphere of the underground galleries; infants bound to the loom for fifteen hours in the heated air of the cotton mill, and kept awake only by the overlooker's lash; hours of labor for all, young and old, limited only by the utmost capabilities of physical endurance; complete absence of the sanitary provisions necessary to a rapidly growing population: these and other nameless iniquities will be found recorded as the results of freedom of contract and complete laissez faire in the impartial pages of successive blue-book reports. But the Liberal mill-owners of the day, aided by some of the political economists, stubbornly resisted every attempt to interfere with their freedom to use "their" capital and "their" hands as they found most profitable, and (like their successors to-day) predicted of each restriction as it arrived that it must inevitably destroy the export trade and deprive them of all profit whatsoever.


But this "acute outbreak of individualism, unchecked by the old restraints, and invested with almost a religious sanction by a certain soulless school of writers," was inevitable, after the economic blundering of governments in the eighteenth century. Prior to the scientific investigation of economic laws, men had naturally interfered in social arrangements with very unsatisfactory results. A specially extravagant or a specially thrifty king debased the currency, and then was surprised to find that in spite of stringent prohibitions prices went up and all good money fled the country. Wise statesmen, to keep up wages, encouraged the woolen manufactures of England by ruining those of Ireland, and were then astonished to find English wages cut by Irish pauper immigration. Benevolent parliaments attempted to raise the worker's income by poor-law allowances, and then found that they had lowered it. Christian kings eliminated half the skilled artisans from their kingdoms, and then found that they had ruined the rest by disabling industry. Government inspectors ordered how the cloth should be woven, what patterns should be made, and how broad the piece should be, until the manufacturers in despair cried out merely to be let alone.


When the early economists realized how radically wrong had been even the well-meant attempts to regulate economic relations by legislation, and how generally these attempts multiplied private monopolies, they leaned in their deductions heavily toward complete individual liberty. The administration of a populous state is such a very difficult matter, and when done on false principles is so certain to be badly done, that it was natural to advocate rather no administration at all than the interference of ignorant and interested bunglers. Nature, glorified by the worship of a famous school of French philosophers and English poets, and as yet unsuspected of the countless crimes of "the struggle for existence," appeared at least more trustworthy than Castlereagh. Real democratic administration seemed, in the time of the "White Terror," and even under the milder Whig hypocrisy which succeeded it, hopelessly remote. The best thing to work and fight for was, apparently, the reduction to impotence and neutrality of all the "Powers that be." Their influence being for the moment hostile to the people, it behooved the people to destroy their influence altogether. And so grew up the doctrine of what Professor Huxley has since called "Administrative Nihilism." It was the apotheosis of Laissez Faire, Laissez Aller.


Though the economists have since had to bear all the blame for what nearly every one now perceives to have been an economic and social mistake, neither Hume nor Adam Smith caught the laissez faire fever to as great an extent as their French contemporaries and imitators. The English industrial position was not the same as that of France. The "mercantile system" by which, as by "Fair Trade" to-day, foreign trade was to be regulated and encouraged according as it tended to cause the stock of goods, especially coin and bullion, to increase in the country, was the same on both sides of the Channel. But our political revolution had already been partly accomplished; and the more obvious shackles of feudalism had been long since struck off. No Englishman was compelled to grind his corn at the mill of the lord of the manor; to give up unpaid days to plow the lord's field and cart the lord's hay; or to spend his nights in beating the waters of the lord's marsh so that the croaking of the frogs might not disturb the lord's repose. Our labor dues had long before been commuted for money payments; and these had become light owing to the change in currency values. Our apprenticeship laws and guild regulations were becoming rapidly inoperative. No vexatious excise or gabelle hampered our manufactures.


Tyranny there was, enough and to spare, and economic spoliation; but they did not take the form of personal interferences and indignities. The non-noble Frenchman was bond, and he knew it; the middle-class Englishman to a great extent thought himself free: his economic servitude, though it galled him, was not clearly distinguishable from the niggardliness of nature. The landlord in France was an obvious tyrant: here he certainly caused (by the abstraction of the economic rent) an artificial barrenness of the workers' labor; but the barrenness was so old and had been so constant that it was not seen to be artificial, and was not resented as such. No peasant rebels against the blight. Accordingly, we have, since 1381, never had in England a burning of the chateaux; and accordingly, too, Adam Smith is no complete champion of laissez faire, though his great work was effective mainly in sweeping away foreign trade restrictions and regulations, and in giving viability to labor by establishing the laborer's geographical freedom to move and to enter into the wage contract when and where he best could. The English economists, stopping illogically short of the complete freedom preached by Rousseau and Godwin and the scientific Anarchists of to-day, advocated just as much freedom as sufficed to make the fortunes of Lancashire capitalists and to create the modern proletariat. The Utilitarians are appropriately coupled with the Political Economists in connection with this phase of thought. Although Adam Smith did not belong to their school, almost the whole work of developing and popularizing the new science was done by them. It was not until after the Peace—when Bentham and James Mill were in full vigor, and soon to be reinforced by Austin, Villiers, John Stuart Mill, Roebuck, Grote, Ricardo, and others—that Political Economy became a force in England. The motive and enthusiasm for the new science undoubtedly came from the Utilitarian ethics. If the sole masters of man were pleasure and pain, the knowledge of the natural laws expressing the course of social action, and thus regulating pleasure and pain, became of vital importance. If it is God's will, as Paley and Austin asserted, that men should seek for happiness, then the study of how to obtain economic comfort becomes a sacred duty, and has ever been so regarded by such rational divines as Malthus, Chalmers, Maurice, Kingsley, and the young High Church party of to-day. Christianity and the course of modern thought began to join hands; and we may see in Bishop Berkeley and Paley the forerunners of such a development as the Guild of St. Matthew.


The Utilitarian philosophy, besides aiding in the popularization of economic science, strongly influenced its early character. The tendency to Laissez Faire inherited from the country and century of upheaval and revolt against authority, was fostered by Bentham's destructive criticism of all the venerable relics of the past. What is the use of it? he asked of every shred of social institution then existing. What is the net result of its being upon individual happiness? Few of the laws and customs—little, indeed, of the social organization of that time could stand this test. England was covered with rotten survivals from bygone circumstances; the whole administration was an instrument for class domination and parasite nurture; the progress of the industrial revolution was rapidly making obsolete all laws, customs, proverbs, maxims, and nursery tales; and the sudden increase of population was baffling all expectations and disconcerting all arrangements. At last it came to be carelessly accepted as the teaching both of philosophy and of experience that every man must fight for himself; and "devil take the hindmost" became the accepted social creed of what was still believed to be a Christian nation. Utilitarianism became the Protestantism of Sociology, and "how to make for self and family the best of both worlds" was assumed to be the duty, as it certainly was the aim, of every practical Englishman.

The Intellectual and Moral Revolt, and its Political Outcome.


The new creed of "Philosophic Radicalism" did not have matters all its own way. Its doctrines might suit millowners and merchant princes, and all who were able to enjoy the delight of their own strength in the battle of life. But it was essentially a creed of Murdstones and Gradgrinds; and the first revolt came from the artistic side. The "nest of singing birds" at the Lakes would have none of it, though De Quincey worked out its abstract economics in a manner still unsurpassed. Coleridge did his best to drown it in German Transcendentalism. Robert Owen and his following of enthusiastic communistic coöperators steadfastly held up a loftier ideal. The great mass of the wage earners never bowed the knee to the principles upon which the current "White Slavery" was maintained. But the first man who really made a dint in the individualist shield was Carlyle, who knew how to compel men to listen to him. Oftener wrong than right in his particular proposals, he managed to keep alive the faith in nobler ends than making a fortune in this world and saving one's soul in the next. Then came Maurice, Kingsley, Ruskin, and others who dared to impeach the current middle class cult; until finally, through Comte and John Stuart Mill, Darwin and Herbert Spencer, the conception of the Social Organism has at last penetrated to the minds, though not yet to the books, even of our professors of Political Economy.


Meanwhile, caring for none of these things, the practical man had been irresistibly driven in the same direction. In the teeth of the current Political Economy, and in spite of all the efforts of the mill-owning Liberals, England was compelled to put forth her hand to succor and protect her weaker members. Any number of Local Improvement Acts, Drainage Acts, Truck Acts, Mines Regulation Acts, Factory Acts, Public Health Acts, Adulteration Acts, were passing into law. The liberty of the property owner to oppress the propertyless by the levy of the economic tribute of rent and interest began to be circumscribed, pared away, obstructed and forbidden in various directions. Slice after slice has gradually been cut from the profits of capital, and therefore from its selling value, by socially beneficial restrictions on its user's liberty to do as he liked with it. Slice after slice has been cut off the incomes from rent and interest by the gradual shifting of taxation from consumers to persons enjoying incomes above the average of the kingdom. Step by step the political power and political organization of the country have been used for industrial ends, until to-day the largest employer of labor is one of the ministers of the Crown (the Postmaster-General); and almost every conceivable trade is, somewhere or other, carried on by parish, municipality, or the National Government itself without the intervention of any middleman or capitalist. The theorists who denounce the taking by the community into its own hands of the organization of its own labor as a thing economically unclean, repugnant to the sturdy individual independence of Englishmen, and as yet outside the sphere of practical politics, seldom have the least suspicion of the extent to which it has already been carried. Besides our international relations and the army, navy, police and the courts of justice, the community now carries on for itself, in some part or another of these islands, the post office, telegraphs, carriage of small commodities, coinage, surveys, the regulation of the currency and note issue, the provision of weights and measures, the making, sweeping, lighting, and repairing of streets, roads, and bridges, life insurance, the grant of annuities, shipbuilding, stockbroking, banking, farming, and money-lending. It provides for many thousands of us from birth to burial—midwifery, nursery, education, board and lodging, vaccination, medical attendance, medicine, public worship, amusements, and interment. It furnishes and maintains its own museums, parks, art galleries, libraries, concerthalls, roads, streets, bridges, markets, slaughter-houses, fire-engines, light-houses, pilots, ferries, surf-boats, steamtugs, life-boats, cemeteries, public baths, wash houses, pounds, harbors, piers, wharves, hospitals, dispensaries, gas-works, water-works, tramways, telegraph cables, allotments, cow meadows, artisans' dwellings, schools, churches, and reading-rooms. It carries on and publishes its own researches in geology, meteorology, statistics, zoology, geography, and even theology. In our Colonies the English Government further allows and encourages the communities to provide for themselves railways, canals, pawnbroking, theaters, forestry, cinchona farms, irrigation, leper villages, casinos, bathing establishments, and immigration, and to deal in ballast, guano, quinine, opium, salt, and what not. Every one of these functions, with those of the army, navy, police, and courts of justice, were at one time left to private enterprise, and were a source of legitimate individual investment of capital. Step by step the community has absorbed them, wholly or partially; and the area of private exploitation has been lessened. Parallel with this progressive nationalization or municipalization of industry, there has gone on the elimination of the purely personal element in business management. The older economists doubted whether anything but banking and insurance could be carried on by joint stock enterprise: now every conceavible industry, down to baking and milk-selling, is successfully managed by the salaried offiers of large corporations of idle shareholders. More than one-third of the whole business of England, measured by the capital employed, is now done by joint stock companies, whose shareholders could be expropriated by the community with no more dislocation of the industries carried on by them than is caused by the daily purchase of shares on the Stock Exchange.


Besides its direct supersession of private enterprise, the State now registers, inspects, and controls nearly all the industrial functions which it has not yet absorbed. In addition to births, marriages, deaths, and electors, the State registers all solicitors, barristers, notaries, patent agents, brokers, newspaper proprietors, playing-card makers, brewers, bankers, seamen, captains, mates, doctors, cabmen, hawkers, pawnbrokers, tobacconists, distillers, plate dealers, game dealers; all insurance companies, friendly societies, endowed schools and charities, limited companies, lands, houses, deeds, bills of sale, compositions, ships, arms, dogs, cabs, omnibuses, books, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, raw cotton movements, trademarks, and patents; lodging-houses, public-houses, refreshment-houses, theaters, music-halls, places of worship, elementary schools, and dancing rooms.


Nor is the registration a mere form. Most of the foregoing are also inspected and criticised, as are all railways, tramways, ships, mines, factories, canal-boats, public conveyances, fisheries, slaughter-houses, dairies, milkshops, bakeries, baby-farms, gas-meters, schools of anatomy, vivisection laboratories, explosive works, Scotch herrings, and common lodging-houses.


The inspection is often detailed and rigidly enforced. The State in most of the larger industrial operations prescribes the age of the worker, the hours of work, the amount of air, light, cubic space, heat, lavatory accommodation, holidays, and meal-times; where, when, and how wages shall be paid; how machinery, staircases, lift holes, mines, and quarries are to be fenced and guarded; how and when the plant shall be cleaned, repaired, and worked. Even the kind of package in which some articles shall be sold is duly prescribed, so that the individual capitalist shall take no advantage of his position. On every side he is being registered, inspected, controlled, and eventually superseded by the community; and in the meantime he is compelled to cede for public purposes an ever-increasing share of his rent and interest.


Even in the fields still abandoned to private enterprise, its operations are thus every day more closely limited, in order that the anarchic competition of private greed, which at the beginning of the century was set up as the only infallibly beneficent principle of social action, may not utterly destroy the State. All this has been done by "practical" men, ignorant, that is to say, of any scientific sociology, believing Socialism to be the most foolish of dreams, and absolutely ignoring, as they thought, all grandiloquent claims for social reconstruction. Such is the irresistible sweep of social tendencies, that in their every act they worked to bring about the very Socialism they despised; and to destroy the Individualist faith which they still professed. They builded better than they knew.


It must by no means be supposed that these beginnings of social reorganization have been effected, or the proposals for their extension brought to the front, without the conscious efforts of individual reformers. The "Zeitgeist" is potent; but it does not pass Acts of Parliament without legislators, or erect municipal libraries without town councilors. Though our decisions are molded by the circumstances of the time, and the environment at least roughhews our ends, shape them as we will; yet each generation decides for itself. It still rests with the individual to resist or promote the social evolution, consciously or unconsciously, according to his character and information. The importance of complete consciousness of the social tendencies of the age lies in the fact that its existence and comprehensiveness often determine the expediency of our particular action: we move with less resistance with the stream than against it.


The general failure to realize the extent to which our unconscious Socialism has already proceeded—a failure which causes much time and labor to be wasted in uttering and elaborating on paper the most ludicrously unpractical anti-socialist demonstrations of the impossibility of matters of daily occurrence—is due to the fact that few know anything of local administration outside their own town. It is the municipalities which have done most to "socialize" our industrial life; and the municipal history of the century is yet unwritten. A few particulars may here be given as to this progressive "municipalization" of industry. Most of us know that the local governments have assumed the care of the roads, streets and bridges, once entirely abandoned to individual enterprise, as well as the lighting and cleansing of all public thoroughfares, and the provision of sewers, drains and "storm-water courses." It is, perhaps, not so generally known that no less than £7,500,000 is annually expended on these services in England and Wales alone, being about 5 per cent. of the rent of the country. The provision of markets, fairs, harbors, piers, docks, hospitals, cemeteries and burial grounds, is still shared with private capitalists; but those in public hands absorb nearly £2,000,000 annually. Parks, pleasure grounds, libraries, museums, baths, and wash-houses cost the public funds over half a million sterling. All these are, however, comparatively unimportant services. It is in the provision of gas, water, and tramways that local authorities organize labor on a large scale. Practically half the gas consumers in the kingdom are supplied by public gas works, which exist in 168 separate localities, with an annual expenditure of over three millions. It need hardly be added that the advantage to the public is immense, in spite of the enormous price paid for the works in many instances; and that the further municipalization of the gas industry is proceeding with great rapidity, no fewer than twelve local authorities having obtained loans for the purpose (and one for electric lighting) in a single year (Local Government Board Report, 1887-8, c-5,526, pp. 319-367). With equal rapidity is the water supply becoming a matter of commercial organization, the public expenditure already reaching nearly a million sterling annually. Sixty-five local authorities borrowed money for water supply in 1887-8, rural and urban districts being equally represented (c-5,550, pp. 319-367). Tramways and ferries are undergoing the same development. About thirty-one towns, including nearly all the larger provincial centers, own some or all of their own tramways. Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, Oldham, Sunderland, and Greenock lease their undertakings; but among the municipalities Huddersfield has the good sense to work its lines without any "middleman" intervention, with excellent public results. The tramway mileage belonging to local authorities has increased five-fold since 1878, and comprises more than a quarter of the whole (House of Commons Return, 1887-8, No. 347). The last important work completed by the Metropolitan Board of Works was the establishment of a "free steam ferry" on the Thames, charged upon the rates. This is, in some respects, the most significant development of all. The difference between a free steam ferry and a free railway is obviously only one of degree.


A few more cases are worth mentioning. Glasgow builds and maintains seven public "common lodging houses;" Liverpool provides science lectures; Manchester builds and stocks an art gallery; Birmingham runs schools of design; Leeds creates extensive cattle markets; and Bradford supplies water below cost price. There are nearly one hundred free libraries and reading rooms. The minor services now performed by public bodies are innumerable. This "Municipal Socialism" has been rendered possible by the creation of a local debt now reaching over £181,000,000. Nearly £10,000,000 is annually paid as interest and sinking fund on the debt; and to this extent the pecuniary benefit of municipalization is diminished. The full advantages of the public organization of labor remain, besides a considerable pecuniary profit; while the objective differentiation of the economic classes (by the separation of the idle rentier from the manager or entrepreneur) enormously facilitates popular comprehension of the nature of the economic tribute known as interest. To the extent, moreover, that additional charges are thrown upon the rates, the interest paid to the capitalist is levied mainly at the cost of the landlord, and we have a corresponding "nationalization" of so much of the economic rent. The increase in the local rates has been 36 per cent., or nearly £7,000,000, in eleven years, and is still growing. They now amount to over twenty-six millions sterling in England and Wales alone, or about 17 per cent. of the rental of the country (c-5,550, p. clxxiv.).


Nor is there any apparent prospect of a slackening of the pace of this unconscious abandonment of individualism. No member of Parliament has so much as introduced a Bill to give effect to the anarchist principles of Mr. Herbert Spencer's "Man versus the State." The not disinterested efforts of the Liberty and Property Defence League fail to hinder even Conservative Parliaments from further Socialist legislation. Mr. Gladstone remarked to a friend in 1886 that the Home Rule question would turn the Liberal party into a Radical party. He might have said that it would make both parties Socialist. Free elementary and public technical education is now practically accepted on both sides of the House, provided that the so-called "voluntary schools," themselves half maintained from public funds, are not extinguished. Mr. Chamberlain and the younger Conservatives openly advocate far-reaching projects of social reform through State and municipal agency, as a means of obtaining popular support. The National Liberal Federation adopts the special taxation of urban ground values as the main feature in its domestic program, notwithstanding that this proposal is characterized by old-fashioned Liberals as sheer confiscation of so much of the landlords' property. The London Liberal and Radical Union, which has Mr. John Morley for its president, even proposes that the County Council shall have power to rebuild the London slums at the sole charge of the ground landlord. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Trades Union Congress should now twice have declared in favor of "Land Nationalization" by large majorities, or that the bulk of the London County Council should be returned on an essentially Socialist platform. The whole of the immediately practicable demands of the most exacting Socialist are, indeed, now often embodied in the current Radical program; and the following exposition of it, from the pages of the Star newspaper, 8th August, 1888, may serve as a statement of the current Socialist demands for further legislation.

Revision of Taxation.


Object.—Complete shifting of burden from the workers, of whatever grade, to the recipients of rent and interest, with a view to the ultimate and gradual extinction of the latter class.


Means.—1. Abolition of all customs and excise duties, except those on spirits. 2. Increase of income tax, differentiating in favor of earned as against unearned incomes, and graduating cumulatively by system of successive levels of abatement. 3. Equalization and increase of death duties and the use of the proceeds as capital, not income. 4. Shifting of local rates and house duty from occupier to owner, any contract to the contrary notwithstanding. 5. Compulsory redemption of existing land tax and reimposition on all ground rents and increased values. 6. Abolition of fees on licenses for employment. 7. Abolition of police-court fees.

Extension of Factory Acts.


Object.—To raise, universally, the standard of comfort by obtaining the general recognition of a minimum wage and a maximum working day.


Means.—1. Extension of the general provisions of the Factory and Workshops Acts (or the Mines Regulation Acts, as the case may be) to all employers of labor. 2. Compulsory registration of all employers of more than three (?) workers. 3. Largely increased number of inspectors, and these to include women, and to be mainly chosen from the wage-earning class. 4. Immediate reduction of maximum hours to eight per day in all Government and municipal employment, in all mines, and in all licensed monopolies, such as railways, tramways, gasworks, water-works, docks, harbors, etc.; and in any trade in which a majority of the workers desire it. 5. The compulsory insertion of clauses in all contracts for Government or municipal supplies, providing that (a) there shall be no subcontracting, (b) that no worker shall be employed more than eight hours per day, and (c) that no wages less than a prescribed minimum shall be paid.

Educational Reform.


Object.—To enable all, even the poorest, children to obtain not merely some, but the best education they are capable of.


Means.—1. The immediate abolition of all fees in public elementary schools, Board or voluntary, with a corresponding increase in the Government grant. 2. Creation of a Minister for Education, with control over the whole educational system, from the elementary school to the University, and over all educational endowments. 3. Provision of public technical and secondary schools wherever needed, and creation of abundant public secondary scholarships. 4. Continuation, in all cases, of elementary education at evening schools. 5. Registration and inspection of all private educational establishments.

Re-organization of Poor Law Administration.


Object.—To provide generously, and without stigma, for the aged, the sick, and those destitute through temporary want of employment, without relaxing the "tests" against the endowment of able-bodied idleness.


Means.—1. The separation of the relief of the aged and the sick from the workhouse system, by a universal system of aged pensions, and public infirmaries. 2. The industrial organization and technical education of all able-bodied paupers. 3. The provision of temporary relief works for the unemployed. 4. The supersession of the Boards of Guardians by the local municipal authorities.

Extension of Municipal Activity.


Object.—The gradual public organization of labor for all public purposes, and the elimination of the private capitalist and middleman.


Means.—1. The provision of increased facilities for the acquisition of land, the destruction without compensation of all dwellings found unfit for habitation, and the provision of artisan dwellings by the municipality. 2. The facilitation of every extension of municipal administration, in London and all other towns, of gas, water, markets, tramways, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, museums, art galleries, libraries, reading-rooms, schools, docks, harbors, rivers, etc. 3. The provision of abundant facilities for the acquisition of land by local rural authorities, for allotments, common pastures, public halls, reading-rooms, etc.

Amendment of Political Machinery.


Object.—To obtain the most accurate representation and expression of the desires of the majority of the people at every moment.


Means.—1. Reform of registration so as to give a vote, both Parliamentary and municipal, to every adult. 2 Abolition of any period of residence as a qualification for registration. 3. Bi-annual registration by special public officer. 4. Annual Parliaments. 5. Payment of election expenses, including postage of election addresses and polling cards. 6. Payment of all public representatives, parliamentary, county, or municipal. 7. Second ballot. 8. Abolition or painless extinction of the House of Lords.


This is the program to which a century of industrial revolution has brought the Radical workingman. Like John Stuart Mill, though less explicitly, he has turned from mere political Democracy to a complete, though unconscious, Socialism. .

The New Synthesis.


It need hardly be said that the social philosophy of the time did not remain unaffected by the political evolution and the industrial development. Slowly sinking into men's minds all this while was the conception of a new social nexus, and a new end of social life. It was discovered (or rediscovered) that a society is something more than an aggregate of so many individual units—that it possesses existence distinguishable from those of any of its components. A perfect city became recognized as something more than any number of good citizens—something to be tried by other tests, and weighed in other balances than the individual man. The community must necessarily aim, consciously or not, at its continuance as a community: its life transcends that of any of its members; and the interests of the individual unit must often clash with those of the whole. Though the social organism has itself evolved from the union of individual men, the individual is now created by the social organism of which he forms a part: his life is born of the larger life; his attributes are molded by the social pressure; his activities, inextricably interwoven with others, belong to the activity of the whole. Without the continuance and sound health of the social organism, no man can now live or thrive; and its persistence is accordingly his paramount end. His conscious motive for action may be, nay always must be, individual to himself; but where such action proves inimical to the social welfare, it must sooner or later be checked by the whole, lest the whole perish through the error of its member. The conditions of social health are accordingly a matter for scientific investigation. There is, at any moment, one particular arrangement of social relations which involves the minimum of human misery then and there possible amid the "niggardliness of nature." Fifty years ago it would have been assumed that absolute freedom in the sense of individual or "manly" independence, plus a criminal code, would spontaneously result in such an arrangement for each particular nation; and the effect was the philosophic apotheosis of Laissez Faire. To-day every student is aware that no such optimistic assumption is warranted by the facts of life. We know now that in natural selection at the stage of development where the existence of civilized mankind is at stake, the units selected from are not individuals, but societies. Its action at earlier stages, though analogous, is quite dissimilar. Among the lower animals physical strength or agility is the favored quality: if some heavensent genius among the cuttle-fish developed a delicate poetic faculty, this high excellence would not delay his succumbing to his hulking neighbor. When, higher up in the scale, mental cunning became the favored attribute, an extra brain convolution, leading primitive man to the invention of fire or tools, enabled a comparatively puny savage to become the conquerer and survivor of his fellows.


Brain culture accordingly developed apace; but we do not yet thoroughly realize that this has itself been superseded as the "selected" attribute, by social organization. The cultivated Athenians, Saracens, and Provençals went down in the struggle for existence before their respective competitors, who, individually inferior, were in possession of a, at that time, more valuable social organization. The French nation was beaten in the last war, not because the average German was an inch and a half taller than the average Frenchman, or because he had read five more books, but because the German social organism was, for the purposes of the time, superior in efficiency to the French. If we desire to hand on to the afterworld our direct influence, and not merely the memory of our excellence, we must take even more care to improve the social organism of which we form part, than to perfect our own individual developments. Or rather, the perfect and fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine. We must abandon the self-conceit of imagining that we are independent units, and bend our jealous minds, absorbed in their own cultivation, to this subjection to the higher end, the Common Weal. Accordingly, conscious "direct adaptation" steadily supplants the unconscious and wasteful "indirect adaptation" of the earlier form of the struggle for existence; and with every advance in sociological knowledge, Man is seen to assume more and more, not only the mastery of "things," but also a conscious control over social destiny itself.


This new scientific conception of the Social Organism has put completely out of countenace the cherished principles of the Political Economist and the Philosophic Radical. We left them sailing gaily into Anarchy on the stream of Laissez Faire. Since then the tide has turned. The publication of John Stuart Mill's Political Economy in 1848 marks conveniently the boundary of the old individualist Economics. Every edition of Mill's book became more and more Socialistic. After his death the world learned the personal history, penned by his own hand, of his development from a mere political democrat to a convinced Socialist.


The change in tone since then has been such that one competent economist, professedly anti-Socialist, publishes regretfully to the world that all the younger men are now Socialists, as well as many of the older Professors. It is, indeed, mainly from these that the world has learned how faulty were the earlier economic generalizations, and above all, how incomplete as guides for social or political action. These generalizations are accordingly now to be met with only in leading articles, sermons, or the speeches of Ministers or Bishops. The Economist himself knows them no more.


The result of this development of Sociology is to compel a revision of the relative importance of liberty and equality as principles to be kept in view in social administration. In Bentham's celebrated "ends" to be aimed at in a civil code, liberty stands predominant over equality, on the ground that full equality can be maintained only by the loss of security for the fruits of labor. That exposition remains as true as ever; but the question for decision remains, how much liberty? Economic analysis has destroyed the value of the old criterion of respect for the equal liberty of others. Bentham, whose economics were weak, paid no attention to the perpetual tribute on the fruits of others' labor which full private property in land inevitably creates. In his view liberty and security to property meant that every worker should be free to obtain the full result of his own labor; and there appeared no inconsistency between them. The political economist now knows that with free competition and private property in land and capital, no individual can possibly obtain the full result of his own labor. The student of industrial development, moreover, finds it steadily more and more impossible to trace what is precisely the result of each separate man's toil. Complete rights of liberty and property necessarily involve, for example, the spoliation of the Irish cottier tenant for the benefit of Lord Clanricarde. What then becomes of the Benthamic principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number? When the Benthamite comes to understand the Law of Rent, which of the two will he abandon? For he cannot escape the lesson of the century, taught alike by the economists, the statesmen, and the "practical men," that complete individual liberty, with unrestrained private ownership of the instruments of wealth production, is irreconcilable with the common weal. The free struggle for existence among ourselves menaces our survival as a healthy and permanent social organism. Evolution, Professor Huxley declares, is the substitution of consciously regulated co-ordination among the units of each organism, for blind anarchic competition. Thirty years ago Herbert Spencer demonstrated the incompatibility of full private property in land with the modern democratic State; and almost every economist now preaches the same doctrine. The Radical is rapidly arriving, from practical experience, at similar conclusions; and the steady increase of the government regulation of private enterprise, the growth of municipal administration, and the rapid shifting of the burden of taxation directly to rent and interest, mark in treble lines the statesman's unconscious abandonment of the old Individualism, and our irresistible glide into collectivist Socialism.


It was inevitable that the Democracy should learn this lesson. With the masses painfully conscious of the failure of Individualism to create a decent social life for four-fifths of the people, it might have been foreseen that Individualism could not survive their advent to political power. If private property in land and capital necessarily keeps the many workers permanently poor (through no fault of their own) in order to make the few idlers rich (from no merit of their own), private property in land and capital will inevitably go the way of the feudalism which it superseded. The economic analysis confirms the rough generalization of the suffering people. The history of industrial evolution points to the same result; and for two generations the world's chief ethical teachers have been urging the same lesson. No wonder the heavens of Individualism are rolling up before our eyes like a scroll; and even the Bishops believe and tremble.


It is, of course, possible, as Sir Henry Maine and others have suggested, that the whole experience of the century is a mistake, and that political power will once more swing back into the hands of a monarch or an aristocratic oligarchy. It is, indeed, want of faith in Democracy which holds back most educated sympathisers with Socialism from frankly accepting its principles. What the economic side of such political atavism would be it is not easy to forecast. The machine industry and steam power could hardly be dismissed with the caucus and the ballot-box. So long, however, as Democracy in political administration continues to be the dominant principle, Socialism may be quite safely predicted as its economic obverse, in spite of those freaks or aberrations of Democracy which have already here and there thrown up a short-lived monarchy or a romantic dictatorship. Every increase in the political power of the proletariat will most surely be used by them for their economic and social protection. In England, at any rate, the history of the century serves at once as their guide and their justification.

Notes for this chapter


This essay discusses only the development of the Socialist ideal in the present century. It should be remembered, however, that Socialism is an evolution of the history of the world. It finds historic roots in the Greek commonwealth, the Jewish Theocracy, the Communism of the early Christian Church.—Am. Ed.


See Socialism in England (American Economic Association, vol. iv., part 2, May, 1889), in which a portion of this essay has been embodied.


"I am aware that there are some who suppose that our present bourgeois arrangements must be totally destroyed and others substituted almost at a blow. But however successful a revolution might be, it is certain that mankind cannot change its whole nature all at once. Break the old shell, certainly; but never forget the fact that the new forms must grow out of the old" (H. M. Hyndman, Historical Basis of Socialism, 1883, p. 305.


See the article on Socialism in English Politics by William Clarke, in the Political Science Quarterly, December, 1888.


Even Bentham said this of James Mill (Bain's life of J. M., p. 461), of whom it was hardly true.


Principles of Political Economy, last edition, 1865, p. 477 (quoting from Feugueray).


Referred to in a celebrated passage by Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book I, chap. viii.


Not to mention the restrictions imposed by the law of "Settlement" (13 and 14 Charles II., chap. 12), which enabled two justices summarily to send back to his village any migrating laborer.


This ought to be 1550. Says Prof. Rogers (Work and Wages, p. 326. Am. ed.): "I have stated more than once that the fifteenth century and the first quarter of the sixteenth were the golden age of the English laborer, if we are to interpret the wages which he earned by the cost of the necessaries of life. At no time were wages, relatively speaking, so high, and at no time was food so cheap."—(Note by Amer. Editor).


This was noticed by Malthus, Principles of Political Economy, p. 225; see also Professor Thorold Rogers, History of Agriculture and Prices, and six Centuries of Work and Wages.


Further detail will be found in the following essay. See also Arnold Toynbee's Industrial Revolution. (Humboldt Pub. Co.)


Between 1801—1845 the population of Manchester grew 109 per cent., Glasgow 108 per cent., Liverpool 100 per cent., and Leeds 99 per cent. (Report of Commissioners on State of Health of Large Towns, 1843-5).


W. J. Lecky, History of the Eighteenth Century, vol. v., p. 453.


The number of registered electors at the date of the last Election (1886) was 5,707,823, out of an adult male population of over nine millions.


Few, however, of Mr. Spencer's followers appear to realize that he presupposes Land Nationalization as the necessary condition of an Individualist community (see Economics of Herbert Spencer, Humboldt Pub. Co.)


It is sometimes asserted now-a-days that the current descriptions of factory life under the régime of freedom of contract are much exaggerated. This is not the case. The horrors revealed in the reports of official inquiries even exceed those commonly quoted. For a full account of the legislation, and the facts on which it was founded, see Von Plener's English Factory Legislation.

Figure 1: Walter Crane’s frontispiece to the original edition

The Fabian Essays, a collection of lectures by a small middle-class club determined to make socialism respectable in Britain, and edited by the then-unknown George Bernard Shaw, enjoyed a surprising success upon its publication in 1889. “Suddenly, Socialism became a best-seller” (Cole 25); the first thousand copies sold out instantly, and by 1900 editions had appeared in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway (Bevir 172). The volume was re-issued several times—with new Prefaces by Shaw in 1908 and 1931, with a 1920 introduction by Sidney Webb, and finally with a 1947 Postscript by the still-loyal Shaw. The Fabian Society was not Britain’s first socialist group, but it was to become one of its most influential and long-lasting, and is still in existence today as a think tank for the Labour Party.[1] The Essays describe socialism as a self-evident combination of the British parliamentary tradition with the sociological benefits of economic aggregation and the scientific theory of evolution, and dismiss the necessity of violent insurrection in favor of the tactics of political organizing and voting. Of the seven original essayists—Shaw, Webb, Graham Wallas, Sydney Olivier, William Clarke, Hubert Bland, and Annie Besant—five remained with the Fabians over the next few decades, and became known as the Fabians’ Old Gang.

The Fabian Society itself was founded in 1884 as an offshoot of the Fellowship of the New Life, a group inspired by the idealism of the Scottish-American philosopher Thomas Davidson to dedicate itself to the moral renewal of mankind by living exemplary lives of pacifism, vegetarianism, and good moral character.[2] However, as Shaw pointed out, “the revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until [its individual members] personally had attained perfection,”[3] so the more politically minded Fabians formed a separate group. The original Fabians, including Edward Pease and Hubert Bland (husband of children’s book writer Edith Nesbit), were soon joined by the formidable talents of policy wizard Sidney Webb and witty polemicist George Bernard Shaw.[4] They took their name from Fabius Maximus Cunctator, a Roman general known as “The Delayer,” in honor of their gradualist approach to social change (Pease 39). In addition to its other accomplishments, the Fabian Society can take credit for founding the London School of Economics in 1895 and the journal the New Statesman in 1913.[5]

Figure 2: The tortoise is the symbol of the Fabian Society, representing its goal of gradual expansion of socialism

The formation of the Fabian Society reflected a sudden flowering of British socialism in the 1880s—ironically, just after the death of Karl Marx, who had been working in London for decades without having much impact on British intellectual life. Beatrice Webb later suggested that there was no single instigating factor in this movement; rather, socialism arose in England as a result of a “new consciousness of sin among men of intellect and men of property … a growing uneasiness, amounting to conviction, that the industrial organization, which had yielded rent, interest, and profits on a stupendous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain” (Webb 179-80). The philanthropist Charles Booth, in attempting to disprove the socialist claim that 25 percent of Londoners lived in poverty, discovered (with the help of the young Beatrice Webb) through the research for his 1889-91 Life and Labour of the People (later reissued as Life and Labour of the People in London) that in reality the proportion of the city’s population suffering the very worst category of poverty was closer to 35 percent.[6] Henry Hyndman, son of a wealthy merchant, was an early reader of Marx who became convinced of the inevitability of revolution and in 1881 founded the Democratic Federation, which in 1884 became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). William Morris, Eleanor Marx, and Edward Aveling were eager early participants in this group, but were repulsed by Hyndman’s cult of personality and so split off to form the Socialist League, which itself later split between anarchists and communists.[7] Meanwhile Shaw, then an obscure young novelist, was converted to socialism by the American Henry George’s 1879 Progress and Poverty, which recommended nationalizing land through reform of existing political institutions.[8] The young railway heiress Beatrice Potter was not yet a socialist, but involved herself with Octavia Hill’s tenement renovation projects, masqueraded as a sweatshop worker for a journalistic exposé, and in addition to her work with Booth embarked on a monumental research project about the co-operative movement. She joined the Fabians only after coming across the Fabian Essays and being so convinced by its gradualist philosophy of social change that she joined the Fabians and later married the author of the most gradualistic essay, Sidney Webb.[9]

The essays themselves are divided into several sections: first, on “The Basis of Socialism,” including essays on its economic (written by Shaw), historic (by Sidney Webb, named Lord Passfield in 1929), industrial (by William Clarke, whose utopian idealism eventually led him out of the Fabians[10]), and moral bases (by Sydney Olivier, future Governor of Jamaica and uncle of Laurence Olivier). Shaw’s “Economic” essay focuses on the injustice of unearned rent collected by proprietors and middlemen on the labor of workers, while Webb’s essay takes a more melioristic and evolutionary tack, arguing that just as monarchy was superseded by the superior form of democracy, socialism is destined to take the place of primitive laissez-faire. Clarke describes the transition from the first industrial factories run by manager-entrepreneurs to the current world of “joint-stock capitalism” (80), monopolies, and trusts, which benefit absent owners who contribute nothing of worth to society: “As sin when it is finished is said to bring forth death, so capitalism when it is finished brings forth monopoly” (87). Olivier appeals to empiricist “common sense” (101) to conclude that, in a society that depends on one class “feeding like a parasite” (109) upon another, “Socialism is merely Individualism rationalised, organised, clothed, and in its right mind” (99). The book’s next section, on “The Organization of Society,” is filled in by Graham Wallas, co-founder of the London School of Economics, and Annie Besant, who briefly consorted with the Fabians on her journey from Secularism to Theosophy. Wallas’s essay speculates on the nature of property under socialism, admitting that early socialist desires to dissolve the family were unrealistic, but asserting that larger utilities and industries should be “nationalised” (127) for the benefit of all. Besant argues that the post-socialist organization of industry—to include eight-hour days, minimum wages, and “attractive” (145) public housing—is merely a rational extension of the progressive “tendencies” laid out in Clarke’s retrospect of industrial evolution, and similarly will evolve from the already extant County Councils to a larger “national trust” (153). The book’s last section, “The Transition to Social Democracy,” includes a second essay by Shaw entitled “Transition,” which cautions that the change is not to come “catastrophically” (170) or through a “clamor for bloodshed” (179) but gradually and through “humdrum” (186) reforms—although he then twists around rhetorically and admits that this scheme is “inevitable, but slow, sordid, reluctant, [and] cowardly” given the “hopeless. . . degradation” (186) of the masses, and suggests that insurrection remains the only option to Social Democracy. In contrast to Shaw’s provocative anger, the volume’s concluding “Outlook” by the bank clerk Hubert Bland is optimistic about political possibilities resulting from the workers’ rising self-consciousness, evaluating the benefits of the “permeation of the Radical Left” (200) but ultimately foretelling the rise of a “definitely Socialist party” composed of a “great and powerful majority” (202-3).

Though the Fabian Essays were a publishing success, commentators continue to differ about whether—and why—they were truly politically influential. In an 1891 essay in the Economic Review, W. G. Smith identifies the volume as “the outcome of a common wave of thought” (124) that needs to be taken seriously, even though he quibbles with its recommendations (especially Besant’s). In his 1918 History of the Fabian Society Edward Pease, the Fabians’ Secretary, claimed that the success of the Essays was due to its presentation of socialism as a commonsensical and specifically British movement:

Fabian Essays presented the case for Socialism in plain language which everybody could understand. It based Socialism, not on the speculations of a German philosopher, but on the obvious evolution of society as we see it around us. It accepted economic science as taught by the accredited British professors; it built up the edifice of Socialism on the foundations of our existing political and social institutions: it proved that Socialism was but the next step in the development of society, rendered inevitable by the changes which followed from the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. (91)

In 1961, the Fabian Margaret Cole suggested that the Essays’ success could be partly traced to good timing; its eclectic combination of belief in democracy, optimism, and gradualism made it a good introduction to socialism for the rising Trades Unions, which in the wake of the victorious London Dock Strike of 1889 were “looking eagerly for a Socialist policy explained in terms of British conditions, without the tough and arid Marxism on which the S.D.F. insisted” (Cole 35). Mark Bevir notes that despite the essayists’ varying aims, the volume’s systematic attempt to theorize “a broad and practical form of socialism without relying on Marxist economics,” combined with “discussions of the political action needed to create socialism,” makes it “the high point of Fabian theory” (172).

Figure 3: The Fabian window was designed by George Bernard Shaw in 1910 as a commemoration of the Fabian Society, and shows fellow Society members Sidney Webb and E. R. Pease, among others, helping to build ‘the new world.’

The Fabian Essays were part of a larger Fabian strategy of “permeation” and socialist publicity which was to take many different forms, including penning hundreds of closely-researched pamphlets on issues ranging from the idea of a minimum wage to the municipalization of the gas supply;[11] sending lecturers to the provinces; working through the London County Council; trying to influence the policies of established parties; and eventually aligning with the new Labour Party. Sometimes the Fabians disagreed in their strategies—notably, Shaw strongly favored the development of a new Labour Party and briefly tried to split the radicals off from the Liberal party, while Webb preferred to influence Liberal politicians, and later developed the more elitist tactic of “Fabian experts showing politicians what policies were necessary for an efficient society” (Bevir 200). The Fabians alienated the Liberals with their 1893 manifesto “To Your Tents, O Israel!” (reprinted in Tract No. 49, “A Plan of Campaign for Labor”), which argued that socialists should give up trying to compromise with the Liberal Party, but the Webbs kept trying to influence Liberal policymakers and between 1902 and 1909 organized a monthly dining club (known as the “Coefficients Club”) for political thinkers of all parties. The Fabians never considered becoming a separate political party themselves, though in 1906 H. G. Wells briefly tried to take over the Society and reformulate it as a mass movement; he was beaten back by Shaw, who crushed him in a public debate.[12] The Fabians were at first ambivalent about the Independent Labour Party formed in 1893, but gradually switched their tactics from permeating the Liberals to serving as a research and publicity arm for the Labour Party.

The Fabian Essays’ several Prefaces and Postscript, written by Shaw and Sidney Webb, provide interesting evaluations of the Fabian strategy of socialist “permeation” at various historical removes, though they sometimes also foreground Shaw’s own intellectual evolution away from party politics in the twentieth century. Shaw’s 1908 Preface is triumphant, pointing out the success of the Fabians’ early goals. “We set ourselves two definite tasks,” he recalled: “first, to provide a parliamentary program for a Prime Minister converted to Socialism as Peel was converted to Free Trade; and second, to make it as easy and matter-of-course for the ordinary respectable Englishman to be a Socialist as to be a Liberal or Conservative” (xxxiii). He depicts the revolutionary activists of the late nineteenth century as “romantic amateurs” (xxxi), deploring the sad waste of the 1871 Paris Commune, and declaring that “The Fabian knows that property does not hesitate to shoot, and that now, as always, the unsuccessful revolutionist may expect calumny, perjury, cruelty, judicial and military massacre without mercy. And the Fabian does not intend to get thus handled if he can help it. If there is to be any shooting,” Shaw adds with some bravado, “he intends to be at the State end of the gun” (xxxiii).

Sidney Webb’s 1920 Introduction, written with fewer dramatic flourishes, points out the shortcomings of the original volume, which contained little mention of unemployment, the co-operative movement, or (most importantly) the Trade Union movement, which would provide the greatest impetus toward the founding of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, and the Labour Party itself in 1900.[13] The mood of Shaw’s 1930 Preface is both jubilant and wary: “As I write, a Fabian Socialist [Ramsay MacDonald] is Prime Minister of Britain,” and Fabianism has been superseded by more confident forms of socialism. But the Great Depression reveals the continuing destructive power of capitalism, and meanwhile the Fabians’ gradualism has been overtaken by the cataclysms of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. Shaw worries that current constitutional methods will be insufficient to dismantle plutocracy: “The present paths simply do not lead there. They lead nowhere; and when people find themselves there they resort to either revolution or dictatorship” (xi).

Shaw’s 1947 retrospective, “Sixty Years of Fabianism,” was written during the creation, under Clement Attlee, of Britain’s postwar welfare state. Generations of Fabians had contributed to this goal, from the pamphlets of the Webbs to the work of Leonard Woolf and G. D. H. Cole in the 1930s. So Shaw had some reason to boast that “The Labor Government now (1947) in office is crammed with ex-Fabians; and they are regarded, not as the extreme Left in politics, but rather as the Old School Ties worn by many of them, including the Prime Minister” (207). But he also reaffirms the Fabians’ identity as an elite group of technocrats arrayed against a “Mobocracy” (223), asserting that the Fabians “must remain a minority of cultural snobs and genuinely scientific Socialist tacticians” (229) rather than forming the basis of a mass political party. The Fabians’ consciously elitist strategy led to tensions with later British socialists: notably, E. P. Thompson argued in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) against the “Fabian orthodoxy, in which the great majority of working people are seen as passive victims of laissez faire” (12). Despite their expansionist and educational impulses, the Fabians never sought independent political power, but have remained an intellectual research center organized around their membership.

Eleanor Courtemanche is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her book The ‘Invisible Hand’ and British Fiction, 1818-1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.


Courtemanche, Eleanor. “On the Publication of Fabian Essays in Socialism, December 1889.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Bevir, Mark. The Making of British Socialism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011. Print.

Britain, Ian. Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts c. 1884-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.

Cole, Margaret. The Story of Fabian Socialism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1961. Print.

Fabian Essays in Socialism: Jubilee Edition. Ed. George Bernard Shaw. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948. Print.

McBriar, A. M. Fabian Socialism and English Politics: 1884-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963. Print.

Miller, Elizabeth. Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. Print.

Morris, William. Review of Fabian Essays in Socialism. Commonweal 6.211 (25 Jan. 1890): 28-9. Web. 17 July 2013.

Muggeridge, Kitty, and Ruth Adam. Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858-1943. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1967. Print.

Pease, Edward R. The History of the Fabian Society. London: Cass, 1963 [1918]. Print.

Pugh, Patricia. Educate, Agitate, Organize: 100 Years of Fabian Socialism. London and New York: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Shaw, George Bernard. Fabian Tract 41. The Fabian Society: Its Early History. London: The Fabian Society, 1892, reprinted 1899. Print.

Smith, W. G. “Review of Fabian Essays in Socialism.” Economic Review 1 (Jan.1891): 125-8. Print.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1963. Print.

Webb, Beatrice. My Apprenticeship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.

Weiler, Peter. “William Clarke: The Making and Unmaking of a Fabian Socialist.” Journal of British Studies 14.1 (1974): 77-108. Print.

Wilson, Colin. Bernard Shaw: A Reassessment. New York: Athenaeum, 1969. Print.


[1] The Fabians today (www.fabians.org.uk) maintain a small office on Dartmouth Street in Whitehall. All Labour Prime Ministers, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have been members of the Fabian Society.

[2] For descriptions of Davidson and the milieu that gave rise to the Fellowship, see Britain 25-52 and Bevir 240-6.

[3] Shaw, Fabian Tract 41: The Early History of the Fabian Society, 3.

[4] On the origin of the Fabians, see McBriar 1-28 and Pease 28-36.

[5] For the foundation of the London School of Economics, see Pugh 53-62; for the New Statesman, see Pugh 126-28. The London School of Economics was founded with money from the trust of Henry Hutchison, an early Fabian member who committed suicide. His bequest was explicitly for socialist “propaganda,” but the Webbs asserted that they could use the money for teaching any economic doctrine, since once economics was put on a scientific basis it would surely support socialist conclusions (Pugh 55). The New Statesman is available at this website: http://www.newstatesman.com.

[6] See the digitized Booth archive at the London School of Economics library website: http://booth.lse.ac.uk.

[7] William Morris published a dismal review of the Fabian Essays, and especially of Sidney Webb’s contributions, accusing his “municipal socialism” of “rollicking opportunism” and pointing out that “under the Roman Empire municipal administration reached a pitch which we are very unlikely to come to in England in our day; but it had no destructive effect on the society of that epoch, which was based on chattel slavery and a pauper proletariat fed by the doles of the rich.” See Morris.

[8] On Shaw’s slow path to socialism, see Wilson 25-74.

[9] In her engaging biography of Beatrice Webb, Kitty Muggeridge (Webb’s niece) describes this courtship as rather frosty; Beatrice was at that point still in love with Joseph Chamberlain, but had renounced all thought of marriage to spend the rest of her life working for public service. When she agreed to marry Webb, they pledged to devote themselves to socialist research and activism (126).

[10] See Weiler.

[11] Most of the Fabian Tracts are now publicly available through the London School of Economics archives at this site: http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/collections/fabiansociety.

[12] With the exception of the Fabian Essays, most Fabian publications were directed at a small audience of members or policymakers rather than the general public. See Miller 114-21 for analysis of the Fabians’ general “ambivalence about print audiences and print propaganda” (115).

[13] For more information on the Fabians’ relations with these political parties, as well as with the Liberal Party, see McBriar.

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