Eleanor Courtemanche, “On the Publication of Fabian Essays in Socialism, December 1889″


The Fabian Essays, published in 1889 by an intellectual London club called the Fabian Society, aimed to make socialism palatable to a largely suspicious British public and became a surprise bestseller. The volume was edited by George Bernard Shaw, who was a leading figure in the Fabian Society before his career as a dramatist. In the Fabian Essays, the Fabians distanced themselves from the insurrectionary radicalism of both Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and Morris’s Socialist League, claiming instead that Britain was inevitably and gradually evolving into a sensible socialist state. The Fabians’ advocacy of pragmatic socialist parliamentary politics helped pave the way for the rise of the Labour Party in 1900.


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, map iconGermany, the map iconNetherlands, and map iconNorway (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 map iconLondon School of Economics in 1895 and the journal the New Statesman in 1913.[5]

Fabian tortoise

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 map iconJamaica 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).

Fabian window

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 map iconParis 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.

published July 2014

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.