Just Good Friends

The Fabian Society's relationship to the Labour Party

By Richard Bomford

The Fabian Society came into existence in the last few years of the nineteenth century. It began in a way that is similar to the way it exists today in Tunbridge Wells, a small number of people who were interested in social change met together to listen to a speaker and discuss political issues among themselves.

This was taking place in the drawing rooms of the middle class members, because nearly all of the early Fabians were middle class. people like Bernard Shaw, Edward Pease (a stockbroker), Percival Chubb, (a civil servant), Thomas Davidson (a schoolmaster). The Society was actually formed on October 24th. 1883.

When the members got round to recording their aims in 1887 they read as follows:

The Fabian Society consists of Socialists.

It therefore aims at the reorganisation of Society by the emancipation of Land and Industrial Capital from individual and class ownership. In this way only can the natural and acquired advantages of the country be equitably shared by the whole people.

The Society accordingly works for the extinction of private property in Land and of the consequent individual appropriation, in the form of Rent, of the price paid for permission to use the earth, as well as for the advantages of superior soils and sites.

It carries on further but this part shows how in these early days of Socialism there was an undisputed belief in the necessity of having public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The only dispute among Socialists was whether any compensation would be paid.

In the early days there was no Labour Party and the Fabian Society set out to lobby the existing parties, publishing Fabian Tracts written by authors who included G.B. Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In 1886 however the Society decided at a stormy meeting that Socialists should organise themselves as a political party and try to win seats in Parliament. They sent delegates to the meeting at Bradford in January 1893 of a variety of Socialist and Labour groups which culminated in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Neither the Fabian Society or the other main Socialist group, the Social Democratic Federation, were merged into the ILP but continued a separate existence. The Fabian Society did however support the ILP strongly by supplying political ammunition for the fight against reactionaries. I suppose they were the "think tank" of the Socialist movement, a role they still have.

Membership of the Society was only allowed to those who signed the "Fabian Basis" (which was similar to the old "Clause 4" of blessed memory!). By February 1891 there were 361 full members and 300-400 members of provincial societies who belonged to 12 local societies.

By 1893 there were 500 full members and 70 local societies with a total of about 2000 members.

There was still a strong body of opinion in the Society, mostly led by the Webbs, that the way forward for socialism was by persuading leaders of the two existing parties, the Tories and Liberals, to adopt piecemeal some socialist policies. This was the policy of permeation, and it was to some extent successful in that both Tory and Liberal administrations did adopt some measures to improve the lot of the working class. It was however a policy which raised distrust in both the politicians they were trying to influence and the Trades Unions on whose behalf they were allegedly working. In the end however the Society pursued a policy of working for the formation of a new party which would contest parliamentary seats in its own name.

In 1899 The Fabian Society accepted an invitation from Keir Hardy to participate in a conference of socialists and Trades Union representatives to discuss the formation of a working-class political party. This conference resulted in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee from which the Labour Party came. The Fabian Society was represented on the Committee by Edward Pease, who had attended the conference as a Fabian delegate

Then as now, individual Fabians held differing views on political issues. The Society put forward these views in a series of thought provoking Fabian Tracts. Although they continued their membership of the Labour Representation Committee they often published tracts which ran counter to the beliefs of the rest of the Labour movement..

Fabian teachings had been spreading also in the Liberal party. The "new" Liberals of the 20th century no longer advocated a policy of laissez-faire in government. They had turned against individualism and classical economics and favored extending the powers of the state to abolish poverty. They still held to the 19th-century Liberal doctrine of free trade. On this issue they won the election of 1906.

The Labour Representation Committee put up fifty candidates for this election, practically all manual workers in origin, and over half of them were successful. They then took the name of the Labour Party. Labour party representatives supported the Liberal program of social legislation.

In a tract published in 1906 the Fabian Society acknowledged with satisfaction the influence which the small Labour Party already had on the Liberal Government, which was out of proportion to its numbers. They said, however:

The Labour Party in the House of Commons is as yet not disliked because it is not feared. Until it has made itself both disliked and feared it will be far short of having fulfilled the objects of its very existence.... Inasmuch as nothing short of an economic revolution can vitally or permanently improve the wage-earner's condition, it is at an economic revolution that a Labour Party must aim, and a revolution is none the less a revolution because it takes years or even decades in the accomplishing. Years and decades of hard work, of tireless activity, of small triumphs and dismaying defeats lie before the Labour Party inside and outside the walls of parliament, and they must be years and decades of revolutionary activity and of nothing less than that. In the course of a revolution somebody must needs suffer in mind, body or estate. Thanks to our constitutional system and to our widely extended franchise Labour can work out its own salvation without injury either to the sanity or to the skins of those who seek to hinder it. But the estates must be attacked, and attacked with vigour and despatch. A Labour policy which hurts no one will benefit no one.

I particularly like the last sentence, our present Labour Government is certainly happy to hurt its friends in the name of modernisation but is it equally ready to hurt its enemies?

During the period before the first World War the Fabian Society, although affiliated to the Labour Party, had many Liberals and some Tories as members. In February 1912 , at a business meeting of members, the Executive endeavoured to define the proper attitude of the Society to the Labour Party, suggesting that 'while treating with due respect expressions of opinion passed by the Labour Party Conference, it is not in any way bound to modify its attitude or alter its policy in accordance with the views of the Federation of which it forms a part'; privately, it refused a suggestion that it should consult the Party about the amount of 'private judgement and action' allowed to Fabians and later in the same year the Annual Meeting agreed to a resolution from the Executive encouraging members and Societies to co-operate with the Labour Party.

The Society continued its independent way but fewer and fewer of its members were from the Liberal or Tory parties and it became more and more identified with the Labour Party. Eventually, in 1916, Sidney Webb joined the Labour Party and was elected to the Executive Committee. Thus the policy of permeation was laid to rest.

In the 1922 election ten Fabians were returned as Labour members and formed part of the party which elected Ramsey MacDonald as leader.

Twelve months later there was another election which resulted in 22 Fabians being elected and five of them entered the Labour Cabinet.

After they had helped bring the Labour Party into power, even if only briefly, the Fabian Society seemed to run out of steam and their influence in politics declined. Sidney Webb lost his place on the Labour Party Executive. Shaw visited Italy and came back full of enthusiasm for Mussolini. The Society went through a very bad patch from which it only started to recover with the founding of the New Fabian Research Bureau in 1930. This was founded by the Fabian Society and its manifesto stated:

It is setting out on a programme of research meant to be spread over a considerable period of time, and is setting out to do its work patiently and with all the skilled help it can command, conscious that what the Labour Movement needs above all is the constant expansion and adaptation of policy in the light of changing conditions, on a basis of accurate research and collation of available experience.

Involved in the New Fabian Research Bureau were famous and soon to be famous names, Attlee was the Chairman and the committee included Hugh Gaitskill, G.D.H. Cole and Philip Noel-Baker. The Bureau published 42 research pamphlets between 1932 and 1938, including five pamphlets on Nationalization which probably had a great influence on the post war Labour Government.

In 1938 the New Fabian Research Bureau amalgamated with the Fabian Society and the Fabian Basis was replaced by a single rule:

The Society consists of Socialists. It therefore aims at the establishment of a society in which equality of opportunity will be assured, and the economic power and privileges of individuals and classes abolished through the collective ownership and democratic control of the economic resources of the community. It seeks to secure these ends by the methods of political democracy.

The Society, believing in equal citizenship in the fullest sense, is open to persons irrespective of sex, race or creed, who commit themselves to its aim and purposes and undertake to promote its work. The Society shall be affiliated to the Labour Party. Its activities shall be the furtherance of socialism and the education of the public on socialist lines by the holding of meetings, lectures, discussion groups, conferences and summer schools, the promotion of research into political, economic and social problems, national and international, the publication of books, pamphlets and periodicals, and by any other appropriate method.

For example - the Internet!

Another important rule was the self denying ordinance which barred the Society from putting forward policies of its own. A later rule enjoined that all publications should make clear that they were the opinions of the author and not those of the Society. This caveat still appears on all Fabian publications with the statement that "the responsibility of the Society is limited to approving its publications as worthy of consideration within the Labour movement."

After the Second World War the Fabian Society flourished and there was a growth in the number of local Fabian Societies. The present Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge Fabian Society was founded in January 1965 and has been in continuous existence since then.

We aim for a mixture of local and national speakers , with plenty of time for discussion. Big names we have had include Dennis Healey, Peter Shore, Austin Mitchell and Margaret Beckett. We have had numerous M. P. s; Left wingers such as Judith Hart, Brian Sedgemore, Michael Meacher and Eric Heffer We have had mainstream/right-wing M P.'s such as Giles Radice, Ivor Richards and Bill Rodgers.

We've had well known journalists or media people such as Martin Linton, Paul Hirst, Paul Ormerod and Ben Pimlott.

We've had people who became famous, such as Joe Haines, David Hughes and Lord Andrew Adonis

We've had issue speakers, such as from A. N. C., Kent miners strike and Shelter.

Since the defection of the Gang of Four (Which included the Fabian Society Chairman, Shirley Williams) it has been made clear that full membership is only allowed to people who do not work for any other political party although if they claim to be socialists they can be nonvoting associate members. Membership of the Labour Party is not essential for full membership. It is our local Society's policy to encourage all people of a left of centre persuasion to attend our meetings and enjoy our discussions and we have often welcomed Lib-Dems and Green Party people


The history is taken from Margaret Cole's "The story of Fabian Socialism" and the Fabian Society's "100 years of Fabian Socialism." The information on the local Society was supplied by John Champneys, Secretary of the Society and a long time member.

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Last Revision: January 4th.2006