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The Fabian Society, which was established in London in 1884, took its name from Fabius Cunctator, the Roman General who applied carefully conceived tactics of preparation, attrition, and judicious timing of attack in defeating Hannibal. Fabianism refers especially to a particular position within British socialism, originally espoused by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw, three of the most prominent early Fabians. The early Fabians concentrated on the research of social issues, the results of which were forwarded in arguments for reform to intellectuals and leaders within both the Independent Labour Party and the Liberal Party. After the First World War the Fabian Society affiliated to the Labour Party, becoming a less high‐profile group after the 1930s, but providing a basis for a more diverse set of socialist intellectuals to conduct debate on any issue of interest to the Labour Party.

The Webbs and Shaw believed in a Ricardian theory of rent, which determined that one part of rent should be apportioned to society, or, in practice, the state acting on behalf of society. This was the justification for progressive taxation to fund state expenditure directed at correcting social inequalities. State policies at both national and local levels were to aim at creating a ‘national minimum’ of social welfare which would liberate all individuals to fulfil their talents and act as good citizens. Thus, political democracy enshrined in the right to vote could be extended to a social democracy in which the values and injustices of unfettered capitalism could be eroded. At the same time, the Fabians advocated that the state should be staffed by trained experts in public administration, capable of rational consideration of public policy, dedicated to public service for the general good, and, thus, successful in delivering social democracy. The emphasis on the role of trained intelligence in good government derived from contempt for ‘amateur’ administrators, who by default had facilitated unfettered capitalism.

The Fabian approach to political action by way of calm intellectual reflection and considered rational planning, and advocacy that social democracy be engineered by a meritocratic state elite, have appealed to successive generations of senior parliamentary Labour Party figures and to socialists overseas, such as Nehru. Fabianism has been criticized from the left for its rejection of notions of class struggle and its focus instead on creating social solidarity from above which underplays the problems of the working class. It is charged with being based on inherently elitist assumptions, born of its adherents' generally relatively comfortable upbringings and university education. Equally, it has been criticized from the right for ignoring the role of markets, in which benevolent administrators have a smaller role than in planned societies. With the advent of the modernization of the Labour Party from the mid‐1980s, however, the Fabian Society has remained a forum for the debate of a diverse set of issues following the assumption of a smaller and territorially decentralized post‐Thatcherite state in the UK. A 1992 Fabian Society pamphlet by Ed Balls is widely accredited with influencing the decision to make the Bank of England independent in 1997, and the report of the Fabian Society tax commission, chaired by Raymond Plant, in 2000 is considered to have influenced the decision to increase national insurance contributions in 2001 to fund new spending on the National Health Service.


Subjects: Politics.

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