Educate, Agitate, Organize — George Bernard Shaw


The last quarter of the nineteenth century in Britain was marked by a growing critique of laissez-faire capitalism and an upsurge of interest in socialist ideas. The British socialist movement grew particularly strong in the period between the 1880s and 1914 and included Christian and libertarian socialists, Fabians, and Marxists. The Fabian Society, established in London in 1884, aimed to promote a moral reconstruction of British society according to socialist principles and level the gulf between the rich and the poor. Fabians, unlike Marxists, advocated a gradual, non-revolutionary transition to socialism based on humanist foundations.

Origin of the Name

The Fabian Society took its name, suggested by one of its founding members, Frank Podmore, from the Roman General, Quintus Fabius Cunctator, who avoided a frontal attack on Hannibal’s army in the third century B.C., but used delaying tactics. Likewise, the Fabian Society preferred not to support a revolutionary transformation, but was committed to promoting evolutionary socialism in Britain.

The Fellowship of the New Life

The direct predecessor of the Fabian Society was The Fellowship of the New Life, a utopian association, founded in London in 1883 by the Scottish-American scholar Thomas Davidson (1840-1900), as an intellectual discussion and study group dedicated to developing models of moral regeneration. The members of the Fellowship were ethical socialists, imbued with idealism, who wanted to achieve social change through the inculcation of ideas that would upgrade individual people and, eventually, society. They included the poet and homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter, journalist William Clarke, sexologist Havelock Ellis and his future wife Edith Lees, a women's rights activist; bank clerk Hubert Bland and his wife Edith Nesbith, the future author of books for children; social reformer and defender of animal rights Henry Stephens Salt; Ramsey McDonald, and invoice clerk in a warehouse and the future Labour prime minister; and two clerks at London Stock Exchange: Edward Pease and Frank Podmore.

The establishment of the Fabian Society

On January 4, 1884 at 17 Osnaburgh Street, a splinter group, which put social reform before moral regeneration, broke away from the Fellowship and formed the Fabian Society for the purpose of reconstructing British society on a non-competitive basis in order to secure its general welfare and happiness. The founding members included Edward Pease, Edith Nesbith, Hubert Bland, and Frank Podmore. Nine months later George Bernard Shaw became one of its most active members, and in May 1885, he invited two young Colonial Office clerks, Sidney Webb and Sydney Olivier to join the Society. Some other early notable members included Beatrice Potter (later Webb), Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx (Karl Marx's eldest daughter), Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, and briefly, Herbert George Wells (from 1903 to 1908). From 1890, the Society had a paid secretary, Pease, who managed daily business until 1913. In 1891, the Society began to publish a monthly journal, Fabian News, with Bland and Pease as editors.

Until 1886, the Fabian Society, which consisted mostly of middle-class intellectuals of different political and social orientations, followed a strategy proposed by Shaw. However, the Society was not unanimous in its opinions. “In the late 1880s and early 1890s there were important struggles between the anarchists and state socialists within the Society, and between the reformists within the Society and the revolutionaries outside it — principally those of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League.” (Blazeer 50) A number of rank-and-file members of the Society began to think about forming an independent party. Soon two contrary political viewpoints emerged among the early Fabians: some wanted to create a new independent labour party, while others, including Sidney Webb, wanted to propagate socialism among the Liberals (Bevir, 1996: 187-88).

In the 1890s the Society continued its strategy of small steps towards socialism, which was to come by ballots, not revolution. It favoured municipal ownership of some utilities. The early Fabians believed that the control of municipal management was an important step towards socialist reforms. The membership of the Fabian Society steadily increased, from 31 in 1884 to 116 in 1886, and 2000 in 1908 (Milburn 321). In the early 1890s, the Fabian Society established its new branches in Bradford, Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield. The Fabian Societies elsewhere in the United Kingdom reached the peak membership of about 1500 in 1892, and then followed a steady decline, and a significant revival by 1913 (McBriar 165).

The activities of the early Fabian Society were mostly limited to fortnightly meetings with a leading speaker, public lectures, and publications of Fabian Tracts. In 1892, Sidney Webb and five other Fabians were elected to the London County Council, where they tried to propagate the ideas of 'municipal socialism', which called for the public ownership of urban utilities and tramlines, better wages for city workers, improved free public education and vocational training. Early Fabians were also very active in various educational boards in London. For example, Sidney Webb was Chairman of the Technical Education Committee of the London City Council, Graham Wallas was Chairman of the School Management Committee of the London School Board, and another Fabian, the Rev. Stewart Headlam was Chairman of the Evening Classes Committee of the School Board (Mc Briar 202).

The early Fabians hoped that the Liberal Party would implement social reforms. By 1892, English liberalism had sufficiently been permeated with Fabian ideas. At the same time the Society began to attract socialists and labour leaders, such as Heir Kardie, Will Crooks, and Ben Tillett. In Manchester Robert Blatchford (1851-1943) established a local Fabian Society and edited a socialist weekly, The Clarion, which gained a large working-class readership. In 1893, he published a utopian socialist tract, Merrie England, which sold over two million copies in Britain only. In the last years of the 19th century, many provincial members of the Fabian Society supported the newly established Independent Labour Party, and in 1900, the Fabians helped establish the Labour Representative Committee, which became the Labour Party in 1906.


Early Fabian economic theory was developed in great measure under the influence of John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1848), and his famous essay On Liberty (1859) helped shape the basic tenets of Fabian socialism. Another significant influence was the American economist Henry George (1839-1897). Emulating George, the Fabians stated that both land and capital were unearned increments for landlords and capitalists. The doctrines of Frederic Harrison's (1831-1923) positivism also contributed to the Fabian theory of socialism. Besides, the early Fabians derived inspiration from diverse writers, poets, thinkers, scientists and politicians including William Langland, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Owen, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, William Morris, as well as Christian Socialists.

A Manifesto

On September 5, 1884, Shaw contributed the second important Fabian Tract, titled A Manifesto, which presented opinions, later known as 'principles of Fabianism'. The most important 'principles' are be summarised below:

Land and capital have created the division of society into hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme and large dinners and no appetites at the other. Nationalisation of land is a public duty. Capitalism has ceased to encourage invention and to distribute its benefits in the fairest way attainable. Under the existing system of the national industry, competition has the effect of rendering adulteration, dishonest dealing, and inhumanity compulsory. The Public Revenue should be levied by a direct Tax. The State should compete with private individuals — especially with parents — in providing happy homes for children, so that every child may have a refuge from the tyranny or neglect of its natural custodians. The sexes should enjoy equal political rights. The State should secure a free, liberal education for everybody. The established Government has no more right to call itself the State than the smoke of London has to call itself the weather.


In 1887, the Fabian Society published its programme, known as “The Basis,” which proposed “the use of the existing institutions, party and parliamentary machinery for the realization of social reforms.” These reforms, which can be described as Fabian socialism, aimed at “ the elimination of privately owned land and the establishment of community ownership of the means of production.” (Milburn 320) The instruments to achieve these goals were democratic government control, municipalisation and nationalisation. The Fabian Society rejected the Marxian theory of the class struggle and postulated that the transition from capitalism to socialism would never be carried by force.

The objectives of the Fabian Society were socialist, but its methods were not revolutionary; they were evolutionary and reformist. Instead of 'class consciousness', Fabians emphasised unbiased analysis of concrete social situations based on verifiable data. They generally advocated collectivist state socialism.

Fabian Tracts

The Fabian Society disseminated its ideas in lectures, public debates, and tracts. The most important early tract was Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by George Bernard Shaw and published in 1889. It contained eight lectures, delivered in 1888 in the workingmen's clubs and political associations of London by seven influential members of the Fabian Society: Shaw, Sidney Webb, William Clarke, Sydney Oliver, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, and Hubert Bland. They set forth the ideology and programme of the Society in hope that they would gradually prompt the Liberal party to adopt and implement in English law. The authors dealt almost wholly with English conditions and problems. The tract sold 46,000 copies prior to World War One and became the blueprint for socialist legislation. It was also published in the USA and other countries and translated into several languages.

The first part of the book contains a critique of the existing social institutions in England. In the second part the organisation of property and industry under the socialist state is described. William Clarke outlined the growth of industrial production till it culminated in monopoly capitalism and annihilated free competition. Sidney Webb explained why the laissez faire system had to be abandoned in the economy and the state was forced to introduce a policy of interference in a number of industries, particularly in the factories and mines. Wallas and Annie Besant sketched the future socialist state.

Over one hundred tracts were published in the years between 1884 and 1901. They dealt mostly with electoral reform, industrial relations, local government, poverty, social reform (such as education, health and pensions), socialism and women’s issues. Most of the ideas of the Fabian Society were published by its individual members under their own names. The early Fabians argued that land and capital must be nationalised from landlords and capitalists because they were their unearned increment, which must be returned to society.


In its early stage, the Fabian Society adopted a policy of 'permeation', which involved infiltrating existing institutions, parties and Parliament by its members and supporters in order to carry out social and economic reforms. Fabians managed to permeate their ideology to many people who were not socialists but thought of reforms. Their principal objective was nationalisation of the industries.

The object of the Fabian Society is to persuade the English people to make their political constitution thoroughly democratic and so to socialize their industries as to make the livelihood of the people entirely independent of private Capitalism. [Fabian Tract No. 70, 3]

The leading Fabians proposed different strategies of permeation. They considered the Liberals to be more open to Fabian influence than the Conservatives. Therefore, for some time they supported the Liberal government, but when they realised that it did not intend to introduce social reforms, they published in 1893 a pamphlet, To Your Tents, O Israel, in which they called for the creation of a truly working-class party. When the Independent Labour party was formed in that year, the Fabian Society supported it.

The strategy of “permeation” was used successfully by Fabians, who participated in elections to various governing bodies, such as the London County Council and the House of Commons. They called for the spread of municipal socialism, which was manifested in social reforms undertaken by local governments, such as development of water and gas supply, slum clearances, and sanitation. Besides, they advocated the eight-hour working day, public education, and the establishment of universal suffrage. As a result, the Fabian Society pressed successfully on the Liberal-dominated Progressive Party in the London County Council in the 1890s. In 1899, the Fabian Society participated in the formation of a local government Information Bureau.

Early Fabians and the Empire

Until the Boer War, in 1899, the Fabian Society had paid little or no attention to the imperial rule. The Society was mostly concerned with domestic issues, such as national ownership, free education, and improvement of the life of the poor classes. A major split occurred in the Society over its response to the Boer War, leading to the resignation of Emmeline Pankhurst, William Clarke, and J. Ramsay MacDonald, at that time a member of the Fabian Executive Committee and the future leader of the Labour Party. In 1899, a group of Fabian rank-and-file members, led by the future guild-socialist, S. G. Hobson, and supported by a few members, unsuccessfully attempted to get the Fabian Executive to issue a statement of opposition to the war against the Boers.

However, it was in 1900 that the Society finally published a tract drafted by George Bernard Shaw, Fabianism and the Empire, which became the most significant statement of the Society's imperial policy. Shaw supported imperial expansion because, as he claimed, the world evolved toward big and powerful states. The Fabians criticised Liberals, but supported British imperial policy as a means of disseminating enlightened principles of governance throughout the world. The early Fabian socialists wanted to reform Britain's imperial rule and turn the British Empire into what was later called by the Webbs the Socialist Commonwealth. They spoke in favour of 'public-spirited' or 'social' imperialism. Hubert Bland defended British imperial policy arguing that “England was the only country fit to pioneer the blessings of civilisation.” (Porter 109) Shaw presented the view that small nations, like the Boer Republic, were anachronistic in the new world of the twentieth century. (Semmel 61) Eventually, the Fabians accepted the opinion that Britain must defend and maintain her empire in the most efficient way.

The British Empire, wisely governed, is invincible. The British Empire, handled as we handled Ireland and the American colonies, and as we may handle South Africa if we are not careful, will fall to pieces without the firing of a foreign shot. [Fabianism and Empire, 15]

The early Fabians belieed that the Empire could be efficiently managed by intelligent and wise experts, such as those who attended the Coefficients dining club meetings, organised by Beatrice Webb and her husband in 1902, to bring together the most influential decision- and opinion-makers Britain. The early Fabians thus dreamt of creating the socialist heaven under the British imperial flag. They were also concerned about the rearing of an 'imperial race' to help balance the threat imposed by emerging German imperialism.

The London School of Economics

One of the greatest achievements of the early Fabians was the foundation of the London School of Economics in 1894. It was a successful attempt to contest with ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The decision to create an educational establishment that would investigate the social and economic problems of late Victorian Britain and propagate the ideas of the Fabian Society was made by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw at a breakfast party at the Webbs' summer house (Borough Farm) near Milford, Surrey, on 4 August 1894.

In 1895, the Fabian Society received a large grant from Henry Hunt Hutchison, a Derby solicitor, which helped them accomplish this project. Soon the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) developed rapidly through private grants and donations. It became an important centre of influence of Fabian socialism. In 1900, the LSE merged with the University of London, and in 1903, the LSE opened the first department of sociology and social economics in Britain.


The early Fabians accomplished quite a lot in the way of social reform, education, and public administration. Fabian tracts became sources of inspiration for public legislation in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. The Webbs argued convincingly that poverty is preventable and can be reduced through adequate and effective social services and public control. The early Fabians tried to set English socialism on a unique road. They helped to shape the ideological basis of the Labour Party and lay the foundations of modern social welfare policy.

Sidney Webb, contributed significantly to the preparation of the Education Act of 1902, which handed over the control of local schools to borough or city councils. Over time, the education system in Britain emulated many Fabian ideas. Another important success of the early Fabians was their contribution to the implementation of the municipal reform, which was to produce, as they believed 'municipal socialism' (Clarkson 468).

Fallacies and Aberrations

Although the Fabian Society could boast of accomplishments in social reform in the final decade of the Victorian era, the Society was not immune to fallacies which bore on its later image. The early Fabians believed erroneously in the quick breakdown of capitalism and the emergence of a socialism based on state control, strict bureaucratic social planning and management for public welfare. Fabian socialism was by no means democratic. The Webbs, who were the leading theoreticians of Fabianism, proposed a model of a professionally administered society. They believed that in the socialist commonwealth political parties would disappear, and politicians would be replaced by highly skilled and benevolent 'experts' and salaried middle-class civil bureaucrats who would care for the general welfare of the rather ignorant and passive lower-class masses. The early Fabians believed naively that social problems could be solved through scientific investigation, state-regulated planning and administrative measures as well as the benevolence of enlightened middle-class elites.

Another serious flaw in the image of the Fabian Society was caused by its support of the pseudo-science of eugenics. In the early 1900s a few prominent members of the Society, including Sidney and Beatrice Webb, as well as Shaw and Wells, advocated the ideal of a scientifically planned socialist society and supported a eugenic approach to social policy. Devised by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911), eugenics aimed to replace natural selection with a planned and deliberate selection of human species. In tune with degeneration theory, which gained popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century, Sidney Webb lamented in his pamphlet The Decline in the Birth Rate (1907) that Britain is gradually falling to the Irish Roman Catholics and the Jews because the upper classes were reluctant to procreate.

In Great Britain at this moment, when half, or perhaps two-thirds, of all the married people are regulating their families, children are being freely born to the Irish Catholics and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, on the one hand, and to the thriftless and irresponsible — largely the casual laborers and the other denizens of the one-roomed tenements of our great cities — on the other. [16-17]

The Webbs, Shaw and Wells fervently supported eugenics. Beatrice Webb declared that eugenics is “the most important question of all” while her husband remarked that “no eugenicist can be a laissez-faire individualist" (Brignell), Shaw, who was briefly a lecturer for the Eugenic Education Society, wrote that “nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilisations” (Benson 85). Likewise, George Herbert Wells advocated “sterilisation of failures” (Ray 216).


The Fabian Society became the pre-eminent intellectual society in the United Kingdom in the Edwardian era, but its roots are in the late Victorian period. Fabianism was one of the more interesting strands of British socialism which emerged in the late Victorian era. The early Fabians were opposed to the revolutionary theory of Karl Marx, who propagated the necessity of a class war. Their purpose was to advance the socialist cause by reformist, rather than revolutionary, means. Fabianism sought to reconcile the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill with the values of liberty, democracy, economic progress and social justice. They even tried to revive both Benjamin Disraeli's Tory socialism and William Gladstone's liberalism, and hoped for the realisation of a socialist state and the new organisation of industry in Britain through permeation of their ideas to the country's intellectual and political elites. As history has shown, Fabianism failed to destroy capitalism in Britain and elsewhere, but the Fabian Society, in spite of its obvious failures and aberrations, should be remembered as a most successful agent of social reform in late Victorian Britain. Some of its ideas helped develop modern education, the modern welfare system as a countermeasure to laissez-faire, municipal reforms, national insurance, public health care, tariff reform, employers' liability, minimum wages, workmen's compensation, and even the global economy in the twentieth century.

References and Further Reading

Benson, Ophelia, Jeremy Stangroom. Why Truth Matters. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Bevir, Mark. "Fabianism, Permeation and Independent Labour," The Historical Journal, 39 (1), 1996, 179-196.

Blazeer, David. The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition: Socialists, Liberals and the Quest for Unity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Blatchford, Robert. Merrie England. London: Clarion Office, 1894.

Brignell, Victoria. "The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget." New Statesman, 9 Dec., 2010.

Britain, Ian. Fabianism and Culture: A Study of British Socialism and the Arts 1884-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Clarkson, Jesse D. “The Background of Fabian Theory,” The Journal of Economic History, 13 (4) 1953, 462-471.

Cole, Margaret. The Story of Fabian Socialism. London: Heinemann, 1961.

Dahrendorf, Ralph. LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science 1895-1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1995.

Fabian Tracts No. 70. Report on Fabian Policy and Resolutions Presented by The Fabian Society to the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress. London: Fabian Society, 1896.

Fremantle, Anne. This Little Band of Prophets: The Story of the Gentle Fabians. London: Allen & Unwin, 1960.

Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne Mackenzie. The First Fabians. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977.

Manton, Kevin. “The Fellowship of the New Life: English Ethical Socialism Reconsidered,” History of Political Thought, 24 (2) 2003.

McBriar, Alan M. Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Milburn, Josephine Fishel. “The Fabian Society and the British Labour Party,” The Western Political Quarterly, 11, 1958, 319-339. Pease, Edward R. The History of the Fabian Society. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company Publishers, 1916.

Porter, Bertrand. Critics of Empire: British Radicals and the Imperial Challenge. London: L. B. Tauris & Co, Ltd, 2008.

Potter, Beatrice. The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain. Swann Sonnenchein, 1891.

Pugh, Patricia. Educate, Agitate, Organize: A Hundred Years of Fabian Socialism. London: Methuen, 1984.

Radice, Lisanne. Beatrice and Sidney Webb: Fabian Socialists. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Ray, L. J. “Eugenics, Mental Deficiency and Fabian Socialism between the Wars,” Oxford Review of Education, 9 (3), 1983, 213-222.

Semmel, Bernard. Imperialism and Social Reform. English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914. Anchor Books, 1968.

Shaw, George Bernard, ed. Fabian Essays in Socialism. London: Fabian Society, 1889.

____. ed. Fabianism and the Empire. London: Grant Richards, 1900.

Vaninskaya, Anna. “Socialists and Social Reformers in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.” The Historical Journal, 56, 2013, 593-601.

Webb, Sidney. The Decline in the Birth Rate. London: The Fabian Society, 1907.

Webb, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920.

___. Industrial Democracy. London: Longman, 1897.

Wolfe, W. From Radicalism to Socialism: Men and Ideas in the Formation of Fabian Socialist Doctrines 1881–1889. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.

Last modified 16 September 2013