Anarchists and Fabians: An Anniversary Symposium

In other parts of the civilised world the economic problem has been longer and more scientifically discussed, and Socialist opinion has taken shape in two distinct schools, Collectivist and Anarchist. English Socialism is not yet Anarchist or Collectivist, not yet definite enough in point of policy to be classified. There is a mass of Socialistic feeling not yet conscious of itself as Socialism. But when the unconscious Socialists of England discover their position, English Socialism is not yet Anarchist or Collectivist, not yet supporting a strong central administration, and a counterbalancing Anarchist party defending individual initiative against that administration.

FABIAN TRACT No. 4, 1886.

1. Undifferentiated Socialism

This issue of ANARCHY coincides with the seventy-fifth anniversary of its publishers, Freedom Press. It was in October 1886, that the original Freedom Group, consisting of exiled Russian revolutionaries, Peter Kropotkin and Nicolas Tchaikovsky, a London Italian, Saverio Merlino, and two members of the Fabian Society, Dr. Burns Gibson and Mrs. Charlotte Wilson, issued the first number of FREEDOM as "a Journal of Anarchist Socialism". Annie Besant, who was also at that time a member of the Fabian Executive, lent the hospitality of her Freethought Publishing Company as an office, and the type was composed at the printing office of the Socialist League, an arrangement made by William Morris.

This close association of anarchists and Fabians, and the existence of anarchist Fabians seems odd today. The explanation is given by the quotation at the head of the page, from the introduction to the fourth Fabian Tract What Socialism is, which was followed by an exposition of Collectivism by August Bebel, and of Anarchism, "drawn up by C. M. Wilson, on behalf of the London Anarchists". Socialism, as the introduction suggested, was still undifferentiated in this country, between that school which sought to utilise the power of the state and that which saw the state as an obstacle to the realisation of socialism. This un-differentiated period was at that time coming to an end. The struggle between the adherents of Marx and those of Bakunin in the First International, had taken place in the previous decade; that in the Second International was yet to come, with the ejection of Merlino from its founding congress in Paris in 1889, and the final exclusion of the anarchist faction of Malatesta, Landauer, Nieuwenhuis and Cornelissen from the Zurich Congress in 1893, when Bebel's resolution limited membership to groups and parties who accepted political action. In England, H. M. Hyndman had founded the Democratic Federation (later the SDF) in 1881, containing "parliamentary social reformers, revolutionary social democrats, anti-parliamentary social democrats and pronounced anarchists". The SDF split at the end of 1884, William Morris's faction forming the Socialist League, which in turn split again between anarchists and socialists a few years later, the anarchist faction joining with the Freedom Group in 1895. In the following year, speaking at a protest demonstration after the expulsion of the anarchists from the International Labour Congress, Keir Hardie said that, while he was no anarchist, no one could prophesy whether the Socialism of the future would shape itself in the image of the Social Democrats or of the Anarchists.

The Fabian Society had been founded in 1884. Bernard Shaw became a member of its Executive Council in 1885, as did Charlotte Wilson, and in the same year Sidney Webb joined the society. In March 1885 Shaw published, in Henry Seymour's paper The Anarchist, a defence of anarchism. He had not yet reached the position of his 1893 Fabian Tract The Impossibilities of Anarchism (though his article is not a very good statement of the anarchist case, and his tract is not a very good criticism of it). But 1886 turned out to be crucial year in the relations of Fabians and anarchists. According to one of the recent books on the history of the Fabian Society,

The question, as G.B.S. put it, was how many followers had the one ascertained anarchist Fabian, Mrs. Charlotte Wilson, among the silent Fabians? The Fabian executive determined to find out. At a meeting that autumn in Alderton's Hotel, Annie Besant and Hubert Bland moved that seconded a resolution that Socialists should organise themselves into a political party – a suggestion that, would bring any cowering or lurking anarchists into the open, as being complete anathema to them. William Morris dotted the i's and crossed the t's by adding a rider to the contrary: "because no Parliamentary party can exist without compromise and concession." The debate was so noisy that the Fabian secretary was subsequently told by the manager of Alderton's Hotel that the society could not be accommodated there for any further meetings. Everybody voted whether Fabian or not, and Besant and Bland carried their resolution by 47 to 19, Morris's rider being rejected by 40 to 27.

And that, from a Fabian point of view, seems to have been the end of the matter, though it is interesting to note that at that time the majority faction had no intention of implementing the resolution.

2. The Fabian Package
Geoffrey Ostergaard.

The year 1889 saw the publication of Fabian Essays in Socialism, a coherent expression of the new creed which was destined to dominate British socialist thought for the next sixty years and which exercised a major influence on Bernstein's 'revision' of Marxism a decade later. The classic Fabian modus operandi was 'permeation' – the tactic of nobbling anyone, Tory, Liberal or what-have-you, who had any influence in government. This tactic made no appeal to those in the Labour Movement, like Keir Hardie, who were eager to get 'independent' representation in Parliament. The Fabians therefore, played little part in the actual moves which led to the formation of the I.L.P. and its offspring the Labour Party. Nevertheless, they did provide the basic elements in the programmes of these parties. The Labour politicians had essentially only one idea of their own – representation independent of the older bourgeois parties: the rest of their ideas they bought at the Fabian shop.

The principal items in the package of goods were these:
(i) Acceptance of the bourgeois democratic State as a suitable instrument for the achievement and application of socialism. No essential change, the Fabians argued, was necessary in the apparatus of government. To break the State machine would be tantamount to political Luddism. All that was required was for the people to gain control of the machine through the ballot box and to perfect it for their own ends. This notion assumed that the democratic State could be identified with the community and made possible the conclusion that State ownership and control was the same as ownership and control by the community in the interests of 'the community as a whole'.

(ii) Rejection of revolutionary economics. The early British socialists had demonstrated how bourgeois economics with its corner-stone, the labour theory of value, could be turned into a weapon for use against the bourgeoisie. Marx completed the demonstration. In response to this turn of events, bourgeois economists ditched the classical theory and developed a new economics based on the concept of marginal utility. The Fabians followed the new line. They espoused the economics of utility and added to it a large dash of the Ricardian theory of rent. In their hands, economics was used to support the case for socialism, but in the process of presenting that case the guts were cut out of it. The old revolutionary economics was essentially a theory of class exploitation. Fabian economics was simply an attempt to justify State ownership. The class struggle had no place in the Fabian picture of the world: socialism was not a matter of classes; it was rather a question of the 'community as a whole' taking charge of what was rightfully its own. In this connection, the different wording of the broad objective of the Fabians in comparison with that of the other socialists is significant. For revolutionary socialists the aim was 'the emancipation of labour through the abolition of the wage system and the socialisation of the means of production.' For the Fabians the aim, as stated in their Basis, was simply 'the emancipation of land and capital from individual ownership.'

(iii) The notion that socialism would be achieved through a process of gradual evolution. That socialism was the next step in the development of modern society. Sidney Webb, writing in the Essays on the historical basis of socialism, argued that socialist principles had been explicit in much of the development of social organisation in the19th century. Successive regulation and limitation of private ownership in the course of the century had cut 'slice after slice' from the profits of capital and the income of rent and interest. 'Step by step' the political power of the country had been used for industrial ends. The logical end result would be the complete ownership and management of industry by the community, a consummation that would be achieved 'with no more dislocation of the industries carried on by (capitalist shareholders) than is caused by the daily purchase of shares by the stock exchange.' Not for a moment were the Fabians prepared to countenance the idea that State ownership might, in certain circumstances, be in the interests of the capitalist class: socialism was State intervention and that's all there was to it.

In the 20th century Fabianism was to be faced with some competition from other brands of socialism, notably syndicalism and guild socialism. But this competition resulted in only a modification of the wrapper. The basic goods remained the same and three-quarters of a century later we are living in a Britain shaped very much in the Fabian mould.

The Fabians succeeded in changing the whole character of socialism. For the 'socialism of the street' they substituted 'the socialism of the bureau' – the socialism of a bureaucrat anxious to enlarge his department. In modern parlance, they were the harbingers of managerialism. They valued above all social efficiency, an idea which, if it has always found expression in socialist literature, had previously been subordinate to the more human values of freedom, mutual aid and social co-operation. The Fabians never tired of emphasising the economic advantages to be gained from a collectivist economy – the replacement of the 'anarchy' of competition by planned production and the elimination of wasteful unemployment and poverty through the establishment of a national minimum standard of living. The total effect of Fabian doctrines was thus to transform socialism from a moral idea of the emancipation of the proletariat to a complicated problem of social engineering, making it a task, once political power had been won, not for the ordinary stupid mortal – Beatrice Webb's 'average sensual man' – but for the administrator armed with facts and figures provided by diligent research. It is small wonder that, nurtured for three generations on such fare, British socialism presents today a spectacle of spiritual exhaustion.

3. The Point of Divergence
John Ellerby.

In the Report on Fabian Policy of 1896, George Bernard Shaw wrote that "The Socialism advocated by the Fabian Society is State Socialism exclusively". It was this glorification of the State which brings us up with a start when we read even the most sympathetic accounts of the leading triumvirate of the Fabian Society, Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It explains their bellicosity at the time of the Boer War, it explains Sidney Webb's remark in the First World War, when there was a chance of a negotiated peace, "Soldiers' noses must be kept to the grindstone." It explains the admiration which Shaw and the Webbs expressed later in their lives, for Mussolini, and their positively indecent worship of Stalin. It explains why the chosen instrument of public ownership of industry and services in this country has been the public corporation, run on capitalist lines, and indeed indistinguishable from the big capitalist empires. It explains why many of the instruments of social welfare have taken their particular form. (The "welfare state" as such cannot be described as a Fabian achievement: it is the inevitable concommitant of industrialisation and of the extension of warfare to civilian populations. Professor Titmuss himself has described how "The aim and content of social policy, both in peace and war, are determined – at least to a substantial extent – by how far the co-operation of the masses is essential to the successful prosecution of war.").
The Fabian period is over, although the society itself still exists. In a sense it was over by the end of the First World War, with the outlines of Fabian policy set in motion as the policy of the Labour Party; in another sense it was over after its period of maximum membership in the late nineteen-forties, when the Labour government enacted its Fabian measures. As the Labour government staggered to its end ten years ago, The Times, in an unusually perceptive leading article observed that

At its annual conference in 1919 the Labour Party took a fateful step when, following the lead of Sidney Webb, it committed itself not only to Socialism but to one particular definition of Socialism which happened at that time to have found acceptance with the Fabian Society. By this definition Socialism is identified with the increase (almost unlimited in the economic field) of the State's power and activity. It is a direct consequence of this decision that an important element among those in the Labour Party who doubt the direction which the party has taken consists of those who looked for more power for the workers and for ordinary people and have been given instead the huge, impersonal and management-controlled public corporation. Mr. Bevan, in his indictment of the 'economists' party voices their vague but real resentment against the State managers who, as they see it, have annexed Socialism. There is nothing in the history of Socialist thought to suggest that the State is the natural and inevitable instrument by which Socialism is to be attained. From Proudhon to William Morris to the Guild Socialists, distrust of the State has been a constant element in the development of Socialist ideas. It is the tragedy of the Labour movement that it has been so intent on extending the authority of the State that it has overlooked the purpose of its existence.

The ten years since then have seen an orgy of "rethinking" among socialists of all kinds, but they have neither found a way of dressing up Labour's political programme in a fashion attractive enough to collect the floating votes on which general elections now depend, nor have they explored a non-parliamentary field of socialist activity which does not depend on the conquest of state power. Fabian policies have lost their appeal – we have experienced them from governments of both political complexions, and there is nothing significant to distinguish political socialism from its opponents in home, colonial or foreign policies.
The most perceptive of socialist thinkers have been groping for a different kind of socialism: some of them are quoted in ANARCHY 3, (p. 66). One of them, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. declared that "The Welfare State marks the successful end of the first road along which the Socialist movement in this country has elected to travel. It is now time to go back to the point of divergence." For her the alternative road is in the tradition of the Guild Socialists who "were deeply concerned with the destruction of community life, the degradation of work, the division of man from man which the economic relationships of capitalism had produced; and they looked to the transformation of existing communities, the trade unions, the factories themselves, for the restoration of what was lost." For us the point of divergence is not very different. At the actual time of the divergence between anarchists and Fabians, Charlotte Wilson expressed it in Fabian Tract No. 4 in these words:

The first aim of anarchism is to assert and make good the dignity of the individual human being, by his deliverance from every description of arbitrary restraint – economic, political and social; and by doing so, to make apparent in their true force the real social bonds which already knit men together, and, unrecognised, are the actual basis of such common life as we possess. The means of doing this rests with each man's conscience and his opportunities …
Anarchists believe the existing organisation of the State only necessary in the interest of monopoly, and they aim at the simultaneous overthrow of both monopoly and State. They hold the centralised 'administration of processes' a mere reflection of the present middle-class government by representation upon the vague conception of the future. They look rather for voluntary productive and distributive associations utilising a common capital, loosely federated trade and district communities practising eventually free communism in production and consumption …
Anarchism is not a utopia, but a faith based on the scientific observation of social phenomena. In it the individual revolt against authority, handed down to us through radicalism and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, and the Socialist revolt against private ownership of the means of production, which is the foundation of Collectivism, find their common issue.

In spite of the fact that anarchism and Fabianism are at almost diametrically opposed wings of the socialism movement, there are lessons to be learned from the Fabians – and by the Fabians in this context, I mean the "Old Gang" of the Society, the little group which was its mainspring until (and unofficially long beyond) its retirement from the executive in 1911 – Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Sydney Olivier and Graham Wallas. Some of these lessons are indicated in a recent article in FREEDOM (Socialism by Pressure Group 12/8/61) by Geoffrey Ostergaard, who points out how the society's organisational structure placed it "out of the reach of interested minorities chasing paper majorities which have been the bane of most socialist and labour organisations". Others emerge from a study of the "Old Gang" considered as a group, published in the American bulletin Autonomous Groups (Spring and Summer 1959) by Charles Kitzen. He shows how the "Old Gang", with its close ties of sentiment and common interest, its division of labour based on specialisation according to their different talents, and its "external system" by which each member of the "Old Gang" was a liaison between the group and many other organisations and interest groups, achieved an immense amount of work and exercised a very great influence, by virtue of its structure and character as a group. It is a paradox that the "Old Gang" of the Fabians, rigorous protagonists of state socialism, should have been in themselves the epitome of a voluntary informal group of autonomous individuals.

The immense service in education and research which this tiny group was able to give to the socialist movement, though its results were from our point of view disastrous, lead me to ask whether, if we are really to "go back to the point of divergence" and successfully propagate a different kind of socialism, we do not need the equivalent of the Fabians to do for anarchist theory and practice what they did for the political wing of the Labour movement? I think we do, and I think we already have its nucleus among our readers (for the FREEDOM readership survey last year revealed that we have among us people with specialised knowledge in every conceivable field of occupation and activity), but what we have not got is the willingness to undertake the necessary work. Let us imagine this anarchist equivalent in existence – we will call it The Nucleus as a "notional" organisation, that is to say, one without officers and membership lists or the paraphernalia of formal organisations. Its members – let us assume that they are synonymous with the readership of this journal, seek to relate anarchism to their own particular occupation or field of interest, to use it (as the manifesto in the very first issue of FREEDOM seventy-five years ago put it), as "the touchstone" by which they set out to "try the current ideas and modes of action of existing society", and to infuse it into the other occupational and interest groups to which they belong. The Nucleus, in its "external system" acts as an anarchist leaven in other equally "notional" organisations – the unofficial movements in industry, the New Left, CND and the Committee of 100 are examples, while internally (through the medium of this journal, we might hope), it seeks to erect that "house of theory" for want of which Iris Murdoch sees the impetus of the Left withering away, as well as an exposition of what one of our contributors calls "applied anarchism". For it is in the field of partial anarchist applications, examples of which are given in ANARCHY 4 ('de-institutionalisation') and ANARCHY 7 (adventure playgrounds), that we can most readily see the startling relevance in daily life, of anarchist ideas. Far from being a half-forgotten backwater left over from the pre-Fabian days of socialism, they can emerge as a living influence in life and conduct, if only the nucleus of contemporary anarchists will take the trouble to present them in this light.

Last month thousands of people were willing to make an act of token resistance to authority in the "sit-down" demonstrations. The field for modern and constructive anarchist propaganda is all around us.

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Jul 16 2016 00:11


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