Sunday, 24 February 2008

Women's Suffrage: A Fabian perspective

The 1870s and 1880s saw the founding of several socialist groups. They sought a ‘new life’ based on the regeneration of self and the repudiation of the waste and excess of capitalism. The Fabian Society, which sought a political route, was formed in London in 1884[1]. It grew from the frustration of young idealists with Christian belief and the fading ethos of liberal individualism. The inner life was less important to Fabians than the poverty and squalor in which the mass of the population lived.

Who were the Fabians and what did they believe?

In 1884, Fabian socialism was rudimentary. It meant a belief in collectivism (intervention by the state by passing laws) to deal with the central social problem of poverty. Fabians saw the gap in living standards between rich and poor as the social evil of the late nineteenth century. Both George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb have identified the awakening ‘consciousness of sin’ among the privileged and propertied classes, anxious to hold on to their political and economic power and afraid of the newly enfranchised working classes[2]. People of all classes spoke of their ‘conversion’ and the socialism of the 1880s and 1890s had something of the enthusiasm of a religious revival. Fabian socialism was always intellectual. It took the form of a critical dialogue with others. It never had a popular base and, with the occasional exception, never sought one.

The early Fabians were writers, teachers, journalists and civil servants. Mostly young, in their early twenties, several were impoverished. They came from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. The emergence of Fabian socialism took place against a background of riots of the unemployed and the strikes of the match girls in 1888, dockers and other unskilled workers in London in 1889 and 1890. It was shaped then and during the equally turbulent years of Irish nationalism, women’s suffrage and syndicalism before the First World War (1906-14), years when the mental life of the nation changed. Some Fabians took a direct part in these struggles alongside trade unionism and socialist militants. But this experience of working class militancy filled them with unease.

Fabians had studied Marx but rejected his theory of change through class struggle. According to Fabians, the motors of history were the collectivist spirit and the gradual growth of the state.  Socialism they conceded might be inevitable but it would not come from the working classes. The poor lacked both the education and the leisure to think and to organise. The Fabian ideology was therefore an elitist one.  In many respects, Fabian socialism owed more to the ideas of John Stuart Mill than to the revolutionary creeds of Marx and Engels. Mill’s reservations about the benefits of mass democracy, the fear that the desires of civilised minorities would be swept aside by the uncultivated majority, was at the heart of much Fabian thought. Socialism was as necessary as political democracy was unavoidable. However, the Fabians argued it must be socialism grounded in the study of facts not the encouragement of feelings (except collectivist ones).

Socialist aspirations were unsettling because emotive. They were for the unconverted. The characteristics of Fabian socialism identified by Beatrice Webb were[3] “they translated economics and collectivism into the language of prosaic vestrymen and town councillors. They dealt largely in statistics; they talked about amending factory acts and municipalising (bringing services under the control of local municipal or urban authorities) gas and water supplies. Above all, they were productive in collecting facts and developing ideas and practical projects for reform.... Their summary of Socialism, which was found in the ensuing decade to have a strong appeal, was put in the following terms. It comprised, they said, essentially collectivist ownership wherever practicable; collective regulation everywhere else; collective provision according to need for the impotent and sufferers; and collective taxation in proportion to wealth, especially surplus wealth.”


[1] On the development of the Fabian Society, see A.M. MacBriar Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884-1918, Cambridge, 1962 and Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie The First Fabians, London, 1979. Carole Seymour-Jones Beatrice Webb. Woman of Conflict, Pandora, 1992 is the most accessible biography. Royden J. Harrison The Life and Times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb 1858-1905: The Formative Years, Palgrave, 2000 should now be regarded as the definitive study on the key players. On the role of socialist women more generally, see June Hannam and Karen Hunt Socialist Women, Routledge, 2001.

[2] Primary materials on growing Fabian awareness can be found in Sally Alexander (ed.) Women’s Fabian Tracts, London, 1989, introduction reprinted in Sally Alexander On Becoming a Woman and other essays, Virago, 1994, pages 159-170. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie (eds.) The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, Virago, 1986, Norman Mackenzie (ed.) The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, three volumes, Weidenfeld, 1978, Beatrice Webb My Apprenticeship, Longman, 1926 and Our Partnership, Longman, 1948 are essential on the Webbs.

[3] Beatrice Webb Our Partnership, London, 1948, page 107.

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