130 years of the Fabian Society: Small footsteps to big changes

Andrew Harrop

4th January 2014 is the 130th birthday of the Fabian Society.

Fabianism has never been a dogmatic creed, which is why the Society has been able to provide an intellectual home to so many famous political figures since it was founded in 1884 by a group of young socialists who wanted to change the world. But there has been an essence to Fabianism amid its diversity – a constellation of beliefs and an approach to politics – which must be at the heart of Labour politics in 2014 if the party is to embrace a radical governing project.

In the first half of our history the Fabians’ defining political project was collectivism: the Society famously championed the guiding hand of a strong, expert state; but also promoted collectivism in the town hall and the workplace. In the second half of our life, from the 1950s, the hallmark of Fabianism has been its egalitarianism: it is Fabian thinkers who have continuously argued that the fight against poverty and inequality is the first duty of Labour politics. These twin interests explain why today we are as robust as ever in challenging all those who call into question egalitarianism or the agency of the state.

But above all Fabian thought has been defined by its orientation to the future. The society is the home of a left version of the Enlightenment tradition which champions social progress, rationality, expertise and evidence. This is reflected in the long-termist slant of our politics: our inclination to begin by asking how the world could look in many decades time and then to work backwards, setting clear goals and seeking practical and specific tools to bring them to realisation.

The Fabian belief in the gradual, long-term path to social progress was once a cautious doctrine, in opposition to revolutionary utopianism. But now it makes us the radicals, in contrast to the left’s social conservatives and timid managerialists. Fabian gradualism is distinct, not because we believe in small footsteps, but because we see them in a strategic context, where many incremental steps can form the road to transformative social and economic change.

This is the perspective Labour must rediscover at the start of 2014, for the time to plan for power is fast running out. In 2013 the party made real progress in defining its ‘doorstep’ offer. It set out a handful of clear reasons to vote Labour that mark it out from the coalition and which it could start to implement in its first 100 days. But what comes next? Promising to freeze energy bills cannot be seen as the risky outer limit of Labour’s economic ambitions, but as a downpayment for five years of reforms to reshape the relationship between government and market.

The same is true across almost every area of policy: Labour needs a radical five year programme of government, because nothing else will be sufficient to bring about the structural reforms we need if Britain is to be a fairer, greener, more prosperous country in 20 years’ time. The party must prepare for a huge increase in private and public investment; a five year scheme of total tax reform; much faster progress on decarbonising the economy; the building of millions of new homes; the labour market and social security reforms required to narrow inequalities; and major political reforms to reconnect people with politics.

It won’t be possible to govern as radicals if Labour’s offer is stripped bare, with nothing beneath a few headline promises on a pledge card. Nor does any of this fit neatly under the anti-statist banner of Blue Labour, because the left can only bring about deep structural change through strategic, long-term state activism. It is only by re-embracing its Fabian roots that Labour can come to power in 2015 as a government ready to transform Britain.


  1. David Hargreaves

    How strange it is that nobody in the Society bothered to post a reply to what it is a very interesting query.

    The belief in eugenics was an essential element in Fabian Society history.

    Why not reply?

  2. Stephen Kozak

    Dear Madam/Sir,
    I am genuinely interested in your “Twin Interests” as these seem more relevant now than ever before, however, I am disturbed as I, briefly, skimmed through some historical documents concerning Eugenics. In particular, I was concerned about the number of influential members of your society that actively spoke out in favour of Eugenics.
    As a person with a disability I would be keen to know what your society`s current position is regarding people with disabilities please.
    Kind regards
    Stephen Kozak

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