Since its foundation in 1884, the Fabian Society has been a home for some of the most important thinkers on the left.
It has counted Rupert Brooke, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ernest Bevin, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and amongst its thousands of members
Every Labour Prime Minister, from Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown, has been a member of the Society. Today, well over 200 parliamentarians are members and the Fabian Society continues to be at the heart of the Labour movement.
In 2004, the Fabian Society commissioned a set of essays entitled Fabian Thinkers. This collection sought to commemorate the contribution of fourteen Fabians who had left their own indelible mark on politics in the UK and abroad. We’ve summarised this work below.
Annie Besant (1847-1933)
Described by George Bernard Shaw as “the greatest orator in England” at the time she joined the Fabian Society in 1885, Annie Besant was a driving force behind the early Fabian Society. She contributed much to the early impact of the Fabians and was responsible for founding of Fabian local branches, a creation that lasts to the present day. A powerful speaker and a passionate activist, Besant was a leader of the 1888 London Matchgirls Strike and the 1889 London Dock Strike.
Besant left the Fabian Society in 1890 but her political activism continued in India. In 1916 she launched the Home Rule League, along with Lokmanya Tilak and after a campaign for regime change in India, she was interned in June 1917. Her imprisonment sparked protests from both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League and she was released. She took over as President of the Congress in December 1917 having secured concessions from Raj government that set India and Pakistan on the path to independence.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
A leading light in the Fabian Society from its foundation, George Bernard Shaw contributed hugely to the early years of the Society. He edited and contributed to the landmark 1889 publication Fabian Essays in Socialism and authored a number of other tracts
In the decade after the formation of the Fabian Society Shaw addressed 1000 meetings – in trade councils, Working Men’s Clubs and debating societies, in every environment from open air parks to smoke-filled bars. He assisted in the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 but turned down appeals to stand for Parliament himself.
Shaw’s plays, for which he is most remembered today, abound with political messages touching on women’s rights, pacifism and poverty. In a letter to the American novelist Henry James in 1909, Shaw wrote:
“I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”
Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) & Sidney Webb (1859-1947)
Even today, the effect of the Webbs’ contribution to politics are keenly felt. They were, above all, ahead of their time. Sidney argued in favour of Lords reform in 1914, called for a national minimum wage in 1918 and predicted a customs union for Europe in 1923, while Beatrice vigorously argued in favour of equal pay between men and women.
More than anyone else, they established the Fabian tradition of conducting painstaking research and inquiry to solve the social and economic problems of their age. They pioneered the methodology of British socialism in a way that has influenced Fabians throughout the rest of the twentieth-century.
In 1905 Beatrice joined the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress and the Minority Report of this Commission authored by Beatrice, though largely ignored by the Liberal government at its launch in 1909, sold 25,000 copies as a Fabian publication and has been hailed as a seminal publication in the history of welfare provision in the UK. To mark its centenary in 2009, a Guardian editorial wrote “the seed that was to grow into the welfare state was planted [in the Minority Report]”. The Fabian Society commemorated the centenary of the Minority Report with its 2009 book The Solidarity Society.
HG Wells (1866-1946)
RH Tawney (1880–1962)
GDH Cole (1889-1959) & Margaret Cole (1893-1980)*
Harold Laski (1893-1950)
Michael Young (1915-2002)*
Anthony Crosland (1918-1977)*
Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996)
John P. Mackintosh (1929-1978)*
Bernard Crick (1929-2008)