The Labour Left must fight off Fabianism

By Michael Calderbank

The modern-day Fabian Society is a mostly worthy, if increasingly irrelevant, discussion circle/think tank, which attracts politicians from right, centre and ocassionally left, to speak on its platforms.   It used to be a key source of policy development under the Blair/Brown/Miliband years, but has been rather over-taken of late.

But the ideology of Fabianism – the idea that a professional elite of well-meaning middle-class experts can improve government by re-engineering the system to deliver more gradually more progressive outcomes – is antithetical to any commitment to a radical socialist transformation of society.

Crucial is the difference between having “progressives” at the top who introduce policies on behalf of the working class, and the vision of socialism as grounded in the collective agency of the working class itself.  

In a Parliamentary system, the distinction between a professional political cadre of “represenatives” and those who they “represent” is built into political relationships.   This is inherently problematic. But socialist representatives, at their best, have always sought to build the collective capacity for people to change their own circumstances. 

An earlier generation of Labour MPs earned their spurs in fighting with the organised labour movement and wider community, and in return attempted to use their influence to strengthen the institutional space for such collective solidarity and workers’ control over their own affairs.

The Fabians, however, represent an entirely different tradition.   Co-Founder Beatrice Webb  wrote that the 1926 General Strike  would be “the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers’ control’ of public affairs”, which she believed to be  “a proletarian distemper which had to run its course – and like other distempers, it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence”. Of the strikers she wrote that “There will be, not only an excuse but a justification of victimisation on a considerable scale” and praised scabs as “patriotic blacklegs!”

In other words, the Fabians counterposed their well-intentioned technocratic elitism to workers standing up for their own rights and threatening to run things in our own interests.   When their privileges were challenged – by industrial militancy – the Webbs resorted to typical middle class disdain for the lower orders. We shouldn’t get above our station – we should find the better sort of expert and trust them to run things on our behalf.

For all the radical policies in the 2019 manifesto, in the hands of many incumbent MPs it lacked credibility.  No matter how strong the policies, they will be undermined once touted by a cadre of professional salespeople seen as parasitical upon the communities they were claiming to represent.    The haughty contempt of Beatrice Webb made its reappearance in the guise of those “progressives” who thought that working class Leave voters were all just ignorant racist bigots.

We were right to put forward radical policies in response to the problems our communities face.  But we must do more – we need to rebuild the collective power of people to change our own circumstances.   Not only by voting for a change of personnel in government (though this is of course essential) but by empowering and building capacity of working class people to change things directly.