Fabian Society: Roots, theory and practice of socialist think tank

Mehmet Hasan Bulut

The glass painting prepared for the headquarters of the Fabian Society. (Wikimedia)

The glass painting prepared for the headquarters of the Fabian Society. (Wikimedia)

The Fabian Society, which considers itself Britain’s oldest political think tank, aims to advance the socialist cause by gradualist and reformist means. However, the society was actually an offshoot of another association called Fellowship of the New Life

Philosopher Thomas Davidson, who was born in Scotland in 1840, traveled to Italy and conducted research on the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, poet Alighieri Dante, philosopher Giordano Bruno and priest Antonio Rosmini. On his return to England, he began holding meetings and explaining his ideas to people with the aim of «reorganizing human life» and elevating community life to higher levels. Thus, he attracted a group of people who were fond of social reform and philosophy. Together with these admirers, they decided to establish a society in London in September 1882. The society was called the Fellowship of the New Life. Davidson had taken the title «New Life» from Dante’s text “The New Life” (“La Vita Nuova”).


Thomas Davidson. (Wikimedia)

Thomas Davidson. (Wikimedia)

Davidson developed a program for the society they founded and called it “Vita Nuova.” The program’s goal was determined as «the cultivation of a perfect character in each and all» with the principle of “the subordination of material things to spiritual things.” The New Life program was like a new religion, God was love and meditation in silence was considered worship. It was forbidden to gossip and talk in a bad way. The concept of personal property did not exist. Marriage would be monogamous and for love only. Everyone was responsible for what they did. All titles, social inequalities and family prestige had to be given up. Everyone had to dress simply, but tastefully. There was no distinction between the genders. In this society, authority was dependent on principles, not people.

According to the program, members of the Fellowship of the New Life were to meet regularly. These people were to lead a simple life based on the predetermined moral rules and live a new life based on humility, love and wisdom. After this, they had to look for a suitable place to settle down where they could pursue this life together, form a community, encourage others around them to live this new life, offer courses and then gradually bring change in the society.

Young members of the Fellowship of the New Life with socialist ideas objected to Davidson, saying that this goal based on individual volunteerism was too utopian and would take a very long time. The arrival of the new life, that is, the new age life, had to be accelerated by scientific methods to be applied from the top down. But Davidson, who was selfish and reserved in his ideology, turned down their suggestions. After this, these members parted ways with the Fellowships of the New Life and formed their own group, that is, the Fabian Society, on Jan. 4, 1884, the year following the death of Karl Marx. Although they followed different methods, both societies continued their friendly relations.

Wolves in Lambskin

The Fabians said that their guild was named after the Roman general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who patiently waited instead of initiating a direct fight with Carthaginian general, Hannibal, thus exhausting him and then defeating him. Like the Roman general, they decided to wait and establish the new world with just one strike at the right time.



The coat of arms of Fabian Society. (Wikimedia)

The coat of arms of Fabian Society. (Wikimedia)

In 1910, the Fabians commissioned a glass painting for the headquarters of the Fabian Society. The top of the glass read, «Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.» This phrase is taken from a rubai (quatrain) by the Iranian poet Omar Khayyam, who is claimed to be Ismaili like Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the Order of Assassins, and refers to shattering and then reshaping the world. The bottom of the painting shows the Fabians building a new world with their hammers. The most striking thing in this depiction on the glass is the wolf logo of the society dressed in lambskin. The logo almost reminds one of the passage from the Bible: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

The Fabians wanted to fulfill the goal of a New World Order of the Hermetics, but they believed that people would change with reforms, not a revolution as Marx had claimed. In fact, as they wanted to establish socialism under capital control, they aimed to impose socialism not only on the working class but also on the capitalists. To achieve this goal of changing society, they would advise governments, especially in the field of education, and change society through them.

The Fabian Society went beyond advising governments over time, establishing its own political party and even coming to power. The Labour Party, which followed a liberal and democratic line of socialism, started its activities in 1903 with the support of Fabian members. Ironically, some of the Fabians who had integrated themselves into the Labour Party were already Liberal deputies. As a matter of fact, with the establishment of the Labour Party, the Liberal Party went into a decline as of 1922, and the power in the United Kingdom began to alternate between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.


Among the early members of the Fabian Society were psychic researcher and author Frank Podmore, former London Stock Exchange employee and writer Edward R. Pease, and journalist Hubert Bland, who was also writer Edith Nesbit’s husband. The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw joined the group nine months after the society was founded and soon became one of its leaders.

Shaw persuaded his friend Sidney Webb, whom he had first met at the Zetetical Society, to join the society. Webb also invited her colleague Sydney Oliver from the Colonial Office to join. Thus, the two friends joined the Fabian Society in May 1885. Olivier enabled Graham Wallas to enter the society in May 1886. Annie Besant, one of the most famous members of the society, joined the society in April of that year.

The first three years, that is, between 1884 and 1887, were the reading and preparation period for the Fabian members. They read the works of various writers such as Marx, the French Priest Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the Welsh utopian Robert Owen and the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. In addition, the works in which Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of «Superman» (Übermensch) originated were frequently read by Fabians such as writer H. G. Wells, politician Alfred Richard Orage and Shaw.


An old photo shows Beatrice and Sidney Webb working together in 1895. (Wikimedia)

An old photo shows Beatrice and Sidney Webb working together in 1895. (Wikimedia)

Shaw believed in Nietzsche’s ideal of «replacing the human with the superhuman.» He even introduced the idea and word of “superman” to English in his play “Man and Superman,” written in 1903. Under the influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution along with Nietzsche, the Fabians believed that humans would turn into superhumans with extraordinary powers, which are often featured in Marvel movies today.

‘Brave New World’

Among the members of the Fabian Society, to which more than 200 deputies of British Parliament are members today, were famous people such as Richard Henry Tawney, who is known for his works on education; George Douglas Howard Cole and his wife Margaret Cole, who led the London County Council’s Education Committee; Jewish professor Harold Joseph Laski; John Stuart Stuart-Glennie, known for his works related to folklore; British intelligence officer and philosopher Michael Oakeshott; Michael Young, who was the first to use the word «meritocracy,” meaning «rule of intellectuals.»

Apart from Webb and Oliver, who were later made barons, there were many nobles who joined the Fabians. Lord John Sankey, high chancellor of the House of Lords, and Bertrand Russell, the philosopher grandson of Lord John Russell, who served twice as U.K.’s prime minister, were also Fabian.

One of the Fabians who tried to envision the New World with his novels was H. G. Wells. The son of a gardener, Wells was a student of Thomas Huxley, grandfather of Fabian Aldous Huxley. Thomas Huxley was a big fan of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s why he was called «Darwin’s Bulldog.» Wells, like his teacher, was an atheist who believed in evolution.


Aldous Huxley. (Wikimedia)

Aldous Huxley. (Wikimedia)

“Brave New World,” written by Aldous Huxley in 1931, is one of the Fabians’ most famous dystopias. Huxley, who studied at Eton College and Oxford, met Russell at Oxford and entered the Fabian Society through him.

If the Fabians had a more famous dystopia than “Brave New World,” it was George Orwell’s. Orwell’s socialist mother had many Fabian friends. Orwell grew up in such an environment that he did not hesitate to join the Fabian Society in due time.

The Fabians had also invaded America. The most famous American Fabian was the educational philosopher John Dewey. Davidson, who taught sociology at the Educational Alliance founded by Jewish businessperson in America, went to New York in 1887 and established a branch of the Fellowship of the New Life there. Dewey also gave lectures here between 1888 and 1890.

United Nations

One of the fundamental works in the founding of the League of Nations was the book titled «International Government.» It was penned by Leonard Sidney Woolf, the Fabian husband of novelist Virginia Woolf, in 1916 when World War I was ongoing. It was the book version of the article titled «Suggestions for the Prevention of War» published in the New Statesman magazine in 1915. An introduction was also penned by Shaw for this book, which was in fact a collective work of Fabian Society members.

Fabians also established the financial arm of the international government, which was a big step toward a single global state. British economist John Maynard Keynes was one of its greatest contributors. Keynes got to know the Fabian Society through Beatrice and Sidney Webb while studying in Cambridge and joined the society. He wrote articles for the society’s New Statesman until 1939 and was among the administrative delegation of the magazine. Working on the economic issues of the New World Order, Keynes wished for the establishment of a common bank and monetary unit for the whole world. He had a large role in the convening of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in 1944, which is also known as the Bretton Woods Conference and resulted in the establishment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).



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