Enter the Fabian Society: A Small Meditation About What Democratic Socialism Actually Means

Enter the Fabian Society: A Small Meditation About What Democratic Socialism Actually Means January 4, 2017

Fabian tortoise

In the late nineteen sixties, caught up in the zeitgeist of the moment, as an adolescent breaking away from the strictures of my childhood, I declared myself a Fabian socialist. I can’t put an exact date for it, but it pretty much immediately preceded my declaration of non-belief in the Christian god. So, probably I was sixteen or seventeen.

I note that it was today in 1884 that the Fabian Society was officially formed, although it had a bit of a prior existence among members of the Fellowship of the New Life. The society was named for Fabius Maximus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal through, as the Wikipedia article on the society puts it “persistence, harassment, and wearing the enemy down by attrition rather than head-on battles.”

Of course for me it was an idea, not an organization. My primary interests were spiritual and most of my focus has been on that path. And as I saw that a spirituality must have consequences in the lived world if it is actually going to be worth anything, I’ve put most of my energies into the American Democratic Party. Fabians were something somewhere else. So, noting that today is the day it is, I’ve only just begun to dig into the society and its history. First, I loved to learn that its meetings were held for many years at the Unitarian church Essex Hall. I also was a little surprised to learn that while my initial introduction to the Fabian society was through Bertrand Russell, he in fact left the organization after a relatively brief membership due to his belief it was insufficiently committed to pacifism.

The society’s stated purpose is “to promote greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity; the value of collective action and public service; an accountable, tolerant and active democracy; citizenship, liberty and human rights; sustainable development; and multilateral international cooperation.” Its original symbol was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which I particularly like. But for several reasons, not the least the negatives associated with that wolf, that image was soon abandoned in favor of a tortoise, which I have to admit, I like rather more.

The society has over the years attracted numerous intellectuals and other public figures including George Bernard Shaw, Jawaharlal Nehru, H. G. Wells, Obafemi Awolowo, and the Theosophist Annie Besant. Through the twists and turns of history it appears Fabian thought influenced the creation of the Ba’athist movement in the Middle East. Unintended consequences are a part of any action we might undertake in this life, and well, worth recalling. Further hammering that nail, early Fabians were also caught up in eugenics, again, a caution for us all about party lines. And for me a caution about everything I find compelling…

Their influence has been wide, sometimes subtly, and at other times more obviously. In England the society has been influential in the Labour Party. And members of the society founded the London School of Economics, which has remained a significant institution forwarding a progressive view ever since.

Me, reading into the society and its history today I find that their “socialism” was actually something more along the lines of establishing a capitalist welfare state, which I find interesting and actually pretty much where I’ve landed in my dotage. I personally feel the main point of government is to even the playing field so everyone gets a fair start, and then, beyond that when people stumble for whatever reason, the fall isn’t into the abyss. In practice this means as a human right people should all have access to a free and high quality education as far as their talents can take them, that everyone should have access to some pretty solid baseline of health care, and that everyone has access to a pension in their older years, or, earlier based on need, that allows dignity throughout their lives. There are other things, of course. I think we also need a political center strong enough to deal with other forms of national crisis ranging from war and peace to the looming threats of climate change.

Now, I have no belief in command economies, which dictionaries associate with the word socialism. The world’s recent economic history is littered with tragedies that follow command economics in the former Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. Rather I see capitalism, while profoundly shadowed, profoundly shadowed, is also an amazing engine of economic advance. Of the various economic theories put forth it seems the only one people really actually want. People like the idea of enterprise, of investing time and energy, and making a profit. And in practice capitalism is past dangerous. It needs to be seriously watched for several inclinations that quickly become moral evils. The first is an inclination to monopoly, the consolidation of power. The second is what people will do for short term profit, opening avenues to perfidy that seems to know no limit. But, properly watched, and its excesses brought under control through meaningful regulation, it becomes the engine that supports a proper welfare state. Which is what I actually care about.

When we speak of European socialism this is basically what we’re actually talking about. And so, call it what you want. Democratic Socialism. Fabian socialism. Capitalist welfare state. Or, more accurately, Rhine Capitalism. The name doesn’t matter all that much, so long as we get there. And this is where that tortoise is heading. Although at times, like our times here in the United States today, it feels one step forward, and one and a half back.

Here the contending view, the one that dominates our culture is called the Anglo-Saxon model, and is what is usually meant when people speak of neoliberalism, although the word itself has come to be cudgle to beat members of the progressive community who support international trade. An unfortunate usage and part of the sad divide within the American left. While beyond the scope of this small meditation, the urge to pull back to put up walls, whether physical as the president-elect calls for, or economic like the American farther left is calling for, are both traps that cannot lead to success in the long term. On this small planet we’re all going to make it, or none of us will.

I also have some caveats about gradualism. There are moments that call for strong affirmative action. But, the larger point remains, you do what you can. And, come back later for the rest.

But, this is the birthday of the Fabian Society. And today’s reflection is about the struggle for human hearts and minds. And it is predicated upon a simple premise: Our social lives, our economic lives, are all about human flourishing. I would add in we cannot ignore the environment, while doing this. It is in fact about the flourishing of life on our planet. The rest is details. And one that demands a bit of a sense of a long arc. The American left seems to take a particular delight in falling upon itself. And, to my mind, inexplicably, has surrendered populism to the right. It is this care for actual living people that is the heart of this economic model. The Anglo-Saxon model relies on hidden hands and a mystical belief it will all come out in the wash. Social capitalism sees that capitalism is powerful and can be used for the good, but is itself at best a-moral and with just the finest human hand, can become a force of evil.

So, we need to constrain the excesses of capitalism. And we need to recall the real purpose of this is human welfare. We need to need to pull together, and to make it happen. And here’s where the Fabians can help. They have a suggestion. Take what you can today. Pick some corner of the project and stick with it. And, bit by bit…

And with that, happy birthday to the Fabians. Thank you.

And in the same breath, New Year wishes for all who would heal the broken…


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