January 4: Freethinkers in the Fabian Society

Fabian Society Founded (1884)

It was on this date, January 4, 1884, that the longest-lived, continuously operating Socialist organization, the Fabian Society, was founded in London. Founders Frank Podmore and Edward Pease envisioned a society opposed to the revolutionary theory of Marxism, holding instead that social reforms and Socialistic public policy can be instituted through “permeation”: that is, through Socialist public policy writing and election of Fabian-supported Members of Parliament — in effect, using the system to change the system.

The Fabian Society was inspired by the work of Welsh social reformer and Atheist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who said “All the religions of the world are false.” The Fabians were appropriately named for the Roman general Quintus Fabius, known as Cunctator from his strategy of delaying battle until the right moment, thereby weakening the opposition without resorting to pitched battle.

The Fabians achieved recognition with the publication of Fabian Essays, beginning in 1889 with a tract on poverty — Why Are the Many Poor?, which came out in the wake of the Match Girls’ Strike — and by employing some rather talented writers. Some of the better-known Fabians include atheist-turned Theosophist Annie Besant, the virulently anti-Christian dramatist George Bernard Shaw, the Atheist and novelist H.G. Wells, the Rationalist and statesman Harry Snell, and the Agnostic poet who died before his time, Rupert Brooke.

Annie Besant (1847-1933). She had completely rejected Christianity by age 27 (1874) and wrote for several radical journals to urge social reform, writing as well for the Fabians. Fourteen years after her “deconversion” from Christianity, Besant led the successful Match Girls’ Strike for wages and working conditions and advocated male-female equality in marriage and birth control for women.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw believed Christianity was nonsense and that Jesus possessed an unbalanced mind. He was one of the earliest Fabians and one of its most profound thinkers and prolific writers. It is significant that even Lenin thought Shaw not an orthodox Communist, and that there is a difference between Socialism and Communism, calling Shaw “a good man fallen among Fabians.”

H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Wells was another early Fabian and also disappointed Lenin. Trained as a scientist, he turned to writing, both science fiction and on social reform: The Time Machine was a parody of English class division. Wells severely criticized Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and advocated for a better society until his last breath.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). His freethinking credentials are on display in poems such as “Heaven,” in which he satirizes the Christian story, and “Mutability,” in which he shows doubts about immortality. Brooke died at age 27 on the way to the Battle of Gallipoli, but would have moved to complete Agnosticism, and a condemnation of war, had he lived.

Fabian public speakers such as Harry Snell, Ramsay MacDonald, Graham Wallas, Catherine Glasier and Bruce Glasier traveled around England giving lecturers on subjects such as “Socialism,” “Trade Unionism,” “Co-operation” and “Economic History.” Eventually, the Fabians helped to create (1900) the unified Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party. The Fabian Society became Labour’s research arm. According to the Fabian Society Web site,

The Society is unique among think tanks in being a democratically-constituted membership organisation. It is affiliated to the Labour Party but is editorially and organisationally independent. Through its publications, seminars and conferences, the Society provides an arena for open-minded public debate.

Since the Society’s founding, there have been about 200 Fabian MPs, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Clare Short. Even its detractors have to admit that the Fabian Society’s policy of “permeation” of existing political institutions has realized some of its cherished reforms. At least the policies get debated.

Originally published January 2004.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, History, Politics, Religion, Social Reformer, Writer

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John Mill

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