The Fabian Society: A Model for Progressive Action

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The Fabian Society of England, most active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, could be a useful model of action for American progressives today. One among several political groups that sprang up in England at the time, the Fabians are generally given credit for the progressive changes that American conservatives mock and seem to fear.

The Fabians began work on a society very much like the one in which we live now. That is, there was a huge disparity of wealth, with the working classes being very poor and the rich being very rich. Similarly, the wealthy felt that they were superior to the poor, made out of better clay, so to speak, and really deserved to have things as they were. As in America today, the poor had a hard life, little money, poor health care, and worked for extremely low wages.

The main efforts of the Fabians were to put in place a national health care system, a minimum wage, the right of collective bargaining, a national pension system, public ownership of utilities, and a more progressive educational system. It took decades, but the Fabians got most of what they aimed for, establishing what the citizens of England are proud of and think of as a more just and equal society.

There were other aims which were not achieved, some more radical, such as doing away with inherited titles and redistribution of land, which don’t seem relevant to us. In the main, their goals were to change society, to “reform” it, in line with what I think of as a truly “progressive” agenda.

Today’s progressives in America want a more just society, too. We have a low minimum wage, but we need a more realistic one. Our workers’ unions are in shambles. We have the beginnings of a public health care system, but it is not universal, it is expensive, and it is in the hands of private insurance companies whose bottom line is always profit. The rich have enormous political power because of their ability to contribute money to candidates, thereby influencing voting outcomes and legislation. The rich are in a mad race to see who can get richer faster, as almost everyone can see, and the poor are in a desperate slide to the bottom.

In other words, we need to bring about change. The question is not what kind of change—we seem to know that. The real question is how to bring it about.

One of the great strengths of the Fabians was their ability to state their goals and aims in a plain language, easily understood. They published dozens of small tracts, sometimes just a few pages long, which were sold for pennies at lectures. In addition to making a little money, these tracts could be read over at leisure and handed on to other people. They presented socialism as being the logical “next step” in government, as being an evolution of consciousness, producing changes that would benefit everyone. These small publications were kept in print and eventually added up to an impressive body of work. In fact, selections from these writings have been reprinted in books and can be ordered online and read today.

While we no longer have the social convention of lectures on all kinds of subjects being eagerly attended by an excitement-starved public, we do have the “weblog,” or blog, capable of being delivered to almost every home in America. Blogs can be read, re-read, reviewed, commented on, and referred to others, very much as the tract was. The main problem is to get the blog read, to get it in front of people who are far too busy amusing themselves with sports events and the latest news.

The fear of socialism we encounter here in America was very real in England at the time, too. The Fabians simply met the problem head-on. They insisted, in public lectures and in writing, that their brand of socialism was non-violent, relying only on public opinion, reason, and the ballot box. We need to work on this as well. The very word seems to provoke both fear and anger in the uninformed, the result of a long campaign on the part of the Masters of the Universe. We need to deal with this as the Fabians did. We need to meet it with calm, with reason, with explanation, but deal with it we must.

Another idea we could take from the Fabians is their realization that local politics matter very much indeed. They urged their followers to get involved at every level of local government, no matter how insignificant or small. They believed in active engagement. Any advisory board, any city or township committee, would do. The idea was that to have a say in how things went, you had to be in a position to have a say. Eventually, they believed, the number of people in low-level positions would matter.

Finally, a last great idea we could take as a model is their belief in persistence. They believed you must simply keep on keeping on. Keep talking, keep writing down your ideas in short pieces and showing them to others, keep meeting in small groups regularly, keep on participating in local government.

The Fabians won. True, they had tremendous luck in attracting people like George Bernard Shaw to their ranks. It was lucky, too, that England was a small country, roughly one third the size of Texas, and it was lucky that, without the media barrage we have today, a public lecture seemed like entertainment. But it is encouraging to remember that the society began with fewer than a dozen members, and they got off to a very slow start. As one member put it, they met for a year just trying to decide why they were meeting.

I think we could learn a great deal from the Fabians. I propose that we consciously use them as models for our progressive movement here in America. Let us form small groups and meet regularly, perhaps only with one or two friends. Let us occasionally reach out and invite some new person to meet with us. Let us write down our ideas and share them in this blog, delivered by our one great advantage, the internet. Let us drag our tired bodies to the polls for each and every small, local election. As we are willing and able, let us get on some local committee or advisory board, no matter how small. Let us be persistent and consistent. Let us enter into the battle. Let us put our progressive shoulders to the wheel.

–DeWayne Rail

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