Imperialism and social reform english Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914


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Because of the issue of protection versus Free Trade, the Coefficients' Club, composed of the leaders of the socialimperialist wings of the Liberal, the Tory, and the Socialist parties, was fated to remain a dining club rather than become the nucleus of a new National Party, a party of 'efficiency' as the Fabians had intended it to be. The Chamberlain campaign had revealed that social-imperialism was not a single programme but a policy by means of which different imperialist interests were determined to persuade a democratic -- and largely working class-electorate that the economic policies most essential to them would in the long ran promote the interest of the working class. In the course of the first decade of the twentieth century, there emerged two different socialimperialisms, one which held that a programme of protection and imperial preference was necessary to the prosperity of the working class and another which attempted to prove that social advance might be obtained under the system of Free Trade, but more of this later. The Liberal-Imperialists -- along with the organized working class and the international socialists of the Labour party-retained their confidence in Free Trade. The leaders of Fabianism, on the other hand, were divided between a sympathy for the Chamberlain programme and a desire not to fully lose touch with the LiberalImperialists upon whom the Fabian leaders had previously pinned their hopes for influencing domestic legislation. In good political fashion, the Fabians jockeyed to see who would win -- and were destined to obtain little for their pains as they attempted to align 'principle' with what they felt to be political necessities.



In ' Lord Rosebery Escapes From Houndsditch,' Sidney Webb had, in 1901, described the Conservatives then in power as a caretaker government. For him, it was hardly an ideal administration -- but at least it would have no truck with the imbecilities of Radical dogma. The nation, however, was awaiting the coming of the party of national efficiency. In 1901, Webb had believed Rosebery would head this party. In 1904, the year after Chamberlain began his crusade for Tariff Reform, a Fabian tract, entitled Fabianism and the Fiscal Question, said this about the Birmingham tariff crusader:

'If the next Cabinet be the usual Conservative Cabinet with Mr Chamberlain at the head of it, then it is hard to say whether Mr Chamberlain or the nation will be the more to be pitied. If, however, it be a Chamberlain Cabinet, meaning a Cabinet of younger men of Mr Chamberlain's own stamp, then -- well, then we see what we shall see.' 1

Had the Fabians now found their statesman of the party of national efficiency in the tariff imperialist, Joseph Chamberlain?

The Fabian leadership was badly divided over the Chamberlain proposals. The anti-imperialists who had remained in the Society of course remained faithful to Free Trade. This time, however, they had the support of Sidney Webb who cast his lot with Rosebery, Asquith, Grey and Haldane, all of whom had determined to stand by Free Trade. In a public meeting, on June 26, 1903, Webb declared that what was needed was not Tariff Reform but social reforms which would make the British people 'ever more efficient, mentally and physically.' 2 It was clear, however, that certain other Fabians did not share Webb's view. Cecil Chesterton, a member of the Fabian Executive, spoke to a meeting of the Society on November 11, 1904, of the failure of 'the dream of permeating the Liberal-Imperialists.' By supporting Free Trade, Chesterton declared, the Liberal-Imperialists had displayed their



Fablanism and the Fiscal Question; An Alternative Policy ( London, 1904), p. 26.


F.N., XIII, No. 7, July 1903, pp. 25, 26.

true colours and now were back in Houndsditch. 3 Two other members of the Executive -- Hubert Bland and G. R. S. Taylor also sympathized with Tariff Reform. 4 Bernard Shaw, too, was ready to accept the Chamberlain programme-most especially, perhaps, because he was convinced Chamberlain would win. 5 He was again chosen to write the tract setting forth Fabian policy and the tone in which he wrote clearly revealed his friendliness to protection.

Just as Webb had disavowed the internationalism, the antiimperialism of the main body of British and European socialism during the Boer War, the Fabian tract on the fiscal question disavowed the traditional support given by British socialism to international Free Trade. 6 There were socialist Free Traders and socialist protectionists, the tract asserted. The socialist protectionists were opposed to the Chamberlain programme only because they 'dare not trust our present class Governments and their lobbies with the power of manipulating tariffs.' 7 It would be another matter entirely if the tariff were set in the national interest and not in the interest of a private firm or individual. The tract affirmed that in so far as Protection means 'the deliberate interference of the State with trade' in order to effect 'the subordination of commercial enterprise to national ends, Socialism has no quarrel with it.' In fact, Shaw continued, in these matters Socialism was 'ultraProtectionist.' 8 Even before the announcement of the Chamberlain programme, the Society had announced its conviction that Free Trade was leading Great Britain to the fate of Rome, a parasite upon her colonies, compelled to grant her idle people 'panem and circenses' because it would be cheaper to do so than 'to invest capital and organize industry at home.' 9 One of Bernard Shaw's novels, written in the 'eighties, had



F.N., XIV, No. 12, December 1904, p. 46.


F.N., XIX, No. 4, March 1908, p. 26.


Pease, op. cit., p. 160.


The 'international' socialists of the Labour Party continued to support Free Trade. See J. R. MacDonald, The Zollverein and British Industry ( London, 1903); also Philip Snowden, The Chamberlain Bubble, Facts About the Zollverein, with an Alternative Policy ( London, 1903).


Fabianism and the Fiscal Question, p. 14.


Ibid., p. 3.


Fabianism and the Empire, p. 53.

made the same point. 10 By 1904, this argument had become standard among Tariff Reformers in their controversy with the Free Traders, and Shaw repeated it in the tract on the fiscal question: if Britain continued to live like a 'magnified Nice,' Shaw warned, she would 'go the way of Rome or Babylon.' 11

The Fabians classed themselves with the 'sincere Imperialist enthusiasts' who were prevented from joining the tariff movement because it was dominated by tariff 'schemers.' The tract expressed disappointment with the lack of Labour representation in the tariff movement, yet it was prepared to be encouraging to the Chamberlain forces. The intelligent portion of the working class could still be brought to support protection, it told Chamberlain, if the Tariff Reformers took two pledges: the first would be to adopt a statutory minimum wage which would operate upon a sliding scale in relation to prices so that the working class might be protected against a tariffcaused price rise; the second was that the Tariff Reformers' promise that not one cent of the tariff revenues would be applied to the reduction of taxes on unearned income. Such a pledge, the Fabian tract concluded, 'would at once find out which are the sincere Imperialist enthusiasts, and which the schemers . . . advocating the tariff solely as a means of reducing their own Income Tax bills.' 12

Graham Wallas, one of the original Fabian Essayists, resigned from the Society after an unsuccessful attempt, at a Fabian meeting on January 22, 1904, to prevent publication of Shaw's tract. 13 H. G. Wells, who had only recently joined the Fabians, was barely persuaded to withdraw his offer to resign, in March 1904, after its issuance. 14

We see, then, that by a series of positive acts between 1899 and 1904, the Fabians had, contrary to the example of the main body of British socialism and the bulk of the organized



Bernard Shaw, An Unsocial Socialist ( London, Constable, 1932), pp. 207-10.


Fabianism and the Fiscal Question, p. 13.


Ibid., p. 26.


F.N., XIV, No. 2, February 1904, p. 6.


F. E. Loewenstein, "The Shaw-Wells Controversy of 1904-1908: A Chapter of Fabian History", Fabian Quarterly, No. 41, April 1944, pp. 15-20.

working class, turned against the cosmopolitan anti-imperialism of Richard Cobden, John Bright, and W. E. Gladstone. They not only rejected the do-nothing domestic programme of Radicalism, they also rejected Radicalism's imperial and trade policies. In an address to the Society in 1904, Cecil Chesterton had pronounced Socialism to be anti-Liberal. Chesterton was especially unhappy with the 'liberalism' of the Labour party, a liberalism which, he felt, would doom Labour's chances for success: 'The typical working man is more Tory than Liberal,' Chesterton declared. 'Probably he is at heart a Protectionist,' and 'certainly . . . a Jingo.' The working man was repelled by the Liberalism and by the 'bias of anti-patriotism which he perceived' in the Labour party. It was up to the Fabians, free as they were from Liberal dogma, to shape a programme 'which would really attract' the working man. 15

The Fabians objected to the 'narrow insularity' of Radicalism which kept Great Britain 'backing, "on principle," out of its proper place in the comity of the world.' 'The same atomic conception of society'. which characterized Liberal policy at home, Webb had written, 'lay at the root of much of the feeling of nineteenth-century Liberalism with regard to foreign and colonial policy.' 16 Writing in 1920, Sidney Webb declared 'we had little sympathy with the ideal of a universal cosmopolitanism which some Socialists and many Liberals more or less consciously cherished, as an exaggeration, if not a perversion, of the teachings of Mazzini on the one hand, and Cobden on the other.' 17 In an article in the newly established Fabian weekly, The New Statesman, in 1913, Webb had insisted that Socialists were not '"pacifists" or Quakers' 18 and Clifford Sharp, the editor of the Fabian weekly, some years later, remarked in similar vein that 'Pacifism, like Prohibitionism and Free Trade . . . is a Liberal, not a Labour doctrine -- a product of philosophic Radicalism.' 19 But the fact remains that al-



F.N., XIV, No. 12, December 1904, p. 47.


Sidney Webb, Twentieth Century Politics: A Policy of National Efficiency ( London: Longmans, 1901), pp. 4-5.


Sidney Webb, in his "Introduction" to the 1920 reprint of the Fabian Essays, page xxiv.


Sidney and Beatrice Webb, "What is Socialism" in The New Statesman, I, July 26, 1913, p. 493.


Clifford Sharp, "Si Vis Pacem, Para Pacem", in The New Statesman, XXII, February 23, 1924, p. 560.

though the Fabians pretended to speak on behalf of 'socialism' or 'Labour,' the main body of British socialism and labour supported the Radical wing of Liberalism on all these points, not the imperialist followers of Rosebery.

What was the relationship, if any, of the Society's socialism to its imperialism? During its later years the Fabians preferred to describe their doctrine as 'collectivism' rather than 'socialism.' 'Socialism' war working class politics, a class-oriented politics which, inevitably, was based upon a measure of class antipathy. The chief aim of the Fabians, on the other hand, was the promotion of the national and imperial interest. The most efficient, the least wasteful means of advancing British interests, they were convinced, was the intelligent direction of the imperial economy by experts, such as they had gathered together at the dinners of the Coefficients, and this could only be effectively managed if the empire were collectively organized. Of course, they were convinced that the improvement of the condition of the most depressed classes of the community ought to be at the very head of their programme. It was, as we have noted, substantially because they wished to influence the future domestic programme of a Liberal-Imperialist led government that they had originally identified themselves so forcefully with imperialism. Chamberlain's entrance upon the scene made certain Fabian leaders-Shaw, in particular -feel that they might have backed the wrong horse, so they loosened their dependence on Free Trade imperialism without quite severing the tie to the Rosebery group. The Fabians remained loyal to imperialism-just uncertain as to which brand it was to their best interest to support.

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