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

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Historians have generally accepted the view that socialists in the years before the war of 1914 had rejected nationalism and its appendages -- imperialism, militarism, protectionism -- in favour of a working-class internationalism. The Socialist International had indeed busied itself in the passing of resolutions, usually by unanimous votes, protesting national imperialisms in Asia or Africa, denouncing the increased military budgets of the great powers, defending free trade against grasping monopolists, and proclaiming workers in all lands brothers united against international capitalism. Yet, more and more, scholars have come to recognize that there was a vocal minority within the socialist movement which refused to be bound by these oftrepeated phrases of good will, who jeered at the ideals of internationalism and accepted -- more or less completely -- the



Crewe, op. cit., II, p. 575.

goals of nationalism. 24 Among these socialists were the leaders of the British Fabian Society-Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw -- and they were supported in their stand by what was probably a majority of the active members of the Society. Though charges of nationalism and imperialism had been hurled against the chief Fabians by such prominent British socialists as J. Ramsay Macdonald and Graham Wallas -- who, in fact, found themselves compelled to resign from the Society, giving as motive their disagreement with the society's views on war, colonies, and nationalist economics -- with the significant exception of Élie Halévy, 25 there has been neglect of these charges on the part of historians of ideas, who have preferred to focus their attention on the influential Fabian programme of domestic reform.

Indeed, up until the time of the Boer War, in 1899, the Fabian Society had paid little or no attention to foreign or imperial questions. Their domestic programme -- the traditional one of European socialism: national ownership and regulation of the vital sectors of the economy and a demand that the incomes of the wealthy be levelled and the living standards of the poorer classes be elevated -- had been fully developed in the famous Fabian Essays, and in scores of tracts. Only one



The pre-war German socialists who dissented from working class internationalism have been the object of special study by American scholars, probably because Germany was the enemy during the war of 1914 and because of the subsequent rise of Hitler's national socialism. See Carlton J. H. Hayes, "Influence of Political Tactics on Socialist Theory in Germany, 1863-1914", in C. E. Merriam and H. E. Barnes, eds., A History of Political Theories; Recent Times ( London: Macmillan, 1924); John L. Snell, "Socialist Unions and Socialist Patriotism in Germany, 1914-1918", The American Historical Review, LIX, No. 1, October, 1953, pp. 66-76. The imperialistic views of certain Italian socialists have been discussed in Roberto Michels, Le proletariat et la bourgeoisie clans le mouvement socialiste italien particulièrement des origines à 1906 ( Paris, 1921), pp. 338-351. Also A. William Salomone, Italian Democracy in the Making ( Oxford University Press, 1945), passim. British 'national' or 'imperial' socialists have thus far escaped intensive inquiry. However, William P. Maddox, Foreign Relations in British Labour Politics ( Oxford University Press, 1934), has discussed the nationalism and militaristic attitudes of certain British trade unionist members of parliament, especially those from the armaments industries; see pp. 44-45, 54, 209.


Speaking of the Webbs, Halévy wrote: "Convinced imperialists and looking to a national and militarist state to realize their programme of moderate collectivism, they had never felt anything but contempt for every formula of Liberalism and free trade", (p. 365). Haltry, A History of the English People, Vol. V.

of the Fabian essayists, the journalist William Clarke, had made reference to matters of international policy. 26 Sidney Webb later described Clarke as the only Fabian who had been seriously interested in such matters. 27 It is difficult to say whether the pressure of world events or tactical considerations was the more influential in turning the attention of the Fabians toward imperial questions. We do know that the Fabians had settled upon a policy of 'permeation,' -- they could, they believed, most readily accomplish their goal of a socialist Britain by converting the leaders of the existing parties. From the early 'nineties onward, we also know, they turned toward certain statesmen who belonged to the imperialist wing of the Liberal party as the most likely potential executors of their domestic programme.

The retirement of William Gladstone in 1894 had revealed the rift within Liberal ranks, which we have noted, between the Radicals and the Liberal-Imperialists. This latter group was described by Beatrice Webb, in her diaries, as 'collectivists and imperialists'; Mrs. Webb saw them opposed by 'the laisser-faire and anti-imperialist' group. 28 The fact that the Liberal-Imperialists had united to their interest in the empire a desire for social reform was pleasing to the Fabians. The fact that Liberal-Imperialist sympathy for social reform was not supported by a well-thought-out programme was an irresistible challenge. The Fabians felt it was their job to supply such a programme to the followers of Lord Rosebery.

The coming of the South African War in 1899 sharpened, as we have seen, the Liberal split. The Gladstonian wing of



William Clarke, "The Industrial Basis of Socialism", Fabian Essays ( London: Allen & Unwin, 1948), pp. 73-77. Clarke's views were little different from the main current of European socialism and Liberal internationalism. W. C. Wilbur, Jr., in his "The Origins and Development of Fabian Socialism to 1890" (an unpublished Columbia University doctoral dissertation, 1953), fn. p. 380, quotes the well-known historian and Fabian, R. C. K. Ensor's statement that ' Clarke became definitely estranged from the Society when it began to attack the Liberal Party in 1893.' Wilbur adds that ' Clarke resigned from the Daily Chronicle when it supported the Boer War, and undoubtedly was further estranged from the Society by its manifesto, Fabianism and the Empire, issued in 1900.'


Sidney Webb, in his "Introduction" to the 1920 reprint of the Fabian Essays, pp. x-xi.


Beatrice Webb, Our Partnership ( London: Longmans, 1948), pp. 104-105.

the party denounced the imperialistic war of the Conservative government and took up the cause of the Boers. The LiberalImperialists supported the government's conduct of the war. The South African struggle was punctuated by a struggle at home between these two branches of Liberalism, a struggle which took the form of rival dinner parties, as one wit described it, 'war to the knife and fork.' The Fabian leadership was faced with the necessity of making a choice in this 'war.' R. B. Haldane, who had become a close friend of the two chief leaders of Fabianism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, on one occasion invited Webb to appear at a dinner given by the Liberal-Imperialists. This posed 'a dilemma,' Beatrice wrote in her diary. ' Sidney is pro-Boer in sentiment; he agrees with Asquith and Haldane, by reason; but he has not thought out the question, has paid little or no attention to it.' Webb attended the dinner. In a subsequent diary entry, Beatrice quoted Bernard Shaw as having advised the Webbs to 'plunge in with Rosebery as the best chance of moulding home policy.' 29

Even before this dinner invitation, however, the leading Fabians had made their decision in favour of imperialism so that Sidney Webb's 'dilemma' had been substantially resolved at the time it faced him -- and resolved in a fashion which makes it appear that opportunist political tactics were reinforced by imperialist convictions. As early as 1899, a group of Fabian rank-and-filers, led by the future guild-socialist, S. G. Hobson, and supported by a few members of the executive committee, had unsuccessfully attempted to get the Fabian Executive to issue a statement of opposition to the war against the Boers. The majority of the Executive had refused-giving as their reason that the Society ought not to speak out on foreign affairs. When the pressure of the anti-imperialists increased, the Executive finally decided to set a date for a debate of the war issue by the general membership. 30 A couple of weeks before the debate, on November 24, 1899, one of the members of the Executive, Frederick Whelen, in a public lecture, proclaimed the inevitability of the annexation of the two Boer states as a result, as he put it, of a struggle between the seventeenth-century ideals of the Boers and British nineteenth-



Beatrice Webb, op. cit., pp. 217-220.


Fabian News, IX, No. 9, Nov. 1899, p. 34.

century demands. Whelen, further, urged the nationalization of the South African gold and diamond mines after the end of the war. 31 From subsequent events, it would appear that Whelen was expressing the views of the majority of the Fabian Executive Committee.The members who attended the general debate on December 8, 1899, were faced with an anti-imperialist resolution, moved by S. G. Hobson, and an equivocal amendment to that resolution proposed by George Bernard Shaw and grounded upon the sentiments of the Whelen statement of the previous fortnight. Hobson condemned the 'Imperialist passion that has overrun this country of recent years' and announced that the ' Fabian Society therefore formally disassociates itself from the Imperialism of Capitalism and vain-glorious Nationalism.' Shaw's amendment on the other hand looked forward to a British victory. One section read:


That the country is therefore entitled to expect that in the event of the war being carried to a successful issue, the Government will take steps to: --


secure public rights in the valuable mines of the Rand by placing them in public hands. . . .


insist on a stringent Mines Regulation Act for the protection of the miners.


That, failing the above Imperial precautions . . . a result would [be to] expose the British Government to the charge of being the dupes of these speculators, and of having spent the nation's blood and treasure, and outraged humanity by a cruel war, to serve the most sordid interests under the cloak of a lofty and public-spirited Imperialism.'

Shaw, then, urged Fabian support of a 'lofty and publicspirited Imperialism,' an imperialism which, as in the case of the Rand mines, would rebound to the public interest rather than to private interests. 32 If the 'nation's blood and treasure' were to be spent, the Fabians insisted that the entire nation profit thereby.

The December 8th meeting was inconclusive. A large gathering of Fabians defeated Shaw's amendments and then re-



Fabian News (hereafter referred to as F.N.), IX, No. 10, December, 1899, p. 39.


Ibid., pp. 37-38; see S. G. Hobson, Pilgrim to the Left; Memoirs of a Modern Revolutionist ( London: E. Arnold, 1938), pp. 63-65.

moved Hobson's resolution from further consideration by passing the previous question. 33 This lack of decision led the divided executive to stage a referendum to poll the approximately 800 Fabians by mail. The issue, on the face of it, was whether the membership wished the Society to issue a statement denouncing 'aggressive capitalism and militarism' in South Africa or whether it opposed committing the Society to an anti-imperialist position. 34 A circular which urged members to vote in favour of such an anti-imperialist pronouncement was signed by four members of the fifteen-member Fabian Executive. A rival circular asking members to vote against such a pronouncement was signed by an eight-man majority of the Executive including the 'old gang,' Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, Hubert Bland and Frederick Whelen. 35

The real issue did not concern simply the desirability of an anti-imperialist pronouncement. The issue was imperialism vs. anti-imperialism 36 as Bernard Shaw made clear in an address on 'Imperialism' delivered on February 23, 1900, the day the Fabian mail poll closed. There was something new in British imperialism, Shaw proclaimed, and it was the Fabian Society, which had preached 'the application of Socialism to current politics,' which had added the new element. 'For good or evil, it is we who have made England Imperialist,' Shaw insisted. Now that Imperialism had led to war, it was no time for socialists to desert it. It was inevitable that the world fall to the empire-creating powers. Any attempt of Englishmen to shirk this national responsibility could only result in 'the evil of the Chartered Company.' Shaw concluded that 'a Fabian is necessarily an Imperialist in theory,' and they 'should so declare themselves.' 37 The result of the poll was 259 votes for the position of Shaw and Webb and Whelen and 217 votes for anti-imperialism. 38

Among those who resigned from the Fabian Society when



F.N., IX, No. 11, January 1900, p. 42.


F.N., IX, No. 12, February 1900, p. 46.


F.N., X, No. 1, March 1900, p. 1.


The supporters of Hobson were called the 'opponents of Imperialism' in The Eighteenth Annual Report on the Work of the Fabian Society ( London, 1901), pp. 3-4.


F.N., X, No. 1, March 1900, pp. 2-3.


Ibid., p. 1.

the result of the poll became known were J. Ramsay MacDonald, at that time a member of the Fabian Executive Committee and the future leader of the Labour Party; two influential trade union leaders, Pete Curran and G. N. Barnes (who was to serve as a member of Lloyd George's War Cabinet); Walter Crane, an artistic and political associate of William Morris, and the celebrated future suffragette, Mrs Pankhurst. 39

In April, the result of the referendum was confirmed when the annual election to the Executive was held. Imperialism was again the central issue. The anti-imperialists ran five new candidates in an effort to obtain a majority on the Committee. Webb, Shaw, Whelen led the poll -- not a single member of the eight-man majority which had opposed an anti-imperialist announcement lost his seat. 40 The new executive assigned to Bernard Shaw the task of preparing a tract describing the Fabian position on the war.

The result was Fabianism and the Empire, the first fullblown statement of the society concerning foreign and imperial matters. The tract was very favourably received by press and public and remained, in Fabian Secretary, E. R. Pease's words, 'the only authoritative expression' of Fabian views. 41 Although drafted by Shaw, it received and incorporated the detailed critical suggestions of some 150 Fabians, and can be regarded as the view of the Fabian majority, not simply that of Shaw. 42 The tract's draftsman boasted, many years later, that he had managed, by this tract, to pull the society through the Boer War with the loss of fewer than two dozen mem-



Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society ( London: Allen & Unwin, 1925), p. 133. The story of the Fabians and the Boer War is told on pp. 128-138. The report for the fiscal year ending March, 1900 revealed a decline of 50 of the Society's membership. Membership had been steadily climbing in the previous years. See The Seventeenth Annual Report an the Work of the Fabian Society, 31st March, 1900 ( London, 1900), p. 7.


F.N., X, No. 3, May 1900, p. 9.


F.N., XII, No. 2, February 1902, p. 6.


F.N., X, No. 9, November 1900, p. 34; H. G. Wells, in his Experiment in Autobiography ( London: Gollancz, 1934), p. 260, described the document as 'drafted by Shaw and evidently revised and patched a great deal by warier minds.'

bers. 43 On another occasion, Shaw took obvious pleasure in the fact that the tract had disappointed those who believed that Socialists 'must oppose the war as a war of Capitalism, and support the Boers as its victims.' He delighted in having taken the opposite view. 'The Society, already suspected of Toryism, now stood convicted of Jingoism,' Shaw observed impishly. 44

The Fabian manifesto was directed against a favourite Fabian whipping boy -- the Radicalism of Harcourt and Morley, that section of the Liberal party which 'still clings to the fixedfrontier ideals of individualist republicanism, non-interference, and nationalism, long since demonstrated both by experience and theory to be inapplicable to our present situation'; the world had developed 'far beyond the primitive political economy of the founders of the United States and the Anti-Corn Law League.' Imperialism was the new stage of international polity, the tract maintained -- the only question was whether Great Britain would be the nucleus of one of the worldempires of the future or whether it would stupidly lose its colonies and be reduced to a tiny pair of islands in the North Sea. 45 Shaw presented as 'the best answer for the purpose of excusing the war' the view that small nations, like the Boer Republic, were anachronistic in the new world of the twentieth century. 'The fact remains,' he concluded, 'that a Great Power, consciously or unconsciously, must govern in the interests of civilization as a whole; and it is not to those interests that such mighty forces as goldfields, and the formidable armaments that can be built upon them, should be wielded irresponsibly by small communities of frontiersmen.' 46

The Fabians were not, the manifesto continued, viewing the Empire from any narrow standpoint, from the standpoint of the working class or any other class in the national community. The Fabians were concerned with 'the effective social organization of the whole Empire, and its rescue from the strife of



Bernard Shaw, "Sixty Years of Fabianism", appended to the Jubilee Edition ( 1948) of Fabian Essays, p. 210.


Bernard Shaw, Fabianism ( London, 1930), Fabian Tract No. 233, p. 15.


Bernard Shaw, ed., Fabianism and the Empire ( London, 1900), pp. 3-4.


Ibid., pp. 23-24.

classes and private interest.' 47 From their platform of the national interest, they recognized the necessity of Great Britain maintaining her empire. What ought Great Britain to do to keep the empire intact and prosperous? First of all, a thorough reform of the British consular system was needed to take full advantage of the trade doors opened by British arms. 48 Secondly, and most important, it was necessary to keep British military forces in a high state of readiness to defend the empire. The tract's author attacked the brutality and stupid inefficiency of barrack-life, military law, and the British professional soldiery with all the vehemence of a socialist pacifist. He declared the old idea of a standing army obsolete, but asserted that Great Britain had to have a well-trained army of fighting civilians, of citizen soldiers. Fabianism and the Empire therefore suggested that the Factory Acts be amended to extend the age. for half-time employment to twenty-one; the thirty hours gained in this way could be spent in 'a combination of physical exercises, technical education, education in civil citizenship . . . and field training in the use of modern weapons.' 'No payment beyond a supper would be needed to make the drills popular,' the tract concluded in most patronizing and startlingly unsocialist fashion -- this at a time when both Liberal and Conservative parties opposed all forms of compulsory military training. 49

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