Wells joined the Fabian Society in March 1903 and left it in September 1908. His time as a member makes for a complicated, involved and not terribly edifying story. But there's no avoiding it: it was the focus of his political thought in the first decade of the 1900s, and was the proximate cause for a good deal of his writing at this time. So bear with me whilst I lay some of this material out. There is, I promise, a larger point.
The Fabian Society was founded in London, January 1884, with the aim of promoting socialism via reform and democracy rather than violent revolution. It still exists (you can join it, if you want to, for what strikes me as the very reasonable sum of £3.50 a month), and its website makes a big deal of the role it played in some of the major developments in 20th-century British social and political history:
The 1880s saw an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain and the Fabian Society were at the heart of much of it. Against the backdrop of the Match Girls’ strike and the 1889 London Dock strike, the landmark Fabian Essays was published, containing essays by George Bernard Shaw, Graham Walls [they mean Wallas], Sidney Webb, Sydney Olivier and Annie Besant. All the contributors were united by their rejection of violent upheaval as a method of change, preferring to use the power of local government and trade unionism to effect change.No mention of Wells on their website, interestingly enough. Now, the Fabians certainly were important; although not all historians of the early British labour movement would style them as quite so central as they themselves do, here. For example, the Labour Party's own current website doesn't mention the Fabians at all; and Andrew Thorpe's standard History of the British Labour Party (Palgrave, 3rd ed 2008) rather witheringly asserts ‘the Fabians were not as influential as they liked to claim’ . Really, here, we're touching upon a key fault-line in Labour as a political entity. I should declare my own interest before I go any further: I am, as anyone who knows me will confirm, a thoroughly middle-class individual. Although my own party membership lapsed some years ago I'd still describe myself as a socialist. At the moment (I'm writing a week or so before the 2017 UK General Election) the Labour leader is Jeremy Corbyn, and the party belongs to the Corbynistas. The last few years have seen a pretty ferocious battle for the party between Corbyn's supporters and the Blairite wing. Indeed, it really is hard to overestimate just how loathed Blair is by some Labour supporters nowadays. There are many in the party (I know several such) who hate him more than they hate the Tories—hate, that is, the man who led the party to an unprecedented three consecutive general election victories, who brought in the minimum wage, civil partnerships (paving the way for gay marriage), Freedom of Information, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the peace process in Northern Ireland, humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and many other good things. Blair haters tend to cite his support for Bush's invasion of Iraq as the reason for their animadversion; but I sometimes suspect that this functions as the manifest symptom of a much more profound latent dislike of the way New Labour recreated the party as, in effect, a middle class entity—albeit, one still dependent on a large number of working class voters. It made for a broader electoral appeal, and pragmatically speaking Labour can only do good if it is in power; but the way some see it, the price was the party's soul. For some, Labour can only ever be authentic as a working-class party.
The early Fabians’ commitment to non-violent political change was underlined by the role many Fabians played in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1900.
None of the early figures in the Fabian Society were more significant than Beatrice and Sidney Webb in developing the ideas that would come to characterise Fabian thinking and in developing the thorough research methodology that remains a feature of the Society to the present day. Both prodigious authors, Beatrice and Sidney wrote extensively on a wide range of topics, but it was Beatrice’s 1909 Minority Report to the Commission of the Poor Law that was perhaps their most remembered contribution. This landmark report provided the foundation stone for much of the modern welfare state. [‘The Early Fabians: “Educate, Agitate, Organise”’]
And this fault line goes right back to the origins of the movement as such. There's a version of the party's history that front-and-centres the working class Trades Unionists and the members of the Labour Representation Committee: actual workers like Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson. The Fabian Society, on the other hand, was a middle-class organisation from the get-go, and not only in the sense that its most prominent members were affluent bourgeois individuals like the Webbs, Pease, Bland and Nesbit. As Ian Britain notes: ‘all membership records and contemporary observations testify to the almost exclusively middle-class origins of the Fabian Society’s adherents, from the time of its earliest foundation in 1884 onwards’ [Britain, Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts (Cambridge Univ. Press 1982), 6].
For the purposes of this blog, the key thing is how Wells fitted into this world. He was, clearly, not middle class like the Webbs; but neither was he properly working class. His mother having been in service, and the fact that his father had been a shopkeeper, and from time to time a professional cricketer (a player, that is, rather than a gentleman), means that his background was lower, or probably lower-lower-middle-class. Of course, by the 1900s he was a self-made man, and very wealthy; but that's not to say he exactly fitted-in with the affluent middle- and upper-middle-class bulk of the Fabians. It's not coincidental, I think, that Wells's closest friend in the Fabian Society was George Bernard Shaw, who, by virtue of being Irish, stood rather outside the bindweed complexities of English class identity.
The two things that the Fabians hoped Wells would bring to the Society were: a new energy—one of Wells's great talents was his ‘go’, what he sometimes described as ‘whoosh’—and a popular reach, via his widely-read journalism and fiction, to get the message out. And Wells was initially keen, although what he wanted was a large-scale reform of the organisation. He proposed doing away with the governing committee, establishing a triumvirate of elected leaders, expanding the Society's membership, new and larger headquarters in London, a dedicated newspaper and other things. The Fabians wanted his energy, and they got it: he read papers before the Society, published a pamphlet called The Faults of the Fabians in 1906, followed it up in quick order with another pamphlet containing proposals for reform (Reconstruction of the Fabian Society, 1906), lobbied, travelled the country, and moved motions. Looking back in the Experiment in Autobiography he describes what he encountered as ‘the little Fabian Society, wizened already though not old’, and summarises his approach:
I envisaged that reconditioned Fabian Society as becoming, by means of vigorous propaganda, mainly carried on by young people, the directive element of a reorganized socialist party. We would attack the coming generation at the high school, technical college and university stage, and our organization would quicken into a constructive social stratum.He adds, with characteristic half-self-deprecation:
The idea was as good as the attempt to realize it was futile. On various occasions in my life it has been borne in on me, in spite of a stout internal defence, that I can be quite remarkably silly and inept; but no part of my career rankles so acutely in my memory with the conviction of bad judgement, gusty impulse and real inexcusable vanity, as that storm in the Fabian tea-cup. From the first my motives were misunderstood, and it should have been my business to make them understandable. I antagonized Shaw and Beatrice Webb for example, by my ill-aimed aggressiveness ... I was fundamentally right and I was wrong-headed and I left the Society, at last, if possible more politically parliamentary and ineffective than I found it. If I were to recount the comings and goings of that petty, dusty conflict beginning with my paper The Faults of the Fabian (February 1906) and ending with my resignation in September 1908, the reader would be intolerably bored. Fortunately for him it would bore me far more to disinter the documents, fight my battles over again and write it all down. And nobody else will ever do it. [Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 564-65]That last sentence hasn't proved true, at any rate: there have been many accounts of this whole kerfuffle, and most of them really do make it sound like the Judean People's Front's internal procedural quarrels with the Popular Front of Judea. Actually, I don't think that's right, for reasons I'll go into below. But you can see why many people see it that way.
Take the saga of This Misery of Boots, just as a for-instance. Wells first published this piece, under the title ‘The Misery of Boots’, in the Independent Review, December 1905. He then delivered it as a talk to Society on 12 January 1906. It is nicely-handled piece of Socialism 101 from, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, the ground up: Wells remembers his childhood, looking up from his basement room through the grating, to where he could see only the feet of passers by; and goes on through the various cellars, garrets and apprentice rooms in which he has lodged, dim, closed in, filled with shadows, away from the sun. He points out that boots figure much more largely in the lives of those who can barely afford them than in the lives of the affluent, and for that reason the affluent don't understand how hugely important they are, how profoundly immiserating it is to have to wear ill-fitting or broken-down boots that pinch the toes or expose the heel. Wells neatly captures how these petty miseries restrict and degrade life, and how they aggregate into something monstrous. From this he extrapolates:
Here on the one hand —you can see for yourself in any unfashionable part of Great Britain—are people badly, uncomfortably, painfully shod, in old boots, rotten boots, sham boots; and on the other great stretches of land in the world, with unlimited possibilities of cattle and leather and great numbers of people, who, either through wealth or trade disorder, are doing no work. And our question is: ‘Why cannot the latter set to work and make and distribute boots?’His point is that the problem of boots cannot be solved piecemeal; everything that goes into their manufacture and distribution must be altered, and that means that all the processes of manufacture and distribution must be altered as well. The book's last chapter (of five) contains an oblique snipe at the Fabians:
Let us be clear about one thing: that Socialism means revolution, that it means a change in the every-day texture of life. It may be a very gradual change, but it will be a very complete one. You cannot change the world, and at the same time not change the world. You will find Socialists about, or at any rate men calling themselves Socialists, who will pretend that this is not so, who will assure you that some odd little jobbing about municipal gas and water is Socialism, and back-stairs intervention between Conservative and Liberal the way to the millennium. You might as well call a gas jet in the lobby of a meeting-house, the glory of God in Heaven!Despite this, the article went down well, especially with younger Fabians. The proposal was made to publish it as a separate book, but this stalled. Wells, in a hurry to get things moving before he left for America in March (on this trip) followed up ‘The Misery of Boots’ by presenting a manifesto for change to a meeting of the Society in February. It pulled no punches. The Society had 700 members and ought to have 7000 ‘and everything to scale’. Fabianism ‘strikes the observer as being still half a drawing-room society ... playing at polito-sociological research’. Their engagement with the world amounted to ‘a little dribble of activities’. Wells called for more money, new offices, opening the Society freely to new members (up to this point prospective members had to be vetted by the executive) and undertaking large-scale outreach and propaganda work. The executive agreed to set up a committee to look into Wells's proposals, but there were grumblings, and Wells's manner was not smoothing them over. Shaw wrote to him on 17th Feb saying ‘we cannot afford to quarrel with you because we want to get tracts out of you’ but warning him that ‘when we treat your onslaught as onslaught, and hold the fort against you, don't suppose we are in a huff’.
Publicly and behind the scenes debate clattered on through 1906: Webb told Shaw that he thought the ‘Boots’ piece more or less disposable, and Shaw wrote back: ‘do not underrate Wells. What you said the other day about his article in the Independent Review being a mere piece of journalism suggested to me that you did not appreciate the effect his writing produces on the imagination of the movement.’ Shaw knew very well how popular Wells was with younger Fabians. Not that he was any happier with these proposals than was Sidney Webb; and other key Fabians, especially Hubert Bland, had taken very strongly against Wells. Anthony West's biography doesn't mince its words where this relationship is concerned: ‘my father found Bland third-rate and incredible and did his best to ignore him ... [Bland's] distaste for my father became a positive enmity’ [Anthony West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), 294]. West thinks the hidden key to all the Fabian furore was sexual; that Wells was too popular with the Fabian wives. There may be something in that too, although there's surely enough merely political and personal animosity to explain the kerfuffle without that. Anyone who has been involved in politics at this level will recognise how much like a catfight things can get.
At any rate, the Society held off from publishing This Misery of Boots (a better title than the original article's, I'd say) for the time being. Edward Pease insisted that what he called ‘sneers’ against Shaw and the Webbs had to be removed; and Shaw himself wrote to Wells on the 11th September 1906 advising him that ‘as a matter of intellectual loyalty’ he had better cut the offending passages. Sidney Webb wrote to Wells commending his ‘very interesting and well put’ critique of the Fabians, but saying he did not ‘believe the Society will accept your proposals’. Matters came to a head at the end of the year at a December meeting and debate. Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie give us a good account of this whole business and its denouement. After many speeches, Shaw worked his magic on the assembly, turning accepting or rejecting Wells's ideas into a vote of confidence on the Fabian leadership itself:
With the audience won as only Shaw knew how to win it, he was able to close the trap. ‘There is nothing for it now but annihilation of the present executive or unconditional surrender by Mr Wells,’ he said. Most of his colleagues wanted to press the matter to a vote, but that would have put such members of the special committee [that had investigated Wells's proposals] as Sydney Oliver and Maud Reeves in an ignominious position. H.G. ... had no option but to rise and—with the best grace he could muster—withdraw his amendment. [Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Time Traveller: a Life of H.G. Wells (Weidenfeld, 1973), 218]It was, they note, a ‘humiliating defeat’ for Wells. A few days later Shaw tried to conciliate his friend by suggesting he might be able to take a position on the Fabian executive in the Spring, but Wells, say the Mackenzies, ‘was never able to adjust himself to the tempo of Fabian affairs’ . When This Misery of Boots was finally published as a book in 1907, the offending ‘sneers’ were still in.
The whole affair wound slowly down. ‘The order of the Fabian Samurai perished unborn,’ is how Wells puts it, in the Experiment in Autobiography. ‘I went, discoursing to undergraduate branches and local branches, to Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and elsewhere pursuing the lengthening threads of our disputes. The society would neither give itself to me to do what I wished with it, nor cast me out. It liked the entertainment of its lively evenings. And at last I suddenly became aware of the disproportionate waste of my energy in these disputes and abandoned my attack.’ He resigned from the Fabians in 1908, and worked his experiences, and the workings of politics they revealed to him, into The New Machiavelli (1911).
Still: however petty and abstract as these things read now, a ‘storm in a Fabian tea-cup’ by Wells's own admission, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as nothing more than an irrelevance of dusty triviality. That Wells wished subsequently to style it in those terms had more to do with his own wounded amour propre than the reality.
And by ‘reality’ I mean: the ways in which the Fabian society did actual good in the world. At the same time that this kerfuffle was fuffling on, Beatrice Webb was invited to join a Royal Commission on the Poor Law, something Balfour handed over to the new Liberal government that had ousted him in the General Election of January 1906. This commission eventually published its majority report in 17 February 1908, proposing the abolition of the workhouses and the locally-elected Boards of Guardians who oversaw them, along with various other things. Webb, though, published what amounted to a dissenting ‘minority report’, and this document had a much wider impact. Here's how Barbara Wootton summarises her conclusions:
Beatrice soon parted company with the majority, inasmuch as she started from the assumption that ‘the poor’ were not a class apart, but a miscellaneous collection of all sorts of people who had been impoverished in various ways – as by illness, old age or unemployment. She therefore sought her remedy in the provision of specialist agencies competent to handle these contingencies before they led to destitution. In effect, this led her to sketch what turned out to be something like a forecast of the social legislation which was subsequently developed. Beatrice wanted free medical treatment, pensions for the aged and a national system of labour exchanges and training centres to minimise unemployment.And as that blurb I quoted from the Fabian Society website above says: ‘it was Beatrice’s 1909 Minority Report to the Commission of the Poor Law that ... provided the foundation stone for much of the modern welfare state’. Adopted in effect wholesale by the Labour Party, and put into practice across the board after the 1945 Labour landslide, it completely altered the social landscape of the United Kingdom. To revisit the personal datum, which I touched on briefly above: however solidly middle-class I am today, my situation and opportunities are a direct consequence of this rearrangement. My parents were both, in Neil Kinnock's resonant phrase, the first in their families for a thousand generations to go to University. My mother's ancestors were all coal miners and Welsh shepherds; my father's ancestors working-class northerners. They two could train as doctors because the Welfare State provided them with the free schooling and university education that enabled them to make the most of their abilities. I survived my own birth only because of NHS expertise; my own daughter's epilepsy has been treated and expertly managed by that same organisation (if I'd been American, this small fact of my daughter's life would surely have bankrupted our family). So the whole drama of Wells and the Fabians is not abstruse and remote political in-fighty bickering, or not only that. It mattered then and still matters today.
Of course, it was the Labour Party, not the Fabians, who actually made the Welfare State happen. And what Wells calls for in The Misery of Boots is more than just an ameliorative superstructure of free schools and hospitals. It is the ground-level nationalisation of all collective property: ‘the establishment of a new and better order of society by the abolition of private property in land, in natural productions, and in their exploitation’. ‘If,’ he declares, ‘you are not prepared to struggle for that, you are not really a Socialist.’ But that only raises in my mind the question of how things might, or might not, have worked out differently. The 1945 Attlee government created a National Health service, and nationalised the railways and some other industries; but it did not abolish private property. Could it have? There's a practical side to that question, but also an ideological side. Paul Addison thinks that:
Socialist planning would have required the nationalisation of all major industries and services. Whether Labour ever intended this is doubtful, .... The incoming Attlee government was pledged by the Manifesto to a specific programme of nationalisation, all of which was carried through by 1951. But the programme was inherently ambiguous. Was it a frontier marking the limits of state control, or a bridgehead from which further advances were to be made? In a party of doctrinal rigour the problem would have been sorted out in advance. But the Labour Government had to determine its strategy half-way through. In 1947 Attlee’s troops halted beneath the mighty walls of the steel industry and a debate broke out over whether they dare storm the citadel. In effect, a show was made of taking over steel while the underlying decision was to veer away from further nationalisation.Wells proposals for the Fabians were not that it should assume the responsibilities of the Labour Party in toto, but they might have injected precisely this doctrinal rigour into the movement. His failure left the Society as what it now, rather bathetically, calls itself: a think-tank. Might it have been otherwise?