This week in history: Founding of the Fabian Society

Sidney Webb: the centre of intellectual life

Rapid economic change in the 19th century, including the rise of manufacturing and urbanisation, brought an increase in living standards. But the gains were spread unevenly, with some people’s living standards actually falling.

This led increasing numbers of people to look at alternatives to ‘laissez-faire’. In 1884, one group of London intellectuals met to found the Fabian Society.

Named after the Roman general who invented the concept of guerrilla warfare, the society was set up to investigate and lobby for gradual social reforms, not revolutionary change. The views of its members ranged from left-of-centre to outright socialism.

There was also a certain amount of support for ideas now associatedwith the opposite part of the political spectrum, such as eugenics and a strong British Empire.

At its peak during the early 20th century, the Fabian Society was regarded as the centre of British intellectual life. It was the first organisation to advocate a national healthcare system and a minimum wage, policies seen as dangerously radical at the time.

But its biggest impact was the role it played in the founding of the Labour party in 1900, with leading Fabian Sidney Webb writing Labour’s original constitution. Webb (along with his wife and friends) would also found the London School of Economics, using money left to the Fabians.

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