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The History of the Fabian Society

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Chapter I The Sources of Fabian Socialism

The ideas of the early eighties—The epoch of Evolution—Sources of Fabian ideas—Positivism—Henry George—John Stuart Mill—Robert Owen—Karl Marx—The Democratic Federation—"The Christian Socialist"—Thomas Davidson.

"Britain as a whole never was more tranquil and happy," said the "Spectator," then the organ of sedate Liberalism and enlightened Progress, in the summer of 1882. "No class is at war with society or the government: there is no disaffection anywhere, the Treasury is fairly full, the accumulations of capital are vast"; and then the writer goes on to compare Great Britain with Ireland, at that time under the iron heel of coercion, with Parnell and hundreds of his followers in jail, whilst outrages and murders, like those of Maamtrasma, were almost everyday occurrences.

Some of the problems of the early eighties are with us yet. Ireland is still a bone of contention between political parties: the Channel tunnel is no nearer completion: and then as now, when other topics are exhausted, the "Spectator" can fill up its columns with Thought Transference and Psychical Research.

But other problems which then were vital, are now almost forgotten. Electric lighting was a doubtful novelty: Mr. Bradlaugh's refusal to take the oath excited a controversy which now seems incredible. Robert Louis Stevenson can no longer be adequately described as an "accomplished writer," and the introduction of female clerks into the postal service by Mr. Fawcett has ceased to raise alarm lest the courteous practice of always allowing ladies to be victors in an argument should perforce be abandoned.

But in September of the same year we find a cloud on the horizon, the prelude of a coming storm. The Trade Union Congress had just been held and the leaders of the working classes, with apparently but little discussion, had passed a resolution asking the Government to institute an enquiry with a view to relaxing the stringency of Poor Law administration. This, said the "Spectator," is beginning "to tamper with natural conditions," "There is no logical halting-place between the theory that it is the duty of the State to make the poor comfortable, and socialism."

Another factor in the thought of those days attracted but little attention in the Press, though there is a long article in the "Spectator" at the beginning of 1882 on "the ever-increasing wonder" of that strange faith, "Positivism." It is difficult for the present generation to realise how large a space in the minds of the young men of the eighties was occupied by the religion invented by Auguste Comte. Of this however more must be said on a later page.

But perhaps the most significant feature in the periodical literature of the time is what it omits. April, 1882, is memorable for the death of Charles Darwin, incomparably the greatest of nineteenth-century Englishmen, if greatness be measured by the effects of his work on the thought of the world. The "Spectator" printed a secondary article which showed some appreciation of the event. But in the monthly reviews it passed practically unnoticed. It is true that Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey, but even in 1882, twenty-three years after the publication of the "Origin of Species," evolution was regarded as a somewhat dubious theorem which respectable people were wise to ignore.

In the monthly reviews we find the same odd mixture of articles apposite to present problems, and articles utterly out of date. The organisation of agriculture is a perennial, and Lady Verney's "Peasant Proprietorship in France" ("Contemporary," January, 1882), Mr. John Rae's "Co-operative Agriculture in Germany" ("Contemporary," March, 1882), and Professor Sedley Taylor's "Profit-Sharing in Agriculture" ("Nineteenth Century," October, 1882) show that change in the methods of exploiting the soil is leaden-footed and lagging.

Problems of another class, centring round "the Family," present much the same aspect now as they did thirty years ago. In his "Infant Mortality and Married Women in Factories," Professor Stanley Jevons ("Contemporary," January, 1882) proposes that mothers of children under three years of age should be excluded from factories, and we are at present perhaps even farther from general agreement whether any measure on these lines ought to be adopted....