This article provides notes on Fabianism and Imperialism.
Before 1900 the Fabian Society did not display any enthusiasm in the foreign affairs of Britain and this is chiefly due to the fact that in its formative years it wanted to preoccupy itself in economic and to a lesser extent political and domestic affairs. Foreign affairs failed to draw its attention.
Some members of the society expressed sporadic opinion on particular international issues but that did not form any part of the Society’s declared policy or principle. Only in 1900. G. B. Shaw’s Fabianism and the Empire; A Manifesto was published.
The immediate factor that occasioned the publication of Fabianism and the Empire was the South African War. The members of the Society saw the war with a different outlook.
They regarded it as inevitable. The imperialist powers of Europe were engaged in partitioning the globe and the Fabians, particularly Shaw, thought that this could not be resisted.
The main reason behind this support to imperialist expansion was to provide moral support to British imperialism. Shaw and other co-Fabians in clear language stated that in the process of imperialist expansion she gobbled up many nations and this was unfortunate. But she could not allow others to gobble up her. However, imperialism was not immoral because it was based on “inefficiency”.
The members of the Society came out with a straight-forward suggestion that there was no question of dissolving the empire. The empire should be fruitfully utilized for greater and noble purpose: the establishment of a socialist “Commonwealth”.
Shaw in the Manifesto said, “the socialist commonwealth be exploited for the public good rather than for private gain.” Some of the Society’s members categorically announced that they should not make any effort to reverse the imperialist expansion, but try to swim with it.
That is, they must support imperialism. G. B. Shaw made this point more emphatic by saying that the peculiar business of the Fabian Society was to supply progressive aspirations with practical methods.
In 1900 the most practical method was to hitch it to the rising star of Liberal imperialism. The society decided to do that. Shaw in his Manifesto claimed that the colonies were inefficient to conduct their own business.
To remove these imperialists brought them under efficient administration. This is popularly known as “overriding claim of efficiency”. For the domestic administration Shaw also argued for efficiency.
In his judgment only efficiency could make socialism a grand success. Shaw further said that it was the moral duty of all efficient nations to help all the inefficient colonies. Shaw also divided the nations into higher civilized and lower civilized categories.
The lower civilizations were to be raised to the higher civilizations and for the attainment of that goal the imperialist powers were engaged in dividing the globe among themselves. In his view it was not wrong.
While many imperialist powers and personalities talked of the “white-man’s burden” in support of their imperialist designs, Shaw advanced the argument of colonies’ inefficiency to support his theory of imperialism. He, however, wanted to camouflage his real intention.
Society’s stand on imperialism was not based on pure expediency. From 1900 onwards few other pamphlets were published by the Society. These productions show that the Fabians were deeply plunged into the question of imperialism.
So expediency was not the factor of their active interest. Bernard Porter in his article Fabians, Imperialists and the International Order aptly observes “If the Fabians had merely wanted to use imperialism there was no reason for them to plunge in quite as whole-heartedly as this. Clearly it appealed to them for other reasons too. One reason was the nature of their socialism. Fabian socialism was fundamentally a statist, interventionist kind.”
Sidney Webb also made a lot of contribution to the Fabian concept of imperialism. In Margaret Cole’s words Sidney Webb was a “natural bureaucrat in the best sense of the word.” He wholeheartedly supported Fabian philosophy of imperialism and also enriched it with his characteristic style of argument. He had no sympathy for self-government of colonies.
The establishment of world government through imperialism was their sole objective. They also treated it as part of their theory of evolution.
In the domestic field the transition from individualism to socialism was inevitable because of the evolutionary process. This evolutionary process would ultimately lead to world or international government and that would facilitate the emergence of socialism.
The concept of inevitability impelled them to support imperialism. Most of the members of the Society were so much intoxicated by imperialism that they refused to give due recognition and support to nationalism and nationalist feeling.
Economic and political interests of Britain were more important to them than democracy and self-government. In Fabianism and Empire Shaw argued that in the present imperialist era the old nationalism was obsolete and that would be replaced by international government. It was not difficult for Shaw to realize that the nationalist feeling was anti- imperialism.
The spread of nationalism meant to Shaw dissolution of the British Empire. G. B. Shaw dreamt of a world government and that would be, if we can study his mentality properly, under the leadership of Britain.
Interpreters of Shaw’s political ideas are of opinion that he had been all along opposing the principle of nationality. As it has been pointed out by Bernard Porter, “It began with a repetition of Shaw’s old strictures on the principle of nationality and ended with a tribute to the British Empire as the closest approximation to an ideal international authority yet achieved”.
Shaw was a rank imperialist. He was so much convinced of the higher civilization of Great Britain and also of France, Germany and USA that he did not consider any other nation as highly civilized. This conviction may aptly be called dogmatism or racism.
The hegemony of particular race or civilization was later on propagated by Hitler and he made it the main plank of his propaganda and political activities. We normally blame Hegel as the godfather of Hitler. But Shaw was not less responsible for racist ideology.
During his lifetime (1856-1950) Shaw witnessed the disintegration of the British Empire and his flamboyant announcement of world government shattered. Shaw did not hope that it would ever come into reality. However, he thought that the un-realisation of world government was due to the lack of vision of the British statesmen.
The disintegration of the British Empire impelled few members of the Fabian Society to ponder over their attitude towards imperialism. Few members found no rationality and justification in the arguments of Shaw and other orthodox supporters. Some of them resigned from the Society on the issue of imperialism.
Some called the book “crude and frivolous”. Many Fabians branded the book “as a youthful aberration or a piece of political manoeuvering that went wrong or just another example of its author’s odd little ways”. But modern researchers hold a different view.
They are of opinion that it was not the personal view of G. B. Shaw, it was the philosophy (if the word is to be used at all) of Fabian Society. This view appears to be more reasonable. Sidney Webb and many other Fabians were in favour of British imperialism. Shaw had expressed the view in a straight-forward language.
Among all the leading members of the Fabian Society G. B. Shaw was the most vocal person who supported imperialism.
He was born and brought up in an atmosphere of imperialism and he knew that imperialism protected British economic and political interests. The decaying condition of British imperialism was very much painful to him.
The national liberation movement in the Third World states threw a severe challenge to British imperialism and Britain’s economic interests. Because of these reasons Shaw strongly supported imperialism.
His advocacy for imperialism had ill-designs though he expressed his viewpoints with sufficient intelligence and lot of finesse. Not Shaw alone, many other intellectuals argued for imperialism.