Chapter 5-Sedition Between Two Wars

Chapter 5 of the book Fabian Freeway.

In 1918 a revitalized Labour Party marched to the polls in the “khaki election” and was spankingly defeated in a first test of strength. Confidently it plugged organizational loopholes and intensified its propaganda in labor and Liberal as well as university circles, where Fabian groups were transformed into “Labour Clubs.” Following the initial defeat, Sidney Webb in 1919 openly took charge of affairs as head of the Labour Party Executive, which sent him to Parliament in 1920 and 1922.

One of the industrious minor characters who went to the House of Commons with Webb was Harry Snell, offspring of agricultural laborers. Long a member of both the Fabian and Labour Party Executives, he had represented the Society many years before on the board of the London School of Economics. Besides being a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist, Snell was also a prime mover in American as well as British Ethical Culture Societies of the day, having long since abandoned the Protestant faith of his boyhood. His biography in Who’s Who contains the grim notation: “Recreations: None.”

Suddenly in January, 1924, to the surprise of almost everyone, the Labour Party was called to power as the better half of a Labour-Liberal coalition. The circumstances were peculiar and have never been satisfactorily explained. As against 258 Conservatives sent to Parliament, there were 191 Labourites and 158 Liberals. Over the protests of Lloyd George, the old war-horse, the Liberal Party chose to throw its votes to Labour instead of to the Conservatives. Some interpreted this move as an expedient on the part of the Liberals to rid themselves of Lloyd George. Others like Lord Grey, the former Foreign Minister who had seen the lamps go out in 1914, described it as a well-calculated risk.

Years of Fabian penetration and permeation of Liberal circles, including the long, close friendship of George Bernard Shaw with the Liberal Party leader, Lord Asquith, may also help to explain this curious domestic application of the balance-of-power theory, that is, throwing one’s weight behind the second strongest power. The volatile Lady Asquith, as well as Lord Lothian, accompanied Shaw in 1931 on his triumphal trek to Moscow; and in Shaw’s final years as a nonagenarian, the ever-loyal Margot Asquith was among the few surviving intimates who visited and cared for him.

The decision to back the Labour Party in 1924 proved suicidal for British Liberals of the day, recalling those gifted patricians of Imperial Rome who at the most unexpected moments chose to open their veins and watch their lifeblood ebb away. From its self-inflicted death-blow the Liberal Party has not yet recovered, growing more and more feeble until by 1945 it could muster only twelve seats in Parliament and no more than six in 1959.(1) Following World War I the Labour Party under Socialist tutelage usurped the Liberals’ reformist role, and thereafter every social reform introduced by the Fabian-steered Labour Party was carefully contrived to weaken one sector or another of the national economy.

Ramsay MacDonald, an ex-Fabian surrounded by Fabian advisers, became the first “Labour” Prime Minister in England’s history. His twenty-five man Cabinet contained at least five “old” Fabians of the London Society, and there were many more in lesser posts. Sir Sydney Olivier became Secretary of State for India. Sidney Webb—who with Beatrice had recently published a long essay entitled, The Decay of Capitalist Civilization, in which they declared that Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes had “called the moral bluff of Capitalism” (2)–became, of all things, President of the Board of Trade!

Climax to years of Socialist effort and scheming, the new administration proved premature and short-lived. MacDonald’s first go-round at 10 Downing Street lasted less than a year, owing largely to an indiscretion on the part of his supposed Soviet friends. By October his government had crashed spectacularly, in an atmosphere of popular excitement and fear, stirred by publication of the Zinoviev “Red Letter.”

So many shock waves have assailed the world’s nerves since then that people have almost forgotten the impact of the notorious Red Letter found in a Secret Service raid on the offices of Arcos, the Soviet Trade Bureau in London. Apparently the Zinoviev Letter was a directive from the Third International in Moscow, advising British Communists how to seize power from the “weak” government of MacDonald. Their coup was to be effected by disarmament and corrupting the allegiance of British military forces, as well as by arming the workingmen in key areas. Action was to be taken when the MacDonald-sponsored trade treaties with Russia were signed, possibly because Soviet merchant vessels could then more readily transport munitions for an insurrection.

Promptly denounced as a forgery by Communists, the Red Letter was considered genuine by the British public and by MacDonald himself, whose Foreign Office penned a protest to Rakovsky, the unofficial Soviet representative in London. Few Englishmen believed the time-honored British Secret Service to be guilty either of committing or abetting a public forgery. Although the contents of the Letter appeared fantastic, only the year before Germany had narrowly escaped a Moscow-planned Communist revolution—called off at the eleventh hour everywhere but in Hamburg, where the stop order arrived too later Events of 1923 in Germany supplied a pretext for the emergence of Adolf Hitler, who staged his first National Socialist demonstration that year in Munich. In Great Britain, publication of the ill-fated Zinoviev Letter merely insured the electoral defeat of Ramsay MacDonald, whose subsequent attitude towards the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics appeared to be no less compounded of “love and pity” than before.

The consensus of sober opinion is that publication of the Red Letter just three days before the election was purposefully timed by Opposition elements in the Civil Service; but that the document itself was authentic. The Fabian historian, C. Delisle Burns, asserted it was and said the Secret Service furnished a copy. (3) The former Fabian solicitor, Henry Slesser, confirmed this view. (4) George Bernard Shaw himself accepted the missive at face value, for in December, 1924, he published an open letter simultaneously in the Labourite Daily Herald of London and Izvestia of Moscow, informing the Russian comrades that British Socialists were quite capable of handling their own show and would appreciate not being embarrassed in future.

Shaw asked the Soviet Government “to tell Mr. Zinoviev plainly that he must choose definitely between serious statesmanship and cinematographic schoolboy nonsense if the Soviet Government is to be responsible for his proceedings, which will otherwise make Mr. Rakovsky’s position here almost impossible.” And he added, “From the point of view of English Socialists, the members of the Third International do not know even the beginnings of their business as Socialists.” Plain language from an old revolutionary to his fellows, and the fact that it was printed verbatim in the official newspaper Izvestia suggests that Shaw was already persona grata in the very highest circles in Moscow. Zinoviev at a later date paid with his life for this and other miscalculations.

The same puzzling ambivalence—a combination of love and occasional hatred which psychologists assert is characteristic of all true affairs of the heart—marked the attitude of Fabian Socialists towards Moscow throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and exists today. Following the Russian Revolution, a wing of British industrial labor pressed increasingly for “Socialism Now,” threatening to upset the somewhat more gradual program envisioned by Webb.

Soviet agents were active and hospitably received in Labour as well as Fabian circles. One of the more conspicuous was Rajani Palme Dutt, a half-caste of mixed East Indian and Scandinavian parentage, who after perfecting his dialectic in Moscow worked from 1923 to 1926 with Fabians G. D. H. and Margaret Cole in the Labour Research Bureau, formerly the Fabian Research Department. The Bureau printed a monthly circular, a kind of leftist Ministry of Labour Gazette, intended to furnish factual ammunition for Socialists in their day-to-day political battles. Eventually Dutt ousted his Fabian hosts at which point Communists brazenly took over the Labour Research Bureau. Rajani Palme Dutt became editor of the Communist Labour Monthly and was listed in 1962 as vice president of the Communist Party of Britain; yet former Fabian colleagues refer to him without rancor as “that cuckoo in the Fabian nest.”

The General Strike of 1926 was touched off at Communist instigation by direct actionists in the Trades Union Council. (5) Once more Fabians yielded easily to pressure from the catastrophic Left. This revolutionary strike, which Fabians had not provoked but found it necessary to support, placed them in the same situation as a citizen of the French Revolution who was once seen racing down a Paris street in the wake of a milling crowd. When asked where he was going, he replied breathlessly, “I am their leader—I must follow them!”

During the strike emergency the Fabian-edited Daily Herald, then being run by one William Mellor ( an erstwhile nonconformist preacher), published the official strike newspaper, the Workers’ Gazette. Other Fabian publicists tried painfully to justify the very doubtful legality of a revolutionary general strike. When Cardinal Bourne, the Roman Catholic primate of England, expressed the view that the General Strike was unconstitutional and violated the Trade Union Act of 1906, he was publicly rebuked by Socialist Members of Parliament led by the nominally Catholic Fabian, John Scurr.

With the collapse of the strike movement, the emphasis shifted once more to politics, and there Fabians were in their element. Working-class groups, discouraged by the failure of direct action, and middle-class liberals, alarmed at what had seemed to be the first hot breath of revolution, turned to the Labour Party for salvation. Forgetting the debacle of 1924, the electorate was even prepared to approve the Labour Party’s Soviet-oriented foreign policy that still promised to provide full employment at home. In a few short years the Fabian Socialist tail was again in position to wag the trade-union dog.

By the summer of 1929 the Labour Party returned to power with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, though still something less than a majority. Forty-seven seats were won by Fabians, of the forty-nine Fabians who ran. (6) Among them were such clever and ambitious younger men as Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison and Sir Stafford Cripps, a nephew of Beatrice Webb, who was to serve as president of the Fabian Society from 1950 to 1952.

The Fabian News for July, 1929, reported eight Fabians in the Cabinet and eleven Fabian Under Secretaries in the Government. Eleven out of seventeen new Labour peers, created to block possible veto of Labour Party measures in the Upper House, were veteran members of the London Fabian Society. They included the solemn Lord Henry Snell who was assistant to a delighted Sidney Webb, by then Lord Passfield, at the Colonial Office. That year also saw the publication of Fabian Tract No. 230, entitled Imperial Trusteeship. Signed by Lord Sydney Olivier, who had served in the West Indies and India, it advocated release of the colonies to independent native governments under Socialist tutelage and looked forward to eventual Socialist world control of raw materials. Owing to a relatively brief term in office, however, the Labour Party was compelled to postpone dismemberment of the Empire until a later date.

A feature of the 1929 elections was the part played for the first time by British women. Some seven hundred thousand new women voters joined the Labour Party, lured by the promise of jobs for their men and by various social benefits to be bestowed free of charge—except, of course,-for the eventual tax bill which was not mentioned. The Labour Party had been late in announcing support for women’s suffrage, even though a number of early suffragists like Inez Milholland and Annie Besant had been Fabians; yet it managed somehow to reap the benefits of the Liberal Party’s record in that field, as it did on the freedom-for-Ireland issue.

Among the first three Labour women to be elected to Parliament was the redoubtable A. Susan Lawrence, who had just written a novel, Clash, purporting to tell the inside story of the General Strike. Like her friend Ellen Wilkinson, later head of Preparatory Commission for UNESCO, “our Susan” was typical of those Fabian lady politicos with iron in their souls and a bright red bee in their bonnets, to whom secular Marxism was a substitute for religious profession. For thirty-three years of her life she sat on the Executive of the London Fabian Society. Long a member of the Labour Party Executive and active in garnering the women’s vote, she served as its chairman in 1930, gazing absently through her lorgnette at unruly males as in her youth she had disconcerted her professors at Newnham College. To a colleague Susan remarked significantly, ‘I don’t preach the Class War, I live it.” (7)

The common philosophical basis of Socialism and Communism was more evident to observers in 1929 and succeeding years than it had been before. All that distinguished many a Fabian Socialist from the local Communist gentry was the lack of a Communist party card and a preference for indirect over direct action. If a few like Ellen Wilkinson in 1929 (8) or Ivor Montague in 1941 (9) admitted to carrying the Communist party card as well, this was held to be their privilege, and an understanding Fabian Executive did not reprimand them.

Arthur Henderson, the Fabian politician, stage-managed the Labour Party’s return engagement of 1929. In the process he angled for Communist votes and placated the British Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, who demanded “Socialism in every sentence” of the program. Henderson came to the Foreign Office pledged to European disarmament and recognition of Soviet Russia, as outlined in the Geneva protocol written by Fabian Socialist R. H. Tawney. Sharply reduced appropriations for the British armed services (shades of the Zinoviev Letter!) were advocated in 1928-29 as a means of paying for State-financed social welfare benefits, and a strange new type of internationalism that demanded “the sacrifice of national self-interest” was propounded.

For many months prior to becoming Foreign Minister the sonorous voiced Henderson, with other traveling Fabians, had been active in rebuilding the Socialist International—which, despite Ramsay MacDonald’s verbal sparring matches with the “giants of the Communist International, Radek and Bukharin,” displayed unwavering loyalty towards the Soviet Union in practical matters of trade and diplomacy. Even the Soviet Union’s wholesale dumping of commodities was defended by Sidney Webb, who described it as being “no more than the competition of cheaper commodities.”

Britain’s second Labour Government, like the first, was undone by its own contradictions. Caught in the grip of a world-wide depression, its Socialist leaders moved to cut the dole and raise taxes on the poor as well as the rich. Ramsay MacDonald resigned in 1931 only to join over his Party’s protest, a new disaster coalition composed of unfrocked Labourites, Conservatives and Liberals.

The Monarch who at Conservative Leader Stanley Baldwin’s request formally invited MacDonald to return to the Government—although his former party had just been definitely whipped at the polls—was denounced by the Left Wing for “interference.” For the first but by no means the last time, Fabian Socialists like Professor Harold Laski attacked the throne as an institution, calling it a “dignified hieroglyphic” and warning that future interference would be grounds for revolution. During the next few years Fabian faith in constitutional action waned visibly, as symbolized by the visits of the Webbs and Shaw to Moscow.

Organizationally, the Fabian Society could not help but suffer from the crushing defeat of the Labour Party with which it had allied itself so closely; yet like the Party it preserved the spark of life. Though its financial resources appeared to shrivel and provincial Fabian Societies in Britain—most of which had been turned into Labour Clubs—declined from 120 in the middle twenties to a mere six in the late thirties, the London Society and its Executive brain trust were far from extinct.

Like the tortoise, the Fabian Society had withdrawn temporarily into its shell, to emerge at a more favorable moment. The Fabian News still published notices of meetings, lectures, municipal and overseas Socialist activities; A. Emil Davies of the Fabian Executive continued to rally the morale and retain the support of hard-core Fabians; the individual members devoted themselves as assiduously as ever to world travel and a variety of left wing causes chiefly identified with the Popular Front activities of the thirties.

There was always a Fabian in the person of W. Stephen Sanders or Philip Noel-Baker at the International Labour Office in Geneva, and Fabian voices were prominent at the annual International Socialist congresses. A Fabian idol who had penetrated the Liberal Party years before and never resigned from it, the economist John Maynard Keynes, acquired immense prestige as a financial oracle. By turns he terrorized financiers with predictions of doom and induced his own and foreign governments to adopt policies of deficit spending calculated to assure the long-range destruction of the capitalist system he pretended to “save.” Fabian mischief makers of Marxist inspiration were by no means lacking during the Society’s apparent quiescence.

In the field of popular education, sometimes termed propaganda, individual members of the Society were never more dangerously active than during the years leading up to World War II. The Left Book Club—an enterprise similar to book clubs in the United States, in that it furnished pre-selected popular reading at cut-rate prices— proved a most profitable venture, both financially and propaganda-wise. Its political bias was plain from the fact that its first literary offering was a volume by Maurice Thorez, secretary of the Communist Party of France. So faithfully did its output-follow the Stalinist line that in the Daily Worker of London for May 9, 1936, Harry Pollitt, secretary of the British Section of the Communist Party, praised the Left Book Club as a project “worthy of support.”

In a few years its membership exceeded fifty thousand and its annual income neared $400,000—proof of a substantial following in Britain. Actually the circle reached by the Club was much wider, since subscribers were urged through the Left News to organize Left Book Groups in their neighborhoods for purposes of reading and discussion. In March, 1938, the Left News announced that 831 such groups had been formed under the wing of the Left Book Club. Whether Communist- or Socialist-led, their trend was frankly Marxist and clearly catastrophic. The fine lines of demarcation between one brand of Marxism and another were blurred in those days of the Popular Front.

What is interesting for purposes of this study is that the Selection Committee of the Left Book Club was controlled by three well-known members of the Fabian Executive. They were Victor Gollancz, publisher of Left Books who also published Left News and the Fabian News; Professor Harold Laski of the London School of Economics, who from 1946 to 1948 was chairman of the Fabian Society and in 1945 served as chairman of the Labour Party; and John Strachey, a frequent Labour Member of Parliament who became Minister of Food and Supply in the post-World War II Labour Government.

Concerning Strachey, the admiring Left News for March, 1938, wrote, “In American newspaper jargon John Strachey would be described as ‘Marxist No. 1′ and the title would be deserved.” His claim to that title might well have been challenged by Professor Harold Laski, whose revolutionary influence on the youth of many nations has proved so decisive a factor in our times. Laski is quoted by his personal friend and biographer, Fabian and late New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin, as saying to a questioner at one of his lectures: “My friend, we are both Marxists—you in your way and I in Marx’s!”

Both the late John Strachey and Professor Laski had occasion to deny under oath that they ever held membership in the Communist Party, and it may be inferred they spoke the truth. Such a technicality as a party card would merely have restricted the broad range of their privileged activities. When asked by a reporter for The New York Times (10) whether he preferred Socialism or Communism, Fabian John Strachey replied, “Like all Socialists, I believe that the Socialist Society evolves in time into the Communist society.” With this statement —which was echoed in 1962 by the American Communist, Gus Hall— most Fabians would feel compelled to agree.

Closely linked with the Left Book Club was a still more impudent contrivance known as the Christian Book Club, whose sole publisher was Fabian Victor Gollancz. Its general editor was the Dean of Canterbury, Dr. Hewlett Johnson, often referred to as the “Red Dean.” The first book this Club recommended for Christian readers was Soviet Socialism, A New Civilisation, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb—the same work which had been prepared with the aid of the Soviet Secret Police and which announced the Soviets’ fabled policy of tolerance towards religion. Members of the so-called Christian Book Club were also privileged to purchase virtually the whole list of the Left Book Club selections at the reduced prices.

The inference seemed to be that, since Christians were not overly bright, they could easily be led down the garden path to Socialism by a false appeal to ideals of brotherhood and social justice. In the Fabian Socialist movement, as in Soviet Marxism, there was always a strong element of political messianism, diametrically opposed to the religious messianism of One who proclaimed: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Both Socialist and Communist literature stressed the supposedly communal character of early Christianity, undetectable to anyone familiar with the Epistles of St. Paul. Revolutionary Marxism, open or disguised, was presented as being the “Christianity of today.” Voluntary charity and renunciation of one’s own goods were confused with the forcible confiscation of other people’s property, as illustrated in the phrase of John Maynard Keynes, “the euthanasia of the rentier,” that is, the mercy-killing or painless extinction of those who live on income from invested capital.

From the beginning, the personal coolness of many Fabian leaders towards religion—ranging from polite agnosticism to the frank atheism of Shaw and Laski and the amorality of a Bertrand Russell—had been balanced by their far from indifferent attitude towards the religious-minded electorate. To churchgoers among the voting population, Sidney Webb had reasoned shrewdly, Socialist goals must be presented cautiously—in terms that did not appear to conflict with their religious beliefs. (11) Thus, Fabian News recorded that from 1891 to 1903 one Bruce Wallace, an honorary Minister of a Congregational Church, held a conference every Sunday afternoon, and after a fifteen-minute prayer service a Fabian lecturer spoke at considerably greater length. From chat day to this, a good many nonconformist ministers of the Gospel have deserted their pulpits to pursue political careers under the auspices of the Fabian Society, one of the most notable being Arthur Henderson who negotiated Britain’s recognition of Soviet Russia.

It was not accidental that the endless series of pamphlets launched by the Fabian Society were piously called “tracts,” like the earlier publications of the “Christian Socialists” in England. With the formation of the Labour Party, even Catholic workingmen could vote for Socialist programs without subscribing directly to a Socialist philosophy. Catholic Members of Parliament on the Labour benches were permitted to “vote their conscience” on such matters as birth control and aid to Catholic schools, which to most Fabians seemed of minor importance. Though the Fabian Graham Wallas differed with Webb on the school issue and found an early audience for his views in the United States, Sidney Webb and his successors were understandably reluctant to provoke any controversy chat might block their route to power by popular consent.

In this connection, however, it must be emphasized that Karl Marx is the natural father of all modern Social Democracy, not excluding those groups which for reasons of propriety choose to deny or dissemble the relationship. As the writings of Marx disclose, that herald of “the new social order” hated all religions with impartial fervor. Marx visualized the Class War—since his time a basic concept in both Socialist and Communist philosophy—as being essentially an inverted crusade against the Deity whose existence he denied. Non serviam (“I will not serve”), the phrase of Lucifer before the Fall, is innate in the dogmas of Marx.

The blasphemous slogan, “Religion is the opium of the people,” was emblazoned for years on a billboard overlooking Red Square. A fellow Georgian and boon companion of Stalin, Orjonokidze, headed the official Soviet Society of the Godless and fomented militant action against religion at home and abroad. Until his death he was a member of the Politburo, superior organ of Soviet policies which Christian Book Club readers in Britain were invited to approve.

Napoleon Bonaparte, product of an earlier revolution, reached somewhat different conclusions on the subject of religious faith. “Without religion, France would be a nation of highwaymen,” remarked Napoleon, who had retained few illusions about the perfectibility of human nature by government decree. Not yet arrived at chat pinnacle of power, the Fabian Society viewed religion less from the angle of the Public Prosecutor and more from the standpoint of the aspiring politician and social propagandist. For the most part its spokesmen prudently avoided outraging the beliefs of religious-minded persons, while soliciting their support for Socialist candidates and projects. The Christian Book Club was a unique but significant venture for which the Society, as usual, disclaimed any official responsibility.

The vogue of the Left Book and Christian Book Clubs in Great Britain declined with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which plunged the world into war and ended the diversions of the Popular Front. More exacting tasks lay ahead for the Fabians, who organized, planned and plotted unceasingly during the whole of World War II to put a Labour Party Government into office at war’s end with Fabian Socialists at the helm. Harold Laski’s death a few years after the war was ascribed by his biographer, Kingsley Martin, to the fatigue induced by his intensive non-combat activities in a war-time era of political truce.


1. “Election Guide,” Socialist Commentary (October, 1964), p. 20.

2. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation (London, The Fabian Society and Allen and Unwin, 1923), p. 177.

3. C. Delisle Burns, A Short History of the World, 1918-1928 (New York, Payson and Clark, 1928), pp. 186-188.

4. Henry Slesser, Judgment Reserved (London, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1941), pp. 96-98.

5. Margaret Cole, Beatrice Webb (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1946), p. 157.

6. Fabian News (July 1929).

7. Fabian Quarterly (Summer, 1948), p. 23.

8. M. P. McCarran, Fabianism in the Political Life of Britain (Chicago, Heritage Foundation, 1954), p. 439.

9. Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (London, Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd., 1961), p. 277.

10. The New York Times (October 11, 1938).

11. Bernard Shaw, “Report on Fabian Policy,” Fabian Tract No. 70, 1896. “The Fabian Society endeavors to pursue its Socialist and Democratic objects with complete singleness of aim. For example: it has no distinctive opinions on the Marriage Question, Religion, Art, Abstract Economics, Historic Evolution, Currency or any other subject than its own special business of practical Democracy and Socialism.”

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