Tuesday 12 May 2009

A very Fabian start to the week

"Peter Hitchens, the conservative journalist, will analyse what he feels is the collapse of proper adversarial debate in Britain around a soft Fabian socialist consensus. But hasn't it always been this way? Fabians and the curdling of idealism feature in AS Byatt's epic new novel about the Edwardians, the Children's Book", said Andrew Marr introducing an episode of Start the Week yesterday morning which revolved around the influence of Fabianism past and present.

"My Fabians don't cause damage by being Fabians", said Byatt, they some did damage by appropriating their children's imaginations and by not having any sense that the Great War was around the corner. (A collection of reviews of the book can be found at the Complete Review).

This was Peter Hitchens on the Byatt book:

"I love the Fabians in a way. [laughter] I think this era is one of the most fascinating. And in fact to live within it for a week, as one does when one reads this very captivating book, is a pleasure as well as an enlightenment. But the problem of the Fabians is that they were a microcosm of the society we have now. They did things in private which we all now do in public. And I think they promoted that. And obviously the need for social reform and doing something about the horrible poverty at the time was blatantly necessary: there was no doubt that something had to be done about that.

But I think any Fabian resurrected now, looking seriously at the outcome of what they did and the social reforms which they pursued over the next seventy or eighty years - And they were I think the most effective political movement in human history must admit there were a huge number of unintended consequences which were very painful indeed, and which need to be reexamined. And the trouble is that their modern successors will not admit this"

Andrew Marr mentioned the next generation - the Bloomsbury Group - having an elite view that they could do what others should not to which AS Byatt responded:

This is where I come out in favour of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who did have an imagination of what it was like to be a working man with a broken back, and against the Bloomsburys, who I think were self-indulgent in exactly the way you describe, and begot children who they did not bother to tell them who their parents were in exactly that irresponsible way ... I don't people like the Webbs were indulged middle-class; their problem was other. They came out in favour of Stalin".

Hitchens went on to link this to his new book The Broken Compass about his view that Fabianism has become the dominant social ideology across all political parties:

They themselves set out to do so. It was their stated purpose to become the dominant ideology in all political parties, and in the civil service and the academy as they wanted to do. And to achieve the immense changes that they wanted to entirely by peaceful means, holding back and delaying when necessary, that is the reason for their success. And if you look at the political parties we have now, the ideas which are generally accepted are ones which would be entirely familair to Antonia Byatt's characters and indeed are prefigurued in everything that they do and the movements which they espoused - from Edward Carpenter's liberation of homosexuality to the social welfare programmes to the remoralisation of society into something wholly different: all these ideas are theirs, and I think they arose in part from the general collapse of Anglican Christianity among English intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century and even more before the first world war.

AS Byatt questioned the idea that the 1960s were the logical extension of the Fabian tradition, arguing they were the "anything goes" opposite which had destroyed the virtues of the Fabian tradition "to go along quietly, ameliorating slowly".

Another guests were David Akinsanya Richard Overy linked through the inter-war years, Bryan Appleyard wrote an interesting feature on Overy's new book 'The Morbid Age' in the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

The panel got onto the politics of sandals and much else.

You can listen again on the Start the Week website: the 11th May edition.


Zio Bastone said...

Resurrection or time travel conceits of Mr Hitchens’ sort typically assume that the Past is some sort of prequel to the Present. As though the Past ate too many cakes and now the Present just feels queasy. Or, in its more utopic version, as though the anti slavery movement were all a great preparation for the admission of Mr Obama to the White House. This is terribly reductive.

And in any case it doesn’t work that way. The Past was itself once the Present, in which opposition to, and attempts at removal and/or destruction of what is there, play at least as big a part as the construction of what is to come. Societies re-create themselves at least as much through the conservative denaturing and absorption of attempts at radical change by those already in power, in other words, ie through innovation, as by the proponents of change somehow seizing the microphone, or grabbing the levers of power, whereby History can be made. Change, in other words, is (ontologically, conceptually) in opposition. And generally it remains there in practice, on the wrong side of the mike.

Were the early Fabians in fact to step off the Tardis they would, I suspect, be shocked to the quick by matters that were not even part of their agenda at the time.

Stuart White said...

The word 'Fabianism' here (in Hitchens's analysis) seems to be standing in for some general notion of middle-class progressivism. When things are defined so broadly to start with, its hard to know where to start with a response. If various Fabians of the past came back to the UK today, they would doubtless find different things to be concerned about.