The Great Liberal Death Wish
INTRODUCTION TO THE FABIAN SOCIETY
The Fabian Society began as an English organisation founded in
1884. It is named after a thlrd-century Roman General, Quintüs
Fabius Maximus, who successfully defeated Hannibal.
The Fabians discovered the secret of the general's strategy:
never confront the enemy directly in the open battlefield, but defeat
him gradually through a series of small battles, running after each
successful foray. Fabius was a successful guerilla fighter using the
simple strategy of patient gradualism. He knew that he couldn't
defeat the mighty armies of Hannibal with an open confrontation
because his armies were outnumbered. He never confronted his
This is the strategy adopted by the Fabian Society. They
decided that the forces of the free-enterprise system have a superior
philosophy and that their strategy must never be to confront the
free-enterprise system head on. They must be content with a series
of small victories, the lump sum of which will be a rather stunning
victory and the ultimate triumph of Socialism.
Their original symbol was a tortoise, symbolizing the slow,
gradual progress of that animal, but this symbol was later changed to
that of a wolf in sheep's clothing which George Bernard Shaw (a
member of the Fabian Society) had suggested was more appropriate
than the tortoise as a heraldic device for the Fabian Society.
The philosophy of the Society was written in 1887 and each
member is obliged to support it. It reads:
"It (The Fabian Society) therefore aims at the reorganisation
of society by the emancipation of land and Industrial Capital from
individual and class ownership...
"The Society accordingly works for the extinction of private
property in land..."
The Fabian Society acknowledges the principle tenet of
Marxism: the abolition of private property, in this case, the right to
own land. They then align themselves with the non-violent arm of
Marxism by accepting the non-violent road of patient gradualism to
The entire strategy was detailed by H. G. Wells, the noted
science fiction writer, also a member of the Fabian Society, who wrote:
“It [will be) left chiefly to the little group of English people
who founded Fabian Socialism to supply a third system of ideas to the
amplifying conception of Socialism, to convert revolutionary Socialism
to Administrative Socialism. Socialism [will cease) to be an open
revolution and will become a plot."
George Orwell, also a member of the Fabian Society, in his
novel entitled '1984', had his character O'Brien say: "We know that
no one seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is
not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in
order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to
establish a dictatorship.
* * * * * * * * * * *
THE GREAT LIBERAL DEATH WISH
by Malcolm Muggeridge
Malcolm Muggeridge [was] quite simply one of the most delightful,
articulate, brilliant thinkers in the world. His career has included
journalist and Moscow correspondents for the Manchester
Guardian; agent for British Intelligence in Africa during World
War II; Liaison Officer with the Free French; Deputy Editor of the
Daily Telegraph; Editor of Punch; and Book Reviewer for Esquire.
Mr. Muggeridge has completed two volumes of his memoirs
entitled Chronicles of Wasted Time; the third volume is nearing
completion. In addition to several anthologies of his own writings,
he is a published novelist and playwright. His television career
began when television began, and has continued in the United
States, the United Kingdom and throughout the English-speaking
world. In England he has worked extensively with the B.B.C. He
has starred in countless documentary films and in a weekly
discussion series that was immensely popular.
Mr. Muggeridge delivered this presentation at Hillsdale College,
Hillsdale, Michigan during a Center for Constructive Alternatives
seminar in April, 1979 and is reproduced from the May, 1979 issue
of their publication Imprimas by permission.
First printing 1979.
Published by The Australian League of Rights, Box 1052 GPO, Melbourne Victoria 3001.
THE GREAT LIBERAL DEATH WISH
by Malcolm Muggeridge
"The Great Liberal Death Wish" is a subject that I've
given a lot of thought to and have written about, and it would
be easy for me to read to you a long piece that I've written on
the subject. But somehow in the atmosphere of this delightful college, I want to have a shot at just talking about this notion
of the great liberal death wish as it has arisen in my life, as
I've seen it, and the deductions I've made from it. I should
also plead guilty to being responsible for the general heading
of these lectures, namely, "The Humane Holocaust: The
Later on I want to say something about all this, showing
how this humane holocaust, this dreadful slaughter that began
with 50 million babies last year, will undoubtedly be extended to the senile old and the mentally afflicted and mongoloid
children, and so on, because of the large amount of money
that maintaining them costs. It is all the more ironical when
one thinks about the holocaust western audiences, and the
German population in particular, have been shuddering over,
as it has been presented on their TV and cinema screens.
Note this compassionate or humane holocaust, if, as I fear, it
gains momentum, will quite put that other in the shade. And,
as I shall try to explain, what is even more ironical the actual
considerations that led to the German holocaust were not, as
is commonly suggested, due to Nazi terrorism, but were based upon the sort of legislation that advocates of euthanasia,
or "mercy killing," in this country and in western Europe,
are trying to get enacted.
It's not true that the German
holocaust was simply a war crime, as it was judged to be at
Nuremberg. In point of fact, it was based upon a perfectly
coherent, legally enacted decree approved and operated by
the German medical profession before the Nazis took over
power. In other words, from the point of view of the Guinness Book of Records you can say that in our mad world
it takes about thirty years to transform a war crime into a
But I'm going to deal with that later. I want first of all to
look at this question of the great liberal death wish. And I
was very delighted that you should have got here for this
CCA program the film on Dostoevsky for which I did the commentary because his novel The Devils1 is the most
extraordinary piece of prophecy about this great liberal death
wish. All the characters in it, the circumstances of it,
irresistibly recall what we mean by the great liberal death wish.
You cannot imagine what a strange experience it was
doing that filming in the USSR. I quoted extensively from the
speech that Dostoevsky delivered when the Pushkin Memorial
was unveiled in Moscow, and his words were considered to
be, in terms of then current ideologies, about the most
reactionary words ever spoken. They amounted to a tremendous onslaught on this very thing that we're talking about,
this great liberal death wish, as it existed in Russia in the
latter part of the last century.
The characters in the book
match very well the cast of the liberal death wish in our
society and in our time. You even have the interesting fact
that the old liberal, Stephan Trofimovich Verkovensky, who
is a sort of male impersonator of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt,
with all the sentimental notions that go therewith, is the father
of Peter Verkovensky, a Baader Meinhof character, based on
a Russian nihilist of Dostoevsky's time, Sergey Nechayef.
me, it's one of the most extraordinary pieces of modern prophecy that has ever been. Especially when Peter Verkovensky says, as he does, that what we need are a few
generations of debauchery - debauchery at its most vicious and most horrible - followed by a little sweet bloodletting,
and then the turmoil will begin. I put it to you that this bears
a rather uneasy resemblance to the sort of thing that is
happening at this moment in the western world.
Now I want to throw my mind back to my childhood, to
the sitting room in the little suburban house in south London
where I grew up. On Saturday evenings my father and his
cronies would assemble there, and they would plan together the downfall of the capitalist system and the replacement of it
by one which was just and humane and egalitarian and
These were my first memories of a serious
conversation about our circumstances in the world.
I used to
hide in a big chair and hope not to be noticed, because I was
And I accepted completely the views of these
good men, that once they were able to shape the world as
they wanted it to be, they would create a perfect state of
affairs in which peace would reign, prosperity would expand, men would be brotherly, and considerate, and there would be
no exploitation of man by man, nor any ruthless oppression
of individuals. And I firmly believed that, once their plans
were fulfilled, we would realize an idyllic state of affairs of
such a nature. They were good men, they were honest men,
they were sincere men. Unlike their prototypes on the
continent of Europe, they were men from the chapels. It was
a sort of spill-over from the practice of nonconformist Christianity, not a brutal ideology, and I was entirely convinced
that such a brotherly, contented, loving society would come
to pass once they were able to establish themselves in power.
My father used to speak a lot at open air meetings, and
when I was very small I used to follow him around because I
adored him, as I still do. He was a very wonderful and good
man. He'd had a very harsh upbringing himself, and this was
his dream of how you could transform human society so that
human beings, instead of maltreating one another and exploiting one another, would be like brothers. I remember he used
to make quite good jokes at these outdoor meetings when we
had set up our little platform, and a few small children and
one or two passers-by had gathered briefly to listen. One joke
I particularly appreciated and used to wait for even though I
had heard a hundred times ran like this: "Well ladies and
gentlemen," my father would begin, "you tell me one thing.
Why is it that it is his majesty's navy and his majesty's
stationery office and his majesty's customs but it's the
national debt? Why isn't the debt his majesty's?" It always
brought the house down.
Such was my baptism into the notion of a kingdom of
heaven on earth, into what I was going to understand
ultimately to be the great liberal death wish. Inevitably, my
father's heroes were the great intellectuals of the time, who banded themselves together in what was called the Fabian
Society, of which he was a member - a very active member.
For instance, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Harold Laski,
people of that sort. All the leftist elite, like Sydney and
Beatrice Webb, belonged to this Fabian Society, and in my
father's eyes they were princes among men. I accepted his
Once I had a slight shock when he took me to a meeting of
the Fabian Society where H. G. Wells was speaking, and I
can remember vividly his high squeaky voice as he said - and
it stuck in my mind long afterward - "We haven't got time to
read the Bible. We haven't got time to read the history of this
obscure nomadic tribe in the Middle East." Subsequently,
when I learned of the things that Wells had got time for, the
observation broke upon me in all its richness.
Anyway, that for me was how my impressions of life
began. I was sent to Cambridge University, which of course
in those days consisted very largely of boys from what we
call public schools, and you call private schools. Altogether,
it was for me a quite different sort of milieu, where the word
socialist in those days - this was in 1920 when I went to
Cambridge at 17 - was almost unknown. We who had been to
a government secondary school and then to Cambridge were
regarded as an extraordinary and rather distasteful phenomenon.
But my views about how the world was going to be made
better remained firmly entrenched in the talk of my father and
his cronies. Of course, in the meantime had come the First
World War, to be followed by an almost insane outburst of
expectations that henceforth peace would prevail in the world,
that we would have a League of Nations to ensure that there
would be no more wars, and gradually everybody would get
more prosperous and everything would be better and better.
That rather lugubrious figure Woodrow Wilson arrived on the
scene, to be treated with the utmost veneration. I can see him
now, lantern-jawed, wearing his tall hat - somehow for me he
didn't fill the bill of a knight in shining armour who was going
to lead us to everlasting peace. Somehow the flavour of
Princeton about him detracted from that picture, but still I
accepted him as an awesome figure.
My time at Cambridge was a rather desolate time. I never
much enjoyed being educated, and have continued to believe
that education is a rather overrated experience. Perhaps this
isn't the most suitable place in the world to say that, but such
is my opinion. I think that it is part of the liberal dream that
somehow or other - and it was certainly my father's view -
people, in becoming educated, instead of on Sundays racing
their dogs or studying racing forms, or anything like that,
would take to singing madrigals or reading Paradise Lost aloud. This is another dream that didn't quite come true.
Anyway, from Cambridge I went off to India, to teach at a
Christian college there, and I must say it was an extremely
agreeable experience. The college was in a remote part of
what was then Travancore, but is now Kerala. It was not one
of the missionary colleges, but associated with the indigenous
Syrian Church, which you may know is a very ancient
church, dating back to the fourth century, and now there are a
million or more Syrian Christians. In its way it was quite an
idyllic existence, but of course one came up against naked
power for the first time.
I had never thought of power before
as something separate from the rest of life. But in India,
under the British raj, with a relatively few white men ruling
over three or four hundred million Indians, I came face to
face with power unrelated to elections or any other representative device in the great liberal dream that became the great
liberal death wish.
However, it was a pleasant time, and of
course the Indian nationalist movement was beginning, and
Ghandi came to the college where I was teaching. This
extraordinary little gargoyle of a man appeared, and held
forth, and everybody got tremendously excited, and shouted
against Imperialism, and the Empire in which at that time the
great majority of the British people firmly believed, and
which they thought would continue forever.
If you ventured
to say, as I did on the boat going to India, that it might come
to an end before long, they laughed you to scorn, being
firmly convinced that God had decided that the British should
rule over a quarter of the world, and that nothing could ever
change this state of affairs. Which again opened up a new
vista about what this business of power signified, and how it
worked, not as a theory, but in practice. We used to boast in
those days that we had an Empire on which the sun never set,
and now we have a commonwealth on which it never rises,
and I can't quite say which concept strikes me as being the
That was India, and then I came back to England and for a
time taught in an elementary school in Birmingham, and
married my wife Kitty. (I wish she were here today because
she's very nice. We've been married now for 51 years, so I
am entitled to speak well of her.) She was the niece of
Beatrice and Sydney Webb, so it was like marrying into a
sort of aristocracy of the Left. After our wedding, we went
off to Egypt, where I taught at the University of Cairo, and it
was there that the dreadful infection of journalism got into my
Turning aside from the honourable occupation of
teaching, I started writing articles about the wrongs of the
Egyptian people, how they were clamouring, and rightly so,
for a democratic setup, and how they would never be satisfied
with less than one man one vote and all that went therewith. I
never heard any Egyptian say that this was his position, but I
used to watch those old pashas in Groppi's cafe smoking
their hubble-bubble pipes, and imagined that under their
tabooshes was a strong feeling that they would never for an
instant countenance anything less than full representative
That at least was what I wrote in my articles,
and they went flying over to England, and, like homing
pigeons, in through the windows of the Guardian office in Manchester, at that time a high citadel of liberalism. That
was where the truth was being expounded, that was where
enlightenment reigned. In due course I was asked to join the
editorial staff of the Guardian, which to me was a most
marvellous thing. I may say that the work of teaching at Cairo
University was not an arduous job, essentially for three
reasons. One was that the students didn't understand English;
the second that they were nearly always on strike or otherwise
engaged in political demonstrations, and thirdly they were
often stupefied with hashish. So I had a lot of leisure on my
Incidentally, to be serious for a moment, it seems to me a
most extraordinary thing that at that time you wouldn't have
found anybody, Egyptian or English or anybody else, who
wasn't absolutely clear in his mind that hashish was a most
appalling and disastrous addiction. So you can imagine how
strange it was forty years later for me to hear life peeresses
and people like that insisting that hashish didn't do any harm
to anybody, and was even beneficial. I see that in Canada it is
going to be legalized, which will mean one more sad,
unnecessary hazard comes into our world.
Anyway, these were the golden days of liberalism when
the Manchester Guardian was widely read, and even believed.
Despite all its misprints, you could make out roughly speaking what it was saying, and what we typed out was quite
likely, to our great satisfaction, to be quoted in some paper in
Baghdad or Smyrna as being the opinion of our very
influential organ of enlightened liberalism.
I remember my
first day I was there, and somehow it symbolizes the whole
experience. I was asked, to write a leader - a short leader of
about 120 words - on corporal punishment. At some head-masters' conference, it seemed, words had been spoken about
corporal punishment and I was to produce appropriate comment. So I put my head into the room next to mine, and
asked the man who was working there: "What's our line on
corporal punishment?" Without looking up from his type-writer, he replied: "The same as capital, only more so." So
I knew exactly what to tap out, you see.
That was how I got
into the shocking habit of pontificating about what was going
on in the world; observing that the Greeks did not seem to
want an orderly government, or that one despaired sometimes
of the Irish having any concern for law and order; weighty
pronouncement tapped out on a typewriter, deriving from
nowhere, and for all one knew, concerning no one.
We were required to end anything we wrote on a hopeful
note, because liberalism is a hopeful creed. And so, however
appalling and black the situation that we described, we would
always conclude with some sentence like: "It is greatly to be
hoped that moderate men of all shades of opinion will draw
together, and that wiser councils may yet prevail." How
many times I gave expression to such jejune hopes!
soon grew weary of this, because it seemed to me that
immoderate men were rather strongly in evidence, and I
couldn't see that wiser councils were prevailing anywhere.
The depression was on by that time, I'm talking now of 1932-33. It was on especially in Lancashire, and it seemed as
though our whole way of life was cracking up, and, of
course, I looked across at the USSR with a sort of longing,
thinking that there was an alternative, some other way in
which people could live, and I managed to manoeuvre matters
so that I was sent to Moscow as the Guardian correspondent,
arriving there fully prepared to see in the Soviet regime the
answer to all our troubles, only to discover in a very short
time that though it might be an answer, it was a very
It's difficult to convey to you what a shock this was,
realizing that what I had supposed to be the new brotherly
way of life my father and his cronies had imagined long
before, was simply on examination an appalling tyranny, in
which the only thing that mattered, the only reality, was
power. So again, like the British raj, in the USSR I was
confronted with power as the absolute and ultimate arbiter.
However, that was a thing that one could take in one's stride.
How I first came to conceive the notion of the great liberal
death wish was not at all in consequence of what was
happening in the USSR, which, as I came to reflect afterward, was simply the famous lines in the Magnificat working
out, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath
exalted the humble and meek," whereupon, of course, the
humble and meek become mighty in their turn and have to be
put down. That was just history, something that happens in
the world; people achieve power, exercise power, abuse
power, are booted out of power, and then it all begins again.
The thing that impressed me, and the thing that touched off
my awareness of the great liberal death wish, my sense that
western man was, as it were, sleep-walking into his own ruin,
was the extraordinary performance of the liberal intelligentsia,
who, in those days, flocked to Moscow like pilgrims to Mecca.
And they were one and all utterly delighted and excited by
what they saw there. Clergymen walked serenely and happily
through the anti-god museums, politicians claimed that no
system of society could possibly be more equitable and just,
lawyers admired Soviet justice, and economists praised the
They all wrote articles in this sense which
we resident journalists knew were completely nonsensical.
It's impossible to exaggerate to you the impression that this
made on me. Mrs. Webb had said to Kitty and me: "You'll find that in the USSR Sydney and I are icons."
As a matter
of fact they were, Marxist icons.
How could this be? How could this extraordinary credulity
exist in the minds of people who were adulated by one and all
as maestros of discernment and judgment? It was from that moment that I began to get the feeling that a liberal view of
life was not what I'd supposed it to be - a creative movement
which would shape the future - but rather a sort of death
wish. How otherwise could you explain how people, in their
own country ardent for equality, bitter opponents of capital
punishment and all for more humane treatment of people in
prison, supporters, in fact, of every good cause, should in the
USSR prostrate themselves before a regime ruled over brutally and oppressively and arbitrarily by a privileged party
I still ponder over the mystery of how men
displaying critical intelligence in other fields could be so
astonishingly deluded. I tell you, if ever you are looking for a
good subject for a thesis, you could get a very fine one out of
a study of the books that were written by people like the Dean
of Canterbury, Julian Huxley, Harold Laski, Bernard Shaw,
or the Webbs about the Soviet regime. In the process you
would come upon a compendium of fatuity such as has
seldom, if ever, existed on earth. And I would really
recommend it; after all, the people who wrote these books
were, and continue to be regarded as, pundits, whose words
must be very, very seriously heeded and considered.
I recall in their yellow jackets a famous collection in
England called the Left Book Club. You would be amazed at
the gullibility that's expressed. We foreign journalists in
Moscow used to amuse ourselves, as a matter of fact, by
competing with one another as to who could wish upon one
of these intelligentsia visitors to the USSR the most outrageous fantasy. We would tell them, for instance, that the
shortage of milk in Moscow was entirely due to the fact that
all milk was given nursing mothers - things like that. If they
put it in the articles they subsequently wrote, then you'd
score a point.
One story I floated myself, for which I received
considerable acclaim, was that the huge queues outside food shops came about because the Soviet workers were so ardent
in building Socialism that they just wouldn't rest, and the
only way the government could get them to rest for even two
or three hours was organizing a queue for them to stand in. I
laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a
shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought
up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute
elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by
deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an
instant. I never got over that; it always remained in my mind
as something that could never be erased. I could never
henceforth regard the intelligentsia as other than credulous
fools who nonetheless became the media's prophetic voices,
their heirs and successors remaining so still. That's when I
began to think seriously about the great liberal death wish.
In due course, I came back to England to await the Second
World War, in the course of which I found myself engaged in
Intelligence duties. And let me tell you that if there is one
thing more fantastical than news, it is Intelligence. News
itself is a sort of fantasy; and when you actually go collecting
news, you realize that this is so. In a certain sense, you create
news; you dream news up yourself and then send it. But
that's nothing to the fantasy of Intelligence. Of the two, I
would say that news seems really quite a sober and considered commodity compared with your offerings when you're
an Intelligence agent.
Anyway, when in 1945 I found myself a civilian again, I
tried to sort out my thoughts about the great wave of
optimism that followed the Second World War - for me, a
repeat performance. It was then that I came to realize how, in
the name of progress and compassion, the most terrible things were going to be done, preparing the way for the great
humane holocaust, about which I have spoken. There was, it
seemed to me, a built in propensity in this liberal world - view whereby the opposite of what was intended came to pass.
Take the case of education. Education was the great mumbo-jumbo of progress, the assumption being that educating
people would make them grow better and better, more and
more objective and intelligent. Actually, as more and more
money is spent on education, illiteracy is increasing. And I
wouldn't be at all surprised if it didn't end up with virtually
the whole revenue of the western countries being spent on
education, and a condition of almost total illiteracy resulting
there from. It's quite on the cards.
Now I want to try to get to grips with this strange state of
affairs. Let's look again at the humane holocaust. What
happened in Germany was that long before the Nazis got into
power, a great propaganda was undertaken to sterilize people
who were considered to be useless or a liability to society,
and after that to introduce what they called "mercy killing."
This happened long before the Nazis set up their extermination camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere, and was based upon
the highest humanitarian considerations. You see what I'm
getting at? On a basis of liberal-humanism, there is no
creature in the universe greater than man, and the future of
the human race rests only with human beings themselves,
which leads infallibly to some sort of suicidal situation. It's to
me quite clear that that is so, the evidence is on every hand.
The efforts that men make to bring about their own happiness, their own ease of life, their own self-indulgence, will in
due course produce the opposite, leading me to the absolutely inescapable conclusion that human beings cannot live and
operate in this world without some concept of a being greater
than themselves, and of a purpose which transcends their own
egotistic or greedy desires.
Once you eliminate the notion of
a God, a creator, once you eliminate the notion that the
creator has a purpose for us, and that life consists essentially
in fulfilling that purpose, then you are bound, as Pascal
points out, to induce the megalomania of which we've seen
so many manifestations in our time - in the crazy dictators, as
in the lunacies of people who are rich, or who consider themselves to be important or celebrated in the western
Alternatively, human beings relapse into mere carnality, into being animals. I see this process going on irresistibly, of which the holocaust is only just one example. If you
envisage men as being only men, you are bound to see human
society, not in Christian terms as a family, but as a factory-farm in which the only consideration that matters is the well-
being of the livestock and the prosperity or productivity of the
enterprise. That's where you land yourself. And it is in that
situation that western man is increasingly finding himself.
This might seem to be a despairing conclusion, but it isn't,
you know, actually. First of all, the fact that we can't work
out the liberal dream in practical terms is not bad news, but
good news. Because if you could work it out, life would be
too banal, too tenth-rate to be worth bothering about. Apart
from that, we have been given the most extraordinary sign of
the truth of things, which I continually find myself thinking
about. This is that the most perfect and beautiful expressions
of man's spiritual aspirations come, not from the liberal
dream in any of its manifestations, but from people in the
forced labour camps of the USSR. And this is, the most
extraordinary phenomenon, and one that of course receives
absolutely no attention in the media. From the media point of
view it's not news, and in any case the media do not want to
know about it. But this is the fact for which there is a
growing amount of evidence.
I was reading about it in a long
essay by a Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov,2 who spent
some years in a prison in Yugoslavia. He cites case after
case of people who, like Solzhenitsyn, say that enlightenment
came to them in the forced labour camps. They understood
what freedom was when they had lost their freedom, they
understood what the purpose of life was when they seemed to
have no future. They say, moreover, that when it's a question
of choosing whether to save your soul or your body, the man
who chooses to save his soul gathers strength thereby to go
on living, whereas the man who chooses to save his body at
the expense of his soul loses both body and soul.
words, fulfilling exactly what our Lord said, that he who
hates his life in this world shall keep his life for all eternity,
as those who love their lives in this world will assuredly lose
them. Now, that's where I see the light in our darkness.
There's an image I love - if the whole world were to be
covered with concrete, there still would be some cracks in it,
and through these cracks green shoots would come. The
testimonies from the labour camps are the green shoots we can
see in the world, breaking out from the monolithic power
now dominating ever greater areas of it. In contradistinction,
this is the liberal death wish, holding out the fallacious and
ultimately destructive hope that we can construct a happy,
fulfilled life in terms of our physical and material needs,
and in the moral and intellectual dimensions of our mortality.
I feel so strongly at the end of my life that nothing can
happen to us in any circumstances that is not part of God's
purpose for us. Therefore, we have nothing to fear, nothing
to worry about, except that we should rebel against His
purpose, that we should fail to detect it and fail to establish
some sort of relationship with Him and His divine will. On
that basis, there can be no black despair, no throwing in of
our hand. We can watch the institutions and social structures
of our time collapse - and I think you who are young are
fated to watch them collapse - and we can reckon with what
seems like an irresistibly growing power of materialism and
materialist societies. But, it will not happen that that is the
end of the story.
As St. Augustine said - and I love to think
of it when he received the news in Carthage that Rome had
been sacked: Well, if that's happened, it's a great catastrophe, but we must never forget that the earthly cities that
men build they destroy, but there is also the City of God
which men didn't build and can't destroy. And he devoted the
next seventeen years of his life to working out the relationship between the earthly city and the City of God - the
earthly city where we live for a short time, and the City of
God whose citizens we are for all eternity.
You know, it's a funny thing, but when you're old, as I
am, there are all sorts of extremely pleasant things that
happen to you. One of them is, you realize that history is
nonsense, but I won't go into that now. The pleasantest thing
of all is that you wake up in the night at about, say, three
am, and you find that you are half in and half out of your
battered old carcass. And it seems quite a toss-up whether
you go back and resume full occupancy of your mortal body,
or make off toward the bright glow you see in the sky, the
lights of the City of God.
In this limbo between life and
death, you know beyond any shadow of doubt that, as an
infinitesimal particle of God's creation, you are a participant
in God's purpose for His creation, and that that purpose is
loving and not hating, is creative and not destructive, is
everlasting and not temporal, is universal and not particular.
With this certainty comes an extraordinary sense of comfort
Nothing that happens in this world need shake that feeling;
all the happenings in this world, including the most terrible
disasters and suffering, will be seen in eternity as in some
mysterious way a blessing, as a part of God's love. We
ourselves are part of that love, we belong to that scene, and
only in so far as we belong to that scene does our existence
here have any reality or any worth.
All the rest is fantasy -
whether the fantasy of power which we see in the authoritarian states around us, or the fantasy of the great liberal
death wish in terms of affluence and self-indulgence.
essential feature, and necessity of life is to know reality, which
means knowing God. Otherwise our mortal existence is, as
Saint Teresa of Avila said, no more than a night in a second-class hotel.
1. Sometimes translated as The Possessed.
2. “Mystical Experience of the Labour Camps," included in his excellent book
SPEECH BY THE PRIME MINISTER
HON. R. (Bob) J. HAWKE
TO THE FABIAN SOCIETY CENTENARY DINNER
MELBOURNE, 18TH MAY 1984
For any association or secular institution to reach its first century
is noteworthy and, in our times, remarkable enough in itself. That
alone would be sufficient reason for us to join together tonight in this
celebration of the centenary of the Fabian Society, brought into
formal existence in London a hundred years ago this month. And,
incidentally, I trust it will be noted in the appropriate quarters that
those of us here tonight associated with the Australian Labor Party
and the Australian Labor Government have been so far able to
overcome our notorious prejudices as to celebrate a British institution
- indeed in many respects a quintessential British institution.
But seriously, I invite you all to consider the wider and deeper
significance of this achievement - because it goes far beyond the
Fabian Society's mere survival in the technical and temporal sense.
For tonight we are marking the centenary of a Society and an idea
which, of its very nature, could not at its birth be thought to have had
the chance of survival at all - much less survive into the very end of
the 20th century.
For this was, and is, that most difficult things of all to maintain
- a POLITICAL association. It was founded as, and remains, a
purely voluntary association of like-minded men and women, bound
by no dogma or creed or fixed body of doctrine. Unable to offer its
members inducement or rewards, or to impose discipline or enforce
rules; an association based entirely on moral and intellectual ground
and, by the very essence of its nature and purpose, having only the
loosest structure and formal organisation.
Further, the century since 1884 has been the most turbulent and
eventful in human history, a century of tremendous change in human
attitudes and standards, a revolutionary era in which no political,
social, or economic assumption made a century ago has gone
unchallenged, and few, if any, have not been fundamentally changed.
Yet the Fabian Society and its original ideals endure.
That a society so conceived could survive in such a century - and
survive with continuing vigour - is surely striking testimony to the
enduring strength of the cause with which it has been so closely
identified and to which it has contributed so much - the cause of
I deliberately use the words 'the cause with which it is identified'
because the Fabian Society did not and does not claim to be a cause in itself. Rather, it was called into existence to represent and promote an idea and an ideal - and, most important - a method, an approach by which that idea could best be implemented and by which the ideals
of social democracy could be given practical effect.
Almost from the beginning, its founders envisaged that the vehicle would be a labour party - long before the British Labour Party as such existed. Sydney Webb, one of the founders of the Fabian Society and
for so long its presiding genius, described the process in this way:
"From 1887, the Fabians looked to the formation of a strong and
independent Labour Party. We did all we could to foster and assist,
in succession, the Independent Labour Party, then the Labour
Representation Committee and then the Labour Party.....but we
also set ourselves to detach the concept of socialism from such
extraneous ideas as suddenness and simultaneity of change, violence
and compulsion, and atheism or anti-clericalism....nor did we
confine our propaganda to the slowly emerging labour party, or to
those who were prepared to call themselves socialists, or to the
manual workers or to any particular class."
So, from the beginning, the society drew its strength from its
vision of the future of Labour and the Labour Party. But beyond this
fundamental strength, many factors have contributed to the strength
and survival of the society.
First, we cannot ignore the personal element - that extraordinary
galaxy of political, intellectual and literary talent which made up the
firmament of Fabianism the Webbs, Graham Wallan, George
Bernard Shaw then later Tom Hann, who helped introduce Fabianism
to Australia; then later on again people like Bertrand Russell, G. D. H. Cole, Harold Laski and R. H. Tawney.
Many may think that, in terms of his contribution to Fabian
philosophy and social democratic thought, Tawney was the greatest of
them all. Certainly his great work Equality stands as the definitive
exposition of the true meaning of social democracy, both as an ideal
and a practical program.
Another source of the Society's strength was what we may call the METHODOLOGY of fabianism - the primacy given to facts,
knowledge, proper research and solid information as the basis for
action - whether political, social or economic action.
It was the recognition, as Beatrice Webb put it, that: "Reform will not be
brought about by shouting. What is needed is hard thinking."
And the third and greatest and most enduring source of the
influence of Fabianism was the idea of practical relevance. And this
is the very essence of Fabianism. It is the recognition that the
commitment to democracy and democratic means is fundamental. It is
the recognition that this fundamental commitment imposes on social
democrats obligations and restraints in terms of both means and ends.
It is the recognition, as I myself put it in the Resolution of Conflict lectures - the Boyer Lectures in 1979 - "of the need for those who
would advocate change to temper their fervour with a sense of gradualism".
It cannot be emphasised too strongly or too often, that this
approach is not a matter of mere pragmatism. It is equally a matter
of principle, it is a principle which follows inexorably from our
commitment to democracy. And it is a principle which lies at the very
heart, not only of Fabianism, but social democracy throughout the
world. It is of course the classic concept of Fabianism - the
INEVITABILITY OF GRADUALNESS - and nothing is more widely
misunderstood or more frequently misrepresented.
It was never conceived as a justification for opportunism. It was,
and is a principle of necessity. The principle was first and best
propounded by Sydney Webb himself. Speaking as President of the
British Labour Executive at the Party Conference in 1923, be said:
"Let me insist on what our opponents habitually ignore, and,
indeed, what they seem intellectually incapable of understanding,
namely the INEVITABLE GRADUALNESS of our scheme of change.
The very fact that socialists have both principles AND a programme appears to confuse nearly all their critics."
"If we state our principles, we are told 'that is not practicable'.
When we recite our programme the objection is 'That is not
Socialism'. But why, because we are idealists, should we be supposed
to be idiots? For the Labour Party, it must be plain, Socialism is
rooted in democracy; which necessarily compels us to recognise that
every step towards our goal is dependent on gaining the assent and
support of at least a numerical majority of the whole people. Thus, even if we aimed at revolutionising everything at once, we should
necessarily be compelled to make each particular change only at the
time, and to the extent, and in the manner, which ten or fifteen
million electors, in all sorts of conditions, of all sorts of
temperaments, from Land's End to the Orkneys, could be brought to
consent to it."
That was Webb in Britain in 1923. It is as relevant and true in
Australia in 1984. For it represents an unchanging truth and a fixed
principle for the Labor Party and social democrats everywhere. And
I repeat and emphasise: It goes beyond pragmatism; it is the principle
which flows from fundamental commitment to democracy.
I suppose there is no greater hero in the pantheon of radical
reform than Aneurin Bevan, who was also a great Fabian. He was
never accused of selling out, or selling the cause short. He was never
denounced as an opportunist or derided as a pragmatist.
Thirty years after Webb's analysis which I have just quoted, Bevan
wrote this magnificent confession of his faith:
"The philosophy of democratic Socialism is essentially cool in
temper. It sees society in its context with nature and is conscious of
the limitations imposed by physical conditions. It sees the individual
in his context with society and is therefore compassionate and
tolerant. Because it knows that all political action must be a choice
between a number of possible alternatives it eschews all absolute
prescriptions and final decisions.
"Consequently it is not able to offer the thrill of the complete
abandonment of private judgement, which is the allure of modern
Soviet Communism and of Fascism, its running mate. . . It
accepts the obligation to choose among different kinds of social
action and in so doing to bear the pains of rejecting what is not
practicable or less desirable ....
"It seeks the truth in any given situation, knowing all the time
that if this be pushed too far it falls into error . . . . Its chief enemy
is vacillation, for it must achieve passion in action in the pursuit of
qualified judgements. It must know how to enjoy the struggle, whilst
recognising that progress is not the elimination of struggle but rather
the change in its terms".
In this brief review, I have said enough to indicate the spirit,
ideals, methods and objectives of the society whose centenary we
I have so far referred only in passing to the Australian
contribution, as part of its general contribution to the cause of Labor
and social democracy. But Australian Fabianism and Australian
Fabians have made a specific and significant contribution to the
Australian Labor movement and the Australian Labor Party.
The circumstances in which the society in Australia has operated
have, of course, differed considerably from those of the parent body.
So too has its role. The Australian Labor Party is many years older
than the British Labour Party. Our Parliamentary success came much
earlier and has been much more consistent than that of the British
Labour Party. That early and consistent success, combined with our
historic origins in the trade union movement, meant an emphasis on
practical achievement above theory and doctrine. And indeed, the
Australian men and women of the 1890's and the early 1900's had
already recognised the inevitability of gradualness and applied it in
practice, at a time when, for the British Labour Party, it was merely a
statement of principle for future Labour governments, yet to be
A further difference in the role of Fabianism in Australia lay in
the nature of our Federal system - and I mean, not only the Federal
nature of the Australian Constitution, but the Federal structure of the
Australian Labor Party itself. It may even be that the comparative success of the society in Melbourne relative to other capitals reflected something of our colonial past. It certainly established Melbourne in
its role as the headquarters of the radical tradition in Australia. But
despite the differences, Fabianism has made a valuable and enduring
contribution to social democracy in Australia, in both thought and
Fabian Societies were formed here as early as 1896. As Frank
Crean has recalled, the present society, the - Fabian Society of
Victoria - now, I am pleased to say, properly named the Fabian
Society of Australia - was formed in 1947. And of course that was a
very significant year in the history of the Australian Labor Party and
the Australian Labor movement.
I hasten to say that I'm not suggesting that importance derives anything from the fact that 1947 happened to be the year I joined the
Labor Party in Perth. But the year 1947 represented both the high
tide, and a turning of the tide, for post war Labor, and for the Chifley
Labor Government. It was for the movement as a whole a year of
great optimism and enthusiasm and achievement. The work of post
war reconstruction was going on apace. Full employment was
established as a national principle and a national goal.
But 1947 was also a year when the challenge against bank
nationisation forced on us a realisation of the restrictions and
restraints imposed by the Constitution, and in particular by Section
92. Consequently, this led to a rethinking of our approach. Because,
unless the platform was just to stagnate into irrelevance, the search
had to be made for alternative means of achieving our objectives.
In that search - and it was a search and a development of policy
that went on for more than 20 years - Fabians were in the forefront
- Fabians like Frank Crean, Jim Cairns, Kim Beazley, Race Mathews,
and not least our own Fabius Maxlinus - Gough Whitlam himself.
Throughout the long years in the wilderness, the society played a
valuable role in producing and disseminating information and ideas,
and in promoting dialogue. It preserved the Fabian tradition of
research as the basis for reform.
There were times in the bitter years after the split when the
Fabian Society seemed almost a lone voice for sanity, civility, realism
and genuine idealism amongst us in Victoria. But above all, the
ongoing importance of Fabianism in Australia has been to help bring
to our movement, and our cause, that quality which I said before was
the essence of social democracy - the need for a sense of
RELEVANCE, in the application of our ideas and our ideals to
practical purposes and achievable goals.
In this I gladly acknowledge the debt of my own Government to Fabianism.
Earlier I dealt at some length with the principle of the inevitability
of gradualness. There was another important idea - a METHOD
more than a principle - which became closely associated with
Fabianism. Sydney Webb called it 'permeation'. Today it would be
Webb put it this way:
"Most reformers think that all they have got to do in a political democracy is to obtain a majority. This is a profound mistake. What has to be changed is not only the vote that is cast, but also the
mental climate in which Parliament and the Government both live and
That I find to be an accurate description of the approach I and
my colleagues have tried to bring to the affairs of this nation in our
first term of office. From the National Summit on, we have attempted
to transform the atmosphere of politics - the background, the atmosphere, the shared information and perceptions of common goals,
through which decisions can be made, not just by the Government
and Parliament but by key groups and interests like business and
Of course there are some who will misunderstand or misrepresent
the nature of this approach and the meaning of consensus. It was
Beatrice Webb describes in her diary of their Melbourne visit in 1898, a meeting with people whom she only identifies as 'some
Victorian socialists' - from her unflattering description clearly not
members of the Labor Party - and writes:
"Sydney tried to explain the Fabian policy of permeation, with the result that the chairman, in his concluding remarks, recommended the
meeting to adopt Mr Webb's suggestion of taking the capitalist down
a back street and then knocking him on the head."
We all have to face the fact that if our Government is to make really great and worthwhile reforms - reforms that will endure,
reforms that will permanently change this nation - then it is not
enough simply to obtain a temporary majority at an election, or even
successive elections. For our reforms to endure, the whole mood and
mind and attitudes of the nation must be permanently changed.
Certainly, we are proceeding to implement the policy on which we were elected and the platform of the Party with a thoroughness, I
believe, not excelled by any previous Labor Government in our
history. But that specific task must go hand in hand with the more general and deeper, longer range task - the task of establishing, in the mood and mind of this nation, permanent acceptance of the naturalness and inevitability of change and reform, as the authentic Australian way of life.
And that, for the first time in our history, is what this Labor
Government is attempting.
Let me conclude: an occasion like this serves to bring home to
us all, one of the great truths about our cause in Australia - the cause
of Labor and social democracy. And that is the CONTINUITY of
our movement and the continuity of our role in our nation.
The Party itself is a hundred years old in 1991. The Labor
movement is already well over the century. One of the great paradoxes of Australian politics is that the parties and forces of
conservatism and reaction - for all their self-proclaimed loyalty to
tradition - have no real continuity and no true sense of continuity.
And without a sense of continuity - in the case of individuals or
parties or movements or nations - there can be no true sense of
I believe it is precisely because our adversaries lack that sense of their own continuity, and in a deep sense, their own identity, they are
obliged to seek it outside themselves - in other institutions and even
other nations. And that I believe explains, at least in part, much of
their current conduct - their lurches, not only in search of a policy,
but in search of an identity.
It is, by contrast, our own sense of continuity, as a Government,
a movement, a party, a cause which provides us with the stability and
strength to overcome the countless setbacks we have suffered and, equally, in the days of triumph, to live up to the motto set for itself
by the Fabian Society one hundred years ago:
"For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did, most
patiently, when waning against Hannibal, though many censured his
delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard; as Fabius did,
or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless."
Further reading: "The Fabian Socialist Contribution to the Communist Advance" by Eric D. Butler
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