The Fabian Society - first pamphlet (1884)

the first Fabian pamphlet (1884)




Founded in 1884, the Fabian Society is a British organisation of socialists aiming to achieve socialism by gradual rather than revolutionary means.

It derives its name from the Roman general and statesman Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (died 203 BC), known as Fabius Cunctator. After Hannibal’s defeat of the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, Fabius successfully pursued a strategy consisting in avoiding battle and weakening the Carthaginian invaders by cutting off supplies and by continual skirmishing. This earned him his nickname, which means delayer.

The first Fabian pamphlet, published in 1884, explained:

“Wherefore it may not be gainsayed, that the fruit of this man’s long taking of counsel—and (by the many so deemed) untimeous delay—was the safe-holding for all men, his fellow-citizens, of the Common Weal.”

“For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring 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.”


The adjective Fabian had been used in 1777 during the War of American Independence. Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach (2010), edited by Donald Stoker, Kenneth J. Hagan and Michael T. McMaster, explains that General George Washington adopted a Fabian strategy against the British army commanded by General William Howe. When Howe began his summer campaign, Washington refused to come down from the heights to face him. He avoided battle, except on his terms, and generally kept to the hills around Boundbrook, New Jersey. If Howe did move against him, and it became necessary to retreat, Washington had everything prepared to do so. Meanwhile, he bled the British with detachments and militia waging Petite Guerre. Howe withdrew back to New Brunswick, unwilling to risk a fight on such disadvantageous ground. Finally, Howe, unable to bring Washington to battle, decided that staying in New Jersey served no purpose and decamped for Staten Island.

In a letter to Robert R. Livingston dated 28th June 1777, Washington’s aide, Alexander Hamilton, penned the analysis and defence of the American Fabian strategy:

I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed either to cowardice, or to weakness. But the more discerning, I trust, will not find it difficult to conceive, that it proceeds from the truest policy, and is an argument neither of the one nor the other.
The liberties of America are an infinite stake. We should not play a desperate game for it, or put it upon the issue of a single cast of the die. The loss of one general engagement may effectually ruin us, and it would certainly be folly to hazard it, unless our resources for keeping up an army were at an end, and some decisive blow was absolutely necessary; or unless our strength was so great as to give certainty of success. Neither is the case.

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