I recently ran into this book review by Scott Alexander. While reading the book review I kept being struck by passages that could just as well have been describing the EA movement. 

The Fabian movement was an influential British socialist movement. They managed to get their members into various important positions in society to lobby for their, at the time, radical socialist agenda demanding free public education, women's suffrage, eight hour work days and more.

Even its critics sounded familiar, arguing that the Fabian society was nothing more than a talking-club the privileged!

A few highlights from the review:

Whatever the Fabians’ other advantages, they arose at a really good time to be a socialist thinker. There was a sort of feeling in the air that socialism was the wave of the future, that there were literally no good arguments whatsoever against it, that you were either an intellectual (in which case it was obvious that socialism was better) or you were just so thoughtless that you had never even considered the matter at all


He didn’t expect forceful action – recruitment campaigns, branch organizations, or the like – to have any effect. Instead, he favored a soft touch. Have the sort of intellectual atmosphere that talented people would be attracted to. Gradually draw them in with interesting social and intellectual activities. Once they’re attached, get them in on the first rung of some ladder or other – local politics, informal debate, small-time pamphlet writing. Have a few geniuses around who can recognize other geniuses. Then have positions to put people in once they’re worthy of it – whether it’s the lecture circuit, the propaganda business, or a university for them to teach at.


The Society’s members tended to be strange people, mercurial and hard to keep on task. Occasionally they would get distracted and forget about communism entirely, running off to worry about art or philosophy or ghost-hunting or something.


Pease was generally unimpressed with how these worked out. He felt experience had proven most of the people based outside London to be intellectually second-rate and without much to contribute.

It seems to me there is a ton to learn from the history of the Fabian society. Both from its successes and shortcomings. I'm curious to hear what you think.




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The Fabian Society even went ahead with one of the megaprojects currently being discussed in EA: founding a new university

In 1894, Fabian Society members Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Walls, and George Bernard Shaw established the London School of Economics and Political Science to improve social science education and address what they saw as the world's most pressing problems of the time.

You might be interested in this list of social-change movements by Mark Lutter (former head of Charter Cities Institute).  Excerpting the first third of the page:

Inspired by Patrick Collison's Fast page, I thought it worthwhile to build a list of examples of social change. One of they key challenges of the 21st century is rebuilding our institutions for the digital age. Examples of past successes and failures of social change can help inform that approach.

Fabian Society - A British socialist organization dedicated to advancing democratic socialism via a gradualist approach, rather than revolution, in democracies. Founded in 1884, many of the leading intellectuals of the era were associated with the Fabians, including, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It was influential and arguably successful in its efforts, founding the London School of Economics and Political Science, and influencing many leaders of former British Colonies, including India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan's Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

Corn Laws Repeal- The corn laws were tariffs on imported food and corn in the first half of the 19th century in the United Kingdom. They kept prices high, benefitting domestic producers and landowners while hurting the average Brit. The repeal of the corn laws is seen as a decisive move to free trade and a victory for liberalism. It also represented a shift in power from rural areas to urban areas. The Anti-Corn Law League is one of the early examples of mass mobilization, writing op-eds, hosting speeches, mobilizing action, even electing men to parliament. It became a model for later reform movements.

YIMBYs: YIMBY's, or yes, in my backyard, is a pro-housing movement that has recently emerged among urban millennials. They're opposed to NIMBY's, and advocate for increasing density in urban areas to lower housing costs. The first groups were started in 2014 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the center of the housing crisis. The movement has gone international, with chapters in the United Kingdom and Canada. Despite it's nascence, there have been several prominent wins as cities including Berkeley, Sacramento, and Minneapolis are moving away from single family housing requirements.

Mont Pelerin Society: A network of scholars dedicated to preserving and advancing classical liberal ideas in the aftermath of World War II. Founded by luminaries including Friedrich Hayek, Frank Knight, Carl Popper, Ludwig von Mises, George Stigler, and Milton Friedman. The joke is that in the 1950's all libertarians knew each other, in part because the movement was so small and in part because it was well networked in part due to organizations like Mont Pelerin. The ideas of Hayek, Friedman, and Mont Pelerin are credited with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions.

Meiji Restoration: A period of industrialization in Japan led by the state. Japan had closed themselves off from international trade for centuries, before being forced to open their borders by Commodore Perry in 1853. In 1868 power was concentrated under the Emperor in a modernization effort that ultimately proved successful. The policy changes included the removal of previous privileges' by the Samurai, knowledge sharing by attracting western workers and education, and an emphasis on industrialization. The modernization was successful with Japan winning a war against Russia in 1905.

See Mark Lutter's site for a bunch more!

I think the Mont Pellerin Society were pretty similar in approach too (https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/ea-neoliberal)

Thanks for posting this! I think it is often really useful to look at previous historical movements to learn lessons and contextualise modern concerns.

I really enjoyed that review, and found two potential further similarities between the Fabians and EA. Firstly, the Fabians had a number of strategies to have an impact. Those mentioned in the review include pamphleting, running political campaigns and even setting up universities. Secondly, the Fabians are said to have been a politically diverse group, or a 'big tent'. I think that at its best, EA can learn from a variety of different traditions to try to find the most effective ways to do good.

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