Fabian, Fellow Traveller or Free Agent? The Strange Case of David Mitrany
By Will Banyan, Copyright © March 2005 (updated October 2007)
Author’s note: This essay was completed in early 2005 in response to repeated entreaties from “Winston”, webmaster of the Modern History Project to explore his contention that David Mitrany was in fact a Fabian, evident in his associations with a number of prominent Fabians (detailed below). In subsequent correspondence “Winston” conceded that my paper, addressing his particular concern was “actually rather good”, but he took exception to my “arrogant attitude”, apparently evident in the final paragraph. I would contend that my final paragraph was a plea not to let “guilt-by-association” guide our understanding of whether or not Mitrany was a Fabian, but to instead focus on the facts of what he believed as opposed to his social companions. Some of the internet addresses have been updated if they have been archived, but others appear to be unrecoverable.
A Question of Character
One of the more persistent flaws in much of research into the alleged conspiracy to establish a “One World Government” or “New World Order”, in the view of this author, is the tendency to assume the loyalties and beliefs of certain individuals solely on the basis of the organisations they belong to or are associated with, rather than their actual and proven beliefs. Unless these links are examined with care false assumptions about the philosophies of key figures can be constructed resulting in a distorted picture of the N.W.O. People are no longer seen as individuals, possessing free will, but become mere pawns of a larger seemingly omnipotent cabal. At the same time, however, it is still a fact of life that the people we associate with can sometimes be a measure of what we stand for. Determining whether that association stems from convenience or common purpose can be difficult, especially if it is assumed the purpose of those associations is to pursue a secret grand strategy, thus making all evidence to the contrary suspect.
The case of David Mitrany, the subject of the partner essay “Outflanking the Nation-State: David Mitrany and the Origins of the ‘Functional’ Approach to the New World Order”, is certainly illustrative. Was Mitrany a free agent who consorted with British socialists out of expedience and convenience, or, alternately, a sympathiser, if not an “agent” of the Fabian Society and its program of achieving socialism through gradualism? Mitrany’s association with a number of leading Fabians and other British socialists, from 1912 through to the 1940s, is indisputable and perhaps of greater significance than originally acknowledged in “Outflanking the Nation-State.” More importantly, these associations raise pertinent questions about Mitrany’s own beliefs and motives. In particular it challenges us to explore the truth of Mitrany’s claim that as a “matter of principle” he had decided not to tie himself “to any political party or ideological group” and to instead “work with any and all of them for international peace”, accounts for his collaboration with these groups.
Mitrany’s career in the company of socialists of varying hues follows a clear path: educated at the London School of Economics (LSE); member of the League of Nations Society; member of the Labour Party Committee on International Questions; a journalist at the Manchester Guardian (and later a frequent contributor); and participant at two Fabian Society conferences. He also mentions his connections with key British scholars who were either Fabians or members of the libertine ‘Bloomsbury Set’, such as Graham Wallas, L. T. Hobhouse, Harold Laski, Leonard Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. Viewing the extent and apparent depth of these connections, it is no small effort to embrace the conclusion Mitrany must have shared their socialism, if he had not already been transformed into an “agent” of the Fabians thanks to his education at the LSE, as some might surmise. Mitrany though has long sought to convince people to the contrary, as he told his friend Felix Frankfurter in a letter in May 1925:
But I have never suffered from dogmatism. My interest is to see some development in the organization of peace, and I care little how it is done and by whom it is done as long as it takes us to that end.
What then is the truer picture? Was Mitrany a Fabian, fellow traveller or free agent? Through a review of relevant sources, including the personal accounts of the various Fabians, socialists and fellow travellers we know Mitrany consorted with, as well as his own writings on socialism; hopefully a clearer picture will emerge.
What is Fabianism?
An understanding of the issues surveyed here would not be complete unless we are able to define the meaning of Fabianism. There are many definitions out there, some more alarming than others, but they give us a prism through which to more properly explore whether Mitrany’s connections translated into beliefs and actions.
The Editor of the Modern History Project has defined Fabianism in the following somewhat contentious terms:
“Fabianism” by definition is the strategy of gradual implementation of socialism through stealth and the infiltration of academia, the media, and the government with sympathisers and opinion shapers who would eventually form the “Open Conspiracy” that Wells described, as opposed to the violent revolution advocated by Marx and Lenin.
This definition is accurate in parts, especially the emphasis on gradually implementing socialism through the infiltration of socialist ideas into the elite strata of society. Other sources, although querying the notion there was a clearly defined and consistently articulated Fabian socialist ideology, confirm this basic element. For example, according to an essay at “The Wood” website:
The Fabians…stressed that social democracy would not [occur] through revolution and violence as Marx theorised but rather from slow and steady democratic movement. Their primary belief was that capitalism, at its very root, was unfair to the majority of people and an unfit economic system for a modern society. Their solution, the one stressed by nearly all socialists, was that the workers should own the means of production. For the Fabians, legislation, protest, and localized action was the way to achieve this and offered the greatest potential for a cure for the plight of the proletariat. They chose education and gradual acceptance of socialist thought, instead of forced, violent indoctrination.
According to an essay by Robert Sullivan on the Modernist Journals Project website:
The Fabians preferred the method of permeation or…the “honeycomb” effect. Instead of direct confrontational action, for example, by aligning itself with working-class trade-unionism or other militant socialists, Fabianism sought to change the system from within, and would achieve this by a process of infiltration. They would, through their great intellectual weight, “persuade” members of government (whatever the Party), civil servants, and other people in power, that the amelioration of the plight of the less fortunate in society was a necessary just cause.
These definitions of Fabianism are based; it should be recognised, not upon any unauthorised access to Fabian doctrine or other revelations, but on what they published for the entire world to see. As John Taylor Gatto observes: “Fabian strategy and tactics have been openly announced and discussed with clarity for nearly a century, whether identified as Fabian or not.” Prominent Fabian G.D.H. Cole, for example, provided this insight into Fabianism in the short essay he wrote on the subject for the 1932 edition of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences:
In every field the characteristic Fabian policy has been that of permeation. In accordance with their doctrine of continuity the Fabians set out to develop existing institutions by permeating with this or that element of their doctrine those who had power to influence policy, e.g. the civil service, the political parties, the professions, the administration of business, and local government. It was part of their creed that no sharp line could be drawn between socialists and nonsocialists and that many who would not call themselves socialists could be persuaded to help with particular reforms for making socialism.
So, in sum, Fabianism is best described as strategy for achieving socialism through gradualism or the permeation of the socialist idea into all the nooks and crannies of government, business and politics that matter. Mitrany’s functionalist concept could be described as “Fabian”, though only insofar as it is essentially a gradualist program. But was he a Fabian socialist? Did the Fabians Mitrany associated with manage to convince him of the virtues of greater regulation of the economy, increased taxation, and ultimately public ownership and administration of industries and services? That is the most important question.
Mitrany at the London School of Economics
Mitrany attended the London School of Economics and Political Science as a student from 1912 to 1914. In his memoir, Mitrany counts his studies there in sociology and political science as crucial to the development of functionalism:
Without a doubt the first light towards a “functional” outlook on things social and political came from my two teachers at the London School of Economics, in its early days, when it was small but intensely alive, and truly free intellectually.
Mitrany’s characterisation of the LSE as being “truly free intellectually” is interesting as it appears to clash with the assumption of some analysts that the LSE had been established in 1895 by Fabian Society co-founders Sidney and Beatrice Webb, for the express purpose of transforming its students into adherents of socialism. A quote from the diary of Beatrice Webb, dated 21 September 1894, carried on the Spartacus website, appears to support this more sinister interpretation. Noting how her husband had become the executor to ₤10,000 willed to the Fabian Society from a recently deceased, but apparently wealthy and eccentric member, Beatrice recorded Sidney’s “vision” of how that money would be used:
[T]o found, slowly and quietly, a “London School of Economics and Political Science” – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects, but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work.
At first glance the description of the students being “directed and supported in doing original work” seems to imply the LSE’s progeny would receive little more than instruction in the Fabian Socialist program. The use of the term “original work”, however, seems to rule out indoctrination. A similar conclusion can be drawn from Edward Pease’s comments in his book The History of the Fabian Society (1918) that the Fabian trustees agreed to use the money to fund the LSE because they considered a “thorough knowledge” in economics and political science to be a “necessity for people concerned with social reconstruction.” They believed it was “essential that all classes of public officials should have the opportunity of learning whatever can be known of economics and politics…” Again all very vague and uncontroversial. The only firm statement of any such intent to brainwash students is Sidney Webb’s declaration on the purpose of LSE to “teach political economy on more modern and more socialist lines than those on which it had been taught hitherto, and to serve at the same time as a school of higher commercial education.”
Yet, other sources quoted by the Spartacus website suggest the education provided by the LSE was pluralist rather than “more socialist”. A diary entry from Beatrice Webb on 18 November 1903, lamenting the resignation of the LSE’s first Director, W. A. S. Hewins, credits him with helping to obtain and keep “the cooperation of men of diverse views and conflicting interests.” Then former British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, in his memoir, recalled how as a tutor and lecturer at the LSE he had “plenty of time for social work and also socialist propaganda, for it was a fundamental rule of the School that no one could be restricted in venting his political opinions.” Though Atlee was clearly able to vent his socialist opinions, we can presume non-socialist students must have had a free reign as well. And finally, though some might reject it as inherently biased, an essay on the Fabian Society website, “A History of the Fabian Society” claims the LSE “has never been turned into the ‘centre for collectivist-tempered research’ which [the Webbs] wanted.”
Mitrany’s account also suggests the LSE had not become the ideologically pure institution of Sidney Webb’s socialist dreams. Instead Mitrany lauds his two teachers, Leonard T. Hobhouse (1864-1929) and Graham Wallas (1858-1932) as “true searchers, allergic to the slightest whiff of dogmatism.” Mitrany did not attribute to Hobhouse and Wallas the specific idea of functionalism, only that their instruction on theoretical issues pushed him in that direction. In particular Mitrany credited Hobhouse with introducing him to the idea one should treat “politics as a science” and strive to uncover “the relation of things” rather than make predictions. This concept, according to Mitrany, was “in a way the central philosophical idea behind the whole functional theory.”
But for those who are reluctant to abandon the idea of Mitrany being a Fabian proxy, it is also worth nothing that the relationship between the Fabian Society and Mitrany’s teachers, Wallas and Hobhouse, was cordial rather than close by the time he entered their tutelage. In the case of Hobhouse, although close to the Fabians during the 1890s he had “never joined the society and later became a fierce critic of its elitism, imperialism and opportunism, showing particular hatred for George Bernard Shaw’s flippant authoritarianism.” More importantly, according to the profile of Hobhouse by David Howarth from Cambridge on the British Liberal Democratic Party website:
Hobhouse’s first major political work, The Labour Movement (1893), was strongly collectivist, calling for the profits of industry to be appropriated to consumers in the form of the cooperative movement, trade unions and local and national government, and for a steeply graduated income tax, higher death duties and the taxation of ground rent. Its political doctrine was closer to Green’s organicism than to Mill. But Hobhouse soon saw that collectivism in its Fabian form was liable to turn into the glorification of the state and the pursuit of conformity in the name of equality. Hobhouse was also deeply internationalist and was revolted by the Fabian endorsement of the Boer War. His New Liberalism was, above all, the result of his disillusion with Fabian socialism.
As for Mitrany’s other teacher at LSE, according to Peter Clarke, an academic from Cambridge, during the 1880s Graham Wallas had found in the Fabian Society “the sort of intellectual milieu where he felt at home.” Although “overshadowed by the reputation of [Bernard] Shaw and the Webbs, Graham Wallas remains the forgotten man of the early Fabian Society, which he…joined in May 1885.” Wallas was offered the position of Director of the LSE when it was first formed, but declined preferring instead to teach, eventually becoming Professor of Political Science. But while his “academic career blossomed, his Fabian commitment waned.” As Clarke observes:
Wallas finally resigned from the Fabian Society in 1904 because of Shaw’s attempt to associate it with protectionism, another Conservative policy. The root cause was a divergence between the manipulative and authoritarian temper which Shaw and the Webbs increasingly displayed and Wallas’ Liberal outlook. In 1898 Wallas had married Ada Radford, a woman of strong literary interests, and a firm Liberal (they had one daughter). The Wallases drifted apart from the Webbs and the Shaws, though remaining on civil terms. [emphasis added]
A more detailed account of Wallas’ split with the Fabians is provided by Martin J. Wiener’s account Between Two Worlds: The Political Thought of Graham Wallas (1971). Wiener observes how in the 1890s the leading Fabians, especially Sidney Webb, were abandoning the idea of democracy in favour of more exclusive rule by the elite. For Webb and Shaw, democracy “was a means of procuring consent by the populace to the measures of the elite.” Walls, though, remained a believer in popular participation in government. Government, he believed, should be responsive to popular will; it should not be built on the acquiescence of the masses to the will of an elite. But the differences ran deeper with Wallas becoming “more sceptical of the self-sufficiency of collectivism.” He also clashed with the Webbs over education policy, and with Shaw over his pro-imperial tract Fabianism and the Empire (1900) and his protectionist tract Fabianism and the Fiscal Question (1904) which rejected free trade. In February 1904 Wallas had resigned from the Fabians noting how in regard to the Tariff Tract “the vast majority of the Society was in agreement with the Executive and against me.” He asked though that they consider him an “unattached friend of the Society.” The friendship would not last, however, and he drifted away. The overall pattern is clear though: Wallas escaped the rigid dogmas of the Webbs and Shaw, and established himself as an independent thinker.
So, in sum, according to these accounts, the two figures Mitrany actually credits with shining “the first light towards the ‘functional’ outlook on things social and political” had either never joined (Hobhouse) or had severed their membership (Wallas) with the Fabians; and more importantly both had drifted away from the philosophies of Shaw and the Webbs well before Mitrany came into their presence. Moreover, as the conflict between Hobhouse’s “deeply internationalist” outlook and the overtly racist imperialism of the Fabian leadership reveals, the more refined internationalist sentiments of Mitrany bears little resemblance to the obscene doctrines endorsed by Shaw, the Webbs and H.G. Wells.
These policies included their calls for non-white races to be eliminated, or denied self-governance forever if need be. This fitted into a strikingly imperialist mindset that ranked non-Europeans as inferior and expendable. As fellow Fabian Leonard Woolf later ruefully observed although “a progressive, even a revolutionary in some economic and social spheres”, when the British Empire was concerned, Sidney Webb “was a common or garden imperialist conservative.” The Webbs openly advocated denying self-rule to non-white colonial subjects in perpetuity.
The novelist H.G. Wells, in fact, was invited to join the Fabians on the strength of his 1901 book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. In this piece of Darwinian futurology Wells had predicted the creation of a global “New Republic” by a scientifically educated elite – “a sort of outspoken Secret Society…an informal and open freemasonry” – that would usurp the rule of the blundering politicians. This movement, wrote Wells, would create “a world state with a common language and a common rule”, but this would require the elimination of the unfit. This latter category included the “whole masses of the human population” who were “inferior in their claim upon the future” and who “cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power.” Wells’s New Republicans would have “little pity” for these “silly creatures”; and would not “hesitate to kill” the masses should the elite’s tolerance be “abused”. Shaw was particularly taken with this mad and genocidal thesis and later extended an invitation to Wells to join their clique.
At the time Mitrany was attending the LSE, these imperialist views – also represented in Shaw’s own tract Fabianism and the Empire (1900) – dominated Fabian thinking on international affairs. Yet there is no indication in his education at the LSE that Mitrany was imbued with any such imperialist fervour or seduced by H.G. Well’s dystopian thesis. It cannot be denied Mitrany’s functionalist theory was influenced by the teachings he received at the LSE, but those lessons appear to have been somewhat removed from the essential characteristics of Fabianism.
The Influence of Leonard Woolf
Wallas and Hobhouse were not the only people with some connection to Fabianism that Mitrany consorted with. In 1916 Mitrany joined the League of Nations Society; an organisation set up by a collection of British notables, according to one of its leading members, Leonard Woolf, as a “propaganda body” for the express purpose of convincing the public of “the necessity for a League [of Nations] and for its establishment in the peace treaty after the war.” It was in his capacity as an “active member” of the Society that Mitrany first came into regular contact with Leonard Woolf, a Fabian, a member of both the Cambridge Apostles and the “Bloomsbury Set”, and author of the tract International Government (1916). These contacts were extended when in 1918 Mitrany was “invited” (by whom he does not say but it is likely to have been Woolf) to the join the Labour Party’s Advisory Committee on International Questions. Mitrany notes that Woolf, who was Committee Secretary from 1918 to 1945, was among its “regular members.”
Despite his key role in both organisations and obviously frequent contacts with Mitrany, Woolf makes absolutely no mention of the Rumanian in his memoirs. Mitrany, it should also be noted, does not specifically indicate that he and Woolf had any sort of close relationship or contacts outside of the work of the Society and later the Committee. But we do know that from 1916 until 1931 – when Mitrany resigned from the Committee when it became compulsory to be a member of the Labour Party – he was in some sort of regular contact with Woolf. So we can naturally assume there was some exchange of ideas between the two.
Given this proximity, the impact of Woolf’s ideas upon Mitrany’s functionalist concept is widely accepted, although the full extent of that influence is disputed. Peter Wilson has argued that Woolf was clearly “a pioneer of international functionalism” and suggests that in constructing his functionalist theory Mitrany “drew on Woolf’s ideas on international government, perhaps more than he himself realised.” Wilson suggests their “close working relationship” in the League of Nations of Society and the Labour Party Advisory Committee on International Questions, would have given Mitrany an “in-depth knowledge of Woolf’s ideas”, many of which were “strongly functionalist in flavour.” According to Wilson, Woolf was “the first thinker to show how a functionalist type analysis could be applied to international relations”; he provided “the skeleton of functional theory.” Cornella Navari, in contrast, while crediting Woolf with ideas that were “clearly functionalist”, suggests they were not as sophisticated as Mitrany whose contribution was the “conceptualisation and systematic exposition of a new form of political organisation.” So Woolf was an influence on Mitrany’s thinking, but did he make Mitrany a Fabian socialist?
One way to answer this question is look at how “Fabian” Woolf’s ideas were. What is clear is that in his pamphlets written for the Fabian Society in 1915 and 1916 Woolf had endorsed the creation of an “international government” along essentially functionalist lines primarily through the “internationalisation of administration”, especially communications, public health, industry, commerce and crime. Reviewing the evolution of Woolf’s tract on International Government, Peter Wilson poses this question in terms of how much Fabian intellectual material Woolf had at his disposal and answers thusly:
The short answer is: very little. The Fabian Society’s relationship with the outside world had been for decades one of neglect. In the early years of the Society the existence of an international realm was barely acknowledged….During this period Fabians clearly believed that events in the outside world had little relevance.
Fabian literature on the subject was apparently thin. Out of the first hundred or so Fabian Tracts only two dealt with international issues. One of these, George Bernard Shaw’s Fabianism and the Empire (1900), had projected the “Federation of the World” as the desired end-state, but in the mean-time had advocated they accept “Imperial Federations…as a substitute for it.” Shaw had also endorsed the “steam-rollering of little States because they are little.” In fact the “State which obstructs international civilization will have to go, be it big or little.” Aside from this poisonous doctrine (seemingly revived today by the Bush Administration), Shaw’s tract offered little that was new, other than a Fabian justification of imperialism. The Fabian Society’s involvement in socialist internationalism was also marginal and insincere. Achieving the socialist transformation of Britain remained their first priority.
Consequently, argues Wilson, Fabian influence on Woolf’s International Government “appears to be slight”, and that while he had no doubt “imbibed a good quantity of Fabian doctrine” by 1916, that doctrine’s input was “of a general rather than any particular kind.” Wilson then lists no less than seven aspects of International Government that show Fabian influence, though these are indeed “general” and include: a commitment to “gradualism” as opposed to “militant and revolutionary methods” of political change; a focus on facts; a preference for “rational and scientific” rather than “ethical or romantic socialism”; and a “dedication to public service and collective well-being.”
Sidney Webb’s instruction to Woolf shows the Fabian Society – despite its sporadic displays of support for British imperialism (such as during the Boer War) and the sometimes crazed vision of H.G. Wells – had not devised any firm scheme of its own for a new international order. “What is needed”, Webb wrote to Woolf, “is to arrive at a strictly practical suggestion, or rather alternative suggestions, explained and supported by accounts of what has been tried with useful results; and of past experiments and analyses suggestive of any new expedients we can devise.”
When putting together International Government, Woolf apparently did not refer to any of books or tracts by the Webbs, Shaw or H.G. Wells on international affairs. In his own memoir, Woolf would recall that there were “only two books of any use”, one was the Yearbook of the L’Union des Associations Internationales, the other was Public International Unions (1911) by an American academic, Paul Reinsch. According to Dubin, it was Reinsch “a University of Wisconsin political scientist who, between 1907 and 1911, anticipated the core of Mitrany’s thesis.” The implications of this are that, though he was obviously a Fabian, Woolf’s work was reliant upon non-Fabian thinkers, even though it actually came to represent the Fabian view on international issues. One should also not forget that International Government was an influential book in its own right, and along with a subsequent plan drawn up by Woolf and Webb for a “Supranational Authority that will Prevent War”, it is credited with influencing the League of Nations Covenant. Thus, despite its Fabian providence, the ideas contained in International Government could be used by internationalists of any ideological hue; the socialist aspects of Woolf’s proposal could presumably be dispensed with. We can also assume, with little controversy, that International Government influenced Mitrany’s thinking.
Another way of trying to resolve this question of whether or not Woolf’s influence turned Mitrany into a Fabian socialist is to look at Mitrany’s views on Woolf. Here the evidence is frustratingly slight. Just as Woolf’s biography seems to omit all mention of our subject – but makes copious mention of his friendships with Keynes, H.G. Wells and the Webbs – Mitrany has little to say about Woolf. In fact he mentions Woolf just three times: first as one of the five key lecturers for the League of Nations Society; second, as a member of the Labour Labour Party’s Advisory Committee on International Questions; and third, as a member of the working group of “leftist internationalists” he hoped to create with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. He does not acknowledge any debt to Woolf’s ideas and makes no comments about the extent of their relationship.
However, in his working group plan we can get some sense of Mitrany’s attitude towards Woolf, which was hardly negative. Mitrany presents his scheme as part of his efforts to “build bridges across doctrinal or institutional differences so that they might join together for dealing with common problems.” His aim was for this working group to use the facilities of Chatham House (home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs – RIIA). As Mitrany saw it, the problem with Chatham House was that its organisers:
Especially Lionel Curtis [Round Table] saw it as something of a private foreign office (much like the Council on Foreign Relations in New York). Membership was originally by invitation and all ‘radicals’ were left out – not only Labourites like Leonard Woolf and H.N. Brailsford, but even Liberals like J.A. Hobson and others – the very people who for years had worried and written and spoken for the idea of an organised international system.
Mitrany’s comment is interesting for it suggests that the people he was associating with on the Left, including Woolf, were largely excluded from the key institutions of the British Establishment because they adhered to the wrong ideas. His aim, though, was to create a “working centre” for “radical-liberal non-party people” that could broaden the scope of the RIIA reducing the growing “suspicion” in the 1920s “of the influences at work in and through Chatham House.” Having “friendly working connections with both sides”, Mitrany presented his idea for “leftist internationalists”, including among others Woolf, Brailsford, Hobson and his friend Harold Laski, should be formed into a “working group to produce papers [and] pamphlets” through the facilities of Chatham House. His request was turned down by the Rockefeller Foundation on the grounds it would create competition for Chatham House.
It is perhaps telling that Mitrany classifies Woolf more broadly as a “Labourite” and does not explicitly identify him as a Fabian, let alone a socialist. Woolf’s memoirs create a slightly different impression. He was a Fabian for most of his life and did not lose his socialist idealism, even when faced with terrible evidence of its flaws. Recalling the Russian Revolution, for example, Woolf describes it as a “tremendous event”, one that produced in him a “feeling of liberation and exhilaration.” He had enthusiastically supported a number of Labour Party resolutions supporting the revolution. And nearly 50 years after the event and despite his full knowledge of the brutal excesses of the Communist regime, Woolf felt no desire to “repent or recant” that support. On the contrary:
[I]f I could return to 1917 possessing the knowledge and experience of 1963 I would again welcome the Russian revolution and for the same reasons for which I originally welcomed it. Like the French Revolution, it destroyed an ancient, malignant growth in European society, and this was essential for the future of European civilization….I would still be on the side of the revolution – though I have no doubt that I should have been…liquidated by Stalin.
Yet Woolf also condemned Communism in his declining years as an “idiotic, barbarous social and political system.” He described himself as being: “prejudiced against communism, which seems to me in some ways worse than Nazism and fascism.”
In Mitrany’s published writings, however, we can find no such enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution followed by a belated revulsion for the Communist regime. He seems silent on the issue, but there are scattered critical comments about the Soviet Union and Communism in all his writings. In A Working Peace System (1943), Mitrany explicitly rejected the notion of “ideological unions” as a path towards international government. That included socialist or Communist regimes; Mitrany rejected the “ideological criterion of selection” as being as “invidious in operation as it is in principle.” In his lecture before Chatham House in March 1948, Mitrany specifically identified the march towards socialism as an obstacle to an “active international society.” There was, he argued, “in this social nationalism or national-socialism, an actual danger of regression” leading to the “splitting up of the world into independent states.” He also observed that some might be “puzzled” that the USSR “the most revolutionary of all governments, which ideologically believes in world unity and in the proscription of the State, at the United Nations, and on every possible occasion, insists on a strict observance of national sovereignty.” Arguing against the option of federalism, Mitrany intoned: “If a federal House cannot be half free and half slave, neither can it be half capitalist and half communist.”
We can find more clues, however, to a deeper antipathy toward Marxism and Communism in Mitrany’s book Marx Against the Peasant: A Study in Social Dogmatism (1951), which was based on an earlier essay of the same name he published in 1927. Mitrany’s argument was that Karl Marx’s focus on the urban proletariat had generated an inevitable conflict between urban and peasant society once a revolution occurred. In fact, Marxist doctrine called for the elimination of the peasants, especially the land-holders, and their assimilation into a classless society. The anti-Communist implications of Mitrany’s argument were apparent to a number of reviewers. According to one reviewer, Mitrany “casts Marxism for the role of villain, and argues that the Marxist hostility to the peasants is wholly to blame in paving the way for the military and bureaucratic dictatorships which cursed eastern Europe…” Another reviewer claimed Marx Against the Peasant “suggests the idea that one way to combat Communism is to emphasize the fact that the Communists’ attempt to subjugate the world really mean an eradication of the peasant.”
Summing up the Woolf-Mitrany relationship a number of conclusions can be drawn. First, there can be no doubt that Woolf influenced Mitrany through International Government and their mutual contacts at the League of Nations Society and the Labour Advisory Committee on International Questions (from 1916 to 1931). Second, International Government was, however, largely the product of Woolf’s mind and not the collective thinking of the Fabian Society hierarchy. Woolf was in turn, heavily influenced by the ideas of an American scholar, Paul S. Reinsch. And third, while Mitrany may have absorbed some of Woolf’s ideas on internationalism, there is not much evidence Mitrany was converted to the Fabian socialist cause.
At the Guardian
The next phase of Mitrany’s career in the company of Britain’s socialist establishment was as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian. He joined in April 1919 in response to an invitation from the paper’s then editor C.P. Scott. Mitrany would go on to stay for four years in what he would describe as “the highest school any student could have had in political principle and political judgement, in factual strictness of statement.” An obvious question might be why he was chosen for this job. Given the Guardian’s obvious political biases and closeness to the Labour Party, it would not be unreasonable to take this as a sign that Mitrany was considered to be well in tune with the paper’s prejudices.
Mitrany modestly provides us with some indications of this state of affairs. He notes that when he left after four years, the editor of the Guardian, a C.P. Scott, declared: “the Guardian’s foreign policy during the last three has been Mitrany’s policy.” Mitrany also recalled how his influence on the newspaper’s foreign policy had been “resented” by Scott’s replacement, W.P. Crozier, and comments “perhaps he really was of a conservative bent of mind.” But without examining specific examples of his work for the Guardian we can only speculate that he would not have been published by them unless his views were sufficiently, if only moderately, progressive enough not to alarm the Guardian’s generally pro-socialist readership.
Meeting with the Fabians
Despite his well-documented collaboration with actual Fabians, especially Woolf, evidence of Mitrany’s involvement with the Fabian Society itself is sporadic and his attitude toward them seems ambiguous. In his memoir Mitrany admits to attending only two conferences held by the Fabian Society and repeatedly stresses that he was “not a member” and that his internationalist outlook was often at variance with the inward-looking and nationalist orientation of the Fabians.
The first of these Fabian conferences, held in the 1930s at the house of the Countess of Essex, was meant to discuss the establishment of a “Research Bureau.” Mitrany recalls how his complaint during the meeting that the international side of things was being ignored was met with the declaration the Fabians “are interested in internationalism only insofar as it helps bring about Socialism.” In his response Mitrany had told the Fabians they could not hope to establish socialism without first establishing internationalism. One of the consequences of his interjection, Mitrany later claimed, was that the newly formed Fabian Research Bureau included an international section.
The second Fabian Society symposium, at which Mitrany was a participant, was a “private conference” held in the winter of 1942-43 to discuss post-war organisation. Mitrany was the opening speaker, even though he “was not a member”, but he used the opportunity to warn participants that national planning, involving increased state control over the economy (or nationalisation), would undermine internationalism. In fact, he told them, “the first thing to be ‘nationalised’ would be the international Socialist movement itself.” One participant was apparently so alarmed by Mitrany’s argument that he later complained of a sleepless night worrying about the consequences.
But what did Mitrany really think of the Fabians and of the socialism they endorsed and which the British Labour Party practised from the 1940s? In his “Memoir” there are clear signs of impatience with what he saw as the absurdities of their doctrine. Consider his comments on Fabian/Labour Party plans for nationalisation:
[W]hile committed to the nationalisation of industry and agriculture, the Labour movement never thought out its political implications – that more government for the people was likely to mean less government by the people.
Mitrany mocked as a “ludicrous spectacle” the sight of supporters of nationalisation “wringing their hands over the spreading interference of government with the freedom of groups and individuals; as if one could have economic planning without controls, or government controls that left groups and individuals to do as they pleased.”
Commenting on his fellow speaker at the second Fabian Society conference, his “close personal friend” and long-time Fabian Harold Laski, Mitrany was remarkably scathing. He dismissed Laski’s vision, explained in a 1932 essay, the blandly titled “The Theory of International Society”, in which individual states would lose their sovereignty and be controlled by a common authority as evidence of how “easy it is for an outstanding student of government to drift far and fast from the realities of life…” He also cited Laski’s scheme as supporting Joseph Schumpter’s contention that “authoritarian elements” lurk within “any system of socialistic salvation.” For Laski’s proposal would have “meant uncompromising and continuous dictatorial powers for whatever authority had the charge to apply them.”
We can also find, in the context of his Marx Against the Peasant thesis and his sense of “desolation” that “ideology can bring into political judgement” the following criticism given of British socialists failing to heed his observations on the cruel consequences of Marxist doctrine for the peasant classes:
I never heard any of our experienced and politically more detached, ‘Fabian’ rather than Marxists, left-wing internationalists suggest to their Continental friends at least a tactical truce with the new Peasant groups though the need was obvious and pressing.
[A]ll my radical internationalist friends, even the most Fabian, were so imbued with the Marxist view of the peasants that they never grew out of it.
Citing some of these comments and his “well-known and oft-expressed wariness of social dogmatism”, and Mitrany’s apparent belief “socialism was ultimately a state dogma”, Navari concludes that Mitrany was no Fabian. Indeed, it was Mitrany’s aversion to dogmatism that was “the source of his antipathy towards the later Fabianism of the Webbs” which emphasised the state as the main agent of social change. He was no socialist, but a “pluralist”, one who believed state institutions should be transformed in response to social change and popular will, not vice versa. Mitrany “had difficulties with the Fabians”, writes Navari; in fact, he “disliked socialism and loathed socialist etatism…”
Even Peter Wilson’s more recent book-length account of Leonard Woolf stops short of unequivocally identifying Mitrany as a Fabian. This might not be the impression one gets from the review of Wilson’s book The International Theory of Leonard Woolf (2003), in the Chatham House journal International Affairs, which claims:
Like contemporaries Laski, Mitrany, Hobson, Keynes and indeed Carr himself, Woolf combined the tradition of radical liberal dissent…and Fabian socialism, with an emphasis on functional ties and collectivism.
While this comment might well be true of Woolf, the implication that Mitrany drew heavily upon Fabian socialism to construct his functionalist idea and was keen on collectivism is not borne out either the sources already consulted or by Wilson’s book. In fact Wilson never specifically and unambiguously identifies Mitrany as Fabian, but refers to him either as being “progressively minded” or lists his name in connection with a number of other formulations. Some of these are all inclusive such as “those of the Left” or “Left-leaning, progressive thinkers”; or cover a range of positions including “socialist and Left-Liberal thinkers” or “other Fabian, welfare or constructivist internationalists.” The names he lists in connection with these various positions include the usual suspects: G.D.H. Cole, J.A. Hobson, Harold Laski, Eric H. Carr, H.N. Brailsford and J.M. Keynes. Some were Fabians, some were not as indicated in Wilson’s last formulation. Finally, only Woolf and Carr are identified by Wilson as advocating replacing the existing international system of sovereign states with a “more collectivist and functionalist world order.” Mitrany, as we well know, was a functionalist, but he displayed little enthusiasm for collectivism.
A Proposal for Keynes
Mitrany also notes that he dealt, if only very briefly, with John Maynard Keynes. The inclusion of Keynes in this investigation into Mitrany’s presumed socialist ideals is perhaps contentious. The economic philosophy Keynes is most well known for is not generally associated with socialism, even if it maintained that economic prosperity could come through increased state intervention in the economy. His name is also cited as evidence, along with Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, that the Bretton Woods agreement that created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was an inherently socialist arrangement. This latter contention is questionable, though this is not the place to examine that issue more fully.
Instead we need to consider the extent of the communication with Keynes that Mitrany acknowledges. Mitrany describes how in the 1920s, in the context of his efforts to “build bridges across doctrinal or institutional differences between groups so that they might join together for dealing with common problems”, there was “a proposal” to set up a:
non-party group of some two hundred people with a standing in professional and generally in public life, with the single purpose of looking into whatever issues came up for public decision, and then publish its findings simply as a factual and impartial guide for opinion at large.
This idea “found favour with quite a few of those approached”, writes Mitrany, including his old teacher Hobhouse. But ultimately “the scheme collapsed” because Keynes “then at the height of his influence, simply wrote that he did not think public opinion could be made and guided except through political parties.” Mitrany actually quotes the letter from Keynes (16 February 1927) in full:
Dear Mitrany, Many thanks for your letter and its enclosure. I fear that I much doubt whether a so-called non-party group could ever make its weight felt in any way whatever. At present the Liberal Industrial Enquiry Committee, set up by the Liberal Summer School, seems to me to be doing all that is possible along the lines with which you sympathise. The whole thing may prove useless in the long run. But for the present at least I am inclined to give this line of development a chance. I see no room for groups outside of existing organisations. It is a choice between them and purely individual action. Yours sincerely, J.M. Keynes.
Mitrany was not entirely impressed with Keynes reasoning noting that “like the Webbs, he never went down into the street but preferred the private ear of influential leaders.” This is the only mention Mitrany makes of Keynes. Short of examining their respective private papers, there appears to be little evidence, beyond this communication, of much contact between the two, even though Mitrany did come into contact with some of Keynes’s closer friends, including Woolf. A search through nearly a dozen biographies and studies of Keynes, including Robert Skidelsky’s much venerated three volume epic, failed to turn up a single mention of Mitrany.
We might compare this with the biographies of Harold Laski, where Mitrany, despite being in his own words a “close personal friend” is never mentioned. Either many of these biographers do not regard Mitrany’s relationship with Laski or Keynes to be of any significance or it really was too sporadic to warrant much of mention. But then again, we might consider the unusual silence in most biographies of Henry Kissinger on his relationship with David Rockefeller. His long-term friendship with Nelson Rockefeller is frequently mentioned, but his relationship with David seems almost non-existent, even though recently released phone records from the State Department archives tell a different story. The failure to mention Mitrany does not mean something did not happen, but because Mitrany is excluded we do not know what did happen.
The Fabian or Free Agent?
The purpose of this essay has been to try and shed some light on the question of David Mitrany’s ultimate loyalties and sympathies. This is perhaps not an idle question as suspicions about the role of the Fabian Society in the New World Order are widespread. To discover that the architect of one of the central strategies for the erosion of the national sovereignty and local autonomy by stealth was a Fabian would add immeasurably to the credibility of that point of view. What conclusions can be drawn from the evidence reviewed above? Was Mitrany a Fabian, a fellow-traveller or a free agent? The answer can be divided into two parts.
- First, on the basis of the evidence presented there can be no doubt Mitrany’s thinking on functionalism was influenced by the various Fabians, socialists and former-Fabians with whom he associated. This includes those he acknowledges as influencing him – L.T. Hobhouse and Graham Wallas – and those he fails to credit – primarily Leonard Woolf – even though they clearly had influenced his thinking. The essential functionalist idea, however, was not a purely Fabian one; on the contrary, Woolf’s own contribution to the concept of functional cooperation owed much to the influence of a non-Fabian source. But it is indisputable that it was via some Fabian and Fabian-associated individuals that Mitrany first came into contact with the concept. Yet it must be remembered influence is not control.
- Second, despite participating in two Fabian Society conferences and knowing numerous former and active Fabians – Hobhouse, Wallas, Woolf, Cole, Laski and Brailsford – there are few signs Mitrany embraced their socialist doctrine. Instead, Mitrany, who repeatedly claims never to have joined the Fabians, denigrated both socialism and Marxism.
We are thus left with the strong possibility that Mitrany’s statement that he had elected not to tie himself “to any political party or ideological group” and to instead “work with any and all of them for international peace”; might be true. In short, he was a free agent. That would account for his ability to work with groups that covered the political spectrum: from the Fabian Society on the socialist-left through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the centre to the more conservative Chatham House. And explain how he could maintain a close friendship with unrepentant socialist Harold Laski, yet work as an Advisor on International Affairs to the board of multi-national corporation Unilever for 19 years. Not to mention his refusal to join the Labour Party when it became compulsory for members of its advisory committees, the fact he was never a member of the Fabian Society, and even rejected membership of the Freemasons, even though his “respected friend, Lucien Wolf” was ready to “open the door to their Authors’ Lodge” for Mitrany.
These conclusions – that Mitrany was influenced by some Fabians on the functionalist concept, but did not become a socialist – could well be refuted by an in-depth review of the personal papers of Mitrany, Laski, Woolf, Hobhouse and Wallas. But until such a study is done we must work within the more limited realm of mostly secondary sources where the evidence, despite some ambiguities and omissions, delivers the above conclusions. At the same time there is still scope to dispute the above findings on the grounds that Mitrany’s purported beliefs should not be taken at face value given his Fabian associations. However, this speculative approach merely brings us back to the dilemma posed at the beginning of this paper: the dangers of jumping to conclusions on the basis of guilt-by-association. It takes Mitrany’s association with Fabians as the start point and re-interprets all his subsequent actions as being fundamentally shaped by that force to the point that all his politically ambiguous and openly anti-socialist activities and sentiments are treated as calculated acts of deception. It also assumes that the Fabian strategy of infiltration involved dishonesty with Fabians masquerading as something else. While such an explanation might be attractive to the pre-conceived notions of some observers, it is ultimately reliant upon a superficial emphasis on Mitrany’s connections with the Fabians and a blatant appeal to the prejudices of certain readers. Without sufficient supporting facts such an approach is not far removed from being propaganda…
 For a short profile see http://spartacus-educational.com/USAfrankfurter.htm and http://www.biography.com/people/felix-frankfurter-9301106.
 Quoted in Dorothy Anderson, “David Mitrany (1999-1975): an appreciation of his life and work”, Review of International Studies, 1998, p.578.
 Email from “Winston”, Editor of the Modern History Project, 22 December 2004.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, p.16.
 ibid (emphasis added).
 ibid (emphasis added).
 ibid (emphasis added).
 “A History of the Fabian Society”, p.5, extracted from Deirdre Terrins et al, 100 Years of Fabian Socialism 1884-1984, at www.fabian-society.org.uk.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, pp.16-17.
 Martin J. Wiener, Between Two Worlds: The Political Thought of Graham Wallas, (Clarendon Press, 1971), p.38.
 ibid, p.52.
 ibid, pp.56-57.
 Leonard Woolf, Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939, (The Hogarth Press, 1967), p.236.
 Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918, (Hogarth Press, 1965), p.191.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, p.6.
 ibid, pp.8, 49 endnote 8.
 ibid, p.9.
 Cornella Navari, “David Mitrany and International Functionalism”, in Long & Wilson, Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis, p.237.
 Martin Dubin, “Transgovernmental Processes in the League of Nations”, International Organization, Summer 1983, p.470.
 Wilson, The International Theory of Leonard Woolf, pp.24-25.
 ibid, pp.25, 27.
 ibid, pp.30-31.
 Quoted in ibid, p.31.
 Woolf, Beginning Again, p.187.
 Dubin, “Transgovernmental Processes”, p.470.
 Wilson, The International Theory of Leonard Woolf, pp.54-55.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, p.37.
 ibid, p.39.
 ibid, p.40.
 Woolf, Beginning Again, pp.207, 209.
 ibid, p.214-215.
 Woolf, Downhill All The Way, p.26.
 See David Mitrany, A Working Peace System, (Royal Institute for International Affairs, 1943), pp.15-17.
 David Mitrany, “The Functional Approach to World Organisation”, International Affairs, July 1948, pp.350-351.
 ibid, p.353.
 The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, February 1953, p.104.
 Social Forces, December 1952, p.178.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, p.9.
 ibid, p.10.
 ibid, p.52.
 ibid, pp.36, 81.
 ibid, pp.39, 81-82.
 ibid, p.36.
 ibid, pp.36-37 (emphasis added).
 ibid, p.37.
 ibid, pp.79-80.
 ibid, p.13 (emphasis added).
 ibid, p.15 (emphasis added).
 Navari, “David Mitrany and International Functionalism”, pp.220-221.
 ibid, p.227.
 Review of The International Theory of Leonard Woolf, by Peter Wilson in International Affairs, Vol 80 No.3 by Halvard Leira, at Political ReviewNet.
 Wilson, The International Theory of Leonard Woolf, p.134.
 ibid, pp.vii, 166, 205, 216.
 ibid, p.216.
 Mitrany, “Memoir”, pp.37-38.
 ibid, p.38.
 Quoted in ibid, p.80.
 ibid, p.38.
 ibid, p.8.