Classics of labour history: Margaret Cole on Fabian socialism

Margaret Cole never held office in the Society for the Study of Labour History, yet without her influence it may never have come into existence. Born Margaret Postgate in 1893, she came to politics during the first world war, when she campaigned on behalf of her brother, the imprisoned socialist conscientious objector Raymond Postgate, and through him met the political theorist and historian G.D.H. ‘Douglas’ Cole, her life-long political and writing partner and, from 1918, her husband. After G.D.H Cole’s death in 1959, Margaret Cole was instrumental in bringing together labour historians to create the SSLH under the leadership of Asa Briggs, the Society’s first chair. She remained involved, though at arm’s length, until her death in 1980. In reviewing her book on Fabian socialism in the SSLH Bulletin in 1962, Eric Hobsbawm rightly credits the Coles for their central role in remaking the Fabian Society in the period after the first world war.

Margaret and G.D.H Cole, photographed in 1938 by Howard Coster. Copyright National Portrait Gallery. Click for larger image.

M.I. Cole: The Story of Fabian Socialism (Heinemann; 1961 30/-; 366pp.)

The history of the Fabian Society to date falls into three parts, which may be called for convenience the age of Shaw and the Webbs, which ended about 1914, the age of G.D.H. Cole, which began in the 1930s, and the unhappy and relatively inert inter-regnum between. The first of these phases has by now been fairly intensively studied. It is the subject of Pease’s History, a pleasantly asgtringent though far from adequate book, of several research theses and a good deal of research incidental to the wider study of the labour movement in the period before 1914, and of a mass of biographies, memoirs and other relevant literature… The value of Margaret Cole’s Story of Fabian Socialism, therefore, lies mainly in the second and third period, in writing about which the author has the advantage not only of scholarship but also of more first-hand knowledge than almost anyone else now alive. For it was Cole who had done most to wreck the original Webbian Society, whose activities revived it in the 1930s, and saved it from withering away as a club of elderly Labour Party intellectuals, some of whom happened to be prominent in the party. The Coles were to the revived Fabianism of the forties what the Webbs had been to the pre-1914 Fabians… Read the full text.

This is the second in a series highlighting labour history classics to have appeared in the SSLH Bulletin and its successor Labour History Review. See more of our Classics of Labour History series.

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