But then their Britain seems quite alien to us too. The Britain of 1884 was one in which most working men were denied the vote - along with all women - while wives were merely the property of their husbands. The British empire was at the height of its powers and its eclipse seemed unthinkable. The narrow political battle was between Gladstonian liberalism and Toryism. These must hardly have seemed auspicious circumstances for the small and idealistic group, which met in solicitor Edward Pease's house in London to form the Fabian Society and declared their ambition to "help in the reconstruction of society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities".
Yet the Fabians were confident that their ideas could change the world, They were - though they would not have recognised the term - creating the world's first "thinktank" and surely the most influential in the world of practical politics.
Armed with facts, arguments and political persuasion, the Fabians created a uniquely practical utopianism. It was not just that they were able to "imagine things that never were and ask 'why not'" (a Shaw soundbite later adopted by Bobby Kennedy). It was also that the Fabians educated and organised to make it happen in practice.
They were first to propose many influential ideas - a national medical service and a welfare state funded by progressive taxation, equal rights for women and decolonisation. In addition to their ideas, publications and lectures, they created a highly impressive institutional legacy to create pressure for these reforms. Fabians advocated for and helped to create the Labour party in 1900. Convinced of the need for evidence-based social science, the Webbs created the London School of Economics, and the New Statesman to provide an outlet for political debate and ideas.
Are these achievements anything more than a historical curiousity today? The fame and enduring reputation of many of the early Fabians could, after all, prove a burden as well as an asset for a thriving contemporary thinktank and political society, which will naturally be judged on its ability to shape the political debates of today and tomorrow, not those of yesterday. The Fabian Society's central role is to lead debate in defining the future ideas, politics and policies of the left and to show that progressives can win the next battle of political ideas.
Yet, in doing so, we can take inspiration from our roots. After all, what is most striking about the early Fabians is not that they provide a roll call of many of the most eminent thinkers of the Victorian and Edwardian age - the Webbs, Shaw and William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, Rubert Brooke, Emmeline Pankhurst and many more - but the extent to which they were prepared to think ahead of the seemingly immutable features of the politics and society of their own times.
Most importantly, they demonstrated that ideas matter in politics. The impact of ideas is often disguised and understated. After all, ideas, however revolutionary when proposed, quickly become part of the political furniture. Yet it is often the battle of ideas - with its intellectual revolutions and counter-revolutions - which reshape the boundaries of what is politically possible at any given time. And it is the ability of governments not just to legislate for their programmes but to shift their political opponents on to new territory which define a lasting political legacy.
The battle of ideas cannot be taken for granted. Few today, especially on the left, would share the early Fabians' characteristically Victorian certainty in "the inevitability of gradualness". Rather, today it is common for neo-conservatives and neo-liberals to believe that history is preordained to go their way. Yet this too is disingenuous. Ideas need political champions to succeed. Richard Cockett's definitive book Thinking the Unthinkable on the rise of the "new right" (a label first applied by a Fabian critique) shows how the neo-liberal counter-revolution was explicitly modelled on the influence of Fabianism, which it sought to to emulate, and counter, through institutions such as the Institute of Economic Affairs.
For political ideas to be effective, they must be constantly rethought. A good Fabian slogan might be "Revisionists revise". The Fabian ability to influence across political generations has been achieved through the pluralism and diversity of Fabian thinking - a constant rethinking for every political generation what it is to be progressive and on the left. Every time there has been an important renewal of left-of-centre thinking, Fabians have been central to those debates.
So Sidney Webb wrote the Labour Party's constitution in 1918, including the famous clause 4 commitment to nationalisation. But Fabians also played a central role in the debates which led to the Labour party rewriting its statement of aims and values in 1995 as it sought to escape its years in the electoral wilderness, particularly through Giles Radice's highly influential Southern Discomfort pamphlets examining what stopped voters disenchanted with the Conservatives switching to Labour. And the time has come to renew again - we must re-examine the founding myths and fears of New Labour as we seek to ensure a radical Labour third term.
Disagreement and debate is thus built into the fabric of the Fabian approach - underpinned by the lack of any collective Fabian "line" on policy issues. The ideal of open-minded, rational disagreement has not always been achieved in practice - HG Wells stormed out of the Society and lampooned the Webbs in his satire The New Machiavelli while the formation of the SDP created deep divisions a generation ago. And few would claim that Fabians have got everything right - the early Fabian claim that markets were inefficient simply by virtue of being unplanned was clearly a mistake, and the Webbs in particular have been much criticised for their grey statist approach and their naivety, late in life, about the Soviet Union.
But many of the most telling critiques have come from within the Fabian fold. Tony Crosland's famous claim in The Future of Socialism, easily the most influential book for the postwar left, that "Total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right sign-posts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside". And his call for a greater emphasis on "freedom and dissent, on culture, beauty, leisure, and even frivolity" still stands among the most eloquent expressions of an attractive ethical, democratic and participatory vision of what it is to be on the left. The values and ideas of William Morris, RH Tawney, GDH Cole and many others can similarly still influence contemporary political debates too.
A long Fabian history has inevitably contained low as well as high points - the Society's non-sectarian approach was somewhat out of time with the political mood of both the 1930s and 1970s. Yet we Fabians enter our 13th decade in particularly good health. Two Labour landslides have seen more Fabians returned to the House of Commons than there are Conservatives and Lib Dems MPs put together - their number including Stephen Twigg whose shock defeat of Michael Portillo on election night 1997 meant he had to give up his post as Fabian general secretary.
Today the membership of the Society is twice what it was 30 years ago and stands at its highest level since Clement Attlee was prime minister. While under previous Labour governments Fabian membership has fallen, it has continued to rise steadily each year since 1997 - just one sign that, for all of the talk of apathy, there is immense interest in politics today, though increasingly often this is taking place outside formal political party structures.
The great questions which will shape the next era of political debate - revitalising democracy and political participation; reshaping the relationship between citizens and the state; making environmentalism central to mainstream politics and creating an effective internationalism which can hold power to political account in a global age - will require new and innovative thinking to create a progressive politics for our own age.
Yet the early Fabians would still find much that was recognisable in our contributions to these debates. The traditions of gradualism remain strong - especially the tactic of breaking political taboos to open up new ground in debates, as with our influential Commissions on Taxation and on the Monarchy. Our next major Commission, to be launched early this year, on Life Chances including setting out a road-map for the Labour government's ambitious goal of abolishing child poverty by 2020, returns to a perennial Fabian theme of social justice, and indeed contains echoes of the Society's very first pamphlet, titled Why are the many poor.
Whether they would be, on balance, more encouraged or dismayed by the condition of contemporary Britain, those who founded the Fabian Society in 1884 would perhaps be surprised to find it still going strong 120 years on. In his essay on Sixty Years of Fabianism, George Bernard Shaw, then aged 90, concluded that he must "retire to make room for the Fabians of 60 years hence, by whatever name they will then be called. For the name may perish, but not the species". We can do no more than commend his thought to the future Fabians of 2064.
· Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. For more information, and details of how to join see www.fabian-society.org.uk
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