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- Possible Dreams: A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists by Chris Bryant
Hodder, 351 pp, £25.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 340 64201 7
John Smith was ‘one of them’. Tony Blair is ‘one of them’. And so are Chris Smith and Jack Straw and half the Shadow Cabinet and many more on the backbenches including Frank Field, that one-man think-tank of the Labour Right. ‘They’ are the Christian socialists, architects of New Labour, ready to provide the movement with the ethical foundations which seem sorely missing. Perhaps they hold a Bible in one hand and the revised version of Clause Four in the other, but the Bible is not readily discernible and the real purpose of the new clause was to do away with the old one. ‘Blair,’ as Chris Bryant, leader of the Christian Socialist Movement, disarmingly admits, ‘has been keen not to be too explicit about his religious commitment ... Quite rightly, both he and Straw are hesitant to proclaim their Christian faith for fear of appearing self-righteous or exclusive and fanatical.’ Is this a tacit admission that, in a secular society, too overt a religious commitment generates suspicion rather than approval? Does it follow therefore that Christians should disguise their Christianity, talk about responsibilities, duties, communities, families, morality, ethics, concern for others and so on, but not about the Bible, Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth?
One view is that by playing down their beliefs, Christian socialists are behaving like an entryist organisation, a Militant Tendency of the Gospel. The analogy with Trotskyist sects may be unfair. Christian socialists do not meet secretly, do not act as a caucus, do not form a party within a party – or not as far as we know. Nor do they have the doctrinal stridency, the ideological unity and the monolithic structure of neo-Leninist ‘vanguards’. In one sense, however, the parallel is not far-fetched. Christian socialists, like neo-Leninists, accept that they cannot function in the political arena as autonomous organisations, as parties in their own right or broad mass movements able to exercise pressure on parties and politicians. They are élite associations whose task is to persuade others to adopt a particular ideology or strategy. Key members in key positions are able to bring about change better than thousands of activists. The problem with Christian socialists is that they are unable to agree what socialism is and what socialists should do. Like ordinary socialists, in fact, they are wondering how to tackle the ‘post-ist’ age – post-Cold war, post-socialist, post-Keynesian, post-feminist, Post-Modernist. Besides, any attempt to recruit God on behalf of New Labour would encounter the opposition of those with Christian backgrounds who remain uncertain of New Labour’s merits, such as Michael Meacher, an Anglican and ex-Bennite, or the Old Labour heirs to Eric Heffer, a staunch Anglo-Catholic, or Tony Benn, an agnostic who nonetheless argues that ‘the moral roots of socialism lie in religion’ and that ‘political agitation is groundless unless based on an independent moral and religious critique of society.’
In the more distant past, Christian socialists managed to span the entire Labour spectrum and beyond and to include the likes of John McMurray, who is said to have been an intelectual influence on Blair, and who wrote in the Thirties that Communism was ‘the necessary basis of freedom’ and the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, who was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize for his pro-Soviet views. For some, Christianity may point to socialism but, quite clearly, it does not provide any clear-cut indication of what it is or how to get there.