Forward with the ‘Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Precious Blood to Transform the Kingdom of This World’ and other comrades too!

Donald Sassoon

  • 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.

Bryant’s ‘personal history’ of the British Christian socialists describes them as a ‘movement’, although, even at its peak, membership of the numerous groups and sects included in his account was only a few thousand. In fact, we are offered a kind of Who’s Who of Christian socialists, a rapid and dizzying tour of the central figures. The emphasis is not on ideas but on personalities: where they were educated, who their friends were, who influenced them, who they influenced, who they married, where they lived and the organisations they founded. Towards the end of this journey Bryant asks whether Christian socialism amounts to anything more than ‘the random thoughts of a bunch of Christians who have adopted socialism for their politics, or socialists who go to church, who may see their political and spiritual values as consistent but vary in their conclusions? Or is there something that is identifiable as Christian socialism?’ His confused and confusing account, analytically poor, anecdotally rich, is not so much the history of the movement as the story of a few hundred members scattered here and there, led by amiable British eccentrics and a fistful of serious thinkers and activists who form small groups and dissolve them again. Manifestos and pamphlets are written, produced and soon forgotten. Because the ideological underpinnings of the movement are rather vague and Bryant is not doctrinaire, he can recruit any socialist with a declared belief in Christianity, including Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury and Harold Wilson, and any Christian who has advocated a social role for Christianity – a rubric which would not exclude most modern Popes.

If Bryant’s history had been less provincial it might have situated the ‘left turn’ in Christianity in a wider context. In Europe now, Christians campaign as assiduously against racism and for asylum rights as they did in the Eighties for peace and nuclear disarmament. The leading exponent of a ‘social’ Europe, Jacques Delors, is a Christian socialist; so is Johannes Rau, the SPD’s 1987 candidate for chancellor of what was then West Germany. The prime minister of the first left government in Italian history, Romano Prodi, though not a socialist himself, is a Christian. Churchgoing may have become a minority pursuit but, at least among many left-leaning politically active people, politics has to some extent withstood secularisation. The Church of England, though not yet the Labour Party at prayer, was one of the main institutions to oppose the worst excesses of Thatcherite individualism and the frenetic glorification of market forces.

This is not entirely new, however. One of the merits of Bryant’s scattergun approach is to remind those who have forgotten it that Christian doubts about the joys of capitalism have a long pedigree. On the other hand, such misgivings do not amount to a coherent political philosophy. The 19th-century founders of Christian socialism – Frederick Maurice, for example – supported the monarchy and the divine right of the Church of England and opposed universal suffrage. Indeed, many of the first Christian socialist writings ‘seem no more than pious, paternalist but benevolent Toryism’. John Ludlow, who is charitably described by Bryant as anti-colonialist, believed that Britain’s role was to bring Christianity to India and ensure that the Indian Christians, though still a minority, would eventually come to govern. Charles Kingsley – another of the founders – supported the South in the American Civil War.

The passage of time did not bring any further coherence to Christian socialism: a theologically-based morality does not confer any greater certitude than the secular morality of the wider socialist movement. It has certainly never provided Christian socialism with mass appeal. The Guild of St Matthew, which was founded by Stewart Headlam in 1877, and by 1884, according to Bryant, was the first explicitly socialist organisation in Britain, had at most a membership of 360. Its stated aim was to fight secularist prejudice, to defend the Church of England and to promote ‘the study of social and political questions in the light of the Incarnation’. The aim of the rival and larger Christian Social Union led by Henry Scott Holland was to make Christian law the ultimate authority, to discover how the moral truths of Christianity might be applied to social and economic problems and to ‘present Christ in practical life as the Living Master and King’. At its height, the CSU had six thousand members. Disarmingly, Bryant admits that ‘it has always been easy to be condescending about moderate organisations, and many of the Union’s Christian socialist successors have passed censorious judgments on its ambivalence, its donnishness and its air of extreme respectability. Certainly it is true that the Union was an overwhelmingly patrician affair, dominated by wealthy, landed clerics, well-entrenched in the establishment.’

The political itinerary of Christian socialists paralleled the twists and turns of the wider movement. During the First World War, while some adopted a pacifiststance, Arnold Pinchard of the Church Socialist League declared patriotically: I ‘believe that at this moment no man is more truly working for the cause of God in the world than the soldier in the trenches.’ Yet others welcomed the Russian Revolution, including Conrad Noel, the founder, in 1918, of the Catholic Crusade or, to give it its full, catchy title, the Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Precious Blood to Transform the Kingdom of This World into the Commonwealth of God.

The lack of any analytical dimension in Bryant’s book does not obscure the central importance of the relationship between religion, the state and political parties, even if this remains undiscussed and unexplored. In its dealings with the modern state, political Christianity has oscillated between two distinct but interrelated approaches. One, an organicist fundamentalism based on St Augustine, contrasts the structure of actually existing – and fallible – polities with the Ideal Polity, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. An absolute and superior ethical principle of organisation, informed by the Gospels, should guide human attempts to establish the just society. Unless temporal states model themselves on the City of God, even the most democratic among them will be liable to degenerate into the City of the Devil. The tasks of Christians – who accept that there is a Divine Truth – is to demonstrate the best way to organise the state so that it approximates the ethical polity.

The second approach, which seems to be closer to that of most modern Christian socialists, consists in using the instruments of the modern state, and, above all the modern political party, to reconstruct the state along proper ethical lines. This was the position, in the 19th century, of those Catholics, such as Félicité de Lamennais, the leading exponent of social Catholicism in France, who realised that the Industrial and French Revolutions had brought about a set of irreversible changes. It was now necessary to prosecute a war on two fronts against two distinct opponents: the first – a real enemy – was bourgeois individualism, the principal expression of the Enlightenment and the guardian of a society based on the glorification of material values; the second – more a competitor than a foe – was socialism, which challenged capitalism on the basis of the values of collectivism and solidarity in the name of a historically-based determinism.

On the continent of Europe this war in defence of religious values, waged chiefly by political Catholics, required a modern instrument and a modern programme. Its instrument was the political party. Its programme was Pope Leo XIlI’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which appeared not in 1889, as Bryant tells us, but in 1891 – the same year as the Erfurt Programme, the key text of the best-organised and most advanced socialist party of the time, the German SPD, itself the model for most other Continental social democratic parties. The Church would defend its autonomy from the interference of the modern state by using ‘bourgeois-liberal’ rights to demand its own schools, its own press and its own associations, including trade unions and co-operatives. Above all, it would resist centralist statism in the name of civil society. Social Christian parties, mainly Catholic, would arise where possible to defend the Church. This they did in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium. Elsewhere, as was the case in France, Catholics eventually accepted the Republic, and thus survived the onslaught of anti-clerical liberalism. In Italy the ‘Roman Question’ (the cold war between the Holy See and the young Kingdom of Italy) blocked the formation of a Social Christian party until 1919 when the Partito Popolare was formed.

Like the Nordic countries, Britain avoided a specifically Christian-based party. Christians could be at home in either the Tory Party, a one-nation paternalistic expression of an established Church whose head was the head of state, or the Liberal Party, the repository of Nonconformist radical reformism. British bourgeois liberalism was not anti-clerical, but neither was British socialism when it emerged. Nevertheless, the threat of modernity and secularisation existed as much in Britain as elsewhere. The riposte was different: not the formation of a rival party, but attempts to exert influence over existing ones.

One of the main features which united and unites most of the Christian socialists enlisted by Bryant was the realisation, which they shared with their brethren on the Continent, that the Churches had to become social if they wanted to survive modernity. To those who announced that God was dead or silent, Christian socialists replied with the words of John Ludlow: ‘Socialism must be Christianised or it would shake Christianity to its foundations.’ The social issues of the day had to be addressed by the Church not only because it had a contribution to make but because otherwise it would sink into irrelevance.

By and large Christian socialists accepted the self-definition offered by the Church Socialist League: they were church people who accepted the principle of socialism – namely, ‘the political, economic and social emancipation of the whole people, men and women, by the establishment of a democratic commonwealth in which the community shall own the land and capital collectively and use them for the good of all’. A deal appeared to have been struck: socialism could offer (some) Christians principles of social organisation congruent with those of Christianity. Christians, in turn, could offer socialists a recruiting-ground by convincing other Christians that, in the marketplace of competing political ideologies, socialism offers a framework compatible with the principles of Christianity.

Christian socialists may not have been as influential in the Labour Party as Bryant thinks, but they have been sufficiently strong to ensure that anti-clericalism has never held sway in it. This has prevented a political division of the newly-enfranchised mass society along religious lines (as in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy etc). Paradoxically, it has helped to ensure that the fundamental divide in Britain would remain for far longer than anywhere else a class divide. Now that class-based politics appears to be waning, and everyone claims to be anti-statist, Christian socialists offer the Left the possibility of a community and family-based socialism that is antagonistic to conservative individualist anti-statism. Yet mere words will not dissolve the old question of the relation between the state and religion. Are Christians, and Christian socialists in particular, prepared to forego the manipulation of the state as a means of imposing their own morality on a complex multi-racial and multi-confessional society? Where do they stand on abortion rights and divorce? On blasphemy laws? On the 1988 Education Act which privileges a Christian message in state schools? Do they wish to go back to basics? How libertarian are they?

On this and on much else Bryant is conspiuously silent. The silence undoubtedly conceals divisions: politics is about choices and choice entails the potential loss of some support. Yet it is not possible for any contemporary political movement to ignore the advances in technology that have increased our ethical dilemmas: euthanasia, multiple births, genetic medicine and so forth. In a time of moral relativism and social pluralism, to be silent is apparently to acknowledge one’s irrelevance and impotence, while to insist is the hallmark of intolerance and fundamentalism. In practice, there is mostly compromise and fudge. Politicians assess the winds of change, listen with greater attention to those who argue the loudest, take silence or apathy to mean acquiescence, and, cautiously and hesitantly, legalise abortion, allow homosexuals to have sex and make divorce easier. One day they may concede the right to smoke marijuana – and even to fornicate with one’s siblings should this practice become acceptable. Agnostics and moral relativists may find such pragmatism entirely reasonable but is it acceptable to Christians, including those of the socialist variety? Perhaps not, and, if not, how should Christians who are politicians – or politicians who are Christians – behave? Is it too much to ask them to refrain from using legal machinery to enforce their own moral beliefs, when their power has been bestowed on them by an ideologically multifarious electorate? After all, in this country we elect conservatives, liberals, socialists; we do not – thank God and the Enlightenment – elect Christians and Muslims and Jews. In the 1974 referendum in Italy, an admirable nun admitted voting in favour of divorce. She explained that in her view matrimony was a holy sacrament and divorce a mortalsin, but that she did not wish the state to force Catholics to be Catholics. She believed they should have the choice and ‘follow Jesus’ of their own free will: a lesson in ethics for those who are Christians and socialist, and for those who are neither.