Although Christianity is often associated with conservatism, Christian Socialism is a well-established ideological strand within British politics, explains Anthony A.J. Williams. He outlines its origins and evolution.
One of Jeremy Corbyn’s first duties after his re-election as leader of the Labour Party in September 2016 was an appearance at the Sunday morning service organised by Christians on the Left, at an evangelical Anglican church near the conference venue in Liverpool. The worshippers who had gathered that morning gave Corbyn a warm reception and vocal support as he described the “fundamental tenets of Christianity” as being “social justice”, “sharing” and “compassion”.
If the idea of such a scene seems strange, it is probably because we more readily associate Christianity with conservatism and the political right. We are much more familiar with the Religious Right of the United States, a coalition of evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans which dates back to Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. Such is the bond forged between these two groups that every Republican presidential candidate since Reagan has gained the support of a majority of white evangelicals. Yet this link serves to obscure a long and genuine tradition of left-wing Christianity, one which cuts across national and denominational boundaries, from the Roman Catholic liberation theology of Latin America, to the “red-letter” evangelicalism of the United States, to the Christian Socialism of the UK.
A number of well-researched books about this British tradition of Christian Socialism have been released in the last two decades or so, including Alan Wilkinson’s Christian Socialism: Scott Holland to Tony Blair (1996), Chris Bryant’s Possible Dreams: A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists (1998) and Graham Dale’s God’s Politicians: The Christian Contribution to 100 Years of Labour (2000). These, however, have tended to focus on the biographical and historical rather than the political ideological details of what concepts, ideas, and principles make up Christian Socialism.
The aim of my recent research was to rectify this lack. The work focused on a number of case studies – individuals such as James Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and R.H. Tawney, along with lesser-known figures such as Stuart Headlam, Samuel Keeble and Wilfred Wellock, all of which had made a formative impact on Christian Socialism.
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The period in which these individuals operated, the late-19th to mid-20th Century, ought to be considered a formative one for Christian Socialism. Prior to this came the “Christian Socialism” of F.D. Maurice and his circle, but the aim of these men was to counter “the challenge of socialism” from a Christian paternalistic perspective. This latter period by contrast saw the establishment of a genuinely socialist Christian Socialism, coincides with other important events such as the formation of the Labour Party, and leads up to the founding of the Christian Socialist Movement – now Christians on the Left – in 1960.
Yet Christian Socialism is more than just secular socialism with a religious façade. It rests, as one writer puts it, “on unique foundations”. These foundations include the Bible, the teaching of the church, and the example of the sacraments. From these are drawn the concepts which form the structure of Christian Socialism.
The key theme in Christian Socialism – indeed the concept at the very heart of Christian Socialist thinking – is the brotherhood of man, drawn from the idea of the universal Fatherhood of God. This theme is derived from biblical passages such as this teaching of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: “But be ye not called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven”. The Christian Socialist understood the Bible to teach, as George Lansbury put it, God’s “Fatherhood and the consequent Brotherhood of man”, and that they had been sent forth with, in James Keir Hardie’s words, a “Gospel […] proclaiming all men sons of God and brethren one with another”.
This teaching was used as a powerful argument against capitalism. Samuel Keeble identified “the great Christian principles of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” as in tension with the inherent selfishness and individualism of capitalism. Competition, according to Keeble, “is contrary […] to the teaching of the Christian religion, which […] condemns selfishness, and demands that men love their neighbour as themselves. It is contrary, because Christianity proclaims the brotherhood men”.
This negative argument – that capitalism was contrary to the brotherly existence urged by Scripture – was also accompanied by a positive one – that socialism was the system by which brotherly love could be practiced. According to Keeble, a “great cry of Socialism” was “for brotherhood – the most Christian of cries”. “The Socialist”, in Keeble’s opinion, “who demands brotherhood in industry is far nearer the mind of Christ than the economist who clamours for ‘free’ competition”.
From this premise – God is Father, and therefore all the people of the Earth are brothers – were drawn three other key concepts: equality, co-operation and democracy. If all people are brothers and sisters, “the children of one Father” to use a phrase of Archbishop William Temple, then all are equal and should be treated as such, all should work together for the common good, and all should have a say in political decision-making. We can see, therefore, that the key political concepts of Christian Socialism are all derived from a core concept which is primarily biblical and theological in nature.
Christian Socialists pointed to other arguments in Scripture which seemed to back up their claims – Christ’s blessings of the poor and denunciations of materialism and the accumulation of wealth, the socialistic land laws of the Old Testament, the common ownership described in Acts of the Apostles – as well as the teachings of church history and egalitarian message of the sacraments in which each person is equal before God.
Whether such interpretations of the Bible, ecclesiastical teaching or sacraments line up with orthodox Christian understanding is certainly questionable. Do the sacraments of baptism and eucharist proclaim universal equality and co-operation? Is the official teaching of the church in favour of socialism? Is God the Father of all living, or just of those who love and follow Christ?
Yet for our purposes we may conclude that Christian Socialism is a genuinely religious phenomenon and a well-established ideological strand within British politics. The members of Christians on the Left, the church which provided a venue for their service, and the congregation who cheered Jeremy Corbyn are not a historical aberration but are in fact taking their place in a long-standing tradition.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the Evangelical Review of Theology and Politics.
Anthony A.J. Williams is a University Teacher in Politics at the University of Liverpool.