Celebrating Christian involvement in politics
Christian Socialist Movement's 50th anniversary
In the late 1950s a small group of left wing Christian politicians held meetings in the Lamb pub in Bloomsbury to plan a new Christian political organisation. They cannot have known, though they may have hoped, that it would still be going strong half a century later. Today, celebrating its fiftieth birthday a year late due to last year’s General Election, the Christian Socialist Movement is regarded as a significant strand of the broad church that is the Labour Party.
From those Bloomsbury meetings came a small book entitled Papers from the Lamb. It set out a series of ideas on which its 23 authors, led by Methodist minister Donald Soper, believed most Christians on the left of politics could agree. It covered the issues and commitments to common ownership, human and racial equality, international peace (including nuclear weapons), unity among Christians, Christians and the Soviet Union – very much a concern of the time and – and the obligations of prayer and thought. At a meeting in the Kingsway Hall in London in 1960 the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) was founded.
CSM stood on foundations of Christian Socialism which stretched back many years. Christian Socialism is generally believed to have begun as a way of thinking in 1848 when FD Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and John Ludlow reacted to a Chartist demonstration. In the same year, the Communist Manifesto stated witheringly that ‘Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat’. The early pioneers did indeed tend to be motivated by concern for the poor rather than being from them though they would have rejected Marx and Engels criticism. However, at the same time working class people were forming trade unions and other bodies, influenced by the values and the organisation of non conformist Christianity. The first Labour MP, Kier Hardie, professed the faith and stated that his politics were driven by his Christian beliefs.
CSM’s 50th anniversary is important because it marks a long stretch of time when one organisation has represented Christians on the Left. CSM itself was formed by bringing together the Socialist Christian League and the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers. While CSM remained small for many years, it expanded during the 1970s. Always counting Labour MPs in its membership, in 1986 it affiliated to the Labour Party. Its members included Labour leaders John Smith, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown. Smith started a debate about faith and politics with his 1993 CSM Tawney Lecture, named after prominent Christian Socialist and Labour thinker RH Tawney. Smith was clear about his Christian faith and stated that “Just as the Christian stands by the fundamental tenets of Christianity, so the socialist should stand by the tenets of socialism. For me, socialism is largely Christian ethical values…Politics is a moral activity. Values should shine through at all times.” It was during the 1990s that CSM’s link with the Labour Party became much stronger, in part through the work of its first full time coordinator David Cairns, who later began a career as a Member of Parliament. Sadly, David passed away earlier this month.
There are differing definitions of socialism and it is a word not so often used today. The Christian variety stresses the equal worth of each person and the value of fellowship and community. That should not surprise us because both elements are found together in the Bible, particularly in references to the new creation. A Christian Socialist gets nervous when politics becomes too individualist, limiting a role for the common good, or too collectivist, when God-given individual identity is downplayed. As such it has not always been popular either on the right of politics or amongst those who favour only big state solutions to problems.
Today the Christian Socialist perspective is being actively sought out as the Labour Party seeks to renew itself after its election defeat last year. Thinkers such as Jon Cruddas MP and the academic and peer Maurice Glasman have cited Christian Socialist thinking as a well from which to draw inspiration. They believe that Labour thinking has been too centralist and that it should rethink how it can help build a ‘Good Society’. The new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, appears to agree.
Meanwhile, CSM itself is contributing to Labour’s renewal. Last year, it began work on its ‘Labour Neighbours’ project. This takes as its starting point the roles played by churches in their local communities and suggests local Labour parties may have something to learn from them. It seeks to embed local parties more deeply in their constituencies by encouraging members to put their Labour values in practice on the ground as well as campaigning for them in elections. This might mean local parties forming coalitions with local church and community groups around a common aim, such as a local campaign or, for example, redecorating a community hall. In doing so, all participants can retain their integrity but achieve a lot together. CSM is highlighting the value of building sustainable relationships in this project. CSM is also contributing to Labour’s work on policy.
Whatever particular activity CSM engages in, it has another important mission. It is a vital bridge between the church and the Labour Party. Independent of Labour but part of it, CSM is able to be a prophetic witness both to the Party and to the church. As we stand up for Christian values in politics, we also encourage Christians who normally vote Labour to get a bit more involved. The other political parties have equivalent organisations. Joining CSM is a way of helping to support Christians involved at all levels in the Labour Party. As we look ahead to the next fifty years, our hope is that we can continue to be salt and light in progressive politics.
This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper on 27 May 2011.