Monday, 29 June 2009

Faith, Socialism and the Left

One thing I notice whilst trawling through the blogs of what I generally term as the 'left' is the high incidence of disdain that a number have for faith. This disdain ranges from a 'bah, humbug' attitude to a more confrontational approach, even through to what I see as an aggressive, almost childish attitude.

So why is this? What causes people to take this attitude?

Actually, I've just asked a question that has as many answers as there are people!

So perhaps a detour is in order, one which has a quick shufty at the history of the radical left of faith and how their faith exhibits itself in action and in the wider labour movement. Being English I'll (mainly) limit it to the radical English Christian tradition. And seeing as this is a blog post and not a small book we'll just run over some of the key characters and organisations, their footprint and influence. I'm also not an encyclopaedia or an expert in history, so a lot of what I have posted is only my knowledge and experience. Mind you, this could end up as rambling rubbish!

Going back a few centuries we come across John Ball, having something of a part to play in the Peasant's Revolt. Excommunicated by the church and finally executed when the establishment extracted revenge upon those involved. Famous for his sermon to the revolters at Blackheath, the famous section was

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the Gentleman?" From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Rolling forward a few years to the time of the English Civil War we have the emergence of a plethora of radical traditions and maybe the first mass movement of people out from he control of the established church. We can label these under the title of 'English Dissenters'.

Perhaps the most famous figure in this era is Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley argued that all land belonged to the community rather than to separate individuals. In January, 1649, he published the The New Law of Righteousness. In the pamphlet he wrote:

"In the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."

Compare that with what John Ball had written and you see the continuation of a tradition formed from a radical understanding of scripture. Winstanley also established a group called the Diggers. In April 1649 Winstanley, William Everard, a former soldier in the New Model Army and about thirty followers took over some common land on St George's Hill in Surrey and "sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans."

Winstanley was looking for a redistribution of land from those who had to those who had none. In 1652 he published the Law of Freedom. In this he expounded a view that officals should be in office for no more than a year and also for a society without money or wage,

"The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money."

A good review is here. Two books I can recommend reading which cover this period are The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill and The Law of Freedom' and Other Writings by Gerrard Winstanley, compiled by Christopher Hill.

Moving on a bit we come to the 19th Century and some people of faith who had a great deal of input into fledgeling labour movements.

Keir Hardie, evangelist, trade union leader, first secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, member of the Independent Labour Party, member of the Labour Representation Committee and ultimately the leader of the Labour Party.

Tom Mann, socialist, communist, trade unionist, founder of the Eight Hour League and Anglican. His writings regarding the church and social justice at the Marxist Internet Archive are worth a look. If anyone has any more information on Mann's Anglicanism throughout his life I'd be very interested!

Slightly off track to the USA with The Reverend Friar Thomas J. Hagerty, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Suspended by his Archbishop because of his agitation in encouraging strike action, he never let that get in the way of his consideration of himself as a priest. Famous words:

"The Ballot Box is simply a capitalist concession. Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation of the working class, and in my opinion it never will."

Hewlett Johnson. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read about the activities of Hewlett Johnson. Radical but of limited effect, but interesting nonetheless. He is also known by the title of the 'Red Dean of Canterbury'. Best known for his unwavering support of the Russian Revolution and of the resultant Soviet Union itself. More info at the Marxist Internet Archive.

I think that'll do for now but the question still remains. Given the outworkings of radical faith in socialism and communism in centuries past, given the commitment of recent christians to furthering the lot of the working man, given the workings of the church through concepts such as liberation theology, why do many on the left have such issues with faith? Or is it that so many of faith have issues with the left? Or perhaps the answer is found in the works of Marx and Engels?
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  1. Your example of the Digger settlement of common land at St George's Hill in 1649 illuminates how little you understand of the past. The people who suffered from this action were the local commoners who depended upon communal rights there to support themselves. This was no occupation of private land.

  2. Thanks for posting anon, but you do need to try and be a bit more polite. To drop in put-downs is really not the best way to introduce yourself.

    Anyways, the poor were suffering terribly through this period of English history. There were many instances of the dispossessed using common land to grow crops, graze animals and where these were seen as a threat those who wielded power would seek to remove them. It may not have been private land but that didn't stop the local landlords treating it as their own.


Keep it clean!