Notes on Anglican Christian Socialism.

Were the Christian Socialist really socialists? And if so, what type of socialism did they embody and to what degree?

This question has haunted historians of the movement for some time. In The Victorian Christian Socialists, Edward Norman claims that they really were not socialist at all, as the main figures – Maurice, Ludlow, and Kingsley – were more concerned with morals and education rather than politics. According to Norman, the Christian Socialists never reached the pinnacle of a movement or tradition; in actual fact, they were too fragmented and disjointed.

John Milbank, in Were the “Christian Socialists” Socialist, rejects Norman’s reading. The temptation among historians, according to Milbank, is to read later socialism back into the early forms of Christian Socialism, and then to judge them by this standard. “A great deal of the historiography of Victorian Christian socialism, particularly since the Second World War, has been skewed by an understanding of socialism derived from later historical perspectives” (in The Future of Love, 63). Aside from being simply anachronistic, such readings neglect the fact that socialism itself at the time of the Christian Socialists was not a unified theme: Guild Socialism, Syndicalism, Marxism, Fabianism, Associationism, the Cooperative Movement, and the last remnants of Utopian Socialism were all vying for the title of “socialist.” In The Christian Socialist Revival, Peter d’A. Jones offers a more measured reading, arguing that the Christian Socialist movement was ad hoc and experimental in nature. Key members “tended to borrow whatever economic ideas and techniques seemed appropriate” from both secular and sacred sources, including Marx’s labor theory of value, the French Catholic socialism of Buchez, Guild Socialism, and even the Distributism of Belloc and Chesterton (448). As Ludlow observed in his autobiography,

In these days, when the term ‘Socialism’ is sought to be narrowed in the using of the word, and its history in this country as well as elsewhere, are so grossly overlooked that ‘Co-operation’ and ‘Socialism” are actually treated as antagonistic, both by men who call themselves Socialists and by men who call themselves Co-operators, one cannot too strenuously insist upon the cardinal value of Mr. Maurice’s declarations in the Tract in question:

 “The watchword of the Socialist is Co-operation; the watchword of the anti-socialist is competition. Anyone who recognizes the principle of Co-operation as a stronger and truer principle than that of competition has a right to the honor or disgrace of being called a Socialist” (188).

Further, Norman’s framing of the issue – the choice between political or moral – is problematic. For the Christian Socialists, there is no such distinction. Similar to Owenism, they sought the creation of a society where it would be easier for both women and men to be good. Unlike Owenism and the Fabians, they advocated a middle-out process rather than a top-down.

What’s often neglected in many of the major studies of the Christian Socialists is what they actually intended by the concept of the social. That is, readings of the movement tend to focus on the politics of association and the relative failures of their co-operative enterprises. But few seem to engage with the philosophical concept of the social itself, or at least how the social, economic and theological all hold together (Maurice Reckitt’s important work, Maurice to Temple, stands as one of the great exceptions).

For instance, buried within The Kingdom of Christ, F.D. Maurice makes an interesting critique against the voluntarism endemic to Bentham and his followers in favor of socialism. This is worth quoting in full:

The worship of circumstances is the habit of feeling into which the easy and comfortable part of mankind naturally fall; their inward thought is that their houses shall continue forever, and that thought makes them at once indisposed to change, and skeptical about the existence of any invisible government. When the poor men say, “We, too, will acknowledge circumstances to be all in all, we will cast away any belief in that which is invisible, this world shall be the only home in which we dwell,” the language may well appall all who hear. To one who sympathizes with the poor it is fearful, because of that which it shows they are ready to abandon. To one who has no sympathy with the poor it is fearful, because of that which it shows they are ready to take away from him. Nevertheless, be it observed, the force of these assertions lies in that very point in which they are anti-socialists – it is the “we will” that gives them all their meaning” (IV.iii).

Maurice’s Platonism is of course evident here, but what is most interesting is the distinction he draws between voluntarism and the reality of the social, and how from Maurice’s perspective, the former attempts to subsume the later.