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SOCIALISM’S CHRISTIAN HERITAGE

While there have always been Christian socialists, the left has often been associated with either a tub-thumping anti-clericalism that denounces religiosity as the opium of the masses, or with an aggressive progressivism that understands religion only as an arbitrary and prejudiced cosmological belief system. This is a shame. The ethical life of the civilisation that gave birth to socialism was distinctively Christian. Socialism is a product of certain ethical tenets, Christian in origin, which we now take for granted. It is all the better for this. Across the West the left is on the retreat; its Christian origins may provide the basis for its renewal.

Secular modernity claims a rationality and a neutrality that it does not possess. The leaders of what Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent calls ‘radical secularism’ – in particular, the more zealous European Union leaders – believe that the Europe of nations and churches can be and is being replaced by a belief in human universality in which the nations and churches that were once at the heart of European culture no longer command the loyalty of European citizens. One could argue that the result of the UK referendum on staying in the EU represented a rejection of this secular, progressive view.  It was, furthermore, revealed not to be neutral at all. The EU’s belief in the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital and the movement of people – advancing towards a universally understood form of human progress, is a perspective with a distinctly religious hue.

There is a paradox here: on the one hand we declare ourselves secular and humanity universal; on the other, the belief in universal humanity and egalitarianism, reflected in the altruism and self-sacrifice of much of Europe’s approach to the refugee crisis, is an almost uniquely Christian proposition. Angela Merkel grasped this paradox when she said that the problem in Europe was not too much Islam, but too little Christianity.

In the crucifixion of Christ, the story of which serves as the basis of Western morality, centuries of ethics were turned on their head. As Tom Holland put it in a recent New Statesman article:

‘Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves[…] Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.

It is paradoxically our particular Christian heritage that gives rise to our belief in universalism. Recent books by Larry Siedentop and Nick Spencer argue convincingly that it is the Christian conception of the human soul, which all possess, that creates the conditions for egalitarianism – as Saint Paul articulated 2,000 years ago. Every individual, regardless of their social role, is equal in the eyes of God. Today, this seems a commonplace concept but it was a revolutionary moral transformation from the belief system of the pagan, tribal and partisan gods that preceded it. This aspect of our Christian inheritance undermined the old moral justifications for the heritability of hierarchy and even the ultimate subjugation of slavery that defined antiquity.

Beyond our shared Christian history, Christians of all traditions have played an important role in socialist and labour movements. Non-conformist Methodists in particular played a substantial role in the formation of the Labour party and provided the party – outside of London – with a bedrock of support and activity. The party’s relationship with Catholics has been more strained but they, too, formed a reliable block of support and activity, particularly in Scotland and Merseyside. Often standing in contrast to Marxist, economistic and utilitarian tendencies on the left, Christians have tended to value the importance of civility and virtue, meaningful relationships and community feeling. What’s more, despite the materialism of other tendencies within the Labour movement, Christians have seldom fallen for the dangerous delusion that tragedy, suffering and human imperfection can be eradicated altogether in some future utopia – a vision whose easy appeal has led so many socialists astray.

Some of the overlaps between Christianity and socialism are clear – a respect for the dignity of the poor and the belief in ecological stewardship, which Saint Francis above all cherished, for example. But most of all, our Christian heritage offers us a way of tying together collectivism and individualism in a way that satisfies the human need to be part of a meaningful community, without trampling on the dignity of the individual. In the parts of the world that used to be called Christendom, nativism is rising as people who have lost the sense of collective identity that nationhood, religiosity, reliable patterns of labour and tightly bound families and communities once brought, search for new forms of collective identity and meaning. Christianity invented the individual, as Siedentop puts it, but it also understood the individual as embedded in relationships and shaped by history, rather than as a solitary atom moving frictionless across the surface of the earth. A politics rooted in such a conception neither ignores our tribal impulses, as do many contemporary liberals, nor weaponises them, as does the nativist right wing.

Amidst the tumult of today’s political world, the concerns that the Christian pioneers of the Labour movement expressed, seem more important than ever. By stressing the common good over sectional interests; the spiritual and ethical dimension of the good life over the narrowly economic; and the importance of virtue and relationships over moral libertarianism, Christianity offers the left an opportunity to once again speak to the common good of the country, and relate to people in the full richness of who they are.

Globalisation and secularism have unmoored people from a common sense of belonging, and mean-spirited nativist identity politics is filling the gap. An acknowledgment of our Christian heritage could provide the basis for the renewal of a Labour politics that speaks to humans as the relational creatures, fallen and imperfect but capable of love and redemption, which we are. f

Tobias Phibbs is a researcher at the Fabian Society and assistant editor of the Fabian Review.