An Ideology of Resistance?

Anthony A.J. Williams | Christian Socialism as Political Ideology: The Formation of the British Christian Left, 1877-1945 | Bloomsbury Publishing | 2020

reviewed by Tony Hunt

Recent years have seen an explosion of books published about Christian socialism. Gary Dorrien has produced several major works, covering the Black Christian Social Gospel of Du Bois and MLK; and the Democratic Socialism of Europe and America⁠—with special attention to the oft-neglected religious contribution to the Socialist tradition. Eugene McCarraher’s massive history of the rise and totalizing ideology of Capitalism also tells the parallel story of what he calls “Romantic Socialism,” a great deal of which was Christian in its orientation. Roland Boer has written about Christian Communism; John C. Cort’s classic history has been reprinted with a new introduction by Dorrien; and Philip Turner has looked at a particular wing of British Christian Socialism, mostly finding it wanting. Which isn’t even to mention the proliferation of podcasts, blogs, and magazines dedicated to reinvigorating the Christian Socialist tradition.

It is onto such an energetic scene that Anthony A. J. Williams’ Christian Socialism as Political Ideology arrives. One might think that another book on this topic might be superfluous, but Williams’ work makes a unique contribution to the ongoing discussion.

Christian Socialism is the fruit of Williams’ doctoral studies at the University of Liverpool. Whereas most of the works mentioned above tell a sweeping international historical narrative, Williams focuses on the British Christian Left from 1877, which saw the founding of the Guild of St. Matthew, an Anglo-Catholic socialist organization founded by the priest Stewart Headlam, to 1945, the year of Labour’s first majority government. It is, then, a more circumscribed study than Dorrien’s or McCarraher’s. This allows Williams to tighten his scope and go in-depth on an interesting array of figures. The people he chooses to examine are an ecumenical bunch, ranging from non-Conformists to Anglicans and a Roman Catholic. Their socialist commitments are equally as diverse as their ecclesial homes, from reformers like Henry Scott Holland, to some on the border of the revolutionary like James Keir Hardie or Samuel Keeble.

Besides its narrower scope, what sets Williams’ book apart from other recent works is that it is not really a work of history. He only introduces historical context in situations that necessitate it for interpretive purposes. His is above all a textual study. The reason he chose to look at those whom he did is because they were writers and theorists. This allows him to synthesize their political and theological theory as a social, ethical system. He does not claim they are necessarily more important to the labor movement than organizers. There are even other Christian social theorists of this period who could have been covered, say Charles Gore or Conrad Noel. But again, Williams has not set out to create an encyclopedia.

Part One looks at the foundational theological commitments of the socialists, beginning straight away with the “biblical basis” for Christian socialism. It is here perhaps above all that Williams breaks new ground. I realized as I read that no other writer I am aware of spends any significant time looking at the biblical hermeneutics of the figures studied, which is honestly surprising. The Christian socialists of the time often had to make apologies on two fronts: To secular socialists, they needed to assure them that Christianity, properly understood, was friendly to the cause. At the same time, many Christians were horrified at socialism, believing it to be dangerous and radical, inimical to the Christian faith and the traditional family. To these fellow Christians, Williams’ figures needed to show that Christianity calls for socialism. And to do this they needed to ground their case on the Bible. This first section shows that the Bible was far more important than is usually recognized in their vision.

Many studies of this period draw attention to the central role of the Church at the time, and Williams follows them in the second chapter. Because of the ecumenical nature of the group he studies, Williams manages to point up the contrast between the Anglicans and the Catholic John Wheatley on the one hand, and the non-Conformists on the other, with respect to the role of the Church, understood theologically, in their various schemes. Most Christian socialists believed that Protestant individualism and theology had severed the ethical from the economic, giving space for the rise of a scientific political economy. Williams notes that non-Conformists “were just as capable of finding from within their own tradition a basis for socialism” as others. It is obviously true that non-Conformists played a key role in the organization of labor, however he does not go on to show how this showed up as a non-Conformist theology of the Church.

Williams finishes section one by looking at assorted other influences on the Christian socialists, from Maurice to Marx, the Fabians to Henry George, before examining what he calls the “democratic-revolutionary synthesis” of his figures. What is the road they see ahead on the way to the realization of socialism? Williams observes that while they were generally not in favor of violently overthrowing the current political order, they were more revolutionary than is often believed. Even reformers wanted to see a gradual shift to a total reorganization of society.

At least economically. In the third section Williams demonstrates how their ethical angle often preserved bits of conservatism within their schemes, especially as related to family, marriage, sexuality, often alcohol, and even occasionally the poor and unemployed. Nevertheless, they still looked to a democratic, egalitarian society. Williams closes by looking at the internal contradiction between their utopianism and their general, though not absolute, allowance for the necessity of war. In this, the Christian socialists were only as contradictory as socialism has been in general, and it is something they were never able to resolve.

A review this brief will never be able to cover everything. Neither will a book this brief be able to cover everything. It is a perennial error of reviewers to fault a book for not being what it never set out to be, and Williams⁠—as I said⁠—has limited his study to a specific region, time, and number of figures. Nevertheless, there are at least a couple other Christian socialists who would have added much to his overall picture. I am thinking of Conrad Noel and Percy Dearmer in particular. Williams’ fantastic opening chapter on the Bible could have been filled out significantly with input from Noel’s big Life of Jesus, an idiosyncratic, extended commentary on the Gospels and perhaps the first sustained anti-imperialist interpretation of the Gospels in any language. Dearmer’s call for the necessity of ecumenical cooperation for the accomplishment of socialism stands out amongst contemporary Anglican socialists, most of whom were rather un-ecumenical on account of their ecclesiology. But again, this is perhaps not even a criticism so much as a suggestion of what avenues there are for further study. And there are many. A synthetic systematic account of Christian socialism, even of this time, is missing something serious in not incorporating two people who wrote actual Christian socialist systems: Vida Dutton Scudder and Frederic Hastings Smyth. The centrality of the doctrine of the Incarnation is curiously absent Williams’ study, making but two passing mentions in the entire work. While it is true that this aspect of Christian Socialism has often been observed in the secondary literature, it is important enough to have merited more attention. If one wants to fill in the picture more fully, one will have to look elsewhere for an examination of, say, F. D. Maurice or even John Ruskin, both of whom were central influences in the period. Overall, Christian Socialism as Political Ideology is necessary reading on this topic, offering fresh insights into the political theology that undergirded the formative theorists of the time. Williams’ choice to focus on the theory rather than mere history is unique and valuable. Those who are interested in radical Christian political theology would do well to read it.

Tony Hunt
Tony Hunt

Tony Hunt is an Episcopalian theologian and co-founder and co-editor of the online magazine The Hour.