A Legacy for the Future: The Case for Christian Socialism

If progressive politics is not ethical, how will it ever be attractive, asks CHRIS WILSON, for whom the Christian socialist tradition provides both inspiration and hope.

Labour movement historians acknowledge the contribution of Christian socialism, and so they should. On any reading of Labour and trade union history, the tradition runs like a golden thread connecting past and present – and, in my view, is still capable of making an important contribution to the future.

We could mention James Keir Hardie and his Congregationalism, or RH Tawney, the great advocate of equality, or Ellen Wilkinson who served as Labour minister of education from 1945 to 1947. Then there’s Tony Benn’s pamphlet, The Moral Case for Socialism, while his mother, Viscountess Stansgate, played a vital role in establishing the Congregational Federation and was its first president.

Remember too, Harold Wilson’s maxim that the Labour movement ‘owed more to Methodism than to Marxism’, while that great Methodist Lord Donald Soper keenly advocated social justice and nuclear disarmament. Even Tony Blair embraced the term during his pursuit of an ethical socialism, leaving a strong domestic legacy by re-defining the Labour Party’s clause 4 and introducing the national minimum wage and devolution across the United Kingdom.

The list of Christian socialism’s influences goes on and on. Look at the co-operative movement, for example, where John Ludlow comes to mind and his association with the Central Co-operators’ Agency.

Christian socialists were very keen on co-operation (indeed, they were pioneers), and it is regrettable that many in the Labour movement today do not recognise co-operation’s radical potential, nor the exceptional, solid work that the Co-operative Party is doing, from tackling modern slavery to promoting common ownership of water. It deserves wider recognition and more support, for its dynamism represents our movement at its very best.

Then there is the trade union movement. Here too the legacy is powerful, not just in the historic pioneers, those Methodist Tolpuddle Martyrs who ‘would injur no man’s reputation’, but in the language we still use today – ‘sister’ and ‘brother’, for example, terms emblematic of a better world based on equality not hierarchy, one where we are no longer just ‘comrades’ but ‘family’.

It is striking that there are still many Christians and Christian socialists active in the trade union movement today, working out their faith as they support colleagues facing difficulties at work. In more than 40 years of trade union activism I have been continually surprised by how many trade unionists are church goers. They are Christians and Christian socialists, doing the unsung, grassroots trade union job, day in, day out.

Of course, Christian socialism is a diverse, contradictory, sometimes inconsistent tradition. It is dismissed by some as moderate, reformist or right wing, but it spans both left and right tendencies within the broad world of progressive politic, and can embrace social democrats and democratic socialists alike (and even revolutionary socialists outside Europe, but that is another story).

Kindness matters

For all that, however, it offers two consistent insights which – as the Fabians might say – are worthy of consideration.

First, from Christianity comes the idea that human nature is flawed and therefore we should be ever on guard against that in our own nature that leads to abuse or sharp practice in the treatment of others, especially opponents. We should treat others as we would wish ourselves to be treated. More than that, in our behaviour and our actions we should demonstrate something of the better world we seek to build. Kindness matters; so does courtesy.

This can be called ‘pre-figurative politics’ (take a bow ILP). It can also be called the ‘Kingdom of God’ – meaning that in Christ, and in devotion to Him, there is a model of self-sacrificial love that is both deeply inspirational and personally transformative. Keir Hardie thought so, for he defined socialism as no more nor less than the Sermon on the Mount applied in the here and now (see Matthew 5:1-12).

Secondly, from socialism comes the idea that dominant economic structures are exploitative, alienating and unjust. Markets, of course, have their place. They can be dynamic and innovative, but these have to be balanced by strong, diverse, free, independent and responsible trade unions, and by a vibrant co-operative movement asking whether this or that expression of capitalist operation might be better carried out in and through a mutual form of organisation.

Sometimes, perhaps most times, the answers will be ‘No’. But sometimes – as with rail, mail and water, perhaps – the answers will be ‘Yes’. And when it is Yes, holding goods in common through mutualism should apply. In other words, common ownership and nationalisation have never been the same thing (see Acts 2:44-46). What a pity we have made a fetish of state ownership when there has always been a more radical and democratic possibility.

So, my contention is that even today Christianity needs socialism or, if you prefer, social democracy, and that both need that vital, moral and ethical dimension that Christianity can offer. At the very least, we need to be more ethically aware lest we risk excusing hurtful practice or worse, those appalling totalitarian regimes that believed the ‘ends justified the means’. They never did and they never will. Any faith reduced simply to the private sphere really is no faith at all.

Christian socialism is my creed. It informs and inspires my church work, my trade union activism, and (these days) my modest political activism. It need not be your creed, but I would ask you this – if your socialism or social democracy is not ethical, if it does not have a moral basis, how will it ever be attractive to an outsider? How will it win hearts and minds? And how will that better world, whether called the Co-operative Commonwealth or the Kingdom of God, ever be achieved?


The Reverend Chris Wilson is a member of the Community Union’s NEC and of the Co-operative Party’s NEC. He is also a member of Christians on the Left.
He writes here in a personal capacity.


  1. Ben Saltonstall
    18 September 2023

    I should also point out that Graham Taylor’s Ada Salter and the Origins of Ethical Socialism argues that there is a fundamental difference between the ethical socialism of the early ILP and the right-wing Christian socialism of Tony Blair and David Blunkett.

  2. Ben Saltonstall
    18 September 2023

    I am a practicing Anglican, so I believe there is much in the Christian message – and in the teachings of Jesus and St Paul – which those on the left should heed. And of course in the Book of Isaiah. If you’ve ever been defeated, or traduced, then the Psalms can be a helpful antidote to feeling powerless. But my impression of Jesus’s mission is that it was radically anti-political (although he couldn’t avoid politics and was of course crucified because of it).

    I also recall a phrase of Malcolm Muggeridge that has the ring of truth: that some people on the left talk about Jesus as if he was the Labour member for Galilee South. I think that politicising him does a dis-service to the complexity of his mission, which still challenges everyone regardless of their politics.

  3. Tim Woolley
    31 July 2023

    Thanks for this Chris, a very inspiring and thought provoking article about the link between being a follower of Jesus and working the implications of that out through the praxis of ethical socialism.

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