Christian Socialism: Out There & Active

CHRIS WILSON surveys today’s exponents of an old left tradition that, he says, are still helping to promote the importance of ethical values for driving progressive change.

Some while ago, a Fabian Review article asked whether Christian socialism was finished. It was a fair question, as the public profile of this old left tradition seems to have receded in recent years.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you find Christian socialism is very much alive and active, inhabiting and informing a number of political movements in the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

What follows is a very short survey of organisations whose Christian faith informs their social and political activism. Secular sisters and brothers might want to take note for this movement may yet point to a growing recognition of the importance of ethical values in driving progressive change.

In the UK, we can begin with Christians on the Left, the modern iteration of the earlier Christian Socialist Movement and the dominant expression of the Christian socialist tradition in the UK. CotL still claims a considerable number of MPs, councillors and active trade unionists within its ranks, and can name two former Labour leaders, John Smith and Tony Blair, as distinguished advocates.

The CotL makes its presence felt in a variety of ways, including worthy campaigns such, as Patriots Pay Tax and Love Your Neighbour, which sought to galvanise and encourage community responses to the Covid pandemic. More recently, CotL made a powerful statement on the terrible events in Gaza and Israel.

Christians on the Left retains a centre-left, social democratic orientation. But another more radical expression of Christian socialism in the UK is the much smaller group, the Society of Sacramental Socialists, which draws inspiration from the Anglo-Catholic socialist tradition, particularly the old ‘Jubilee Group’ of socialist Christians. Strong on equality, social justice and standing with those in struggle, it, like CotL, has members active in their trade unions.

And we shouldn’t forget the Quaker Socialist Society whose particular witness for peace and social justice goes back many years, and is another important continuation of the ethical socialist tradition. Its small banner has graced many a demonstration and the sincerity of its work is to be commended, even if – like me – you are unable to embrace its pacifism.

Then there is the Industrial Christian Fellowship, with its own very interesting history and roots in the Christian Social Union. The ICF continues to argue that the place of all faiths must be taken seriously in the workplace and makes the case for a values-based economy where workers are not seen as the means to an end (profit), but as an end-in-themselves.

Faith matters

The ICF reminds us that faith matters, and employers need to understand its importance in the lives of some workers. It wants employers and employees to work together for the common good.

Crossing the Atlantic to USA, we have the Institute for Christian Socialism. Like the Society of Sacramental Socialists, the ICS stands in a more radical tradition. Strong on political activism and solidarity, it views Christianity and capitalism as fundamentally incompatible.

The ICF publishes a lively online magazine called The Bias, worth reading if you’re a secular socialist or social democrat and think Christian socialism only ever seeks to accommodate capitalism.

Nor should we forget the International League of Religious Socialists, an associate member of the Socialist International, with its own very distinguished pedigree. The ILRS pulls together a wider group of faith-based socialists who find common cause in taking religious values into progressive activism. It also made a very good statement on Ukraine.

Christianity continues to inform international trade union work too. The World Organisation of Workers, founded in 1921 with both Christian democratic and Christian socialist roots, champions the idea of capital and labour working together for the common good. It asks whether future trade unionism should be values-based or employment-based; should workers be told which union to join or be free to choose their own.

WOW also made its own positive statement on Ukraine when at least one other trade union international was trying to justify the Russian aggression.

Christian socialists are actively organising faith workers in at least two UK unions – Community and Unite. Community has a lively, diverse and steadily growing faith workers’ branch, while Anglican and other clergy are active in Unite. Meanwhile, the GMB has a branch for Rabbis, and many unions are beginning to see faith workers as a ‘green field’ for recruitment.

So, despite that Fabian article, Christian socialism is still out there and active. Its continued existence points, I think, to a recognition that lasting progressive change is not just about altering economic structures, it’s also about changing hearts, minds and behaviours – something ILPers will surely appreciate.


The Reverend Chris Wilson serves on the NECs of the Community Union and of the Co-operative Party. He is a member of Christians on the Left and writes in a personal capacity.

See also: ‘A Legacy for the Future: The Case for Christian Socialism’ by Chris Wilson.