I remember someone saying to me years ago that Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) had three main problems: firstly, it wasn’t Christian; secondly, it wasn’t Socialist and thirdly, it definitely wasn’t a Movement.
And five years ago CSM was struggling. The average age of the membership was the on the rise, numbers were in decline, finances were in crisis and confidence was low. But in 2007 a renewal movement was launched within CSM by a key group of members. Declaring that ‘where there is no vision the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18) the renewal movement set an agenda for a genuine change of direction. CSM needed to be more modern, more outward looking, more dynamic, clearer in its messages…and more Christian.
The renewal movement was successful and a whole new executive committee was elected on this mandate. From this point CSM has found a fresh impetus. A key piece in the jigsaw was the appointment of Andy Flannagan as Director whose vibrant faith, passionate communication and wide contacts have helped nourish the inner core of the organisation.
The renewal movement helped restore what is always needed when Christians engage politically: personal drive, deep conviction and public vision. Christians are on the left have perhaps made too much of our history and the social implications of Christianity and neglected the personal conviction which provides the dynamic roots to any spiritual movement. A personal confidence in the gospel is vital if we can never make a coherent argument for its relevance in the public square.
One remaining problem
So the three-fold problem with CSM’s name has been partially fixed. It is Christian and it does have a sense of movement.
But the word ‘Socialist’ is still a problem – for three main reasons:
1. It is a word from a by-gone era. More than ever, younger Christians are committed to issues of social justice and we block their engagement if we appear stuck in the past. I love reading books like Graham Dale’s God’s Politicians and Chris Bryant’s Possible Dreams about the great history of Christian Socialism. But we should never get stuck there. Christian witness should aim to be at the cutting edge of the Labour Party – not curators of its archive. But using a word like ‘socialist’ leaves us stuck in the past. In reality we stay true to the movement’s history by remaining progressive, dynamic and committed to change. Our history should never pull us back but rather propel us forward to communicate the vision to a new generation.
2. It’s loaded with unhelpful ideology. People’s reactions to the word ‘socialist’ tend to fall into two camps. For some it smacks of a post -war statist, centralised bureaucracy which seeks to exert control. For others, it is sounds aspirational and idealistic, like a romantic attachment to a failed project. Neither of these reactions is helpful to a modern movement. The problem is that some on the left embrace this unpopularity as a sign of purity. I remember well a loony-left group at my university Student Union called ‘The Unpopular Front’ who revelled in a cult of marginality. But this is the politics of the 6th form. Out in the real world, things have moved on and statist or idealistic ideologies have been left behind. The future is to be found in a more dynamic leftism which is to be found at the cutting edge of the charities, development organisations and through community organising. A new synthesis is being worked out which brings together a desire for social justice along with drive to innovate and promote personal responsibility. Christians have a huge amount to contribute to this synthesis because this is central aspect to a Biblical vision of transformation.
3. It is an obstacle to anyone outside the movement. Clear communication to those beyond the membership is vital to any healthy movement. The name of a movement should help people understand what it stands for. But the use of the word ‘socialist’ does the opposite – it often requires a long explanation and provides opponents with an easy target. ‘What are you? Some kind of Christian Socialist Worker?’ Names are important – but they are not more important than the cause they serve. When they are they become idols. And when a cause is harmed by its name, it’s time to change it.
The cutting edge of hope and transformation
Today many churches and Christians are at the leading edge of social activism through community organising, youth work, food banks or homelessness work. Many younger Christians instinctively see social justice as integral to the Christian faith. Many of these people are instinctively left-wing in their thinking but have not found a political group which expresses their beliefs.
These are the kind of people who could be drawn to a renewed organisation of the Christian left. But to reach them, CSM will need to be brave, take the plunge and re-name the movement in a way which will connect and inspire this generation. Let’s not be left behind. Instead, let’s be bold, full of conviction and work for a Christian political witness which is at the cutting edge of bringing hope and transformation to our country.
This R&R post was co-published with the Christian Socialist Movement