Left behind: Why the Christian Socialist Movement needs a new name

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.

Fresh impetus

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

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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15 Responses to Left behind: Why the Christian Socialist Movement needs a new name

  1. Ben Niblett says:

    Are you suggesting an alternative name then?

  2. Doug says:

    Agreed. Living in a massively polarized, partisan world these days, I find that any political or ideological affiliation immediately (and unnecessarily) ostracizes many whom in their core beliefs, would readily support the mission of many such organizations. Jesus was not a Marxist and, difficult for many to believe, neither was He a Conservative. Nothing strange or wrong with finding well thought out Christ like concepts and ideas from both camps; e.g., I know plenty of ‘right wing’ Christians involved in the “leading edge of social activism….”. Let’s keep Him the focus and get on with the tasks He has set before us, no? CMAD….Christians Making A Difference?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      But Doug you misunderstand my point if you think I am rejecting political labels fullstop – I just think we need to use the best labels available. I know there are many right wing Christians but I think they have their politics wrong (much as I might respect them). Politics is part of life and we cannot leave it to an individualistic or overly personalised approach. Politics is about the big decisions and the basis on which they are made – how much tax is fair? How should the healthcare be run? How should the state help the homeless? How much should be spent on nuclear weapons? All these questions are political ones and are part of the ‘tasks He has set before us’. My view is that the best place for Christians is on the left – whether in the UK – and perhaps evenmore so in the US!

  3. Kevin says:

    We the church could reclaim part of the name and call ourselves the Christian Social Movement. Haha, I jest. I think you make a great point, and one of the reasons I haven’t joined up is partly ignorance about the word Socialist. It’s not a word people understand, it’s certainly not how Labour describe themselves. As for an alternative name… thinking caps on.

  4. Doug says:

    Understood Jon. Thanks for clarifying. As I think you know, I don’t really identify wholeheartedly with either “side” but personally happy to support wherever I see good stuff happening. So I’m glad that the CSM (or whatever its new name) is working for justice and are antagonists of all forms of abuse and prejudice.

    But two brief things (said very nicely!):
    1. In response to the comment “the best place for Christians is on the left” is a bit of a hard one to swallow, especially when thinking through Britain’s history with folks such as Wilberforce, Peel, Fry, Lord Shaftesbury and Rowntree – all of whom were either firmly on the right or Liberals. In the US, even MLK claimed to be neither and a critic of both. And I have many Conservative and Republican friends (actually less of the latter!) on both sides of the pond who are working with major effect and bi-partisan recognition in areas of social justice whom you either know or would respect.

    2. When it comes to pushing views on the big issues, I would caution those involved to make sure they really understand the other sides’ perspectives before shouting too loudly. And I’m not being personal as we haven’t had a beer in years so, please – I don’t mean to be patronising. This is a broad observation I have made – mainly over here, which I’m sure doesn’t apply.

    But many political issues are massively complex and may take years and years of involvement, training, understanding and further education in economics, government, business and finance in order to even begin to comprehend their implications. Some policies the right believe help the country, hurt the poor. Some policies the left believe help the poor actually hurt them worse in other ways. Taking the time to understanding the intricacies is crucial.

    To exemplify, I got tired of being asked by (Christian) people to sign petitions during the ’08/’09 financial crisis to stop the bail out of the banks; people with no real economic or financial education, experience or understanding. Sure there was a serious problem, but let’s be really honest: how in the world would I or they possibly know the domestic or global ramifications of such an act one way or the other!? Nothing wrong with private opinion but publicly, it was Christian amateur hour.

    But Jon, now on a personal note – it sounds like you have a particular Political calling that you are passionate about and you need to pursue…? I’d vote for you.

  5. Thank you for this article Jon. It is a very important and honest piece. Just like Christian jargon at church that those from outside can find confusing and even alienating, so the same needs to be applied in politics.

    Although ‘socialist’ has a dictionary definition that makes it technically applicable for the CSM, in our society now ‘socialist’ can mean something quite different. When I think of the term, what immediately springs to mind is the Socialist Worker group at university who were very good at making themselves known in a slightly intimidating way. Their’s was a more extreme socialism, but I get the feelng that to most people this is what socialism means; not that far removed from communism.

    When words change their meaning it makes sense for those using them to consider whether a name change would make sense. An example of this is the Spastics Society who changed their name to SCOPE. That was a sensible name change and benefitted them.

    To change your name is not esy by any means especially when it has such a rich history, but I would strongly suggest that the CSM has a serious think about whether a name change would be beneficial and what words best describe what the CSM’s values are. It doesn’t have to be clever. The Conservative Christian Fellowship and Lib Dem Christian Fellowships have simple if bland names, but it’s clear what they are. You’re not left guessing.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Gillan – much appreciated. It will be tricky changing and I think its important to kick about in the need for change before fast-forwarding to the options for change too quickly.

      I think CSM’s role is slightly different to CCF and LDCF – it has wanted a more distanced and critical relationship with its party than those two – but it still needs a name which communicates to those beyond its membership.

      And I too had some interesting encounters with Socialist Workers at university – and most of them are Tories now!

  6. michael-burton says:

    interesting!.

  7. mattvaller says:

    Great article Jon. Am really behind so much that CSM stands for. However, as a Green Party member and a Christian ‘Socialist’, I would appreciate more honesty about the Labour affiliation in the name.

  8. mattcurrey says:

    Thanks for this post. I think its good that change is being explored without rushing into something that could easily seem equally dated or unhelpful. I would agree that socialist seems a very ‘loaded’ and often unhelpful word, although I think that in its fullest/fuller understanding it seems relevant and helpful. I want to remain behind and if anything even more committed to this ‘movement’ without being sure that I am committed to being a part of the Labour Movement

  9. Pingback: ‘Goodwill on Fire’: Remembering Donald Soper | Resistance & Renewal

  10. Leslie says:

    Socialism (statism) is certainly an ideology which belongs to the past. But the problem is the we do not need a second Tory Party either, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Labour has become just that. Therefore it is not just the name which needs rethinking; so does the underlying political philosophy.

  11. Peter Gartshore says:

    AS a post-Christian Socialist I find the current debate within your circles unnervingly familiar. Active as a Chistian Catholic in the 70’s and 80’s and as part of my university degree a student of Theology and a long time Socialist and I came to the conclusion that Socialism and Christianity are in-compatible.with each other. The debate within socially progressive Christian circles has been riddled with heated debate within the Church. You may recall the ex-communication of Jesuit priests in Latin America by the Catholic Church in the 80’s on the grounds that they were considered Marxist. It is is a fact that even facist dictators such as Pinochet, a devout catholic was never treated in any such manner, indeed almost welcomed by the establishment It would take a much longer thesis than this to lay out a full reasoned argument why Socialism is an unhappy bedfellow with Christianity. I would suggest that a central problem is the notion of salvation. Ultimately a Socialist believes the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is rooted in the liberation of Society in this world, whereas a Christian although recognising the need to work for a fairer world believes that we are saved from personal sin into an after life. The issue of salvation is key as a Christian is therefore not described by his political affiliation but the affiliation to a Christian Church and its beliefs and therefore his fellow Christians In other words the progressive Christian will always put his fellow Christian ahead of an Atheist Socialist even if that fellow Christian should hold views of the far right. The extension of this argument is that being a Christian is not reliant therefore on any particular political view and it is perfectly feasible for someone to be a Christian and a member of a far right political party (eg Pinochet)

  12. Thomas S says:

    This was really stupid.

    “Socialist” is an unhelpful, ideological word from a bygone era, but “Left” is not?

    Christians on the Left without socialism seems like an oxymoron. There are leftists are not socialist in the libertarian/anarchist/green/left-radical realms, but they tend to be very anti-Christian. Left-radicalism evokes the image of the French Revolution seeking a revolutionary change in the culture and civilisation. Christian Socialism evokes the idea of a strong faith guiding society and the State in running the economy for the good of the people but not, for example, getting rid of traditional family structures or embracing new theories about gender.

    The CSM was ruined by Blairites (I am thinking of this now with the gay trafficked prostitutes allegations about Keith Vaz, an old member) and switching out Socialist for Left only complements their agenda. Rev. Soper must be turning in his grave.

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