Dora B. Montefiore 1918

The Churches and Socialism


Source: The Call, 16 May 1918, p. 2
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


We International Socialists, organised on the basis of the Class Struggle and for the purpose of taking over the means of wealth production for the use and benefit of the whole community, are always ready to welcome the intelligent understanding of our aims and their disinterested support by any section of society; and we are just now particularly interested in the fact that the Catholic Churches, Anglican and Roman, are making voyages of discovery into the Socialist interpretation of existing social conditions, and are returning from these voyages laden with (what is to them) strange and unusual phraseology, and having glimpsed flashlights of an imminent future, which sets their nerves tingling with a sense of engulfing social changes and of beating surfs of organised proletarian demands. Among the prelates who have made the most exhaustive voyages of research on these strange seas, where the undercurrents of capitalist development keep on the surface a tumbled, tossing mass of labour unrest, is Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, who in a pastoral letter issued this year warns his flock of the portents which foretell “grave social upheavals, in the future,” and of the “new social conditions, new relations between the different sections in which society is divided, and which will arise as a consequence of the destruction of the formerly existing situation.” That statement, though it does not use the word “revolution,” is a statement of revolutionary, rather than of evolutionary changes. The Cardinal has not in his mind the election to Parliament of either 300 or even 400 Labour Members with a mandate for certain reforms, in the interest of Labour, of the existing social system. Being a student, and belonging as he-does to a Church which is one of the most intelligently and wonderfully organised bodies in the world, the Cardinal Archbishop knows from the history of Labour in power in our Australian Colonies that no “great social upheaval” is likely to arise as the result of the gaining of political power only by an economically exploited class still unconscious of its dignity and destiny. Servile imitation of the class above them is the only development of which such Labour politicians are capable: imitation unfortunately of that which is less worthy, instead of that which is best on the part of their masters. Neither has the Cardinal any illusions about “legislation under the guise of social reform,” which, as he correctly asserts, “tends to mark off all wage-earners as a definite servile class; with the result that even before the war there was a feeling among the workers of irritation and resentment which rnanifested itself in sporadic strikes, but found no very clear expression any other way.” Since the war he holds that “the very foundations of social life, of our economic system, of morals and of religion are being sharply scrutinised, and this, not only by a few writers and speakers, but by a very large number of people in every class of life, especially among the workers . The army is not only fighting but also thinking. The soldiers have learned the characteristic army scorn for the self-seeking politician and empty talker . The munition workers . tend to be resentful and suspicious of the public authorities and the political leaders. They, too, are questioning the whole system of society.”

This is the somewhat dark picture from the exploiting class point of view with which the Roman prelate confronts his flock; and we fail to see—perhaps because we are not meant to see—with which class, the exploiters or the exploited, his sympathies as a “Shepherd of Christ’s lambs” lie. It is true that, like all the reactionaries, whether inside or outside the Socialist Party, he has a jibe at the Bolshevik Administrators in Russia, for he writes of some “who proclaim that the existing order should be overthrown and destroyed in the hope that out of the destruction some better arrangement of men’s lives may grow up. It is a policy of which we see the realisation and first-fruits at the present time in Russia. The vast majority of our people are held back, if not by religious motives, at least by their inborn practical sense, from suicidal projects of this kind.” But he does not offer any practical solution of the situation other than “the overthrow of the present social system, so that a better arrangement of men’s lives may find room for growth and development.” We Socialists hold therefore that we are entitled to postulate that there is no other real and trustworthy solution.

On, turning to the recent announcements of the English Hierarchy we find that the Bishop of London stated before both Houses of Convocation of Canterbury at the Church House, Westminster, that “among our soldiers, sailors, and munition workers there was a passionate dream of a new world and a new life after the war,” and asked what was to be the; attitude of the Church towards this dream. In answering his own question he spoke of “the new city, which must be one in which every single person was absolutely equal in the sight of God.” It seems to have taken the Church a long time—nearly 2,000 years, is it not?—to get that principle into its head, although there are several passages in its liturgy which seem to affirm that “equality in the sight of God” rather frequently. But when the Bishop tails off into the very obvious platitude that “the Church has not spoken out sufficiently on the housing question” intelligent workers will understand that no real help is to be expected in that quarter. The Bishop of Chelmsford, who is evidently a pious man, thankful for mercies so small that they pass unobserved by the majority, remarked that “we had reason to thank God for our Labour leaders, and should recognise their honesty and integrity.” The workers may perhaps be allowed to enquire whether Labour leaders who are so honest and upright towards Bishops and their class are quite the sort of men who will best look after the interests and the aspirations of the exploited. Someone once said: “Ye can not serve two masters.” The Bishop of Exeter deems that the episcopal task is “to try and bring the people together, to make classes understand one another, in order that they may stand firm in the day of triumph.” This prelate is evidently looking forward to an extra sized Mafeking; but we have our doubts about the power of even the Churches “to make classes understand one another.” It is so difficult for the tiger and his victim to look at things from the same point of view. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an optimist, and considers that there has “been a continuous, definite and practical change towards good during recent decades.” There again we, as International Socialists, must point out that it may look so from the Archbishop’s Palace, but the view is not so alluring from the slum. It is true that the Archbishop was also among those who considered that “the housing problem demanded urgent consideration.” This then is all that the British worker is likely to get from the Church of England in exchange for his “passionate dream of a new world and a new life after the war”—an urgent consideration of the housing question. “Verily, verily,” we Socialists reply, “your churches shall be emptier than they are now, for the people have no use for platitudes or good intentions; they are out to claim the world, and all that the world has to offer.”

For the sympathy and understanding of the Church Socialist League we give thanks, because they set out as their goal “the political, social, and economic emancipation of the whole people, through the application of the fixed principle that the community shall own the land and capital, and use them by such co-operative methods as, will promote the common good, and secure to all, as workers, the control of their own life and labour.” That is the change for which Lenin and Trotsky are working in Russia, Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin in Germany, the B.S.P. in Britain, the Australian Socialist Party in Australia, the International Socialist Party in South Africa, and the Left wings of the various Socialist Parties throughout the world. If the Roman Church can arm itself (as it has done before) with sufficient worldly wisdom to organise its flock, not for revolt, not for rebellion, but for a scientific, revolutionary reconstruction of society on a cooperative, as opposed to a competitive basis, it will secure one of its marvellous fresh leases of life. But if it, as the Church of England is manifestly prepared to do, sidetracks “the passionate dream of a new life and a new world after the war,” then its place will know it no more; and the struggle for the higher life of the spirit, which will for the first time be opened up, after the struggle for the lower life has been ended, will be carried on by our children’s children with the new symbols and the new sanctions of the great new spiritual rebirth.