Collective, What is the Christian Left?

From Karl Polanyi
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[1] THE purpose of this pamphlet is not to describe how the movement which is called the Christian Left came into existence, but to explain in outline the beliefs which it represents.

What is the purpose of Christianity?

This movement is Christian, as its name implies. Why is is Christian and how does it interpret Christianity? It holds that the supreme truth which Jesus Christ revealed is that human life is personal - that is to say, that a man expresses his humanity by the relations which he forms towards other men and women. Man's friendship and love extend beyond the circle of his family: his friendship can extend outside his class or nation. The parable of the Good Samaritain is one example of this teaching. The Samaritain did not stop to consider whether the wounded traveller belonged to his own religious denomination or was a foreigner, or was socially superior or inferior: he bound up his wounds, carried him to the inn and paid for his keep. That story explains why man, the more he becomes conscious of his real nature, will struggle to remove the artificial barriers which limit his relationship of friendliness. Christianity, in fact, be revealing to man the secret [2] of his own nature, determines the course of history. It is the force in history which step by step struggles to remove all such barriers as class distinction, political national divisions, religious and racial groupings, in order to establish an international and universal community, a society in which each human being is given the same opportunity for freedom and development, whatever his colour or parentage.

Christianity is distinct from the Christian Churches

We know that a man is distinct from the clothes he wears, for from time to time he wears different clothes. Christianity must be distinct from any of the forms in which it has expressed itself, for it has expressed itself in different forms. In the Middle Ages, for example, Christianity in the West was expressing itself through Roman Catholicism; the Catholic Church unified feudal Europe. But Christianity is a force in motion, and it will be found in one period working outside and being opposed by the very organisations which in a previous period it helped to create. When mercantile civilisation overthrew feudalism, Christianity was working to release mankind from medieval Catholicism: the Reformation was a challenge to the authority and claims which had accumulated in the Roman Church.

[3] The Anglican and Free Churches represent in the main, the extent to which Christianity was accepted by capitalist society. To-day when the capitalist system is beginning to break down - as seen by war and the threat of world-war, by the fact that although there is food in abundance it is failing to reach large numbers of men and women in sufficient quantity, and by many other symptoms - the Christian force is to be found largely outside the Christian Churches and is working through those who are bringing to birth Socialist civilisation.

The Christian Left movement recognises that the Churches with Christianity. It is not concerned to save the Churches. It believes that the present crisis in the world - war an economic unsettlement - is the result of the impact of Christianity on mankind. It holds that Christianity once again is compelling a transformation of society as a further stage of advance towards an international society, a universal community, the Kingdom of God. The waning influence of the Churches , as part of this unsettlement, is one aspect of this impact of Christianity.

What has religion to do with Socialism?

The immediate barrier which is preventing this universal commonwealth and which is [4] thus limiting human relationships, is the private ownership of the means of production, with its consequent division of society into owners and non-owners. Socialism is the movement which is seeking to remove this barrier by political action. The task of establishing production of wealth for use in place of production for private profit must be accomplished through the political machine. Christianity, as a religion, is concerned with all aspects of human life, spiritual, moral, social economic, political. The Socialist task in the political field is the task which Christianity has nw to undertake.

The Christian Left is a movement, therefore, which, because it proclaims the religious mission of the working class to achieve Socialism, pledges itself in action to identify itself with the political struggle of that class.

The question which heads this paragraph would never be asked, had not traditional Christian teaching sought to limit the idea of religion to one department of human life. It has pictured a spiritual world which is separate from the world in which we exist. The Christian Left rejects thus idea as un-Christian, and maintains that there is one world, that reality is a unity and is not divided into a material world and a world beyond the grave. There is one world, and here in this world - and now in history - must the Kingdom of God be established.

Does the Christian Left believe in God?

Some people will argue that Christianity so interpreted is not Christian at all, because it leaves out the definition all mention of God.

This objection is an example of the way in which our religious thinking has become confused. Traditional Christian teaching has produced a picture of God as someone who exists in a separate spiritual world and who must be looked for in a heaven beyond the clouds.

But Jesus insisted that we should find God only through Himself, as man. We must look for God in our own personal relationships, in our love of men and women, in our experience here and now. If we look for God elsewhere, He will be no more than an idea in our minds.

Unless we love our neighbour we do not love God.

Human beings and human relationship have something in common. They are particular manifestations of that which is universal. God is that universal reality - not merely that small part of reality of which we are ourselves aware. God is that universal personality of which all individual persons are manifestations.

Why should the Christian Left be a separate organisation?

The question is sometimes asked why the Christian Left itself with other [6] Christian Socialist organisations, and in what respects it considers is standpoint to be sufficiently distinctive to warrant a separate existence.

The general answer to this question is that it is probably desirable and inevitable that at this particular period there should be a number of different groups, each working out its particular contribution to Socialist development, provided that these independent bodies work as far as possible together and no not cause disunity within the Socialist movement.

But the more direct answer to this question is that the Christian Left believes that its task involves a reinterpretation of Christianity which will form the basis of the Christianity of the Socialist age. The attempt to carry out this work is necessarily to challenge the interpretations of the existing Churches. The Christian Left, indeed, anticipates that as a new Christian movement emerges such a movement will find itself opposed by the Churches, as an influence tending towards their disruption. The Christian Left, indeed, anticipates that as a new Christian movement emerges such a movement will find itself opposed by the Churches, as an influence tending towards their disruption. The Christian Left would be false to its principles if it were involved in any endeavour to check or divert this process, and accordingly it cannot identify itself with those bodies which are working specifically in and through the Churches.

The Christian Left cannot identify the future of Christianity with the future of the Churches.

[7] Nor does it regard the mass revolt against current religious teaching and practice as a revolt against Christianity.

The purpose of the Christian Left

In a period when the social structure is radically changed there is a corresponding revolution in religious thought. When capitalism overthrew feudalism the Reformation took place. It is not surprising, therefore, that the world situation to-day should be compelling us to try to rediscover what Christ taught and what Christianity means.

The Christian Left is a movement which has arisen out of the recognition of the religious nature of the world crisis. The task of the Christian Left is to proclaim that fact, and in doing so it will necessarily contribute to a reinterpretation of Christianity. But the value of ideas is tested by the action they produce. The purpose of the Christian Left is not merely to preach but to practise: it is to proclaim a message, and to act in the light of that message by full participation in the political field through the Socialist movement.

The Christian Left does not think of itself in the terms of an organisation. It will not judge its success or failure by the numbers of those who join its ranks. But it will welcome any who wish to pledge themselves to its Commitments [8] and who accept its Basis. Anyone who wishes to hear more about these, or to make further inquiries about the movement generally, should write to

Miss J. Jordan
172 Russell Court,
London, W.C.1

Text Informations

Christian Left Pamphlet No. 1, 1938
Src: British LIbrary