‘Socialism and Religion: Roads to Common Wealth’ reviewed by David Ormrod

Socialism and Religion: Roads to Common Wealth

Routledge, London and New York, 2013. 246pp., £24.95 pb
ISBN 9780415830225

Reviewed by David Ormrod

About the reviewer

David Ormrod is Professor of Economic and Cultural History at the University of Kent, and Senior …


At the core of this book lies the life and work of one of the more neglected but brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century, John Macmurray (1891-1976), along with the ideas and activities of those who surrounded him. Macmurray was indeed the antithesis of the isolated thinker: his philosophy emphasised above all the value and necessity of friendship, of ‘togetherness of self and other’ in a personal universe. Rejecting the egocentric starting point of modern Western philosophy, from Descartes onwards, Macmurray regarded the place of human intention in history as paramount, overriding simple organic and mechanistic interpretations of human behaviour. The non-existence of the isolated self required a new starting point in philosophy, the self as agent acting through the mutuality of personal relations, persons in community. All of this, he felt, was implicit in an authentic understanding of ‘the philosophy of Jesus’, found in a reading of the gospels stripped of successive layers of Greek idealism and dualism.

Interest in Macmurray’s work began to revive in the 1990s with the publication of several anthologies and monographs by Duncan (1990), Conford (1997), Fergusson (2002), Kirkpatrick (2005) and McIntosh (2004 and 2011), and 1993 saw the foundation of the John Macmurray Fellowship in Britain. For the second time in the twentieth century, Macmurray’s thinking entered the sphere of party politics, when, as Geoghegan says, it was ‘wrenched out of context’ by Tony Blair, and ‘his name linked to an issue of which he knew nothing, New Labour’ (15).

Geoghegan’s book deals admirably with the first of these moments, the 1930s and 40s, when a group of radical socialists, Marxists and Christians came together to debate, organise and finally, in1942, to found an embryonic political party, Common Wealth. The author adopts a biographical approach, and discusses the thought, writing, and personal relations of four of Common Wealth’s founders, giving each a separate chapter. Macmurray provides the starting point, followed by the barrister and writer Kenneth Ingram, the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, and the politician, writer and landowner, Sir Richard Acland who became the party’s chief spokesman and leader. It would be misleading however to suggest that they formed an intellectually close-knit group or that they worked out a synthesis of radical Christian and socialist ideas together. It was Macmurray, a ‘Christian outside the churches’ who achieved this almost single-handed, and in doing so provided an early basis for Christian-Marxist dialogue. Ingram, as a progressive Anglican, shared much common ground with him, but quite self-consciously reoriented his own socialist thinking as a result of meeting with and reading Macmurray. Acland, on the other hand, was a non-believer during the 30s, who converted to Christianity only in 1940 after undergoing an extraordinary mystical experience. Stapledon was prone to ‘agnostic piety’ and believed that ‘an authentic religion was both possible and very necessary, [but this] was not to be Christianity’ (5-6). He inclined increasingly towards eastern religions which he regarded as free from the ‘infantile wish fulfilment’ of western Christianity. One of the great merits of the book is the attention paid to both the similarities and often shifting differences between the central characters, carefully reconstructed from personal correspondence and ephemeral publications, as well as the mainstream literature.

Commitment to the short-lived Common Wealth project provides the rationale for the author’s focus on these four individuals. One of the challenges he faces is to explain the tensions in the movement arising from its formation as an alliance of two distinct bodies: the 1941 Committee, a select group of prominent liberal and left intellectuals chaired by J B Priestley, and Forward March, conceived and led by Acland as a popular movement to push the left in a more decisively socialist direction. The 1941 Committee included figures such as H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley, Victor Gollancz, Tom and Kitty Wintringham, Richard Titmuss and Kingsley Martin. Some of them, particularly Wells, despaired of Acland’s impatience and lack of personal qualifications for the job. Tom Wintringham wrote to Ingram in July 1944 ‘[Acland] can write a book in the time I need for an article’. The one thing that held Common Wealth together was its supporters’ drive to restore a moral basis to politics, but then this same longing was spreading across British society as a whole. Publication of the Beveridge Report in December 1942 crystallised popular demands for a new social order after a victory, which now looked possible. A brief summary of the main proposals was produced and within weeks, opinion polls showed that 90% of the population approved of them (Hinton 1983, 167). Common Wealth went beyond Beveridge in pressing for a far-reaching programme of common ownership, but the details were extremely vague.

In retrospect, the movement lacked a credible economic programme, compared with the progressive social and economic reforms called for by the Anglican Church since the Malvern Conference of 1941. The bulk of the Labour Party was silenced by the wartime political truce which, of course, had presented Common Wealth with its brief window of opportunity in the first place. Archbishop William Temple seized the opportunity and emerged as a powerful and persuasive proponent of a new type of ‘ethical state’, the social-welfare mixed economy. His Christianity and the Social Order (1942), was written with detailed advice from Keynes and Tawney, and sold 140,000 copies (Kent 1992, 164-7). Its highly concrete and realisable policy proposals contrasted markedly with Acland’s faintly utopian Unser Kampf (1940).

The ‘Malvernisation’ of the church and its backing of what subsequently emerged as the Labour Party’s post-war programme can be seen as the culmination of a much longer period of development in the Christian Socialist tradition, since 1848. The tradition, of course, played a large part in shaping the British labour movement and the left from the 1880s to 1945, but up to the early 30s, its main achievements were felt within the churches, bringing them ‘nearer to the working man’. During the crisis-laden interwar years, Christian socialists made much greater efforts to break out of the churches and to integrate religion into a progressive politics.

Unfortunately, Geoghegan’s focus on four individuals tends to obscure the full extent of this broader shift – although the emphasis on Macmurray takes us to the core of the encounter between Marxism and religion. In fact the shift in direction began soon after the Labour defeat of 1931, when two tendencies emerged on the Christian left, both strongly committed to political action. The first was embodied in the Socialist Christian League, consisting of socialist-inclined Labour MPs and intellectuals, notably Tawney, while the second, largely unorganised, comprised lay people and clergy sympathetic to Marxist ideas but unimpressed by ‘the orthodox attitude of Communism to Religion’ (Ormrod 1984, 142-3). The latter were drawn together in 1933 to discuss their similarities and differences ‘amid the complexities of a dissolving world’. The result was a remarkable collection of essays published by Gollancz in 1935, Christianity and the Social Revolution. The editors and editorial board comprised John Lewis, Karl Polanyi, Donald Kitchin, Joseph Needham, Charles Raven and John Macmurray; other contributors included Reinhold Niebuhr, W H Auden, Conrad Noel, and Gilbert Binyon. A Left Book Club edition two years later attracted a large following, as sympathy for a Popular Front against fascism mounted. Left Book Club branches, together with the Student Christian Movement (SCM), became the vehicles for an emerging ‘Christian Left’, in which Acland played a leading role. This was the radical socialist Christian milieu within which Common Wealth took root. Its thinking went beyond the ‘ethical state’ idea to encompass a larger vision of an international moral community (Ormrod 1987, 435-50).

As Geoghegan suggests, the history of the Christian Left and Common Wealth acquires an added significance when set in the context of current debates about ‘post-secularism’ and the global resurgence of new forms of religious politics. Insofar as the movement helped to redefine the relationship between the religious and the secular, it clearly has a modern resonance (8). Macmurray’s distinction between on the one hand, the slow absorption of Christian ideas about mutuality, deeply embedded in human consciousness, and on the other, the preservation of religious dogma by the churches, no doubt helps to explain the tensions present in post-secular societies and the decline of churchgoing.

While a ‘return to religion’ hardly characterises the mood of present-day Britain, the sense in which post-secularism has been deployed by Habermas suggests important points of contact between contemporary British experience and the debates of the 1930s and 40s, that is, ‘the continued existence of religious communities in a continually secularizing environment’ (Habermas 2009, 63). The multiplication and growth of different faith communities alongside the rise of the inter-faith movement since the 1980s has raised new challenges and opportunities. Although Geoghegan doesn’t pursue it, the case could be made that the most enduring legacy of the interwar Christian Left lies in Macmurray’s non-dualistic philosophy, with its rejection of those idealistic forms of religious understanding which separate the Abrahamic from the Dharmic traditions. By 1935, Macmurray had broken with prevalent forms of British idealism after absorbing Marx’s early writings, long before they became available in English. Already in the late 1920s, as Geoghegan explains, ‘Macmurray was gradually unifying the disparate elements in earlier theories of the individual – mind and body, reason and emotion, individual and social – in a resolutely anti-dualist frame of mind.’ Immediate experience took precedence over abstract reflection, understood as ‘our consciousness in living rather than our consciousness of living’ (22).

Unfortunately, Macmurray was weak on Eastern religious practice, and was a proponent of Christian hegemony, unlike Stapledon who was very sympathetic to other religions and appalled by the idea of Christendom. Yet paradoxically, Macmurray’s philosophy provides a possible bridge between the non-dualistic experience (advaita) of the Vedic tradition, culminating in the Upanishads, and the consciousness of Jesus as described in the New Testament. As John Martin Sahajananda has emphasised, Jesus did not relate to god as his Creator but as his father, and this amounted to a revolution in the Jewish spiritual tradition. (Sahajananda 2006, 43-4). Macmurray often emphasised how that tradition made no distinction between the sacred and the secular, and in his pamphlet The Philosophy of Jesus portrays Jesus as fully human, a son of man, who made no claim to infallibility, whose understanding grew and changed. Although he didn’t use the term, he saw Jesus as a kind of Bodhisattva, an enlightened compassionate being who he accepted as ‘saviour and master, for myself and the world’ (Macmurray 1973, 3-4). But Macmurray’s anti-dualism was not without limits, and no doubt it would be unwise to ‘wrench him out of context’ once more. Nevertheless, it is significant that towards the end of his life, he became a member of the Society of Friends, probably the most sympathetic of all Christian denominations to religious pluralism.

Finally, it remains to say something about sexual freedom and the church’s stance on homosexuality which remains an enormous stumbling block for the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches today. Ingram, himself homosexual, wrote extensively on these topics from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s. Insofar as sexual exclusions spoke volumes about the church’s deficient understanding of personal relations, and indeed its limited capacity to love, Ingram and Macmurray shared a common interest. Unfortunately Macmurray’s interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its bias towards Jewish religious culture, sat uneasily alongside Ingram’s enthusiasm for Hellenistic homoeroticism involving boys and young men. Ingram’s uncompromising stance during the Malvern Conference of 1941 endangered his own and Acland’s main agenda on social and economic reform, and it probably did little to help the cause of homosexual law reform in the longer term. At any rate, Geoghegan concludes that Ingram’s sexual utopianism – the sex morality of tomorrow – was well out of kilter with the times’ (84). 

The issues discussed in this review are placed in a broader historical context in a talk given by the reviewer to the monthly seminar in Canterbury on Politics and Society convened by David McLellan and Sean Sayers, 9 October 2013, available here.

4 October 2013


  • Hinton, James 1983 Labour and Socialism. A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867-1974 (Brighton: Harvester).
  • Kent, John 1992 William Temple (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Habermas, Jurgen 2009 Europe: The Faltering Project (Cambridge and Malden MA: Polity).
  • Ormrod, David 1984 R. H. Tawney and the Origins of Capitalism History Workshop vol 18, pp. 138-159.
  • Ormrod, David 1987 The Christian Left and the beginnings of Christian-Marxist dialogue, 1935-45 J. Obelkevich, L. Roper and R. Samuel (eds.) Disciplines of Faith. Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy (London: Routledge).
  • Sahajananda, John Martin 2006 Hindu Christ. Jesus’ Message Through Eastern Eyes (Winchester and New York: O Books).
  • Macmurray, John 1973 The Philosophy of Jesus (London: Society of Friends).

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