Was Cardijn a ‘Christian socialist’?

More than fifteen years ago when I first began researching Cardijn’s life and work, I decided to look up Ben Tillett, the British trade unionist whom Cardijn had held up as a model worker leader.

Indeed, he visited Tillett during his study trip to England in the summer of 1911 and later wrote an article, Worker organisation in England, presenting his very favourable impressions of Tillett and the UK unions.

Marguerite Fievez and Jacques Meert had also mentioned this visit in their biography of Cardijn, quoting him as follows:

“I behaved even worse in London. There I spent literally fifteen days with the trades-union leaders, Ben Tillett and others. It was just after the big strike. I took part in their meetings and at religious conferences given to workers in Hyde Park and elsewhere. A number of these trades-union organisers were fervent apostles who thought that without religion, the raising up of the working class was impossible.”
Moreover, Henri Tonnet, the brother of Fernand Tonnet, had also made mention of Cardijn’s references to Tillett and his colleague Tom Mann:

“We spoke about enquiries. Germany came first with a list of different names: Ketteler, Kölping, Vogelsang. But England had place of honour: Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, leaders and leaders with impossible names were unveiled. What we had to grasp was that the ‘Labour Party’ and ‘workerism’ were not synonymous with anti-religion. Intrigued, we listened to a defence of trade unionism which he repeated often in different versions. This defence appeared, if not excessive, at least difficult to reconcile with our Belgian mentality.”

But there’s one fact about Tillett that Cardijn appears not to have mentioned on his return to Belgium, namely that he was a self-described “Christian socialist“.

I first learnt of Tillett’s Christianity from the Spartacus history website which says of Tillett:

“It was during this period he became a Christian Socialist. He attended the local Congregational Church and joined the Temperance Society.”

But Tillett was also very critical of the English Churches as in this 1911 speech on “The help yourself gospel“:

“Well, I believe I am a Christian man – at least I try to be and I was never ashamed to own it. At the same time I believe that the Church is responsible for a large amount of the apathy and the lethargy on the part of the people. I
believe, judging from the ordinary trades unionist standpoint, that perhaps if
we applied to church membership the ordinary rule of trades unionism, we would
find some blacklegs in that membership—(applause)—for I have known some of the
biggest sweaters church members, and taking the best seat there. It is that
class who are fond of giving a penny for a soup ticket and collaring about a
half sovereign for it. (Laughter.)

“I do not say this in any spirit of profanity, but I say this to-night, candid and straight to the Church of this country, a man who sits in a church pew, and who prays as a deacon, unless he acts up to what St. James says an employer of labour should do, I believe he is putting Christ, God, Gospel, and purity in the background ; that he is a living libel and blasphemer in the name of Christ, whom he neither loves, neither does he attempt to imitate.”

The socialist Tom Mann also was very sympathetic to Christianity, albeit critical as well:

“Tom was a religious boy and on a Sunday he would sample different church services. He considered joining the Nonconformist and Quaker groups before becoming a teacher at the local Anglican Sunday School.”

In fact, Mann apparently even considered becoming an Anglican deacon as he records in his autobiography although I am not sure if he actually called himself a Christian socialist – he speaks of “entering the Church” although may simply refer to the possibility of becoming a deacon.

It is also worth reading Mann’s chapter on “The Labour movement and the Churches” in which he expresses his admiration for Cardinal Henry Manning who had taken the side of workers in some famous strikes of that period.

Also significant in this context is that another of Cardijn’s main contacts on his English trip was Herbert Stead, a Congregationalist minister, who was also influenced by the earlier generation of Christian socialists of F.D. Maurice and others.

There seems little doubt then that Cardijn was deliberately seeking out these English Christian socialists and as his article on Tillett shows, he was highly impressed.

The question that this raises then is whether Cardijn thought of himself as a “Christian socialist”?

The answer seems to be that there is no explicit statement on the record describing himself as such.

But it would have been politically impossible for him to do so, given the fact that Pope Leo XIII had explicitly condemned certain tenets of “socialism” in Rerum Novarum:

“Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonwealth. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” (Rerum Novarum, paragraph 16)

It is certainly true that Cardijn fought against atheistic socialism, better described perhaps as “anti-clerical” socialism. Even more to the point is that many such anti-clerical socialists in Belgium fought against him!

But it is equally clear that there were certain concepts of socialism, e.g. that Cardijn was open to such as the British form of Christian socialism.

At the end of the day, however, I think the conclusion has to be that despite this sympathy, Cardijn refused to lock himself down with the Christian socialist or any other label.

Stefan Gigacz