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Industrial Co-operation:





The Christian Socialists.

AMONG those who have moulded the destinies of Co-operation, none, after Robert Owen himself, have exercised a more powerful influence than the body of men known as the Christian Socialists of 1848.  Their movement, as their name implies, was essentially religious, and this is not the place to criticise or to defend religious ideas of any kind.  But in order to understand the work which Frederick Denison Maurice, John Malcolm Ludlow, Edward Vansittart Neale, Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, and the others who were associated with them did, it is necessary to state the religious views which inspired them.

It has already been shown that the state of England during the thirty or forty years following the end of the great Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, was a lamentable one.  The wealth of the country was indeed great, and immense progress was being made in the mechanical arts.  But a large part of the population was living in great poverty, culminating from time to time, as trade fluctuated, in periods of extreme distress.  Drunkenness and crime were rampant; rioting and rick-burning, burglaries, highway robberies, and even murders, were common incidents.  The working classes were almost wholly without organisation; and the fashionable social philosophy of the day had two main doctrines — the doctrine of free competition on the part of individuals, each seeking the good of himself and of his family, and that of laisser faire (or non-interference with trade and with industrial relations) on the part of the State.


Against this philosophy Owen and his followers at home, with Fourier, St. Simon, Cabet, and others abroad, stood alone; teaching that the good of each can only be attained by each seeking the good of the whole body social, and that the true law of progress is organisation, not the mere struggle between the weak and the strong.  These were the “socialists” of that day: we should now rather call them co-operators, though their doctrine (at least as originally preached by Owen) included in an undeveloped form both voluntary co-operation and that action of the State and the municipality which we now called socialism.  The Owenites had, however, got themselves the reputation of being, if not atheistic, something nearly approaching it, and of having revolutionary ideas as to the family and property.  Therefore they were regarded with horror by the ministers of religion and their flocks, as well as with fear and dislike by the possessors of property, and the teachers of political economy.  To say that the religious organisations of that day were dead to all that side of religion which concerns the social effects of industry and business and the distribution of wealth, is not to make any controversial statement.  It is admitted.  There were, of course, splendid examples of the benevolence and self-sacrifice of individuals here and there, and members of the great Evangelical Party of those days had in particular done much for prison reform, the abolition of slavery, and other good causes.  But, speaking broadly, the religious bodies at their best stood for personal piety, and the hope of salvation for individual believers; at their worst they represented mere dull formalities and conventionalities, defence of property, class privileges, and theological shibboleths, with opposition to every form of progress and enlightenment.


In these circumstances arose this body of men who felt that the existing state of society was a mere satire upon Christian brotherhood.  As the social evils they saw around them seemed inconsistent with the goodness of God, they held that these must arise, not from His ordering of nature, but from the sin and faulty contrivances of man.  Indeed they saw that society was avowedly based on the principle of selfishness, the very antithesis of Christianity, which, so far as this life was concerned, was relegated to the subservient office of healing here and there some wound inflicted by its triumphant rival.  They set themselves, therefore, first to know the common people by visiting them in their own homes; by sharing their thoughts and hopes and fears.  Then they began to teach: they insisted that property is only a trust from God to be administered in the interest of all; that Christianity has a message for the perfecting of this life, as well as of hope for one to come; that men have duties to all their fellow-men and not merely to their own families; that all, of whatever class, have an equal right to culture and to self-development.  They pressed home St. Paul’s doctrine of solidarity, that if one part of a community suffers, the whole must suffer; and declared that for the strong to strive to possess themselves of all they can in the distribution of wealth, while the Government looks on and leaves them a free hand in doing so, is a wholly un-Christian organisation of industry and of the State.  They saw that whatever doctrines might be professed by socialists, and whatever angry things said in the name of Socialism, its essence was the principle of association, the principle of acting together for the common good; and that this was none other than the root principle of Christianity, formulated in the great saying, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  Therefore they were proud to call themselves by the hated name of “Socialist.”  At the same time they were not only faithful Christians, but zealous Churchmen, opposed to many opinions of socialists of other schools.  They held that their task was to Christianise socialism, and that Christianity alone could give that unselfishness which was admittedly the necessary basis of association.  For while recognising the powerful influence of circumstances, they repudiated that extreme Owenite “doctrine of circumstances,” which taught that men’s characters are merely what their circumstances make them, and that improved circumstances would of themselves produce the required unselfishness.  Therefore they took the name of “Christian Socialists.”


As a theologian and a religious teacher, Maurice was their master and leader; he was a clergyman and ultimately Professor of Moral Philosophy in Cambridge.  Ludlow, who had been the first to formulate the idea of Christian socialism, and of the inseparable connection of Christianity with socialism, was the chief among them in all matters of economics, of what we now call co-operation, and of law.  He, Neale, and Hughes were barristers.  Kingsley, a clergyman, like Maurice, and also ultimately a professor at Cambridge, was their great popular exponent, both as preacher, and as writer of pamphlets, novels, and verse.  Neale spent lavishly in the cause, not only his fortune, but his time, labour, and health, and became for forty years an unwearying and unselfish guide of the Co-operative Movement; while Hughes, “a first-rate, go-ahead man,” who will still be best remembered for his manly and sunny personality, for some years represented the cause in Parliament, and did much work in connection with the Working Men’s College established by them.  Of these five, the sole survivor, Mr. Ludlow, in his eighty-fourth year, stood up amid the cheers of the great Co-operative Congress of 1904 — representing two million members — to move a resolution in favour of international peace and arbitration.


On May 6th, 1848, this group of reformers began to publish their ideas.  First Maurice and Ludlow brought out a weekly newspaper, Politics for the People, in which, with many men afterwards celebrated who gathered round them, they preached the religious and social doctrines described above.  It did not, however, gain the ear of the working class, and in three months it ceased for want of funds.  It was followed in 1850 by the Christian Socialist, in which the same ideas were taught, and fierce war waged against the terrible system of sub-contracting and sweating in the ready-made clothing and other trades.  This evil was largely promoted by the action of Government Departments, and had just been exposed for the first time.  They published also a number of tracts on Christian Socialism; and Kingsley, who in 1848 had given a popular form to the new ideas in his novel Yeast, now, in 1850, in Alton Locke applied them specially to the tailoring trade.  In these and other writings they also defended Trade Unionism, the Factory Acts, and Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration.  Nor did they deal only with industrial questions.  Political reform had their support, though they set self-reform first; so had sanitary reform, and laws for the better education of the people, and for the prevention of adulteration.  They denounced the exorbitant cost of the distribution of commodities.  At times they appeared to attack the morality of profit in any form.  On the other hand, they relied mainly on voluntary action, and regarded with horror that confiscation of private property which is to many the most prominent feature of socialism in its modern sense.  They combated the violence of the Chartists, and the idea that the greatest evils can be cured, and society reformed, by legislation.  But always and above all they preached association and condemned competition.


This teaching brought upon them furious attacks from all quarters.  Churchmen and Nonconformists, of the old high and dry type, equally regarded them as revolutionaries undermining the divinely appointed division of society into rich and poor, masters and servants; while to the politicians and political economists they were reckless and ignorant rebels against the natural laws of wealth.  To the free-thinking socialists, on the other hand, they appeared belated retailers of ancient superstitions, bound in the long run to be found on the side of property, privilege, and religious domination; and the mass of the people — if it heeded them at all — simply saw in them men of some wealth and position, who could not, therefore, have any real sympathy with, or deserve to be trusted by, those who worked and suffered.

This, however, did not last long: within two years the working classes had learned to value and to trust them, while the religious bodies and the political economists were to a considerable extent either converted to their views or silenced.


Mr. Ludlow had many ties with France and much experience of that country, and while in Paris shortly after the revolution of 1848 had seen the co-operative workshops, established there in large numbers both by the efforts of the workmen and by the assistance of the State.  He saw in these workshops the practical embodiment of the great principle of association.


On returning to England he urged upon those who shared his religious views that similar workshops should be formed here, as the only practical cure for the growing evils of competition and sweating.  Accordingly a Working Tailors’ Association was first founded early in 1850; and when in November the first number of the Christian Socialist appeared, we find that there were also in existence in London a Needlewomen’s Association, a Printers’ Association, a Working Bakers’ Association, two Associations of Working Builders, and two of Shoemakers: others followed.  Besides these Productive Societies there was the London Co-operative Stores, at 76, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square; and at the same address was the centre of the movement, the “Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations.”  The above workshops received nearly the whole of their capital on loan at four per cent. from the Christian Socialists, chiefly from Mr. Neale; they were constituted on the plan that the workers employed should be the only associates (or, as we should now say, members of the society), should choose their own manager, should regulate all the affairs of their workshop themselves, and — subject to a contribution to a central fund, to be employed for common purposes — should enjoy the net profits of their industry. [1]  This is the organisation which became so well known as the self-governing workshop.

It is not to be supposed that the founders thought this form of organisation suitable for all industry.  They saw that certain trades required to be carried on with such a large mass of capital that it was hopeless for the workmen engaged to expect to control them, and in the constitution of the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations power was given for the admission not only of self-governing workshops, but of societies of combined capitalists and working men.  They saw also that at the bottom of the social ladder there were large classes of people so degraded by the existing industrial system that they were quite unfit for industrial self-government.  But they saw, or thought, that between these classes there was a body of skilled workmen, working with a very moderate amount of capital, and on the whole fitted to control their own industry in associated groups.  This middle body, therefore, they chose for their sphere of work, considering this enough, and far more than enough, to attempt, and deliberately leaving the two extremes to be dealt with by some future generation in its own way.

As we have seen in Chapters VII. and VIII., co-operation, both distributive and productive, existed in England long before the Christian Socialists; and some of the many workshops founded still survived to their day.  These had been almost all intended as first steps to the Owenite ideal of self-supporting communities.  The Christian Socialist workshops, on the contrary, were intended to supply the public.  Many associations formed with this idea, both in London and the provinces, now followed those mentioned.  Some were started independently of the Christian Socialists and some in close connection with them.  Many had a considerable amount of success at first and even for some years.  One business in particular, that of the Frame-makers and Gilders, founded in London in 1858, maintained itself in one form or another for thirty-three years, sometimes doing a prosperous trade of 8,000 a year or more, sometimes struggling heroically against adversity.  Only in 1891 did it disappear, when the death of his co-workers and his own growing age made it impossible for Robert Newton, its devoted manager, to keep up the struggle.


The workshops were received with much public sympathy, and some of the most prominent men of the present day were in their youth customers of the co-operative tailors and bootmakers in London.  The rock upon which these associations split was not so much want of capital — for the Christian Socialists advanced what was necessary in that way — and not so much want of experience in conducting business, as difficulties in maintaining internal discipline, in securing absolute honesty and fidelity to one another, and in preventing quarrels among men who had had little education in the ordinary sense, and whose training as wage-servants, under the lash of competition, had developed the rougher and the meaner, rather than the nobler side of their characters.  It has been the habit to say that the workshop movement of the Christian Socialists failed.  If by this we mean that the workshops founded under their immediate influence failed financially in course of time, it is perfectly true.  But apart from all their other work, of which we shall speak, it is certainly not true that their workshops as a movement were a failure.  They raised up a hope of industrial salvation; they gave a strong impulse to every form of co-operation, and particularly to the vague efforts which had long been made in this country towards the self-employment of the working classes; and their example gave rise to a constant succession of new productive societies, which have never ceased to grow in numbers and prosperity from that day to this.


These societies have in course of time modified their original form, by the admission to membership of individuals not employed, and of co-operative distributive societies, so that they can no longer be accurately described as “self-governing” workshops, seeing that their government does not rest exclusively with those who work in them.  As will be seen in Chapter XVII., however, a large number of productive workshops still retain the essential features, that the workmen employed are sharers in the capital, in the responsibility, and general control of the business, in the choice of those who manage it, and in the profits.  The Self-Governing Workshop Movement has in fact become the parent of the Co-partnership Workshop Movement, which is described in that chapter.  When, in 1883, the Labour Association (now Labour Co-partnership Association) was formed to advise and guide the workshops of this modified type, Mr. Neale, Mr. Ludlow, Mr. Hughes, and others directly influenced by the teaching of the Christian Socialists, took part, with co-operators of the older Owenite school, in founding or in guiding and supporting the new body.

In 1854, however, the successes of the future could be but dimly foreseen by the eye of faith.  There was indeed a great multiplication of associations going on, both productive and distributive, but the old spirit of selfishness continued to prevail.  Therefore men who based their ideas of social regeneration on the spread of unselfishness could not but be dissatisfied, if not discouraged.  In the distributive store the old spirit might produce dividend-hunting without preventing business success; in the workshops it showed itself in a great deal of quarrelling and want of discipline which caused many societies to fail.  Even the artizan classes seemed not yet prepared for industry based on voluntary association.


On the other hand, in 1850, the Workmen’s Co-operative Societies of the North and the existing workshops had, with the assistance of the Christian Socialist leaders, jointly organised an Annual Congress of their own.  To this it now seemed better to leave the work of directly promoting new workshops.  The Christian Socialists, therefore, turned their attention for the time being away from this and towards educating and training the working classes.  With that ending view they had long ago started lectures and elementary classes.


In 1854 they established the Working Men’s College, where voluntary teachers held advanced night classes for working men; and their college has maintained itself down to the present time with ever-increasing prosperity and success.  It has been largely imitated elsewhere, and has numbered among its pupils many who have risen from the ranks, and thousands who have benefited while still remaining artizans.  Among its teachers have been many of the most distinguished men of our time, and not by any means only those whose views on theology were orthodox.  With much wisdom and liberality, the founders were always ready, in this as in their co-operative work, to receive as fellow workers men of all opinions.  For nearly the whole of its fifty years of life Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury, has been the familiar address of the college; but in the year of its jubilee, 1904, the college is building for itself a larger home in Crowndale Road, St. Pancras.


But besides the unprepared condition of the working classes, the state of the law was another great obstacle which at that time stood in the way of co-operation.  Prior to 1852 a co-operative society was, at best, regarded in law only as a private partnership, every member being responsible to the last penny of his property for its debts, while any member who could get possession of the property of the society was practically at liberty to keep it.  Indeed if the society had more than twenty-five members it was an illegal company (unless it incurred the heavy expense of registering as a joint-stock company) and its property was not even protected against the outside public.  There were practically no means of enforcing honesty on the part of the leading members, and no security for the savings invested in the common enterprise; nor any way of compelling obedience to the rules of the society.  In this state of the law it was impossible for co-operative societies to make real progress; it is only wonderful that so many were formed, and managed to live at all.  To give some protection to the property of their own workshops the Christian Socialists vested the property of each society in a trustee; but as soon as opportunity occurred they rendered an inestimable service to the working classes by securing changes in the law, which resulted in the first creation of Industrial and Provident Societies and of the Registry and laws for regulating them.  The first of the two great steps in this development was the Act of 1852, which protected the property of the societies and gave binding force to their rules; it was the first law in any country to give a legal position to workmen’s co-operative associations.  The second was the Act of 1862, which limited the liability of the members to the amount of their shares.  For these two Acts the Christian Socialists were directly responsible, and Mr. Ludlow, who drafted the first of them, became in 1874 Chief Registrar of Industrial and Provident Societies (as well as of Friendly and Building Societies) and for many years administered the laws which he had been chiefly instrumental in framing. [2]


While the workshops of the Christian Socialists had been springing up and struggling, seeming to fail but really doing very valuable work, chiefly in London, co-operative stores of the Rochdale type were multiplying, chiefly in Lancashire and Yorkshire.  The Christian Socialists early came into connection with this older Owenite movement.  They had in fact the assistance of at least one Owenite, Lloyd Jones, from the first.  Thus it came about that they soon acquired great influence in the whole co-operative movement, and took part in the organisation of the earliest Co-operative Congresses, as already mentioned.  And thus Mr. Neale became the Secretary and legal adviser of the Co-operative Union.  He drew up for it the model rules which regulate its societies, and for many years worked indefatigably and devotedly in their interests, travelling incessantly from place to place, ever in close touch with the growing movement, and exercising upon it a great and beneficent influence.

Such were the Christian Socialists: such their opinions, such their acts.  Whatever we may think of its religious aspects, their work must always occupy a large place in any industrial and social history of our country; and in particular there are special reasons why it must be prominent in any account of the progress of co-operation.  First, there was the fruitful experiment which they made in the establishment of co-operative workshops; second, their invaluable work in so reforming the law as to render possible co-operative societies of working men, both for distribution and for production; and, lastly, their work in recalling the possessors of wealth and power to a sense of their duties, in breaking down the dangerous antagonism of classes, in exposing the horrors of sweating, in promoting the education and organisation of the working classes, in bringing together in conferences, that led ultimately to union, the co-operators of the North and South, and in holding up noble ideals before the ever-growing thousands of our Movement.

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1. The founders of the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations reserved, however, a veto on the choice of manager of an association, and on the regulations of the association relating to his powers and duties, so long as any capital lent by them remained unpaid.

2. See Appendix (A).