‘An Unfortunate Association with Socialism’?

At the first meeting of the War and Social Order Committee a proposal was discussed to change its name – because “the words ‘Social Order’ have, in the minds of some Friends, an unfortunate association with Socialism”. The name was not changed, and the “unfortunate” words found their way into the title of the Foundations. Many members of the Committee would in any case not have found the association with socialism “unfortunate”. Several of them were active in socialist politics before, during and after their time on the Committee, and several made strong explicit links between their Quaker faith and their socialism. However, the Committee within itself, and the wider Society that approved the Foundations, had a wide range of political views – not just different party affiliations, but different views on key questions of policy.

  • These differences weren’t even just between more and less “socialist” Friends – there were many different “socialist” policies being debated, in the Committee and in wider society.
    • For example, Maurice Rowntree’s book Co-operation or Chaos?¸ published by the Committee, argues in detail for a version of “Guild Socialism” – with industries managed by their workers – as the best way to foster co-operation and the development of “personality”.
  • One key question that the Committee discussed repeatedly was the ownership of industry and “capital”. In 1917 the Committee made a minute calling for Friends to promote “the transfer of capital from private to public control” and the widespread nationalisation of industry. This proved very controversial even within the Committee; eventually the Committee pulled back from the minute…
    • Note the more general statement expressed in the Foundations: “The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man”.
  • The report of a Yearly Meeting conference on “Industry for Service”, in 1922 brought explicitly to the fore some of the political differences affecting the Yearly Meeting’s responses to the Foundations and to the issues they raised:
    • “It is not our business to determine [which scheme is best]… There are many roads to the ideal and we must encourage all our members to follow the line that seems most to appeal to them… The Socialist criticism of the various proposals we have discussed is that most of them are frankly based upon the present order … As contrasted with this view, the group of Quaker employers who met at Woodbrooke in 1918 felt that it was outside their scope even to consider the complete reversal of the principles on which industry is conducted…”
  • Quakers today often assume that their principles lead to a left-wing politics, but this isn’t necessarily the case. There have been, and are, a number of prominent Quaker Conservatives. One person who was interviewed for this project said that she felt that Quakers should be doing more to reach out to people in all political parties and across the political spectrum. Other interviewees took it for granted that Quakers would have more in common with left-wing political groups such as the Labour Party and the Green Party.