As my regular reader will know, I am writing a book about Poplarism in the 1920s. I'm just drafting a section about the extent to which the Poplar struggle was influenced by religion. But I think there is more to be said about this than I want to include in the book, so I thought I'd share it with you here ...
George Lansbury, the highest-profile Poplarist, was a committed Christian socialist. Several of his fellow councillors were also active Christians - in fact, churchgoing amongst Poplar's Labour councillors was higher than that of the general population, which did not rise above 10%. There was undoubtedly a Christian flavour to some of the Council's campaigning - for instance, their pamphlet Guilty and Proud of it opened with a Biblical quote: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27)". But the vast majority of the vast bulk of leaflets, pamphlets, articles and speeches that Poplar Council delivered to its working-class audience were addressed to their class interests not to their religion. And they certainly avoided addressing Christians as one section of the population as, for example, Respect does to Muslims today.
Many of those who are at pains to emphasise the Christian element of Lansbury's Christian socialism - from his biographer Bob Holman to Labour MP Stephen Timms - are themselves Christian socialists. Timms describes "GL" as "one of the most important figures in the Christian Socialism of the Labour Party ... deeply committed to seeing the Kingdom of God delivered in practical reality" and reports that on George's death, Clement Attlee described him as "a sincere and devoted Christian who strove to follow in the footsteps of his Master."
Timms also states that "In the powerful campaigning articles he wrote for the Daily Herald, George Lansbury constantly banged on about the Christian imperative for justice and against poverty." However, although George did repeatedly write on this theme, he 'banged on' far more constantly about class and socialism.
Timms claims both George Lansbury and Tony Blair for one Christian Socialism. But Blair is the continuance not of Lansbury but of his bitter critics Herbert Morrison and Ramsay MacDonald.
GL wrote in his Bulletin in support of the General Strike that readers should "Keep in mind the fact that the Son of Man, the Christ who lived and was executed by the government of his day, was a great leader, and leader of the common people. It was his great message of Love and Brotherhood which brought him to his death. He knew the poor of the earth were oppressed by the rich and the wealthy, and in scathing terms denounced the money changers and all those who defiled the temple and brought suffering to starving humanity." But it was equally possible to support the General Strike, to be a Poplarist, to be a socialist without being a Christian - to see socialism not as the Kingdom of God on Earth but as a humane, rational, liberated, democratic way of running society.
Christians who were not socialists, indeed who were anti-socialist, also claim Lansbury and Poplarism for themselves. Father St. John Groser observed that "the thing that struck me forcibly on coming to Poplar was the essentially religious nature of the revolt that was taking place" (Politics and Persons, 1949, p.22). Methodist Minister William Lax, the Liberal displaced by Lansbury as Poplar Mayor in 1919, said that "George Lansbury is the patron saint of Poplar", and that "God, conscience and religion are the beginning and end of things for him, and it is from that source that he derives his strength and courage." (His Book, 1937, pp.291-93). As a Liberal, Lax would not understand the centrality of socialism in GL's politics, nor that working-class solidarity is the greatest source of strength and courage.
If Lansbury's God was telling him to defy the law and go to prison in defence of working-class interests, then opposition Councillor Kitcat's God was telling him to make the opposite choice. In truth, it was not God who was telling the Councillors what to do - it was the labour movement. Christianity may have (slightly) flavoured Poplarism, but it did not create or define it. Even if religious conviction provided personal inspiration for some of the Councillors, it was socialist politics, outrage at injustice and personal courage that shaped their choices and their victories.