Hubert Critchlow on the nexus between Christianity and socialism

Introduced by Nigel Westmaas

 

In March 1932, Hubert Critchlow, then General–Secretary of the British Guiana Labour Union, went up to Fyrish Village on the Corentyne to deliver a speech at the Congregational Church on the theme of ‘Jesus and Labour’.

It was a remarkable speech in the local and international context of colonial Guyana.

In the speech Critchlow adopted a comparative assessment of the theory and practice of Christians in so far as the interests of the working people are concerned. In arguing that Christ was a true socialist Critchlow appears to gently chide the church establishment for moving away from the “socialistic” actions in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Despite his argument that Christ was a ‘socialist’, and the Christian belief which this implied, it did not prevent the famed Guianese labour leader from visiting Soviet Russia later, in November 1932, for the Congress of the International Labour Defence. Critchlow faced opprobrium on his return from sections of the press and public opinion, but he was one of the few Caribbean labour leaders to take such a bold step.

Hubert Critchlow, so long ago in colonial times, bravely offered the kind of strategic hope against poverty that has been lost in the message and agency of current and past governments here in this country.

Here is the speech in full as reported in the Daily Chronicle of April 3, 1932:

 

Mr Chairman and Christian Friends,

It is not my intention to talk about Christianity from any theological point of view. I know very little about theories of life and conduct. My mind is such that though my own view is strongly held, it always seems to me that the other person’s opinion or idea might also be true, or at least has some vestige of truth which is different from mine.

Neither is it my intention to try to talk learnedly or scientifically about Socialism, Bolshevism or the Class War. People blessed with ordinary intelligence long ago discovered that where human nature and human development are concerned, those who are styled scientific or learned know very little more than other people. I do not belittle the services rendered our cause, or the cause of humanity in general, by people superior in education and intellectual attainments.

There is, however, another side to this question which also needs to be kept in mind. Up to the present, the poor and so called ignorant have had very little say in the government of any nation. The cunning and clever, learned and intellectual, all now have played the biggest part in the affairs of the world. Whatever there is of manmade horror or misery is not due to the wilful wretchedness of the Masses.

 

An old story

Our rulers have refused to organise society on other basis than riches and poverty, exploiters and exploited. Nobody claims a monopoly of virtue for the workers; like everyone else they have been submerged in the sea of selfishness created by the inhuman conditions set up by those who control our means of life. We owe the rise of modern labour and socialist movements entirely to the fact that as knowledge becomes more widespread and political power passes from a small class of property owners into the hands of millions of those who possess no property at all, these millions refuse to accept the comfortable doctrine propounded by the possessing classes that riches and poverty are ordained of God, and that “in His house are many mansions” which the poor will enjoy after a lifetime spent in the midst of penury and want.

All the theories as to the iron law of wages and the material conception of history would avail very little in our struggle for a better life were it not for the fact that side by side with an enormous development in man’s wealth creating power dire poverty and misery still stalks about. It is the everyday fact of life, not the story of what has been or what is to be, which has brought millions to the ranks of Labour and will rally still more millions in the near future.

 

Christ, a socialist

Long years ago the churches, organised to develop and spread the practice of the religion of their Founder, gave up teaching the revolutionary truths He came to teach. He was crucified not because He taught men about life after death. This would not have hurt either Scribes or Pharisees, Publican or Sinner; in fact, the rich and powerful then and now welcome such teaching, and will pay huge sums for its propaganda, in order to keep people quiet and contented with their man made lot. Ladies and Gentlemen believe it or not, it was the social gospel of Jesus which brought about his death. Who slew Him?

Pilate could find no fault with him. It was the jeering crowd of rich men and their supporters that a few months before, he had denounced as the “devourers of widows’ houses” –  “whited sepulchres” ‒ that crowd of money changers, usurers, dividend hunters He had driven out of the temple with whips, declaring, “this is the house of God, but you have made it a den of thieves.” His attacks on vested interests, gave rise to the shout, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  “Not this man but Barabbas”. All these things brought about His death. His disciples received the same treatment from the same classes. Do not forget the words “the common people heard Him gladly” and did so because they knew His teaching had and still has the promise of the life that now is. Two thousand years ago the rich could not stand this teaching any more than any of them can stand it today. Were it not for this we should not read in the Epistle “They were sawn asunder: slain with swords”, or the stories of crucifixion and casting to the lions.

The words “Class War” are not to be found in the New Testament. Yet every word the Master spoke told of the oneness of life, the unity of mankind with God. Every burning word he spoke was denunciatory of the rich and powerful oppressors of the poor. He broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, bond and free, declaring in language which cannot be misunderstood that before God there was and is no such thing as rich or poor, but simply mankind made of one flesh and blood throughout the world.

All down the ages men have taught each other to find security by fighting each other for bread. This fact is written largely on every page of history. Today we are calmly informed that that the prosperity of one nation must be the ruin of another. The condition of affairs in India today arises solely form the fact that the governing classes imagine that they have the right to hold down 300 million people whose skin is another colour to their own, but whose ancient civilisation is many centuries older than theirs.

 

Doctrine of the oppressors

The doctrine of the oppressors is to obtain success by rising on the shoulders of their fellow man. This dreadful doctrine is rampant in political and religious life as well. The poor overworked, underpaid person of all denominations can only hope to get out of his slough of poverty by getting preferment over someone else.

In politics this business of success and getting on is even worse, and in our daily life in field, factory, workshop, office etc, we of the working class are faced with the same horrible nightmare. If we want to be a leading hand or a foreman, a manager or an employer we must so order our lives as to make it possible and then we would be chosen and the other left.

 

The sign of victory

In our trade unions, friendly Societies, and cooperative societies to get on, the ambition to climb, makes cowards of us all, and impels us often to forget the teachings of Christ or of the founders of our movement. Yes, let who will declare the contrary, the class war is here in our midst. Those of us who declare this fact, or, as it said, preach it, are not the inventors of the hideous system. It has come down to us from the past. We neither minimize its existence not obscure its evils by declaring its nonexistence. Smooth words, high ideals of life and conduct, do not of themselves either palliate, make bearable, or remove this evil. Some of our leaders are again crying for peace and telling us there is no class war. This is undiluted nonsense. How can there be peace either at home or abroad while men by their lives and actions deny the truth of Christ’s teaching?

No, the class war, which has lasted since time began and which has sent the Founder of our faith to the Cross, has still to be overcome. I believe we need the inspiration of true religion to give us courage, hope and confidence to be served. Somewhere it is written: “By this sign ye shall conquer.” The sign which I believe will enable us to conquer is that symbolic red flag of which we sing, which, by its very colour declares to all the world the unity and brotherhood of mankind. In conclusion I leave these few lines with you from the Labour Church tune book:

Now sound ye forth with trumpet tone.

Let all the nations fear.

Speak to the world the thrilling words

That tyrants quail to hear:

And write them bold on Freedom’s flag.

And wave it in the van.

They are the Fatherhood of  God

The Brotherhood of  man.

Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow

March 1932

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