What does Quakerism have to do with socialism?

Picture: Cover of ‘Britain’s First Socialists’ by Fenner Brockway, with a foreword by Tony Benn

What does Quakerism have to do with socialism? It’s a question we get asked fairly frequently. The answer is, ‘a lot’.

The seventeenth century radical groups of the English Revolution are often referred to ‘Britain’s First Socialists’ (see picture) as well as forerunners to modern movements for human rights and environmental justice. Amongst these were the Levellers who demanded political and civil liberties to be extended beyond the landowners and the Diggers who redistributed land through direct action.

Many Levellers and Diggers, including some of their most prominent spokespeople, went on to become Quakers, who were another emergent group of the time who believed that the equality they demanded in the world should be expressed in their faith communities too. As a testament to the divine equality of all people, they met without priests, without set sermons, and – perhaps most radically for their time– with the full expectation that women or men might equally speak their truth.

These actions were seen as revolutionary and were not welcomed by the political or church establishment. Quakers were persecuted remorselessly, especially after 1660 when Britain’s brief republic came to an end. Nonetheless, the movement continued to grow.

One of the first generation to grow up as part of this new faith community was John Bellers, who elaborated a reform of society that was distinctly ’socialist’ (although the word was not used until later). Bellers devised practical measures for a national system of hospitals, a system of local ‘colledges’ where people would have education and employment, and a continental body on which each country would have proportional representation, that would ensure peace in Europe. Socialists as different as Robert Owen, Karl Marx and Eduard Bernstein all read and referenced Bellers. The modern reader might recognise in Bellers’ ideas an anticipation of the NHS, the Welfare State and the founding ideals of the European Union.

Yet for all the fervour of their first earliest years, the Quakers began to look inwards. This was in part an act of self-preservation. It was also linked to a theological shift. The group had first blossomed in the belief that the egalitarian society described by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth was imminent. In this state of being ‘The last would be first and the first would be last’. Yet a new order of merchant aristocrats and City financiers was now very much first, and that did not seem likely to change any time soon.    

So a period of ‘quietism’ began. If you have in your head any stereotypes about the peculiar customs of Quakers, the chances are that they stem from this time. Many Quakers wore ‘plain dress’ – typically grey so as not to be seen to be showing off. In continuity of a tradition begun by earlier Friends they addressed all in the familiar ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ rather than the formal ‘you’ in order to emphasise their commitment to equality.

The increasingly insular nature of the group also allowed for efficient community organising. The first British campaigns against slavery emerged at this time, with Quakers amongst the first groups of non-enslaved people to commit to the cause. Many of the female slavery abolitionists went on to become advocates for women’s suffrage, including Essex Quaker Anne Knight who wrote the first British pamphlet demanding the right to vote for women. 

Although no longer being imprisoned for their beliefs they were still barred from university. As a result many Quakers entered business. No longer in opposition to wealthy elites they increasingly became them, and instead of pursuing radical change channeled their efforts into less challenging philanthropy. As the industrial revolution took hold, the Quakers increasingly became separated from the working classes and their associated movements.

There were still some connections– for example a Quaker helped to finance Robert Owen’s attempt in New Lanark which modelled better conditions for workers and pioneered primary education. In Birmingham the Cadbury family built a village for their workers – a project that to some extent foreshadowed the Welfare State. In York Joseph Rowntree began funding studies into the systemic causes of poverty. Taken together though, the most prominent Quaker figures reflected a reforming wing of the wealthier classes rather then agitators for change from below. Occasionally, they were not even as enlightened as that – most notoriously at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow – and trades unions were formed to challenge their power.

Involvement in politics was still frowned upon by many in the Quaker community, and those who did become MPs tended to be industrialists with a liberal outlook. Nevertheless, they succeeded in being of use to the more radical movements. For example while John Bright MP, was not a prominent part of the Chartist movement, he spearheaded the campaign against the hated Corn Laws, and then later guided the Second Reform Act through parliament which extended the ballot to many working class voters, going some way to enacting the first of the Chartists’ demands.

In the late nineteenth century intellectual reading groups grew, from which emerged the Fabian Society, of which a Quaker – Edward Pease – was amongst thefounders. It took the birth of a radical Christian Socialism though, as represented by the charismatic working-class leader Keir Hardie, to bring the movements back together. Spurred an opportunity to enact the social gospel and Jesus’ teachings of peace, Quakers flocked to join the Independent Labour Party, and many ILP-ers in turn became Quakers.

The First World War helped cement this relationship, when the Quakers became one of the only British faith groups to oppose it and the ILP the only major British political group to do so. Prominent anti-war activists such as future Labour leader George Lansbury toured public meetings in Quaker Meeting Houses, which also provided much of the physical infrastructure of the No Conscription Fellowship.  The Cadbury and Rowntree families also provided financial support for one of the largest peace groups of the time, the Union for Democratic Control, headed by future Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, which called – prophetically – for peace terms that would not lead to another world war. 

The Quaker couple Ada and Alfred Salter were also active in opposing the war.‘Patriotic’ mobs attacked their meetings. Nevertheless, Ada – already co-founder and President of the Women’s Labour League -went on to become the first female mayor in London and the first female Labour mayor in Britain. From this position she devoted herself to improving housing provision and beautifying the city. Alfred – a doctor – treated poverty-stricken patients for free and imported into Bermondsey the latest medical clinics and facilities, creating in miniature an ’NHS before the NHS’. In 1922 he was elected as Labour MP for Bermondsey.

They suffered most for their peace activism – which is what Quakers are still probably best known for today, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, long supported by Quakers, to the coalition to stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which had its opening meeting at the giant main hall of the Quakers’ Friends House building in London. 

Each year (usually) in the same room, a lecture is given in honour of the Salters, organised by the Quaker Socialist Society. Often this has been given by a Quaker politician – such as Catherine West MP (2019), Molly Scott Cato MEP (2017) or Jude Kirton Darling MEP (2015). On other occasions it has been given by a thinker who shares Quaker values, including, in 2010, Tony Benn.

Writing in 2011 and reflecting on Quaker activism, Guardian columnist Anne Karpf shared her view that Quakerism is “more like a political movement or even party – a kind of wish-the-Labour-party-were-like-this party.” In this she was slightly wide of the mark. There are Quakers today of many political parties, and the UK’s parliamentarians currently include five Quakers in total, spanning the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour. The Quaker Socialist Society too is not party-political.

Yet there is also a commonality. The very foundations of Quakerism were moulded in opposition to the political establishment, as were the foundations of socialism. It’s true that on the whole socialist movements do not practice collective stillness. But perhaps that could change. After all, Quakers like to share.