Top 5 books for Quaker socialists

During the 2020 coronavirus lockdown we posted summaries of more than 30 Quaker, socialist and left wing writings to social media. The following were the most popular:

1. Race and Privilege in Europe by QCEA 

“One cannot be passively non-racist in a society whose very economy has been structured on a racist past” 

The 2019 publication Race and Privilege in Europe from Quaker Council for European Affairs is a concise and deeply relevant text, available to read for free online.

It argues: 

  • Racism is about more than the use of offensive language: it is racial prejudice reinforced by power and privilege  
  • The structures of racism can be hard for white people to see, especially, for example, if they have rarely or never been followed by staff in a shop, or asked where they are ‘really from’ 
  • When we see few or no people of colour in a place or an activity, then there are probably structures and processes that are excluding people of colour 
  • Race is socially constructed and was created to divide labourers who were resisting oppression. Telling dehumanising stories allowed white people to commit extreme violence and feel justified. 
  • Military violence, climate change and anti-immigration policies today are products of racial injustice, as are poverty, hunger, poor schooling and healthcare, lack of safety for people of colour and differences in access to employment 
  • Racism is not an aberration in Britain linked to Brexit. The Leave campaign revealed the virulence of racism under the skin of social life 
  • We must also resist any version of ‘Europeaness’ that resembles a racial project. Many of the EU institutions are overwhelmingly white, and the anti-immigration actions of many European states are rooted in racism.  
  • Quakers need to be careful not to overstate the Quaker role in the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire as this can obscure the much bigger story of resistance by enslaved people  
  • Active anti-racism is a necessary part of the Quaker commitment to equality, peace, truth and simplicity

2. Poems of Percy Shelley 

“Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ – Ye are many, they are few.”

  • There has been one poet regularly quoted by democratic socialists from the Chartists to Hardie and Corbyn – Percy Shelley. 
  • After the Peterloo Massacre he called on the people in verse: “Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ – Ye are many, they are few.”
  • He wasn’t calling for an uprising (he was an advocate of non-violence) but simply believed that if enough people (“unvanquishable number”) stood in solidarity, oppression would be defeated. His wife, Mary, wrote: :”Shelley believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable, and he eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side.” 
  • His politics are vividly described in ‘Red Shelley’ by Paul Foot. But how did Shelley arrive at his political views?
  • His first political action was a visit to Dublin in 1812 to distribute his ‘Address to the Irish People’. In it he praises the Quakers. He never became a Quaker but he’d learnt his political activism by campaigning with the Quakers against the Napoleonic wars and by studying Paine, from a Quaker family.
  • All his poetry is saturated with love for ‘the universal Spirit’, pacifism and equality for all. 

3. Revolutionary Christianity by Tony Benn

“The teachings of Jesus can be seen as truly revolutionary and to have spread its influence far beyond the bounds of Christendom.” 

In his essay ‘Revolutionary Christianity‘, first published in 1980, Tony Benn shares his belief: 

  • That ‘thou shalt love your neighbour as yourself’ must be the starting point for exploring Jesus’ revolutionary teaching 
  • That despite this, many churches seem more interested in preaching personal salvation than the social imperative of Jesus’ words 
  • That the radical nature of the Bible helps explain the reason why the authorities were so keen to keep it out of the hands of the masses for so long  
  • That John Wycliffe, the Lollards, the Diggers, the Levellers and the Quakers have all based their actions on Jesus’ social message 
  • That through these and other movements, the ethics of Jesus were incorporated in to human rights, environmentalism, democracy and socialism  
  • That these movements need to practice neighbourly love, to build the social, political and economic institutions that express it. 
  • The threat of nuclear weapons makes this task all the more urgent 

The essay forms part of ‘The Best of Benn’ edited by Ruth Winstone.

4. Age of Reason by Tom Paine

“My mind is my own church” 

Tom Paine is best known for his anti-monarchist text ‘Common Sense’ and his defence of revolt ‘The Rights of Man’, which between them helped catalyse revolutionary movements of America, France and Britain. He also wrote a book on religion which proved so controversial that he had to escape England. 

Although by that stage he was no longer a member of the Society of Friends, he retained a connection throughout his life, and Friends will recognise the Quaker influence on his thought. 

In The Age of Reason he states: 

  • He believes in God, in equality and the idea that religious duties involve doing justice, mercy and making fellow creatures happy  
  • That he does not believe in any creed professed by any church in the world and that organised religion has a tendency to be an instrument of oppression  
  • That divine revelation is real, but must be experienced first-hand, rather than through the words of others
  • That Jesus’ morality has not been exceeded by any, but that Christian mythologists have layered on top of this some supernatural aspects, which people shouldn’t be forced to believe 
  • That in a number of important and specific ways, the Bible contradicts itself, so cannot be read as the literal word of God  
  • That a revolution in the system of government should be followed by a revolution in the system of religion

5. Immediate not gradual abolition by Elizabeth Heyrick 

“The whole nation must now divide itself into the active supporters and the active opposers of slavery. There is no longer any ground for a neutral party to stand upon” 

Elizabeth Heyrick’s 1824 pamphlet ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition‘ feels relevant to the present times. In it she argues: 

  • That Britain is hypocritical, because on the one hand it asks other countries to end slavery, but on the other hand still profits from it
  • As a result everyone in Britain is implicated, and this must be admitted as a step towards change 
  • That emancipation has long been argued for through petitions and persuasion 
  • That the cause now needs something more decisive, namely a solemn commitment from abolitionists to no longer participate in the crime of bondage by consuming its products
  • That moderate opponents of slavery have ruined their case by calling for gradual emancipation. The slaveholder likes this ‘demand’ very much, because it will lead to gradual indifference 
  • That is is ridiculous to suggest that the interests of an enslaved person are best secured by remaining in slavery 
  • That great effects often result from small beginnings as a resolution to change will influence family and friends, and their family and friends likewise  
  • That everyone must now decide whether they truly stand for emancipation or for perpetual slavery. People who stand for emancipation must act on it. 

The essay is included in the Penguin Book of Quaker Writings edited by Thomas Hamm.

Further reading

Some writings about Quakers that might also be enjoyed by socialists, include Margaret Fell’s  Women’s Speaking Justified, John Woolman’s Journal, Christopher Hill’s  The World Turned Upside Down, Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel’s Fit for Freedom Not for Friendship and Catherine West’s Swarthmore Lecture .

Writings about socialism and progressive politics that might also be enjoyed by Quakers include William Morris’ Useful work vs Useless Toil, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid , Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Steve Cohen’s That’s funny you don’t look antisemitic and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer talking to White People about Race.

If you prefer real live books to reading online, you can get many of them from the Quaker Bookshop