The connection between Quakers and ethical socialism dates back to the beginnings of the Quaker movement. The 17th century movements known as the Levellers and the Diggers are sometimes referred to as the ‘first socialists’. Both the Leveller leader John Lilburne and Gerald Winstanley of the Diggers later became Quakers.
In the 1690s, the thinker John Bellers, elaborated a Quaker reform of society that was distinctly ’socialist’ (though that word was not used till 1827). Bellers devised practical measures for ending unemployment and educating the poor through a system of local ‘colledges’ (so bottom up, not top down) and also an international body, on which each country would have proportional representation, that would ensure world peace. Later socialists as different as Robert Owen, Karl Marx and Eduard Bernstein praised Bellers as a pioneer of socialism.
In the 1890s, when the Christian socialism was establishing itself as a political force, a Socialist Quaker Society (SQS) was formed. This aroused some opposition from Quakers who eschewed any sort of political involvement and also from Quakers who accepted political involvement but not ’socialism’. The SQS had to explain that it did not intend a state socialism imposed from above but an ‘ethical socialism’ of co-operatives that started from the Quaker testimonies and worked upwards.
At first the Socialist Quaker Society flourished and produced a regular magazine, The Ploughshare. Contributors included Emily Hobhouse, Dorothy Richardson, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Salter and Fenner Brockway. The paper was sympathetic to the subject of Indian home rule and generally took an internationalist and anti-war stance. It also regularly ran articles on women’s rights which at least two times used the word feminism – a century ago, long before the term was well known. By the 1920s many of the leading lights of the SQS were elected as MPs or councillors and the Society dwindled.
However, in the 1970s Quaker socialists regrouped, inspired by a letter to The Friend which described socialism as “an ethical movement which is an attempt to apply to our present industrial society the teaching of Jesus, the gospel of love and service”. The first action of the newly formed Quaker Socialist Society (QSS) was to reaffirm the Testimony to the Foundations of a True Social Order, discerned by Britain Yearly Meeting in 1918.
The Quaker Socialist Society is best known for the annual Salter Lecture held at the same time as Yearly Meeting. Named after two Quaker Socialists, Ada and Alfred Salter, these lectures regularly attract audiences at YM of several hundred Quaker members and attenders.