WHY I BECAME A SOCIALIST
By Ken Leech
Ken Leech is an Anglican priest working in Whitechapel in East London.
I was very impressed by Helen Russell's article on "Why I became a socialist" in the March issue of Workers' Liberty. In some ways my course was the same as Helen's with the exception that my Christian faith and my socialism were intertwined, not opposed. I became a Christian and a socialist at the same time and, in my innocence, for a while as a teenager, assumed that all Christians were bound to be socialists! I have remained both socialist and Christian in spite of regular discontent with the failings, betrayals and corruption of both the church and the left.
I was born into a working class family in the "cotton towns" - Ashton- under-Lyne, Stalybridge and Dukinfield - in Greater Manchester. Voting Labour was taken for granted, but was compatible with many reactionary positions. My father, an engineer, had, as a teenager, heard Ben Tillett speak on Ashton Market, and this seemed to have been a "conversion" experience for him. He spoke of it in more or less religious terms. He was also very insistent that he was a Methodist, though what he meant by that was that he didn't go to church, and it was the Methodist Church that he didn't go to. There was a vague sense that somehow Methodism was more sympathetic to working class issues than were the other churches. (Though I never heard the "more to Methodism than to Marxism" quip until many years later.)
Yet I was aware, at the age of eight, that, while my dad was strongly committed to the trade union movement, he hated the Polish immigrants who had settled in the area under the Polish Resettlement Scheme. "They're no good to man nor beast, Poles", I heard him say, and it set my little brain worrying. The two ideas - socialism and "racism" - a word which I did not know and which was not even in the dictionaries at that time - didn't quite seem to fit. It set me thinking hard.
Neither of my parents were at all religious, and they saw the church as the enemy of working class people - though my father had great regard for a priest called Cummings who was known as the "red vicar" in Ashton-under-Lyne in the 1920s. (He was one of a number of socialist clergy in this period, the most famous being Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted in Essex from 1910 to 1942. One of the reasons given by the CP for the expulsion of the early Trotskyists was the association of some of the key figures with Noel's movement.)
The year 1956 was critical for me. It was a turning point in the history of socialism and of radical movements across Europe and elsewhere. It was a critical year for anyone with a social conscience. The Civil Rights movement was well under way in the USA. Trevor Huddleston had returned from South Africa and was addressing massive audiences around Britain. The impact of Huddleston's denunciation of apartheid in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester remains with me to this day. At an emotional level he was a key influence on my taking Christian faith seriously. If this faith could drive this man to oppose racism with such passion perhaps it could drive me too.
The resistance to nuclear weapons was also building up. The Russian invasion of Hungary and the 20th Congress of the CPSU had thrown the Stalinist left into confusion and led to mass exoduses from the Communist Parties and to the growth of the "New Left". I used to visit the Left Wing Coffee Bar in Manchester, run by the SLL, but I never joined it. I did join the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War which became CND, and had close links with the Committee of 100, first in the north west and then in London. All these were formative influences in shaping my socialism.
But it was coming to the the East End of London in 1958, as a student, which was the real turning point. I arrived at the time of the "Notting Hill riots" and came to live at 84 Cable Street. The East End seemed full of left-wing Christians - Stanley Evans, John Groser and others - and co-operation between Christians and Marxists was common. I got to know some of the old Communist councillors - Solly Kaye, Phil Piratin, Max Levitas - all of them atheists, but all of them having a long history of cooperation with socialist Christians with whom they had a lot in common. The East End has shaped me more than any place. Much of my time here, since 1958, has been involved with fighting fascism, working for decent housing, trying to create communities of resistance and solidarity.
In all this, my Christian faith and my socialism have been equally central. If I stopped being a Christian I would still be a socialist. I am not sure that If I stopped being a socialist I would, could, still be a Christian. I suppose this means that my commitment to equality, justice, human dignity and common ownership is fundamental, and that the fact that I am a human being - and therefore a socialist, because that flows from being human - comes first. That does not mean that my Christian faith is secondary or less important, but that it flows from, and builds on, who I am and where I stand.
And, by the way, I think that "socialism or barbarism" is still the issue.