Perhaps it is worth restating what we mean by socialism, or perhaps more precisely what I mean by socialism. You may disagree.
Socialism is the objective of creating a society which values everyone and accords dignity to each person equally; regardless of age, race, gender, appearance, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability.
That doesn’t necessarily mean rewarding everyone equally, because there may be public policy considerations for why certain professions are better remuneratated; however where liberals and socialists part company is our belief that there cannot be social equality while there is economic inequality. Political freedom and universal suffrage do not bring equality if bosses can still run their companies like dictatorships, and the most significant economic decisions are taken by private corporations, not governments.
Therefore, socialists believe that the economy should be collectively and democratically controlled. Socialism has become intertwined with the labour movement because the working class through its trade unions and collective organisation seeks to moderate the power of capital; and because the working class do not exploit anyone else. (However, throughout the history of the socialist movement there have been occasions when the sectional interests of the working class have sometimes clashed with the wider interests of the whole of society.)
There is a dividing line between the Marxist tradition and utopian socialists (some of whom also think of themselves as Marxists) in that historical materialists believe that socialism will come about through political intervention in our actually existing society, and the struggles between different groups with opposing economic and social interests; and as such progress towards socialism will involve compromises and alliances; and socialist governments will contend with very difficult economic, political and social problems, and external pressures will force priorities upon those governments that they would not have chosen.
Socialism will therefore come from the existing societies that we live in; and while there will be elements of discontinuity and novelty there will also be continuity and the legacy of the past.
A big mistake would be for socialists to uncritically locate themselves in liberal traditions of the European enlightenment, without considering the degree to which they are also historically contingent.
The enlightenment challenged mediaeval custom that relied only upon tradition and authority, and not upon reason and evidence. Now of course the philosophical school of scientific realism defends the idea that the currently accepted mature scientific theories are truth approximate, Socialists defend scientific realism as being the foundation stone of rationalism, as it underpins the capability of humanity to master its own environment and future development.
But while that philosophical truth may be universal as an idea, it is not universal as a social reality. Mature scientific theories rely upon repeatable experimentation, a level of standardisation of measurement, reliable methods of disseminating theories and debate among practitioners, and a certain level of manufacturing capability. These circumstances did not obtain in pre-industrial societies. For the majority of the European feudal era, tradition and authority were more socially effective than reason; as craft knowledge was guarded by guilds, protecting skills that had been honed through generations of particular and not universal knowledge. Scholarship, military knowledge and the exercise of political power were hereditary skills or institutionally delimited for good reason. The revolution from non-industrial to industrial society involved the creation of mass produced books and periodicals, and the introduction of state recognised educational qualifications that provided proof of skill and capability independent of personal recommendation. It also removed hereditary qualification from jobs and established ideals of social mobility.
Yet feudalism was a very successful social system, that enormously lifted the economic and cultural wealth of society over the 1000 years of its existence; indeed the enlightenment project was developed under the late feudal system, and the most socially progressive and egalitarian economists of the eighteenth century, the physiocrats, were supporters of the French monarchy.
During those centuries of relying upon tradition, rich and complex social codes and legal system crystalised around the different strands of the Christian religion, and in non-European pre-industrial societies around the other religions. People growing up within those codes indentified with them as part of their collective consciousness of who they were; rules evolved that reflected the social responsibilities necessary for stable society in the pre-industrial era, muddled up with superstitions and arbitrary customs and prejudices, and all sanctified by the authority of God and Church.
Religious custom therefore codified a great deal of traditional wisdom, alongside idiosyncrasies, and for believers it provided not only group identity, but its customs were also Divinely inspired.
Now there are two important things to note here. Firstly that the appeal to reason political liberty and equality was itself socially contextualised. The French and American revolutions of the eighteenth century retained slavery (initially abolished in France but then restored in 1802), and restricted political rights to white, male, property owners. The concepts of liberty and equality have evolved as social mores have changed, and as the contradictions between declarations of universal rights, and the reality of discrimination have developed, including of course major political struggles of the oppressed.
Even the incomplete Womens’ rights and Gay rights our society affords cannot be founded on concepts of Universality, because they are only recently won, and they have been won by political struggle within modern bourgeois liberal democracies – which means that their opponents also typically found their political and philosophical outlook on universal human rights!
Secondly the historical role of the Church in defending tradition was itself a contingent one. Whereas in Britain and Holland concepts modern political liberty were expressed in religious terms as a struggle within Christianity against tradition; in Germany Protestantism during the reformation was a reactionary ideology protecting localised princely despotism from the progressive social and economic modernisation coming from the Catholic absolutist monarchies. And in France, a state cult of secularism developed to create a collective consciousness of modern nationalism, that mythologised the idea that because the Church defended tradition in Eighteenth century France, then there should be a universal preference for secularism.
Socialists need to recognise that the privacy of the religious domain can never be fully private, because religion impacts upon marriage, divorce, child rearing, education, probate and community loyalty; as well as attitudes to gender and sexual orientation.
Religions constantly evolve, adapting to the social context that they operate within. But equally the community that co-religionists feel themselves part of may be wider than any particular nation. For example, within the Anglican communion social attitudes towards LGBT rights are widely different in Uganda than they are in Massachusetts. While traditionalists within the church are acting as a brake on Anglicanism in Britain from ordaining sexually active gay priests, the Anglican Communion is a voice counselling against homophobia in Africa. The relative importance of the different parts of that balance can only be evaluated within the Communion, and the balance between scriptural authority and social evolution can only be assessed by Christians themselves.
But we also have to understand that the social attitudes of wider society are also constantly evolving. Homophobia, racism, and sexism may even be less prevalent among church goers than among atheists.
Our aim as socialists is to focus on our objective of creating a society where everyone is afforded equal dignity, and considered of equal value. We should seek to move the social consensus in that direction; but equally we should avoid creating false polarisations where people feel forced to choose between their faith and identity; or their rights or their respect for the rights of others.
We should feel confident of the power of liberal toleration within our society, and the institutional reinforcement of an equalities agenda through political parties, voluntary sector organisations and trade unions.
As such, religious organisations need to be encouraged to adapt to rather than oppose that agenda. To take one example, teaching of Creationism is desired by not only some Christians, but also many Muslims. The children are taught this at home anyway. A compromise could be struck with these groups where this ideology was taught to children whose parents request it; but with a required context of explaining the difference between faith based belief and evidence based knowledge.
Individuals need to be offered choice, because this allows an interpenetration of the teaching of the religions and the broader liberal and tolerant attitudes of society. This approach allows religions to evolve towards the broader consensus of society quicker. This has in fact been the broad experience of Anglicanism as the dominant form of Christianity in England. It is also the broad tradition of social democracy in Britain, and the paradox is that organised religion has less effective influence in our politics than it does in many other countries where there are stronger traditions of secularism, and a formal seperation of Church and state.