A couple of months ago I went to a talk on the theme of Radical Walthamstow, given by local historian Roger Huddle. Walthamstow is the Victorian suburb of London that has been my home for nearly 20 years. Between around 1870 and 1940 it was a hive of working class agitation, organising and self-help. Just yards from where I lived until very recently, workers had clubbed together to build a community centre named in honour of William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement leader and socialist dynamo who was born in the town.
One of the services that used to be run in the centre was a socialist Sunday school. On the wall was a wooden plaque, and on it were set out the “Socialist 10 Commandments”. (Thanks to Mehrdad Aref-Adib for permission to use the image). These are, in full:
- Love your schoolfellows, they will become your fellow workers and companions in life.
- Love learning, which is the food of the mind; be as grateful to your teacher as to your parents.
- Make every day holy by good and useful deeds and kindly actions.
- Honour good people, be courteous and respect all, bow down to none.
- Do not hate or offend anyone. Do not seek revenge, but stand up for your rights and resist tyranny.
- Be not cowardly, protect the feeble and love justice.
- Remember that all good things of the earth are the result of labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the worker.
- Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason and never deceive yourself or others.
- Do not think that he who loves his own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.
- Help to bring about the day when all nations shall live fraternally together in peace and prosperity.
And the declaration reads:
We desire to be just and loving to all our fellow men and women, to work together as brothers and sisters, to be kind to every living creature, and so help to form a New Society, with Justice as its foundation and Love its law.
[Note: declaration text added on 9 Nov 2015, in response to the comment from Nick Jones below]
As someone whose political consciousness evolved in the turbulent 1980s, for a time I was happy – or at least willing – to call myself a socialist. Since then, I have felt less comfortable with that label, and indeed have become more sceptical about politics generally.
In that period I have also become a father. Like many parents, I believe that part of my job is to give my daughter a kind of moral compass that will help her find her own way through an increasingly complex world.
Hearing, and then reading, the above list brought me up short. Its generous, respectful, courageous, progressive (in the best sense of the word) message set out, in beautifully simple language, a humanist manifesto that I would be happy to sign up to.
In these dark times, the word ‘socialist’ is rarely used except as a term of abuse or contempt. The Socialist 10 Commandments remind us that the movement embraced a vision that was admirable, humane, and enlightened. Who could possibly object to such a vision?
There are many organizations devoted to demeaning specific concepts. I’ve just been reading a web blog where a man raves about Obama the Marxist and the socialist – the guy wouldn’t know a socialist if he was bit by one. They are just attack words anymore.
James – thanks for the comment. I see you too are concerned about everyday ethics, albeit in a different context. Keep flying the flag for thoughtful, respectful moral debate.
A postscript: I heard from Roger Huddle (who gave the talk) that he is putting on an exhibition about the Socialist Sunday School in Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow London E17 in early September, as part of the E17 Art Trail.
The Socialist Sunday Schools were a victims of the first world war. Prior to that time the broad socialist movement had a strong element of “rational conversion” in its armoury.
That you could convince people by rational discussion that the socialist organisation of society would bring benefits to all and secure a better future, produced soapboxes on many street corners and regular outings by the Clarion their horse drawn caravans, the Clarion Scouts would descend on villages on their weekly bicycle outings distributing pamphlets and tracts and arguing with people from a hastily erected soapbox, were typical.
Agitation and argument for socialism were central to the period. The movement was united in the aims of internationalism and the betterment of workers of all lands. The outbreak of the first world war saw that unity shattered as a nationalistic outlook took over from the internationalist one and worker was pitted against worker on the battlefield, each being urged on by their own “socialist” party at home.
At the end of the war the Russian revolution and the Third International gave a different focus to the movement. Instead of direct agitation for socialism the agitation for a particular cause or struggle from which the socialist argument would arise became the norm. A change of emphasis from pro socialism to anti capitalism, the struggle itself would show the need for socialism.
Socialism came to be seen as dangerous and local authorities banned socialist organisations from their halls, and with them the socialist sunday schools. This all lead to their gradual demise.
Martin – thanks for this. Thanks too for forwarding the invitation to tonight’s talk by Roger at Vestry House Museum, here in Walthamstow – in case anyone else following this thread is interested, it starts at 8 pm (9 Sept).
I’ll take the plain old Ten Commandments this I’d nothing new.
The declaration at the bottom looks good (what I can make out of it) perhaps tying the whole thing together ? Do you have that in a form you could circulate as well ?
Nick – I have added the declaration text to the main post. I see this post has got a lot of views in the last day or two. Can you tell me more? My wordpress stats suggest it’s being shared on Facebook, but I cannot tell any more than that.
These 10 Commandments were read at a Friend’s Humanist funeral earlier today. Made sense to me.
As a child, I went to the Socialist Sunday School in Fulham (in the 1960s). There were many schools thriving in the 60s, both in England and Scotland. I still remember – and try to live by – the declaration to this day.
Wendy I used to attend Barking SSS in 50s and 60s and remember coming to Fulham above a shop ( was it the Co-op?) I also remember Mrs Tribe who was Wndy Storey’s mum I was the youngest of the Parkins sisters
My father-in-law, Harry Maxwell, went to the Socialist Sunday School in Stevenston in the West of Scotland on Sunday afternoons after going to the High Kirk Sunday School in the morning. His father was a miner, a socialist and an atheist who believed that his 6 children should learn about both so they could make up their own minds. When Harry died aged 92 in 2017, we had the socialist 10 commandments printed on his funeral service pamphlet.
Thanks for this comment – sounds like a fitting choice.