|The Churches and Social Development
Evert Svensson Speaks in Rome
The following comments are taken from a speech delivered to the conference of our member organisation Christiano Sociali in Rome last year, by ILRS President Evert Svensson.
I have been the president of the International League of Religious Socialists since 1983, and it is in that capacity that I participate at this Conference. We have branches in several countries - including Cristiano Sociali here in Italy - and we have been cooperating with ASCE and Caritá Politica for quite some time.
To introduce myself, let me say that I have been a Social Democratic member of parliament for almost 34 years, representing an electoral district on the West Coast of Sweden, and I have mostly been involved in social and international affairs, aside from my involvement in the religious socialist movement. I was also the chairman of the Christian Social Democrats in Sweden for many years.
I attended The 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen. It was a meeting on the highest political level. 186-member states were in attendance. And they committed themselves to the eradication of poverty, nothing more, nothing less.
They promised to guarantee all men and women, especially the poor, the right to have a good life. They formally promised to eradicate poverty throughout the whole world, through decisions at the national and international level as well as through joint co-operation. It was a moral, political and economic duty for all mankind.
So what has happened in the five years since Copenhagen? Very little, if anything. Recently they met again, in Geneva [June 2000]. The UNDP has put out a Poverty Report 2000: Overcoming Human Poverty. It is not pleasant to read.
One third of the developing nations still live on an income of below one dollar per day, in extreme poverty. In South Asia 45 per cent of the population, and 50 per cent of all children below the age of 5 are underweight. 61 per cent of all women are unable to read or write. And it is worse south of the Sahara. There you also have HIV and AIDS. If you overall poverty you come down of course, but still the poverty is high. And we could give more figures, but you know them well, as I understand.
As I read the figures there has been some progress during the time from about 1960 up to let us say 1980-85. Life expectancy had risen from 46 years of age up to 64 in the developing nations, and the infant mortality rate has gone down by half. This shows that it is not hopeless. Foreign aid and voluntary gifts to the poorer countries have had some effect. But still, the infant mortality rate is nearly 100 per 1000, compared with 4 in the Nordic countries, 8 in the USA and 7 in Italy as UNICEF told us in their report from 1998. And life expectancy is up to 80 years in the developed nations, compared with 64 in the developing nations.
This is, at the least, a question of human rights. To allow poverty is to violate humanity. And with human rights are counted civil and political rights, and they cannot be isolated from economic, social and cultural rights.
The gap between the poor and the rich has widened all over the spectrum, in the industrialised world as well in the developing world, west and east, north and south. Even if some of the poor are better off now than before, the gap has become deeper. And this threatens peace. Civil war has grown in many countries, and we have to realise that the reason for this is rooted in poverty for the many and riches for the few. Those few have the political power and the military. Many countries, particularly developing nations, give more money to the military than to education, for example.
So what has to be done; what were the suggestions in Geneva?
Foreign aid has to come up to the goal of 0,70 per cent of Gross National Income. Only four countries have reached this goal. The richest seven industrial nations give 0,19, and if we look at the OECD, the figure is 0,22 per cent. That marks a decline from the previous 0,35 per cent. It is a scandal, and a mark that these nations totally ignore the poor. And we could go on. Debt owed to the industrialised nations is going up, and many poor countries pay more out than they receive in aid. The debt issue was talked about quite a bit in Geneva, with an understanding of the necessity to lift the burden.
The population in the world is growing fast. There are now over 6 billion. 40 years ago it was half that. And the prognosis over the next 40 years suggests a population from 12 billion all the way up to 20. No one can be sure about this, but one thing is certain if we don't do something the world will be overpopulated, and that will only bring more poverty and more human conflicts. The problem of overpopulation is a question of family policy, the use of contraceptives, raising the standard of living, and the comprehensive education of young women.
The UN has now - as I understand it - told us that they want to reduce poverty by half by the year 2015!
And what are the means and recourses they want to use?
- 1. Full employment;
- 2. Social integration;
- 3. Equality and parity between men and women, a gender program;
- 4. All shall have access to education and health care, including sexual health care;
- 5. Concentration on Africa and the least developing countries;
- 6. Reform of World Bank and International Monetary Fund - social goals;
- 7. Heavy reduction of debt for the developing countries;
- 8. More resources for social development;
- 9. More co-operation between countries for social development;
- 10. Better opportunities for export, especially in food production;
- 11. More foreign aid. The goal of 0,7 per cent of GDP has to be reached, and we need to use the 20/20-initiative. (i.e., 20 per cent of the developing countries spend 20 per cent of their budget on social development, while the developed countries - the donors - give 20 per cent of their aid budget to the poorest countries.
It is very important to underline that this is not only a question for the developing countries. The gap between the poor and the rich is growing in Europe - and in the USA in particular. We have in Europe the highest unemployment we have known in recent years. It has gone down a little, but still it is very high. But that means that the public sector, that is, health care, hospitals, child care, way not culture and education has enough of workers. No - there is lack of servants. So the questions is if it is possible to transfer money earn by the rationalise industry to the public sector. They have the money and they don't need so many people yet, so way not transfer both money and people? As you know, it is difficult to ration health care, and a symphony orchestra. Shall they play faster, in a smaller room, with fewer people, or without conductor?
Our population grows older and older, and the eldest of us will need more care. But still we have resources. Our Gross National Income is growing higher every year.
We have new immigrants, and some tell us that it is too expensive to receive them. Is it? They are mostly ready to work after a few years, compared with a child born and are ready to work after let us say 23 years. Some tell us that the unemployment is caused by the immigrants. But is that true? If we could send them all home (to what home, if they have a home) we could still have about the same level of unemployment. I am sure. Unemployment depends on other things.
We have social marginalisation, isolation, in Europe. We have many who are quite poor. On the other hand others are rich, very rich.
Are the goals from Copenhagen - and Geneva - at all realistic?
Yes and no.
It is realistic if you look at the resources. The world - the developed world - has never been so rich as it is today. If we used half of the military budget I am sure that we can reduce most of the poverty.
Let me share a personal and national perspective on that.
When I was young, my mother was a widow and often ill. We were very poor. No pension, only small social assistance from the local authority. We had no electricity, no running water, no heating water, no WC, no telephone, no radio and no newspaper, not even a road for cars to reach us.
The nation was also very poor. Sweden was once one of the poorest countries in Europe. But from 1945 up to 1975 Swedens situation changed.
It changed because of many things - and Sweden is not alone in Europe, but we had a unique social system in the welfare-state.
So, it is possible to change and raise the standard of living in a poor country. But we must have the political will; the resources are there, but we have to be willing to use them. People have to pay their share of the social burden. Yet it is easier to collect tax for prisons and military equipment. But if it should be impossible to reduce the budget in those areas, then we have to bring in income to the state. There are some suggestions on how to do that: take a small amount of money from the capital transactions round the world through the Tobin tax. 90-95 per cent of all money going around in the world is just money, not paying for trade. We can take a little, a dollar or so, on international travel fares. We can take some tax from the barrels of oil. When there is a war in a particular country, the government easily creates a new tax-burden. But unfortunately it is not so when it comes to the issue of raising taxes to reduce poverty. It is a question of how we treat our neighbours, and indeed, we neglect them, suggesting that they should blame themselves for being poor. So it was for my mother and I when I was a child!
And what about the churches, Catholic and Protestant alike? What can they do? What is their opinion?
I think that at their core they are against poverty. And they do a lot to minimise it - charity is on the churches' agenda. It has always been and it is still so. The churches collect money for developing countries - and few organisations, if any, have such world-wide knowledge about every corner of the world. But then what are the reasons that we still have poverty? The churches are not small congregations and organisations. They also have power. But the question is - how do they use it on this special question of poverty.
I have in my hand a Statement submitted by the Non-governmental International Catholic Organisations on Consultative Status with the UN (NICOCSUN), dated June 2000. It has been composed for the Special Session of the General Assembly on the Implementation of the Outcome of the World Summit for Social Development and Further Initiatives.
They emphasize strongly that there is need for further action. And they want a new special session in 2005, 10 years after Copenhagen, to assess the progress made since that time. So the Catholic organisations have not given up or dropped the case. They underline the notion that the market, especially for agricultural products and textiles, has to be opened to the developing countries. I hope we understand what this means for the farmers in Europe! The subsidies to agriculture from the EU are very high.
Are Christians in the various political parties, especially Christian Democrats in Germany and here in Italy, ready to take on the fight for the poor countries and their exports of agriculture products. And in our own socialist parties as well?
The statement also talks about full and decent, and it is important to underline decent, employment. They call on the ILO, UN, and the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World Bank) to realise full employment and the fundamental rights of workers in accordance with national development and poverty reduction programmes. They call for health care, in particular for girls and women in Africa. 'Full and equal access to the highest attainable stand of health care and education.' That must mean access to contraceptive resources and the right to a safe and secure abortion. I hope we understand how important this is: in Africa the risk of death for a mother in labour is 1 out of 150, in Europe 1 it is out of 1.900. In Africa abortion is often illegal and that is precisely the question. Can we ignore this? Contraception, secure abortions if needed, good health care for women and general good education for girls is what is needed. And here the churches can and should be clearer.
The statement also calls for a higher percentage of official international development assistance, up to 0,7 per cent of GDP. By no later than 2005!
It calls for rapid action to achieve faster and deeper debt relief for more countries, first for Africa and the least developed countries. The statement asks for action against speculative currency. A small number of people benefit from such speculations while millions pay the price. Certainly, so it is. This is criminal. They take from the poor, pay very little tax, and then tell us that they must pay even less, or they will move production to another country.
We can not ignore that we also have to create better governance in many countries. NICOCSUN raises this issue as well.
In the end of the statement they say: 'We regret that little progress has been made so far to fully implement the commitments made in Copenhagen. Further initiatives must be adopted and implemented if time-bound targets related to poverty eradication set in these international agreements are to be reached. We call for a decisive step forward here and now.'
What about the Protestants, The World Council of Churches?
I will at least take up a great question for the churches. Mercy and righteousness.
As I understand it the churches have never misunderstood mercy. The good Samaritan found in Luke 10: verse 29 and so on told us to help every one who comes along our path. But today we are in contact with the whole world. What we do here and there has consequences that fall in many directions. We are twinned together. So now more than ever it is a question of rightousness. Of distribution of welfare. And here I think the Churches have much to learn. And remember - it is more of a conflict. To help people in the street with a bit of money for the next night and a bit of food, that is easy and not controversial. Many will praise you as a good person. But to be a politician and to stand for higher taxation on the well paid is more difficult - yet necessary, if you want to distribute common goods and services. A quote from the minister of Finance in India: 'Obviously, all Indians say that they are in favour of combatting poverty, but when I try to increase taxes and introduce reforms for that reason, they cry to the sky, even the middle class. And another person says, they don't see them at all.' We have the same situation in Europe. So what are the opinions of the churches? Give a lira in the collection box and go home and complain about the high taxation in the country. But remember that tax is the best example of mercy to our own neighbourhoods in need, and the only way to create a welfare-state.
A Danish scientist on social questions working here in Italy, Gösta Esping Andersen, has together with another British scientist, John Micklewright, studied models for social welfare. They formulate three models - a Liberal-residual (USA), a Conservative (Germany) and a Social Democratic (Sweden). They found that in the case of poverty, the American example produced high rates of poverty, the German produced moderate rates, and the Swedish one produced the lowest. The main distinguishing criteria is the question of on what basis does one receive social service: by virtue of need (means-testing), or through work, or by merely being a citizen (universal).
As you may remember, US President Lyndon Johnson initiated a 'war on poverty' in the 1960s. But they concentrated only on the people in need, by using means-tested programmes. The project failed. The USA has more poor today than thirty years ago.
If we look at the middle scenario, when work is the basis for receiving services, it also creates a fair amount of poverty. You can look at Germany and also Southern Europe as a whole. Another name for this is subsidarity.
Only the Nordic model, using universality as its principle, gives a small per cent of poverty. It might look like a paradox, but it is a simple fact. And the people like it. And vote for it, in spite of that paradox. It means around 10 per cent more taxation than in other European nations. But it is a question of distribution. People have at least a minimum sum in their pocket.
To come back to the churches and the poor. It is my very firm conviction that the churches, both the Catholic and the Protestants, are against poverty. I do not think that they consider the verse from Jesus that we shall always have the poor among us as a reason to do nothing for the poor. I think they have misunderstood Jesus if they interpreted his definition of 'poor' as ignorance, or a poverty of spiritual vision. And there are other quotations, many more about how to make righteousness.
Righteous and righteousness are to be found in almost 500 places in the Bible.
So, the situation is still bad, there are millions of poor people all over the world, especially in the developing countries but also even in the richest ones. We are aware of it, international bodies such as the UN are aware of it, and the governments and parliaments are aware of it and have enough knowledge to deal with it. The real question, rather, is if they are ready to act.
Some taxes have to be increased. And that is not so easy. I remember for many years, we were in Lebanon. They had appointed a new minister of Finance and he proposed a new tax for improving education. It failed, and he had to resign. Education was still bad, and the rich didn't care.
One of the duties of the Church is to underline the necessity to pay taxes. If poverty is ever to be eradicated, or to be reduced to half of today's number, the wealthiest have to pay more. Otherwise the cry of concern over the poor is only words, words.
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Or from the Bible:
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.
The welfare state is good for everyone. Some will have to pay more, but in the long run it is better for all to have a more equal society. Of this you can be sure.
|Its Down to You...
Andrew Hammer Speaks to Canadian Students
|In February, ILRS Secretary General Andrew Hammer spoke to students from Upper Canada College at the World Affairs Conference in Toronto, Canada. The focus of his remarks were on the pursuit of justice in the global economy.
I've been asked to share my thoughts about the concept of economic justice my first thought was the famous response Gandhi gave when he was asked what he thought about Western Civilisation he said, It would be a good idea.
We live in a world where three billion people live on less than two dollars per day. Such poverty is inconceivable to most of us in the industrialised world. Even though we do indeed have people in our own societies that suffer a similar relative poverty living in the streets of our large cities and in some rural areas, the idea of areas of consistent, relentless poverty so vast that they are larger than the continent of Europe is one that most us would find hard to grasp.
Yet that is the condition of our world today, so if were going to talk about economic justice, we have to start with economic injustice and the question of how we got to where we are.
When you look at the rules of the global economic game, the first thing that you notice is that for the most part, accepting as given the history of capitalism, we are playing by a set of rules that was developed after the Second World War, in the context of a world that literally no longer exists.
Let me explain: the world that gave birth to Bretton Woods, the 1945 meeting that gave us the IMF and the World Bank, was a world where the majority of the worlds nations did not exist.... they were colonies of British and French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portugese imperialism. Were talking about a world where there was technically no India or Pakistan, no Nigeria or Libya, no Israel or Egypt, and not even a truly independent Europe. The same world where China, for all its size and population, was an economic puppet of the Western powers. So when the capitalist allies sat down after the war to decide how the worlds economy would be rebuilt, it was literally possible to say that the entire world was controlled by four or five nations. This is also how we got the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the composition of which has remained unchanged since 1945, with the notable exception of Taiwan being replaced by China in 1972.
And when we look at the multitude of nations in the world today, trying to live and prosper under an economic structure that is clearly not suited to the conditions of our time, it is certainly no surprise that this structure will serve primarily the needs of those nations which created it, and not really do much of anything for anyone else. It is absurd to think that an economic system established in a world before television, satellites, and the personal computer could even begin to meet the needs of the worlds nations in the 21st century.
So then we move to the question of how to deal with the need for a new system, and that brings us to the WTO, the World Trade Organisation. The WTO is the attempt of those who control our global economy to recognise that other nations really are here to stay, and that they too have to be considered in the future of trade and how it will proceed in our new, smaller world.
The problem however, is that for some of these 'powers that be', recognition means nothing more than getting these nations to simply comply with their pre-existing visions, rules, and regulations on how exactly their rights as sovereign nations will be considered. Considering these nations doesn't mean treating them as equals, but merely attempting to use the current snare of their debts and obligations to the IMF and World Bank to dictate how their own governments will behave when faced with the needs of international corporate interests.
If that's a bit hard to follow, let me try to say it this way: as it stands today, the WTO is seeking to establish a code of global trade laws that will have the power to override the decisions of democratically elected governments... everywhere... including those of the same affluent nations who now control the global economy. As Canadians, I realise that I dont need to stress this point too hard Canada has been hard hit by NAFTA, which is really a regional version of what is forseen for the entire world under the jurisdiction of the WTO. But I do want to illustrate this just a bit further by giving you an example of what this means in practice.
In some countries in Latin America, multinational companies based in the US and Europe are coming in and buying up national public services. One of the most publicised cases is in Ecuador, where the entire public water works is being bought up by the US multinational Bechtel. There is a whole list of problems I can raise with this, starting with the massive corruption in those privatised services, the obscene rise in rates, and the dismal decline in quality of the services provided. But the point I want to make at the moment is that under the WTO as it is currently constituted, a multinational corporation can enter into a sovereign nation, buy its essential public services, and operate them without any regard for the wishes of the people of that nation.
Ill say that again: if the people of Ecuador decided tomorrow that they did not like the way the privatisation had gone down, and voted to bring the water services back under public ownership, Bechtel could legally, under the conditions of the WTO (which Ecaudor and any other poor nations have to agree to in order to not be locked out of foreign investment and trade), bring a charge of obstruction of free trade against the nation of Ecuador which would force them to comply with Bechtels control of their water supply. Never mind what you think about big business what is at stake here is not just a question of business what we are dealing with is a direct threat to democracy itself, sneaking in the back door in the guise of corporate property rights.
So with the severity of the issue in mind, lets talk a bit about what to do about things like the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. What can we do about this present economic system and these institutions that seem to be both so powerful and so very dangerous to societies, workers, and the environment?
A lot of people, whom you have no doubt seen in the news lately, want to abolish them outright. I have strong sympathies toward that view, but unfortunately I dont think its the answer. Why?
Because its like this: two people are sitting in the back seat of a car that is being driven by a psychotic at 120 miles per hour. One person turns to the other and says, I demand the abolition of cars and the use of fossil fuels. The other person says, Well thats all well and good, but unless we can first get control of this car away from this madman, it wont really matter what anyone thinks about cars or fossil fuels, because we will both be dead.
You can instantly see my point. Our global economy is a moving car, being driven by the wrong people. But it is still moving at a high speed, were all in it, and therefore any attempts to jump out of the car, or to do something too drastic, could be even more dangerous than it is now.
Basically, even if we dont like cars, were in one anyway, and we have to get control of it if we want it to go where we wish. Even if that place is a place where ultimately there are no cars, weve got to drive this car to that place.
And that brings me to the tricky issue of reforming the WTO, which is the only thing that would seem to bring change while causing the least amount of harm to those we want to help. Is that possible?
If there is anything good about the WTO, its that its functions are controlled at least at the moment by an assembly of delegates from national governments. From the perspective of my political affiliation, that means that so long as we can elect people to our national governments with a commitment to democracy, the rights of labour, and the environment, we actually do have a chance of changing the nature of the WTO into a system which can serve the greater needs of humanity.
One of the areas I can point to where this kind of inside political strategy has been effective is in the area of world debt. The idea of debt cancellation for the worlds poorest countries has been on the table for years, but only recently has any action been taken on the matter by the G7 nations. What changed? The answer is simple: before 1997, five of the governments of the G7 nations were led by Conservative parties. Canadas Liberal government was the most supportive of debt relief, with the conservative Clinton Administration preferring to ignore the matter. By 1998, four of the G7 nations were led by socialist governments (Britain, France, Germany, Italy), and campaigners for debt relief found themselves invited to meetings about the subject, which finally made its way to the agenda of G7 meetings. Now were finally beginning to get some action on world debt.
So the moral here is that change or reform of large institutions like the WTO is possible through the election of people who represent a social justice agenda to public office. And obviously in this case, Im talking about the election of socialist parties like the NDP. By the same token, if our people are voted out of power, the possibilities for reform from the inside become far more bleak.
If we look at how this applies to the current debate over globalisation, right now you have ministers from socialist governments in Europe sitting inside the WTO meetings, trying to win important reforms on the accountability and transparency of that institution. There are no quick fixes, and there are no immediate results which stop tomorrow the suffering that is going on today. But the actions in the streets are also not able to stop that suffering either. Those actions bring attention to it, and at their best they do so in such a way that the public would never pay attention to if it was all simply a matter of trying to make deals inside meeting halls, but they do not and have not stopped it.
So the objective of those socialist delegates is to introduce and implement fundamental radical reforms in the structure of the WTO. One way of doing that is by the introduction of a Social Clause which will guarantee certain provisions to protect the rights of labour, establish acceptible conditions of labour (for example, the abolition of child labour), safeguard the environment, and ensure that the operation of the WTO is not left solely to corporate interests. Another way is to ensure that the WTO not become the one organisation that is taking all the decisions on the direction of our economy, because obviously when we say the economy or simply trade, were never really talking only about those things. We are very much talking about labour issues, consumption issues, and quality of life issues for all of humanity, and that means that the WTO has to understand that there are other international bodies and organisations that have been working on these issues for decades now.
The best example I can think of at the moment is the ILO, the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has been round since the before the 1920s, and has drafted many conventions on labour practises which need to be taken into account in any decisions the WTO seeks to make on matters which affect labour. Simply put, the WTO will have to include NGOs and other representative civil institutions directly in their decision-making processes, whenever they affect those various constituencies and concerns. Thats the kind of reform that can ultimately make for a global economy that is fair and sustainable, governed by a truly representative system which abides by open and democratic principles.
I dont think the majority of people in the world oppose globalisation per se, insofar as globalisation means building a smaller world, where people increase their interactions with one another, and the world becomes more accessible to more people. The real question that rightfully gives us all great concern is: on whose terms will that globalisation take place? Will it be on the terms of the people, or of multinational conglomerates?
If we re to have any kind of decent future, the answer has to be the former. We have to guarantee the supremacy of democratic methods not only in governance as we know it, but more important, in resolving conflicts between the desires of business and the needs of people, so that all people those in poverty as well as those affluent workers in industralised nations do not suffer any longer, either in terms of their material needs or their political voice.
As far as what governments of my political persuasion are doing to affect economic justice on the outside of the WTO, the Swedish government has been particularly aggressive in pushing for two important reforms which would have impact both inside and outside of the WTO. They are proposing the creation of an Economic Security Council in the United Nations, to look after the affairs of globalisation and its impact on the economic security of the world. Such a mechanism would serve as an extra check on the actions and policies of the WTO, with the benefit of having binding jurisdiction in international law. The second proposal is the continuation of a proposal from the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen: that the level of development aid given from affluent nations to developing nations be increased to 0.7% of GDP.
This would put into place what would in effect be the beginnings of something like a global progressive taxation policy, whereby the most affluent nations would contribute something back to the nations that are struggling, or whose national economies have been impacted by the interaction between their national resources and the demands of affluent nations which use many of those resources.
Its people and proposals like this, which are being brought forward by socialists through their foreign policy as well as into the WTO, that can give us a bit of an idea on how we can go about moving from economic injustice to economic justice. They may seem a bit too conventional, and they may lack the romance of storming the Bastille, but the only thing that matters is whether we gain that justice, not whether we have had a sufficient amount of drama or street theatre in the process.
My time is short, so I will bring my comments to a close. When we look at what might be the best approach to work for justice in the global economy, what Im suggesting to you is that while the street actions are important because they bring wider public attention to the issues, they cannot bring the actual change needed, because they dont provide us with ready-made alternatives which can be implemented without causing serious damage to the existing unjust global economy. For better or worse, we have to work from where that economy is now, because if we simply attack with full force at those on the top, the debris we create at the top will fall on all of us below. Weve got to do this carefully, and do no more harm to innocent people in the process. We have to work from the inside, and we have to remain and even increase our numbers on the inside if we want to gain control of the speeding car.
If that seems too daunting, what I want to leave you with is this: the systems of politics and economics that we live under did not come from some mystical unknowable place; they came from human beings who were and are no different and no better than any of you. They are no more capable or naturally intelligent than you, and the most important thing to take from this realisation is that the solution to the future of life on this planet is not up to those who put us where we are today. It's down to you the next generation. This is now your problem, and its one that you have the ability and opportunity to solve.
|The History of Religious Socialism in the Netherlands
The history of religious socialism in the Netherlands dates back more than a century. Here I shall briefly highlight a few moments from that history.
In the Netherlands the industrial revolution took place later than in most Western European countries, starting around 1870. The extremely poor labour conditions and the opposition between capital and labour gave birth to a socialist movement. This movement was slightly tinged with anarchism, but its main trend resulted in the formation of the Social Democratic Labour Party (Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiders Partij or SDAP) in 1894. This party grew to become by far the largest socialist party in the Netherlands. Although the party was officially Marxist, it became increasingly revisionist (i.e. less oriented towards classical Marxism) as far as practical matters were concerned. The party showed rapid growth and came to pose a real threat to the conservative groups that had left their mark on Dutch politics during much of the nineteenth century. Apart from the SDAP, however, there were also Roman Catholic and orthodox Protestant movements that sought emancipation for the religious groups they represented. These movements created their own networks of organisations for education, politics, trade unions, sports etc. This led to that typically Dutch phenomenon of so-called pillarisation.
The idea that Christians might choose to embrace socialism was by no means taken for granted in fact, it was passionately opposed by Christianitys official spokespersons. In their view, socialism was irrevocably linked to atheism and philosophical materialism. Moreover, great offence was taken at the revolutionary stance of the SDAP. On the other side there was a considerable degree of anti-clericalism in SDAP circles, because the churches had shown themselves to be conservative forces par excellence, which obstructed the efforts of the oppressed proletariat to build a socialist society. Officially the SDAP took the view that religion was a private matter: everyone could believe as he or she saw fit, as long as such belief was not allowed to interfere with party matters.
However, in spite of the proposition that Christianity and socialism were two utterly opposed entities, there were some clergy who rejected such an either-or formula, and chose to embrace both Christianity and socialism. Thus in the 1890s some freethinking (liberal) pastors joined the SDAP.
They took this step particularly on the basis of the biblical notion of justice, which implied taking up the cause of the poor (that which Liberation Theology would later call the preferential option for the poor). They made an explicit choice to work for a better society within the broad socialist movement. In 1902 these ministers established a journal, De Blijde Wereld ('Glad World') for which they chose a motto from Psalm 24: The earth is the Lords and all that is in it. In other words: The blessings of the earth should be enjoyed by all, and not only or largely by the capitalists. The Blijde Wereld group was the first organized religious-socialist movement in the Netherlands.
In their journal, and at the conferences they arranged, they fought a two-pronged battle. Firstly, they opposed the view of the majority of their fellow-believers who rejected socialism as un-Christian. Against it, they tried to argue that from a Christian point of view, support for socialism was quite legitimate or even more strongly: that such an position was imperative. It should be mentioned, however, that there was a whole range of views within the religious-socialist movements as to whether socialism was a necessary consequence of Christian faith (Christian and therefore socialist), or whether one should be somewhat more hesitant on this matter (Christian and socialist).
Secondly, a struggle was waged within the socialist movement. Religious socialists joined fully in the socialist struggle, but they also contested the hostility against religion, which characterized the atmosphere within the party as well as with doctrinaire forms of Marxism. According to the Blijde Wereld group the option for socialism was an religious/ethical decision rather than a choice based on insight into the economic laws of capitalism, as the Marxists suggested. During the adoption of a new party program in 1912, one of the points of discussion was whether capitalism was outdated and therefore morally repugnant, as the Marxists claimed. The Blijde Wereld group opposed the therefore, because it seemed to make a moral judgement dependent on economic developments. By dropping the word therefore, the matter was left undecided.
Between the two world wars, the SDAP grew increasingly isolated. The party did not even participate in the government. Part of the reason for this was that Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian workers continued to vote for their confessional parties. This fact, as well as the challenges arising from the economic crisis of the 1930s, and the totalitarian forces of fascism, Nazism and communism, gave rise to heated discussions within the SDAP about the basic principles and direction of the party. One of the most important renewal movements within the SDAP was that of religious socialism. This movement was now led by the red reverend, Dr. W. Banning, who got elected to the party leadership. Through his speeches and writings he managed to canvass significant support within the party, which exceeded the numerically small support (about 2000 members). He spoke especially through the journal Tijd en Taak (Time and Task), as the journal De Blijde Wereld was renamed in 1932 because the original title sounded a bit too idyllic in a time of crisis. Banning argued for an ethically based socialism, which would also attract other sectors of the population, apart from the workers, including Christians who at that stage still identified with the confessional parties. Until the Second World War, this renewal did not really take off, despite some openings in the new program of principles of 1937.
The Second World War worked as a catalyst. In the resistance, people who had formerly operated in separate political and social circles found one another. This led to a renewal movement that sought to end the pre-war separation that had so obstructed effective handling of the crisis of the 1930s. After the war, this led to the so-called Doorbraakbeweging or Breakthrough Movement: Christians who wished to work together on a wider front towards a society based on social justice. This movement, of which Banning was the leading spokesman, resulted in the establishment in 1946 of the Labor Party (Party van de Arbeid PvdA), which swallowed up the SDAP, and became a political home for progressive Christians. In its program of principles, the PvdA stated clearly that it did not adopt any confessional position: anyone regardless of his or her philosophical orientation who supported the aims of democratic socialism could become a member. However, the intimate link between ones view of life and ones political orientation was also recognized, and it would be welcomed if members of the party exhibited this within the party. Here was, then, a difference in principle from the pre-war SDAP. Different working groups (werkverbanden) came into existence within the PvdA: Protestant Christian, Roman Catholic and Humanist. Each had their own organs and held their own meetings. Furthermore, a number of parliamentarians had their roots in these working groups. The working groups continued to function until the 1960s.
In the early post-war years the PvdA participated in the government and made an important contribution to the development of the Dutch welfare state. In this, it received generous support from religious socialists.
The breakthrough movement had limited success numerically: the separate pillars continued to dominate Dutch society until the mid-1960s. At that point the pillared society began to show some cracks that coincided with a drastic drop in church membership (at present, in the year 2000, 63% of the population do not see themselves as belonging to any denomination). Moreover, during the 1970s and 80s there was an anti-religious climate within the PvdA. There were efforts, however, to fill the gap left by the disappearance of the working groups, such as the establishment in 1982 of the Meeting-point for Socialism and Views of life (Trefpunt voor Socialisme en Levensovertuiging). Included in this official party body, are people who are active in the church and the ecumenical movement, as well as the humanist movement. The Meeting-point is still functioning, even though it has been marginalised somewhat with regard to its influence in the party. Its function is to advise members of parliament and the party leadership about important policy matters, and to participate in fundamental discussions about the direction of the party at present, for example, a new program of principles is being discussed. They also organise discussions in this connection through publications and conferences. It is their goal to include representatives from the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu communities as well. After all, due to the arrival of immigrants, the Netherlands has increasingly become a multi-cultural society, in which around 8% of the population are adherents of the aforementioned religions.
The PvdA has been part of the government again since 1989. Since 1994 the Prime Minister (Wim Kok) has come from their ranks, leading a coalition government of social democrats and liberals (or should one say conservatives?). Social democracy is currently going through a reorienting phase. Many religious socialists feel that in this process too many neo-liberal ideas have intruded into its thinking and policy, that too much of a guiding role is being assigned to the market, and that solidarity with the poor locally and internationally is not sufficiently present anymore. The relationship that obtains here can be characterised as one of critical solidarity. An important motif continues to be that of social justice, which implies that priority should be given to the improvement of the position of the poor. Here lies the constant factor in the contribution of religious socialism. It has not yet lost any of its relevance!
Herman Noordegraaf is president of Trefpunt van Socialisme
en Levensovertuiging, the Dutch religious socialist organisation.