A radical vision for personal and social change

At the Healing History

conference in Caux this summer, I told a story about my father. A number of people came to talk with me about it afterwards, so I decided to include it in this blog. 

In 1935, as a young unemployed shipyard worker in Scotland, my dad encountered an idea that propelled him beyond the inherited doctrine of class war. Students from Glasgow University, who were involved in what is now known as Initiatives of Change, presented him with the possibility that a radical shift in the motives and behavior of people could lead to a new social and economic order. Initially skeptical, he was convinced when they introduced him to an industrialist who put people before profit. This vision of personal change linked to social justice led him to devote his life to bringing a new perspective to the international labor movement. He was still passionately engaged in this until his death at age 97.


In post-war Europe, my dad went to Germany in support of a sustained effort to provide a moral and spiritual foundation for a reconciled Europe. Much of this effort centered on the key German coal mining and steel region of the Ruhr where the trade unions were largely under Marxist control. Debates went on late into the night. “We would speak for one hour; Marxists would respond for an hour; then we would have to speak for another hour,” Dad recalled. Many of these dedicated Marxists came to believe that the philosophy of Initiatives of Change was a logical next step in their revolutionary quest as well as an alternative to the excesses and exploitation of capitalism.   


In March 1949 my father visited Hans Böckler, the president of the new unified German Trade Union Federation, in his home in Cologne. Böckler had been deeply impressed by a forum attended by 190 leading industrialists, hosted by Dr. Heinrich Kost, the head of the German Coal Board. Kost had opened the meeting by saying, “Gentleman, it is not a question of whether we change, but how we change. It is not for us to wait for Labor to change. Change is demanded of us.” 

According to my father’s report of the conversation, Böckler said, “Some people hold the doctrine that you have to change the system in order to change society. That is, of course true, but it is only half the truth. People must change drastically like those men who spoke at Kost’s meeting. Both must be done, and you fight for both. I am convinced of that.” 

A few months later, my father chaired an international forum at the Caux conference center at which Böchler delivered his carefully worded conclusion: “When men change, the structure of society changes, and when the structure of society changes, men change. Both go together and both are necessary.” * 

The recent conference in Caux, which focused on healing and equity and where we heard the call for personal transformation as well as justice, seemed a good moment to recall this prophetic insight. 

*Garth Lean,Frank Buchman, A Life, (Constable 1985), 361