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Reference group
Moot (act. 1938–1947) was a group of mainly Christian intellectuals which met through the Second World War to discuss educational and social reconstruction. It was established by the missionary and ecumenist J. H. Oldham following the Oxford conference on church, community, and state of 1937. Oldham set out to convene a group of Christian intellectuals from diverse religious and occupational backgrounds.

Among those who attended the first meeting at High Leigh in Hertfordshire in April 1938 were the authors T. S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry, Walter Moberly, chairman of the University Grants Committee, the Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, the Church of Scotland theologian John Baillie, and the German refugee and political philosopher Adolf Löwe (1893–1995). The group was joined at its second meeting in September 1938 by the Anglican clergymen Alec Vidler (1899–1991) and Gilbert Shaw, Walter Oakeshott (shortly to become high master of St Paul's School), and the sociologist Karl Mannheim, who was introduced to the group by his fellow émigré Löwe. Although a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, Mannheim had a strong conviction of the importance of the Christian basis of European society, and enjoyed conferring with Christian intellectuals; he was to become the central figure in the group.

Further recruits in the course of the Second World War included Fred Clarke, the director of the Institute of Education at London University, Sir Hector Hetherington, the principal of Glasgow University, Oldham's assistant Kathleen Bliss, and the physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. Although many of the Moot's members had already been involved in Christian social thought during the 1930s, through bodies like the Christendom Group or periodicals like Eliot's Criterion (1922–39), Oldham's Moot differed from these earlier projects in deliberately bringing together individuals from diverse confessional and political traditions.

The Moot met for between two and four long weekends each year, usually in the home counties, London, or Oxford. Wartime exigencies and professional commitments meant that members were often unable to attend, but they participated in debate through the circulation of discussion papers, and through the columns of another of Oldham's projects, the weekly Christian News-Letter. The most assiduous attenders were Mannheim, Vidler, Moberly, the philosopher Herbert Arthur Hodges (1905–1976), Eleanora Iredale, secretary of the Pilgrim Trust's report of 1938, Men without Work, and (John) Eric Fenn (1899–1995), the director of religious broadcasting at the BBC, who acted as secretary. Among non-members who were invited to attend particular meetings as guests were Frank Pakenham, Reinhold Niebuhr, Oliver Franks, R. H. Tawney, and Richard Southern.

The discussions of the Moot ranged widely, but a number of themes recurred. The most important of these was cultural leadership. In August 1939 Oldham wrote to Moot members proposing the formation of an order of about sixty Christian laymen in public life. Oldham described them as ‘spiritual storm troops’. Although this idea came to nothing, the Moot repeatedly returned to the theme of the role of élites in a reconstructed society. Much of the impetus for this came from Karl Mannheim, whose Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (published in German in 1935 and translated into English in 1940) had argued that the greater functional specialization of modern society meant that most people were too engrossed in their work to think, and that they needed an élite, or intelligentsia, to do the thinking for them. Although a critic of Nazism who had been deprived of his chair at Frankfurt in 1933, Mannheim believed that the example of Nazi and Soviet party cadres was instructive, as they showed how élites could guide the emotions, and transform the values, of a mass public.

Most members of the Moot accepted Mannheim's diagnosis that modern democratic society had become ‘neutralized’, or deprived of common values, and that it needed an élite to restore those values. But in discussion, differences of emphasis emerged within the group as to what exactly an élite should do, and how it should be constituted. Murry thought that it should be a ruling class, but most other members envisaged a Platonic caste of cultural guardians. Eliot was uncomfortable with Mannheim's analogy between élites and extremist political parties, and also felt that Mannheim's use of the term ‘intelligentsia’ suggested too much specialization, when what was needed was a Coleridgean ‘clerisy’ of cultured generalists, or men of letters. The influence of Coleridge was clear in Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), in which he expanded publicly on the role of an élite. Eliot's idea of a clerisy, or ‘community of Christians’, was also influenced by the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had argued in True Humanism, published in English in 1938, that a Christian society needed a lay order of intellectuals, or cives praeclari. When Maritain visited Britain from the United States during the war Eliot introduced him to members of the Moot at his London club.

Another of Mannheim's ideas that was taken up by the Moot was ‘planning for freedom’, first introduced in a discussion paper in January 1939. This ‘third way’, as he termed it, between totalitarianism and laissez-faire involved an organic democratic state with considerable powers to direct individuals and to plan wide areas of society, including culture. This was too authoritarian for some tastes. Christopher Dawson (who had been influenced by pluralism and guild socialism as a young man) attacked Mannheim's idea that the state could seek to remould human nature, warning that ‘if the state is entrusted with this task it will inevitably destroy human freedom in a more fundamental way than even the totalitarian states have yet attempted to do’ (Dawson, ‘Planning and culture’, Oldham papers, file 14). But ‘planning for freedom’ was widely accepted by other members of the Moot, becoming something of a mantra in their discussions. This upset Murry, who complained in a letter to Oldham in 1942 that ‘we have accepted the idea of “planning for freedom” as a kind of orthodoxy, without ever having subjected it to radical criticism’ (Murry to Oldham, 14 Sept 1942, Fred Clarke MSS, file 15). Murry ceased to attend the Moot thereafter.

Another key topic discussed by the Moot was education, and it was here that the group's ideas came closest to being implemented. Mannheim favoured the creation of a national youth service, and urged this plan on the president of the Board of Education, R. A. Butler, when he met him in 1940. Two other members, Eliot and Oakeshott, advocated a youth service in a Conservative Party subcommittee report called ‘Plan for youth’ in 1942, but the plan was rejected by the party hierarchy as too authoritarian. Despite this rebuff Mannheim's ideas on education had a powerful advocate in Fred Clarke, who expanded on them in Education and Social Change: an English Interpretation (1940), and who rescued Mannheim from his unhappy situation at the London School of Economics by securing him a chair at the Institute of Education in 1946. Another area where the Moot's ideas found outside champions was higher education. Several members of the Moot lamented the increasing compartmentalization of academic disciplines, and the fact that they were taught in value-neutral terms without any overarching moral context. Walter Moberly developed this argument in a 1940 Moot paper that was to form the basis of his The Crisis in the University (1949). A. D. Lindsay was a close associate (though not a member) of the Moot, and when, with Moberly's support, he created the University College of North Staffordshire at Keele in 1949 he consciously attempted to avoid specialization and value-neutrality by creating an interdisciplinary degree structure with a core Christian component.

Mannheim's death in January 1947 led Oldham to wind up the Moot, which met for the last time in December 1947. It had received much of its intellectual impetus from the unusual conditions of war, and even had Mannheim lived it would probably not have long survived the peace. Unsurprisingly for such a politically and doctrinally disparate group, the Moot had failed to reach agreement on many concrete proposals. Debate was often conducted at cross purposes (a problem exacerbated by the deafness of the chairman, Oldham), and dominated by Mannheim's rather prolix contributions, of which the other members sometimes seemed in awe. Eliot wrote in 1943 that ‘it seems to me very doubtful whether the Moot, by nature of its composition, is fitted to frame any sort of “programme” to which all the members would spontaneously and wholeheartedly adhere with no qualifications to blunt its force.’ Nevertheless, as Eliot conceded, this very disparateness was what had given the Moot its ‘zest’ (Eliot, letter to Moot, 9 Aug 1943, John Baillie papers, vol. 10). Vidler later observed that the Moot's influence had been on the thought of individuals, rather than the group as a collective, arguing that Eliot and Mannheim had found a particular intellectual affinity (Vidler, 119). Much of Mannhein's Diagnosis of Our Time (1943) had originated as Moot papers, as had part of Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), in which Eliot acknowledged his debt to Mannheim.

Because its élitism and Christian commitment were unfashionable in an egalitarian and secular-minded post-war society, the Moot has received little attention from literary scholars and historians. Although its ideas were a ‘road not taken’ after 1945, it was a remarkable example of the uniquely fertile and experimental character of British social and political thought during the Second World War. By bringing British intellectuals into contact with continental theorists like Maritain and Mannheim it challenged their insularity. Alongside contemporaneous works like William Temple's Christianity and Social Order (1942) it also demonstrated the strength and pervasiveness of a distinctively Christian perspective on social and political reconstruction in mid-twentieth-century Britain.

Matthew Grimley


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