Monday, February 26, 2007

The Distributist League and Distributism Part One

by Maisie Ward



"To say we must have Socialism or Capitalism is like saying we must choose between all men going into monasteries and a few men having harems. If I denied such a sexual alternative I should not need to call myself a monogamist; I should be content to call myself a man."

Advance number of G.K.'s Weekly, Nov. 1924

From G.K.'s Weekly grew THE DISTRIBUTIST LEAGUE. Its start in 1926 was marked by intense enthusiasm, and its progress was recorded week by week in the paper. The inaugural meeting took place in Essex Hall, Essex Street, Strand, on September 17, 1926. G.K. summed up their aim in the words: "Their simple idea was to restore possession." He added that Francis Bacon had long ago said: "Property is like muck, it is good only if it be spread." The following week the first committee meeting took place. Chesterton was elected President; Captain Went, Secretary, and Maurice Reckitt, Treasurer. It was planned to form a branch in Birmingham. Alternative names were discussed: The Cobbett Club, the Luddite League, the League of Small Property:

The Cow and Acres, however suitable as the name of a public house at which we could assemble, is too limited as an economic statement. . . .

The League of the Little People (President, Mr. G. K. Chesterton) may seem at first too suggestive of the fairies; but it has been strongly supported among us:

And again: Suppose we call our movement, "The Lost Property League" . . . the idea of the restoration of lost property is far more essential to our whole conception than even the idea of liberty, as now commonly understood. The Liberty and Property Defense League implies that property is there to be defended. "The Lost Property League" describes the exact state of the case.*

[* From an article called, "Name This Child" and another later article.]

In October another meeting of the central branch was held in Essex Hall to debate "Have We Lost Liberty?" The Croydon and Birmingham branches were arranging meetings, G.K. conferred with the members of the Manchester branch, and Glasgow announced that it was only awaiting the christening to form a branch. Bath held its first public meeting, with the Mayor in the chair, and the meeting had to overflow into a very large hall.

It was decided to reduce the price of the paper to twopence-- Twopenny Trash* was the title of the leading article--in order to give the League an opportunity of extending the paper's radius of action as an organ of the League's principles. . . . _"Every reader who has been buying one copy at sixpence, must take three copies at twopence_ until his two surplus copies have secured two new readers. . . . The League would have to make itself responsible for the success of this experiment and save the paper which gave it birth, or die of inanition, for it is certainly not yet strong enough to leave its mother."**

[* This was the name given to Cobbett's Weekly Register by his enemies.]

[** G.K.'s Weekly, November 6, 1926.]

It is clear that Gilbert's hopes at this stage ran high. He had not dreamed that the initial success of the League would be so great. Recording a sensational increase in the sale of the paper, he wrote on November 13, 1926: "It was when we faced defeat that we were surprised by victory; and we are quite serious in believing that this is part of a practical philosophy that may yet outlast the philosophy of bluff."

Recording a meeting of the League: he wrote:

We find it difficult to express the effect the meeting had upon us. We were astonished, we were overwhelmed. Had we anything to do with the making of this ardent, eager, indefatigable creature? The answer is, of course, that though we had something to do with the shaping of the body, we had nothing to do with the birth of the soul. That was a miracle, a miracle we had hoped for, and which yet, when it happened, overwhelmed us. We have the happy feeling that we have helped to shape something which will go far above and beyond us. . . . There were well over 100 members present, many of them spoke, and nearly all the others would have spoken if there had been time to hear them. It was a great night.*

[* November 13, 1926.]

Father Vincent McNabb has said truly that there are no words for the real things. Thus Distributism is not only a rather ugly word but also a word holding less than half the content of the idea they were aiming at. Belloc covered more of it in the title of his book: The Restoration of Property, while perhaps a better name still was The Outline of Sanity. This Chesterton had chosen for a series of articles that became a book. He was asking for a return to the sanity of field and workshop, of craftsman and peasant, from the insanity of trusts and machinery, of unemployment, over-production and starvation. "We are destroying food because we do not need it. We are starving men because we do not need them."

After the first meeting of the League, the notes of the week recorded that the printing order for the paper based on actual demand had risen in two weeks from 4,650 to 7,000. "Of course we owe everything to the League which in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Croydon, Chatham, Worthing, Chorley, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath and London has made the newsagents aware of the paper." By November 27, the sales had risen to over 8,000. Then was held the first formal meeting of the central branch of the League, at which it was agreed: "that members should make a habit of dealing at small shops." They should avoid even small shops which sweat their employees, each branch should prepare a list of small shops for the use of its members.

And that is only a beginning. We hope to enlist the support of the small farmer and the small master craftsman. We hope, little by little, to put the small producer in touch with the small retailer. We hope in the end to establish within the state a community, almost self-supporting, of men and women pledged to Distributism, and to a large extent practising it. Less and less, then, will the juggling of finance have power over us; for it does not matter what they call the counters when you are exchanging hams for handkerchiefs, or pigs for pianos.

The Cockpit is worth reading during the months that follow, for here were voiced any criticisms that the readers had to make of the paper and of the League--any criticism that the League had to make of itself. There was plenty. Many leaguers and readers felt for instance that the spirit of criticism of others was too fully developed in the paper, so that when attempts were made to act on distributive principles by people not in league with the League they were given short shrift instead of meeting even modified encouragement. The League was begged to spend more time clarifying its principles, less time in criticism. But much more fundamental was the constantly recurrent question: When is the League going to begin to do something? To this the answer, given often by G.K. himself was that, while the League hoped in time to create that community of which he had written, its own work was only that of Propaganda--of a wider and wider dissemination of the principles of Distributism. Their work, they said, was to talk.

Outdoor propaganda started in Glasgow and came thence to London. In October 1931 the Secretary said they must "convince men there is a practical alternative to Capitalism and Socialism, by showing them how to set about achieving it." And in November he subscribed to opinions voiced in the Cockpit for the last two years by saying that the London Branch acted in the spirit of "a pleasant Friday evening debating society, which regarded discussion as an end in itself." One would imagine that all this meant a call to action, but the action was merely the establishment of a Research Department and the start of a new paper The Distributist for the discussion of the League's domestic business. The Research Secretary will explain his plans, enroll volunteers and allot tasks, thus "equipping the League with the information for lack of which it is as yet unable to agree on practical measures." The effectiveness of its Propaganda would, members were told, depend on its research.

"The pious appointment of investigators," wrote a Leader in G.K.'s Weekly in reference to a Government commission, "to report what is already common knowledge is nothing less than a face-saving, time-marking, shifty expedient." I don't think this article was one of Gilbert's, but I do wonder whether as time went on he did not recall his own old comparison between the early Christian and the modern Socialist. For Distributists far more than Socialists should have been vowed to action. There was a grave danger both of making their propaganda ineffective by lack of example and of weakening themselves as Distributists. Yet there were many difficulties in their path, some of which may best be seen if we go back a little and recall the way in which the Encyclical Rerum Novarum was received by Catholics at the end of the last century. Written in Europe where the remains of the mediaeval social structure still lingered on far more than in industrial England or America, it was taken by the more conservative Catholics as a general confirmation of the established order. I well remember people like my own father and Father Bernard Vaughan quoting it in this sense. And if they tended to advert to only one half of it, the more radical Catholics readily obliged by appearing conscious solely of the other half and thus enabling themselves to be dismissed as one-sided.

Unfortunately they were worse than one-sided: they were curiously blind, with rare exceptions, to those true implications of the document which spelt Distributism--for which the word had not then been coined--or the Restoration of Property. _"The law, therefore, should favour ownership and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners._ Many excellent results will follow from this; and first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided. For the effect of social change and revolution has been to divide society into two widely different castes. . . .If workpeople can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the result will be that the the gulf between vast wealth and deep poverty will be bridged over, and the two orders will be brought nearer together."* Yet the Pope's words were treated almost as an acceptance of the existing conditions of property by the more conservative, while the more radical simply tried to evade them. The question of my youth undoubtedly was: how can a Catholic go on the road to Socialism?

[* Rerum Novarum (translation in Husslein's The Christian Social Manifesto). Italics mine.]

Distributism would seem today to have cut like a sword the knot of this mental confusion, but it did not do so for many people. I suppose the leading Distributist among the clergy was Father Vincent McNabb and I have heard him called a Socialist a hundred times. And even among those who had accepted the Distributist ideal and had now had fifteen years of the New Witness and G.K.'s Weekly to meditate upon--to say nothing of the Belloc and Chesterton books--there was still a good deal of confusion of mind to be cleared up. The Chesterbelloc had begun a mental revolution, but even the mind cannot be turned upside down in a moment of time; and then there is the will to be considered.

Gilbert often claimed that the Society he advocated was the norm, that the modern world was abnormal, was insane. But to achieve the normal in an abnormal world calls for high courage and a high degree of energy. It is much easier to sit and drink beer while planning the world that one wishes was there--the world of simplicity, hard work and independence. And about the details of this new world there was room for a variety of opinion. The Distributists soon began to argue and even to quarrel--about the admission of machinery into the Distributist state, about the nature of one another's Distributism and what was necessary to constitute a Distributist. The effect on Gilbert is interesting, for it showed his belief in the importance of the League. He hoped, he said, that the quarrel would not "turn into a dispute"--that it would remain a personal quarrel. "For impersonal quarrel is schism." He urged again and again that the dogmas of their creed should be defined.

Heaven forbid that we should ever be True Distributists: as a substitute for being Distributists. It would be a dismal thing to join the long and wavering procession of True Christians, True Socialists, True Imperialists; who are now progressing drearily into a featureless future; ready to change anything whatever except their names. These people escape endlessly by refusing definition which they call dogma. . . .

Practical politics are necessary, but they are in a sense narrow; and by themselves they do tend to split the world up into small sects. Only dogma is sufficiently universal to include us all.


Of the world surrounding him which refused definitions he said, "because there is no image there is nothing except imaginaries."* But I think there must have been some blushes on Distributists' cheeks as they read his apology for some slight absence of mind. He explained his own "ghastly ignorance" of the details of the dispute, "which is bound up with the economic facts of the position," with the fact especially of

[* October 12, 1929.]

my own highly inadequate rendering of the part of the Financier. I am the thin and shadowy approximation to a Capitalist. . . . I could only manage until very lately to keep this paper in existence at all, by earning the money in the open market; and more especially in that busy and happy market where corpses are sold in batches; I mean the mart of Murder and Mystery, the booth of the Detective Story. Many a squire has died in a dank, garden arbour, transfixed by a mysterious dagger, many a millionaire has perished silently though surrounded by a ring of private secretaries, in order that Mr. Belloc may have a paper in which he is allowed to point out that a great Empire does not default because it is growing richer. Many a shot has rung out in the silent night, many a constable has hurled himself through a crashing door, from under which there crawled a crimson stain, in order that there might be a page somewhere for Mr. Kenrick's virile and logical exposition of the principles of Distributism. Many an imperial jewel has vanished from its golden setting, many a detective crawled about on the carpet for clues, before some of those little printers' bills could be settled which enabled the most distinguished and intelligent of Distributists to denounce each other as Capitalists and Communists, in the columns of the Cockpit and elsewhere. This being my humble and even highly irrelevant contribution to the common team-work, it is obvious that it could not be done at the same time as a close following of the varying shades of thought in the Distributist debates. And, this ignorance of mine, though naturally very irritating to people better informed, has at least the advantage of giving some genuineness to my impartiality. I have never belonged distinctively to any of the different Distributist groups. I have never had time.

As time went on however and the disputes continued, he wrote a series of articles* which have in them that note so special to him, so embarrassing to some of his admirers, of deep and genuine respect for every person and every opinion. The small numbers of the Distributists, the greatness of the work to be done by them, would make any split in their ranks "a tremendous tragedy." The difficulty in keeping any movement in being was that of holding together the ardent pioneers and the rank and file.

[* September 10, 17, 24, October 1, 1932.]

Men who really have common convictions tend to break up. It is only those who have no convictions who always hang together. . . . Roughly the position is that there is a moderate body which regards extremists as visionary; a more extreme body which regards moderates as ineffective; and lastly a catastrophic simplification in the social scene, which makes the simple enthusiast seem more fitted to the simple disaster.

There were two approaches that should be made to these differences. The first was to state the fundamental principles of Distributism. The crux of the quarrel was the question of machinery. But even those who held that machinery should be abolished in the Distributist State held it, he claimed, not as a first principle, but as a deduction from their first principles. Chesterton himself felt that machinery should be limited but not abolished; the order of things had been historically that men had been deprived of property and enslaved on the land before the machine-slavery of industrialism had become possible. The whole history of the machine might have been reversed in a state of free men. If a machine were used on a farm employing fifty men that would do the work of forty, it means forty men become unemployed, "but it is only because they were employed that they are unemployed. Now you and I, I hope to heaven, are not trying to increase employment. It is almost the only thing that is as bad as unemployment." In other words, he did not want men to be employees. Men working for themselves, men their own employers, their own employees--that was the objective of Distributism. A wide distribution of property was its primary aim. And he did not want the League to consist entirely of extremists lest it should be thought to consist entirely of cranks, especially at a moment when "intelligent people are beginning to like Distributism _because_ Distributism is normal."

The other approach was heralded in the final article of the series (October 1, 1932) by a reference to the excitement over the Buckfast Benedictines who had just built their Abbey Church with their own hands--an adventure

to which, if I understand it as completely as I share it, the English blood will never be entirely cold. But about these new heroes of architecture there is one note that is not new; that comes from a very ancient tradition of psychology and morals. And that is that the adventurer has a right to his adventure; and the amateur has a right to his hobby; or rather to his love. But neither has any right to a general judgment of coldness or contempt for those whose hobby is human living; and whose chief adventures are at home. You will never hear the builders of Buckfast shouting aloud, "Down with Downside; for it was designed by a careful Gothic architect!" You will never hear them say, "How contemptible are these Catholics who pray in common churches; tawdry with waxwork imagery and Repository Art." Of the great adventurers who advance out of the Christian past, in search of Christian future, you could never say that the pioneers despise the army.

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