Monday, February 26, 2007

The Distributist League and Distributism Part Two

by Maisie Ward




What seemed to Chesterton the oddest feature in the opposition to his idea of sanity was the apparent assumption that he was offering an impossible ideal to a world that was already working quite well. With bland disregard of the breakdown of their own system, the orthodox economists were challenging him to establish the flawlessness of his. They laughed at the Distributist desire if not to abolish at least to limit machinery. They adjured him to be more practical. Chesterton had replied in an earlier article:

There may be, and we ourselves believe there are, a certain number of things that had better be always done by machinery. . . . Machinery is now being used to produce numberless things that nobody needs. Machinery is being used to produce more machinery, to be used merely for the production of things that nobody needs. Machinery is being used to produce very badly things that everybody wants produced very well.

Machinery is being used for enormously expensive transport of things that might just as well be used where they are. Machinery is being used to take things thousands of miles in order to sell them and bring them back again because they are not sold. Machinery is being used to produce ornament that nobody ever looks at and architecture that nobody wants to look at. Machinery is taking suicides to Monte Carlo and coals to Newcastle, and all normal human purpose and intelligence to Bedlam; and our critics gaze at it reverently and ask us how we expect ever to be so practical as that.*

[* June 13, 1925.]


This desperate situation must be met by strengthening the home, re-establishing the small workshop, re-creating the English peasantry. But first the ground might have to be cleared.

One phrase used in his articles--the "catastrophic simplification of the social scene"--reminds us once more how keenly aware Gilbert was of something that had not yet happened, the present war with its break-up of the social order. In the article, from which I have been quoting, he compares the urgency of the hour to the period of the French Revolution; in his Outline of Sanity seven years earlier he had stressed the Distributist ideal as the last chance to

do deliberately and well what nemesis will do wastefully and without pity; whether we cannot build a bridge from these slippery downward slopes to freer and firmer land beyond, without consenting yet that our most noble nation must descend into that valley of humiliation in which nations disappear from history.*

[* Outline of Sanity, p. 34.]


In this book which he had tried in vain, he tells us, to make "a grammar of Distributism," he touches on the enormous changes that had made such a grammar of far greater urgency. When Rerum Novarum was issued, or even eighteen years later when G.K. wrote What's Wrong With the World, individualist competition had not yet given place to the Trust, Combine or Merger. "The American Trust is not private enterprise. It would be truer to call the Spanish Inquisition private judgment." The decline of trade had hardly begun at the turn of the Century, liberty was still fairly widespread. But today we had lost liberty as well as property and were living under the worst features of a Socialist State. "I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralisation is decentralisation."

Both in the book and in the paper he urged constantly a double line of escape towards the restoration of freedom, initiative, property and the free family: the one line was the comparatively negative one of winning such concessions from the State as would make action possible, the other was personal action to be taken without any State aid or even encouragement. The germ of recovery lay in human nature. If you get poison out of a man's system "the time will come when he himself will think he would like a little ordinary food. If things even begin to be released they will begin to recover." To the question did Chesterton believe Distributism would save England, he answered, "No, I think Englishmen will save England, if they begin to have half a chance. I am therefore in this sense hopeful. I believe that the breakdown has been a breakdown of machinery and not of men."

A most difficult question to answer is the degree of the League's success. Its stated aim was propaganda, the spreading of ideas. "There is a danger that the tendency to regard talking as negligible may invade our little movement . . . our main business is to talk." One sees the point, of course; yet I cannot help feeling that it would have been better if the majority of Leaguers had done some bit of constructive work towards a Distributist world and sweated out of their system the irritability that found vent in some of their quarrels. After all the fight for freedom as far as it concerned attacking government was carried on week by week by the small group running the paper. "The main body of Distributists would have learnt their own principles better by trying to act them, and been far more effective in conveying them to others."

Some members saw the need of individual action. Father Vincent set out in one number of the paper Fifteen Things that men could do for themselves as a step to the practice of a Distributist philosophy. Father Vincent, indeed, must be put beside Chesterton and Belloc as a really great Distributist writer. Useful books were written too by Mr. Heseltine and Mr. Blyton, who both also set to work to grow their own food. Mr. Blyton is still writing and still growing food. A workshop was started at Glasgow (probably the most active of the Branches), Father Vincent came to a League meeting clad in home-spun and home-woven garments, Mr. Blyton urged the example of what had been done by the Society of Friends in creating real wealth in the hands of the poor by their allotment schemes. (A weakness was visible, I think, in the very different and contemptuous treatment of Ford's effort to promote part-time farming among his workers during the depression because it was made by Ford, who was certainly no Distributist.)

But the most inspiring article in the paper in many a year was written by a man who, having tried in vain to get his writings printed, decided to start practising Distributism. He had pondered long, he says, on how the Rank and File of the Movement who were neither writers nor speakers should help, and the answer came to him "Do it yourself." After a fascinating description of how he built "the nucleus of a dwelling house against the time that a small plot of land could be secured" he ends:

By responsible work a man can best realise the dignity of his human personality. But most of us are caught in the net of industry and the best way out would seem to be to create, that is to employ one's leisure in conscious creative effort. This usually means the use of hand as well as head, and the concentration on some familiar craft. The aim also should be to acquire ownership in a small way; that is to acquire the means of production. If we are not at all events partly independent, how is it possible to urge on others the principles of small ownership.


In saying this he spoke from experience, for he had found that before he began his experiment his friends were exasperated by references to the principles of Distributism, while the sight of the building in progress began to convert them.

I have found many letters striking the note of gratitude to Gilbert for his goodness and the inspiration he has given. One of these, written by a sailor from H.M.S. Hood, is pure Distributism: "Your articles are so interesting tho' so hard to understand. . . . Why not come down a bit and educate the working class who are always in trouble because they don't know what they want. You see, sir, your use of words and phrases are so complicated, personally that's why I'm so fascinated when I read them, but really us average Council School educated people can't learn from you as we should . . . but what I do understand helps me to live. . . ."

The sailor goes on to tell the story of his life: a workhouse child, a farm boy: a seaman on a submarine who spent his "danger money" on a bit of land in Cornwall, married now and with two boys. "What a thrill of pleasure we have when we gaze over our land. . . . To be reared in a workhouse and then to leave a freehold home and land to one's children may not seem much to most people but still out of that my sons can build again. . . . I feel you understand this letter, what is in my heart, and I want to thank you very much for what you have done for me."

Towards the end of September 1932 the League held a meeting to which Gilbert came "as peacemaker." In the course of his speech he remarked that he had often said harsh things of America in the days of her prosperity but that in these days of adversity we might learn much from that country. He instanced the saying he had heard from a business man on his recent visit, "There's nothing for it but to go back to the farm," and noted the fact that America still had this large element of family farms as a basis for recovery. The suggestion that Distributists wanted to turn everybody into peasants had been another point answered in The Outline--"What we offer is proportion. We wish to correct the proportions of the modern state."*

A considerable return to the family farm would greatly improve this proportion.

[* Outline of Sanity, p. 56.]


But if he had spoken "harshly" of the United States it was nothing to the way he had talked of the British Empire. Although at moments he saw in imagination the romance of the fact that England had acquired an Empire "absentmindedly" through Englishmen with the solitary spirit of adventure and discovery, yet he had an unfortunate habit of abusing the Dominions. They were the "suburbs" of England (a curious phrase from the man who found suburbs "intoxicating"); we could not learn from them as we could from Europe for they were inferior to us; these and many other hard things he would throw out again and again in his articles. One letter in the Cockpit reproached him; from a New Zealander of English descent it asked him whether he really meant that those of his own race were so utterly indifferent to him; whether he really preferred Bohemians and Norwegians to Britons. The letter received no answer.

My husband and I used to wonder with secret smiles whether he was the Australian from whom Gilbert derived the idea of that country as a "raw and remote colony." Belloc also, in a letter extolling the Faith, asked "what else would print civilised stuff in Australasia?" Many years earlier Gilbert had written, in reviewing a book on the Cottages of England, of the inconsistency of the English upper classes who exalt the achievement of the national character in creating the Empire and disparage it concerning the possibility of re-creating the rural life of England. "Their creed contains two great articles: first that the common Englishman can get on anywhere, and second that the common Englishman cannot get on in England." Surely Chesterton had this same inconsistency, as it were, in reverse? The common Englishman was great in England, the common Irishman was great in Ireland, the common Scot was a figure of romance in Scotland, but when these common men created a new country that new country became contemptible.

The Empire took a magnificent revenge, for it was in the "Suburbs of England" that Distributism was first taken seriously and used as practical politics. A far more effectively distributist paper than The Distributist appeared in Ceylon under the able editorship of J. P. de Fonseka, in which action was recorded and the movements of Government watched and sometimes affected from the Distributist angle, and Catholic Social thinking formed on Distributist lines. This paper has a considerable effect also in India. But of course the main Distributist impact has been felt in the States, in Canada and in Australia.

There is a double-edged difficulty in talking about the influence of anyone on his times. On the one hand, as Mgr. Knox pointed out, all our generation has grown up under Chesterton's influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton. One sees unacknowledged (and unconscious) quotations from him in books and articles, one hears them in speeches and sermons. On the other hand into the making of a movement there flow so many streams that it is possible to claim too much for a single influence however powerful. An American Distributist said to me lately that the movement set on foot by Chesterton had reached incredible proportions for one generation. I think this is true but we have also to render thanks (for example) to the suicide of the commercial-capitalist-combine which created the void for our philosophy. That the Distributist League has had much influence I doubt: in the United States the Chesterton spirit is better represented by that admirable paper Free America than by the American Distributists--for Free America is offering us precisely what the League has for the most part failed to offer--the laboratory test of the Distributist ideal. Every number carries stories of men who have in part-time or whole-time farming, in small shops, in backyard industries tried out Distributism and can tell us how it has worked and _how to work it_. Its editors Herbert Agar, Ralph Borsodi, Canon Ligutti and others, all foremost in the Ruralist movement, acknowledge debt to Chesterton and are carrying on the torch. Monsignor Ligutti's own work in the field of part-time farming, his own periodical and the thoughts that inspire the Catholic Rural Life Movement of America are among the most important manifestations of that universal religious and rural awakening for which Chesterton worked so hard and longed so ardently.

In Canada the Antigonish movement has shown a happy blending of theory and practise. For the University itself has in its Extension Movement and by its organ _The Maritime Co-operator_ provided the theory, while up and down the country co-operative groups have built their own houses and canneries, started their own co-operative stores and savings banks, and made the Maritime Provinces a hopeful and property-owning community of small farmers and fisher folk. Several important books have grown out of this movement and at its basis lies the insistence on adult education which shall make ordinary men "Masters of their Destiny." Surely it is the authentic voice of Chesterton when Dr. Tompkins says "Trust the little fellow" or Dr. Coady declares "The people are great and powerful and can do everything."

In Australia Distributism has given a fresh slant to both Labour and Catholic leadership. The direct debt to Chesterton of the Australian Catholic Worker is immense, and while the paper also owes much to The Catholic Worker of America and to the Jocistes of France and Belgium, we find too that in America, France, and Belgium, Chesterton himself is studied more than any other Catholic Englishman. The Campion Society founded in Melbourne in 1931, the Catholic Guild of Social Studies in Adelaide, the Aquinas Society in Brisbane, the Chesterton Club in Perth and the Campion Society in Sydney have all based their thinking and their action on the Chesterbelloc philosophy. These groups have closely analysed Belloc's Servile State and Restoration of Property and have applied its principlesin their social action in a most interesting fashion. Thus they opposed--and helped to defeat--a scheme for compulsory national insurance chiefly on the ground that "the social services in a modern State were the insurance premiums which Capitalism paid on its life policy." With wages high enough to keep families in reasonable comfort and save a little, with well distributed property, national insurance would be rendered unnecessary. Yet on the other hand they supported--and won--national "child endowment" because although fundamentally only a palliative this at least strengthened the family by supplementing wages and helping parents towards ownership and property.

Most important however of all the Australian developments has been the approval of the main Distributist ideal by the Australasian Hierarchy as the aim of Catholic Social Action. This was especially set out in their Statement on Social Justice, issued on occasion of the first Social Justice Sunday in 1940.* The Hierarchy of New Zealand joined with that of Australia in establishing this celebration for the third Sunday after Easter. Indeed, the social policy of Australian Catholicism has produced the slogan "Property for the People," while the policy has been brought into action bothby many scattered individuals in that huge but thinly populated country and in organised fashion by the Rural Life movements with their own organs of expression.

[* Published by the Australian C.T.S.]

If it is difficult to estimate the impact of mind upon mind it becomes bewilderingly impossible to weigh, in such a movement as Distributism, the actual practical effects. Partly because, while Distributism leads naturally to co-operation (an individual, says Chesterton, is only the Latin word for an atom and to reduce society to individuals is to smash it to atoms), still the movement is essentially local, the groups usually small.

For my own part I have travelled a good deal, always with a primary interest in social developments, and everywhere I have found Chesterton or his derivatives. The numbers in America alone--both in the States and Canada--who are trying out these ideas in big and small communities is amazing. I did begin to make a list of vital movements beginning with the Jocistes and the American Catholic Worker, roving over the world and trying to estimate in each movement I had met the proportion of Chesterton's influence, and again the extent to which one movement is in debt to another--but I gave it up in despair. One can only say that certainly there has been a great stirring of the waters in every country: each has taken and has given to the other: and most of those thus co-operating have been the "little" men whom G.K. loved and in whom Dr. Tompkins tells us to trust. To utter nobly the thoughts of that little man was, Chesterton held, the highest aim that poet or prophet could set before him. Distributism is that little man's philosophy. Chesterton gave it large utterance.

And he could do it the more richly because--as he said many years ago of the religious philosophy that was the basis of his social outlook--"I did not make it. God and humanity made it and it made me."

Meanwhile he himself distributed royally. He gave help to the Catholic Land Movement, to Cecil Houses, to all who asked him for help. He educated several nieces and nephews of Frances and gave money or lent it in considerable sums to old friends in difficulties. If some event--perhaps Judgment Day--should call together all those helped financially by Gilbert and Frances, I think they will be surprised to meet one another and to discover what a lot of them there are. They gave too to the Catholic Church at Beaconsfield, which later became Gilbert's monument, and to which Top Meadow was left after Frances's death. But even Top Meadow was distributed, a small piece being cut off the garden and left to Dorothy Collins. And I think even in a Distributist heaven it must add to Gilbert's happiness to see the seventeen rabbits, the chickens and thebeehives--to say nothing of the huge quantities of vegetables produced on this fragment of his property.

For this war like the last, with all its suffering, will, if the Bureaucracy permit it, again energise the people of England into that creative action which is the only soil for the seed of Distributism. It began by distributing the people. And London was no place for a Distributist movement. It is no chance that the growth of this philosophy is among small groups and in the countryside. "On the land," as Father Vincent often says, "you need not waste a moment of time or a scrap of material." This is the fierce and pious thrift that Gilbert saw in his youth as so poetical and in his age as a part of the philosophy of Distributism.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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