Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Distributist Difficulties III

by G.K. Chesterton



I am very strongly in sympathy with Father McNabb and Mr. Kenrick, and all those who may be called the more drastic and dogmatic members of our group, in this fundamental matter; that we must never forget that our counsels and considerations all rest on the basis of a broad, a solid and an enduring indignation. That indignation may be patient in the sense of persistent; it may be strategic in the sense of militant; but it must be indignant. For instance, I am heart and soul with Mr. Kenrick in his direct indignation about the modern mechanical disruption of the Christian family. There is an attack on the family; and the only thing to do with an attack is to attack it. It is a fallacy to talk about impartial criticism of repulsive things; for our very repulsion is a part of the criticism. If somebody tells me to consider calmly a cannibal cooking and eating children, I answer that I have already considered it, in the very act of refusing to consider it calmly. If somebody tells me to consider equally calmly a Dean who patronizes the prospective extinction of children, I answer that I do consider it, when I consider it disgusting. The measure of the moral shock immediately given to the normal conscience, by certain things, is itself one of the arguments for intellectually condemning them. Similarly, we are in a state of restrained and rational indignation with a whole tendency which we think evil; a tendency to materialism and mechanism and the denial of human dignity. I agree that, in our necessary talk of complexity and compromise, there is some danger of this direct indignation being diverted.

But I also desire to insist on indignation, in order to avoid irritation. The two are almost contraries; but especially in this respect; that indignation unites us and irritation might divide us. There have been one or two touches of what might turn into irritation, and I hope everyone will prevent them from doing so. There is one great difference between a debate with friends and a debate with foes. In the latter we may be excused for dealing only with what they say. In the former we are bound to deal with what they mean. In mere public polemics we seize this point or that, even if it be a verbal point; but among ourselves we only ask if we are really of one mind. I should not trouble to say that I am sure Father McNabb never meant to misreport anything; I should prefer to say that I am sure Mr. Heseltine never meant to charge him with doing so. Similarly I should not bother to enquire whether Mr. Heseltine's original words could grammatically be taken as a Distributist's approval of proletarianism. It is quite enough for me that he distinctly says that he does not in fact think so; that he is as doctrinaire as any other Distributist about the Distributist doctrine; and that he meant no more than that the scheme he approved was really in many ways worthy of approval. And this, it seems to me, he has a perfect right both to think and to say.

One inevitable result of being a member of a small minority is that a man cannot all the time be acting as a reformer. He must for considerable parts of the time act as a spectator. But even as a spectator he must act; at least he must think actively. A man may disapprove of the whole system of the society in which he lives; and yet he may disapprove specially of some things and approve relatively of others. He cannot be entirely indifferent to everything in a large, living and complex society of human beings; he must consider some acts wise and some foolish, if only from the standpoint of the society itself. All their proceedings are wrong from his point of view; but he also perceives that some of them are wrong from their own point of view. He may disapprove of slavery, and still think the selling of slaves from a good master to a bad master is bad; and especially bad for the prestige of slavery. I do not see how such a man can help finding himself sometimes in the position of a spectator rather than a speculator or a seer. Now to my mind the real test of the approval given by some of our supporters, like Mr. Heseltine, to some contemporary proposals, such as one connected with agriculture, is whether he approved thus in the capacity of a spectator. I should quite possibly agree with him if he spoke as a spectator. I should disagree with him if he spoke as a Distributist; that is, as a man defining the Distributist creed. But our most militant Distributists will be the first to agree that we cannot fill the whole paper with definitions of the Distributist creed. The paper must comment on the concrete things done and said by millions of people who have never heard of that creed. The paper must to that extent be a newspaper. It must deal with the news; only the news of the sort that Mr. Heseltine mentioned is important; and the news in the newspapers is not important. If a man in a society like ours proposes a radical change based on the principle of the primary importance of the land, we can to that extent not only comment on it but commend it. It is in that sense a step in the right direction. It is in that sense a step in our direction. But it is not a step to our position. Our position remains something positive and special; and I have not the smallest intention of abandoning that position.

It would be easy to give parallels from politics all over the world. The proposal that one State in the American Union should brew all the liquor officially is not Distributism; it is almost the reverse of Distributism; it is rather more like Socialism. But it is the reverse and the reversal of Prohibition. And I would quote it as a case of a healthy revolt against Prohibition. Nationalization of mines is not Distributism; but it is a sign of the collapse of Capitalism; and in that sense of the need for Distributism. And I should quote any agitation for it as a case of revolt against Capitalism, as I should the other case of revolt against Prohibition. And the fact that somebody has seen the urgent need of putting people back on the land is a reaction against mere urban mechanism and mass production; even if it is not a reaction in favour of small property and several ownership. In short, the doctrinaire has here a position similar to that which exists touching much more important doctrine. There are, even on this lower plane, things corresponding both to natural religion and to invincible ignorance; and we will give the heathen credit for healthy heathenism. We will do everything except alter the creed.

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