Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A History of Distributism

by Anthony Cooney



Adapted from an address to the Third Way International Conference, London 16 October 1994, by Anthony Cooney, Editor of the Liverpool Newsletter.


I have been asked to speak today on the History of Distributism. If I were to contain myself to a narrative history, I think that that could be disposed of in short order. G.K's Weekly was launched in 1925, and the Distributist League was founded in 1926. Its chief activity, according to its critics, was holding monthly meetings at Devereaux, where Distributists drove down in their motor cars to discuss the abolition of machinery!

G.K. Chesterton's contribution was the editing and financing of GK's Weekly. The value of that journal is not to be underrated. It influenced the thinking of a number of MPs ranging from high Tories such as Anthony Fell to honest Labour men such as Simon Mahon. Perhaps the greatest success of GK's Weekly was the exposure of the Mond Turner plan to govern Great Britain by a Fasces of bankers, industrialists and TU bosses, and reduce Parliament to a committee which receives reports. This plan was rejected by an altered House of Commons.

After GK's death in 1936 his paper became The Weekly Review and continued publication until 1948. Assigned to expose the "clandestine Fascists" who published that paper, Douglas Hyde, the news editor of The Daily Worker, was converted by it to both Catholicism and Distributism. Distributism also played a part in the conversion of Hamish Frazer, a member of the Communist Party's National Executive and a former Commissar of the International Brigade. It is perhaps noteworthy that both Bob Darke, a leading London Communist, and Jimmy Reid (of Glasgow shipyard fame) adopted Distributist ideas upon becoming disillusioned with Communism.

In 1948, The Weekly Review became a monthly, called - in reminiscence of Cobbett - The Register. When that too folded, Mr. Aidan Mackey gallantly launched a little monthly, called first The Defendant and later The Distributist. It became a quarterly in 1957, and ceased publication in 1959. It seemed that Distributism had at long last been carted off to the boneyard of history.

Except for one thing. In 1954 a small group of Liverpool subscribers to The Distributist launched a duplicated magazine called Platform. They even took their Distributism to the polls, contesting seats for the Liverpool City Council. In January 1960, after the folding of The Distributist, the Platform became Liverpool Newsletter and has been published continuously ever since.

That then is the history of Distributism to date, a tale soon told, which looks forward to a brave sequel.

However, I think you expect something more than a mere chronicle. Distributism is not a series of events, it is an idea, and the history of ideas is always complex.

The first thing to understand is that the idea of Distributism existed long before the word was invented. As Sagar says in his little booklet Distributism:

The immediate point here, however, is that is seemed such a normal thing that men did not think of naming it until it had been destroyed. Even then only a few men saw it so clearly as to think it worthy of a particular name.


We might claim that the first Distributist was Aristotle. Rejecting the communism of Plato's Republic, he argues in his Politics that:

Property should be in a general sense common, but as a general rule private...In well-ordered states, although every man has his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his friends, while of others he shares the use of them.


We could say that the first Distributist law was that decree of the Roman Senate which provided that a retired Legionary should not be granted more land than he and his family could farm.

We might argue that Wat Tyler was the first English Distributist; leading a peasants' revolt against the re-imposition of feudal dues by the great magnates, who needed the money to pay the usurers' interest.

I think, however, that in modern times we must name he whom Chesterton called:

The horseman of the Shires, The trumpet of the Yeomanry, The hammer of the Squires


...the first exponent of what we now call Distributism - William Cobbett, one of the greatest of Englishmen. Ruskin also belongs to us. His Guild of St. George was the first practical attempt to establish and defend small-holders and master-craftsmen. William Morris's Arts and Crafts Movement, although calling itself Socialist, had much the same idea. To these might be added those practical working men of Halifax and Huddersfield who saw that they could never be free men whilst they lived in tied cottages, and who started the first Building Societies to make themselves freeholders. We may also cast our net to take in the founders of both the Consumer and Industrial Co-operative Movement.

All these many strands were brought together at the beginning of the century by A.R. Orage in the National Guilds Movement, which sought to establish ownership by Gilds of workers on the Medieval model. It was in Orage's New Age that Chesterton and Belloc first expounded the ideas which were to become known as Distributism, and it was in those pages also that the historic meeting between Distributism and Social Credit took place. Orage described its impact in an article in The Commonweal of 17/2/1926:

The doubts that haunted me regarding the practicability of National Guilds were concerned with something more important than the viability of the idea...Somehow or other it would not work in my mind...the trouble was always of the same nature - the relation of the whole scheme to the existing, or any prospective system of money...one day there came into my office...a man who was destined to affect a beneficent revolution in my state of mind, Major C.H. Douglas.


Douglas has also written of the relationship between Distributism and Social Credit:

It is profoundly significant that what is now called Socialism and pretends to be a movement for the improvement of the underprivileged, began as something closely approaching the Distributism of Messrs. Belloc and Cheserton, of which the financial proposals embodied in various authentic Social Credit schemes form the practical mechanism, although developed without reference to it (Distributism). It (Socialism) was penetrated by various subversive bodies and perverted into the exact opposite of Distributism - Collectivism.


It seem to me to be axiomatic that distributed ownership cannot survive, much less co-exist, with a centralised system of debt-finance, as Belloc also
recognised when in the Essay on the Restoration of Property he wrote:

It is of no use attempting to restore the institution of property here in England now until we have given the small owner some power of reaction against this universal master.


Belloc indeed was here repeating the warning given by Pius XI in his sequel to Leo XIII's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum:

In the first place it is patent that in our days not wealth alone is accumulated but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few...This domination is most powerfully exercised by those who, because they hold and control money, also govern credit and determine its allotment...so that no one can breathe against their will.


I would only add here that the means to break the Monopoly of Credit are those proposed by C.H. Douglas, to which Orage gave the name Social Credit.

Distributism, as Belloc insisted, places great emphasis upon the land, and upon the widespread distribution of ownership of land. That being so, it had, inevitably, a close association with the "Back to the Land" movement; and with organic husbandry. Distributists were Greens before anyone dreamed of that label.

What then is Distributism? First of all it is not a programme or a scheme put the world right overnight. It is not a quick fix to all our problems.

Distributism is the POLICY of a PHILOSOPHY. That may not leave you much wiser at first hearing, for like all organic things, Distributism demands study before it yields understanding. We can ask three questions of any organisation or group which is pursuing an idea:

WHAT? WHY? HOW? What do you want to do?

Why do you think it is a good thing?

How are you going to do it?

The answer to the question What? will reveal a POLICY - action directed toward particular objeectivves.

The answer to the question Why? will describe a PHILOSOPHY - a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing man, a viewpoint of reality.

The answer to the question How? will be specification of METHODS for realising the policy.

It is important to understand that every policy is derived from a philosophy. Behind every course of action we observe there is a viewpoint of Reality; a belief in how things should be. If a group is dedicated to getting people to go to Church, they are not doing that because they are Atheists; they are doing it because their viewpoint is that "reality is the Christian viewpoint". If a group are promoting class hatred, they are not doing that because they are unpleasant people - they are doing it because their viewpoint of reality is akin to the Marxist viewpoint. The Philosophy which generates the Policy may be, and often is, hidden; further, a Philosophy may generate more than one Policy, and Policy may be realised by more than one method.

A policy is the application of a philosophy to the world we live in. It is up to Distributists to devise the methods, in response to ever changing circumstances, by which the policy may be realised.

One statement of Distributism as a policy is that contained in the encyclical letter of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, which simply means "of new things". Leo XIII first states that the right to property derives not from any man-made law or human convention, but from the Law of Human Nature. It resides in the nature of language and its future tense, that man is the only creature who is both aware of the future and who can structure it through language. Because of this man can provide not only for his own future, but for that of his children and his childrens' children, by bequeathing property. Property, Leo XIII says, is proper to man.

The encyclical then examines the "new things", Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalism is found to be an abuse of Property, a deprivation of the many by the few. It has imposed a yoke little better than slavery.

It is significant that the language used to describe Capitalism is far stronger than that used to denounce Socialism, though Socialism is also denounced. It is not merely an abuse of, but is contrary to Natural Right. Leo XIII concludes his examination of Socialism with a prophetic warning of the misery it will bring upon Mankind if it is imposed.

What then is the solution to the problems created by these "new things"? Leo XIII says that there is a way that accords with the Law of Human Nature, a proper way, and that way is to achieve widespread ownership of property - ideally by every family in the land.

This is what he says:

We have seen therefore that this great labour question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners...if working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged...A further consequence will be the greater abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields...not only food but an abundance of good things for themselves and those who are dear to them...men would cling to the country of their birth, for no-one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life. These important benefits however can be reckoned on, only provided that a man's means be not drained by excessive taxation. (para.35)


It was Rerum Novarum which inspired Belloc to begin his search for a new solution to old problems. It is our good fortune that in company with two men of genius and a score of others of exceptional ability, he found it. It is called DISTRIBUTISM or THE THIRD WAY.

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