English cities in the early twentieth century were crowded, polluted places, the result of two waves of industrialization that swept through the country over the course of one hundred years. The big factories marked both the new English landscape and a fundamental change in the English economy: the economic system, once primarily local, subsistence, and household-based, became capitalist and international. This new economic reality required droves of unskilled laborers to work in the factories, which were producing mostly textiles and other manufactured goods primarily for export. Poor people from the countryside, disillusioned after years of working as tenant farmers for large landlords, willingly came to the cities for the promise of steady employment. However, the cities and unrestrained capitalism created new problems for the workers: unsanitary living conditions, child labor, increasing gap between the rich and poor, low wages, and long hours at tedious factory line jobs. One solution proposed by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867) was socialism: a revolution by the proletariat to seize the means of production from the rich capitalists and place the economy in the hands of a proletarian-controlled socialist State. Another solution less recognized today but much debated in England between World War I and World War II was distributism.
Distributism is the antithesis of the consolidation inherent in industrial capitalism: it is an economic system that is based on redistributing large land holdings to individual subsistence farmers and craftsmen. Its economy is local, not global, and based on private ownership of property. Distributism’s roots can be traced back to several eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers, such as William Morris, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin, who opposed industrialization because it led to society’s rapid adoption of machines, which allowed for the phasing out of small farmers and skilled artisans. Thomas Carlyle, a prolific Scottish writer, wrote in his 1829 essay “Signs of the Times,” that the new modern faith in all things mechanical has replaced a faith in nature, God, and the individual man. Through capitalism and industrialization, “not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also” (60). Carlyle extends the meaning of machinery to include all standardizing institutions, such as education and religious and social societies, committees, and publications. Carlyle argues that this “Age of Machinery” has denied people true happiness, and that a counterrevolution based on the old order, which prized wonder, the unknown, and the individual, is bound to occur. Carlyle continues his argument from “Signs of the Times” in his 1843 book Past and Present. In it, he claims that the monotonous work of most industrial laborers is unfit for human beings, whose work should be “in communication with nature” (196). Carlyle’s social critique of industrialism and capitalism offers suggestions for an alternative way of life that reflects many aspects of pre-industrial England, but it does not offer a detailed plan of action except for the suggestion that the “reformation” be small and start with individuals (“Signs” 82).
One of the most important texts that sparked the distributist movement was Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Published on May 15, 1891, this papal letter on the conditions of labor and the economics of industrialization criticized capitalism for producing “the misery and wretchedness which press so heavily at this moment on the large majority of the very poor,” who are helpless against “the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition” (2). Leo XIII rejects the socialist solution on several points: it does not value individuality; its communist revolution is founded on stealing from the rich; it gives the State too much power; and it deprives people of free will by denying them the motivation to work for private ownership of their property. Since socialism will not do, Leo XIII suggests the adoption of a new economic system that treats manual labor and private property as sacred. He points out that Jesus himself worked with his hands as a craftsman, learning carpentry from his father, Joseph. The economic system Leo XIII argues for is based in the local community, which derives its strength from the individual talents of its members, and therefore, the members will look out for each other. In this new economy, there will be neither a huge gap between the rich and the poor nor a class war because the rich will naturally distribute what they do not need to their poorer neighbors (11). It is from this claim that the distributist movement most likely derived its name.
Distributism is most clearly defined by Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton in his 1926 book, The Outline of Sanity. Unlike Carlyle, Leo XIII, and other cultural critics of the time, who saw the inherent problems of industrial capitalism but had no practical plan for creating an alternate system, Chesterton attempts in this book to lay out a specific course of action that could be (and eventually was) followed to develop a local economy that opposes capitalism. It was also inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 book The Servile State and is in part an answer to H.G. Wells’ book The Outline of History, which describes his vision of the world through a socialist lens. The Outline of Sanity begins with Chesterton’s rebuttal to those who claim distributism – an economic system based on small individual private ownership and local communities of independent farmers and craftsmen – is an unachievable, utopian ideal in the modern world. In the first section of his book, Chesterton points out to his critics that their conception of capitalism is also an ideal: pure market forces do not drive the economy, for the State intervenes on behalf of the large trusts and big businesses. The working “capitalist” system, therefore, has been tainted by socialism. Chesterton also claims that capitalism “is contradictory as soon as it is complete” because it treats people in “two opposite ways at once…For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend” (43). Since every worker is also a consumer, such diametrically opposed agendas cannot exist together. Capitalism is a broken system already, then, and the only solution, according to Chesterton, is a new economic system – distributism – which, he contends, may not be the perfect system, but at least pursuing it will be one step in the right direction for correcting the consequences of the current industrial economy. Chesterton believes that a switch to a distributist economy will occur in two steps: first, through individual resistance to large-scale capitalism, which will pick up followers and momentum to make it possible for a deliberate, counterrevolution where willing people will leave the cities and be trained and resettled as farmers and craftsmen. The rest of the book outlines these two stages, and Chesterton acknowledges that this outline is necessarily sketchy, for who can know what a society based on free-thinking individuals will eventually look like (63).
In the second section of The Outline of Sanity, Chesterton dispels the commonly-held myth that big business is so omnipotent that it cannot be successfully resisted by individuals. He claims that “nobody is yet driven by force to a particular shop” and writes that arguments against the effectiveness of boycotts of large corporations are faulty, because people have the ability to choose to patronize local businesses if they want to (71). Individuals have power – they do not have to be controlled by big business (72). Chesterton’s plea to people who do not like the current state of the economy is to do anything, to start small, to ignore the critics who say an alternative is impossible, and to halt the progression of industrial capitalism. Once that is achieved, the real change can begin, which he outlines in the third section of his book, “Some Aspects of the Land.” This change in a way of life must begin with two classes of volunteers: peasants, “actual or potential, who would take over the responsibility of small farms” and landlords who are willing to “give up or sell cheaply their land to be cut up into a number of such farms” (105). Chesterton likens distributism’s call for these volunteers to the government’s appeal for enlistments in 1914. These small farmers would form the backbone of the distributist society, but Chesterton points out that it will not be a homogenous community; it will have a balance of “different things of different types holding on different tenures…so in my modern State there would be some things nationalized, some machines owned corporately, some guilds sharing profits, and so on, as well as many absolute individual owners, where such individual owners are most possible” (98). What makes this new community different from an industrialized capitalistic one is that the community is connected to nature and the natural order, to self-sufficient production and consumption instead of international trade and profit-making. It is a more complete life, as opposed to the splintered life and partial knowledge of assembly line workers. It is important to note that Chesterton’s distributist society does not outright reject the use of machines, but rather promotes the view “that instead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy, we must at least reverse the proportions until the man is a giant to whom the machine is a toy” (133). The individual must decide when and where to use a machine.
The Outline of Sanity ends with Chesterton’s suggestion that the distributist movement base itself in religious (namely Catholic) principles, for religion will instantly bond the new communities and impart it with an already-established rich history for upholding the value of labor, property, and the individual. This association of an economic theory (distributism) to a major religion (Roman Catholicism) proved key in the eventual enactment of distributist principles in England from 1925 to 1934. Catholicism in early twentieth century England, even though it was not the official state religion, had a large following among the poor workers in the cities, some accessible revenue for publications, and an established structure in the community that allowed priests and lay Catholics to spread the message of distributism to entire congregations. The first group to take Chesterton’s and Hilaire Belloc’s distributist theories into practice was the Catholic Land Movement, founded in Glasgow in 1929. The Movement’s local leaders, who included both clergymen and Catholic laity, were instrumental in explaining distributism to the populace and recruiting people to the movement through sermons, published essays, and pamphlets. One such publication was the newsletter The Cross and the Plough, which was circulated throughout England and the official voice of the five Catholic Land Movement chapters in England: Glasgow, London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. Unfortunately, many of these publications, like The Cross and the Plough, were not collected and printed and therefore are not widely accessible. Some, though, like Flee to the Fields, the collected founding papers of the Catholic Land Movement, have been recently republished by two American publishing houses, IHS Press and Ignatius Press. [Editor's note: Only IHS Press reprinted Flee to the Fields.]
Distributism became a Catholic project in England because many priests and bishops saw the consequences of capitalism as not just an economic or social problem but a religious crisis as well. In his essay, “The Line of Approach,” distributist Harold Robbins makes the point that 95% of England’s Catholics lived in the cities, and the vast majority of them were poor factory workers, suspect to sinning through the vices inherent in city culture and entertainment: excessive alcoholism, pornography, and trashy movies and novels. Another effect of the modern industrial economy which translates to a religious problem for Catholics is the breakup of the family: parents leave the home to work in the factory (big business capitalism) and children are cared for and educated by the state (socialism.) Fr. Vincent McNabb, one of the most outspoken of the local leaders of the Catholic Land Movement, argues in his 1926 book The Church and the Land that only distributism can revive the sacred bond of the family for distributism unifies the parents and the children in a common pursuit for survival on the land. McNabb echoes the principle stated in Rerum Novarum that the rights of the individual and of the parent “are prior to the rights of the state” by recognizing the fact that they “must have preceded states” (120). The Catholic clergy and laity who endorsed distributism in the Catholic Land Movement agreed with Chesterton that the new distributist communities must be Catholic in nature, for as George Maxwell, one of the Movement’s major figures, argues in his essay “The Restoration of the Crafts,” it is a Catholic tenet that work is sacred, and therefore the Catholic settlers’ commitment to their work as an expression of their religion and an act of submission to God will ensure the community’s survival.
The Catholic Land Movement believed that the time for distributism was now and took on the challenge of converting factory workers to farmers. This transition was facilitated, as Reginald Jebb describes in his essay “The Community” and Rev. John McQuillan in his essay “Training for the Land,” by the creation of four training centers in England. These working farms recruited single young men who wanted to escape city life for the promise of a more fulfilling life through distributism. The farms taught them the huge variety of tasks necessary to becoming a self-sufficient farmer, from husbandry to crop rotation to small machinery repair. The breadth of the knowledge of a successful farmer is quite astounding, the Catholic Land Movement leaders and Chesterton pointed out, and life as a farmer is not the drudgery that modern culture makes it out to be: as Chesterton wrote in The Outline of Sanity, “I know it is said that a man must find it monotonous to do the twenty things that are done on a farm, whereas, of course, he always finds it uproariously funny and festive to do one thing hour after hour and day after day in a factory” (100). The young men on the training farms learned hands-on what it takes to live off the land. It was the plan, McQuillan notes, of the Catholic Land Movement to establish a training center for women, but due to insufficient funds, it was never realized. It was not ideal, Jebb writes, that these training centers did not allow for the financial support of entire families, because, as McNabb pointed out in Church and the Land and in his later 1929 essay “The Family,” the Catholic family is the natural and necessary primary unit for the new distributist communities, and so it is odd that the training was restricted to single men.
Distributism also gave birth to other religious and non-religious organizations in both England and the United States dedicated to the resistance of capitalism and socialism through the ownership of small property, such as the Southern Agrarians and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. What makes the Catholic Land Movement unique among these is its local English focus and its dedication to the creation of small communities centered around Catholic agrarian families. The Catholic Church in England took on the distributist project and its training centers and fledging self-sufficient communities were the first physical manifestations of the economic and social theories promoted by Chesterton, Belloc, McNabb, and other local leaders.
Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. Boston: Le Roy Phillips, 1912.
Belloc, Hilaire, ed. Flee to the Fields. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003.
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Chesterton, Gilbert K. The Outline of Sanity. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2001.
Jebb, Reginald. “The Community.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hilaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 81-92.
Maxwell, George. “The Restoration of the Crafts.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hilaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 119-130.
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—. “The Family.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hilaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 69-77.
McQuillan, John. “Training for the Land.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hilaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 21-24.
Rerum Novarum: Encyclical Letter of Our Holy Father by Divine Providence. Pope Leo XIII on The Condition of Labor. May 15, 1891. In Seven Great Encyclicals. Ed. William J. Gibbons. Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1963.
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