Monday, November 24, 2008

Communism or Distributism: A Debate

[Editor's note: This is part one of the G.K.'s Weekly extract of the actual debate.]

Many people had to be refused admission to the debate on February 17, between Mr. John Strachey and Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., St.M. Mr. E. H. Haywood presided.

The meeting was organised by the Distributist League.

["The ownership of the means of production by society as a whole is the only means of ending the exploitation of man by man, while at the same time ensuring a continual improvement in the physical, intellectual and moral welfare of the people."]

Mr. Strachey will be followed by Father McNabb…

Mr. John Strachey. —In a Debate such as this I always feel that, in order to find out quite clearly where we disagree, and on what we ought to, we should first find out on what we agree. Father McNabb will correct me if I am wrong, I am sure, but so far as I understand his views and the views of those who think like him, we agree on one important thing, that we (although not he) would call a class monopoly of the means of production, is an evil thing, that it is indeed probably the greatest curse of the modern world. We may use different terminology in describing this evil thing, but I take it that we are referring to the same problem, namely that in contemporary society the essential means of production—that is the things without the use of which human beings cannot get their livelihood, are in the hands of a limited class of persons, and the ownership being of a monopolist character with this limited class, gives an enormous power because the rest of us with very few exceptions can only obtain a livelihood in the employment of those who own. Those who do own the means of production enjoy a dictatorship, compared with which the dictatorship of any government—however tyrannical it may be—is a small thing. I compare the two things because a government is really the managing committee of those who own these means of production. This is modern industrialism, in which our wants are satisfied by gigantic means of production.

I don’t know if Father McNabb would go so far as that in tracing out all the major evils of society to this basic cause, but I believe that by a complicated social action of cause and effect it is this class monopoly which not only gives a dictatorship to a limited class, but causes the frightful strains and stresses and the ghastly conflicts both between and within classes, which rack the world to-day, which bid fair to destroy our civilisation; and that, finally and more comprehensively, it is this class monopoly of the means of production which causes that hackneyed thing—poverty in the midst of plenty. It is because are not allowed access to the means of production which they do not own (such ownership being only among 15 per cent. of the population), that there is this squeezing of production out of which unemployment can arise.

As I said, I don’t know how far Father McNabb would go with me in tracing out these consequences, but I am sure he regards this as an evil thing, and as a thing which has to be remedied.

Then we come to the practical question: What are we going to do about it? Father McNabb puts forward what he calls the Distributist solution, and I the Collective solution. And we have still something in common, because we are still out to destroy the class monopoly, but our methods of restoring ownership to the population at large are alternatively different, though the aim may be the restoring of the means of production to people as a whole.

In a leaflet of the Distributist League there is a root sentence which seemed to me to be striking. It is that the law should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce the humbler class to become owners. If I would make any criticism of this phrase; I would say it is of the word “inducing”, which to me seems like inducing as many starving men as possible to eat food. It seemed to me that such a statement—“inducing” the humbler classes to become owners—would have a savour to the humbler classes of the permanent fixed state which cannot be altered. But with this qualification, I would accept the statement as excellent Communist doctrine. The Law should favour ownership—and that is one part of Communist policy.

But what do we mean by ownership? I think it is there that we shall find our difference. The Distributists mean by owners the small individual owners, such as the peasant and his land, or the craftsman owning his tools. We mean by ownership in this connection a common collective ownership, such as a Soviet citizen has in say, the railway, or collective farmers in the fields.

These are, undoubtedly, very different forms of ownership. What is our objection?

I will first put that to the Distributist solution. What is the good of breaking the class monopoly by redistributing these means of production piece by piece to the individuals who did once in the Middle Ages actually own them? We do feel as a first stage in the argument that it is impossible to split up the great modern means of production, and distribute them piece by piece to individual owners. I think that is conceded by Distributists, and not only that it is impossible to redistribute modern means of production, but that it would be incompatible with modern incompatible with modern industrialism. Father McNabb would reply: We agree it is bad for industrialism, but so much the worse for industrialism!

I would submit that the redeeming of the world from modern methods of production is an impossibility that way. You know the ordinary arguments. The population of the world has grown to such a point that it would be physically impossible to sustain it even on the lowest standard of life, if we returned to handicrafts or other primitive methods of production connected with individual ownership. But I doubt very much if that argument cuts much ice with convinced Distributists.

I have great sympathy with the belief that Father McNabb has that the handicrafts which existed at the close of the Middle Ages are so intrinsically superior and produce such better men and happier lives, that however inefficient they seem to modern methods that yet are to be preferred, and that we should face anything entailed in going back to them. But I would like to put another argument forward ass to the difficulty, or I would say the impossibility of going back to less productive methods.

What do I mean by inefficient and less productive? I mean a smaller amount of wealth and a smaller degree of satisfaction to the consumer would be produced by the amount of human effort. The psychological difficulty is this. I believe that however fruitful in good life, and however satisfactory to those who built Chartres Cathedral and other works of the Middle Ages, that psychological satisfaction which was gained then was absolutely dependent on it being the best means of production available. Now that you have invented more efficient methods, you cannot deliberately and consciously scrap them and go back to less productive methods, because in doing so you would destroy that psychological satisfaction, and your whole methods would degenerate to mere playacting…

Now one word as to the Distributist solution and the way in which it might come to pass as a reality. It is this way. If the whole of human civilisation as it is to-day, if the development of man’s control over Nature for the last 900 years was wiped out and the human race forgot how to produce by modern methods, if there came about what people call the return to the Dark Ages, then the Distributist system would be inevitable (doubtless the Dark Ages had their advantages), and you would get the return of the peasant and the craftsman. But the return to the Dark Ages after the cataclysm of society is the only practical way in which the Distributist system could come to pass. If you were to put history into reverse gear—which is really what the Distributists are trying to do—then you cannot stop until you reach the start again.

Then I would go on to see what is the Distributist objection to our solution. I think it is based partly on misunderstanding, and that is based on the word property; that the right to possess property is derived from Nature but not from man, but the State has a right not to absorb it altogether. It lumps these things together, but fails to distinguish between two utterly different kinds of private property. There is only one kind of private property to which the Communist objects, that is private property in the means of production.

There are two kinds of property in the capitalist world, the kind one is paid to possess and the other in which one is not paid to possess it. I drove to this meeting in a motorcar. No one pays me to possess it, on the contrary it is a considerable burden to me. No one pays you to wear clothes, and the same might be said of any of the consumers’ goods. But if I were to own 10,000 shares in Mr. Morris'—I beg his pardon—Lord Nuffield’s motor car Companies, then he and his co-Directors would be paying me most substantial sums for my property. There is property in the means of production, and that property carries an annual income with it. Where does it come from? There is not any doubt it comes from the workers. It is this second kind of property to which the Communist objects, and which he proposes to abolish. And he proposes to abolish private property in the means of production, precisely in order to vastly increase every kind of private property in consumers’ goods. But property in these means of production we mean to restore to the population as a whole collectively; when we come to consumers’ goods we believe in private individual property. This is commonly called Socialism, and means a definite set of economic relations, it abolishes the market, and makes for a reorganisation of the life of the community. If you break your class monopoly in the means of production, it means the entire breakup of that sys tem. Does mean State ownership? Certainly not, that is an entire misconception. The only existing example we know of where it has been done is the Soviet Union, and there you find many forms of ownership, all collective: some are owned by the State, some by municipalities or other equivalent to parliamentary councils, others by constituent bodies in autonomous regions, among public authorities, and—because of the simple form land and agricultural machinery are now almost completely owned by associates of collective farmers—what Marx called “free associations of producers brought together for collective purposes of production.” So you get a common form of ownership.

That then is Communism as we see it, in economic form, described as Socialism. It is the aim of Communism to establish Socialism.

I have spoken almost entirely in terms of dry economics because it did seem necessary to give my remarks in that frame. In particular, however, I would like to say one word as to what I believe to be in the minds of many Distributists—they think the social collectivist institution is incompatible with human individuality. I have not time to say more than to ask what is individual freedom. It is found in conscious reality and in whole-hearted service of the individual, in impersonal acts. Freedom can only be found on those lines. Two definitions—both alien to Father McNabb are these. One is best known to all from the Prayer Book: “Service is perfect freedom.” The other is from Engels: “Freedom is the knowledge of necessity.” I think if one thinks those two over—the first put in theological terms, and the other in scientific terms, one sees the scale of freedom, and that in the devotion and building up of a new form of society there may be found quite as much freedom as anywhere else.

Father McNabb, O.P.—I have an idea that this is somewhat of an historic meeting. I have been described as a tall old man, but I am not as tall as the young man I have the honour of discussing with to-night. I have said a hundred times that I who belong to the generation who are so quickly moving off the scene—never approach the younger ones as one who is so very much wiser, and tell them what to do. I approach rather as one who says not what to do, but appears as an apologist. I say we elders have left the world in a dreadful state, and it will take you all your time to put it to rights. Therefore tonight, following my Master Who washed the feet of those who were about to betray and deny Him, and following the lead of the Pastor of Westminster, who said we pastors of the flock would do well to examine our consciences, and would do well to kneel before the altar and say: We have sinned—I would kneel down and beg pardon of the younger generation, and say: We have sinned.

That gesture, Ladies and Gentleman, comes from a very sincere heart. What follows will come from a very clear head.

The difference between myself and my adversary is not just one of years, it is another and more fundamental one, and the clue to it is in that motor car. I am an old professional Communist and he is only an amateur. That speech was put on my lips by the late Mr. Sidney Webb—I beg pardon, I mean the present Lord Passfield. Many years ago we were having lunch together, and were discussing these things and I said to him: Of course I am a Socialist. He said: No, you are a Communist. I did not know whether I should have felt flattered, but he gave me something to think about.

And to-night I speak from the inside, because we o1d friars are the only real communistic cell in existence. I often tell my communist friends who are dreaming of Utopia, that when they wanted to set it up we were most interested in the way they went to work—they off to the capitalists. If you wanted to put up a cotton factory then you went to the cotton experts; if you wanted to get agricultural machinery it was the same; if you would set up a milk factory to supply milk three weeks old, you went off to some of the innumerable capitalist milk concerns to know how to do it. There was one thing necessary for a Communist Society, and that was Communism. We were the only experts, and you more or less shut us out.

And I know what you are saying: Well you haven’t done much to it. If that is the case after 700 years of devotion, we cannot expect much from your people. If with all that time we cannot make it a success, how are you going to make it one on a five years’ plan?

I am sure quite inadvertently the Debater has not faced it. Yet it was a distinct thesis, not distinctly on Communism because I have too much experience with the communism of the street corners to dare to suggest what is communism? I am not an academician. But I had the shock of my life up at Bethnal Green or one of those parts. I had been speaking on Communism and mentioned Russia: Communism in Russia, said someone; why that is Capitalism.

Who am I to decide?

Therefore I asked for a quite definite thesis, because I find that hardly two people can agree as to what it really is. There is so much of Stalin and Lenin, so many Trotskyites and Fascists that they have to be very careful. So that, as a friend of mine said to-day, about the most unhealthy place for Communists—especially intellectual ones——is Russia. So I was very careful not to discuss it until I found someone able to tell me what the term meant. Now it is quite distinct, it is the socialisation of the means of production. I have just had the most recent Soviet constitution, and that speaks also of the implements as well as the means of production. I don’t know if there is any difference.

But in the thesis it was that socialisation of these would prevent the exploitation of man by man. That has not been mentioned. There has been no argument showing that the socialisation of the means of production would prevent the exploitation of man by man. Because, if you discuss it historically, fortunate1y for debating purposes Communism has no past, and we have such a long past. You cannot bring argument from the future.

Then the word “exploitation”—the “tenderer word” as Sam Weller would call it—that “tenderer word” has never been mentioned. Has there been no exploitation in Russia, and more violent exploitation in point of fact professionally? As a Catholic priest I am bound to protect the poor. I am bound to protect my adversary under pain of sin. The Russian poor, for instance I am—in my 69th year, and I have never heard of so many people being put to death violently for their political opinions. So is there no exploitation? Even Mr. George Bernard Shaw, who is one of the recognized infallible mouthpieces of the age—he returned from Russia delighted with the idea that at last the majority of the people were governed by intellectuals, which is, I presume, a form of exploitation. As an old professor of Logic, I would not say of other systems—or even of the Communist system, that it prevented the exploitation of man by man, because I would never say of any system or great thing that it could not, as it were, get derailed, and that it was not open to abuse, the more it is open to abuse. Did you ever hear of oxygen dying a violent death? The inorganic cannot die. One of the arguments goes to show the superiority of the male over the female. The boy, it is said, is more difficult to bring up than the girl. Why? He is open to so many dangers.

If you tell me you have a state where it was quite impossible for one man to exploit another, I should say it must be wrong. I think it was unfortunate, from my adversary’s point of view to put down exploitation as a thesis, and then never make the slightest sound about it. If you have things organized on a military basis it is not sense to suggest there is no exploitation. Do Colonels never exploit men, or are the sergeants always equally considerate? Quite ridiculous! And mind you, if ownership is effective control and you have that, then I should feel inclined to say, even if Communism was perfect, that it would be specially likely to cause exploitation…I am speaking to the thesis, that if you had socialisation of the means of production you could not have exploitation of man by man. There has been no proof of that put forward, and I would like to know the proof.

I am very glad that my adversary has shown there are many points of agreement: that is the most valuable thing about this meeting to-night. He has described a state of things in existence, and I don’t think he has realised that this is put very much stronger in our official doctrine. I have read this out to meetings, and I have asked: “Who said this? And the answer has been: Karl Marx. I said: No—the Pope.

“The result of civil change and revolution has been to double society into two widely different castes. On the one side there is the party (I never know whether to put that with the sheep or the goats!) which holds power because it holds wealth, which has in the past grasped the whole of labour and trade, which manipulates for its own benefit and own purposes all the sources of supply, which is even represented in the councils of the State itself. And on the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, broken and suffering.”

Anyone who says that religion is opium for the people, what are they going to say to that? I call it blasting powder. And he rubs it in instead of rubbing it out!

“And the mischief has been increased by rapacious usury which has been more than once condemned by the Church, with like injustice (it is the injustice that is wrong), still practised by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals, so that a small number of rich men..”

That is dated 1891—46 years ago! And part of the spirit of that was dictated by a friend of Karl Marx, the late Bishop Ketteler—a Catholic bishop!

I am therefore saying that my courteous opponent has not attempted to prove the thesis. He has given us some excellent things, if I may be allowed to be facetious, largely derived from the Popes, so that we shall be like the old Synthetic Society—dissolved in love.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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