[Editor's Note: We at the Mandate are proud to present "Developing the Distributist Program," a chapter from Jay P. Corrin's monumental work, "G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity." This book is out of print, however we heartily recommend our readers find and purchase a used copy. Dr. Corrin's exposé of the history and philosophy of the early Distributists is unmatched. Our gratitude to him for his kind permission to reprint this chapter.]
by Jay P. Corrin
Even more important for G.K.’s Weekly than the practice of politics was the popularization of Distributist social and economic principles. It was for this purpose that both the paper and the Distributist League were founded. Since the particular details of the Distributist state had been outlined only vaguely in the earlier writings of the Chesterbelloc, G.K.’s Weekly and the League took up the task of completing their definition. Chesterton hoped that his journal could serve as a frank and open debating forum for the discussion both of what Distributism should be and how it might be put into practice.
Distributists did not agree completely on what issues should take priority in their general attack on modern industrialism, nor were they always in agreement as to the exact methods needed to implement the social and economic ideas of the Chesterbelloc. One major group, headed by the leaders of the Birmingham branch (Harold Robbins and G.C. Heseltine), felt that Distributists should spearhead a full-scale return to an agricultural village-based economy. Eric Gill was mainly concerned with restructuring Britain’s monetary system as the first step towards Distributist reform. McNabb and Penty led the anti-machine forces, arguing that civilization could be saved by Distributism only if man totally abandoned machinery. Chesterton, for his part, acted as the referee for these competing groups, publicly encouraging their debates in the pages of G.K.’s Weekly.
On the most general terms, all Distributists agreed that the Chesterbelloc ideal included more than a mere redistribution of wealth and private ownership. In the words Herbert Shove, Distributism was the golden road back to something greater than property: it was a return to “the philosophy of balance.” Distributists intended to create a new world in which men could find the proper balance between the needs of the heart and the mind. It was “intellectual freedom” that would matter most, and in order to express their intellect men would require private property. G.C. Heseltine (secretary of the Birmingham branch, author of numerous book on agriculture, and himself a successful smallholder in Yorkshire) described Distributism for the Catholic World as simply a makeshift title for a comprehensive social philosophy which its advocates would define in terms of the problems of the hour. The chief function of the movement, Heseltine optimistically added, was to serve as “a seed-bed” for the future leaders of civilization. It was also generally agreed that Distributism was a doctrine aimed at the utter destruction of capitalism. Harold Robbins insisted that the movement intended to destroy the millionaire, mass production, and to some extent, industrialism.
The officials of the Birmingham branch, along with Vincent McNabb, published numerous essays and books on the importance of revitalizing the agricultural sector of Britain’s economy. In particular, these Distributists championed the restoration of small-holdings. Heseltine, for example, insisted that food could be produced more economically on small, privately owned plots of land. McNabb also supported the principle of smallholdings, but adopted the more controversial position of arguing that the major problems of agricultural production could be mitigated by avoiding the use of machinery completely. While admitting that machines led to greater output, he insisted that high-yield mechanized required large, complex transportation systems and raised the cost of distribution. Thus, he felt that agriculture was economically most efficient when the area of production was identical with the area of consumption.
McNabb believed that farming had been totally ruined in England because the rural areas had been turned in to a virtual agricultural factory. According to this argument, Britain was moving through a self-perpetuating cycle of money-grubbing and moral decay because of her reliance on machine mass production. McNabb, who believed in village self-sufficiency, steadfastly opposed the mechanization of agriculture because he felt that machines would force the farmer to produce for money and the market economy and not for consumption. He believed that this would develop into a vicious cycle, since the market factor served as an incentive for the introduction of more machinery and bigger farms, which would have the effect of displacing families and dispersing them to the cities. In order to subsist in the capitalists’ world, the land-worker had to obtain money by selling his produce in a market. The more he produced, the farther he would be required to send his produce. Such circumstances, argued McNabb, robbed the farmer of his liberty of action: it delivered him over to the machinations of the market, the transportation network that served it, and the financier who provided the credit to buy and work the land until the harvest could be sold and paid for.
Nearly all the Distributists tended to be anti-urban, because they felt the city was too far removed from the lifeblood of the soil. It was believed that city life could enslave the worker to the routine of capitalism by making him too dependent on “modern conveniences” and the security of a regular wage. Yet, unlike McNabb, most of the Distributists interested in agriculture did not agitate for the elimination of machine production; instead they devoted most of their efforts to the more practical task of trying to convince the government to provide more assistance to the small independent farmer. In accordance with their essential beliefs that land was the source of real wealth, and that for the exercise of freedom man should own the soil on which he worked, they also asserted that the majority of men should at all times till the land: the Distributist state rested on peasant proprietorship.
Most Leaguers did support McNabb’s proposals for decentralizing the agricultural sector of Britain’s economy. Heseltine, for example, recommended an agricultural system of individually owned “mixed farms,” where workers in certain specified areas would be supplied with all the fertilizers, machinery, and transport necessary for meeting the consumption needs of a local market.
Yet, even while formulating the broad outlines of this new state, most Distributists did not insist that all men would have to practice farming or hand craftsmanship. H.E. Humphries, author of League’s first textbook, Liberty and Property (1928), wrote that Distributists were not fanatics:
If a man wants to do things by machinery, or work in a factory, he will do so. Some people like hand-made goods, others are indifferent…Those who do not want the responsibility of property and like to rely on a master, will work for a wage on the farm or in the workshop. Our conception of a civilized state is one in which men will want responsibility, and the exercise of their own wills in the control of their own business…The essential is liberty, and when there is the variety…liberty is as completely established as is possible in economic affairs.
Variation in the methods of economic organization and production and the coexistence of a large number of independent companies within each industry were considered important for preserving economic independence within the Distributist state. According to Humphries, it was the idea and practice of ownership that was important, not the form it might take.
Athens: Ohio University Press, ©1981