Friday, October 03, 2008

Harold Robbins

[Editor's Note: The following biography was prepared by IHS Press for the publication of the book, Flee to the Fields. Please remember how important this publisher is for the new Distributist movement. Show them your support and make your next purchase through IHS Press.]

A Distributist, Catholic land movement activist, journalist, and editor, Harold Robbins (1888-1954) was born in Birmingham to a Protestant family, and converted to Catholicism in the early 1900s, after briefly declaring himself a socialist, as many non-Catholic social thinkers did who were attempting to find a way to distance themselves from the prevailing Manchester liberalism. His conversion is most likely due to, among other things, his having discovered the two most prominent English Catholic writers of his time – Belloc and Chesterton – and their appealing critique of both socialism, about which he was having doubts, and capitalism.

Robbins jumped into the Distributist movement early, attempting unsuccessfully to write for the two weeklies then espousing it, the Eye Witness and its successor the New Witness. After military service in the first world war he became involved in the “New Witness League,” founded in 1918 around the weekly for opposing corruption in politics. Robbins was made Chairman of the Birmingham branch, the most active branch of the league. The group’s work focused ideologically on Distributism and the opposition to the eugenicist policies then being pursued by the British Ministry of Health. Some of Robbins’s thinking on this topic is found in his An Examination of Eugenics (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, Ltd., 1930). In the spring of 1921 the league wound up its activities, and two years later the paper of the same name ceased publication.

In 1925 those collaborating on the New Witness gathered around a new paper, G.K.’s Weekly (to which Robbins contributed), begun in order to “promote and ensure the discussion of the real economic forces of the age under their real names,” as Chesterton put it. Partly as a natural outgrowth and partly due to its financial straits (which it was in until the demise of its founder in 1936), and the need for subscribers, a league was also formed around this weekly, “for the restoration of liberty by the distribution of property”; or, the Distributist League. Robbins led, as Chairman, the Birmingham Branch of the league from 1926 to 1933, the most active and aggressive branch among some two dozen extant around 1927. He was chiefly instrumental in founding, with Msgr. James Dey, Rector of Oscott College and later Ordinary to the British Armed Forces, the Midlands Catholic Land Association; Robbins was its Honorary Secretary during the years that it was active, 1931 to 1936. This effort translated into practice what Robbins felt was somewhat of an overemphasis on mere talk: it was, he said, a “working model of practical distributism.” He also edited the journal of the Catholic Land Associations of England and Wales, The Cross and the Plough, from 1934 to 1946, published by the Catholic Land Federation of England and Wales.

He co-authored with K. L. Kenrick in 1928 what came to be known as “the Birmingham Scheme,” a pamphlet entitled Unemployment: A Distributist Solution; his friendship with Kenrick, who was the other chief mover of the Birmingham branch of the league, spanned many years. Kenrick called Robbins the “real power house” of the movement in their area. In 1946 he wrote a short biography of GKC – and also a history of Distributist activism from 1920 to 1940 – dedicated to Kenrick and entitled The Last of the Realists, though it was not published until 1948, and then only serialized in The Cross and the Plough because of wartime restrictions on paper.

Robbins’s short but powerful magnum opus was published in 1938 as The Sun of Justice: An Essay on the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church; he expressed its thesis thus: “Social Justice is crucial to the future of the Faith. There are many ways to the Faith, but it is certain that the concept of Our Lord as the Sun of Justice is not only valid, but is the only way by which our disillusioned and despairing world will return to Him” (pp. 10–11). Dorothy Day (1897–1980) noted in a 1954 issue of her paper, The Catholic Worker, that Robbins’s Sun of Justice “contains the best thinking ever done on Distributism.”

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