THE ORIGINS OF DISTRIBUTISM
By GEOFREY FLEETWOOD
IN THE PAST ten years there has burgeoned a whole set of ideas which might be summed up in the two words "Green Politics". These ideas are not new, and in their re-vamped presentation by the "ecologists" are spiked with scientism, socialism and food-faddism.
What is sound and true in Green Politics has its origins in a book published in the early Seventies, Small Is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher. The book in fact began as an essay entitled Chestertonian Economics - Chesterton's economics were Distributism.
Distributism was the result of the coalescence of several elements - Catholic, artistic, literary and the Romantic Revival. The chief Catholic contribution was the Encyclical Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII. It examined both Capitalism and Socialism and rejected them. Instead it held up the ideal of a Proprietory Society.
"We have seen that this great labour question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable . . . If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty can be bridged and the respective classes will be brought nearer to each other. 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 . . . 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 happy life."
Rerum Novarum put into formal language what many felt in their hearts, and the heart of Distributism is to be found in a cultural movement which was both widespread and potent. It began with the reaction to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions led by William Cobbett in books, pamphlets and his weekly Register. Contemporary with Cobbett's attack in the social field was the onslaught of Romanticism in the artistic and literary fields against the self-styled "Enlightenment" which had determined the form of industrialisation. The re-discovery of the Medieval achievement resulted in a hostility toward the Renaissance - Ruskin wrote of "The pure poison of Raphael" - and it was this antagonism which produced one of the most important cultural movements of the Nineteenth century - Pre-Raphaelitism.
Pre-Raphaelitism gave rise to the first action which could be described as "Distributist". Ruskin withdrew to the Lakes to form the "Gild of St. George," which sought to preserve crafts and proprietorship and which culminated at the turn of the century in the launching of the New Age and Gild Socialism by A.R. Orage. The catalyst which brought all these elements, religious, literary, social and cultural together as 'Distributism' was the partnership of two men of genius, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc's chief contribution to Distributism was that he presented the case in the economists' own terms. The great disputes of history are unresolved because they are conducted on different planes; linguistically protagonist and antagonist never meet; they by-pass each other. Belloc forced the enemy to give battle. In The Servile State and the Essay On Distributism, he took the terminology of classical Economics and built from it a logical case for Distributism as the foundation of freedom.
"we do not restore the Institution of Property, we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course."
Belloc's view may be summarized as follows:
- The social objective must be to ensure distribution among a majority of the families of the Nation of ownership of productive property.
- Law and custom must defend small property against acquisitive wealth.
- The making of things is not simply an 'economic' activity as Marxists and Capitalists maintain, but a human activity, the extension of the personality of the maker, whose integrity is expressed in skill.
- That men are socialised by their National community into their human identity, and both Imperialism and Inter-nationalism are pathogenic to the Nation.
G.K. Chesterton was educated at the Slade in the after-glow of Pre-Raphaelitism. Belloc was a classicist, his Augustan prose restoring the purity of English diction. Chesterton belonged to the High-Romance. Belloc had served as an artillery man in the French Army; his books and essays laid down a withering barrage on the enemy positions which the light cavalry of Chesterton's wit finished off. Their partnership began on The Eyewitness founded by G.K.'s brother Cecil, which exposed the Marconi affair and which was Pro-Boer, not because, like the Liberals, the "Chesterbelloc" thought war was always wrong, but because they maintained that the Boers were right to fight for their little farmer-Republics against International Finance and the Gold Interest.
Whilst Belloc presented the case for Distributism in closely argued monographs - The Servile State, The Party System, The Free Press etc., Chesterton presented it in fantastic fiction - Tales Of The Long Bow, The Return Of Don Quixote, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and The Man Who Was Thursday.
The latter parodies the busy-body state with the supreme council of the Anarchists - 'The Council Of Seven' - composed entirely of Secret Service infiltrators who all spy on each other. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton presents the case for political distributism - the smaller the genuine political unit the nearer we are to self-determination of the individual.
As the ideas labelled "Distributism" clarified, the title of The Eyewitness was changed to The New Witness which continued publication until the post-1918 period. However during that great genetic tragedy Cecil Chesterton fell. He was the businessman of the group and without him the paper failed.
Chesterton and Belloc continued to expound their ideas in Orage's New Age and it was in this journal that Distributism and Social Credit first met. The New Statesman was launched by the Fabians to drive The New Age to the wall, and in this it succeeded. Chesterton therefore determined to launch his own paper and movement and G.K.'s Weekly and the Distributist League were formed.
Chesterton's untimely death in 1936 brought G.K.'s Weekly to an end, but the League continued throughout the 1939-45 war, publishing The Weekly Review. In the after-war period newspapers failed one by one, and the weekly paper was replaced first by a monthly called The Register and then by a quarterly The Distributist which finally folded in 1958.
In 1953 however, G.K.'s cousin, A.K. Chesterton, the founder of the National Front, had launched Candour which among other interests continued to keep the flag flying for Distributism, and which is still published.
The low and dishonest decade of the 'Sixties with its strange mixture of Marxist superstition and inane consumerism had no time for the ideas Distributism advocated. The anti-heroes of Lucky Jim and Room At The Top who slithered all over the carcass of Britain, once Great, could expect no percentage from ideals, and met them with blank incomprehension.
Yet somehow the thing itself had been absorbed into the National Consciousness, to spring to new life in the 'Eighties, catalysed by Schumacher's book. The significance of Distributism is the vision of freedom and dignity based upon proprietorship which it held before a century rushing to ruin.
That vision can be the reality of tomorrow. All that is necessary is that men desire it.