Beyond Capitalism & Socialism
A New Statement of an Old Ideal
By Tobias J. Lanz
IHS Press Copyright © 2008 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
A Distributist Remembers
There can be no precise definition of Distributism, for it is organic and cannot be reduced to a formula. Human life and its society are rich and varied: what is appropriate and fruitful for one race, for one culture, for one family, may well be quite unsuitable for another. It is nevertheless certain that this third "thing" beyond capitalism and socialism must be repeatedly articulated, and must be continuously pursued. In what follows, I offer my own brief thoughts on the subject as one who has merely helped, in past decades, to carry the torch that shines forth the light of the Distributist alternative to the bigness and tyranny of both sides of the political and economic spectrum.
Because we come into this world naked and helpless, and not as an individual, it is with the restoration of the family that we must make a beginning. Because of the menace of "P.C." (political coercion), and the several perversions currently forced upon our society, it would, I think, be wise to refer precisely to "the family under God." For during the past half century there has been a sustained and merciless attack upon family life, and our children have been increasingly taken from parental control. I write this a mere year after the politicians in Great Britain, who control our lives, decreed that a parent who smacks an unruly child risks being sent to prison - paving the way, of course, for the State to take over the "bereaved" child completely.
It is quite acceptable that I should be challenged on my own position and right to speak on this subject. My wife and I have seven children and nineteen grandchildren. As children grow to maturity, views of life change, and not always, it must be admitted, in ways parents would wish. But we, thank God, have remained close-knit and loving to a most satisfying degree.
Additionally, as a schoolmaster and head teacher, I was for many years in close contact with hundreds of youngsters, and in the past few years have had the joy of being traced and visited by people who had been in my educational care thirty, and in one case, over forty, years earlier. Therefore, I do claim to know a fair amount about young people and their hopes and aspirations. To grow, they need a warm, secure, and disciplined home life.
In firm contradiction to today's self-indulgent and irresponsible ideas, I affirm that children need both a father and a mother, bound by an unshakeable marriage. Again, I speak from experience because my own father died when I was only six years old. I was fortunate in being the youngest of seven children, and was warmly sheltered by the older ones. My wife lost her father when she was a little older. Let no one try to tell us we suffered no loss. In our cases, it was illness that robbed us of a loving parent; we can only guess at how much more agonizing it must be for those who have a parent desert them, often in search of sexual gratification elsewhere. I have several times been involved with families devastated by being callously discarded in this way.
Most emphatically, we must first restore the family and its values. After that, in natural progression, must come the family trade or craft, and the small organic family farm. Upon these must any sane and healthy society be built, and we must destroy the grotesque combines and cartels, many of which are strong enough to dictate to governments. It is clear they exist not to produce food or furniture, but profit. We all know the euphemism "diversification," which means that in pursuit of the money-god, they will readily switch from one field to others not remotely connected, providing there is money to be harvested.
So far I have dealt with the present position, but it would be well to look briefly at the past of the Distributist movement, of which I have the distinction (the reader may judge what kind of distinction it is!) of being one of the world's oldest active members. And then -much more importantly-we consider the future.
We cannot pinpoint the birth of Distributism as such, for it is as old as mankind and, apart from slavery, is the only stable and potentially permanent way of life. It is only the name itself, and the comparatively recent movement that adopted that name, which may be described as new. In large measure inspired by the Papal Encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (popularly known as the Workers' Charter), the movement was, in the early twentieth century, brought into being by such giants as Hilaire Belloc, Vincent McNabb, O.P., and G. K. Chesterton.
One of the problems was that they were not, particularly G. K. C., men familiar with land and farming, but this in no degree lessened the Tightness and sanity of their thought, firmly based on sound social philosophy and an understanding of the nature of man. Being writers and publicists, they were able to present a cogent and vivid case in various journals, notably the Eye Witness (later the New Witness, then G. K.'s Weekly, and, after G. K.'s death, The Weekly Review), and later, The Cross & the Plough, the organ of one of the English Catholic Land Movements.
There were also land settlements in Langenhoe, in Essex, in Northamptonshire, and the famous colony of artists at Ditchling, Sussex. Thoroughly practical men, with experience of the land, came on the scene, with an outstandingly important group in Warwickshire. And it was there that people who were unknown to fame or the public, but who were no less great men for that, planned the Birmingham Land Scheme to help unemployed and other poor families who wanted to work the soil, become established. The program was carefully thought out and costed, and could have had an enormously beneficial effect on Britain in the 1930s.
The government of the day, however, preferred people to be wage-slaves, with a waiting army of unemployed to discourage those in work from demanding a living wage. Knowing that from the start of any farming enterprise it will take at least two years before any return is made, it sank the Birmingham Land Scheme by the simple ruling that the moment the spade was offered to soil, the wielder was deemed to be in employment and, therefore, unemployment benefit ceased.
The struggle, then, was ever against enormous and dispiriting odds. I know that many of those who waged it, in the Distributist League and other groups, could very easily have become wealthy had they bent their energy and talents to the making of money. We must thank God that they did not.
Those who worked in the 1920s and early 1930s had, at least, the privilege of knowing Chesterton and the other giants, but when they departed - Chesterton died in 1936, McNabb in 1943, and Belloc, although he lived until 1953, had suffered a stroke in 1941, and had been inactive for a time before that - no laurels or rewards of any kind were on offer to those who persisted in the Distributist Cause. To my mind, the heroes of the movement were those who, in great adversity, carried on in the bleak times afterwards; from the middle 1930s through the war, when there was, humanly speaking, no hope at all. Perhaps they were sustained by those marvelous lines from the Ballad of the White Horse, when Mary, seen in a vision by the oft-defeated King Alfred, warns him:
I tell you not for comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
My own involvement did not start until the late 1940s, and I must once more intrude a personal note. Several Chestertonian journals and speakers have referred to me as having carried the torch alone in those later days. This was never the case, and it would be quite unjust to make such a claim. I was about the youngest of those who, in the late 1940's, started a Distributist group in Manchester, and so I have outlived almost all the rest. In 1951, after The Register had apparently ceased publication, and nothing had come of the circular that Hilary Pepler and Reginald Jebb had sent out sometime later holding out the prospect of a return to publication, I visited Pepler to inquire whether or not future numbers would be forthcoming. Since it did not seem that there would be another any time soon, I launched, in January 1953, with the help of my wife and my friend Peter Diffley, the second, tiny successor to The Weekly Review, calling it first The Defendant and later The Distributist. It contrived to survive, without paid advertising, for six years before a growing family being raised on a schoolmaster's salary made an end inevitable.
Earlier, I mentioned the compensations gained by earlier workers in the field having over them the reassuring shadows of great men, and the bleak and dispiriting period that followed. Those of us who today work for decency and social justice have an even greater reward, for at our meetings and conferences - with an ever increasing frequency and attendance - the revival of Chesterton and Distributism is well underway. For me, late in life, to meet and talk and correspond with numbers of young, intelligent people, enthusiastically taking over the work, is a benediction higher than can be put into words.
A Chesterton Centre has even been established in Sierra Leone, under the leadership of John Kanu, not as a literary society, but as a well-organized and determined means of helping farmers and craftsmen rebuild a decent society and way of life in a country which was for years ravaged by commercial and political corruption, largely, but not entirely, from outside. Now, one-time enemies are working together on a program of social and educational reform. The effort has support from the government and the Church, and I have just learned that a recent gathering included the National Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Civil Society Movement, the President of the Sierra Leone Farmers Association, and a good number of university students. At the close, it was featured in a radio broadcast, which included an interview with John Kanu.
When a people who have grievously suffered band together to restore their society, it is to be hoped and urged that more fortunate people will want to help. There can be few worthier and more constructive causes in their own right; the fact that it is done in the name of Chesterton and Distributism
is far from the essence, but to those of us who know how and for what G. K. C. and others have fought, his shadow over it is a blessing.
Things are now moving in the direction of sanity in many ways and in many places. A great deal of work is still to be done, but the outlook is better than it has been for very many years - providing that we stick at it with work and prayer.
* * *
"As far as the smallholder is concerned, Science has taken heavy payment for the service she may have rendered. She has given us mechanised farming which has made the continued existence of the smallholder more difficult by placing the apparatus of cultivation out of the reach of the man of small capital. She has reduced the production of that most healthful and soul-comforting oil, the sweat of the brow, which has hitherto been essential to farming and the simple life. She has increased the economic difficulties of the smallholder.
"But the call of the country is not easily stifled. It has a note of confidence and promise and the simple life is still possible. Its passing will not be in our generation."
— George C. Heseltine
I Fear No Peevish Master
The Romance of Distributism
It would be impossible to mention "Distributism" without mentioning the names of Chesterton and Belloc. Belloc's contribution to the body of ideas which became known by that name was cerebral, Chesterton's poetic. We might put it another way by saying that Belloc was a classicist and Chesterton a romantic. Nevertheless, the editing and financing of G. K.'s Weekly magazine fell, from its launching in 1923, upon Chesterton's broad shoulders. The value of that journal is not to be underrated. It influenced the thinking of a number of members of Parliament ranging from High Tories like Anthony Fell to honest Labor men like Simon Mahon. Perhaps the greatest success of G. K.'s Weekly was the exposure of the Mond-Turner plot to govern Great Britain by a cabal of bankers, industrialists, and trades-union bosses, and reduce Parliament to a committee that receives reports. A House of Commons alerted by G. K.'s Weekly defeated the plot.
After Chesterton's death in 1936, his paper became The Weekly Review and continued publication until 1948. Assigned to "expose" the "clandestine fascists" who published that paper, Douglas Hyde, the news editor of the Communist Daily Worker, was converted by The Weekly Review to both Catholicism and Distributism. Distributism also played a part in the conversion of Hamish Fraser, a member of the Communist Party's National Executive and a former commissar of the International Brigade in Spain.
Hyde's conversion in 1948 was headline news in the daily press in Great Britain. His subsequent book, I Believed, and his nationwide speaking tour was not only a blow to Communist advance, but gave Distributism a new lease of life. Asked at one lecture, so the story goes, what his politics were now, he held up copies of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and said, "These are my politics." The conversion, in 1952, of Hamish Fraser had a similar effect. Fraser became an enthusiastic follower of Chesterton, co-operated in founding "The Anglo-Gaelic Civic Association," and edited Approaches, a small but influential journal, in defense of orthodox Catholic social teaching.
In 1948 The Weekly Review became a monthly, called, in reminiscence of William Cobbett, The Register. When that too folded, Aidan Mackey bravely launched a little monthly, first called The Defendant and later The Distributist. It became a quarterly in 1957 and ceased publication in 1960. It seemed then that Distributism had at long last been carted off to the bone yard of history.
Except for one thing. In 1954 a small group of Liverpool subscribers to The Distributist launched a duplicated magazine called Platform. They even took their Distributism to the polls, contesting seats for the Liverpool City Council. In January 1960, after the folding of The Distributist, Platform became The Liverpool Newsletter and has been published continuously ever since. In 1981 as editor of the Liverpool Newsletter I received a request from a new journal, National Consciousness, enquiring what exactly was this Distributism that the Newsletter was always banging on about? The result was a series of articles by myself, in that magazine, and in 1987 I was invited to contribute an article to the now defunct Vanguard, a magazine that dealt with Distributist ideas from time to time. These articles sowed the seeds of the rebirth of Distributism that we see today. That, then, is the narrative history of the few organs to date that carried an explicitly Distributist masthead: a tale soon told, which looks forward to a brave sequel.
However, Distributism is not just a series of events; it is an idea. The history of ideas is always complex; the history of this one goes well beyond the chronicle of explicitly Distributist journalism. The first thing to understand is that the idea of Distributism existed long before the word was invented. As S. Sagar, an active member of the Distributist League in pre-war days, and contributor to G. K.'s Weekly says:
The immediate point here, however, is that it seemed such a normal thing that men did not think of naming it until it had been destroyed. Even then only a few men saw it so clearly as to think it worthy of a particular name.
We might claim that the first Distributist was Aristotle. Rejecting the communism of Plato's Republic, he argues in his Politics that:
For while property should up to a point be held in common, the general principle should be that of private ownership - "all things common among friends" the saying goes. (Continues...)
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