Distributism by DeBoer-Langworth, Carol

Now almost forgotten, Distributism was a composite of several social and moral theories first articulated by Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) in the pages of volume 2 of The New Age. The initial concepts arose from the four-way (and more) argument among H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Belloc and Chesterton over modernity that began with Belloc’s “Thoughts on Modern Thought” (02:108). Although probably initially stage-managed by Orage, the debate became a messy, two-year-long wrangle that engaged many readers until the discussion petered out in 1909.

That discussion, now known as “the Chesterbelloc” contoversy, helped Belloc and Chesterton develop a rationale for equitable distribution of property and restoration of worker control in commerce, agriculture, and industry. This cluster of ideas, soon called “Distributism,” was based on the two men’s look back, to European history, as well as their concerns about the present and the future of mass industrial society. Their ideas were not especially daring or innovative, but rather were built on what they felt had worked in the past. Calling for a return to the Christian social conscience, Distributism warned against the trend toward dehumanizing state control of society and for the efficacy of the self-contained organic community.

This restoration of society to a human, organic scale was to be accomplished through a return to a social system not unlike medieval guilds — small units organized according to natural economic classes and productive functions. The idea was to create a balanced or mixed economy of independent farmers and small industries owned and operated by the workers themselves, thus creating a sort of peasant-worker state. The Roman Catholic Church was to provide whatever federal and international control might be needed. Independent, small farming was to be the backbone of this society based on decentralized control, self-sufficiency, and rural reconstruction.

This new/old society was definitely not to be imperialist. Things were to be decided by the people in small groups, negotiated by personal interaction. Anarchism’s belief in no coercion of cooperation was a major tenet, and the Distributist ideal was not far from that described by Kropotkin. Distributism was anti-Utopian and did not offer a blueprint, as would have H. G. Wells or the Fabians, gladly, for a future society. Belloc and Chesterton refused to be tied down to specific proposals, believing that any social outcome needed to come from individual human desire and conditions, rather than from planning imposed from above.

Distributism claimed to be much more than a political theory; it was a philosophy or way of life firmly founded on religious principles. Belloc, born in France, was a life-long Roman Catholic and Chesterton became one in 1922. Chesterton in particular sought to retrieve the sanctity of human relationships through articulating a form of Thomism that sought to reintegrate the individual into a corporate state. The key to this was the family and private property — but not too much property.

Distributism critiqued both socialism and capitalism. Capitalism was called a denial of property because capitalism denied its limits. Communism was termed the unnatural child of this mother, capitalism, and was predicted to eventually consume its parent. It has been called the forerunner of the “Third Way” approach now being touted as the ideal mixed economy for the 21st century. Some thinkers argue that the Chesterbelloc’s critique of collectivism has more credence for post-industrial rather than industrial society.

Initial Distributist ideas were touted by Cecil Chesterton, W.R. Titterton, and G.K. Chesterton in the Everyman. Other early proponents of Distributist thought were A. R. Orage, A. J. Penty, S. G. Hobson, Maurice Reckitt, Father Vincent McNabb, Commander Herbert Shove, Eric Gill, Sir Henry Slesser, and Ada Jones Chesterton. Their ideas were often anti-imperial, anti-elite, anti-Utopian, and anti-machine (at least for some Distributists; not all). Distributionists were for balance — in the distribution of property (the basis of wealth, they believed), in family life, and in the human scale of organizations. Distributism was not very compatible with the women’s suffrage movement of the time, perhaps because it failed to explore adequately the role of women in the much-lauded family unit. Chesterton attempted in his works to give credit and honor to women’s domestic labor, but perhaps that did not solve the financial problems of poor families already “divorced” from the land.

Distributist theory contributed heavily to Orage’s enthusiasm for guild socialism in The New Age from 1911-1919. Belloc’s book, The Servile State (1912), was an important force behind this enthusiasm, along with his An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936). S.G. Hobson promoted guild socialism in an unsigned series in The New Age, as a synthesis of political socialism and industrial syndicalism. But Distributism drew upon a range of attitudes and ideas, including Chartism, Burkean organicism, French revolutionary thought, socialism, anarchism, populism, and liberalism. As James Corrin wrote, the social philosophy of Chesterton and Belloc “was a peculiar hybrid of both radical and conservative ideas”(Corrin, 208).

Just one of those ideas was the back-to-the-land movement, of which Distributism was the major impetus. This resulted in the Catholic Rural Life Movement of America, the Antigonish movement in Canada, the Southern Agrarian movement in the U.S. South (which affected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s planning of the New Deal), and the Rural Reconstruction Association as well as other land reform movements in England.

In 1911 Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc founded the Eye-Witness as a vehicle for their ideas. Renamed the New Witness in 1912 and edited by Cecil Chesterton, this paper exposed the Marconi scandal in 1912 and got Cecil a conviction for libel. G. K. Chesterton took over its editorship in 1916 when Cecil went to World War I, and continued it after Cecil’s death, until 1923. In 1925 the paper was reconstituted as G. K.’s Weekly, to be a platform for his Distributist ideas.

In 1926, the Distributist League was founded, mainly in order to help the G. K. Weekly’s finances (Sewell, 141). The Distributist League had two objectives:

  • preservation of property, in order that the liberty of the individual and family could be independent of oppressive systems,
  • and better distribution of capital by individual ownership of the means and instruments of production, which was the only way to preserve private property (Corrin 108-9).

But its real goal, admitted Chesterton, was propaganda. By 1928, the League had something over 2,000 members — its peak of membership. The first large-scale Distributist public meeting was a Bernard Shaw-Chesterton debate chaired by Belloc, held in Kingsway Hall that year and broadcast live by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It resulted in a near-riot (Sewell 141).

Hilaire Belloc himself articulated a major criticism of Distributism in 1929. According to Duff Cooper’s autobiography, the morning after an evening’s campaigning on Cooper’s behalf, Hilare Belloc:

[…] was sitting in the club next morning over a glass of beer when an enthusiastic young man was shown in who wanted the honour of a word with him. The young man explained that he was a fervent supporter of the principle of distributism, the political theory for which Chesterton and Belloc were supposed to stand and which advocated the small ownership of the national wealth. Belloc said he was glad to be assured of the young man’s support, and added that so far as he could see there was only one difficulty in the way of his policy being adopted.

“What is that?” eagerly asked the young man, anxious to learn.

“It is,” answered Belloc, “like trying to force the water at Niagara to go up instead of coming down.” The young man went away sorrowful. (Cooper 166)

Over time, the Distributist League took up a number of issues and positions. In 1930, it withdrew its support of the trade union movement and turned, shortly thereafter, to monarchism. In 1931, the Distributist League began publishing its own newsletter, The Distributionist, as G. K.’s Weekly could no longer keep up with the heavy editorial traffic. As Distributism looked to the past for a model of a simpler, kinder, gentler world, it began to focus on what it saw as the abuses of international finance in causing wars, famine, and disruption in social relations. Steeped in European cultural and religious attitudes as they were, it was not a big step for some Distributists to believe in a conspiracy of international Jewish finance responsible for the social chaos caused by both capitalism and socialism. Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot and Ezra Pound were among those who succumbed to this viewpoint at various times.

By August 1935, Chesterton wrote that, as things now stood, he personally was willing to look into fascism because parliamentary government seemed to have failed the common man. Especially after Chesterton’s death in 1936, the Distributist movement seemed to spin out of control. That year, Belloc took over as editor of the successor magazine, the Weekly Review, and the journal and organization declared themselves more sanguine about dictatorship as an expedient against international communism.

Also in 1936, Belloc became president of the League, with T. S. Eliot, Eric Gill, and Ada Jones Chesterton as vice presidents. Without Chesterton as a calming influence, the organization began to drift toward the ideas of the British Union of Fascists, in response to what it saw as a threat of worldwide communism. This monomania drove away many initial supporters. Perhaps the last break with its early origins came when the Weekly Review advocated British imperialism. At the outbreak of World War II, 1940, the Distributist League was disbanded. A new organization was formed in March 1947, but it lasted only a few years. Finally it was apparent that the 20th-century’s move toward large organizations and mass culture was inexorable.

Wilfred Sheed has written that, regardless of any embarrassment they may have brought to the Catholic community, “there can be little doubt that Chesterton, Belloc, and the Distributist circle shattered the intellectual inferiority complex of British Catholics” (Corrin 171).

Distributism constituted a revolutionary response to the conformity of the modern industrial age by its critique of a collectivist-plutocratic state. The mainspring of the neo-Thomist revival in Catholic intellectual circles, it profoundly affected a generation of Roman Catholic writers in England as well as many North American thinkers: Dorothy Day, Robert Coles, and Marshall McLuhan, among others. In her 1943 biography of Chesterton, Maisie Ward lists movements in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sri Lanka that were directly inspired by Distributism.

Works Consulted and Cited

  • Canovan, Margaret.G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist. New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Cooper, Duff. Old Men Forget: The Autobiography of Duff Cooper (Viscount Norwich). London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953.
  • Corrin, Jay P. G. K. Chesterton & Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity. Athens & London: Ohio University Press, 1991.
  • Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
  • Hattersley, Roy. “In Search of the Third Way,”Granta 71:229-255.
  • Sewell, Brocard. “Devereux Nights: A Distributist Memoir”, in Sullivan, John, ed. G. K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1974.
  • Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. London/New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943.
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