Monday, August 1, 2016

G.K. Chesterton v. Modernism and Socialism

We’ve been reading Edward R. Pease’s The History of the Fabian Society (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1963, revised in 1926 from the 1916 first edition, with comments and editing by George Bernard Shaw, a long time member of the Fabian Society), an organization to which G.K. Chesterton and his brother Cecil once belonged.  That is, to which they belonged until they saw the light and shook its dust from their sandals.
George Bernard Shaw
This was something for which George Bernard Shaw never forgave the Chestertons, disagreeing on virtually everything and although remaining on more or less friendly terms.  Arthur Penty, a former fellow Fabian, also remained on somewhat friendly terms, at least until he became a Fascist and supported Mussolini.
Chesterton contributed a foreword to one of Penty’s books that is remarkable for being one of the few things he wrote that managed not to say anything substantive, e.g., Chesterton commented that Penty’s book raised important and interesting questions . . . and said absolutely nothing about whether the solutions were worth the sacrifice of so much paper and ink . . . or the readers’ two-and-six (that's "two-shillings-sixpence" for those of you not in the know).
Alfred Richard Orage
Penty was the mentor of Alfred Richard Orage, editor of New Age magazine, a publication rather heavy on “esoteric” philosophy and, of course, Fabian socialism.  Penty (or Orage, depending on which source you believe) was also the founder of “Guild Socialism” that split off from the rest of the Fabians in protest over alleged lack of socialist purity among the Fabians (pp. 230, 254-255) because the Fabians accepted all forms of socialism, and even Catholics who were willing to surrender certain outdated principles of Church doctrine, such as natural law and the importance of eternal life over that of this world.  Guild socialism itself later fragmented into factions, one of which became “social credit,” a proposal by Major Douglas, and even though the Fabian Society kept the door open for their return — as they did for H.G. Wells, who stalked off in a huff (or a minute and a huff . . . sorry) over a disagreement over the best way to achieve socialism.
Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc
The issue over which Wells broke with the Fabians was whether it was better to turn people into socialists (Wells’s position), or just get socialist programs accepted without necessarily calling it socialism (the official policy of the Society).  The Fabians eventually won — or at least claimed victory — as a result of the Labour Party adopting their program and helping create the modern Welfare State. 

The fascinating thing about The History of the Fabian Society is the frequency with which familiar names and concepts keep popping up.  For example, we came across passages that confirmed what we had always suspected: Hilaire Belloc (like Chesterton, a disgusted former Fabian) wrote The Servile State in 1912 specifically to counter the Fabian proposal of mandatory full employment and State control of the economy (pp. 229-230).  Belloc and Chesterton came up with distributism — which the Fabians misnamed “distributivism” for some reason (possibly a typo or error that resulted from not really examining the proposals) — as an alternative to Fabian socialism (pp. 254-255).
Pease’s book opens with an anecdote about the founding of the Fabian Society.  He and another member of the Fellowship of the New Life (a materialist offshoot of theosophy that sought to attain perfection in this life) were investigating an alleged haunted house with an eye toward debunking the idea that life continues after death.  Being bored, Pease introduced his friend to the agrarian socialism of Henry George, whose book, Progress and Poverty, had recently come out.
Edward R. Pease
Fascinated by the idea that socialism could be achieved without violent revolution (just the coercive power of the State), they expanded George’s idea that all income from land should be taken as a “single tax” to all forms of capital, so that all income belongs to everybody, and the State ensures that everyone has enough.  They gathered together some like-minded others, such as Annie Besant.  Annie Besant later took over as head of the Theosophical Society from Madame Blavatsky, and temporarily left the Fabians to concentrate on “esoteric philosophy,” e.g., Ouija boards, spirit writing, crystal balls, etc.
Interestingly, G.B. Shaw continued to assert to the end that neither Belloc nor Chesterton really knew what socialism is, and that distributism and Fabian socialism are really the same thing.  The Chesterbelloc, of course, disagreed.  They rejected the idea that any form of socialism/modernism/New Age thought and distributism were in any way compatible or even similar, regardless how many definitions were changed or mushy thinking inserted.  As Chesterton once remarked (obviously referencing the work of sociologist Émile Durkheim, the founder of solidarism-with-a-fascist-socialist-twist, a big influence on the modernists, whose work was corrected by Father Heinrich Pesch by giving solidarism a Thomist basis and overturning much of Durkheim's work), possibly in response to Shaw’s continued insistence that Chesterton just didn’t know what he was talking about or understand him,
“[A]pparently anything can be called Socialism, . . . If it means anything, it seems to mean Modernism; in the sociological as distinct from the theological sense. In both senses, it is generally a euphemism for muddle-headedness.” (G.K. Chesterton, “There Was a Socialist,” G.K.’s Weekly, May 10, 1930.)
Richard H. Tawney
One interesting factoid is the reference to R.H. Tawney, author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), as the greatest socialist economist among the Fabians, and the one doing the most work to revive the flagging interest in the Society’s programs.  Tawney served on the Fabian Executive Committee (its governing board) from 1920 (some sources say 1921, but Pease said 1920) to 1933.
Another fascinating fact is that E.F. Schumacher, whose books Small Is Beautiful (1973) (billed as the “The Classic Book on New Age Economics”), and A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) are held in great esteem by today’s distributists and Chestertonians, was a member of the Fabian Society, and wrote a number of tracts for them.  Schumacher was a protégé of John Maynard Keynes, alleged to be a secret member of the Fabian Society, although the evidence presented for this is not very convincing.  (If Keynes was a secret member, it’s still a secret.)
Delving into the programs advocated by the Fabians, and their remarkable efforts to reach out to people of all faiths and philosophies — as long as they bought into the Fabian variety of socialism — one is struck by the dissimilarity of yesterday’s distributism and Fabian socialism, and the similarity of the two today.  It becomes easier to understand just why Pope Pius XI might have been so worried about all forms of socialism, not just those deemed “bad” socialism by the adherents of presumably “good” socialism.  As he said in his landmark encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931),
117. But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.
Pope Pius XI
118. For, according to Christian teaching, man, endowed with a social nature, is placed on this earth so that by leading a life in society and under an authority ordained of God he may fully cultivate and develop all his faculties unto the praise and glory of his Creator; and that by faithfully fulfilling the duties of his craft or other calling he may obtain for himself temporal and at the same time eternal happiness. Socialism, on the other hand, wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone.
119. Because of the fact that goods are produced more efficiently by a suitable division of labor than by the scattered efforts of individuals, socialists infer that economic activity, only the material ends of which enter into their thinking, ought of necessity to be carried on socially. Because of this necessity, they hold that men are obliged, with respect to the producing of goods, to surrender and subject themselves entirely to society. Indeed, possession of the greatest possible supply of things that serve the advantages of this life is considered of such great importance that the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a secondary place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods. This damage to human dignity, undergone in the “socialized” process of production, will be easily offset, they say, by the abundance of socially produced goods which will pour out in profusion to individuals to be used freely at their pleasure for comforts and cultural development. Society, therefore, as Socialism conceives it, can on the one hand neither exist nor be thought of without an obviously excessive use of force; on the other hand, it fosters a liberty no less false, since there is no place in it for true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God alone, the Creator and last end of all things.
120. If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.
Good socialism?  Bad socialism?
As the Fabians themselves insisted, just socialism.

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