Every once in a while those of us who promote what we call the Just Third Way of Economic Personalism are asked whether what we’re talking about is compatible with “distributism.” The quick and easy answer is, “That depends on what you mean by distributism.” Frankly, quite a few people see no difference between distributism and Fabian, democratic, or Christian socialism.
|G.K. Chesterton (as if you didn't know)|
That’s why we can’t answer the question as to whether the Just Third Way of Economic Personalism is compatible with distributism until we know whether distributism is a form of socialism. If we go by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, considered to be one of the founders of distributism, no, distributism is not socialism. If we believe George Bernard Shaw, it most certainly is, and you’d better get on the bandwagon as fast as you can.
So, are we to believe Chesterton or Shaw?
As a starting point, we can take the ongoing — and never resolved — dispute between Shaw and Chesterton, yea, even unto their final debate on October 29, 1927. For twenty years or so, Shaw insisted that 1) Chesterton had no idea what socialism is, even when he was himself a socialist, and 2) what Chesterton meant by distributism is what he (Shaw) meant by socialism. That being the case (declared Shaw), Chesterton should just stop all this nonsense about private property and openly admit he was a socialist.
Of course, in the interests of fairness, we have to point out that, in Shaw’s opinion, nobody but he really understood socialism . . . unless it was Stalin (but that was after the debates with Chesterton). As Shaw quipped with his witty wit in 1908, the greatest weakness of the Fabian Society — of which Shaw was the principal spokesman and representative — was that nobody could agree on anything except a commitment to socialism of some kind. (“The Fading Fabians,” The Boston Evening Transcript, November 27, 1908, 10.) He did, however, have the highest praise for Stalin. As he said — after declaring “We had better follow Russia’s example as soon as possible” (“Go East, Young Man” Shaw Advises Youths,” Washington Evening Star, August 3, 1931, B-3),
[Stalin] is a complete opportunist who, by a process of trial and error, is molding a new Russia. You are either Communists or you are what Ramsay MacDonald and Viscount Snowden are — whatever that is. Communism is a force which will be set up against capitalism. There is nothing left of bolshevism, collectivism, anarchism or class war. Only communism remains. Under the pressure of practical application the Soviet government has turned communism into Fabianism. But the Communists won’t take our name so we must take theirs. (“Shaw’s Greatness Declared Vapid,” Washington Evening Star, November 27, 1931, B-11.)
According to Shaw, then, distributism is the same as Fabian socialism, and Fabian socialism is the same as Stalinist communism. By commutation, then (two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other — Euclid’s first general axiom), distributism is the same as Stalinist communism.
|Martin Gardner & the fish that got away|
Shaw, however, was not the only poor, confused soul running around. According to the late Martin Gardner, a BNC (“Big Name Chestertonian”), “It is not inappropriate to describe Chesterton’s economic and political opinions by a term that conservatives today abhor — democratic socialism.” (Martin Gardner, “Introduction to the Dover Edition,” G. K. Chesterton, Four Faultless Felons (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989), x.)
Not that we could in any way confirm it (and we are ourselves suspicious of all the Chestertonians who “know” precisely, exactly, and infallibly how Chesterton would feel on any subject today), but we suspect — only suspect, mind you; we don’t want to upset the professional Chestertonians — that Chesterton might (we say might, not would) have a teensy difficulty, perhaps not even a problem, with his being used as a shill for socialism of any kind, democratic, republican, independent, utopian, scientific, secular, feminist, muscular, Fourierist, Saint-Simonian, Icarian, religious, Christian, please, somebody stop us before we try to list them all. There are just too many different (okay, not so different) forms of socialism. As Alexis de Tocqueville said of what he observed during the French Revolution of 1848,
From the 25th of February onwards, a thousand strange systems came issuing pell-mell from the minds of innovators, and spread among the troubled minds of the crowd. . . . These theories were of very varied natures, often opposed and sometimes hostile to one another; but all of them, aiming lower than the government and striving to reach society itself, on which government rests, adopted the common name of Socialism.
Socialism will always remain the essential characteristic and the most redoubtable remembrance of the Revolution of February. The Republic will only appear to the on-looker to have come upon the scene as a means not as an end. (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 78-79)
Of course, we shouldn’t dump on the socialists for saying silly things. The capitalists come in for a lick or two. The late Michael Novak had a “thing” for “democratic capitalism.” Capitalism, as Novak declared, “is a system most highly valuing wit, invention, discovery — capitalism (caput) being the mind-centered system.” (Michael Novak, “Saving Distributism,” Introduction to G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume V, 15.) Novak then attempts to show that what Chesterton meant by “distributism” is what he, Novak, means by “capitalism.” (Ibid. p. 31.)
We wonder if anyone ever told Novak that the “caput” in “capitalism” derives not from the human head, but the head of a cow. Was he saying that capitalism is for the “beef-witted”?
Maybe we’ll find out in the next exciting posting on this subject . . . or not, if we actually start getting to the point. . . .#30#