Someone asked us recently whether we thought distributism and feudalism are pretty much the same thing. Off the top of our head (or is that “heads”?) our first response is “no.” After all, feudalism meant that most (if not all) land was “public” land, and people “held” the land in return for specified service(s) to the State, usually military service. Land was not private property.
|"And the peasants rejoiced."|
Okay, some land was privately owned as a personal possession in freehold. It was called “demesne land.” Other land, however, was assigned by one’s liege lord, who could take it away if he deemed you were not fulfilling your feudal dues or committing a few feudal don’ts.
We will not get into all the various ways of holding land. That would be a very long blog posting, especially since there are thousands of years of how the application of the natural right of private property in land evolved — and we’re still working on it, as you will see at the end of this posting.
On the other hand, distributism (as G.K. Chesterton defined it) is a policy of widely distributed private property, with a preference for small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses. Not that large enterprises were precluded, of course. Chesterton was stating a preference, not giving a mandate. As he also said, if an enterprise must be large, it should be owned by the workers on shares, i.e., each worker should be a part owner of a joint stock company, a.k.a., a “corporation.”
|George Bernard Shaw|
Admittedly, some distributists and others have insisted from the beginning that distributism was something other than Chesterton described. Some, such as the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, claimed that distributism is just another form of Fabian socialism. Shaw also said that Joseph Stalin’s version of Marxist communism was pure Fabian socialism, and that everything in the world was socialism . . . so why did he rant about the capitalists if it was all the same thing, anyway?
Others, such as the Fabian socialists R.H. Tawney and E.F. Schumacher, insisted that distributism was not Fabian socialism, although later distributists disagreed with them. Tawney was head of the Fabian Society from 1920 to 1933, while Schumacher was in the “inner circle” that was permitted to write and publish “Fabian Tracts.” As Robert Leonard of the University of Quebec in Montreal describes him in a recent paper,
E. F. Schumacher is perhaps best remembered as the author of the 1973 bestseller, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, a book that made him a key figure in the emerging environmental and counter-cultural movements. Few realize that, prior to becoming the symbolic public figure, Schumacher was a conventional, capable economist, close to the Fabians, socialist in outlook, and particularly well-versed in international trade and finance. Fewer still realize the importance of Keynes in Schumacher's evolution -- initially as intellectual hero, and later as intellectual target, for his putative promotion of greed and depletion. (Robert Leonard, “Keynes and the Making of E.F. Schumacher, 1929-1977, February 2020, preprint.)
In addition, there are those who describe distributism as being the same (or at least similar to) Guild Socialism and social credit, both spin-offs from Fabian socialism. Not unnaturally, this raises the question as to what, exactly, Chesterton himself thought.
As far as we can determine, Chesterton rejected the equation of distributism and any kind of socialism. He was, however, incapable of telling people to go boil their heads when they kept insisting. Instead, he confined himself to adjudicating disputes, dodging the issue (which drove Shaw to distraction), and running away when he couldn’t take it anymore.
For example, the office of G.K.’s Weekly became a magnet for “cranks” (as Hilaire Belloc called them), who simply went over in a body when the Distributist League was founded to support the magazine. As Chesterton himself noted a few months before the official founding of the League, “We have had some very fantastic human forms lingering about our office.” (G.K.’s Weekly, April 24, 1926.)
Quite a number of Distributist League members used the organization as a bully pulpit to push their favorite forms of socialism. Given the proclivity of socialists to fight amongst themselves at every opportunity, this naturally enough lead to endless quarreling and infighting. As a result, Chesterton often found himself in the role of peacemaker between individuals and factions when he had little if any sympathy with the positions or ideas of either side. (Alzina Stone Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1982, 261.)
League meetings quickly became so unpleasant that Chesterton eventually stopped attending them, except for the annual dinner. Even then, he usually spent most of his time amusing himself drawing caricatures on paper provided for that purpose before escaping to the bar. (Michael Ffinch, G.K. Chesterton. San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986, 315-316.)
When Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, distributism came to an end as anything coherent or even distinct from Fabian or any other kind of socialism. As one biographer noted, “Gilbert’s death signified the end of the philosophy, if that is what it was, as a serious proposition. He had kept it alive; squabbles and lack of direction tore the movement apart.” (Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990, 243.)
Distributism continues today, but sometimes it seems as if it’s whoever can shout the loudest determines what it is, not the degree of adherence to the rather simple and straightforward policy that Chesterton articulated. Just recently, for example, we saw a discussion in a forum about what books are essential reading for distributists. Oddly, the books of a self- (and loudly) proclaimed socialist-distributist led the pack.
Of course, there is a problem or two with distributism as described by Chesterton and even more so with Belloc. They are, in fact, the same problems that afflicted the 1862 Homestead Act of Abraham Lincoln. These were/are 1) land is limited by its nature, and 2) relying on existing accumulations of savings to finance capital acquisition necessarily restricts most capital ownership to the people who can afford to save, i.e., the rich.
Capital Homesteading gets around the “slavery of past savings” by using future savings and the limited nature of land by opening up the technological and commercial frontier. That does not address the unique nature of land, however . . . but we will, when we address this subject again.#30#