Distributism
& the distributist crafts community in Ditchling


According to distributism, the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (socialism), or a few large businesses or wealthy private individuals (capitalism). A summary of distributism is found in Chesterton's statement: "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

The non-party-political movement that grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, dedicated to small-scale mass ownership of land and property as a bastion against collectivism, big business and big institutions, which its founders believed led inevitably to slavery.

Distributism flourished under the early leadership of former Liberals Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, became associated with radical Catholicism and arts and crafts pioneers like Eric Gill, and disintegrated in the 1940s, but was later influential on key Liberal Party policy makers in the 1950s and green economics pioneers in the 1970s.

The immediate influences on distributism were the ideas of Hilaire Belloc, especially in his book The Servile State (1912), and the prolific journalism of G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936). According to its proponents, it was an economic doctrine, but much of what they wrote was also historical criticism and profoundly spiritual.

After the departure of its founding figures from the Liberal Party, mainly over the issue of financial corruption in politics – which they believed reached a symbolic apotheosis over the Marconi insider trading scandal of 1912, the movement was politically non aligned, but its main focus of campaigning was anti Fabian, anti modernist and anti corporate.

The broader influences behind distributism also lay in:

•Roman Catholic social doctrine, the political radicalism of Cardinal Henry Manning (1807–92) and Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which first propagated the idea at the heart of distributism of ‘subsidiarity’.

•English agrarian campaigners in the tradition of William Cobbett (1763–1835) and Jesse Collings (1831–1920).

•The arts and crafts movement’s critique of industrialism and the ideas of John Ruskin (1819–1900) and William Morris (1834–96).

•Guild socialism as propagated by the journalism of A. R. Orage (1873–1934) and other anti Fabians of the left, around the newspaper New Age.

Distributists tended to be vague about what they were campaigning for. At heart, the movement was a critique of prevailing state socialism, industrialisation and monopolistic commercialism. They proposed the widespread distribution of land and property and looked forward to a revival of the values of small scale agriculture and crafts, which they regarded as an urgent bastion to defend the human spirit, and distributism was overwhelmingly a spiritual creed – against the slavery of corporatism of right or left.

Apart from Belloc and Chesterton, who remained somewhat apart from the organisation of the Distributist League – founded in 1926 by architect and former Fabian Arthur Penty (1875-1937) and others, the leading figures of distributism were extremely diverse. They ranged from arts and crafts pioneers like Eric Gill (1882-1940) and journalists like ‘Beachcomber’ (J. B. Morton, 1894-1979), to agrarian campaigners like H. J. Massingham (1888-1952), as well as Catholic apologists and land reformers.

In some ways, the sheer diversity of the movement militated against its effectiveness, certainly its coherence in the public’s mind.

On the face of it, distributism petered out in the 1940s and 1950s with no lasting political legacy. The whole tenor, certainly of Chesterton’s contribution, was melancholic, nostalgic and almost entirely lacking in detailed proposals. There was an implied pessimism in much distributist writing, about the inevitability of change, centralisation and giantism. Their practical distributism projects, including challenging monopolistic bus operators in London in the 1920s, and advocating land reform as a solution to unemployment in Birmingham in the 1940s, did not take root.

They were more obviously influential on the prevailing culture, with the founding of the distributist crafts community in Ditchling in Sussex, and were undoubtedly an influence which fed into the post war English romantic revival.

Distributism came to be increasingly identified, not just with extreme romanticism, but also with a particular kind of Catholic radicalism that looked to Franco and Mussolini as defenders of European Catholicism. Their links to more reactionary agrarian groups in the 1930s meant that distributism sometimes provided a route to the far right at that time.

Distributists were uncommitted on the issue of free trade, but they were implacable in their opposition to modernism, or what they called ‘commercial values’. Although most distributist thinkers rejected the link, in practice there were informal connections with the social credit movement that also emerged from guild socialism.

There are ways in which distributists managed to make a longer impact on liberal politics. Their critique of mainstream Fabianism was available for those post war political thinkers searching for alternatives to collectivism and corporatism. There were formal discussions between the League and the Liberal Party in the 1950s, and they were an acknowledged influence on Liberal Party industrial policy from 1937 onwards, especially in the writings of the party on ownership and industrial democracy in the Jo Grimond years.

When the influential book Small is Beautiful was published in 1973, author E. F. Schumacher included a critical chapter entitled ‘Chestertonian Economics’ which had a major influence on the emerging field of green economics. There was also an unacknowledged influence on some of the more radical aspects of Thatcherism, including the 1979 decision to sell council houses to their tenants. There may also, arguably, be deeper and more pervasive influences on modern journalism, building on the original influence of Morton and his associates on the concerns of the popular press – for individuals against the big institutions – which is often dismissed as populism.

 
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