DLT: Distributism

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month, Henry David Thoreau. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

A 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 (q.v.), 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 (q.v.) 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 (q.v.), 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.

But 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 (q.v.) years.

When the influential book Small is Beautiful was published in 1973, author E. F. Schumacher (q.v.) 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.

Further reading

  • Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912; reprint, Liberty Fund, 1977)
  • Hilaire Belloc, Economics for Helen (1924; reprint, Ihs Press, 2005)
  • Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936; reprint, Ihs Press, 2002)
  • G. K. Chesterton, An Outline of Sanity (1926; reprint, Ihs Press, 2002)
  • John Sharpe (ed.), Distributist Perspectives: Essays on the Economics of Justice and Charity (Ihs Press, 2004)
  • Herbert Shove, The Fairy Ring of Commerce (Distributist League, 1930)

David Boyle

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 19th May '08 - 11:17am

    One of the biggest problems with distributism was that for it to work it would actually require a very intrusive state which would have to assess what you owned and take away any excess and give it to those who had nothing. While Thatcherites may give a nod to it, they will not acknowledge that distributism involved a strong criticism of anyone who owned more than a family house or a family business. The distributists would be horrified at what is meant by “free market” now. But they never really worked out how to stop it developing in the way it has, because they didn’t like to acknowledge the state intervention that keeping ownership small would require.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th May '08 - 12:36pm

    The original distributists were very worried about someone owning a chain of shops instead of just one shop. I do not think they would have liked our modern supermarkets. I also think that much though we might like the idea of small corner shops, in practice it’s not just the evil state which has caused so many of them to go out of business. I remember when I was a councillor much of the business of the planning committee was agreeing to allow some small shop to be used as a takeaway. Up would come the usual outcry from local residents “Why can’t it be a small butchers/greengrocers/etc like it used to be?”. The answer was because we all shop at Sainsbury’s now and no-one could make a profit running it as it was, but someone was willing to try and make a profit running it as a takeaway. Then when the planning offier had explained that it had been derelict for years because no-one was willing to run it as a shop, and the only practical use was as a takeaway and if we rejected that it’d be overturned by government anyway, we’d agree. And local residents would scream at us “Corruption, you’ve all been bribed”.

  • Asquith – nope, we don’t need to insult people by saying they need to change their attitudes, rather we need to be clear that not all attitudes are incompatible and the ones which are most compatible are the ones which are best. I guess that amounts to the same thing, so, yes!

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th May '08 - 2:05pm

    It seems to me stark-staringly obvious that in most sectors economies of scale mean a pure unfettered free market is going to end up with big businesses clobbering small businesses. That is quite obviously what we have seen in our economy. To deny that because it doesn’t fit in with idealistic your world view is just daft. Small business have survived better in other parts of Europe where there is more of a deliberate state policy of protecting them via state cosseting.

  • I’m sorry for making a paradoxical statement, Asquith, but I do agree with both sides.

    Looking at things from a longer perspective the current trend for super-sized private companies building what are effectively monopolies is part of a cycle where the we’ve swung against super-sized state monopolies, as companies increasingly learn to cross national boundaries.

    The problem is not just in reconciling the interests of the individual, those of the group or company and state interests, but in continuing to maintain a stable polity as the economic power balance changes.

    The threat is in losing that balance, where one, other or all become shut out and then tries to forcibly reintegrate with the equation.

    Currently the paradigm is in favour of big multi-nationals, but we need to encourage taking the opportunity to exploit gaps in the market to make sure that their dominance doesn’t overwhelm.

    On Matthew’s point, I think the inbalance reflects the weakness of planning authorities to make plans with are sufficiently able to adapt quickly enough (which means over years and decades) to cope with changes in behaviour. To ignore or prevent changes in social behaviour is one thing, but to fail to cope with them is just as bad.

    Supermarkets like Tesco are diversifying out of the big trading estate mega-hangar sector partly because they remain vulnerable to any social shift away from our mass dependance on private car transport, especially in the face of the prospect of huge rises in petrol prices.

    I’m not sure if it is worth being worried about current business models when we can predict potential changes and prepare for them in a more adequate way, but that does require planning authorities opening up and taking more heed of the full variety of different stakeholding participators earlier in the planning process than when consultations are currently made.

    The lack of, and failure of forward planning is a growing concern as the land is increasingly built up and developed.

    It seems to me that there is growing conflict over planning issues – which can be reduced as to between ‘green’ communitarian nimbies and a nexus of capitalist and statist developers – but this also particularly highlights the failure of current government to adequately address and coordinate concerns over planning.

    IMO This can only be resolved by our ability to show our relevance and institute a more open and liberal regime throughout.

    There, I’ve gone and made a serious point, dammit!

  • Geoff Payne 20th May '08 - 7:54am

    I would like to add that “Small is Beautiful” by Fritz Schumaker mentioned in the article is a superb read.

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