The theory that personal freedom belongs to man by his nature and that this freedom, especially in the political and economic fields, can be safeguarded only if there is widespread personal ownership of all forms of property, particularly of productive property. In this form distributism has special links with Catholic social thought, and in the main, its principal English adherents were Catholics, although it was supported also by a few non-Catholics headed by A. J. Penty. As an organized force it was represented by the Distributist League under G. C. Heseltine. In the U.S., non-Catholics such as Herbert Agar, Ralph Borsodi, and O. E. Baker were its best-known advocates. Among American Catholics, distributist ideas had only limited influence within other movements such as the catholic worker and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
The main objects of the distributist attack were large concentrations of wealth; capitalism, which was seen as the rule of the moneylender; and industrialism, seen as the rule of the machine. To combat these evils, the distributists urged the revival of small-scale family farming, small units in trade and industry, and the encouragement of the craftsman. They attracted many who were shocked by the mass unemployment of the 1920s and 1930s, alarmed at the growth of monopoly, or fearful of the depersonalizing influence of the modern factory.
The origins of the movement were varied. In order of time, the first proponent was Hilaire belloc, who held that modern politics were of their nature corrupt and that modern political practice would lead inevitably to the "servile state." In such a state peoples' lives would be controlled by a clique of wealthy men. Belloc held that industrial capitalism was a direct product of the Protestant revolt and could be defeated by Catholic principles linked with the agrarian way of life. G. K. chesterton's writings introduced these ideas to a large number of readers. The emphasis on the importance of the person and of the small unit is found throughout his works. His own contribution was an attack on the materialism of the 19th century. Eric gill brought to the movement a hatred of mass production and a love for the craftsman who could develop his personality through his work. Under his influence there were founded communities of craftsmen and farmers, which in time either failed or adopted modern methods. Only one group, a farming group at Laxton, survived World War II. Vincent mcnabb, OP, emphasized the social evil of poverty and the love of ordinary people. His solution was to take the poor out of the slums and give them the opportunity of a full life on the land, thus using untilled acres to solve the problems of unemployment, overcrowded cities, and slum life.
In addition to the practical aspect of the movement represented by the communities of craftsmen, a back-tothe-land movement was launched by the debate over distributism. In the 1930s this was a much needed movement, although it was unfortunate that it was a return to primitive agriculture. Of those who went back to the land, few survived for long, and most of those who did developed into modern farmers using the very techniques so often attacked by the agricultural wing of the distributists. The distributists attacked many real evils and played a part in making public opinion aware of the need for social reform. But it must be recorded, too, that their distrust of central government and their hatred of party politics diverted part of a generation of intelligent people into a dream-world and kept them out of politics and government. Moreover, distributism presented an interpretation of Catholic social doctrine that was alien to the outlook of the times and became a barrier between the faith and the masses. It could be argued that the British Catholic community has only begun to free itself from restrictions imposed by the brilliant work of Chesterton and Belloc.
Bibliography: j. m. cleary, Catholic Social Action in Britain: 1909–1959 (Oxford 1961). g. p. mcentee, The Social Catholic Movement in Great Britain (New York 1927). The Cross and the-Plough, ed. h. robbins, (Sutton Coldfield, Eng. 1934–39). j. f. cronin, Catholic Social Principles (Milwaukee 1950). The chief periodical of the movement appeared successively as Eye Witness (London 1911–13), New Witness (1912–23), G. K.'s Weekly (1925–38), and Weekly Review (1938–46).
[r. p. walsh]