Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: October 1985

Letters to the Editor: October 1985

We Distributists

Isn’t Dale Vree really a distributist of the Chesterton-Belloc-Eric Gill school?

The Catholic Dictionary de­fines distributism as “the theory that the political, economic and personal freedom proper to man…can only be maintained when property in the means of produc­tion is widely distributed.”

Vree advocates worker own­ership of factories. Well, Eric Gill argued that factories should be owned by the men who work there. This, he said, was the best arrangement in an industrial world and was a necessary pre­lude to a return to the small workshop. Chesterton wrote that even in an ideal distributist state, workmen would have to own cer­tain costly machines and build­ings communally, through a guild, as in the case of shipbuild­ers.

Worker ownership is a dis­tributist ambition. State owner­ship is the socialist plan. Why, then, is Vree willing to use the term “socialist” in an approving manner? Where does he break with the fiercest anti-capitalists of all: Eric Gill, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc?

William Hannegan

St. Louis, Missouri


Thank you for your bright (cheery) and bright (illuminat­ing) Letter. It resembles other in­quiries, and so calls for a compre­hensive reply.

Yes, distributism suits me just fine, at least as you have ar­ticulated it. If I haven’t used the term, I suppose there are four basic reasons:

(1) I can hardly pronounce the word.

(2) Few people have even the vaguest idea of what the term refers to.

(3) The two most famous distributists — Belloc and Ches­terton — have reputations for having had weaknesses for fas­cism and anti-Semitism (Belloc more so, Chesterton less so). This is not the fault of distributism as such, but it has given me cause to pause.

(4) Most importantly, dis­tributism has a certain romantic agrarian echo to it. It is, shall we say, “green” — not altogether un­like, in my mind at least, “the Greens” in West Germany and similar countercultural, back-to-nature, back-to-the-land move­ments. My resonances, on the other hand, are more urban, more industrial, even more prole­tarian.

Happily, your articulation of distributism accommodates these resonances. However, the 1965 Catholic Encyclopedia states that “distributists looked back favorably to the time…when most people lived on farms and made their living directly from the land or worked as craftsmen in their own work­shops,” adding this significant demurral: “distributist concepts of agricultural decentralization and subsistence farming run counter to a world-wide trend which requires more farm pro­ductivity and larger farming units.” It could also have been added: runs counter to the worldwide trend requiring more industrial production and thus more productive and cost-effec­tive — i.e., larger and more com­plex — industrial units than the small workshop.

Of course, if we wish to ex­pand the notion of the “small workshop” to embrace workers’ collective ownership and control of large enterprises, that would be fine. But I fear that distribu­tism, at least as it was originally formulated, paid scant attention to the problems of large-scale in­dustry. Distributists wanted to have ownership of private pro­ductive property widely distrib­uted, but as the Catholic Ency­clopedia states, “Since it was dif­ficult to expand private owner­ship in the direction of industry, distributists generally put great emphasis on the land. If the worker could not escape being a wage slave in the city, then let him return to the land.” Return to the land?

Because of this strong agrar­ian bias, it is difficult to give “distributism” a meaning that can be appreciated in an industri­al society. Of course, I think it can be done, if we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II’s en­cyclical Laborem Exercens, where he shows how the princi­ple of private property can be de­veloped in the direction of collective workers’ self-manage­ment.

A key principle in Laborem Exercens is the priority of labor over capital. This priority is oper­ative wherever the worker has a sense that he is working for him­self and the good of society rather than for private investors (and their managers) or for state bureaucrats.

Here is where the principle of private property comes in. The great redeeming feature of private property — most evident in small farms, workshops, and stores — is that labor is perform­ed directly for the benefit of those laboring. Here labor power is “nonalienated”; however, it becomes alienated in large organ­izations when the worker must sell his labor power to a boss who makes all the decisions about what is produced and how, and (with the investors) reaps all the profits. Obviously, it is hard to keep labor nonalienated in large enterprises (whether privately or state-owned), but this is where the virtues of “private property” can be seen operative in collective workers’ self-man­agement. For, such self-manage­ment is a way of appropriating the very real advantages of nonalienated labor seen in small-scale free enterprise (working for oneself, feeling a personal stake in one’s work, feeling free to be creative, being accountable for the consequences of one’s deci­sions and workmanship, reaping the full benefits of one’s hard work and initiative or suffering loss as a result of laziness and lack of effort).

John Paul’s economic views, then, are aimed at achieving what heretofore in history has been so elusive: (1) production for the sake of the laborer instead of the capitalist or state bureaucrat, and (2) worker sharing in ownership, management decisions, and prof­its, regardless of whether a firm is considered “state-owned” or “capitalistically owned.” More­over, in his 1984 trip to Canada, John Paul spoke favorably of outright worker ownership — i.e., workers’ co-operatives.

While the Pope does not of­fer simplistic blueprints, it is clear that both the extremes of overwhelming investor sovereign­ty and overwhelming state sover­eignty over the means of produc­tion are essentially ruled out. If this is what current-day distribu­tists have in mind, splendid. What I do know is that, increas­ingly and to a significant degree, it is what democratic socialists in Western Europe and Canada have in mind.

The question is whether “distributism” is the most felici­tous term in representing such a state of affairs. Also at issue is the suitability of the term “so­cialism,” which in America (but not Western Europe) unfortu­nately seems to be synonymous with state ownership.

Why am I willing to use ap­provingly what our Book Review Editor Greg Erlandson has poi­gnantly called “the ‘s’ word” — i.e., “socialism”? In Europe, there are no significant phobias about the term. In America, there are. So, why invite misun­derstanding, even hysterical de­nunciation, by employing that term? There are three basic rea­sons:

(1) Even if Americans have many misconceptions about the word, there is some rudimentary sense that whatever it is, it repre­sents something distinctly differ­ent from what we now have. There is a certain shock value in the word which at least com­mands people’s attention. Now, I am of the conviction (shared, I believe, by distributists) that Catholic social teaching is truly radical. But “radical” is a spongy, generic word, and I’ve noticed that it is overused and so safe that when I use it, it usually evokes yawns. But somehow, people need to be shocked into the realization that Catholic so­cial teaching is radical, and not just a set of antiquated, mushy, or elastic nostrums.

(2) I’ve toyed around with certain alternative terms, like “communitarianism,” but they seem to suffer from the usual yawn-inducing vagueness. I think, however, following Robert Bellah’s advice, that the best al­ternative is “economic democra­cy” (which rather clearly sug­gests the extension of political democracy to the economy — i.e., worker ownership). The term was coined, I believe, by the venerable Msgr. John A. Ryan, and it enjoys a certain currency in Roman Catholic circles in the U.S. (e.g., it has been in­voked by the U.S. bishops in their pastoral on the U.S. econo­my).

(3) You are absolutely right to suggest that when I use the term “socialism” approvingly I do not mean state ownership. Nor do I mean such things as Marxism or class hatred or total cradle-to-grave security. But then, the democratic socialists (or “social democrats”) of West­ern Europe and Canada by and large no longer mean those things either.

So, you and I agree that we favor an increase in the various forms of worker ownership and self-management (or “economic democracy”), an increase sup­ported by several papal encycli­cals and statements. Now, where in the world do we find political movements advocating this? Sel­dom is it advocated by European conservatives or liberals, by American conservatives or liber­als, or by Christian Democrats or communists or fascists. But it is frequently advocated by demo­cratic socialists. How curious!

Now, heaven knows there are many unsavory things about democratic socialism — usually, but not exclusively, associated with sex and family and abortion — and Lord knows socialism is no panacea (there are no pana­ceas on this earth). But when it comes to economic democracy, we distributists ought to pay some attention to those other folks, numbering in the millions, who are advocating it and (unlike our ragtag band of distributists) actually doing something to im­plement it. So, humility be­hooves us to give credit where credit is due, and to be willing to employ the term “socialism” in an approbatory sense, at least once in a while.

In conclusion, yes, call me a distributist. But I think the term that best communicates to Amer­icans the sense of what we sup­port is neither “distributism” nor “socialism,” but “economic democracy.”

Rank & Rotten

I have read my second issue of the NOR, a sad disappoint­ment. It’s obvious that since the break-up of Sheed and Ward and the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sheed (Maisie Ward), Catholic writing under whatever aegis is back at the old stamping ground of prejudice, superstition, rank nonsense, and rotten writing. I’m tired of all things pertaining to the faith being discussed in the key of high C by ignoramuses.

Elena E. Ugarte

Seattle, Washington


I think of the New Ox­ford Review as the most gen­uinely ecumenical magazine around.

Rev. Alan Beasley

The Parker Heights Presbyterian Church

Wapato, Washington


Each time the New Ox­ford Review arrives I strike my breast for not having written to you to express my thanks.

Most Rev. Rembert G. Weakland

Archbishop of Milwaukee

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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