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Distributism Writing Assignment

by Anthony Cooney

Adapted from an address to the Third Way International Conference, London 16 October 1994, by Anthony Cooney, Editor of the Liverpool Newsletter.

I have been asked to speak today on the History of Distributism. If I were to contain myself to a narrative history, I think that that could be disposed of in short order. G.K's Weekly was launched in 1925, and the Distributist League was founded in 1926. Its chief activity, according to its critics, was holding monthly meetings at Devereaux, where Distributists drove down in their motor cars to discuss the abolition of machinery!

G.K. Chesterton's contribution was the editing and financing of GK's Weekly. The value of that journal is not to be underrated. It influenced the thinking of a number of MPs ranging from high Tories such as Anthony Fell to honest Labour men such as Simon Mahon. Perhaps the greatest success of GK's Weekly was the exposure of the Mond Turner plan to govern Great Britain by a Fasces of bankers, industrialists and TU bosses, and reduce Parliament to a committee which receives reports. This plan was rejected by an altered House of Commons.

After GK's death in 1936 his paper became The Weekly Review and continued publication until 1948. Assigned to expose the "clandestine Fascists" who published that paper, Douglas Hyde, the news editor of The Daily Worker, was converted by it to both Catholicism and Distributism. Distributism also played a part in the conversion of Hamish Frazer, a member of the Communist Party's National Executive and a former Commissar of the International Brigade. It is perhaps noteworthy that both Bob Darke, a leading London Communist, and Jimmy Reid (of Glasgow shipyard fame) adopted Distributist ideas upon becoming disillusioned with Communism.

In 1948, The Weekly Review became a monthly, called - in reminiscence of Cobbett - The Register. When that too folded, Mr. Aidan Mackey gallantly launched a little monthly, called first The Defendant and later The Distributist. It became a quarterly in 1957, and ceased publication in 1959. It seemed that Distributism had at long last been carted off to the boneyard of history.

Except for one thing. In 1954 a small group of Liverpool subscribers to The Distributist launched a duplicated magazine called Platform. They even took their Distributism to the polls, contesting seats for the Liverpool City Council. In January 1960, after the folding of The Distributist, the Platform became Liverpool Newsletter and has been published continuously ever since.

That then is the history of Distributism to date, a tale soon told, which looks forward to a brave sequel.

However, I think you expect something more than a mere chronicle. Distributism is not a series of events, it is an idea, and the history of ideas is always complex.

The first thing to understand is that the idea of Distributism existed long before the word was invented. As Sagar says in his little booklet Distributism:

The immediate point here, however, is that is seemed such a normal thing that men did not think of naming it until it had been destroyed. Even then only a few men saw it so clearly as to think it worthy of a particular name.

We might claim that the first Distributist was Aristotle. Rejecting the communism of Plato's Republic, he argues in his Politics that:

Property should be in a general sense common, but as a general rule private...In well-ordered states, although every man has his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his friends, while of others he shares the use of them.

We could say that the first Distributist law was that decree of the Roman Senate which provided that a retired Legionary should not be granted more land than he and his family could farm.

We might argue that Wat Tyler was the first English Distributist; leading a peasants' revolt against the re-imposition of feudal dues by the great magnates, who needed the money to pay the usurers' interest.

I think, however, that in modern times we must name he whom Chesterton called:

The horseman of the Shires, The trumpet of the Yeomanry, The hammer of the Squires

...the first exponent of what we now call Distributism - William Cobbett, one of the greatest of Englishmen. Ruskin also belongs to us. His Guild of St. George was the first practical attempt to establish and defend small-holders and master-craftsmen. William Morris's Arts and Crafts Movement, although calling itself Socialist, had much the same idea. To these might be added those practical working men of Halifax and Huddersfield who saw that they could never be free men whilst they lived in tied cottages, and who started the first Building Societies to make themselves freeholders. We may also cast our net to take in the founders of both the Consumer and Industrial Co-operative Movement.

All these many strands were brought together at the beginning of the century by A.R. Orage in the National Guilds Movement, which sought to establish ownership by Gilds of workers on the Medieval model. It was in Orage's New Age that Chesterton and Belloc first expounded the ideas which were to become known as Distributism, and it was in those pages also that the historic meeting between Distributism and Social Credit took place. Orage described its impact in an article in The Commonweal of 17/2/1926:

The doubts that haunted me regarding the practicability of National Guilds were concerned with something more important than the viability of the idea...Somehow or other it would not work in my mind...the trouble was always of the same nature - the relation of the whole scheme to the existing, or any prospective system of money...one day there came into my office...a man who was destined to affect a beneficent revolution in my state of mind, Major C.H. Douglas.

Douglas has also written of the relationship between Distributism and Social Credit:

It is profoundly significant that what is now called Socialism and pretends to be a movement for the improvement of the underprivileged, began as something closely approaching the Distributism of Messrs. Belloc and Cheserton, of which the financial proposals embodied in various authentic Social Credit schemes form the practical mechanism, although developed without reference to it (Distributism). It (Socialism) was penetrated by various subversive bodies and perverted into the exact opposite of Distributism - Collectivism.

It seem to me to be axiomatic that distributed ownership cannot survive, much less co-exist, with a centralised system of debt-finance, as Belloc also
recognised when in the Essay on the Restoration of Property he wrote:

It is of no use attempting to restore the institution of property here in England now until we have given the small owner some power of reaction against this universal master.

Belloc indeed was here repeating the warning given by Pius XI in his sequel to Leo XIII's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum:

In the first place it is patent that in our days not wealth alone is accumulated but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few...This domination is most powerfully exercised by those who, because they hold and control money, also govern credit and determine its allotment...so that no one can breathe against their will.

I would only add here that the means to break the Monopoly of Credit are those proposed by C.H. Douglas, to which Orage gave the name Social Credit.

Distributism, as Belloc insisted, places great emphasis upon the land, and upon the widespread distribution of ownership of land. That being so, it had, inevitably, a close association with the "Back to the Land" movement; and with organic husbandry. Distributists were Greens before anyone dreamed of that label.

What then is Distributism? First of all it is not a programme or a scheme put the world right overnight. It is not a quick fix to all our problems.

Distributism is the POLICY of a PHILOSOPHY. That may not leave you much wiser at first hearing, for like all organic things, Distributism demands study before it yields understanding. We can ask three questions of any organisation or group which is pursuing an idea:

WHAT? WHY? HOW? What do you want to do?

Why do you think it is a good thing?

How are you going to do it?

The answer to the question What? will reveal a POLICY - action directed toward particular objeectivves.

The answer to the question Why? will describe a PHILOSOPHY - a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing man, a viewpoint of reality.

The answer to the question How? will be specification of METHODS for realising the policy.

It is important to understand that every policy is derived from a philosophy. Behind every course of action we observe there is a viewpoint of Reality; a belief in how things should be. If a group is dedicated to getting people to go to Church, they are not doing that because they are Atheists; they are doing it because their viewpoint is that "reality is the Christian viewpoint". If a group are promoting class hatred, they are not doing that because they are unpleasant people - they are doing it because their viewpoint of reality is akin to the Marxist viewpoint. The Philosophy which generates the Policy may be, and often is, hidden; further, a Philosophy may generate more than one Policy, and Policy may be realised by more than one method.

A policy is the application of a philosophy to the world we live in. It is up to Distributists to devise the methods, in response to ever changing circumstances, by which the policy may be realised.

One statement of Distributism as a policy is that contained in the encyclical letter of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, which simply means "of new things". Leo XIII first states that the right to property derives not from any man-made law or human convention, but from the Law of Human Nature. It resides in the nature of language and its future tense, that man is the only creature who is both aware of the future and who can structure it through language. Because of this man can provide not only for his own future, but for that of his children and his childrens' children, by bequeathing property. Property, Leo XIII says, is proper to man.

The encyclical then examines the "new things", Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalism is found to be an abuse of Property, a deprivation of the many by the few. It has imposed a yoke little better than slavery.

It is significant that the language used to describe Capitalism is far stronger than that used to denounce Socialism, though Socialism is also denounced. It is not merely an abuse of, but is contrary to Natural Right. Leo XIII concludes his examination of Socialism with a prophetic warning of the misery it will bring upon Mankind if it is imposed.

What then is the solution to the problems created by these "new things"? Leo XIII says that there is a way that accords with the Law of Human Nature, a proper way, and that way is to achieve widespread ownership of property - ideally by every family in the land.

This is what he says:

We have seen therefore that this great labour question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners...if working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged...A further consequence will be the greater abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields...not only food but an abundance of good things for themselves and those who are dear to them...men would cling to the country of their birth, for no-one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life. These important benefits however can be reckoned on, only provided that a man's means be not drained by excessive taxation. (para.35)

It was Rerum Novarum which inspired Belloc to begin his search for a new solution to old problems. It is our good fortune that in company with two men of genius and a score of others of exceptional ability, he found it. It is called DISTRIBUTISM or THE THIRD WAY.

"Distributivism" redirects here. For the algebraic concept, see distributivity.

Distributism (also known as distributionism[1] or distributivism)[2] is an economic ideology that developed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclicalRerum novarum and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno.[3] Many[which?]Christian Democratic political parties have advocated for distributism in their economic policies.[4]


Main article: Distributive economy

Distributive economy is an economic model invented by French economist Jacques Duboin, combining 5 main aspects:

  • a distributive currency, a money of consumption being in accordance to the economical activity and that doesn't allow any speculation;
  • a minimal universal income
  • a sharing of workload, linked to the signature of a "social contract";
  • a local and participative democracy
  • the "property of usage" or "usage property" (propriété d'usage in French)

According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right,[5] and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state capitalism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism, therefore, advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership.[6]Co-operative economist Race Mathews argues that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.[7]

Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism,[8][9] which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative.[10] Thomas Storck argues: "both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism.[11][12] In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life".[13]

Some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (these being built into financially independent local cooperatives and small family businesses), though proponents also cite such periods as the Middle Ages as examples of the historical long-term viability of distributism.[14] Particularly influential in the development of distributist theory were Catholic authors G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc,[10] the Chesterbelloc, two of distributism's earliest and strongest proponents.[15][16]


The mid-to-late 19th century witnessed an increase in popularity of political Catholicism across Europe.[17] According to historian Michael A. Riff, a common feature of these movements was opposition not only to secularism, but also to both capitalism and socialism.[16] In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum novarum, in which he addressed the "misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class" and spoke of how "a small number of very rich men" had been able to "lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.".[18] Affirmed in the encyclical was the right of all men to own property,[19] the necessity of a system that allowed "as many as possible of the people to become owners",[20] the duty of employers to provide safe working conditions[21] and sufficient wages,[22] and the right of workers to unionise.[23]Common and government property ownership was expressly dismissed as a means of helping the poor.[24][25]

Around the start of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc drew together the disparate experiences of the various cooperatives and friendly societies in Northern England, Ireland, and Northern Europe into a coherent political ideology which specifically advocated widespread private ownership of housing and control of industry through owner-operated small businesses and worker-controlled cooperatives. In the United States in the 1930s, distributism was treated in numerous essays by Chesterton, Belloc and others in The American Review, published and edited by Seward Collins. Pivotal among Belloc's and Chesterton's other works regarding distributism are The Servile State,[26] and Outline of Sanity.[27]

Although a majority of distributism's later supporters were not Catholics and many were in fact former radical socialists who had become disillusioned with socialism, distributist thought was adopted by the Catholic Worker Movement, conjoining it with the thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin concerning localized and independent communities. It also influenced the thought behind the Antigonish Movement, which implemented cooperatives and other measures to aid the poor in the Canadian Maritimes. Its practical implementation in the form of local cooperatives has recently been documented by Race Mathews in his 1999 book Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society.

Position within the political spectrum[edit]

The position of distributists when compared to other political philosophies is somewhat paradoxical and complicated (see Triangulation). Strongly entrenched in an organic but very English Catholicism, advocating culturally traditionalist and agrarian values, directly challenging the precepts of Whig history—Belloc was nonetheless an MP for the Liberal Party and Chesterton once stated "As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals."[28] This liberalism is different from most modern forms, taking influence from William Cobbett and John Ruskin, who combined elements of radicalism, challenging the establishment position, but from a perspective of renovation, not revolution; seeing themselves as trying to restore the traditional liberties of England and her people which had been taken away from them, amongst other things, since the Industrial Revolution.

While converging with certain elements of traditional Toryism, especially an appreciation of the Middle Ages and organic society, there were several points of significant contention. While many Tories were strongly opposed to reform, the distributists in certain cases saw this not as conserving a legitimate traditional concept of England, but in many cases, entrenching harmful errors and innovations. Belloc was quite explicit in his opposition to Protestantism as a concept and schism from the Catholic Church in general, considering the division of Christendom in the 16th century one of the most harmful events in European history. Elements of Toryism on the other hand were quite intransigent when it came to the Church of England as the established church, some even spurning their original legitimist ultra-royalist principles in regards to James II to uphold it.

Much of Dorothy L. Sayers' writings on social and economic matters has affinity with distributism. She may have been influenced by them, or have come to similar conclusions on her own; as an Anglican, the reasonings she gave are rooted in the theologies of Creation and Incarnation, and thus are slightly different from the Catholic Chesterton and Belloc.

Economic theory[edit]

Private property[edit]

Under such a system, most people would be able to earn a living without having to rely on the use of the property of others to do so. Examples of people earning a living in this way would be farmers who own their own land and related machinery, carpenters and plumbers who own their own tools, etc. The "cooperative" approach advances beyond this perspective to recognise that such property and equipment may be "co-owned" by local communities larger than a family, e.g., partners in a business.

In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII states that people are likely to work harder and with greater commitment if they themselves possess the land on which they labour, which in turn will benefit them and their families as workers will be able to provide for themselves and their household. He puts forward the idea that when men have the opportunity to possess property and work on it, they will “learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them.” [29] He states also that owning property is not only beneficial for a person and their family, but is in fact a right, due to God having “...given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race”.[30]

Similar views are presented by G. K. Chesterton in his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. Chesterton believes that whilst God has limitless capabilities, man has limited abilities in terms of creation. As such, man therefore is entitled to own property and to treat it as he sees fit. He states “Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.”[31] Chesterton summed up his distributist views in the phrase "Three acres and a cow".

According to Belloc, the distributive state (the state which has implemented distributism) contains "an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number of owners of the means of production."[32] This broader distribution does not extend to all property, but only to productive property; that is, that property which produces wealth, namely, the things needed for man to survive. It includes land, tools, and so on.[33] Distributism allows for society to have public goods such as parks and transit systems.

Guild system[edit]

The kind of economic order envisaged by the early distributist thinkers would involve the return to some sort of guild system. The present existence of labor unions does not constitute a realization of this facet of distributist economic order, as labour unions are organized along class lines to promote class interests and frequently class struggle, whereas guilds are mixed class syndicates composed of both employers and employees cooperating for mutual benefit, thereby promoting class collaboration.


Distributism favors the dissolution of the current private bank system, or more specifically its profit-making basis in charging interest. Dorothy Day, for example, suggested[according to whom?] abolishing legal enforcement of interest-rate contracts (usury). It would not entail nationalization but could involve government involvement of some sort. Distributists look favorably on credit unions as a preferable alternative to banks.

Anti-trust legislation[edit]

Distributism appears to have one of its greatest influences in anti-trust legislation in America and Europe designed to break up monopolies and excessive concentration of market power in one or only a few companies, trusts, interests, or cartels. Embodying the philosophy explained by Chesterton, above, that too much capitalism means too few capitalists, not too many, America's extensive system of anti-trust legislation seeks to prevent the concentration of market power in a given industry into too-few hands. Requiring that no company gain too great a share of any market is an example of how distributism has found its way into government policy. The assumption behind this legislation is the idea that having economic activity decentralized among many different industry participants is better for the economy than having one or a few large players in an industry. (Note that anti-trust regulation does take into account cases when only large companies are viable because of the nature of an industry, as in the case of natural monopolies like electricity distribution. It also accepts that mergers and acquisitions may improve consumer welfare; however, it generally prefers more economic agents to fewer, as this generally improves competition.)

Social credit[edit]

Social credit is an interdisciplinary distributive philosophy developed by C. H. Douglas (1879–1952), a British engineer, who wrote a book by that name in 1924. It encompasses the fields of economics, political science, history, accounting, and physics. Its policies are designed, according to Douglas, to disperse economic and political power to individuals.

Social theory[edit]

Human family[edit]

Distributism sees the family of two parents and their child or children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning distributist society and civilization. This unit is also the basis of a multi-generational extended family, which is embedded in socially as well as genetically inter-related communities, nations, etc., and ultimately in the whole human family past, present and future. The economic system of a society should therefore be focused primarily on the flourishing of the family unit, but not in isolation: at the appropriate level of family context, as is intended in the principle of subsidiarity. Distributism reflects this doctrine most evidently by promoting the family, rather than the individual, as the basic type of owner; that is, distributism seeks to ensure that most families, rather than most individuals, will be owners of productive property. The family is, then, vitally important to the very core of distributist thought.


Main article: Subsidiarity

Distributism puts great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity. This principle holds that no larger unit (whether social, economic, or political) should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit. Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, provided the classical statement of the principle: "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do."[34] Thus, any activity of production (which distributism holds to be the most important part of any economy) ought to be performed by the smallest possible unit. This helps support distributism's argument that smaller units, families if possible, ought to be in control of the means of production, rather than the large units typical of modern economies.

Pope Pius XI further stated, again in Quadragesimo anno, "every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them."[33] To prevent large private organizations from thus dominating the body politic, distributism applies this principle of subsidiarity to economic as well as to social and political action.

The essence of subsidiarity is concisely inherent in the Christian maxim 'Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day; teach the person to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'.[original research?]

Social security[edit]

Distributism favors the elimination of social security on the basis that it further alienates man by making him more dependent on the Servile State. Distributists such as Dorothy Day did not favor social security when it was introduced by the United States government. This rejection of this new program was due to the direct influence of the ideas of Hilaire Belloc over American Distributists.

Society of artisans[edit]

Distributism promotes a society of artisans and culture. This is influenced by an emphasis on small business, promotion of local culture, and favoring of small production over capitalistic mass production. A society of artisans promotes the distributist ideal of the unification of capital, ownership, and production rather than what distributism sees as an alienation of man from work.

This does not, however, suggest that distributism necessarily favors a technological regression to a pre-Industrial Revolution lifestyle, but a more local ownership of factories and other industrial centers. Products such as food and clothing would be preferably returned to local producers and artisans instead of being mass-produced overseas.

Geopolitical theory[edit]

Political order[edit]

Distributism does not favor one political order over another (political accidentalism). While some distributists, such as Dorothy Day, have been anarchists, it should be remembered that most Chestertonian distributists are opposed to the mere concept of anarchism. Chesterton thought that Distributism would benefit from the discipline that theoretical analysis imposes, and that distributism is best seen as a widely encompassing concept inside of which any number of interpretations and perspectives can fit. This concept should fit in a political system broadly characterized by widespread ownership of productive property.[35]

Political parties[edit]

The Brazilian political party, Humanist Party of Solidarity is a distributist party, and distributism has influenced Christian Democratic parties in Continental Europe and the Democratic Labor Party in Australia. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam view their Grand New Party, a roadmap for revising the Republican Party in the United States, as "a book written in the distributist tradition."[36]


Distributists usually use Just War Theory in determining whether a war should be fought or not. Historical positions of distributist thinkers provides insight into a distributist position on war. Both Belloc and Chesterton opposed British imperialism in general, as well as specifically opposing the Second Boer War, but supported British involvement in World War I.

On the other hand, prominent distributists such as Dorothy Day and those involved in the Catholic Worker movement were/are strict pacifists even to the point of condemning involvement in the Second World War at much personal cost.


E. F. Schumacher[edit]

Distributism is known to have had an influence on the economist E. F. Schumacher,[37] a convert to Catholicism.

Mondragon Corporation[edit]

The Mondragon Corporation, based in the Basque Country in a region of Spain and France, was founded by a Catholic priest, Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, who seems to have been influenced by the same Catholic social and economic teachings that inspired Belloc, Chesterton, McNabb and the other founders of distributism.[38]

The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic[edit]

Distributist ideas were put into practice by The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a group of artists and craftsmen who established a community in Ditchling, Sussex, England, in 1920, with the motto 'Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses'. The Guild sought to recreate an idealised medieval lifestyle in the manner of the Arts and Crafts Movement; it survived almost 70 years, until 1989.

Big Society[edit]

The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. Some distributists claim that the rhetorical marketing of this policy was influenced by aphorisms of the distributist ideology and promotes distributism.[39] It purportedly formed a part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement.[40] The stated aim was "to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'".[41] The idea of the Big Society was suggested by Steve Hilton who worked as director of strategy for David Cameron during the Coalition government, before moving on to live and work in California.

Early distributists[edit]

Contemporary distributists[edit]

Key texts[edit]

See also[edit]

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