Revolution Lullabye

June 14, 2007

Distributist Literature Review Draft

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 4:05 am

Laura J. Davies

June 13, 2007

CCR 720: Agnew

Literature Review Draft

   When Religion Inspires Political Action: The Catholic Land Movement 


            In the early twentieth century, there were three competing visions in the Western world for a new political, economic and social order: capitalism, articulated first by Adam Smith and rapidly adopted through industrialization and urbanization; socialism, explained by Karl Marx and initially implemented through communism in the Soviet Union; and distributism, promoted and defined by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc as an alternative to a life either spent in service to money or to a conglomerate state. Distributism was taken up in both Britain and the United States through organizations like the Southern Agrarians, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the Catholic Land Movement. The Catholic Land Movement, founded in Glasgow in 1929, was one of the first unified organizations dedicated to actively promoting and realizing distributist ideas. Although the writings of Chesterton and Belloc were essential to the Catholic Land Movement for both describing the aims of distributism and actively arguing in intellectual and political circles for it, the Movement’s local leaders, who included both clergymen and Catholic laity, were instrumental in explaining distributism to the populace and recruiting people to the Movement through sermons, published essays, and pamphlets.

            This literature review will survey the founding papers of the Catholic Land Movement, which were circulated in England between 1925 and 1934. The transcripts of sermons and many of the pamphlets and weekly and monthly newsletters are not widely available, so I am currently trying to locate archives that have these documents. So, in this literature review, I am working with essays, excerpts, and collections that have been recently reprinted by IHS Press, an independent publishing house located in Virginia. The Catholic Land Movement had a unique take on distributism – it took the economic and political principles of distributism and infused them with Catholic and Christian social and moral aims. The Movement also was one of the few distributist organizations that actually moved distributism from an academic conversation to actual physical action, which required the mobilization of people beyond the inner circle through the rhetoric of the podium and the pamphlet. In this literature review, I will investigate these two themes present in the founding papers of the Catholic Land Movement: how the Movement changed the general principle of distributism to fit its specific Catholic beliefs and aims and how the Movement described its plan of action for implementing distributism in the English countryside.

            G.K. Chesterton’s 1926 book The Outline of Sanity is his explanation of how distributism can counter what he sees as the evils of capitalism and socialism, the prevailing political, economic, and social visions of the times. For him and others, like Hilaire Belloc, the only solution to the rampant urban unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth, and degrading of the quality of manufactured goods that result from industrial capitalism and the totalitarian unity of a socialized state is a society formed by free, independent, property-owning farmers and craftsmen. In The Outline of Sanity, he equates the consolidation of property by big business and the state with the death of the individual, and argues that men and women cannot be truly happy and productive without economic independence, which comes from the ownership of property. Hilaire Belloc, in his preface to Flee to the Fields, concurs on this philosophical principle by declaring that “there is no freedom without property and therefore, as freedom is natural to the desire of man – a desire for the restoration of property when it has been lost is natural” (16). Herbert Shove, a member of the Catholic Land Movement and an economist theory, explains in more detail the economic impact of capitalism that distributism hopes to counteract. Shove writes in “The Rise and Fall of Industrialism” that England’s economy had been transformed by industry so that it only produces low-quality, inessential items and exports them in exchange for food and other vitals, which has ended self-sufficiency and led to the rise of a greedy, wasteful consumer culture.

            This consumer culture is not just an economic problem or a loathsome dumbing down of folk culture and peasant knowledge for the Catholic Land Movement: it is a religious crisis. Because many Catholic priests in England saw distributism as the answer to the vices of the city, they collected together to push distributism – getting people back to the land on subsistence farms and in small, self-sufficient communities – as the only answer. Harold Robbins, in his essay, “The Line of Approach,” points out that industry’s effect on the poor working class is an important Catholic problem because 95% of England’s Catholics lived in the cities, and the vast majority of them were poor factory workers. In “Training for the Land,” Rev. John McQuillan points out that this distributist movement is essentially Catholic, interested in developing Catholic communities in England’s countryside. Part of the argument for the common religious bond that is preached through the Catholic Land Movement is explained by George Maxwell, a member of one of the Catholic Land Movement’s training farms, in his essay “The Restoration of the Crafts.” The new distributist communities will be dependent on hard-working individuals, and Christians believe that “work is sacred,” and therefore the Catholic settlers’ commitment to their work as an expression of their religion and an act of submission to God will ensure the community’s survival.

            In his essay, Maxwell argues that “a civilization in which men and women worship God in their work,” which is the vision of the Catholic Land Movement, “will be a new civilization, and no civilization was ever built in a day” (128). Thus, the actual plan articulated by Chesterton, Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and others for the full realization of distributism in England through the Movement is necessarily vague. However, as McQuillan describes in his chapter, “The Origins,” in Flee to the Fields, the Catholic Land Movement took many proactive steps in the late 1920s and early 1930s to begin to resettle Catholics from England’s cities on the land that had been turned over to sheep grazing in the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Catholic Land Movement was founded in Glasgow on April 26, 1929, and grew in the next year to include four more city-chapters in England: London, Birmingham, Manchester, and London. These associations published newsletters, newspapers, and pamphlets, such as The Cross and the Plough, that carried the message out to the populace.

            The leaders of the Catholic Land Movement had the challenge of converting factory workers to farmers. This transition was facilitated, as Reginald Jebb describes in “The Community” and McQuillan in “Training for the Land,” by the creation of four training centers in England. These working farms recruited young single men who wanted to escape city life for the promise of a more fulfilling life through distributism and taught them the huge variety of tasks necessary to becoming a self-sufficient small farmer. It was the plan, as McQuillan notes, to establish a training center for women, but due to insufficient funds, it was never realized. It was not ideal, as Jebb notes, that these training centers did not allow for the support of entire families, for as Fr. Vincent McNabb argues in “The Family” and Fr. H.E.G. Rope claims in “Looking Before and After,” two essays included in Flee to the Fields, the family is the natural, organic fundamental element of the new distributist community.

            The capitalist and socialist states, which separate families by sending parents away from the home in order to work and take over the education and care of the children, destroy the family unit, and only distributism, which keeps the family together, joined in a common pursuit for survival on the land, can revive it. McNabb develops this argument more fully in his book, The Church and the Land. Known as one of the most radical of the distributists, he argues that Catholic doctrine proves that “the rights of the parent are prior to the rights of the state” by recognizing the fact that “families must have preceded states” (120). The Catholic hierarchy of Britain agree with McNabb and other distributists in their “Declaration by the Archbishops and Bishops of England and Wales on the Subject of Education,” in which they declare that the family, not the state, is the measure of all things, including the education of children. Another important element in these new communities is a permanent priest, as Mgr. James Dey writes in “The Church and the Land.” The Catholic Land Movement depends, therefore, on the redistribution of priests from the city to the countryside as more Catholics leave the city and settle on small farms.

            The Catholic Land Movement was interested in settling as many city workers on the land as possible. Therefore, rampant use of agricultural machines, which reduce the number of people needed to work the land, would be antithetical. In “The Case for the Peasant,” K.L. Kenrick argues that the Catholic Land Movement must be careful to invest in men, not machines (what he claims is the fatal mistake of capitalism.) Chesterton, at the end of The Outline of Sanity, agrees, but states that distributism, in its realization through the first settled communities of farmers and craftsmen, must be flexible, and it would be foolish to write off all technology and state assistance, for both might be necessary for the success of the fledging communities. Many of the authors of the founding papers of the Catholic Land Movement concur with Chesterton, pointing out that government assistance in the form of tax breaks, land grants, and subsidies would help the new distributist communities afford the land they will live on and afford to focus on their own development and survival.


            I realize this is largely historical background to the distributist movement, but it was necessary to start here in order to understand the scope of the material I’m dealing with. I’m especially interested in the publications of the Catholic Land Movement – I want to investigate more deeply how they framed their arguments and how they appealed to the public through sermons and pamphlets. There was success in the beginning of the Catholic Land Movement, but then it died, and I wonder why it died – was it a lack of persuasion on the state level? There is also an interesting years-long debate between Chesterton and H.G. Wells about distributism and socialism. The two argue for their respective world visions through letters, essays, and books. What the modern world would be was an important topic to discuss in the early 20th century, as everything, from warfare to the means of producing goods to the structure of communities and family life, was rapidly changing. So here are some questions I have for the material I’ve gathered so far:

1. What were the training centers like? How did people find out about them?

2. Who wrote the newsletters and papers associated with the Catholic Land Movement (The Cross and the Plough and others)? What was the purpose of these publications?

3. Why were the training centers for women never established? What were they going to teach?

4. Where is distributism today?

5. Why did the Catholic Land Movement fail?

6. What role did noted preachers like Vincent McNabb play in the Movement?

7. What role did the masses have in the Movement?

Works Cited

Belloc, Hillaire. “Preface.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 15-18.


Chesterton, Gilbert K. The Outline of Sanity. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2001.


“Declaration by the Archbishops and Bishops of England and Wales on the Subject of Education.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 78-79.


Dey, James. “The Church and the Land.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 93-104.


Fahey, William E. “Introduction.” In The Church and the Land. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003.


Jebb, Reginald. “The Community.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 81-92.


Kenrick, K.L. “The Case for the Peasant.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 105-118.


Maxwell, George. “The Reconstruction of the Crafts.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 119-130.


McNabb, Vincent. The Church and the Land. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003.


—. “The Family.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 69-77.


McQuillan, John. “The Origins.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 21-24.


—. “Training for the Land.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 63-68.


Robbins, Harold. “The Line of Approach.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 48-62.


Rope, H.E.G. “Looking Before and After.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 131-144.


Shove, Herbert. “The Rise and Fall of Industrialism.” In Flee to the Fields. Ed. Hillaire Belloc. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003. 25-46.



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