Revolution Lullabye

June 29, 2007

Article Proposal – Distributism

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 1:31 am

Laura J. Davies

June 28, 2007

CCR 720: Agnew


  Faith and Economics Collide: The Rhetoric of the Catholic Land MovementAn Article Proposal  

            The process of writing history has as much to do with the historian’s appraisal of his present world as it does with the conditions, ideas, and events of the past that he is excavating and presenting to the reader. Hans Kellner, in his 1994 essay, “After the Fall,” illustrates this through the example of Erich Auerbacher’s 1953 history of Gregory of Tours, Mimesis. Auerbacher, a German living in Turkey after World War II, was dealing with the collapse of his old life in Germany, and when he read Gregory’s History of the Franks, he made a connection between himself and Gregory, who was also grappling with the reality of a new world order, his being the rise of ransacking barbarian rule after the fall of Rome. Armed with this sense of camaraderie, Auerbacher was able to present a uniquely nuanced reading of Gregory’s history, and this, Kellner claims, should be the purpose of all histories. It is not enough to write a chronicle of the past; rather, the historian of rhetoric must use language to construct a reality of both the past and the present. What that past was is relatively important. Kellner points out that Auerbacher “chose to reread an unimportant passage in a little-read text of a dark age, and found a great deal” (35). A good history is not all-encompassing. Instead, he argues, “historical discourse progresses, if that is the right word, by producing classics, in all their individuality and, often, wrongness” (34). History cannot ignore the human element – it is about humans and it is created by them, and therefore reflects the choices and arguments all people make.

            It is Kellner’s argument for small histories like Auerbacher’s, which have the potential to provide contemporary readers with great truths about their present world, that led me to the work of the distributists and the Catholic Land Movement in England from the 1920s to the 1940s. Little work has been done on this group of radical (or some say reactionary) reformers, who argued that the only solution for the vices of industrial capitalism was to turn people back to the land and create self-sufficient communities of independent, property-owning farmers and craftsmen. Distributism was in opposition to the more popular alternative economic theory of the time, socialism. The tenets of distributism were most fully described and promoted by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who debated with leading socialist thinkers of the day through an extended correspondence consisting of personal letters and published essays and treatises. This virtually untapped store of arguments against standardization, consolidation, and unnecessary mechanization has many potentially valuable connections to current twenty-first century arguments for local economies and cultures. I believe, therefore, that it is necessary to recover the history of distributism and the work of the Catholic Land Movement, which trained industrial laborers to become farmers. The distributists were arguing for people to change the entire structure of their lives and their communities. They used the power of the word in the form of the essay, the newsletter, the pamphlet, and the pulpit to get their message out to both the poor in the cities and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, who patronized the movement in England.

            It is this connection between an economic argument (distributism) and religion (the Catholic Church) that I wish to explore in an article about the Catholic Land Movement. The Catholic resistance to industrial capitalism began, in large part, with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. This open letter by the leader of the Catholic Church solidified the Church’s place in the economic debates of the time. Leo XIII called for an alternative system; Chesterton, a Catholic, gave a possibility through distributism, which he fully explained in his 1926 book, The Outline of Sanity. The Outline of Sanity, as well as other works by Chesterton and his intellectual partner, Hilaire Belloc, was then taken up by the leaders of the Catholic Land Movement, who put the principles of distributism in action through the establishment of local city chapters and training centers. The structure of the training centers and the Catholic Land Movement’s own take on the theories of distributism is explained through the founding papers of the movement, contained in a collection edited by Belloc, Flee to the Fields, which was recently republished in 2003 by IHS Press. I believe the intersection of faith and economics makes the argument of distributism particularly strong: the Catholic Land Movement is able to appeal through two lines of argument, one political/economic and the other religious. My central claim, then, is that the Catholic Land Movement brought the words of Leo XIII and Chesterton to practical fruition, persuading members of the large population of Catholic industrial workers to leave their jobs and be retrained to start a new community based on different economic principles with a Catholic ethical vision. I analyze the arguments of the many contributors to Flee to the Fields to trace how both Leo XIII’s and Chesterton’s arguments were taken up by the leaders of the Catholic Land Movement. This article will also require historical research in the conditions of English cities from 1890 to 1935, conditions created through industrial capitalism, which distributism claims to counter. It will also necessitate research in the principles of socialism, which is rejected in both Rerum Novarum and The Outline of Sanity.

            The main text I will use in my argument is the Flee to the Fields collection. Other possible sources that will add to my understanding of how the Catholic Land Movement functioned and presented its arguments to Catholic congregations are the serial publications of the Movement, most notably The Cross and the Plough, a newsletter published in Glasgow that served as the voice of the Movement throughout England. I have worked with the archival librarians at Syracuse University to locate copies of The Cross and the Plough. The University of Notre Dame has a few copies of individual issues of the publication in its archives, but there are full runs of The Cross and the Plough at both the National Archives of Canada at the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and at the British Library in London. I believe that access to these publications will give me a better, more comprehensive understanding of how the contributors argued for distributism among England’s poor urban Catholic population. The Kelly Library is the most obvious choice for immediate research; they do not loan out serial publications, but Toronto is relatively accessible from Syracuse and travel there would not require much funding. Eventually, though, to pursue this project more fully, it makes sense to also travel to England, where I might be able to locate additional publications through the diocesan libraries and also find people who were involved in the Catholic Land Movement or who know about it more intimately, since it was active through the mid-1940s. My first step, if this article includes information from The Cross and the Plough, is to apply for travel funding to go to the Kelly Library in Toronto, where I will be able to access the full scope of the publication.

            This article, with its emphasis on historical research, religious rhetoric, and the rhetoric of social movements, has several possible venues for publication, such as journals devoted to the study of rhetoric like Rhetoric Review, Rhetorica, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, JAC, and Philosophy and Rhetoric. This article might also be of interest to more interdisciplinary journals in history or religion, like Journal of the History of Ideas, Past & Present, The Catholic Historical Review, and Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. I could also transform this article into a conference presentation for CCCC (under the history of rhetoric) or RSA. The deadline for the May 2008 RSA conference in Seattle is September 15, so I could put together a proposal this summer for presenting my project there. I can see this project developing into several articles and possibly a dissertation project, but I need to do more primary research into the Catholic Land Movement to see if that is possible. There are also contemporary applications of the work of the Catholic Land Movement that I could explore, such as its connections to the Catholic Workers Movement (Dorothy Day) and modern movements in the Catholic Church for social justice (the Just Faith movement and liberation theology), as well as connections to current economic arguments against large mechanized corporate agriculture and conglomerate businesses and for self-sustaining community initiatives, such as food co-ops and patronage of local businesses.

 Main Bibliography

Belloc, Hilaire, ed. Flee to the Fields. Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2003.

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

The Cross and the Plough: The Organ of the Catholic Land Associations of England and Wales. Vol. 1-16 (1934-1949.)


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

Rerum Novarum: Encyclical Letter of Our Holy Father by Divine Providence. Pope Leo XIII on the Condition of Labor. May 15, 1891. In Seven Great Encyclicals. Ed. William J. Gibbons. Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1963.



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