From the Canadian Anarchist Journal; Any Time Now. ATN #26 - Spring 2007
it includes a critique of Elizabeth May's mentor; Commander Coady.*
THE BRITISH DISTRIBUTIONISTS
Kevin A. Carson
Race Matthews. Jobs of Our Own: Building a
StakeholderSociety--Alternatives to the Market & the State
(Australia and UK, 1999).
Matthews starts with the nineteenth century origins of
distributism: in the Catholic social teaching of Leo XIII's De
Rerum Novarum (heavily influenced by the proto-distributist
cardinal, Henry Manning, who in turn translated it into
English and added his own commentary), and the wider
tradition of Christian socialism; and in what Matthews calls
the "communitarian and associative" strand of the greater
The distributist vision of a social order based on
widespread, small-scale ownership of property, and of
an economy where the means of production were
mainly owned by workers, dovetailed closely with the
principle of "subsidiarity" in Catholic social teaching:
that social functions should be carried out at the
smallest scale and the most local level of control
Distributism clearly also had strong roots in the socialist
revival of the 1880s, but was alienated from an increasingly
statist and collectivist socialist movement. In the terminology
of Chesterton and Belloc, distributists saw themselves in
opposition to both capitalism and socialism. But I get the
sense, from reading Matthews, that their position was less a
repudiation of socialism as such than a recognition that the
state socialists had permanently stolen the term for
themselves in the public mind.
Rather than a breach with socialism, it would perhaps be
more accurate to say they abandoned the term to their
enemies and adopted the name "distributism" for what
"socialism" used to mean. One contributor to the Distributist
Weekly, W.R. Titterton, commented that distributism would
have fit nicely with the kind of socialism that prevailed in
England back when William Morris was alive (and, I suspect,
would have fit in better yet with the earlier socialism of
Proudhon and the Owenites). "It was a fine time that, and
the vision which possessed us might at last have captured
England, too. If we had not met Sidney Webb!"
The Fabians, like other collectivists who have tried to
marginalize cooperativism within the socialist movement,
dismissed distributism as a "petty bourgeois" or "preindustrial"
movement relevant only to "artisan labor," and
inapplicable to large-scale industrial organization. Cecil
Chesterton, whose premature death dealt distributism a
serious blow, treated such arguments with the contempt
they deserved. "If Mr Shaw means... that it cannot distribute
the ownership of the works, it might be as well to inquire first
whether the ownership is distributed already.... I must
confess that I shall be surprised to learn that Armstrong's
works are today the property of a single man named
Armstrong.... I do not see why it should be harder to
distribute it among Armstrong's men than among a motley
crowd of country clergymen, retired Generals, Cabinet
ministers and maiden ladies such as provide the bulk of the
share-list in most industrial concerns."
Of the major intellectual figures of British distributism, Cecil was the most
aware of the central importance of producer organization.
The distributist movement of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire
Belloc, unfortunately, was long on theory and short on
action. It made little or no attempt at common cause, for
example, with the Rochedale cooperative movement.
Although distributist intellectuals were strongly in favor of
cooperatives in principle, they seemed to have little
awareness that the wheel had already been invented!
Despite impulses toward practical organization in the
provincial chapters of the Distributist League, and Fr.
Vincent McNabb's support of agrarian colonies on vacant
land, such efforts were inhibited by the leadership vacuum
in London (whose main concern, apparently, was apparently
intellectual debate, soapbox oratory, drinking songs, and
public house bonhomie).
The first large-scale attempt to put distributism into practice
was the Antigonish movement of Frs. Jimmy Tompkins and
Moses Coady, among the Acadian French population of
Nova Scotia. Tompkins and Coady acted through adult
study circles, strongly geared toward spurring practical
action. One of the first outgrowths of their educational work
was a decision by lobstermen to build their own cooperative
canning factory. This quickly led to cooperative marketing
ventures, buying clubs for fishing supplies, and cooperative
outlets for household woven goods. The movement
continued to spread like wildfire throughout the Maritimes,
with over two thousand study clubs by the late '30s with
almost 20,000 members, and 342 credit unions and 162
other cooperatives. By keeping for themselves what formerly
went to middlemen, the working people of the Antagonish
movement achieved significant increases in their standard of
Through it all, Coady and Tompkins were motivated by
the "Big Picture" of a cooperative counter-economy on a
comprehensive scale: cooperative retailers, buying from
cooperative wholesalers, supplied by cooperative factories
owned by the movement, and financed by cooperative
In practice, though, the main emphasis was on
consumption and credit rather than production. The
fundamental weakness of Antigonish, Matthew argues, was
that it relied mainly on consumer cooperation, on the
Rochedale model. Consumer cooperation, by itself, is
vulnerable to what Matthews calls the "Rochedale cul-desac,"
in which cooperatives have "gravitated from the hands
of their members to those of bureaucracies," and adopted a
business culture almost indistinguishable from that of
capitalist firms. Worse yet, cooperatives are sometimes
subject to hostile takeovers and demutualization.
The problem with the cooperative movement, idealized by Distributionists, Social Credit and even the CCF was it was limited as a producer's movement in opposition to existing capitalism. It was unable to produce a strong enough alternative economy and political force, whether from the right or left as the legacy of the UFA, Socreds and CCF show, to defeat existing capitalist relations.
When these producer based movements became political parties within a parliamentary system they literally sold their souls to the company store.
In building a broad based alliance between farmers, workers, and urban professionals, these movements pushed for real parliamentary reform calling for direct democracy; referendum, recall.
In becoming a political party especially one in power, whether in Alberta or Saskatchewan, or indeed in some American states, the ability to reform the parliamentary system was limited, and in fact a straight jacket around the realpolitik of the movements.
Ultimately such movements during the last century in Europe and in North America ended up as consumer cooperatives, rather than independent artisan or producer alternatives to the banks and ultimately the capitalist system of production and distribution.
As such they became cogs in the existing capitalist system, as they are today. One really cannot tell the difference between the CO-OP stores and Safeways, or the Credit Unions and the big Banks.
Since once you transform producers to wage slaves they ultimately become 'consumers' in capitalist culture. As such they are subjects of history, rather than class conscious objects; makers of history.
The advent of transforming producers into wage slaves and ultimately declasse consumers, was the ultimate key to the survival of post Depression, post WWII capitalism.
The secret to becoming a revolutionary class for and of itself, the object of history, is the proletariats realization of the need to once again become producers,and land owners, thus self-valorizing individuals.
* a cheeky reference to a ground breaking rockabilly group from the sixties; Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.
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