26 March, 2018

Distributism and the French Revolution

Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s attitude towards the French Revolution seems to be, at least in very many cases (and I know it from experience) a rather uncomfortable matter; Andrew Greely, in an introduction to the beautiful Sheed & Ward Classics reedition of Masie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton prophesized that the alliance between Chesterton and the so called “traditional Catholic circles” (the integrists, or whatever else we call them – every name seems somewhat deficient, and definitely controversial), which was forming at the time, would not last long. It was the year 2005. Indeed, Greely was right; and at least in Poland this alliance is now almost dead. Our traditional Catholic communities, first fascinated with Chesterton’s apologetics and imbibing his works almost maniacally (about twelve or ten years ago), tend to talk about him less and less, with the general tactics consisting in pushing him further and further away by the power of “discreet reticence.” “Chesterton? Ah, yes; good writer. Tea?”

What is the reason for that? Well – the apologetic books had been read, and, as was inevitable from the start, we got to politics. For me, it is when my Chestertonian adventure really started; for many, it was when their Chestertonian adventure really ended. An average “traditional Catholic” (and here the terminological question gets tricky for me), reading a passage about “fresh energy” or “timelessness,” or whatever else of the French Revolution that we find scattered among Chesterton’s political works, or of the “the free and humane truisms” or Rousseau “that had refreshed the nations” is going to start feeling at least a little nervous; and when he gest to something like:
It would seem still more perverse, yet it would be still more precise, to say that the most important event in English history was the event that never happened at all—the English Revolution on  the lines of the French Revolution. Its failure was not due to any lack of fervour or even ferocity in those who would have brought it about: from the time when the first shout went up for Wilkes to the time when the last Luddite fires were quenched in a cold rain of rationalism, the spirit of Cobbett, of rural republicanism, of English and patriotic democracy, burned like a beacon.
In ninety percent of cases something will break inside him; he will stand up, take a deep breath and toss his book out of the window. Well, we have to say he had been warned; Chesterton wrote about the French Revolution in Orthodoxy, in The New Jerusalem – or in almost anything else. Had our poor fellow paid enough attention to those omens of doom, he would have managed to avoid this psychological catastrophe. But still, it is not entirely the poor fellow’s own fault; and in my opinion at least Chesterton stance on the French Revolution and, more generally speaking, the democratic theory that stems from it is bound to be at leat a bit surprising to anybody who first got to know his ideas concerning the matters of religion; and even if Chesterton was not a “traditional Catholic” as we understand this term today (as he most surly was not, if we take into account also the matter of the psychological and physiological types that make a group – and please remember I’m talking “from” my own Polish experience), he was definitely a Catholic – and very much attatched to his traditions. Why did he see the French Revolution the way he did?

I would like to answer this question here, if only very provisionally; firstly however, we have to play a little game. I will insert here – without revealing, for now, the names of the authors, nor the titles of the books – three quotes concerning political theory. The reader’s part (if he’s willing to amuse himself a little bit) is to read and take guesses.

1. “Since property is the fulcrum upon which civil society turns, not only must the system of government guarantee each person the peaceful enjoyment of what is his, but this system must be set up in such a way as to establish, as far as possible, a division of property which, if not absolutely equal, is, at the very least, one that revolves around the common mean. It is obvious, especially for a great empire, that wealth can be neither exactly equal nor frozen in place. Fed by far-flung commercial activities, nourished by extensive industries and the rich yield of land, it is necessarily in a constant state of flux. Indeed, this is how it should be. However, if this state of affairs is to last, it is also necessary that wealth never become too concentrated, for if it does, then all fluctuation will cease.”

2. “Nature does not give existence in vain. Just as mother’s milk is enough for all her children, the bosom of earth nourishes and brings to everything that receives life. Fruits and harvest grow alongside man and reproduce for his use: as soon as he is born, the earth works to provide for his needs. […] It is from his field that he must draw everything necessary for his preservation. Should he give it up, it would be as if he said: ‘I abandon all the rights to the land that feeds me. I surrender all its produce. None of it belongs to me anymore,” which would be equivalent to renouncing existence. Such, however, is the position into which seventy-five percent of humanity has been reduced; their lives and means of subsistence are placed entirely at the discretion of the rich, and depend upon the will of a few tyrants who have seized control of all the property.”

3. “What is the first object of society? It is to maintain the inviolable rights of man. What is the first of these rights? The right to exist. The first social law is thus that which guarantees to all society’s members the means of existence; all others are subordinated to it. Property was only instituted or guaranteed to cement it. It is in order to live that we have property in the first case. It is not true that property can ever be in opposition with men’s subsistence. The aliments necessary to man are as sacred as life itself. Everything that is indispensable for its preservation is a property common to all of society. Only the surplus is [property] abandoned to the industry of merchants. Any mercantile speculation that I make at the cost of the life of my like is not a traffic, but brigandage and fratricide. In accordance with this principle, what is the problem to be resolved in the matter of legislation on subsistence? It is this: to assure to all members of society the enjoyment of the portion of the fruits of the earth that is necessary to their existence: The price of their industry for landowners and cultivators, and the delivery of the excess to the freedom of commerce.”

Who wrote these words? And when? And where? Was it Vincent McNabb, Belloc, Herbert Shove? Well, everybody knows that would be too easy. One minute more for making up your mind and… –  now; let me give you the answers:

1. Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne (1756-1819), a Jacobin, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, from his “The Elements of Republicanism.”

2. Antoine Cournard (1747-1814), French politician, journalist, writer, author of the project of the grand agrarian reform, from his On Property, or the Cause of the Poor Defended before the High Court of Reason Justice and Virtue (1791).

3. None other than Maximillien Robespierre (1758-94), from “On Subsistence Goods”, a speech delivered in 1792.

(Note: two first texts were translated by Mr. Marc Allan Goldstein; the last one was translated by Mr. Mitch Abidor).

Now I think that I don’t need to comment on that for too long; this text is only a preliminary and light material opening the case. The rest is entirely in the hands of the reader. He might pursue this trail, he might not – depends on what he or she decides. But I think that even such a short consideration is enough to establish at least one thing; and if we want to know why Chesterton was so much fascinated by the French Revolution, then apart from the biographical motives, his upbringing, the books he read in his youth (Carlyle!), and his general temperament, we can say with full responsibility: because he found in the Revolutionary thought something that strikingly resembled his own (and Belloc’s) ideas as to the proper and just organization of social life; he found a source. French Revolutionists, in the major part, were Distributists; or “proto-Distributists” at least. It is, by the way, a commonly recognized fact (though not everyone that recognized it knew the proper terminology); Jacob Talmon, extremely critical of the Revolutionary movement, in his book The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, explicitly states that Robespierre and the Jacobins were not Communists; “’Land for everybody’” he writes, “this, if anything, sums up the Jacobin social ideal: a society of self-sufficient small-holders, artisans and shopkeepers.” It is the Distributist ideal par excellence. Now, it should never be forgotten that Chesterton knew French very well, and was very well-read in the matters of the French political theory. Many critics, most notably William Oddie, have noticed this connection, and stressed the role that “the French republican tradition” played not only in Chesterton’s thinking, but even writing (and personally, I think the description of the general will, written in the Biblical terms borrowed from the Book of Job, that we can find in What I Saw in America, is one of Chesterton’s finest literary pieces). Is it that improbable that he simply read the texts such as the ones I have included above – and that he made use of them in his ow economic thinking? I reckon not.

Of course, the French Revolution was not ideal; the French Revolutionists made tremendous mistakes. And of course they did, because they were just human. The Jacobin theory found its pathological degeneration if the Communism of Babeuf; and even in its more healthy embodiments, it often suffered from excessive schematism and hyperrationalism (Cournard, for example, advocated dividing the land into plots that would be exactly of the same size). It was not as unmotivated as one might at first sight suppose; and we must never judge the people acting during war and famine too harshly. However, mistakes are mistakes and must be gotten rid of; and Chesterton never hesitated to get rid of them. This is one of the great things he taught me – and I really owe him much. There is only one Source that we need to read on our knees, and no other; and why should we fall on our knees before Robespierre or Varenne? They said many wise things, and many things that were not so wise; and, as equally reasonable human agents, we can feel free to correct them whenever we see fit. But, on the other hand, this thesis has, so to speak, “the other side”; and this or that mistake should never keep us from acknowledging the things about which these people were right – and even though we disagree with them on other points, we should at least do them this much justice. Especially that their writings provide us with a deep well of political experience; and can help us identify and solve the problems that could, without them, prove insurmountable to us, and at least significantly slow us down.

This is, in any case, what Chesterton did; in relation to the French Revolution, he was free; and he used his freedom well.

Anyway, this is how it looks; and this is what I think about it. I don’t know if in America it is the same problem as in Poland, so I will try to express my views as carefully as possible; but, in my opinion, we should not turn our back on a fertile sources of thought only because of the internal problems of the French Catholicism – or even, simply, the French Nation. I know it has become, for many reasons, an almost “official” version of history; good Church versus bad Revolution (or vice versa), locked in an eternal struggle with each other – a struggle that will not stop until one defeats the other and takes a complete reign over the face of the earth. This is why I said that Chesterton’s views have to seem (seem) controversial at first sight; this is what we (or at least many of us) have been taught, and this is how we think. But as Belloc proved (well, he definitely convinced me, and I’m not easy to convince) in his book on the subject, very illuminating, and explaining this political position quite thoroughly, the quarrel the French Revolution had with the Church had almost no connection to religion as such; it was a quarrel about money and power, the Church of the Gaul possessed in such unbelievable quantities at the time (which cannot be said, unfortunately, about her sheep or zealous pastors – or saints…), and which the new government needed so badly (and not without good reasons). From the historical perspective, it is a matter both frightfully delicate and astonishingly simple; it is delicate in itself, and in relation to the history of France; and extremely simple in relation to other nations, and their historical dilemmas. It is not an eternal figure of the struggle of Christ and Antichrist; and even in my little Poland many Catholic thinkers would agree with Robespierre more than with De Maistre; it is a concrete historic quarrel (tragic, indeed, and one in which the Catholics – not the institution of the Church, but the living and suffering Catholics – had been very much, but only from a certain moment, in the position of real victims), arising from the contingent conditions of time, not from the conflict of ideas. So I think, simply, that we should stop hesitating, and embrace the Chestertonian views in the matter without any unnecessary scruples. It might beget a new political quality for the West, it might help to understand our history much better, it might give the Church new means of defense in these difficult times – and it might be good for Distributists and their cause as well; for if we don’t want Distributism for civil equality and liberty, for democracy, for just government and strong yet open national community – what do we even want it for?

For the saints and Christian life, of course; but is it not all the more significant that in this case, these two seemingly opposed ideals coincide? The sign of the cross, as we know from Orthodoxy, is a combination of the vertical and the horizontal; it is a paradox par excellence. And if a thought as essentially Christian as Distributism should prove paradoxical in itself, to me, at least, it would only be one more reason to think it is true; and so it is.

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