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Distributism, another Name for Socialism

Patrick Odou

Today I will continue the analysis of Patrick Cahill’s letter describing a meeting of the Distributist League of which he was secretary. I remind my reader that he was describing the session in which Fr. Vincent McNabb delivered a speech and George Bernard Shaw, a known socialist, was present as a guest of honor.

McNabb, Chesterton, and Belloc

McNabb, Chesterton & Belloc
The attendants were regular readers of G.K.’s Weekly, a British publication founded in 1925 by G. K. Chesterton, which continued until his death in 1936. This select audience, as Cahill describes it, nonetheless revealed itself to be obsequious in the face of an overt enemy of Christian Civilization. Instead of showing opposition or reserve toward Shaw, as would be expected of good Catholics, the attendees gave him a standing ovation at his arrival. Cahill reports:

The entry to the meeting was quite a moment. The room rose and applauded, for the fame of Shaw was then very great and all felt it generous of him to come to so small a meeting. He was introduced to Fr. Vincent - they had not, I think, previously met - and to the Chairman, Richard O’Sullivan, the lawyer. Fr. Vincent then continued his interrupted discourse.

I believe it quite beneficial for present-day Catholics to realize that Distributism in its origins was not void of admiration for Socialism. Those readers of G.K. Weekly were, indeed, fans of a Socialist luminary. We see, therefore, that Fr. MacNabb, who invited Shaw to the meeting, and Chesterton, the founder of G.K. Weekly, were, to say the least, complacent with Socialism.

‘Distributism is a better word than Socialism’

As a matter of fact, this is not my speculation. Cahill corroborates this opinion when he narrates the events of that evening:

On being invited to give his views [on Fr. McNabb’s speech that had just ended], Mr. Shaw said that as he was entirely with what Fr. McNabb had said, he proposed to wait until someone else disagreed in order that he might wipe the floor with the objector.

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw: Socialism and Distributism, different words to say the same thing
So, George Bernard Shaw, a notorious socialist, listened to a long speech by Fr. Vincent McNabb and found nothing objectionable. Further, he approved of that speech so much that he said he would defend it and “wipe the floor” with anyone who dared to disagree with Fr. McNabb.

Cahill then reports that Shaw claimed to be the first to propose Distributism as the solution to the social problem. In fact, he said he believed Distributism was a far better word than Socialism. Here are the words of the ex-secretary of the League:

On being invited to join the League by the Chairman, Shaw retorted that he was really its father since he was the first to insist upon Distributism as the solution of the social problem. Distributism was a far better word than Socialism.

Based on this document, we put to rest the allegation that early Distributism had nothing to do with Socialism. According to Shaw’s testimony the two movements were synonymous. I suggest my readers keep this statement in mind to use as argumentation against those who, without any proofs, pretend the opposite.

Another point exposed in this letter is that the Chairman, and/or McNabb himself, invited Shaw “to join the League,” that is, to become a member of it. If this is true, we see that the ideals of the two movements would be much more closely linked than first reported, since it was mentioned that Shaw had only been invited to attend that one meeting.

Distributism is more radical than Socialism

After mentioning the bond between the two movements, Cahill’s letter reveals another point of agreement. He writes:

He [Shaw] appeared to think it unimportant that his desired distribution was of the fruits of production rather than (as we wished) of the means of production. …

While the brackets are mine, the explanation between parentheses was introduced by Cahill. So, we have his frank testimony of the true goal of Distributism.


Distributism wants to divide the actual source of production, the land
We know that the distribution of the fruits of production refers to the profits made, not to the means of production, which is the property itself and the land and production improvements the owner introduced in it. This text reveals to us that Shaw at that time was more moderate than the Distributists, insofar as he was only seeking equal distribution of the fruits of an orchard or the wool of a herd of sheep, not to divide the ownership of the actual orchard or sheep, as the Distributists did.

The final paragraph of this letter written by the Secretary of the Distributist League confirms that he believed Communism and Distributism were on the same path. Speaking of Shaw and McNabb, he wrote:

Then each of the two protagonists left that room where had been voiced the debate which is at the root of the world’s division today: each to his home - the Communist to property, the Friar to poverty in common.

The debate that was “at the root of the world’s division” in the early 1950s, the time when Cahill wrote his letter, was that a Catholic cannot be a Communist. What Cahill insinuates, therefore, is that even though it would not be prudent to affirm that Shaw and McNabb shared the same Communist ideas (1), the truth is, they actually did.

The great contribution of Cahill’s letter is, in my opinion, that it makes clear that, in the eyes of the George Bernard Shaw and the Distributists themselves, Distributism is the same thing as Socialism.
1. If any reader would like to verify the falsity of the presupposition that religious poverty implies Communism - a thesis explicitly defended by McNabb - he may read an earlier article I wrote proving this to be wrong.

Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted June 11, 2009

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