Remembering Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) was the son of a French father and an English mother, a fact that loomed large in his personal and intellectual loyalties. Born in France at La Celle-Saint Cloud, near Paris, Belloc was ed­ucated in English schools after his father’s early death. For the better part of his adult life he supported himself as a journalist, biographer, historian, poet, novelist, and politi­cal thinker. Among his contemporaries, both his admirers and detractors remarked upon his volatile personality and his striking visage composed of a strong thrusting chin, prominent Gallic nose, and brooding eyes. It was, indeed, a prepossessing face that seemed to proclaim his fearsome and unwavering opposition to the heresy of modernity.

Belloc’s claim to be remembered as a man of the right is grounded in his oft-repeated conviction that the unity of European culture had been derailed by several factors, among them the rise of capitalism, the emergence of the In­dustrial Revolution, and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church, which had been the mystical heart of that unity. While he was frequently accused of a reactionary nostal­gia, his best work has stood the test of time and may be regarded as remarkably prescient, especially in his formula­tion of Distributism, an economic and political “third way” between capitalism and socialism—a doctrine that Belloc developed most fully in The Servile State (1912).

Having graduated from Oxford in 1895 with first-class honors in history, Belloc began immediately to engage in a prolific array of literary ventures, publishing several vol­umes of verse, a celebrated travel journal (The Path to Rome, in 1902), essays for London’s The Morning Post, and, in 1899, a biography of Georges Danton, one of the key archi­tects of the French Revolution. In Danton we get a glimpse of what many critics over the years have seen as a funda­mental contradiction in Belloc’s political vision. On the one hand, he was, even in his Oxford days, a moral and cultur­al traditionalist; on the other, he extolled the republicanism of the French Revolution. Thus he rejected Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke’s scathing dis­section of the threat to settled order represented by the Paris commune and its egalitarian agenda. The difficulty of reconciling these seemingly antipodal positions should be obvious.

Indeed, they cannot be fully reconciled, but the con­tradiction can be grasped in part by understanding that Belloc had a personal, familial stake in arguing—against the English grain—that the Revolution had been misrepre­sented, and that French republicanism was a noble attempt to restore a European historical heritage that reached back to the Roman republic. His French great-grandfather had fought on the republican side during the Revolution; while his English great-great grandfather, the scientist Joseph Priestly, had witnessed in 1791 the burning of his home in Birmingham at the hands of a Tory mob. Priestly, as is known, had been an outspoken supporter of the Revo­lution. This heritage no doubt contributed to a strain of republican radicalism in Belloc’s character.

In Danton, Belloc attempted to defend the Revolution as a reaction against the long betrayal of the French people by a decadent monarchy and aristocracy, which had both long since abandoned, at least in practice, the ideals of the High Middle Ages. “It was essentially a reversion to the normal—a sudden and violent return to those conditions which are the necessary bases of health in any political community,” he wrote. According to John P. McCarthy in Hilaire Bel­loc: Edwardian Radical (1978), Belloc believed that “the creative and organic institutions formulated for European civilization in the Middle Ages had become unnatural or artificial instruments of privilege whose beneficiaries themselves did not believe in their values.” While it may be difficult to see the sans culottes as the representatives of a movement to restore the “necessary bases of health” by mob action, even less convincing is Belloc’s notion, ar­gued in The French Revolution (1911), that Rousseau’s The Social Contract could be interpreted as a restatement of an ancient truth in new garb—an assertion of organic unity that is, or should, be the essence of democracy. On these grounds, Belloc justified the Terror as a necessary instru­ment of purification.

For balance, Belloc did argue in The French Revolution that the Terror could be morally justified only while there was a genuine fear of invasion. Robespierre’s mistake, in this view, was his belief that “popularity” lay on the side of the Terror, particularly his own popularity. When the threat of invasion passed, he clung to the Terror out of fear that the martial power of the new regime would be weakened. Yet, noted Belloc, “it was with the utmost difficulty that this ab­solute, intolerant and intolerable martial system could be continued when once the fear of invasion was removed.”

Belloc repeatedly argued that direct democracy only works in small states, like the city-states of the ancient Greeks or in the medieval communes, which makes his glorification of the nationalist ambitions of the Paris com­mune all the more puzzling. After all, revolutionary France was home to some 25 million souls. Half a century later, the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson argued, in The Gods of Revolution (1972), that the democracy of the Paris commune was, indeed, “democracy in action,” but one rad­ically different from the representative democracies that have been more typical in Europe and America. The di­rect democracy that sprang to life in France in 1789 was, in Dawson’s view, “a new and terrible power.”

It is possible that Belloc eventually recognized the par­tial truth in this claim, since after 1899 he ceased to speak of the French Revolution, though he continued to believe that direct democracy was superior to the representative vari­ety. In England at least, representative democracy had long since been captured by an oligarchy whose growing influ­ence had radically altered for the worse every aspect of the lives of Englishmen.

Belloc’s conviction that oligarchic (or plutocratic) in­terests were deliberately frustrating the democratic and economic hopes of the British people crystalized between 1906 and 1910. Then, Belloc served as a member in the House of Commons, first as a Liberal, and then as an In­dependent. He numbered himself, in those years, among the radicals—those who sought far-reaching reforms that would bring to heel the dominance of the House of Lords. But his experience in Parliament convinced him that in reality both parties were controlled by a small, oligarchic governing class. In 1911, he coauthored with G. K. Ches­terton The Party System, which argued that the apparent rivalry between the two major parties was, as McCarthy notes, “a sham game played by the two front benches for the purpose of determining which one would control the government at any given moment.” The result was, in the view of Belloc and Chesterton, a “homogeneous” cabal of wealthy landowners and large-scale commercial interests “into whose hands practically all power, political as well as economic has now passed.”

Thoroughly disenchanted with the British political scene, and increasingly under the influence of Rerum no­varum, the influential 1891 encyclical on economic matters promulgated by Pope Leo XIII, Belloc began work on two books: Socialism and the Servile State (1911) and The Ser­vile State. Following the lead of Pope Leo, Belloc argued for an economic “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Both economic systems, in his view, were leading Europe (and especially Great Britain) toward a kind of slavery.

Belloc defined the servile state as the “arrangement of society in which so considerable number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labor for the advantage of other families and individuals as to stamp the whole community…” with the stigma of servility. Such a servile state had first begun to emerge in Britain, where the capitalist regime had gradually appropriated the lion’s share of property (both land and the means of production). In Belloc’s view, British workers were not yet “constrained by positive law,” but he was convinced that some form of wide­spread forced labor was inevitable.

While Belloc’s argument has something in common with the socialist analysis of predatory capitalism, he was not in any sense a collectivist. He saw socialism as a sys­tem that arose in response to the conditions of the capitalist social order after the Industrial Revolution and the wide­spread suffering and instability it produced. Somewhat controversially, he refused to accept the common view that the Industrial Revolution gave birth to capitalism, and in­stead found its origins in the expropriation of monastic lands under King Henry VIII. But to understand the true significance of that historical watershed, he insisted, we must delve deeper.

Prior to the rise of the Christian order, slavery was the fundamental economic reality of ancient civilizations. The building of cities, the formulation of bodies of law, and the creation of works of art and literature found expression through an elite few whose freedom from economic com­pulsion rested upon the labor of a slave underclass. No one questioned slavery’s moral or practical necessity; it was sim­ply accepted as a natural condition, even by the enslaved.

Christianity changed all this, but it took centuries for the leavening to do its work. Although for hundreds of years af­ter the fall of the Empire, the Church followed the Roman example of tolerating slavery, from an early date the eman­cipation of slaves was considered a laudable act of Christian mercy. After the collapse of the Empire in the West and the break-up of the larger agricultural estates, smaller peasant farms modeled on the old Roman “villa” became the most common form of agricultural enterprise.

As Belloc would have it, and as historical accounts con­firm, the status of the slave changed as it became “more convenient, and more consonant with the social spirit of the time to make sure of the slave’s produce by asking him for no more that certain customary dues.” Given the inse­cure conditions of the time, the dominus was both master and protector. The buying and selling of slaves became less common as slave families became more rooted in the land over generations. They became more like tenant farmers, furnishing the master with a modest share of their harvests and retaining a surplus. Thus the institution of serfdom was established.

According to Belloc, by the 9th century the old mano­rial estates had, in effect, become “distributed” among the lord and his serfs, divided into three parts: pasture and ar­able land, reserved for the lord himself (his “domain”); land worked exclusively by the serfs; and common lands over which both lord and serfs exercised shared rights—rights that “were remembered and held sacred by custom.” By the 11th century, “the serf is already nearly a peasant.” While he was legally bound to the soil, he was also free to “en­ter the professions and the church,” or to become a man “practically free in the growing industries of the towns.” By the high Middle Ages, this serf/peasant had become a free yeoman. “He bought and sold. He saved as he willed, he invested, he built, he drained at his discretion, and if he improved the land it was to his own profit.” Alongside this emancipation emerged the medieval guilds and other co­operative associations that, among other things, guaranteed the “small proprietor against loss of his economic indepen­dence, while at the same time [protecting] society against the growth of a proletariat.”

In short, for some 500 years down to the middle of the 16th century, the wide dispersal of property and means of production that Belloc and his fellow Distributists hoped to restore was in fact a historical reality. That began to change in England when Henry VIII sought to enrich the Crown coffers by suppressing Catholic religious foundations and confiscating monastic lands and financial assets. Indeed, as more recent historians like Eamon Duffy and A. G. Dick­ens have shown, the monastic lands thus appropriated amounted to approximately a fourth of all the arable land in England—an astonishing act of royal theft and one which was largely opposed by the English people, but eagerly em­braced by nobles and the lesser gentry who stood to benefit enormously by the purchase of hundreds of thousands of confiscated acres.

In this fashion, Belloc argued, a proto-capitalist elite was established. While it is possible to question some aspects of this part of his argument, it continues to influence those who seek a middle way between capitalism and socialism. For example, the so-called “Blue Labour” movement in England today, which is similarly influenced by Catholic social teaching, adopts a view of the rise of capitalism akin to Belloc’s. A leading Blue Labour economist, Adrian Pabst, has noted that

By handing over expropriated land to barons in ex­change for their political support, Henry did not simply reinforce the Crown … [but] also weakened and destroyed the network of trans-local monastic orders which since the Norman Conquest had helped create and uphold the complex space of intermedi­ary associations that tended to diffuse central power and mediate between individuals and the state, in­cluding localities, guilds and agrarian communities.

Just as important, Pabst emphasized, was the vast enclo­sure of common lands, further enriching the new economic elites. Thereby “the perennial sanctity of life and land was subordinated to secular sacrality of the national state and the transnational market. Thus capitalism was born.”

Belloc suggested that the Industrial Revolution, which began in England, was financed by this new capitalist class of speculators. What is certainly true is that by the early 19th century, the wide dispersal of property in the British isles had given way to an economic and political regime in which most of the property and the means of production had become concentrated in the hands of a few, accom­panied by a vast expansion of the proletariat, those who owned little or no property and had been reduced to that level of quasi-servility sometimes called “wage slavery.”

By Belloc’s own time, it had become clear that the “dreadful moral anarchy” of capitalism had become so advanced that many (both workers and employers) might see state sanctioned servility as an improvement over the instability and insecurity of the status quo.

Indeed, in some passages Belloc makes a theoretical case for the desirability of a return to slavery that overlaps with the arguments of the antebellum proslavery found­ers of American sociology: George Fitzhugh and Henry Hughes. Fitzhugh’s critique of capitalism in Sociology for the South (1854) strikingly prefigures some parts of Bel­loc’s own; while Hughes, in A Treatise on Sociology (1854), argues for a slave regime that would include not only Afri­can Americans but indigent whites, foreshadowing Belloc’s notion that a servile state for the proletariat would be supe­rior to capitalism in providing for their security. If Belloc was familiar with these writers, however, he does not allude to them. In any case, there is no doubt that he personal­ly regarded the enslaved condition as an affront to human dignity. His point in pursuing this line of thought was sim­ply to indicate the reasons why large numbers of workers might be persuaded to yield up their freedom for the prom­ise of security.

In subsequent publications, Belloc argued repeatedly that the servile state might be averted only by restoring the true idea of property. His last major work, An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936), especially emphasizes the inextricable linkage between property and freedom. We are accustomed to assume that capitalism is in its essence the exercise of economic freedom with an eye to producing a surplus of wealth, which in turn will be used to produce still greater wealth with a minimum of interference by the state—a definition that has been gospel writ for many gen­erations of American conservatives. But Belloc insisted that Capitalism properly understood is a “state of society in which a minority control the means of production, leaving the mass of citizens dispossessed.”

The disciples of capitalism will object that when eco­nomic freedom is exercised without the interference of the state it will, on the contrary, result in precisely the wide­spread ownership of property that Belloc desires. In the capitalist model for society, rooted in a Lockean vision of the isolated individual in an imaginary “state of nature,” the pursuit of profit would in theory, by its own self-regulating dynamic, prevent the dominance of exploitative minorities.

This, of course, is a plutocratic myth. The deracinated individual upon which this myth rests, Belloc would ar­gue, is a figment of the Protestant imagination. Individuals do exist, but always within the context of families and com­munities, bound by innumerable ties of affection and duty. Only in this sense can a healthy understanding of property and freedom emerge. In Belloc’s vision of the Distributist or “Proprietary State” (as he more frequently called it) the cen­tral actor is not the individual but the family, and the goal is to create a society in which a sufficient number (a major­ity) of families control the means of production to such an extent that “small” ownership becomes the dominant mode of society. Economic freedom he, argues, is essential, but within limits. One of the chief roles of the state would be to ensure that no elite faction would be permitted to monopo­lize the means of production.

If capitalist nations in the West have not yet embarked upon a program of state sanctioned slavery, we are nonethe­less more deeply enmeshed in a condition of servility than we were a century ago. Just to focus on the United States, it is true that the ownership of property is widespread. The rate of home ownership stands currently at roughly 63 per­cent, according to the U.S. Census. But to own a home in America today is not typically a productive form of prop­erty. Moreover, most homes and the land they occupy are mortgaged, meaning that it is the banks that exercise actu­al ownership.

In addition, most Americans do not own businesses, but rather depend upon wages and salaries disbursed by enormous corporations. It is true that almost half of Amer­icans own shares in those corporations (especially by way of 401k retirement plans), but almost never enough to al­low any real control over them. We are all now a part of a vastly enlarged proletariat, even when we earn six figure salaries and vacation in exotic places. Numerous Keynesian reforms over the course of the 20th century shield us from most of the economic disruptions that were so common down through the Great Depression, ensuring that our lives are manipulated, from the cradle to the grave, by layer upon layer of managerial bureaucracies whose ultimate purpose is to ensure that we remain docile and subservient.

This is indeed a form of slavery, but one whose chains are largely invisible. Belloc would say that, in the short term, there is little we can do about our situation. He did not favor massive state intervention for the purpose of redistribution, since most people no longer understand true ownership, and widespread and sudden redistribution could only lead to yet another form of servility in which millions are, in ef­fect, mortgaged to the central state. But this is not to say that he did not have hope for the long term, for the human yearning for freedom and property will prove greater than the allure of servility.

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