The newly formed Romanian Distributist League “Ion Mihalache” marks a first victory for Distributism in Romania. It should come as no surprise that Distributism is being touted as the best vehicle for radical change in this post-communist country.
In the post-World I period, Distributism found concrete success in Central and Eastern Europe. When the peasant parties came to power, they embarked on the implementation of a radical, distributist-oriented program which drew high praise from G.K. Chesterton. In his “Introduction” to Helen Douglas-Irvine’s book, The Making of Rural Europe (1923), G.K. Chesterton writes:
[Throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans] in a sort of awful silence the peasantries have fought one vast and voiceless pitched battle with Bolshevism and its twin brother, which is Big Business, and the peasantries have won…. It is a huge historical hinge and turning point, like the conversion of Constantine or the French Revolution… What has happened in Europe since the war was a vast victory for the peasant, and therefore a vast defeat for the communists and the capitalists.
After the World War, Eastern European countries, except Hungary, adopted democratic institutions and enfranchised the peasant both politically (by the universal vote) and economically (by the land reform). “Peasant parties,” writes George D. Jackson, Jr., “having been suddenly thrust to the pinnacle of power by the new electoral laws professed their devotion to democracy, anti-Bolshevism, and significant social and economic reforms.” It was a period of hope and enthusiasm. The “vast victory for the peasant” came at a time when new national states in Eastern Europe were created. After 1918, Romania also rejoiced national statehood as she came to include all provinces with an ethnic Romanian majority. Peasants had no accumulated grievances against their governments and stayed immune to the Bolshevik internationalist propaganda (In Romania, for instance, the National Peasant Party vehemently rejected a Comintern-inspired “single great union of workers’ and peasants’ republic in the Balkans”).
“The vast victory for the peasant” was short-lived; by the end of the thirties, the agrarian regimes were ended by dictatorship. “The hue and cry was ever against the Bolshevik wolves,” writes David Mitrany, “but it was the peasant shepherds who got murdered, like Stamboliski and Radic, or imprisoned and ostracized, like Witos and Maniu and a host of their followers. In one country after another, the peasant groups were in this way cheated out of their legitimate claim to power.” Alone, the Czechoslovak Agrarian Party stayed in power, in coalition with others, until 1938. And yet “the peasantist movements remained the highest and most authentic expression of both popular and intelligentsia aspirations in the interwar period.”
In the United States, most analyses of Eastern European agrarianism were made during the Cold War era within East European or Soviet studies. They tend to regard it as a reactionary ideology based on a peasant mystique, anti-industrialism and anti-modernity and placed it in a secondary position to the rise and development of communism in Eastern Europe. Only lately, a connection has been made between Distributism and the Eastern Europe’s agrarianism. Credit must be given to social historian Allan C. Carlson and the Distributist economist John Médaille for challenging the old views and firmly connecting the agrarian project in Eastern Europe to the aims and principles of Distributism.
The central agrarian concept, directly related to Distributism, refers to the family as the most basic unit of production and consumption in society. The agrarian economists and ideologues drew heavily on Alexander Vasilevich Chayanov’s theory of natural family economy. A victim of Stalin’s goulag, the Soviet economist exposed how both neoclassical and Marxist theory largely ignored the non-wage “family labor farm” and the peasant mode of production. In the peasant “natural economy”, argues Chayanov, the unit of production is also the unit of consumption; wages play no role, profits are not maximized, nor is “marginal utility” recognized. The peasant is interested in the use-value of a product (fulfillment of the family consumption needs) which takes over profit and market value. It is the size of its capital base and of its land area that dictates the economic development of the capitalist farm; it is the age and numbers of family members, the drudgery of labor (the degree of self-exploitation ), the tools, the weather and market conditions that are the main limiting conditions of the economic activity on a peasant farm.
Like the distributists, the Eastern European agrarians viewed their doctrine and practice as a Third Way, neither capitalist nor socialist. They shared the Distributist antagonism to Big Business, Big Finance, trusts, cartels and the unlimited accumulation of wealth. They were ahead of their time when they advocated sustainable industrialization–industries to be scattered widely in smaller units across the land—and rejected large-scale heavy industries, depending on the interests of foreign investors and the mercantilist national state. Virgil Madgearu, a Romanian economist and the main theorist of the Peasant Party, explained that the peasant parties in Eastern Europe were not opposed to industrial development as such: “If there is not in peasantism an inherent tendency against industrial development, it is on the other hand against protectionism, the breeder of hothouses industries, of trusts and cartels.”
In line with the Distributist view, the agrarians in Eastern Europe believed that humans became free and independent through well-distributed productive property, that is, through ownership and work. Concentration of property and power in the hands of a few was considered degrading to human dignity and disruptive to the social order; it ran against the peasant’s democratic nature–agrarians considered the peasant a “democrat by nature”–and against the peasants’ compelling desire for a sane and stable social order. The keen desire for social stability made the agrarians resist violent changes and revolutionary trends and turned them, in most cases, into pacifists.
Eastern European agrarians were not much less anti-statist than the distributists. They placed emphasis on decentralization, local-self government and the idea of building a state from the bottom up. The agrarians viewed occupational organizations and cooperatives as ideal vehicles, both in securing social stability and organizing the economy of peasant farming. They believed cooperative principles, private property, responsibility towards the community and cooperation in voluntary associations, were valid for all of society. Most programs of the peasant parties demanded that workers should share in the ownership of factories and own their homes.
The prospects of a Distributist order in Central and Eastern Europe were brutally destroyed by communism. Communist rule embodied what the agrarians hated most: gigantism, dictatorship, slavery, violence, no God. In Romania, the members of the National Peasant Party were persecuted, murdered or condemned to many years in prison. In 1990, after the fall of communism, The National Peasant Party rose from the ashes and, under the name of Christian-Democratic National Peasant’s Party, it was again in power between 1996-2000. Unfortunately, the new Party was a shadow of its former self. Infiltrated by opportunists and agents of a revamped “Securitate” (the Communist secret police), poorly run by unworthy leaders, the CDNP embarked on a self-destructive path. Today it is a minor party, split in several quarreling factions; it has no future whatsoever in Romanian politics.
And yet, the longing for the Distributist order envisaged by the agrarians in the inter-war period is more alive than ever among the Romanians. John Médaille’s visit to Romania and the publication, in that country, of an anthology of Distributist texts, edited by John Médaille and myself, made a breach in the wall of false beliefs and justifications. Many Romanians now realize there is life beyond neo-liberalism, globalism, consumerism, and other delusional “isms” recklessly imported to their country after 1990. Distributism opened their eyes to alternatives they did not even dare to imagine.
Today, if Distributism is to be successful in Romania, and hopefully in other Eastern Orthodox countries, it has to take a somewhat different path from both today’s neo-distributism in the West and the agrarianism of the past. First of all, it has to be rooted in the Orthodox tradition and envisage the world, neither in individualistic nor collectivistic, but personalist terms. Only grounded in the anthropological model of a dialogical personalism can Distributism become an active force in reforming Eastern European societies.
In Eastern Christianity, the unity of Christ with Church follows the model of personal unity of the Holy Trinity. Dumitru Stăniloae, a most distinguished Orthodox theologian, calls the Church a ‘pluripersonal symphony’: a multitude of instruments with particular patterns of notes combined to create a unity which is ever so much richer for its multiplicity. Each person plays his notes, but all is conducted, coordinated, unified under the direction of Christ. Being made in the image of God, the Trinity, each person realizes his true nature through mutual life; each person is autonomous and unique and yet he is not able to have life except in community with others.
“The community of persons” is spelt out in terms of “sobornicity”: Sobornicity (from the Slavic sobornaya, which means both “universal” and “conciliar”), writes Dumitru Stăniloae, “is not unity pure and simple: it is a certain kind of unity. There is the unity of a whole in which the constitutive parts are not distinct, or the unity of a group which is kept together by an exterior command, or formed into a union of uniform entities existing side by side. Sobornicity is none of these. It is distinguished from an undifferentiated unity by being of a special kind, the unity of communion. The unity of communion is the sole unity which does not subordinate one person to another, or in which the institution is not conceived as something external to or superior to or repressive of the persons involved.”
In the Orthodox East, Distributism needs to partake of the iconographic conception of the human person because “sobornicity” is grounded in the person as an image and likeness of the Trinity. Made in the divine image, human persons are not to be instrumentalized–they should be regarded as unique subjects, not as interchangeable objects. Each must be treated as an end in his or herself and not as a vehicle to some further end. There is no “sobornicity”—no trust, reciprocity and fraternity—where the economic and political power is removed from the level of the person and transferred to an increasingly oligarchic concentration of ownership. Distributism is best equipped to oppose the dehumanizing schemes of both neo-liberals and neo-communists since it never subordinates ends to means. In Romania, neo-liberals, socialists and bureaucrats from Brussels all plan to destroy the “unproductive” peasants, turning them into wage-slaves or commercial farmers, that is, into something other than peasants. The distributists, like the agrarians of yesteryear oppose such a “market revolution” in the village. They offer instead their own economic model, based on co-ops and other forms of voluntary associations.
The Eastern distributists should also adopt a liturgical view of life. For St. Maximus the Confessor, the world is a “cosmic temple” in which man exercises his priesthood. Man not only lives in and uses this world but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift and offering it back to God in thanksgiving “Thine own from thine own we offer to thee, in all and for all” (The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).
Distributism is called to exercise its economic priesthood in Romanian society by building up a “gift economy.” Family, property, capital, labor should be seen as gifts from God. Based on the “sharing factor”, a gift economy would strengthen personal relationship, collaboration, trust, mutuality and will open up the heart and mind to the glory of creation all around us. As “priests of the economy”, distributists would make business itself a gift to society. The real game in today’s business world is running a business or a career so as to make a contribution to the local community, the nation, and even to the planet. A gift economy will discard today’s logic of instrumentalism and exploitative behavior and affirm the dignity of the human person (the “open source” community already operates in a gift economy).
In Romania, distributists face the daunting task of saving a country from total ruin. To implement their RRR (remoralize the market, relocalize economy and recapitalize the poor), distributists must first repersonalize the economic and social life which became “profane” under communism and Economic Liberalism (capitalism). There is no such thing as a separate, isolated and autonomous economy. The “profane” economy is in reality the economy “profaned”, that no longer orients itself to God. It is not neutral, as it pretends to be. The post-communist homo oeconomicus acts like a monkey; instead of participating in God, he joyfully participates in “the Prince of the left” and wears the mark of the beast.
Like the England of the “Chesterbelloc”, Romania has no peasant class left to mobilize. The villages are underpopulated and the typical Romanian peasant is an old poor person. The countryside cannot trigger a “vast peasant uprising” (Mitrany) as it did in the 1920’s. And yet there is hope. The 99% of the Romanians do have accumulated grievances against the neo-communist kleptocracy, Big Business–transnational corporations, foreign banks, hedge funds, “strategic investors,” the IMF and the European Union. They now realize the dice are loaded. The crisis has strengthened the already stifling neo-liberal mechanisms and the anarcho-tyranny which grinds down the people at the behest of foreign bankers and local oligarchs. Under the circumstances, Distributism is not an alternative solution. It is the solution, pure and simple.