I owe much to Harold Robbins (1888-1954). His first book, The Sun of Justice: An Essay on the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church, was in fact my introduction to Catholic Social Teaching. Because of this, I jumped at the chance to obtain a copy of The Last of the Realists, which as far as I know is the only other book-length work Robbins produced.
Until the 2015 publication of the book, it was completely unknown to me and to most everyone else due to the fact that when Robbins wrote it (shortly after the Second World War), paper was rationed and he was denied an allocation for its publication in book form.
The first thing I’ll say about the book is that it is not really a biography of G.K. Chesterton. If it is a biography at all, it is of his intellectual progeny, Distributism. That’s not to detract from the work, since Robbins explains right from the start that he has two specific ends in view. First, “to furnish for the Biographer of the future such facts as are lacking, to correct the emphasis for the final life of this great man.” And second, “to afford to younger men the chance of understanding the first great but unsuccessful offensive, and of seeing the sole real alternative to the variants of industrial Communism which are now upon us.”
As to the first purpose mentioned by Robbins, when he says he hopes to “correct the emphasis,” he has in mind Maisie Ward’s biography, which, he claims, takes a all-too-thoroughly “domestic” approach to its subject on account of Ward’s intimacy with Mrs. Chesterton. And here he touches on controversy:
I shall have occasion … to point out that Mrs. Chesterton was (by what Chesterton would himself have called a powerful understatement) not sympathetic to what Chesterton valued most in all his work. To her, Distributism was doubtfully respectable, and certainly a nuisance.
He believes that Frances’ convictions influenced Mrs. Ward’s work so much that, consciously or not, she relegated Distributism to a subordinate role in his order of priorities. Thus, Robbins believe it necessary to supply this missing data to “the Biographer of the future,” in order to more accurately represent Chesterton’s real concerns.
Here the reader is able to discern why Robbins emphasized the “realism” of Chesterton in his title, since Distributism and the journalistic work that accompanied its development were very much aimed at “real world” problems and solutions; and here also one stumbles onto a bit of controversy, since in the process of stating his case, Robbins represents Frances Chesterton as somewhat obstructive to these projects.
This controversial element does not detract from the book, but is actually one of the more compelling reasons to pick it up, thanks to a foreword provided by Aidan Mackey, followed by an introduction written by Denis J. Conlon. These two knowledgeable writers take opposite stances on Mrs. Chesterton’s legacy, and so the reader is given ample commentary from the start. Here again we ought to thank IHS Press for making this possible.
I’ve said that the book is not really a biography of “the man,” but it does contain early chapters which outline his life and work in a general way. These sections are not without their insights regarding Chesterton’s personality. For example, he responds to the common accusation that Chesterton befuddles or seduces via his constant tendency to play with words.
It seems quite clear that the intake into his mind of any idea, or even of any word, set up what in music is called a series of harmonics … The production of a pun, in the average minds of most of us, is a crude and elementary form of what took place in his.
After this, Robbins proceeds into a detailed discussion of the Distributists and their great project. Here lies the most essential data Robbins wished to provide to his “future Biographer.” He speaks first of the Foundation Distributists: Eric Gill, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and Chesterton himself. Here we get insight into the feelings of the group, for example we are told that they did not limit their appeals to Catholics:
We tended to attract Catholics. And I am sure this was not our fault. We were all very keen on begin [sic] a social and not a religious body…But the average non-Catholic seems to have been much more afraid of being grouped with Catholics than of having his own institutions disappear before his eyes.
This, Robbins explains, was one of the downfalls of the movement, but he also laments what seems to have been an almost total failure to attract the support of even the official Catholic authorities in England:
The Catholic authorities in England have never shown any other sentiment than embarrassment to have their own principles stated so uniquely.
As an example of this last problem, he describes his own failed effort to help the leadership behind The Catholic Social Guild to issue some sort of statement on the restoration of property, suggesting that they simply reproduce Belloc’s work on the subject. They refused, and when pushed for a reason they replied that Belloc took “too long to get to the point,” and so instead they simply produced nothing.
He describes the relationships between the Distributist League, their papers, and other organizations, such as The Ministry of Health and The Mothers Defence League; he explains Chesterton’s personal involvement in the Mond Libel Case, which shows that he was not afraid to take legal risks upon himself in defense of what he believed. Robbins ends with a discussion of the Catholic Land Movement.
Robbins concludes by discussing “The Great Deferment,” imposed by “the dark gods” and which undid much of the work that Chesterton and his allies had accomplished. In this way he describes the death as well as the life of Distributism.
Part of the problem was that Chesterton’s work was “politicized” immediately after his death. That is not to say his work was not “political,” but that, while he lived, it remained outside conventional political categories and party squabbles. Upon his death, this changed. For example, he complains that G.K.’s Weekly “became almost exclusively an organ of the Right,” and this partisanship meant that the voices of Distributism began to take sides on matters that did not necessarily demand their assent or dissent. This began to tear the movement apart from the inside.
Robbins lived to see Distributism fail in England in a way that Chesterton himself did not, although Chesterton certainly foresaw it. In fact, Robbins claims that Chesterton knew full well that a crash had to come before civilization would begin climbing back toward sanity. Whether or not he was right, we’ll certainly find out soon enough.