Too often Distributism is accused of being a species of Marxism, when in reality it’s hard to imagine a proposition farther from the truth. Distributism has little in common with Marxism beyond the fact that it’s not capitalism; sadly, that fact is sufficient for many capitalists to attack Distributism as a brainchild of Engels and Lenin. But Distributism specifically opposes all the other primary tenets of Marxism; indeed, it could be accurately described as the anti-Marxism, fundamentally opposed to the most significant points of Marxism.
Marxism is primarily associated with three basic tenets. First, its critique of capitalism; second, its philosophical background of dialectical materialism; and third, its brand of proletarian revolution leading to collective ownership considered as the abolition of private property. Various forms of Marxism—Leninism, Trotskyism, and so forth—differ according to details, but any system which does not embrace these three fundamental precepts cannot accurately be called Marxism. Distributism, it will be seen, can only be described as adhering to one, and even then only tenuously; it is thus so different from Marxism that equating the two, or even ascribing a real relation between them, is at best philosophically myopic.
The first fundamental precept of Marxism, its critique of capitalism, does share some vague similarities with Distributism’s critique of the same. Marx held that capitalism involves the domination of the bulk of the workers (the proletariat) by a minority (the owners, or the bourgeoisie). Marx opposed the commodification of labor, as distributism opposes it; he held that it rendered the worker politically as well as economically powerless, with which Distributism will partly agree. However, at that point the similarity ends.
Distributism’s critique of capitalism does, like Marx’s, begin with the observation that capitalism concentrates productive property into the hands of the few. However, Marx’s objection to this fact is not Distributism’s objection. Distributism argues that the ownership of the means of production by the few makes economic independence and political influence by the many non-owners impossible, or at least unreasonably difficult; the solution to this is to encourage the wider distribution of productive property among the people. As G. K. Chesterton famously noted in The Uses of Diversity, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Marx, on the other hand, held that even the few private owners of productive property in capitalism are too many; the means of production should not be owned by anyone, but should rather be owned only by the state, making not only most but all of the people non-owning workers. In other words, Distributism’s complaint against capitalism is that the means of production are owned by too few; Marx’s is that they are owned by too many. While Distributists and Marxists can both stand together in disapproving of capitalism, Distributism disapproves it for the right reasons, Marxism for the wrong ones. This is, as noted above, a vague correspondence in one of the essential elements of Marxism, but it is hardly enough to equate the two theories.
Second, Marxism is based on a philosophical outlook called dialectical materialism. Space doesn’t permit a full exposition of this theory, but in brief, dialectical materialism holds that human history is basically the story of class warfare. Society gradually struggles upward through different stages of development, from the slave societies of antiquity, through the feudal societies of the Middle Ages, to the capitalist societies of Marx’s day. Inevitably, in each stage the proletariat gains more and more freedom and brings mankind closer and closer to the ultimate goal: the proletarian revolution, the abolition of private property, and the establishment of the communist society, in which the state will simply “wither away” because its coercive force is no longer needed. This history is materialistic; there is no God, no abstract principle guiding it. It simply is, a fact of nature, the societal equivalent of Darwinian evolution. Religion is false, the “opiate of the masses”; it is just another tool of the bourgeoisie, futilely attempting to prevent the inevitable communist revolution.
Distributism is precisely the opposite of this. It is, in fact, based on religion, arising out of the philosophical and religious principles argued throughout the Christian era, and first authoritatively by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. It acknowledges no inevitable progress in history; indeed, Chesterton mocked the very idea in The New York Times Magazine as “prefer[ing] Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” History will not help the workers; the workers must help themselves, guided by the principles of social life established by the Creator. The state will not, as in Marx’s utopian nightmare, simply “wither away”; rather, the state is an essential part of human society, which will always and must always be present in that society, guiding all the subsidiary corporations and individuals within that society toward the common good. This unity of goal of all members of society, individual and corporate, goes by many names, most recently solidarity; it fundamentally rejects the notion that different parts of society should be at war with one another, instead insisting that all parts of society are members of the same body politic and must work for the same end. It is hard to imagine a vision of society, of history, and of the genesis of social theory more at odds with Marx’s than Distributism’s.
Finally, Marx advocated a proletarian revolution to overthrow the current system of ownership of the means of production and to socialize the ownership of same. Distributism has nothing in common with such nonsense. While Distributists have advocated many different ideas in many different places for transforming capitalist societies into just ones, those ideas all have two things in common: they are gradual and they are peaceful. There is no sudden revolution, no barricades, no violence; there is the conscious transformation of society peacefully, through the rational action of the members of society themselves. The notion of solidarity briefly described categorically excludes anything like Marx’s proletarian revolution. Once again, it’s difficult to conceive of a system more opposed to Marxism than Distributism is.
It is not difficult, on the other hand, to imagine a system which conforms in many particulars to Marxism. Indeed, we can name it: capitalism. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that the bulk of society will be composed of workers, laboring for a wage, unlikely to ever become the owners of productive property. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that the bulk of these workers will never have any significant political power, because they will never have the economic independence which will grant them an influence on the political process even remotely similar to that of the owners of productive property. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that society is strictly defined into two classes, those who control the use of productive property and those who don’t. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that those who belong to the first group have the bulk of the power, including power over those who belong to the second.
One of the greatest of the early Distributists certainly said it best, in his aptly titled work What’s Wrong with the World: “I do not object to Socialism because it will revolutionize our commerce, but because it will leave it so horribly the same.”
Originally published in Gilbert Magazine.