Belloc and Class War

Recent posts (here and here) by Daniel Nichols of the excellent distributist blog Caelum et Terra have provoked a spirited and eloquent defense of the radical left by Owen (“the ochlophobist”). Owen begins by attacking distributism, and Catholic Social Teaching in general, for rejecting class-conflict, thus rejecting the only realistic means of bringing down the power of capital:

Distributism is a leftist movement, or rather would be, were it not for one major distinction between it and every other leftist movement – distributists are either quiet with regard to the necessity of class conflict, or they state they are against it (in keeping with the “plain” reading of C[atholic] S[social] T[eaching]). Leftists, whether anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist, communist, lib-communist, or socialist (here speaking of socialism proper), all believe that there cannot be an overcoming of capitalism without class conflict. […] Belloc […] never, so far as I have been able to find, preached, or even mentions positively, class war and the cultivation of class conflict as a socio-political aggressor which will bring this about. Without a belief in the role of class conflict, you are basically left with a political vision in which you really hope most people, including most rich people, will, without a serious fight, assent to the desires of a society that on the whole wants to be oriented towards distributism. How can a thinking person can look at the history of capitalism and rationally conclude that this is possible?

Belloc, as a faithful Catholic, never promoted class war, but there is definitely a case to be made that he was conflicted about this. His deep sense of the injustice of capitalism made him sympathetic with the vindictive anger of class-revolution. The clearest expression of this is the unrestrained violence of his early poem The Rebel:

There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.
But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.
When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.
Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I will batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.

Small wonder that Belloc’s election to parliament was seen as a disaster by the upper class. Here is how Christopher Hollis describes it:

Conservative property-owners, terrified by the threats of the 1906 election, saw in his oratory the threat of the tumbrils which awaited them. ‘Belloc is in’ went the message round the rich houses of Maifair when the election results came through. They feared the worst. (The Seven Ages, p. 52)

In his magnificent panegyric on Belloc Msgr. Ronald Knox describes Belloc as a prophet who “saw what he took to be the evils of our time in a clear light, and with a steady hatred; [who] found, or thought he had found, a common root in them, and traced them back, with that light God gave him, to their origins.” That I think is just right, but then Knox interprets a famous passage from The Path to Rome in a way that I think is not quite right. Here is the Belloc passage itself, which I quote at length for the context:

I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. Of its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge cannot understand this. Of its nature it struggles with us. And we, we, when our youth is full on us, invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back and see our home. What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again … But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions. And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows. And this again is very hard, that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling.

Now, Knox interprets this in the light of Jeremiah as the prophet in mood to be rid of his burden of prophecy. But this I think is false, it is not that Belloc wanted to be free of the burden of condemning the evils of the age, it is rather that he wanted to condemn them with the full throated violence of the revolutionary, and found it difficult to submit to the gentle doctrine of the Church which prefers cooperation between classes to conflict, and can preach submission to slaves:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.  (Eph 6:5-7)

6 thoughts on “Belloc and Class War

  1. What it all really shows is the fundamental error of distributism.

    Owen White, unlike the others, is a practical man with practical experience who understands the practical nature of the problem. He sees where distributism leads and what kind of society is required to support it.

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  2. Evil? No. Owen is a class warfare murderer lacking the opportunity. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the overall practical picture.

    What stands out most when reading distributists is their lack of understanding when it comes to the practical of how to get from concept to concrete reality.

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  3. Pingback: Third Ways – Part I « Opus Publicum

  4. Pingback: 10 questions | Sancrucensis

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