Imagine a prominent thinker devoted to orthodox Catholicism -- indeed, to the very idea of religious dogma -- but who advocates rebellion against capitalism. Who dismisses most leftist goals but stands up for the rights of ordinary people. Who relishes the thrust and parry of a intense debate but treats his opponents with compassion and rollicking good humor.
Such a person would have a difficult time fitting into today's cartoonish political landscape, in which everybody squats down in an ideological position and then does his or her best to ignore its absurdities and contradictions. Maybe that's why English journalist, novelist, essayist, and poet Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton (1874-1936) now lacks the reputation of his aggressively progressive friends George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Chesterton, if he were alive today, would skewer modern conservatives' faith in capitalism as a force for morality and order. But he'd also alienate lefties with his scandalous respect for the past and for ordinary people's traditional loyalties.
If Chesterton is known at all these days, it's for the Father Brown murder mysteries, which remain robustly in print. 'GKC,' as he was known in his day, has also been championed by conservative Catholic intellectuals, who rightly consider works like Orthodoxy (1908), to be ingenious, witty defenses of the faith.
Born into a London family with conventionally progressive views, he eventually came to abhor the deterministic and materialist underpinnings of most advanced social thought, including Marxism. As Garry Wills points out in Chesterton, an intellectual biography first published in 1961 and recently reissued (Image Books), Chesterton held that only religious faith allows us to apprehend the miracle of existence. 'Sooner or later, the mind must confess that it is dealing with a fact that it did not invent but simply found,' writes Wills. To abandon this sacred wonder is to falsify all our subsequent thinking.
These deep spiritual feelings gave GKC's politics a radical stamp. He insisted that the differences between socialism and capitalism were inconsequential, for both were soulless ideologies: In one the bosses ruled, in the other the social engineers, with their contempt for custom and particularity. ('There is not much of humanity left when you take away the people whom they [socialists] regard as obstacles to the progress of humanity,' he wrote.) Neither political system, in Chesterton's view, gives a damn for real people in their irreducible singularity, with their sacred right to thrive in cooperative freedom.
These convictions led Chesterton to devise, (along with another prominent English Catholic intellectual, Hilaire Belloc), a quixotic political movement called Distributism. Chesterton boldly argues in his 1927 classic The Outline of Sanity that 'private enterprise'(the capitalist juggernaut, which he once called 'frank fraud and cruelty pushed to their fierce extreme') has become the enemy of 'private property,' by which he means ordinary people's security in their possessions. Today's 'downsized' workers and foreclosed farmers facing bankruptcy will get the point. Chesterton's answer: to preserve private property but distribute it more widely. In effect, this meant to remake modern society into a rich and intricate pattern of small farms, small business, unions, local commerce, and other human-scale economic institutions.
The Distributist movement attracted some followers but went nowhere; Chesterton was weak on describing the practical elements of any endeavor. But, as Ben Jolliffe points out in the English ecological magazine Resurgence (March/April 2003), his Distributist writings, with their pronounced similarities to the Small Is Beautiful philosophy and the democratic socialist movement, have influenced a wide variety of English thinkers, from artist Eric Gill to Catholic mystic Bede Griffiths.
As a young man, the influential critic and historian Garry Wills also embraced Chesterton's social vision. When William F. Buckley was considering hiring him for the National Review magazine in the early 1960s , he asked Wills if he was a conservative. 'I'm a Distributist,' Wills replied. 'Is that conservative?'
Buckley knew enough about Chesterton to say no-and hire Wills anyway. Soon Wills left the ranks of the right and became one of the liberal writers most likely to give conservatism its due-also very much in the spirit of GKC.
For more on the many-sided G. K. Chesterton, take a look at The Chesterton Review ($30/3 issues, from Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 800/526-7022; sample copy available), a well-produced scholarly journal that examines all aspects of Chesterton's life and work (including controversial issues like his alleged anti-Semitism and sympathy for elements of Italian fascism) and that of writers connected to or influenced by him. Gilbert! ($29.95/8 issues, from 3050 Gap Knob Rd., New Hope, KY 40052), in magazine format, applies Chestertonian ideas to contemporary issues, from religion to politics to romance -- with an emphasis on transcending traditional left and right perspectives, as GKC did.