The Great Political Maverick

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.

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