Of Labour and Liberty

Distributism in Victoria, 1891-1966

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Race Mathews
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , February
     422 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Race Mathews has written a fine political and intellectual history with an overly modest subtitle. Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria, 1891-1966 does, to be sure, give us the history of distributism—a social ideology developed by English Catholic writers in the early 20th century and inspired by church teaching—as it evolved in the Australian state of Victoria. Yet readers who feel out of their range in either subject will find that Mathews has incidentally provided a history of social Catholicism in general, a course in the politics of the Australian labor movement, and a call to spiritual arms for those seeking alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. This book is an admirable work of historical scholarship that insists on the contemporary relevance of its subject: a too-rare combination. 

By the same token, Of Labour and Liberty’s chief limitation is its tendency to place its scholarship at the service of its polemic. Mathews tells a story of distributism that points to a clear moral conclusion, one he does not hesitate to make explicit. To paraphrase: if only the sound original principles of the distributist movement had not been corrupted by its later epigone—who danced with fascism in the 1930s and with anti-communist witch-hunting in the 1950s—then the Australian labor movement need never have been divided. In this case, the left need not have suffered electoral defeat, and workable cooperative economic models might have sunk deeper roots in the world. So vividly is Mathews haunted by the vision of what might have been, in fact, that he allows himself an extended “counterfactual scenario” near the book’s end (349-50).

To make this lesson convincing requires a story with heroes and villains, and therefore Mathews’s assessments at times come across as one-sided. In some instances, this acts as a salutary corrective, as when Mathews is dealing with figures whose qualities have formerly been exaggerated in the opposite direction. Cardinal Manning, for one, may be best known to readers as one of Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians,” but here he emerges not as a prig or schemer, but as a genuine social radical, whose critiques both of state socialism and of capitalism have aged remarkably well. In other cases, however, Mathews’s tendentiousness leads him to omit some of the graver flaws of the people he admires. This is most glaring with respect to the complex relationship between G.K. Chesterton and fascism, which gets very short shrift in Mathews’s account.

In Mathews’s telling, the principles of distributism had their origins in the great papal encyclical, the Rerum Novarum, and the writings of its first English disciples and popularizers: in particular Cardinal Manning. Thence they passed to Australia by a kind of apostolic succession: Manning knew Hilaire Belloc (whose work with the Chesterton brothers gave distributism its name), and both influenced the first Australian cardinal, Patrick Moran, who in turn cemented an alliance between the (largely Irish and working class) church in Australia and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). These ingredients alone, Mathews implies, made Victoria a uniquely fertile ground for social Catholic ferment.

Where things begin to go wrong is with the ascendency of right-wing elements in the social Catholic movement, B. A. Santamaria being the chief culprit. Here, Mathews dwells at length on the same dangerous infatuation with fascism and authoritarianism that he passes over in near-silence when treating Chesterton. Santamaria is shown vehemently defending Franco’s Nationalists in university debates, going so far as to invent statistics out of whole cloth to do so (213). In later political life, he more than any other individual was responsible for a secretive campaign (known as “the Movement”) to root out communist influence in Australian trade unions, which itself soon resorted to the same underhanded tactics as the Comintern (239-44).

By associating the social Catholic faction with the excesses of Cold War anti-communism, the Movement precipitated a lasting rupture in the Australian Labor Party. This, in Mathews’s account, is where the potential for good in the social Catholic tradition was squandered, and the hope for distributist alternatives entered a period of dormancy. He sees the stirrings of its potential reawakening in the Mondragón cooperative of far-away Basque country, which he treats (plausibly) as the most promising distributist experiment still in operation.

Mathews gives us, then, an account of decline, fall, and possible resurrection. Like most lapsarian versions of history, however, it suffers from the difficulty of identifying the period before the first sin. Mathews plainly regards Santamaria’s support of Spanish Nationalism as a pivotal moment; yet a close examination of any earlier time in distributism’s history would have yielded the same warning signals. Recent scholarship, such as Tom Villis’ British Catholics and Fascism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), has shown that Chesterton, for one, was penning fascist-leaning articles as early as the 1920s and as late as the Hitler era. (A.R. Orage’s The New Age journal, where many distributists cut their teeth, was likewise a gathering place for romantic reactionaries, anti-Semites, and proto-fascists.) Treating Chesterton’s views on this subject requires nuance and contextualization, but Mathews fails even to mention them, except to repeat the exculpatory canard that Chesterton was acting under the negative influence of Belloc (284).

To be sure, the alignment of many followers of early distributism with pre-war fascism does not itself impugn the wisdom of its central idea: according to Mathews, “the passionate conviction that a just social order can be achieved only through a much more widespread distribution of property” (5). In a world where neoliberal capitalism continues to uproot communities—and where state socialism has failed to provide a moral alternative—it seems timely to look back to a body of social teaching that emphasizes the preservation of small enterprises, widespread property ownership, and industrial democracy. This should not be accomplished, however, at the expense of an honest reckoning with distributism’s decidedly checkered past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Leach is Associate Professor for Programs, Research, and Advocacy for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Race Mathews is a former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam, Federal MP, Victorian MP, and Minister. He is the author of a number of books, including Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society and Australia’s First Fabians: Middle-Class Radicals, Labour Activists and the Early Labour Movement.


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