header icons

G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day on Economics:Neither Socialism nor Capitalism (Distributism)

The following is a talk given at the American Chesterton Society annual conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 2001.

Dorothy Day and G. K. Chesterton were contemporaries. Both came into Catholicism in the 1920’s, Chesterton in 1922 at age 48 and Dorothy five years later at age 30. Both spent years of reading, studying, praying and talking about faith before making the step. Dorothy’s understanding of Catholicism and its implications of faith for life in the world was greatly deepened by her meeting with Peter Maurin, with whom she founded the Catholic Worker movement.

One cannot discuss either Chesterton or Dorothy and Peter and their ideas without realizing that their Catholicism was core to their being. Rather than discovering new Catholic truths, as some say they did after the Second Vatican Council, they simply exploded the truths of tradition, which makes them exciting. One of the first Easy Essays that Peter Maurin presented to Dorothy when they met and founded the Catholic Worker movement is called “Exploding the Dynamite of the Church.” On a similar theme Chesterton said, “Now I have no notion at all of propounding a new ideal. There is no new ideal imaginable by the madness of modern sophists, which will be anything like so startling as fulfilling any one of the old ones.”

As Chesterton said, “In the modern world we are primarily confronted with the extraordinary spectacle of people turning to new ideals because they have not tried the old.” One of Peter’s Easy Essays featured Chesterton’s line from What’s Wrong with the Worldthat “Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of.” Not everyone who mentions this quote remembers that it is followed by another: “Men have never wearied of political justice, they have wearied of waiting for it.”

Both Chesterton and the Catholic Worker saw the modern state, tied up with monopoly capitalism, as a religion with strict doctrines, demanding absolute obedience from all its members. Chesterton (along with Hilaire Belloc) spoke of the Church of the Servile State and Dorothy often referred to the irony of so many people granting unquestioning obedience to what she called Holy Mother the State while criticizing the idea of the leadership of Holy Mother the Church.

We ourselves, in the 1960s, seeing the unhealthy relationship with Holy Mother the State, the ever-encroaching State, were forced back into the arms of Holy Mother the Church.

Dorothy and Peter, looking for solutions to address problems of Capitalism, Socialism, Industrialism and Statism, were inspired by Chesterton and other English distributists. Dorothy frequently recommended two books by Chesterton: The Outline of Sanity andWhat’s Wrong with the World.

Both Chesterton and The Catholic Worker criticized monopoly capitalism, where a few wealthy capitalists owned the capital and the majority, the masses, worked each day in monotonous jobs. Chesterton and The Catholic Worker insisted that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, and should not be treated like cogs in a machine or made to work twelve hours a day in back-breaking work as wage slaves), while large corporations and their directors became fabulously wealthy. However, Chesterton, Maurin and Day knew that Socialism was not a solution, and frequently criticized it as well.


The economic philosophy of both The Catholic Worker and Chesterton was distributism and at the heart of distributism is private property. The word distributism comes from the idea that a just social order can be achieved through a much more widespread distribution of property. Distributism means a society of owners. It means that property belongs to the many rather than the few. It is related to the idea of subsidiarity, emphasized in all papal encyclicals relating to social teaching and economics. Subsidiarity, in the words of theQuadragesimo Anno, means that “It is an injustice and at the same time a great evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social and never destroy and absorb them.”

You may react at first glance as young visitors to the Houston Catholic Worker often do to the emphasis on private property as being pro-capitalist or as a defense of private Greed (especially if they have read liberation theology). But Dorothy and Chesterton were not speaking of private property for a few, but private property for everyone

Dorothy described it this way: “The aim of distributism is family ownership of land, workshops, stores, transport, trades, professions, and so on. Family ownership in the means of production so widely distributed as to be the mark of the economic life of the community-this is the Distributist’s desire. It is also the world’s desire. (The Catholic Worker, June 1948)

Chesterton contended in What’s Wrong with the World that “property is merely the art of democracy.” For him, property meant, “every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; property with limits that are strict and even small.”

He illustrated the difference between the idea of Private Property of distributism and that of the Private Enterprise of capitalism: “A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise. But it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that a pickpocket is a champion of private property. Capitalism and Commercialism . . . have at best tried to disguise the pickpocket with some of the virtues of the pirate. The point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”

Chesterton said, “It is all very well to repeat distractedly, ‘What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?’ It is equally relevant to add, ‘What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?’ The obvious answer is–Monopoly. It is certainly not private enterprise.”

Under the editorship of Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker criticized an unbridled capitalism which put the majority of money and resources in the hands of a few big corporations and individuals. At the same time Dorothy noted, the people she called robber barons spoke against socialism and defended private property.

Chesterton pointed out the irony of this: “One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people’s. . . It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.”

To clarify for his readers what he was criticizing, he first described the situation where a few people hold the wealth and all others struggle: “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.'” He emphasized that others had something quite different in mind when they spoke of capitalism:

“The word… is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital.

“If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

“The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

When Chesterton wrote about the enormous discrepancies in income and wealth of the haves and have nots, it sounded as if he were speaking of today’s world:
“To say that I do not like the present state of wealth and poverty is merely to say that I am not the devil in human form. No one but Satan or Beelzebub could like the present state of wealth and poverty” (G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, London, Methuen and Co., pp. 108, 151, 148).

Distributism, Farms and Co-ops

In The Outline of Sanity Chesterton called for heroic volunteers to take over the responsibility for small farms, even though it would be a sacrifice. The Catholic Worker recommended setting up farms and actually started them. The experience of families on the farms was often difficult, because of lack of knowledge of farming, and of money and equipment. However, they were an important part of the attempt to live out the principles of distributism.

In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy spelled out the way in which distributism was at the heart of the Catholic Worker program and its agrarian aspect: “As Peter pointed out, ours was a long-range program, looking for ownership by the workers of the means of production, the abolition of the assembly line, decentralized factories, the restoration of crafts and ownership of property. This meant, of course, an accent on the agrarian and rural aspects of our economy and a changing emphasis from the city to the land” (LL, p. 221). However, Dorothy also noted several times that one does not have to live on a farm to be a distributist.

While Peter emphasized aiming for the ownership of the means of production, he spoke just as strongly about “acceptance of the responsibility it entailed” (LL, p. 222).

In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy reported that, “Every talk of Peter’s about the social order led to the land. He spoke always as a peasant, but as a practical one. He knew the craving of the human heart for a toehold on the land, for a home of one’s own, but he also knew how impossible it was to attain it except through community.” (LL, p. 224). Because of this, Peter suggested farming communes, credit unions, cooperatives.

Chesterton also encouraged communal ventures. He, like Peter Maurin, described monasteries as examples of Christian Communism. In his book The Outline of Sanity, he, like Peter, advocated something like the guilds of the Middle Ages: “We should welcome the chance of allowing any guilds or groups of colour their proper and proportionate place in the State; we should be perfectly willing to mark off some part of the land as Common Land.”

By the time Dorothy Day published The Long Loneliness, Peter had died. She explained his ideas in her book (p. 225), always acknowledging him as the theorist of the movement: “Peter’s plan was that groups should borrow from mutual-aid credit unions in the parish to start what he first liked to call agronomic universities, where the worker could become a scholar and the scholar a worker. Or he wanted people to give the land and money. He always spoke of giving. Those who had land and tools should give. Those who had capital should give. Those who had labor should give that. ‘Love is an exchange of gifts,’ St. Ignatius had said.”

The distribution of land today is not more just than when Dorothy and Peter wrote about it in the ’30’s. In fact, larger portions of land than ever are in the hands of the few. Enormous agribusinesses crowd out family farms.

How Did it Happen Historically that So Few Own Most Things?

In England (with its later impact on the United States), the restoration of Roman Law, the destruction of the monasteries and the enclosure of public lands left the average person with little recourse and enormously increased the number of the poor.

To those who insisted that “progress” depended on the endorsement of monopoly capitalism with its uprooting of small farmers and businessmen, Chesterton replied, referring to the time since the destruction of monasteries all across England during the reign of Henry VIII, when the monasteries were razed to the ground and the properties confiscated by the crown and given out to various powerful nobles:

“The ordinary Englishman has been duped out of his old possessions, such as they were, and always in the name of progress. The destroyers of the abbeys took away his bread and gave him a stone, assuring him that it was a precious stone, the white pebble of the Lord’s elect. They took away his Maypole and his original rural life and promised him instead the Golden Age of Peace and Commerce inaugurated at the Crystal Palace.”

Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality are based on the monastic ideal, specifically the Benedictine ideal of guest houses, the abbeys where the poor were welcomed as the Lord himself in disguise, and where those in need could come for help. The Catholic Worker does not believe, with Calvin and the outgrowth of Calvinism, Puritanism, that the poor are undeserving and therefore deserve what they get, but rather that they are the Ambassadors of God. After the destruction of the monasteries, the poor of England had nowhere to turn for help. There were so many poor by the time Elizabeth became queen that at first the idea was to kill them; there were so many that that seemed impractical and the later idea was poorhouses.

A.J. Penty, whose book, A Guildsman’s Interpretation of History Peter Maurin quoted, reprinted an article from the British Museum on how the English monasteries were guest houses and helped the poor in surrounding areas in so many ways, not only with things like food when they needed it, but with seeds for planting.

We believe in ecumenism, but it is also important to recognize historical realities which have brought us to where we are. In this age of public expressions of one’s sins and reparation for destruction, we might wonder if the English government and the Episcopal Church might make reparation for the destruction and theft of the monasteries. But it was done in the name of progress. Chesterton described what happened:

“The rich did literally turn the poor out of the old guest house on to the road, briefly telling him that it was the road of progress. They did literally force them into factories and the modern wage-slavery, assuring them all the time that this was the only way to wealth and civilization. Just as they had dragged the rustic from the convent food and ale by saying that the streets of heaven were paved with gold, so now they dragged him from the village food and ale by telling him that the streets of London were paved with gold. As he entered the gloomy porch of Puritanism, so he entered the gloomy porch of Industrialism, being told that each of them was the gate of the future. Hitherto he has only gone from prison to prison, nay into darkening prisons, for Calvinism opened one small window upon heaven. And now he is asked, in the same educated and authoritative tones, to enter another dark porch, at which he has to surrender, into unseen hands, his children, his small possessions and all the habits of his fathers.”

Distributism Criticized–But Who are the Real Reactionaries?

Critics dismissed Distributism by saying it was a dreamy idea of going back to the past, impractical and impossible to implement. Chesterton responded by critiquing his critics:

“For it is one of the grim and even grisly jokes of the situation that the very complaint they always make of us is specially and peculiarly true of them. They are always telling us that we think we can bring back the past, or the barbarous simplicity and superstition of the past; apparently under the impression that we want to bring back the ninth century. But they really do think they can bring back the nineteenth century. They are always telling us that this or that tradition has gone forever, that this or that craft or creed has gone forever; but they dare not face the fact that their own vulgar and huckstering commerce has gone forever. They call us reactionaries if we talk about a Revival of Faith or a Revival of Catholicism. But they go on calmly plastering their papers with the headline of a Revival of Trade. What a cry out of the distant past! What a voice from the tomb!

The nineteenth century economics to which Chesterton referred was called Liberalism with a capital L or Trade with a capital T, especially Free Trade. Its proponents promised it would lead to prosperity and the Wealth of Nations.

This Economic Liberalism did lead to prosperity and wealth-but for the few-and to the implementation of colonialism, which enslaved the workers of the world. Today the Revival of Trade (bringing back the past of the nineteenth century) criticized by Chesterton is a reality and its basis is the same. As a revival it is called neoliberalism, or new liberalism, in most of the world. Here is in the United States it goes by other names-neoconservatism, Free Trade. It also brings back colonialism, a new colonialism, where the mass of people around the world labor in sweatshops and child labor abounds. The difference is that we don’t have a Charles Dickens to enflesh the actual results of neoliberalism.

In The Outline of Sanity, making the case distributism, Chesterton argued, “They say it is Utopian; and they are right. They say it is idealistic; and they are right. They say it is quixotic; and they are right. It deserves every name that will indicate how completely they have driven justice out of the world; every name that will measure how remote from them and their sort is the standard of honourable living; every name that will emphasize and repeat the fact that property and liberty are sundered from them and theirs, by an abyss between heaven and hell.

“Distributism may be a dream; three acres and a cow may be a joke; cows may be fabulous animals; liberty may be a name; private enterprise may be a wild goose chase on which the world can go no further. But as for the people who talk as if property and private enterprise were the principles now in operation-those people are so blind and deaf and dead to all the realities of their own daily existence, that they can be dismissed from the debate.”

Dorothy Day Criticized

We are still shocked when people comment that Dorothy was a Socialist and a Communist–and they do not mean in her pre-conversion life. Not understanding the economics recommended by the Catholic Worker and by Chesterton, they jump to the conclusion that anyone who criticizes monopoly capitalism is a Communist. At dinner last night here we asked a conference attendee if he knew about Dorothy Day. His response was, “Yes, wasn’t she that Communist?”

This is an easy way to deflect criticism. We ourselves have been called socialists by Catholic neoconservatives because we criticize the present state of economics in the world. However, we, like Dorothy, note that in the Lord’s prayer we pray that the Lord’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven-and we believe with her that God did not want things to be so difficult for so many people here on earth. At our Catholic Worker houses, called Casa Juan Diego, we speak every day with people who are uprooted by the global market, forced to leave home and family in order to work in a faraway country so that their families can eat and live and perhaps obtain a small house, the home that Chesterton insisted was so important for each human being.

Dorothy explained why perhaps other Catholics would not understand the Catholic Workers when they criticized capitalism and recommended distributism, even reporting them to the Bishop: “We were not taking the position of the great mass of Catholics, who were quite content with the present in this world. They were quite willing to give to the poor, but they did not feel called upon to work for the things of this life for others which they themselves esteemed so lightly. Our insistence on worker-ownership, on the right of private property, on the need to de-proletarize the worker, all points which had been emphasized by the Popes in their social encyclicals, made many Catholics think we were Communists in disguise, wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Dorothy continued, “The Vatican paper warned us recently of regarding Americanism or Communism as the only two alternatives. It is hard to see why our criticism of capitalism should have aroused such protest” (William Miller, Dorothy Day: a Biography, Harper and Row, 1982, p. 428).

Dorothy quoted Joseph T. Nolan from Orate Fratres on the support of Popes in their encyclicals for the CW position: “Too long has idle talk made out of Distributism as something medieval and myopic, as if four modern popes were somehow talking nonsense when they said: the law should favor widespread ownership (Leo XIII); land is the most natural form of property (Leo XIII and Pius XII); wages should enable a man to purchase land (Leo XIII and Pius XI); the family is most perfect when rooted in its own holding (Pius XII); agriculture is the first and most important of all the arts and the tiller of the soil still represents the natural order of things willed by God (Pius XII) (Catholic Worker, July-Aug. 1948)

Gospel Values Turned Upside Down

Chesterton presented his economic ideas as something very counter-culture, going against the grain of current practice.

How could we get so far from this ideal? Calvinism has a lot to do with it

Chesterton attacked Calvinism as the root of an economics that created such a large gap between the mass of workers and those who owned most everything.

Both Chesterton and the Catholic Worker saw usury, the lending of money at interest, which had been condemned by the Prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church and by the Church for many centuries, as wrong and the root of many economic injustices.

Peter Maurin, who so often spoke of living according to Gospel simplicity, also spoke of a philosophy of work. He recommended this philosophy to young married couples related to the Catholic Worker: “Man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow…and a gentleman, truly speaking, is one who does not live on the sweat of someone else’s brow.” In these words Peter was speaking against usury and speculation.

The distributists emphasized with the Church from its beginning through the Middle Ages that avarice and greed were capital sins. They did not accept Calvinism and the teachings of Adam Smith, where the accumulation of wealth while so many others had nothing could be a Christian goal. Dorothy Day and Chesterton not only believed that it was possible to find people who could challenge the Calvinism in our culture, they both knew and inspired people who based their lives on another set of values. Chesterton noted that “it may be very difficult for modern people to imagine a world in which men are not generally admired for covetousness and crushing their neighbors; but I assure them that such strange patches of an earthly paradise do really remain on earth.”

Cardinal George of Chicago, carrying on this tradition, stated that all of us in the United States are Calvinists, including Catholics.

Somehow the idea that the elect are blessed by God and the non-elect are deprived of the Kingdom here and now and later has taken hold even in secular minds.

Recently, we were speaking to the leader of a group at one of the parishes in Houston who had asked us to address their study group on Catholic social teaching. Before the meeting started, we spoke to the leaders about some options-you know, the preferential option for the poor. Presented with the option to buy a ½ million dollar house or a one million one (theirs is a rich parish!) why couldn’t the Catholic believer stay in his quarter million dollar house and use the extra money to buy houses (plural) for the poor in a low-income neighborhood? Or why couldn’t other Catholic believers purchase a 15 thousand or twenty thousand-dollar car instead of buying a 30, 40 or 50 thousand-dollar car?

The leader was appalled at such simplistic thinking. Mark, you don’t understand! You need to understand that this is virtue. These people have worked hard and prayed hard and lived right all their lives. They have a right to enjoy the fruit of their efforts. God is rewarding them for faithfulness.

As for those who do not have the ½ million dollar choice-in this scenario the clear implication is that there is something wrong there. Why don’t they have the same blessings? What did they do wrong?

This Calvinistic thinking, combined with that of Adam Smith his contemporary disciples, is very Catholic today. The teaching of all the centuries on the common good is ignored, except to endorse what has been called the superstition of the “invisible hand of the market” and how it will create good for all, raising all boats. Throughout the world in poor countries, while those who measure statistics say that economies are improving through neoliberalism, through Trade, the lives of the poor worsen and each day decisions and international agreements through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization favor transnational corporations over small businesses and family farms.

The invisible hand of the market has a knife in it-or is it a menace or a machete?

Our present Holy Father has clearly condemned the neoliberalism (new Liberalism) which has taken over world economics and the teaching of economics in all of our universities, including Catholic universities. Under the heading of “Social Sins which Cry to Heaven,” John Paul II stated:

“More and more, in many countries of America, a system known as ‘neoliberalism’ prevails; based on a purely economic conception of the human person, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and peoples. At times this system has become the ideological justification for certain attitudes and behavior in the social and political spheres leading to the neglect of the weaker members of society. Indeed, the poor are becoming ever more numerous, victims of specific policies and structures which are often unjust.” (Ecclesia in America, No. 56, Report of the Synod of America).


There has been much discussion of the new Mandatum for theologians, a requirement from the local Bishop to authorize them to teach in the name of the Church. We need a Mandatum to ensure that the economics taught in Catholic universities will reflect the social teaching of the Church, and specifically this condemnation of neo-liberalism, which has not even begun to be explored by Catholic economists. The economics taught in Catholic universities should be different from that of secular economists. Ellen Rice told us that when she recently got her MBA from a secular university, they taught her to be a robber baron. Unfortunately, the economics taught in Catholic universities is quite similar.

Groups like the Acton Institute, a Catholic-Calvinist libertarian-capitalist group, defend themselves from the condemnation of neo-liberalism by saying they are the good guys-they are for good capitalism rather than bad capitalism and the condemnation could not possibly apply to them. Fr. Robert Sirico, head of that institute, like Michael Novak and Fr. Richard Neuhaus, speaks of how God is creator and so is the capitalist, that God blesses all efforts to create. These men advocate the freedom to create wealth with no standard or interference from the State or from God-and they fund and give courses to seminarians, priests and ministers, teaching that this is the highest ethics.

We wouldn’t dare to say that this is blasphemy, except that Dom Virgil Michel, OSB, from Minnesota, has already said it.

Yesterday at this conference, George Marlin recounted how he had taken over the editorship of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton for Ignatius Press and how helpful Michael Novak had been in that work, how he will continue to involve “Mike” along with others in the continuing project. He apparently was the person who invited Michael Novak to write the introduction to Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity in that edition, the book that is the most critical of the capitalism of Novak and company that has ever been written. We have to say that having Michael Novak write the introduction to Chesterton is the same as asking Hugh Hefner of Playboy to write the introduction of a book on the sacrament of marriage.


When anyone asked Chesterton what they could do now in order to begin to transform the economics of he world, he said, “Do anything, however small, that will prevent the completion of the work of capitalist combination. Do anything that will even delay that completion. Save one shop out of a hundred shops. Save one croft out of a hundred crofts. Keep open one door out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison. Ahab has not his kingdom so long as Naboth has his vineyard. Haman will not be happy in the palace while Mordecai is sitting in the gate. A hundred tales of human history are there to show that tendencies can be turned back, and that one stumbling-block can be the turning point. The sands of time are simply dotted with single stakes that have thus marked the turn of the tide (from The Outline of Sanity).

Chesterton had specific recommendations for legislation which would help to create a society of owners instead of laws to create monopoly. Some of them were:

1. The taxation of contracts so as to discourage the sale of small property to big proprietors and encourage the break-up of big property among small proprietors.

2.The establishment of free law for the poor, so that small property could always be defended against great. [This is a criticism, for example, of the adoption in England at the end of the Middle Ages (and later the United States) from Roman law of the concept of statute of limitations, whereby when property had been stolen, the owner had to go to court within a very short period of time to try to re-establish ownership, be able to pay lawyers, etc.]

3.The deliberate protection of certain experiments in small property, if necessary, by tariffs and even local tariffs.

4. Subsidies to foster the starting of such experiments.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 21, No. 5, September-October 2001.