In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, three alternatives were proposed to alleviate the conditions of the working classes under capitalism: distributism, Keynesian capitalism, and socialism. Distributists are sometimes accused of being socialists, or at least quasi-socialists. This article will examine the nature of socialism and how it is completely incompatible with distributism.
Capitalism enabled the owners of corporations to greatly increase their wealth and eliminate any effective competition, making the vast majority of the working classes completely dependent upon them. While the owners of these companies lived in luxury, the working class was reduced to a state in which even having both parents work did not yield enough income to support a family. The lack of effective competition meant that workers could not simply leave their jobs for a better opportunity—better jobs didn't exist. The workers had to put up with whatever the employers wanted to make them endure, or they would be fired and be quickly replaced by others desperate for any work. It is no wonder that the promises of socialism appealed to many workers in such conditions.
There are three basic fundamentals to the original idea of socialism. The first is the complete elimination of social classes; the second is the elimination of money; and the third is the elimination of a government-run state. From the socialist view, the private ownership of property is what enables the classes to exist. The existence of a private claim to productive property enables some to elevate themselves above others, subjugating the workers to their ends and using their own wealth to twist the powers of government to their advantage. Eliminating a private claim to productive property will enable the laborer to claim the benefit of his labor. Those in need will work according to their ability for the good of society—which means that each member of society will be guaranteed the fulfillment of his needs. This means that money is not necessary, as it is merely a tool to transfer the private ownership of property. Since each person will act for the good of the whole society, and will do so voluntarily, government's raison d'être no longer exists.
This original idea became known as utopian socialism. It was quickly supplanted with the idea of a “vanguard party” that, acting on behalf of the people, would secure the powers of the state. This vanguard party would implement “state capitalism” (also known as “state socialism”) whereby the state would manage industry in much the same way as the capitalist did, but of course for the benefit of the society. This new form of socialism became known as scientific socialism.
Scientific socialism is the form of socialism of societies like the former Soviet Union and modern China. While it is true that there are various strains of socialist thought, this is the main embodiment of socialism as it has actually been implemented in any significant way. While the original utopian socialism would eliminate all private property, many socialist societies allowed some degree of private property that operated at the sufferance, and sometimes under the direction, of the state. While utopian socialism would eliminate all classes, all socialist societies actually replaced the old set of leaders with their own, and transferred the control of the majority of productive property from the hands of the few capitalists into the hands of the few political leaders. While utopian socialism would eliminate the state altogether, the existence of other states necessitated the continued existence of a state government with a capable military.
This last point is very important to understand about socialism. It cannot coexist with other “countries” except in isolation from them. The utopian version of a stateless socialism is imperiled wholly by societally exterior threats. Within the utopian socialist society, everyone is supposed to act according to the needs of society as a whole; they will do this voluntarily. In the socialist view, however, the existence of private property causes the greed and strife that lead to wars of conquest and the impoverishing of the masses. Therefore, a stateless socialist society cannot truly coexist with a capitalist society because the greed and strife of the latter will “obviously” lead it to attack the Utopia of the purely socialist society. While I think that there is even a degree to which multiple socialist societies could not coexist, the attempt to create a truly socialist society necessitates either complete economic and military isolation from any capitalist societies, or the elimination of those societies altogether. I am not saying this is something that these societies declared; it is simply the reality of their existence.
Unlike socialists, distributists do not consider the existence of privately owned property to be the problem with capitalism. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, the problem with capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but that there are too few. The problem is that capitalism allows the ownership of the majority of productive property to become concentrated into the hands of a small minority of the population. The rest must become workers completely dependent on that minority for a wage on which to live.
Instead of seeking the socialist solution of eliminating private property by transferring the ownership of it into the hands of state controllers, distributism proposes the widest possible private ownership of property that can be achieved in a practical way. Unlike utopian socialists, distributists do not expect to establish a perfect society in which all of the people consistently voluntarily act for the good of society as a whole. In other words, distributism does not advocate the stateless society. Unlike the scientific socialists, distributists to not believe in empowering the state to manage potentially all economic activity for the good of the society. Distributism proposes a society structured on the principles of subsidiarity, wherein the lower foundational levels of society have natural rights that the higher levels cannot usurp. Even when assisting those lower levels, the higher levels cannot usurp the roles and functions that rightfully belong to the lower levels.
As you can see, the form of economic and political society proposed by distributism is fundamentally different than that proposed by socialism. Yes, distributists criticize the instability and injustices of the capitalist system as do the socialists, but the solutions proposed by the distributists are completely incompatible with the solutions proposed by socialism. Indeed, from the distributist perspective, the solutions proposed by socialism are in ways more unjust than the problems of capitalism they propose to solve.