Flee To the Fields - The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement

Flee To the Fields - The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement

Peter Chojnowski

The State should rededicate itself
to the common, rather than the private good

The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement

Introduction by Dr Tobias Lanz and original preface by Hilaire Belloc

(IHS Press, 2003, 153pp $24.95 Available from AD Books)

"Parliament today means Plutocracy. The beastly condition of Parliament is a byword. The atmosphere of bribery and blackmail - it is rather a stench than an atmosphere - is the very air of what is called 'Politics.' Until you have got rid of that you can do nothing. So long as the legislative machine is controlled by and composed of the monopolists, all effort at restoring healthy economic life will fail."

These sobering and frank words of Hilaire Belloc, found in his original preface to Flee to the Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement first published in the Depression year of 1934, are both a realistic assessment of the entire "Back to the Land" movement, both then and now, and an indication of the paradoxes and unresolved tensions that pervade every article in this text.

Belloc, in his preface, points out that a healthy reinvigoration of society, the logical fruit of any return to the normal and most common form of human life and occupation, can only be realised if the governing power of the State dedicates itself to the maintenance of the common good, rather than the private good (here read "bottom line") of those who "sponsor" and "finance" the rulers of the State.

Here, Belloc draws attention to a point which appears to evade most contemporary political thinkers, even those who are "conservative."

The problem with our own times and the problem with the countries that most of us live in, is that the State has been handed over to private interests; private interests that "cash out" in the augmentation of privately held bank accounts.

It is counter-intuitive to believe that those who possess access to the halls of political power will ever countenance a situation in which their monopoly on the resources of the nation is thrown into doubt.

So it is with these practical words of warning that Belloc prefaces the enthusiastic and unequivocal articles in this agrarian manifesto. His words very much echo those of Arthur Penty who stated that for a family to embrace farm life without price regulation and control on the part of the government would be tantamount to economic suicide.

With all this said, Flee to the Fields is an unapologetic agrarian manifesto. Dr Tobias Lanz makes this clear in his new introduction to this work by comparing the Catholic Land Movement, and the British Distributists who were behind it, to the American Southern Agrarian writers in the first half of the 20th century.

What is important for us to be aware of is that the Catholic Land Movement was not just a bunch of "egghead" intellectuals "sitting around" and talking about "getting their hands dirty."

As Fr John McQuillan in his article on the origins of the movement points out, the movement began with the full support (moral, if not financial) of the British Catholic hierarchy in Glasgow on 26 April 1929, prior to the Wall Street Stock Market Crash.

The Scottish Catholic Land Association was quickly complemented by similar associations in the Midlands and the north and south of England. The "sitting around" (also known as coherent prudential planning, propagandising, and conceptual clarification of ends and means) only lasted until 27 May 1931, when the Scottish Catholic Land Association leased Broadfield Farm, Symington, Lanarkshire.

It was opened as a training centre for young men who wished to learn farming and to settle later on the land. They were accompanied by Fr John McQuillan, who became the parish priest of the surrounding district.

By 1934, the year of first publication for Flee to the Fields, significant numbers of young men, adopted by the respective Catholic Land Associations, were fully trained in every branch of farming. Some obtained their own family farms, while some became managers of farms.

We find in this text, along with plenty of detailed descriptions of the work of the British Catholic Land Movement and the support that it received from popes, cardinals and intellectuals, a theoretical defence of the agrarian position, specifically the "Back to the Land" movement, which had such prestigious backers as Hilaire Belloc, G.K Chesterton, and Fr Vincent McNabb.


In an article titled, "The Rise and Fall of Industrialism," Commander Herbert Shove grounds the ideology of British Agrarianism in a systematic analysis of British history, beginning with the Medieval feudal system and ending with the emergence of a fully industrial and monopolistic system in the 19th century.

By the 19th century, the proletarianisation of the English masses began. Rather than the immemorial village, always resonant with the felt sense of community and ancestral ties and obligations, "the developed city was essentially nothing more than a small group of steam engines round which those whose livelihood depended on attending the machines they drove were forced to crowd."

Those who "crowded" around the steam engines of industry were disproportionately adherents of the Catholic Faith. This was true in both Britain and the United States.

At the time of the publication of Flee to the Fields, some 80 percent of the population of Great Britain was crowded into town and city, while some 95 percent of the Catholic population was so situated.

Just as many American churchmen in the 19th century feared the assimilation of the Catholic population into Protestant groups on account of overwhelming social and economic pressure, so too did the British Catholic elite fear that the conditions of urban life would act to further the "contraceptive mentality" amongst the Catholic peoples.

Here we find one of the main motivations behind the "Back to the Land" movement of the pre-World War II years. On this note, it is informative to quote Dr Tobias Lanz, who states that, "Despite a well-conceived economic program, the moral backing of Catholic hierarchies in England, Wales, and Scotland, and the intellectual support of a host of writers and activists, the Catholic Land Movement - and the entire Distributist project - failed, with the coming of World War Two."

It was a real desire to see the beginnings of a reorientation of the Catholic soul toward life on the land which produced both the land movement in Britain and this manifesto of its intent. Without that movement, people, such as Fr Vincent McNabb, were convinced that Catholic family life would be eroded and, finally, completely dislodged, due to the unnatural environment of the cities and the fact that, in city life, a man's place of work is in one place and his home and family in another.

It was to the not impossible dream of a free man on his own land with family at hand that Flee to the Fields was dedicated.

Dr Peter Chojnowski is an American Catholic writer and academic.

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