Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria, 1891-‒1966. By Race Mathews. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2018. Pp. xi + 397. $50.
Race Mathews’ latest book, Of Labour and Liberty, Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966, was originally written as a doctorate in theology thesis for Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and the University of Divinity.
It traces the history of Catholic social thinking and action in the development of the Australian cooperative movement, particularly the cooperatives pioneered by the Young Christian Workers movement (YCW) in Melbourne.
Why such interest in Catholic social teaching from a Fabian socialist and self-described agnostic? The answer may lie in a citation quoted by M. from the economist, Heinz Arndt, who wrote of a 1948 social justice statement drafted by the Australian National Secretariat for Catholic Action (ANSCA) that “one could hardly find a more succinct statement of the point of view of intelligent, modern Democratic Socialists” (9).
Seventy years later, M. argues, such teaching is even more relevant in the face of “a precipitous decline in active citizenship” consequent on “a loss of confidence in politics and parliamentary democracy” combined with “the inexorable creep and concentration of capital in the hands of the ‘one per cent’ minority” (1).
In M.’s view, distributism, and by extension Catholic social teaching and practice thus provides a possible antidote to a series of convergent catastrophes in the political, economic and environmental arenas that threaten the world today.
Yet, whereas the Mondragon cooperatives founded by the Basque priest, Fr Jose Maria Arizmendiarrietta achieved “triumphant success” in Spain, to M.’s dismay and surprise, the Australian cooperative movement has largely disappeared.
Hence, his questions: What caused the failure of ‘First Wave’ Australian distributism? How to revive what has become a virtually forgotten political philosophy and program?
Here M. notes the seminal impact of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and the role of English Cardinal Henry Manning, both of whom greatly influenced Joseph Cardijn, the Belgian founder of the YCW (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne or JOC in French).
In Australia, these ideas were initially championed by Sydney Cardinal Patrick Moran, a great defender of worker rights, and Archbishop Daniel Mannix in Melbourne. Later, the Melbourne-based Campion Society also played a critical role in the promotion of Catholic social teaching under the leadership of Frank Maher, Kevin T. Kelly and B.A. Santamaria.
In practical terms, however, it was the first generation leaders of the Melbourne YCW in the 1940s who implemented these teachings by establishing an influential network of credit and consumer cooperatives.
M. is clearly impressed by the parallel between the role of the YCW in the development of these cooperatives and that played in Spain by Arizmendiarrietta, who also worked closely with JOC leaders, in the development of the Mondragon cooperatives.
As M. notes, Mondragon was “incontrovertibly a product of the Church’s social teachings and YCW formation in the Cardijn mould” (351). Why then did the Victorian cooperative movement not continue to develop as its Spanish counterpart had done?
M. points to the post-World War II conflicts that opposed Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement (CSSM) to the YCW. Santamaria was unwilling “to concede any merit to the YCW’s ‘See, Judge, Act’ technique of changing essentially hostile environments through the transformation of individual consciences” (267). Instead, according to M., the CSSM sought to implement “top-down management and a militarised organisational model” that “increasingly supplant(ed) (ANSCA’s) former formation focus” (346).
Other factors later led to the decline of the Victorian cooperatives, including the premature deaths of Melbourne Archbishop Justin Simonds and Fr Frank Lombard, founding chaplain of the Australian YCW. M. also hints at the lack of an adult movement that could have developed the YCW’s work.
In effect, he concludes that the Church failed to recognise the importance of YCW formation. And he transforms this critique into “a way forward” in which “under the new pontificate of Francis, awareness of the Church’s moral critique of capitalism is re-kindled and Church rediscovers its rich heritage of concern for the rights and wellbeing of workers” (350).
“Seizing the day,” M. proposes, the Australian bishops could promote “a renewed and distinctively Distributist lay apostolate such as that of the YCW cooperators in concert with the resurgent wider cooperative, mutualist and employee ownership movements and sympathetic elements within bodies including think tanks, trade unions and community groups” (351).
Drawing on the insights of Cardijn and Arizmendiarrietta, the Church would give “absolute primacy” to formation in Catholic social teaching and its “significance in the context of the Mondragon experience,” M. believes.
If this is recognized, M. concludes, the way is open for “Distributism to assume the larger role to which its merits so plainly entitle it” (354).
Stefan Gigacz, Australian Cardijn Institute, Melbourne, Australia
Of Labor and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria, 1891-1966. By Race Mathews. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2018. Theological Studies, 2019, Vol. 80(2) 479-480.