by Race Mathews
Monash University Publishing, Clayton
Paperback: 397 pages
Reviewed by Brian Coman
One always needs to make a distinction between historical facts and the analysis of those facts. The details of the various battles and campaigns of the Great War are facts. However, once we assemble a whole series of historical facts into some sort of narrative, positing both causes and consequences, it is well nigh impossible to do so without some overall explanatory system or “point of view”.
And herein lies the problem. Even to this day, there are disagreements over the root cause of the Great War and over the justifications used in its prosecution. As philosopher Thomas Nagel has pointed out in The View from Nowhere, each of us has internal perspectives that cannot be discarded or objectified.
And so, not unexpectedly, this new book by Race Mathews, a former Labor Party politician, has a certain point of view that will not necessarily be shared by all prospective readers. His book on Distributism is, nonetheless, a very scholarly and exhaustive account, well referenced and well written. It makes extensive use of quotations from original sources. It is an important contribution to Australian history.
At the outset, I should say that the subtitle of this book is somewhat misleading because the subject matter between the covers would be more accurately described as a general history of “Catholic Action” in Victoria and elsewhere, interwoven with the personal history of many of the major figures involved in the movement.
The term “Catholic Action” refers to a practical response, mainly by laity within the Catholic Church, to a set of Christian views of the person in society as promulgated in the great papal encyclical of Leo VIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) and later, to its reinforcement and extension in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI. Thus, the very basis of the whole “Catholic Action” phenomenon was, in the first instance, theological, not social or political.
The “Liberty” of the book’s main title was, for Catholics of the day, not primarily a political liberty but a spiritual one, and the “Labour” was an affirmation of the dignity of human work – it was not “the means of production”, but “the means of salvation”.
To be sure, part of the overall historical movement involved in “Catholic Action” in the period under study was concerned with Distributism – a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, where “labour hires capital”, in contradistinction to capitalism, where “capital hires labour”. Its noble attempt was to avoid the excesses of both unrestrained capitalism and unrestrained socialism specifically in the area of human work.
However, other principles also underpinned the historical movement. The idea of subsidiarity, for instance, loomed large in the thought of those involved in the “Catholic Action” of the period. Briefly stated, this holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organisation. Of course, much depends upon whether you take a narrow or broad definition of Distributism. If the latter, then any devolvement of political, economic or social power might be regarded as “distributive” in nature.
But there is a danger in using such a broad definition of Distributism, for it then runs the risk of being conflated with socialism. And, indeed, my reading of Race Mathews’ new book moves me to believe that he does conflate the two, even though he is careful to avoid identifying Distributism with what he calls “socialism of the statist sort”. Some might say that there is no other sort!
In theory, devolvement of power is a very good thing but, in practice, there are certain areas of collective human life that require some central governance, else we slip back to Hobbes “state of nature” where there is “war of all against all”. Herein lies the danger – one has to chart a course between the Scylla of anarchism and the Charybdis of state hegemony. How easily can benign socialism morph into something much more sinister!
Because Race Mathews is an old Labor Party stalwart, he carries certain wounds which, like the Fisher King of Arthurian legend, will not heal. One such wound is the great Labor Party Split of 1955. One can understand why. The creation of the Democratic Labour Party, which occurred as a result of the Split, effectively prevented the Labor Party from forming a government until 1972.
The critical role of B.A. Santamaria in all of this is undisputed. Essentially, how one views the actions of Santamaria will depend almost entirely upon perceptions of the dangers posed by communist influences in Australia. Mathews believes that Santamaria overrated the dangers. I’m not so sure. Anyone who has read Hal Colebatch’s account of union activities in Australia during World War II (Australia’s Secret War), might disagree with Mathews on this point. Perhaps, like the Fisher King again, the old Labor Party wound was self-inflicted!
It is in this section of his historical account that Mathews abandons what is elsewhere a reasonably even-handed approach. For example, when discussing Santamaria’s attitude to the YCW – specifically to his alleged attempts to politicise the organisation – he writes: “Irrespective of whether taken up by Santamaria to a high place and shown the principalities of the world or bludgeoned by him with unwarranted anathemas, the YCW leaders stuck resolutely throughout to the principles with which the Campions and the bishops had … endowed them.”
Identifying Santamaria with the devil is, perhaps, a tad overdone. But, in the final analysis, the reader must determine for himself whether Mathews’ account of these affairs is reasonable and accurate.
For all that, this book is a marvelous resource for all students of Australian political, social and economic history. For older readers, it will bring back memories of a cast of characters who, in their day, loomed large. There are detailed accounts of the contributions made by people like Cardinal Moran, Archbishop Mannix, Frank Maher, Kevin Kelly, and B.A. Santamaria. Likewise, we get a very detailed account of the formation of the many organisations involved in “Catholic Action” – the Australian National Secretariat for Catholic Action, the YCW, and the National Catholic Rural Movement, to name just a few.
From about the beginning of the 20th century through to the 1950s one gets a sense, from Mathews’ book, of a huge groundswell of concern and practical action by the Catholic laity for the social, political and economic inequalities of the day. But this was, in the first instance, not a political movement, but a spiritual one. There was, during that period a huge outpouring of genuine spirituality and this, more than anything else, was the great driving force behind “Catholic Action”. I’m not sure that Mathews makes this point clear enough in his account.
Towards the end of the book, we do get a useful account of the very successful Mondragón scheme in Spain. Here, the principles of Distributism have been successfully applied on a large scale and the Mondragón scheme stands as an example of what can be achieved.
Certainly, we in Australia are in need of some re-invigoration of our political and economic landscape. As Mathews correctly points out in his Introduction, the decline in active citizenship, loss of confidence in politicians and political parties, and increasing economic inequalities all cry out for some remedy. With the Papacy of Francis, Mathews sees some hope for a rekindling of those flames which burnt so brightly in the first half of last century.
However, he misses one critical part of the equation. The “Catholic Action” of the period under study was built on a foundation of spiritual devotion. The majority of people were believers in the Christian message. Today, all that has been swept away. So much so, in fact, that traditional beliefs are now put down as assaults on personal freedom.
If, as St James tells us, “faith without works is dead”, then, assuredly, work without faith is also dead. The various secular philosophies urging social justice are of no help, for they employ principles that are, at base, incommensurate with each other – utility versus rights versus Kantian-style duty, and so on. Their evident failure is before us every day as we wander ever deeper into the “Slough of Despond”.