In light of the discussion about distributism in the recent comments, I’m posting John Zmirak’s excellent Religion & Liberty review of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards (Ignatius Press, 2014) here on the PowerBlog. Note how he ends the review with a discussion of Tolkien and whether his work lent support to distributism. Have at it.
In Praise of the Bourgeois, Liberty-Loving Race of Hobbits
By John Zmirak
"First they ignore it, then they ridicule it, then they willfully misunderstand it, then it becomes a classic." Mohandas Gandhi never said that about great works of literature, but it does describe the trajectory of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. We are long past the days when critics could lightly sneer at the book as "escapist," or convince people that it is secretly "militarist" or "racist." Too many tens of millions have actually read the work to swallow such poison pills. So readers of Tolkien who profoundly misunderstand the book and reject its central message have taken another tack: They have tried to misconstrue the work as a plea for radical environmentalism, Marxist revolution, or the use of the violent force employed by the state in the service of other agendas (such as Distributism) that were utterly alien to Tolkien. The Hobbit Party, by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards does a brilliant job of exposing these crass or crafty misreadings of Tolkien, presenting in plain English and scholarly detail the true complexity and beauty of Tolkien's epic, and more honest applications of his insights.
The Hobbit Party is an easy and pleasurable read, deeply informative and grounded in a fundamental sympathy with the vision of the good that Tolkien wove through all his works. If you only bought one book on The Lord of the Rings, this would be an excellent choice. It's especially worthwhile as a gift for students who are already fans of the book, since it will connect them to Tolkien's intellectual roots and moral aspirations.
The Lord of the Rings reawakened in postmodern Westerners a wistful esteem for ideals at which their parents and teachers had learned to sneer. These "Gods of the Copybook Headings" include heroism, self-sacrifice, loyalty, prudence, wisdom, duty, courage, honor, and chivalry—virtues so abused by warmongers in 1914 to recruit young men for death by gas on the Somme, that they seemed besmirched beyond redemption. As a veteran of that war whose closest friends had died all around him, Tolkien possessed what we might call the "trench cred" to rescue these household gods from the muck of No Man's Land, and return them to us cleansed and numinous once again. Rejecting the easy if understandable cynicism of the postwar generation, Tolkien used his vast imagination and detailed learning to fight his way through to the far side of disillusionment.
Tolkien did not write a brittle, uplifting allegory for boys. His work also saves for us, from the acid bath of reductionism, ideas and images that are not abstractly moral, but instead incarnate moral aspirations and insights: the shrewd but honest peasant, the courteous soldier, the wise but fearsome wizard, the rightful king in exile, the glorious kingdom under the sea that was drowned for its hubris, the conscious soul of the forest, the virginal mother and queen. Tolkien does not follow Jung or Wagner by invoking these to reject reason and history; instead he finds the power and resonance of such images in history and historical literature— and sifts them through his baptized, Christian reason to re-present the elements of enduring human value, and hence imaginative power.
Tolkien the scholar had mastered the great body of Germanic literature which played a decisive role in shaping Western civilization and politics. Hard as it may be for us in the long wake of the Third Reich to accept it, the Teutonic love of freedom and resistance to arbitrary rule were the font of English common law, the Magna Carta, and the American Bill of Rights. The admixture of Germanic, feudal customs and the Christian idea of the person transformed the surviving autocratic Roman law into the mixed, balanced, free governments that would arise throughout the West. Or so Montesquieu and the American founders believed.
The bureaucratic autocracies and the racist dystopia that would emerge in modern Germany were appalling overreactions to the chaos that had engulfed the German nation for centuries—from the High Middle Ages, when the popes broke the back of the Holy Roman Empire, right up through 1815, when Napoleon was defeated. Almost 600 hundred years of seeing their nation as the playground of petty princes and the prize of foreign conquerors nearly snuffed out the Germans' fear of tyranny—which survived across the sea in England, and over the mountains in Switzerland.
Tolkien loved the old Germanic (or as he called it, "Northern") spirit, and saw it as our source of ordered liberty. So even as these Nordic myths and images were being grossly perverted in Bayreuth and Nuremburg, Tolkien began his quiet, massively powerful act of resistance—the writing of The Lord of the Rings. It should not surprise us that Tolkien's most distinctive and loveable creation, the race of hobbits, combines the traits of an honest English yeoman and a thrifty, hardworking Swiss burgher. Tolkien aspired, as Tom Shippey reports in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, to replace the Arthurian legends with another, more properly English, national myth. It was fitting, then, that Tolkien chose as protagonists creatures that displayed the classically English "shopkeeper" virtues: modesty, tolerance, prudence, and respect for contracts and private property. Witt and Richards extensively analyze both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to reveal these recurrent qualities in Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits, and to show how the author approved of them. They likewise show Tolkien's respect for honest trade, thrifty stewardship, and the enterprising, innovative use of resources.
These bourgeois virtues were widely sneered at in Tolkien's place and time— by leftists who dismissed them along with religion as "epiphenomena" of an unjust economic structure, and rightists who fancied themselves the heirs of a vanished aristocracy whose guaranteed and inherited wealth had freed them to cleave to "higher" values. Rightist scholar Thomas Molnar wrote approvingly in The Counterrevolution of the convergence of far right and radical left in their hatred for bourgeois mores. Tolkien's fellow English Catholic and contemporary, historian Christopher Dawson, wrote in "Catholicism and the Bourgeois Spirit" that the Gospel itself condemns any form of economic prudence, planning, or foresight. (So much for Bilbo's respect for his contract with Thorin Oakenshield, Sam Gamgee's concern for the prosperity of his garden—or Tolkien's dogged battles to preserve his royalties as an author.)
To view the essential hobbit qualities through a purely national lens is to diminish both Tolkien's intention and his achievement—as Witt and Richards show. In The Hobbit Party, they convince us that Tolkien had a much grander ambition: to depict in heroic form the value of human freedom, the dignity of the person as the image and likeness of God, and the morally poisonous side-effects of the craving to dominate our fellow man. The driving force of the plot of The Lord of the Rings is this very truth; the Ring was created by Sauron for the purpose of overriding the free wills of other creatures and bending them to his purpose. It is useless for any other goal, and every attempt to employ the Ring will corrupt the user in Sauron's image. The noblest characters in the novel are those who reject the temptation to use the Ring, to enslave their fellow creatures even in the service of noble ends: Gandalf, Aragorn and Galadriel, while those who succumb to the Ring's allure end up like Boromir, Denethor, and Saruman. We may not, we by our human constitutions simply cannot, avoid profound moral corruption if we presume to trample on the rights of our fellow men, in the service of any project (social, economic, or religious) however "good" it seems to us.
One such project much beloved by certain readers of Tolkien is Distributism, a movement developed in the face of the Great Depression, and led by men like Hilaire Belloc who shared key economic errors with Karl Marx—as Witt and Richards document. (They also expose the lasting flirtation of several key Distributists with fascism.) Distributists dream of expropriating large businessmen and landowners, redistributing their wealth more widely through the population, and preventing through the threat of policemen and prisons the growth of any large businesses or farms. Chain stores such as Hobby Lobby would be simply and flatly illegal.
Some Catholics pretend that Distributism is the "official" economic system of Tolkien's own Church, which faithful believers are bound by religious obedience to advocate. Witt and Richards cite the plain words of Pope John Paul II to refute such a suggestion, which if followed would make of the Church an international political party imposing a detailed agenda dictated by an autocratic, unaccountable leader— something eerily like the Soviet Communist Party that haunted Tolkien's era. Others pillage Tolkien's work selectively to suggest that he shared the radical right's contempt for honest trade, economic foresight, and prudent stewardship of resources—in favor of the aristocratic stance toward wealth which spends it (in Dawson's words) "lavishly, recklessly and splendidly." Witt and Richards gracefully highlight characters whom Tolkien clearly favors—the Dwarves who constructed Moria, the elves who settled Rivendell, the hobbits who people the Shire—who behave like honest burghers carefully planning for their own and their children's future. Tolkien also portrayed worthy aristocrats, such as Aragorn and Eomer, who displayed the martial virtues proper to their calling. Not one of these noble leaders shows contempt for the bourgeois aspirations of the hobbits. Nor should we.
The good that Distributists hope to achieve through the massive and ongoing use of coercion is a society of small, sturdy, independent farmers and businessmen— which sounds alluringly like the Shire. The means that any Distributist system would have to use, the trampling on property rights, personal freedom, and economic initiative—evoke those employed by Saruman's agents to "gather and share" the Shire's wealth before the novel's heroes return to "scour" it. Witt and Richards are too tactful to suggest it, but Distributism is a system that a hobbit might well conceive, after long years spent alone in a cold room, while wearing the Ring.
John Zmirak is co-author of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.