There are many who write for this blog who know far more about these groups than I do. But, from what I can tell, this American version of these groups is either totally forgotten or dismissed as some kind of nostalgic Neo-Cons (confederates, that is).
I had the privilege of spending the weekend–several weekends ago, now–with Allan Carlson at an Earhart Conference. One of the things I noted (as a hypothesis) to him was that a libertarian would probably feel more comfortable with the English Distributists than with the Southern Agrarians. While both opposed centralization, the Distributists believed that one accomplished this best by abolishing corporate laws, while the Southern Agrarians were perfectly willing to use a positive law to protect local interests. Allan seemed to agree with this–but I’m very interested in what the readers of The Imaginative Conservative think of this.
I’ve also had the privilege of reading lots of Flannery O’Connor this summer.
How important are the Southern Agrarians? Do they still have things to tell us, eight decades later?
An Idyllic English Countryside?
This modern/industrial man “seems to have three characteristics”:
First, he has lost the old doctrinal position on transcendental things . . . .Second, as a consequence of this he has lost his economic freedom, or indeed, the very conception of it.Third, there has been produced in him, by loss of economic freedom, coupled with the loss of the old religious doctrines, an interior conception of himself which molds all of his actions.Not it should be clear to anyone who will think lucidly and coldly upon the direction in which all this must move that it is moving toward the re-establishment of slavery. Industrial capitalism, as we now have it, the control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (and the control of the modes, therefore, by which production, distribution, and exchange are conducted) by a few, must mean the many are compelled to work for the profit of the few. [Belloc, “The Modern Man”, in Who Owns America?, 438]
What had gone wrong? England had enjoyed a glorious era—but it was brief—sometime only beginning in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. From Belloc’s perspective, it was a time of true freedom and widespread property ownership.
These three forms under which labor was exercised—the serf, secure in his position, and burdened only with regular dues, which were but a fraction of his produce; the freeholder, a man independent save for money dues, which were more of a tax than a rent; the guild, in which well-divided capital worked cooperatively for craft production, for transport and commerce—all three between them were making for a society which should be based upon the principle of property. All, or most—the normal family—should own. And on ownership the freedom of the state should repose. The state, as the minds of men envisaged it at the close of this process, was an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number owners of the means of production. It was an agglomeration in which the stability of this distributive system (as I have called it) was guaranteed by the existence of cooperative bodies, binding men of the same craft or of the same village together; guaranteeing the small proprietor against loss of economic independence, while at the same time it guaranteed society against the growth of a proletariat. If liberty of purchase and sale, or mortgage and of inheritance was restricted, it was restricted with the social object of preventing the growth an economic oligarchy which could exploit the rest of the community. The restraints upon liberty were restraints designed for the preservation of liberty; and every action of medieval society, from the flower of the Middle Ages to the approach of their catastrophe, was directed towards the establishment of a state in which men should be economically free through the possession of capital and land. [Belloc,The Servile State, 80]
A friendship of sorts developed among twelve southern men—including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank L. Owsley, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren–between 1925 and 1929.
In 1930, as readers of The Imaginative Conservative very well know, they issued a “Statement of Principles” against modernity at a symposium entitled I’ll Take My Stand (and published their protest under the same title)—though they almost called the book “A Tract Against Communism.”It was intentionally anti-ideological, and, therefore, at times vague, presenting “a philosophy of Southern life rather than a detailed programme” [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 303.]
Suddenly we realized to the full what we had long been dimly feeling, that the Lost Cause might not be wholly lost after all. In its very backwardness the South had clung to some secret which embodied, it seemed, the precise elements out of which its own reconstruction—and possibly even the reconstruction of America—might be achieved. With American civilization, ugly and visibly bent on ruin, why should we not explore this secret? [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 308.]
At the conference and in the statement of principles, the twelve admitted to being moved by the Civil War generation, especially their virtue and dedication. They, the Southern Agrarians believed, had understood “the good life.”
What we remembered of the dignity and strength of the generation that found the Confederate war . . . all this drove us straight to the South and its tradition. The good life we sought was once embodied here, and it lingered yet. [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 310.]
As it turns out, the good life was intimately tied to the agrarian life style.They, however, went well beyond mere nostalgia for an aristocratic Southern culture.
We never believed that one could be a good Southerner by simply drinking mint-juleps or by remarking sententiously on the admirable forbearance of Lee after Appomattox.” [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 309.]
The Hopes of the Southern Agrarians
So, it’s worth reconsidering just what the Southern Agrarians promoted:
Of late, however, there is the melancholy fact that the South itself has wavered a little and shown signs of wanting to join up behind the common or American industrial ideal. It is against that tendency that this book is written. The younger Southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition.
Industry and “capitalization of the applied sciences” has “enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome.Even the apologists of industrialism have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines. These are such as overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth:
” . . . but they have no real solutions except more industry. “They expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them. . . . With respect to these last it must be insisted that the true Sovietists or Communists—if the term may be used her ein the European sense—are the Industrialists themselves. They would have the government set up an economic super-organization, which in turn would become the government. We therefore look upon the Communist menace as a menace indeed, but not as a Red one; because it is simply according to blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917.”
Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.
The Southern Agrarians, it should be noted, also opposed the Humanism of Babbitt and More. Simply put, they considered the Humanists too abstract.
Humanism, properly speaking, is not an abstract system, but a culture, the whole way in which we live, act, think, and feel. It is a kind of imaginatively balanced life lived out in a definite social tradition. And, in the concrete, we believe that this, the genuine humanism, was rooted in the agrarian life of the older South and of other parts of the country that shared in such a tradition. It was not an abstract moral “check” derived from the classics-it was not soft material poured in from the top. It was deeply founded in the way of life itself-in its tables, chairs, portraits, festivals, laws, marriage customs. We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground. [I’ll Take My Stand, xliv]
I must admit, this part bothers me. While I think highly of the twelve, none really could match someone such as Paul Elmer More in depth of thought or understanding of the twentieth-century.
Still, I’ll end this rambling blog on a hopeful note.
We are, however, agreed with the English Distributists that the most desirable objective is to break them down into small units owned and controlled by real people. We want to see property restored and the proletariat thus abolished and communism made impossible. The more widespread is the ownership of property, the more happy and secure will be the people and the nation. [Owsley, “The Pillars of Agrarianism,” American Review 4 (1934-1935): 532]
Amen, Frank, amen.
Books discussed or mentioned in this article may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.