More on Dorothy Day, Anarchist

I mentioned Dorothy Day in passing in yesterday’s post. Specifically I named her as part of the Catholic pacifist-anarchist tradition. A couple of readers asked about whether or not Day was actually an anarchist, as they had always heard she was a socialist. I referred one reader to a short article on Day that noted her status as an anarchist, but I didn’t feel that was adequate.

By chance, my wife who is working on an unrelated research project about feminism, happened to pick up some books about Day at the library today. One of the books is The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective by June E. O’Connor. I thumbed through it and found the following passage, which I think provides a far more satisfying explanation of Day’s views:

Although she preferred the words libertarian, decentralist and personalist to anarchist, Day’s attraction to anarchism was an enduring one. With Peter Maurin and others, most notably Ammon Hennacy and Robert Ludlow, Dorothy Day sought fundamental changes in the structure of society by minimizing the presence and power of the state and by arguing on behalf of personal initiative and responsibility expressed in direct action.

Whether acting alongside of or in spite of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day believed in the power of the person as the starting point for the good society. Day described anarchism as being “personalist before it’s communitarian: it begins with living a disciplined life, trying to be what you want the other fellow to be.” Day admitted that although one must assume responsibility oneself, the fact is that many others will not. When they do not, one must simply try to understand them, given their sufferings and their backgrounds, and accept them.

…Anarchists are not so much politicians or sociologists as they are moralists; their stand is not so much political and economic as it is spiritual and ethical.

[Well, anarchists aren’t politicians at all, but this is still a nice observation about anarchism.]

As head of some anarchist-communitarian communities within the Catholic Worker movement, Day found herself in a position of leadership where she was sometimes referred to as the Head Anarch. The communities were said to be “an extraordinary combination of anarchy and dictatorship.” (This was not “dictatorship” in any real political sense, of course, since the communities were private, voluntary, non-coercive entities. )

In this role, however, Day encountered resistance to anarchism from even within her own community, and in 1936 she remarked: “I am in the position of a dictator trying to legislate himself out of existence. They all complain that there is no boss…Freedom – how men hate it and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it!”

This seems to provide at least a nice summary of Day’s anarchist views. She wasn’t just anti-state, but an individualist as well, who nevertheless supported a type of communitarian living.

I suspect that her reputation as a socialist stems from knee-jerk conservative reactions to anyone who criticizes capitalism (and also from just general conservative hatred of Day based on her antiwar views). Day did indeed criticize capitalism but that’s hardly sufficient to make one a socialist. Indeed, Day rejected socialism for its tendency to dehumanize people, and because, of course, it is based on coercion and violence.

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  • Regarding the conflation of “anarchist” and “socialist”, Benjamin Tucker provided some justification (or at least, context) for it in his essay “State Socialism and Anarchism”. I think it can be said that they were historically two wings of the labor movement, or perhaps two strategies for achieving a single goal (exemplified by the dispute between Bakunin and Marx)

  • Dorothy Day is often called a socialist because she was a socialist before converting to Christianity. She was on the staff of several socialist publications, including “The Liberator,” “The Masses,” and “The Call,” and did her drinking with Reds like Eugene O’Neill. After becoming a Christian, she began a newspaper of her own, “The Catholic Worker,” a direct response to the newspaper of the Communist Party, “The Daily Worker.” Her target audience (or object of her concern) remained the same as the targets of the communists and socialists: lower- and working-class people.

  • The problem here comes from re-definition of the word socialism: