Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy speak

Salvaging my Geocities-site also implies I have to see where to stall Bas Moreel's Religious Anarchism Newsletter. They date back from the times when very few people had their own daily weblog. This is issue nr.1, from June 2001.

The real reason why I start this bulletin is that, at the moment, nobody else is known to me who does such a thing. A theoretical reason might have been that religious anarchism is too important a thing to leave it to religious anarchists as it is also not good to leave anarchism in general to anarchists alone (impurity, reformism, dirty hands is the law of survival, also for ideas, as wrote once Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who coined the word "anarchist" and was not blind to contradictions in life, for which he saw reconciliation in the specific serial dialectics he developed).

In this first issue I have only materials from a Roman Catholic background. I came across them by chance, as is the case with much of what I pass on in my newsletters. I will be happy with materials that widen my knowledge in this field: my more or less nomadic life leaves me little opportunity for systematic searching.

I start with fragments from an interview with Dorothy Day, the American co-initiator of the Catholic Worker movement together with the Frenchman Peter Maurin, as published for the first time in 1971 in the Los Angeles Catholic Worker monthly "Catholic Agitator".

Agitator: Are you an anarchist?

Dorothy Day: In my first year of college, when I was sixteen years old, I joined the Socialist Party. But I found most of the members 'petty bourgeois', good people but very settled family people. And it was very theoretical. It had no religious connotations, none of the religious enthusiasm for the poor that you've got shining through a great deal of radical literature. Then there was the IWW moving in. The IWW has this motto: 'An injury to one is an injury to all'. That appealed to me tremendously because I felt we were all one body. I had read scripture, but I don't think I'd ever really recognized that teaching of the 'Mystical Body' - that we are all one body, we are all one.

A: Was this more of a political than a spiritual outlook at this point?

DD: No, I think it was a spiritual outlook, too. I just felt a profound truth there that appealed to me. The idea that when the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered is a teaching of St Paul which is timeless. So I joined the IWW.

A: Would you be more specific about what it means to be an anarchist?

DD: The whole point of view of the anarchist is that everything must start from the bottom up, from man. It seems to me so human a philosophy.

A: Why did you become a Catholic?

DD: Because I felt it was the church of the poor, because I felt its continuity. I felt that no matter how corrupt or rotten it became, it had this feeling for man. It had the mark of Jesus Christ on it, walking the roads of the country, gathering a few around. You see this pattern. You see this pattern in Castro, Che Guevara; and that's why they are so attractive to people. They work where they are. They begin at the bottom. And then, of course, they go off and become the bureaucratic state. Castro wasn't a Marxist. He was a Catholic educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits. The Communists in Cuba didn't assist Castro in his revolution. It wasn't until Castro marched triumphantly into Cuba that you might say the whole thing grew into a Marxist revolution.

A: Do you ever, as an anarchist, see any incompatibilities between anarchy and Catholicism?

DD: No, I think anarchy is natural to the Catholic. The Church is pretty anarchistic, you know. Who pays attention to the Pope or the Cardinals? Conscience is supreme, and that's why we print it on the front page of our The Catholic Worker monthly paper. The saying of Vatican II is above all 'Conscience is supreme'.

A: Sometimes you go to see the bishops and members of the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. What do you talk to them about?

DD: We talk about the work. As Cardinal McIntyre said to me looking at our paper: 'I never studied anything like this in the seminary'.

A: Would you talk briefly about how the Catholic Worker started with you and Peter Maurin?

DD: This will madden Women's Liberationists when I say that Peter Maurin was the one who was totally responsible for it all. I met him as a result of the things I had written. When he came to see me, he was a regular tramp living on the Bowery; a French peasant and a man of great knowledge, however. He had taught in Christian Brothers' schools in France. He had tremendous knowledge of movements all over Europe. He laid down a very simple program - the kind of program people would just laugh at. Foremost in this program was the necessity for the clarification of thought. I knew that Lenin had said there could be no revolution without a theory of revolution. And when Peter talked about clarification of thought, I thought this was what he was talking about. He said we needed discussions and meetings and a paper to bring things before the public. He said we should sell it ourselves on the street. He used to have 'Friday night meetings' every night of the week. He wore us out. He talked about Houses of Hospitality where there would be direct action of the works of mercy. Round table discussions, Houses of Hospitality, and farming communes - that was his solution. And you see them coming about. You see ideas that somehow or other are in the air - communes all across the country, young people trying themselves, testing themselves in various ways. I think it's all part of a world movement. Why should so many people find assent to what we write in the paper - and such a diverse group of people, too? It's something which is coming, which is evolving. I think that just as we're in the nuclear era we're also in an era of non-violence. It's undefeatable. And the evidence of non-violence are these great movements like the Chavez movement [an American movement to get better working and living conditions for farm workers, BM]. It makes its appeal. It seems impossible to buck the agribusiness. But I've seen this with my own eyes.

A: How is the work you do in the city with the poor related to the work you do as a journalist?

DD: You can't write about things without doing them. You just have to live that same way. You start in with a table full of people and pretty soon you have a line and pretty soon you're living with some of them in a house. You don what you can. God forbid we should have great institutions. The thing is to have many small centers. The ideal is community.

A: Does the Catholic Worker offer any sort of alternative existence to the poor other than a bowl of soup and a bed to sleep for the night?

DD: It offers them community too - although we fail every time. That's also life. How can you not fail? That's the human condition. I think that at the Catholic Worker we have high aims. But how much mingling is there, really, between the worker and the scholar? You get acquainted with some and they become very dear to you. They become so much part of the family that you get mad at them. There's so much you have to endure in community. It's like parents with their children. You just have to forgive seventy times seven. There is nothing logical in all this. It's very hard to talk about. That's why I dread any kind of interviewing. Because, how can you express these intangible things that the Catholic Worker is doing? You can sit down and add up how many people were fed yesterday afternoon, how many people were served each morning at the jail, how many cups of coffee are distributed - that kind of turnstile counting. It's impossible to measure the real value of these things.


Ammon Hennacy became a religious anarchist at some point and had connected with Dorothy Day. The following is a quote from 1950.

I had not met Dorothy since September 1941 in Milwaukee. Now I was overjoyed to get a card from her saying that she would be here in Phoenix December 29th. The leading anarchist of this country happened to be in Phoenix just then, so I asked him if he and his atheistic Italian anarchist friends would like to meet Dorothy. Accordingly we met one evening in an anarchist home. The atheistic anarchists led off by saying that anarchism as defined by Bakunin negates all authority: that of the state and that of God. Therefore for Christian and especially Catholic anarchists to use the name anarchism is unethical. Furthermore it hurts the feelings of Italian anarchists who have felt the lash of the Catholic hierarchy.

Dorothy listened carefully to this reiterated statement and replied that this argument had not been brought to her attention before and deserved careful consideration. She felt that man of his own free will accepted God or rejected God and if a man chose to obey the authority of God and reject the authority of the state it was not unethical to do so. She inferred that we were born into a state and could not help it, but accepted God of our own free will. She and Bob Ludlow are converts to the Church. The atheistic anarchist answer was that it was entirely illogical to use the anarchist conception of freedom to accept the authority of God which denies that freedom. Dorothy felt that the authority of God only made her a better rebel and gave her courage to oppose those who sought to carry over the concept of authority from the supernatural to the natural field where it did not belong. She said that the use of the word anarchism by the CW might shock people; that Peter Maurin, although an anarchist, had generally used the word 'personalist' instead, but she felt that Bob Ludlow and myself used it rightly.

Another anarchist present thought that Ludlow had slipped over the use of the word anarchism on Dorothy. She replied that she stood back of all he said on the subject. This same anarchist repeated the regular argument that religion was opium for the people and that the Catholic Church always stood for the rich against the poor and that the CW was as bad as the history of the church. The anarchist leader felt that if the CW was only called the 'Anarchist Worker' instead of the CW it would be the best anarchist paper going. It was the word Catholic that spoiled it. These atheistic anarchists felt that if I had not hid behind the CW I would have been arrested long ago for my tax refusal. Dorothy answered that I had been a Christian anarchist long before the CW was ever heard of. The anarchist leader said that Tolstoy in his 'Appeal to Social Reformers' denounced the regular anarchists of his time and therefore should not be considered an anarchist. I replied that I had read that article of Tolstoy's long ago and that Tolstoy was simply decrying the atheism and violence of various types of anarchists, and saying that without pacifism and the Fatherhood of God there could not be an effective anarchistic brotherhood of man. I also quoted from a book 'Tolstoy the Man' by Prof. Stirner issued by Fleming Revel Co. about 1902. Prof. Stirner visited with Tolstoy and quoted him as saying that he was such an anarchist as Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount had made him not to be afraid of the word anarchism, for the time would come when people would know its true meaning; that one who had accepted and obeyed the laws of God was thereby divorced from obeying the laws of men and did not need them. Stirner was sort of a Fabian Socialist, and he asked Tolstoy if socialism was not a step on the way to anarchism. Tolstoy answered that it was not and that it would end in a terrible [illegible in the photocopy I'm using, BM]. Dorothy mentioned the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, original sin, etc., emphasizing the fact that rebels who sacrifice for a cause need this supernatural help to remain true. The anarchists misunderstood this idea or else were physically unable to accept the importance of sacrifice saying that what they wanted was better material conditions and not pie in the sky; that religion made people willing slaves. Under pressure from Dorothy and myself they admitted that a good martyr now and then like the Haymarket men and Sacco and Vanzetti, was a good thing; but they did not like the emphasis upon sacrifice.

I felt that this was the trouble with the present atheistic anarchists: that they were not willing to sacrifice enough. I reviewed my prison history to prove that what changed me from being a socialist and an atheist was the example of that true rebel Jesus. That thus my sanity had been saved and I had emerged from prison an anarchist. That I was associated with the CW because of its brave stand in publicizing my anti-tax campaign when anarchist and pacifist papers said very little about it. That my idea of God was not an authority whom I obeyed like a monarch but a principle of good as laid down by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which I interpreted in day by day decisions as the forces of the state came in conflict with these ideals. And that in the same manner every person had to make a choice between his conception of good and of evil. The anarchist leader still felt that religious people had no right to use the word anarchist, although we knew that he as an anarchist could not go to law and prevent it. I replied that the atheistic anarchists were more atheistic than they were anarchistic, so he should not be adverse to allowing Christians or Catholic Christians to be at least as religious as they were anarchistic, if not more so. That the atheistic anarchist should be glad that the CW had left the state worship of ecclesiastical authorities and were anarchists. I said that the atheistic anarchist did not realize that it was possible for a Catholic to accept spiritual authority and not - like most Catholics - accept the state and temporal authority; that the atheistic anarchist should be glad that someone was fighting authority in one sphere - and the most difficult sphere at that - where the atheistic anarchist stood no chance of being heard. Dorothy told of losing over half of the CW subscribers because the CW opposed Franco and World War II. The summary of Bob Ludlow on this subject seems conclusive: "There is an incompatibility between anarchism and religion only if the Christian insists on transforming the authoritarian set up of the Church to the temporal field or the anarchist insists on rejecting authority in religion. In both cases it comes from a confusion of the supernatural with the natural".

I felt that a fair summary of the question would be that whenever we of the CW became cowardly because of pressure from the Pope, then it would be time for the atheistic anarchists to decry our use of the name 'anarchism'. And that as long as they had no Pope to tell them what to do they ought to assert their native anarchism and come out and be as brave fighters against war and capitalism as were Bakunin, Berkman and Goldman, whom they revere.

The New York Catholic Worker monthly magazine has since some time been bringing purely anarchist articles again. (For a while it was almost exclusively religious.) The May 2001 issue carries three short articles on the classic subject "Electoral Politics and Anarchism" that would not be treated differently in a mainstream anarchist publication. Further, it carries an almost full A3 page review of Alice and Staughton Lynd's "The New Rank and File", which might as well have been published in "Fifth Estate" or in "Echanges". Every May the magazine publishes "The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker", a title and much of the contents that covers which might as well have appeared in a mainstream anarchist publication, e.g.: In politics, the state functions to control and regulate life. Its power has burgeoned hand in hand with growth in technology, so that military, scientific and corporate interests get the highest priority when concrete political policies are formulated.