Dorothy Day On Anarchism

We’ll see how this post goes. I’ve been without adequate sleep so long now, I catch myself doing wacky things like storing the toaster in the fridge. Yes, it’s that bad. In other news, I’m just finishing the Dorothy Day conversion story and autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

Dorothy Day was a journalist, notable in her younger years for writing for socialists newspapers. I’ve found the autobiography to be tough going, in part because Day keeps an emotional distance in her writing. This is a good skill when writing news articles, but not a great one for writing an autobiography. My dear historical friend James Boswell began a legacy of emotional closeness in the biography genre, and we now recognize his style as being what biography means. As for my personal expectations, the emotional closeness is especially apropos to autobiographies. But Day is clearly a stoic by nature, and what can I say? Stoicism is the way I approach the world, too. How can I criticize her?

But hold on; that’s part of the problem. Day writes about her life, times, and activities, and doesn’t always give comment on them. That has left me in an uncomfortable state for much of this book, not knowing whether, for example, she wholeheartedly agreed with the philosophy of the French Catholic philosopher Peter Maurin. You see, Day began her career mixing with some of the most prominent communists of her time. When she converted to Catholicism, her focus changed. This was when she met Peter Maurin. She and Maurin started the Catholic worker movement, and they produced The Daily Catholic, a propaganda newspaper for the workers’ Rights movement with, obviously, a focus on Catholic concerns. Day clearly admired Maurin, but she’s so circumspect and unemotional compared to him that I would like to know if they ever argued over how his ideals would become reality. She’s idealistic and somehow practical and realistic at the same time; perhaps this is why the two were able to apply his ideals to their charity work and communal farms. They actually did this, and I admire idealists who are able to put their own noses to the grindstone to make the world a better place, rather than using extortive methods to force the government to be society’s daddy-gods.

But I don’t mean she never gives an opinion. She does, but her style is still emotionally distant. As a reader, I have to pay attention and look for it because she’s not going to punctuate it with highlighted passion. Near the end — right before discussing Maurin’s passing, she gives insightful personality and belief descriptions of some of her workers and/or journalists (including Maurin) — she pauses to define that ever-misunderstood term, anarchist. She knows her fellow Catholics have an automatic negative reaction to it, but she wishes to defend it. And she does this by delineating the difference between government and state. Because many people can’t parse the difference, they write off anarchism without much thought. But as she rightly points out, the two are used synonymously when they ought not to be. She says:

…the State is only one form of government. When you analyze what anarchists advocate it really boils down to the advocacy of decentralized self-governing bodies.

This isn’t merely an error of false synonyms, but a categorization error. State, she says, is under the umbrella of government, just as anarchism is. But make no mistake: they are both types of government, rather than one being government and the other a lack thereof.

This is where the book really piqued my interest. She goes on to quote from the Summa Theologica, Question 90, Art 3, where St. Thomas discusses the types of government that can bring about the order of the common good: the whole people, or a public personage who has care of the whole people. Anarchism fits in the former and, therefore, is a valid and even Christian choice of government. Furthermore, she goes further and brings Augustine into it — he made a distinction between coercive and directive government. “The former is a result of sin,” she says. “The latter is not.” Anarchism, of course, fits in the former.

And then finally, she gives her own opinion, rather than just defending the beliefs of others through the early church giants:

I do believe — whether it can be realized or not — that the anarchist society approaches nearer this ideal [God’s kingdom on Earth] than do other forms of government.

But in her realistic manner, she says we must live in hope of this idea because it will give us the impetus to work toward something that is otherwise impractical, given human nature.

Even though she doesn’t precisely define herself as an anarchist in the book, she lived the anarchist life through her work in creating Catholic communal farms. This is what I found fascinating: she wasn’t just a philosopher or a journalist. Her beliefs were so integrated with her being that expressing them rhetorically might well have been gratuitous. In other words, the weakness of her autobiography was her actual personal strength. And I just rambled on, when I called it in the second paragraph. Stoicism. The Greek philosophy, of course. Dorothy Day was a Christian stoic.

I think the toaster is at temp now. Time to eat!


One comment

  1. It’s important to distinguish nations from the state apparatus, which Day did (using slightly different terms). Most anarchist philosophy I’ve read are reactions to the nation-state concept in practice. It’s an expected reaction, when you really find out how the sausage is made.

    I don’t blame someone of being terrified of Jeff walking around wearing a mask of Albert’s face skin, trying to convince everyone he really is Albert.

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