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 the 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 seem 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.


11:08 pm on May 3, 2011