Radicalism and Catholicism: not exactly symbiotic entities. Or at least not to most people. Dorothy Day begs to disagree. If her life as a social activist is any indication then there is more to this material-supernatural reconciliation than meets the eye. Spoken from someone living at the turn of a century, who lived through world war one and two, and consistently fought to convert people to Christianity while trying to wean them off state reliance, the doctrine of catholic workerism is an odd program, to say the least, yet given by a person fully committed to her ideals, everyone need to take her seriously.
Written as an autobiography, The Long Loneliness is a record of Day’s conversion from immature hostility to religion (born out of confused political and spiritual stances as a youth) to mature theological positions. It tells of her reconciliation with radical politics and of the program she embraced which represented a fusion of “traditional” Leftist politics and progressive religion. Told in connected vignettes, this autobiography is also a record of activism and the reality of the working class in metropolitan and rural areas. More to the point, it is a recording of the efforts needed to reach out and help the destitute without resorting to charity, state intervention, or condescending attitudes belittling their worth as human beings. The humble attire of Day’s conduct marks her as a true Christian throughout.
The most important aspect of the novel, aside from the conversion narrative, is Day’s meeting with Peter Maurin, the man whom most influenced her of how to combine radicalism with Catholicism. The relationship between Peter and Dorothy, though never sexual or romantic, indicates a profound friendship which was both intellectual and personal. Each of them fed off each other’s energies in founding the newspaper (The Catholic Worker) as well as the work they undertook in establishing farms and hospices. Though Day treats him as a prophet, and everything such a statement comes with, the duo formed a professional bond which preserved in Day’s work even after Peter’s death.
Her encounter with Peter is important because it is the politics of Peter which determined her practical efforts after her conversion to Christianity. By this I mean the program which Day ascribed to: the Catholic Worker vision of the future was both progressive and reactionary. It was near Horiziontalist in its orientation, by its hostility to the state, war, and monetary currencies yet still very backward in its promulgation of “de-industrialization” and back-to-the-land farming. Such a position obviously ran contrary to conventional Leftist attitudes regarding technocratic adherence to industry and technology in general. Even more interesting this position is when examined under the lens of their “revolutionary pacifism”. Committed to non-violence to achieve these goals is simply absurd: to destroy luxuries (telephones, factories, movie cinemas, etc.) while espousing peaceful methods will never coalesce in anything tangible. Obviously the (reformist) religious aspect, in its rejection of materialist class war, was taking a heavy toll on the practical ability of the organization to not only achieve its goals but attract people to its banner.
The conditions which they were operating under were mixed. On one hand they were active in anti-communist America. On the other this was before the Cold War McCarthyism when many labor, both reformist and revolutionary, openly held massive sway in the working class mind. While they were stifled in expressing any “hardcore” worker-oriented program, lest they be associated with communism any more than they already were, the fact that their religious feature afforded them a degree of difference and flexibility not given to groups under purely atheistic lines, marks a tragedy in terms of what could have been accomplished; had the Catholic Worker program called for general urban unionization under the guidance of revolutionary leadership as part of a wider call to arms, the majority of the superstitious workers could have been organized on principals which appealed to their material and religious needs, thus negating a major bourgeois virus (reactionary religious dogma) while incorporating a Leftist trait (proletarian action groups). Yet as it stood, the program was lacking: in adhering to counterproductive goals alien to the majority of the working population they bypassed their largest reservoir of support. The result of this was growth only among the populations which had become disaffected by traditional religious and materialist offerings; various students, vagrants, seamen, and poor farmers. Manifested in Day herself by her incessant confusion over the concept of “Anarchist” she repeats her confusion with great dismay near the end of her narrative when she calls a group of Italian Fascists as “Anarchists at heart”. The fact that this Catholic element causes discrepancies in how she, and the wider movement, evaluated theory is shown in a passage early on in her narrative when she decried the personality cults associated with the revolutionary figures while praising the same domineering attitudes present in Peter’s control over the content of the newspaper. In all, the various contradictions caused by history and religion present too much of an obstacle therefore tainting the entire project with an unsure, self-contradiction quality.
This kind of theoretical obstruction is the natural result of a lifetime of desperate attempts to reconcile religion and materialism, however, with non-violence. It is also why after Peter’s death the organization declined into its current irrelevance despite the religious masses still present in the United States. Unable to present a coherent position on either concept, the entire program fell apart; any group, after all, led by self-made prophet is bound to fail without a spontaneous resurrection days later. Considering Day’s origins as a socially conscious young woman drawn to the cult of religious community, it is not surprising that this first attempt to garner a mastery over the known and unknown facets of life resulted in what can only be considered a ‘first try’ for future generations of theist activists.