The title “Dorothy Day and the American Right” promises a merciful brevity, along the lines of “Commandments We Have Kept” by the Kennedy Brothers. After all, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and editor of its newspaper lived among the poor, refused to participate in air-raid drills, and preferred Cesar Chavez to Bebe Rebozo.
But there is more to the “right” than a dollar bill stretching from the DuPonts to Ronald Reagan, just as the “left” is something greater than the bureau-building and bomb-dropping of Roosevelts and Kennedys. Maybe, just maybe, Dorothy Day had a home, if partially furnished and seldom occupied, on the American right.
The Catholic reactionary John Lukacs, after attending the lavish 25th anniversary bash for National Review in December 1980, held in the Plaza Hotel, hellward of the Catholic Worker House on Mott Street, wrote:
During the introduction of the celebrities a shower of applause greeted Henry Kissinger. I was sufficiently irritated to ejaculate a fairly loud Boo! . . . A day or so before that evening Dorothy Day had died. She was the founder and saintly heroine of the Catholic Worker movement. During that glamorous evening I thought: who was a truer conservative, Dorothy Day or Henry Kissinger? Surely it was Dorothy Day, whose respect for what was old and valid, whose dedication to the plain decencies and duties of human life rested on the traditions of two millennia of Christianity, and who was a radical only in the truthful sense of attempting to get to the roots of the human predicament. Despite its pro-Catholic tendency, and despite its commendable custom of commemorating the passing of worthy people even when some of these did not belong to the conservatives, National Review paid neither respect nor attention to the passing of Dorothy Day, while around the same time it published a respectful R.I.P. column in honor of Oswald Mosley, the onetime leader of the British Fascist Party.
National Review, dreadnought of postwar American conservatism, occasionally aimed its scattershot at Day. Founder William F. Buckley, Jr., referred casually to “the grotesqueries that go into making up the Catholic Worker movement”; of Miss Day, he chided “the slovenly, reckless, intellectually chaotic, anti-Catholic doctrines of this good-hearted woman—who, did she have her way in shaping national policy, would test the promise of Christ Himself, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us.”
The grotesqueries he does not bother to itemize; nor does Buckley—whose only memorable witticism was Mater, Si, Magistra, No—explain just what was “anti-Catholic” about a woman who told a friend, “The hierarchy permits a priest to say Mass in our chapel. They have given us the most precious thing of all—the Blessed Sacrament. If the Chancery ordered me to stop publishing The Catholic Worker tomorrow, I would.”
If Buckley and Kissinger were the sum of the American right, mine would be a very brief article indeed. But there is another American right—or is it a left, for praise be the ambidextrous— in which Miss Day fits quite nicely. Indeed, I think she is more at home with these people than she ever was with Manhattan socialists. They are the Agrarians, the Distributists, the heirs to the Jeffersonian tradition. The keener of them —particularly the Catholics—understood their kinship with Day. Allen Tate, the Southern man of letters and contributor to the 1930 Southern Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, wrote his fellow Dixie poet Donald Davidson in 1936:
I also enclose a copy of a remarkable monthly paper,The Catholic Worker. The editor, Dorothy Day, has been here, and is greatly excited by our whole program. Just three months ago she discovered Til Take My Stand, and has been commenting on it editorially. She is ready to hammer away in behalf of the new book. Listen to this: The Catholic Worker now has a paid circulation of 100,000! [Tate neglects to say that the price is a penny a copy] . . . She offers her entire mailing list to Houghton-Mifflin; I’ve just written to Linscott about it. Miss Day may come by Nashville with us if the conference falls next weekend. She has been speaking all over the country in Catholic schools and colleges. A very remarkable woman. Terrific energy, much practical sense, and a fanatical devotion to the cause of the land!
The program that so excited Miss Day was summarized in the statement of principles drawn up at the Nashville meeting of Southern Agrarians and Distributists. Mocked as reactionary for their unwillingness to accept bigness as an inevitable condition, the conferees declared (inter alia):
—The condition of individual freedom and security is the wide distribution of active ownership of land and productive property.
—Population should be decentralized as well as ownership.
—Agriculture should be given its rightful recognition as the prime factor in a secure culture.
Though Day was absent from Nashville, she was to speak the language of the Southern Agrarians, without the drawl, many times over the years. “To Christ—To the Land!” Day exclaimed in the January 1936 issue. “The Catholic Worker is opposed to the wage system but not for the same reason that the Communist is. We are opposed to it, because the more wage earners there are the less owners there are . . . how will they become owners if they do not get back to the land.”
Widespread ownership was the basic tenet of the Agrarians’ Catholic cousins, the Distributists. The Catholic Worker published all the major Distributists of the age, among them Chesterton and Belloc, Vincent McNabb, Father Luigi Ligutti, and the Jesuit John C. Rawe (a Nebraska-born “Catholic version of William Jennings Bryan”). On numberless occasions Dorothy Day called herself a Distributist. Thus her gripe with the New Deal: “Security for the worker, not ownership,” was its false promise; she despaired in 1945 that “Catholics throughout the country are again accepting ‘the lesser of two evils’. . . . They fail to see the body of Catholic social teaching of such men as Fr. Vincent McNabb, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc, Eric Gill and other distributists . . . and lose all sight of The Little Way.”
Dorothy Day kept to the little way, and that is why we honor her. She understood that if small is not always beautiful, at least it is always human.
The Catholic Worker position on economics was expressed quite clearly:
[W]e favor the establishment of a Distributist economy wherein those who have a vocation to the land will work on the farms surrounding the village and those who have other vocations will work in the village itself. In this way we will have a decentralized economy which will dispense with the State as we know it today and will be federationist in character. . . . We believe in worker ownership of the means of production and distribution as distinguished from nationalization. This to be accomplished by decentralized co-operatives and the elimination of a distinct employer class.
The American name for this is Jeffersonianism, and the failure of Distributism to attract much of a stateside following outside of those Mencken derided as “typewriter agrarians” owes in part to its Chesterbellocian tincture. “Gothic Catholicism” never could play in Peoria.
Nor could it stand upon the Republican platform. Carry Wills recalls this exchange during his first visit with William F, Buckley, Jr.: “Are you a conservative, then?’ [Buckley asked.] I answered that I did not know. Are Distributists conservative? Thilip Burnham tells me they are not.’ It was an exchange with the seeds of much later misunderstanding.”
Were the Distributists conservative? Was Day conservative? Depends. Herbert Agar, the Kentucky Agrarian and movement theorist, wrote in the American Review (April 1934), “For seventy years, a ‘conservative’ has meant a supporter of Big Business, of the politics of plutocracy,” yet “the root of a real conservative policy for the United States must be redistribution of property.” Ownership—whether of land, a crossroads store, a machine shop—must be made “the normal thing.”
“Property is proper to man,” insisted Dorothy Day, though she and the Distributists—and much of the old American right—meant by property something rather more substantial than paper shares in a Rockefellerian octopus. “Ownership and control are property,” declared Allen Tate, making a distinction between a family farm—or family firm—and a jointstock corporation, the artificial spawn of the state.
Like Tate and the Southern Agrarians, Day was no collectivist, eager to herd the fellaheen onto manury unromantic Blithedales. “The Communists,” she said, sought to build “a sense of the sacredness and holiness and the dignity of the machine and of work, in order to content the proletariat with their propertyless state.” So why, she asked, “do we talk of fighting communism, which we are supposed to oppose because it does away with private property. We have done that very well ourselves in this country.” The solution: “We must emphasize the holiness of work, and we must emphasize the sacramental quality of property too.” (“An anti-religious agrarian is a contradiction in terms,” according to Donald Davidson.)
Day described the Catholic Worker program as being “for ownership by the workers of the means of production, the abolition of the assembly line, decentralized factories, the restoration of crafts and the ownership of property,” and these were to be achieved by libertarian means, through the repeal of state-granted privileges and a flowering of old-fashioned American voluntarism.
During the heyday of modern American liberalism, the 1930’s, when Big Brother supposedly wore his friendliest phiz, Day and the Catholic Workers said No. They bore a certain resemblance to those old progressives (retroprogressives)—Senators Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald Nye, and Hiram Johnson—who turned against FDR for what they saw as the bureaucratic, militaristic, centralizing thrust of his New Deal. The antithetical tendencies of the Catholic Worker and the 30’s American left were juxtaposed in the November 1936 issue of the Catholic Worker. Under the heading “Catholic Worker Opposition to Projected Farm-Labor Party,” the box read:
Farm-Labor Parts’ stands for:
Catholic Worker stands for:
And never the twain shall meet.
An anarchistic distrust of the state, even in its putatively benevolent role as giver of alms, pervaded the Catholic Workers, as it did the 1930’s right. But then as the late Karl Hess, onetime Barry Goldwater speechwriter turned Wobbly homesteader, wrote, the American right had been “individualistic, isolationist, decentralist—even anarchistic,” until the Cold War reconciled conservatives to the leviathan state.
The 1930’s dissenters—the old-fashioned liberals now maligned as conservatives; the unreconstructed libertarians; the cornbelt radicals—proposed cooperatives and revitalized village economies as the alternative to government welfare. The Catholic Workers agreed. The holy fool Peter Maurin, Day’s French peasant comrade, asserted that “he who is a pensioner of the state is a slave of the state.” Day, in her memoir The Long Loneliness, complained.
The state had entered to solve [unemployment] by dole and work relief, by setting up so many bureaus that we were swamped with initials. . . . Labor was aiding in the creation of the Welfare State, the Servile State, instead of aiming for the ownership of the means of production and acceptance of the responsibility’ that it entailed.
“Bigness itself in organization precludes real liberty,” wrote Henry Clay Evans, Jr., in the American Review, a Distributist journal. The home—the family—was the right size for most undertakings. And so the home must be made productive once more. In the April 1945 Catholic Worker, Janet Kalven of the Graiiville Agricultural School for Women in Loveland, Ohio, called for “an education that will give young women a vision of the family as the vital cell of the social organism, and that will inspire them with the great ambitions of being queens in the home.” By which she did not mean a sequacious helpmeet to the Man of the House, picking up his dirty underwear and serving him Budweisers during commercials, but rather a partner ill the management of a “small, diversified family farm,” who is skilled in everything “from bread-making to bee-keeping.” For “the homestead is on a human scale”—the only scale that can really measure a person’s weight.
The Agrarians and Distributists dreamed of a (voluntary, of course) dispersion of the population, and Day, despite her residence in what most decentralists regarded then and now as the locus of evil, agreed: “If the city is the occasion of sin, as Father Vincent McNabb points out, should not families, men and women, begin to aim at an exodus, a new migration, a going out from Egypt with its flesh pots?” asked Day in September 1946. This revulsion against urbanism seems odd in a woman whose base was Manhattan, symbol of congestion, of concentration, of cosmopolitanism rampant. Yet she wrote of the fumes from cars stinging her eyes as she walked to Mass, of the “prison-gray walls” and parking lots of broken glass. “We only know that it is not human to live in a city often million. It is not only not human, it is not possible.” The Southern Agrarians would not demur.
World War II destroyed agrarianism as an active force in American intellectual life—just as it fortified the urban citadels of power and money. Foes of America’s involvement in the war, heirs to the non-interventionist legacy of George Washington, were slandered, most notably Charles Lindbergh, whom the Catholic Worker defended against the smears of the White House.
Despite Day’s disavowal of the “isolationist” label, the Catholic Worker of 1939-1941 spoke the diction of the American anti-war movement, which, because it was anti-FDR, was deemed “right-wing.” Sentences like “We should like to know in just what measure the British Foreign Office is dictating the foreign policy of the United States!” could have come straight from the pages of Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. So could the objection to tire “English and Communist Propaganda” of the New York papers, and the reverence toward the traditional “neutrality of the United States” and the keeping of “our country aloof from the European war.”
“The Catholic Worker does not adhere to an isolationist policy,” editorialized the paper in February 1939, though in fact its position, and often its phraseology, was within the American isolationist grain. The editorial sought to distinguish the paper from the bogeymen “isolationists” by urging “that the doors of the United States be thrown open to all political and religious refugees”—a position also taken by many isolationists, for instance H.L. Mencken, who wanted our country to be a haven for the persecuted Jews of Europe.
Day and the Workers dug in for a tooth-and-nail fight against conscription—”the most important issue of these times,” as they saw it. Day replied to those who noted that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register with the census that “it was not so that St. Joseph could be drafted into the Roman Army, and so that the Blessed Mother could put the Holy Child into a day nursery and go to work in an ammunition plant.”
Or as Peter Maurin put it:
The child does not belong to the state;
it belongs to the parents.
The child was given by God to the parents;
he was not given by God to the state.
This was by now a quaintly reactionary notion. What were children if not apprentice soldiers? Like their isolationist allies, the Catholic Workers suffered years of “decline, suspicion, and hatred” during the Good War. Circulation of the Catholic Worker plummeted from 190,000 in May 1938 to 50,500 in November 1944. By 1944, only nine of 32 Houses of Hospitality were operating.
The Cold War transmogrified the American right: anticommunism became its warping doctrine, yet a remnant of cantankerous, libertarian, largely Midwestern isolationists held on, though the invigorating air of the 1930’s, when left and right might talk, ally, even merge, was long gone. The fault lies on both sides.
The unwillingness of the Catholic Worker‘s editors to explore avenues of cooperation with the Old Right led them, at times, to misrepresent the sole popular anti-militarist force of the late 1940’s. In denouncing the North Atlantic Treaty which created NATO, the Catholic Worker claimed that “the only serious opposition in the Senate is from a group of the old isolationist school, and their argument is that it costs too much.” This is flatly untrue—the isolationist case was far more sophisticated and powerful, and it rested on the same hatred of war and aggression that underlay the Catholic Workers—but to have been honest and fair would have placed the Catholic Worker on Elm Street and Oak Street, whose denizens might have taught the boys in the Bowery a thing or two.
Postwar Catholic isolationists would be condescended to as parochial morons by the Cold War liberal likes of James O’Cara, managing editor of Commonweal, who snickered at those mossbacks who refused to recognize that “American power is a fact” and that “modern science has devoured distance and made neighbors of us all.” What good is personalism in a world of atomic bombs? What mattered the small? Father John C. Rawe’s experimental school of rural knowledge, Omar Farm, near Omaha, was shattered when all but two of its students were drafted to fight World War II. Liberal Catholics continued to support the conscription against which pacifists and right-wingers railed, although, as Patricia McNeal has written of the League of Nations debate, “the majority of American Catholics supported the popular movement towards isolationism and rejected any idea of collective security.” But the League aside, we all know which side won. The state side. The liberals who do not know us but, as they so unctuously assure us, have our best interests at heart.
“The greatest enemy of the church today is the state,” Dorothy Day told a Catholic audience in 1975, sounding much like the libertarian right that was her natural, if too little visited, kin.
The powerful libertarian strain in the Catholic Worker was simply not present in other postwar magazines of the “left,” excepting Politics, edited by Day admirer Dwight Macdonald. American liberals had made peace with—had made sacrifices to—Moloch on the Potomac. As Catholic Worker editor Robert Ludlow argued in 1951,
we are headed in this country towards a totalitarianism every bit as dangerous towards freedom as the other more forthright forms. We have our secret police, our thought control agencies, our overpowering bureaucracy. . . . The American State, like every other State, is governed by those who have a compulsion to power, to centralization, to the preservation of their gains. And it is the liberals—The New Leader, New Republic, Commonweal variety—who have delivered the opiate necessary for the acceptance of this tyranny among “progressive” people. It is the fallacy of attempting social reform through the State, which builds up the power of the State to where it controls all avenues of life.
To which the New Republic-style liberals replied: welcome to the real world.
The inevitable Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Vital Center (1949), his manifesto of Cold War liberalism, wrote, “One can dally with the distributist dream of decentralization,” but “you cannot flee from science and technology into a quietist dreamworld. The state and the factory are inexorable: bad men will run them if good abdicate the job.”
Alas, most on the “right” crawled into the devitalizing center. A dispersion of property, a restoration of ownership, the reclaiming of the land, a foreign policy of peace and noninterference: these were the dreams of losers, of fleers from reality’, of shirkers of responsibility, of—most damningly—amateurs. Non-experts. In 1966, in the just-as-inevitable National Review, Anthony T. Bouscaren mocked Day and other “Catholic Peaceniks” because, “sinfully, their analysis of the situation [in Vietnam] goes directly counter to that of the distinguished list of academicians . . . who support U.S. defense of South Vietnam.” Grounds for excommunication, surely.
In all this worry about the other side of the world, few partisans bothered to notice the dirt under their feet. Distiibutism was dead. Or was it? For in 1956, long after the Agrarian dream had been purged from the American right, supplanted by the Cold War nightmare, Dorothy Day insisted that “distributism is not dead.” It cannot “be buried, because distribuHsm is a system conformable to the needs of man and his nature.”
Conforming to their decentralist principles—and presaging a later strategy of “right-wing” tax resisters—the Workers reftised payment of federal taxes, though as Day wrote, we “file with our state capital, pay a small fee, and give an account of monies received and how they were spent. We always comply with this state regulation because it is local-regional,” and “because we are decentralists (in addition to being pacifists).” This resistance, she explained, was
much in line with common sense and with the original American ideal, that governments should never do what small bodies can accomplish: unions, credit unions, cooperatives, St. Vincent de Paul Societies. Peter Maurin’s anarchism was on one level based on this principle of subsidiarity, and on a higher level on that scene at the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of His Apostles. He came to serve, to show the new Way, the way of the powerless. In the face of Empire, the Way of Love.
How beautiful: in the face of Empire, the Way of Love.
It is only in the local, the personal, that one can see Christ. A mob, no matter how praiseworthy its cause, is sdll a mob, said Day, paraphrasing Eugene Debs, and she explained, in Thoreauvian language, her dedication to the little way:
Why localism? . . . [F]or some of us anything else is extravagant; it’s unreal; it’s not a life we want to live. There are plenty of others who want that life, living in corridors of power, influence, money, making big decisions that affect big numbers of people. We don’t have to follow those people, though; they have more would-be servants—slaves, I sometimes think—than they know what to do with.
We don’t happen to believe that Washington, D.C., is the moral capital of America. . . . If you want to know the kind of politics we seek, you can go to your history books and read about the early years of this country. We would like to see more small communities organizing themselves, people talking with people, people caring for people . . . we believe we are doing what our Founding Fathers came here to do, to worship God in the communities they settled. They were farmers. They were craftspeople. They took care of each other. They prayed to God, and they thanked Him for showing them the way—to America! A lot of people ask me about the influence on our [Catholic] Worker movement, and they are right to mention the French and the Russian and English writers, the philosophers and novelists. But some of us are just plain Americans whose ancestors were working people and who belonged to small-town or rural communities or neighborhoods in cities. We saw more and more of that community spirit disappear, and we mourned its passing, and here we are, trying to find it again.
Dorothy Day found it. Not on the left, and not on the right, but in that place where Love resides. In the face of Empire, the Way of Love.