This was originally a guest post on the UC Press Blog as part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Toronto. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme, “The (Re)production of Misery and the Ways of Resistance.”
When Pope Francis celebrated Dorothy Day as a great American, alongside the likes of MLK, Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln, in his address to Congress last month, the pontiff described her as a lifelong social activist, “inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” He neglected to mention that the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the militant union the Industrial Workers of the World proved as influential, if not more so, to the co-founder of The Catholic Worker Movement.
Enigmatic to more traditional Catholics and Leftists alike, Day and other Christian Anarchists, such as the itinerant war tax resister Ammon Hennacy, nevertheless helped to keep the anarchist tradition of resistance to capitalism and militarism alive during the inhospitable years of the mid-20th century, reshaping it in ways that continue to resonate in contemporary initiatives such as Food Not Bombs and Occupy Wall Street.
Whereas previous anarchists had used direct action tactics—such as strikes and sabotage—against activities they deemed detrimental to human well being, the Catholic Workers launched a network of farming communes and urban “Houses of Hospitality” amidst the Great Depression as a means of directly aiding fellow human beings. Doing so they crossed the Christian and communist principles of “do unto others” and “to each according to need.”
Although some anarchists griped that Day’s religious devotion violated their basic precept of “No Gods, No Masters!” they also appreciated the support provided by Catholic Workers in periods when allies were hard to come by. In June 1955, for instance, Day and Hennacy were arrested with others in Manhattan for deliberately refusing to take cover during a public air raid drill as symbolic resistance to the absurdities of Cold War social conditioning. The following issue of the anarcho-syndicalist journal Views and Comments carried a front-page article lauding “our pacifist friends” for their protest against the “authoritarianism, control, and militarism” that marked the city’s Civil Defense campaigns.
A young avant-garde actress and director named Judith Malina joined the 1955 protest against nuclear weapons and spent a week sharing a jail cell with Day as a result. She emerged a convinced anarchist pacifist and, with her partner Julian Beck, founded the Living Theatre, which would serve as a key transmission belt for anarchist values to a global audience of 1960s youth, who witnessed or took part in the company’s production of legendary antiauthoritarian plays such as The Brig and Paradise Now!
Dorothy Day’s life helps us to understand how complex and elastic the anarchist tradition has been, and to recognize the myriad ways in which anarchism has shaped the culture and history of the United States.