Revisiting Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day; drawing by David Levine

Volume One, Number One of the Catholic Worker hit Union Square on May Day, 1933, with an ambiguous thud. The Marxian natives couldn’t classify this political chimera: its forequarters were anarchistic but its hinder parts were attached to the Church of Rome, whose American hierarchy then stood slightly to the right of Herbert Hoover. One editor, Dorothy Day, was known as a writer for the socialist Call and the old Masses and a friend of radicals like Hugo Gellert, Maurice Becker, and Mike Gold (to whom she was engaged for a year). But the other editor was a mystery: Fourteenth Street cafeteria savants who could distinguish at the drop of a coffee spoon between Manuilsky and Mayakovsky, Dan and Denikin, Malenkov, Martov, Miliukov, Muralov, and Muranov were stumped by Maurin (Peter).

Their conclusion, reasonable enough from their premises, was that the Catholic Worker was either a Trojan horse rigged up by the Vatican to betray the oft-betrayed proletariat or, more charitably, an “adventure” by confused idealists (the noun was as bad as the adjective that invariably accompanied it) who would be forced by the logic of Historical Materialism, the Class Struggle, and the Marxian Dialectic to choose between radicalism and Catholicism. The very name was a contradiction: Catholic Worker?

They were, however, as sometimes happened, wrong. Unless the Vatican’s machinations are subtler, and more long-range, than I can grasp, the Catholic Worker has not been a Trojan horse. Nor has the contradiction between its radicalism and its Catholicism been resolved. Both still get equal space. A chimera perhaps, in Marxist taxonomy—but also a phoenix.

Among the leftist periodicals of my time, the Catholic Worker is unique in combining longevity with consistency. Partisan Review, Methuselah of little mags, is almost as old (b. 1934) but it has gone through some drastic changes, beginning as the organ of the John Reed Clubs, the literary front of the CPUSA; revived in 1938 as an anti-Stalinist revolutionary-socialist monthly, etc. My own Politics was always radical but the meaning of that term changed—radically—in a mere five years of existence.

Dorothy Day’s Worker has stuck to the same general line for almost forty years, and a good thing too, because it’s still, as we say now, relevant. Had I been sophisticated enough to know what they were talking about. I would probably have agreed with the 1933 Marxian ideologues that the Maurin-Day combination of Catholic piety and anarcho-pacifism was a discrepant mixture that couldn’t last. The difference between us is I don’t mind being proved wrong by events in such prophecies. I welcome the viability of the Catholic Workers as one of those frequent, indeed chronic, irruptions of the unexpected that shows history is not a well-trained valet to any system of ideas but a chancy affair. One of those surprises that make life life.

The thirty-sixth anniversary issue of the Catholic Worker—May, 1969, Vol. XXXVII, No.…

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