Anarchy and Escapology in the Great Depression

Originally in: New Escapologist

“The greatest enemy of the church today is the State.”
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker

“An anarchist is anyone who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.”
Ammon Hennacy, influential Catholic Worker

Most of us know the story of Sacco and Vanzetti: Two Italian anarchists who were executed by the state of Massachusetts in a gross miscarriage of justice in 1927.

History books go quiet on American anarchism after this. It would be a mistake though, to think that anarchism disappeared so easily. “Sacco and Vanzetti must not die,” wrote Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and in a way they didn’t. The ideas they died for reappeared less than a decade later, albeit in a very different form.

“Back To Christ Back To The Land,” was the headline of the Catholic Worker newspaper in January 1936. The paper announced the first attempt by the Catholic Worker movement to start an ‘agronomic university’ or farm commune.

The farm would not only offer an escape from the poverty of the Great Depression but an escape from society itself. “Build a new world within the shell of the old,” proclaimed the newspaper. Don’t wait for the revolution, create an alternative society today.

The origins of this attempt at ‘radical escapology’ can be found in the meeting of a Frenchman named Peter Maurin and a young journalist named Dorothy Day, in New York City in 1933.

Maurin and Day came from starkly different backgrounds. Maurin was a self-educated ‘French peasant’ – as he called himself – who grew up in a poor farming family. Day was a middle-class university drop out who spent her youth among the radicals of the age: socialists, communists and anarchists.

The movement began when Maurin convinced Day – who had worked for several Socialist publications – to start a newspaper which would espouse the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Day had only recently converted to Catholicism – following the birth of her first child – and she was looking for a way to combine her passion for social justice with her new faith.

Following the establishment of the newspaper the Worker movement set up relief centres – or ‘Houses of Hospitality’ – throughout New York City. Like other Christian organisations they operated on the principle of charity, offering food, clothing and accommodation to those who suffered the worst effects of the depression.

Had the movement been content with simple works of charity they might be consigned to history as being like every other Christian organisation: Happy with treating the victims of a malevolent system.

But the Catholic Worker movement was, and is, different. The key difference is the movement’s belief in communal anarchism and its ability to fuse political philosophy with religion. In the Worker movement, the thoughts of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin are as influential as those of Christ.

The Houses of Hospitality also have their roots in anarchist ideas. Day and Maurin rejected the notion of the state helping the poor on behalf of others. “The great danger [is] the State taking over the job which our Lord Himself gave us to do,” Day wrote in the Catholic Worker.

‘Freedom,’ ‘decentralisation,’ ‘personal responsibility,’ and ‘voluntary association’ are phrases which sum up the movement’s philosophy. This is reflected in the movement’s alarming lack of organisation. Each chapter is completely autonomous and there is no leader. “It is unlikely that any religious community was ever less structured than the Catholic Worker,” wrote Jim Forest, former editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper.

Within a few years of starting the first House of Hospitality, Maurin and Day began to draw up ideas for the Catholic Worker’s first commune. “Hospices are not enough,” wrote Day, “we need communities of work, land for the landless, true farming communes, cooperatives and credit unions… the heart hungers for the new social order wherein social justice dwelleth”.

Maurin and Day were highly critical of Western society, both for its centralised power and its emphasis on greed and waste. They hoped to create a functional society where you produced what you needed. Like G. K. Chesterton – who also created an economic philosophy based on papal social teaching – they believed in spreading ownership of the means of production as widely as possible. The communes were intended as places to experiment with these ideas.

Thirty-seven years before British economist E. F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful in 1973, Peter Maurin put all of these ideas together and called it a “Green Revolution”. Like Schumacher, Maurin believed that capitalism was unsustainable in that it undermined humanity’s ability to cooperate, as well as our natural environment. The aim of the Green Revolution was to build “a society in which it will be easier to be good.”

The founding of the first agronomic university in May 1936 was the first step towards the Green Revolution. The decision to start a commune was largely influenced by Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops, in which he proposes an anarchism based on cooperation and common work. At the same time Maurin was inspired by Gandhi’s experiments with ashrams in India and similar experiments in the U.S., where professionals fled the workplace to form self-sufficient communities.

The communes had short and long term aims. In the short term they would help the thousands of unemployed by providing free fuel and food. In the long term they would remove the need for employment altogether. Maurin also believed that because subsistence farming and crafts required cooperation, the communes would help to recover a spiritual dimension of human existence which was suppressed by capitalism.

The first communes practised crop rotation, used organic compost, and even resurrected the medieval custom of gleaning the fields. The Catholic Worker newspaper featured a monthly farm report – often written by Dorothy Day – which painted a picture of rural idealism. A year into the experiment however and the reality was not so ideal.

Despite the enthusiasm which met the announcement of the Green Revolution in 1936, the communes rarely lived up to the self-sufficient communities which Maurin envisioned. The reasons for their failure can be attributed to several causes.

Some communes failed due to external circumstances, such as the record drought which affected the farm in St. Louis. Most farms failed because of the inexperience of their members. The lack of efficiency and organisation on the farms also contributed to their overall failure, as did the open-door policy of welcoming everyone who joined. The result was that the farms became refuges for the unemployed and mentally ill escaping from urban life rather than self-sufficient communities.

Many within the movement did not take the idea seriously enough to reverse the problems. They viewed the ‘agro-universities’ as one of Maurin’s eccentric ideas and never thought they could be realistic alternatives. By the start of the Second World War most farms were seen as retreats from the tiring work of the soup kitchens. The farm became a place to escape for a week, rather than a place to escape for life.

Maurin refused to be disillusioned however. Even though the communes failed they still made a point: To look beyond the immediate crisis of the depression to alternative ways of life.

Although Maurin’s vision of a decentralised and sustainable society is seeing a revival today – through organisations such as the New Economics Foundation – Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement in general, remains relatively unknown.

It is time that Maurin and Day were recognised not only for their attempts at creating a viable escape from the suffering of the Great Depression, but also for their pioneering ideas as to how people can organise themselves in a more humane way.

Their attempt at radical escapology might have failed but their message lives on: Don’t wait for the revolution, create an escape route to freedom today.

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