Tom Cornell on Catholic anarchism
The May issue of The Catholic Worker features a really good essay by the well known Catholic Worker Tom Cornell called “In Defense of Anarchism.” (It is an expansion of his essay “Anarchism in the Catholic Worker Tradition.”) Noting that the use of the term “Catholic anarchism” has been controversial both within the CW movement and outside of it, Cornell describes how he understands the term and why he continues to identify as an anarchist. Much of what he says reflects my own (current) take on Catholic anarchism, especially some of the points I made recently here. A few excerpts:
What kind of anarchism can we claim? An etymological definition (an- meaning “no” and arche meaning “rule”) is useless if it fails to recognize a current in the wider socialist movement, called by its detractors “anarchism.” No anarchist of sound mind holds that government does not exist or ought not to exist, etymology notwithstanding. All socialists want government to promote the general welfare rather than the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, “people before profits.”
As I see it, anarchists would want more government if that means courts defending the rights of workers to organize and the Department of Agriculture helping to initiate independent producer and consumer cooperatives instead of supporting vertical integration of farms into ever bigger and more powerful conglomerates. Government could favor open-pollinated seed sharing instead of forcing farmers around the world to buy new, patented hybrid seed for each planting to enrich Monsanto. Government could facilitate worker buy-outs of small industries with no-interest loans. The Postal Service could subsidize journals of opinion, as it once did, in order to disseminate alternative ideas and enrich democratic debate, so that the means of communication might not fall into the hands of a few.
But conversely, anarchists would want much less government if that means the State Department, and the so-called Defense and Justice Departments remain synonymous with counter-revolution, the overthrow of socialist initiatives wherever they may be and the installation of right-wing dictators in client states. Anarchists want much less, no government, if government means racist prisons and war, but want more anti-trust legislation and enforcement, trust-busting not union-busting, more environmental protection, more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and immediate access to federal courts for every labor organizer punished for organizing.
However, anarchists hold even benign organs of government to a most strict accounting, since “power tends to corrupt,” and they view the state in practice more as a guarantor or privilege than as an organ of its diffusion.
The late Howard Zinn described his social philosophy as “democratic socialism, without passports or visas or jails.” Noam Chomsky calls himself an anarchist, by which he means a libertarian socialist, as did Paul Goodman, Emma Goldman, and, in her pre-Stalinist days, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. When Dorothy Day defended the Cuban revolution she did not imagine that Fidel Castro planned to do away with government. Anarchism has to be understood within the broader socialist tradition. Neo-conservatives want to starve the government to death so as to free rapacious corporate interests from any restraint. That is not our kind of anarchism.
Instead of a political program or ideology, anarchists offer a set of attitudes and preferences: the fewer rules and regulations, the better. “All the law necessary, and no more than is necessary,” and then we argue over what is “necessary.” We favor spontaneity over predictability, initiative and invention over tried-and-true patterns and personal responsibility over delegation. Authority is to be won by good work and exercised only as long as it is recognized by equals. Anarchists look to horizontal organization before vertical structure, though not denying the need for that too. Catholic anarchists temper individualism with a mind toward community and the common good. Some vote and even hold public office, but the preferred modus operandi is direct action and the formation of small, intimate communities.
Catholic anarchists gratefully accept the teaching authority of the Church. How to make our position understandable and attractive to others, especially our fellow Catholics, should be part of our clarification of thought. I have come to conclude that Catholic Worker radicalism is not eccentric at all, but comes from the very heart of the Church. Democratic, libertarian socialism or anarchism best harmonizes the principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the supreme goods of justice and peace; the dignity of the human person with inherent rights from conception to natural death; universal solidarity with a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; the defense of the innocent; the universal distribution of goods; the right to private property; the priority of labor over capital; subsidiarity and the universal common good, all in the tradition of the virtues.
In order not to be conformed to this age, not to be co-opted by an effete state socialism or, even worse, by decadent bourgeois liberalism, to continue ever to be transformed in the renewal of our understanding, to discern what is truly good and pleasing and perfect, the will of God, Catholic Workers should nurture the gifts our founders left us, continue to identify as anarchists, and struggle always to understand just what it means.
Tom Cornell. “In Defense of Anarchism.” The Catholic Worker LXXVII.3 (May 2010): 4–5.