Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Christianity and Anarchism, Part I: What Is Anarchy?

I'm pausing the Raw Tact series again in order to discuss what I mean in calling myself an anarchist. This seems specially appropriate in the wake of the government shutdown, but I've also been getting a lot of inquisitiveness on the subject of late, so I thought I'd try and satisfy the curiosity. Some people are puzzled that a Catholic should be an anarchist; the Catholic faith is, after all, the most hierarchical of all incarnations of Christianity -- surely it is a contradiction in terms to be a Catholic anarchist?

The definition of anarchism is one of the ticklish problems here, not least because there are so many varieties, some of which are mutually incompatible, while others often overlap. Anarchism is chiefly a leftist (or post-leftist*) system of thought, as with anarcho-communism or anarcho-syndicalism; but there are some descendants of the classical liberal and capitalist school of thought, while others eschew the whole business in favor of a totally primitive outlook.

Yeah, I'm this guy. I'm a little disappointed in me too.

The defining trait of anarchism would be rejection of the state. The socialistic anarchist who wishes to replace the state with self-governing, egalitarian economic communes, the anarcho-capitalist who wishes to replace the state and its operations entirely with private contracts, the anarcho-primitivist who wishes to replace the state with a return to prehistorical conditions of life -- all agree in considering the state an undesirable and unnecessary thing.

This doubtless sounds preposterous. And it must be admitted that many of the forefathers of anarchy were, to speak frankly, surprisingly bad reasoners. I've been reading some of the essays of Emma Goldman, one of the most important anarchist theorists of the early twentieth century, and was a little put out when, after page upon page of righteous railing against the injustice of the state and of the class system, she then spoke of the very concept of free will as a ridiculous idea. How anybody proposes to have human responsibility without free will, or any idea of justice apart from human responsibility, I don't claim to know. But I do not consider anarchism as such to be beholden to its prominent theorists (and I am confident that they would agree with me; they were as consistent as that in any case).

In her autobiographical book The Long Loneliness, Venerable Dorothy Day, herself a Catholic anarchist, quotes at length from Bob Ludlow, a fellow Catholic anarchist and a significant early contributor to the Catholic Worker, whose words are a more or less ideal expression of the views I've come to hold:

"Both among Catholics and anarchists ... a great deal of misunderstanding comes about by a confusion of the terms State, government and society. Father Luigi Sturzo's book Inner Laws of Society is the best Catholic treatment of the subject I have read. He brings out the point that the State is only one form of government. When you analyze what anarchists advocate (particularly the anarcho-syndicalists) it really boils down to the advocacy of decentralized self-governing bodies. It is a form of government.

"The confusion results because some anarchist writers use the term government as synonymous with the term State and make the categorical statement that they do not believe in government, meaning by that the State.

"The State is government by representation (when it is a democracy) but there is no reason why a Catholic must believe that people must be governed by representatives -- the Catholic is free to believe one way or the other as is evident from St. Thomas' treatment of law ... St. Thomas states: A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people. Hence the making of law belongs either to the whole people or a public personage who has care of the whole people ...

"Anarchists believe that the whole people composing a community should take care of what governing is to be done rather than have a distant and centralized State do it. You can see from the quotation from St. Thomas there is nothing heretical about such a belief. It certainly is possible for a Christian to be an anarchist. ...

"Our Lord taught us to pray 'Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven' -- in other words the nearer earthly government approximates what things are in heaven the more Christian it is. I do believe -- whether it can be realized or not -- that the anarchist society approaches nearer to this ideal than do other forms of government. As the Christian lives in hope so may we set this as the idea, towards which we work even if it seems as impractical as Calvary." -- The Long Loneliness, pp. 268-269


  1. Well, this is very interesting. I would consider myself to be a democratic socialist. I'm curious as to what the difference would be between the sort of government for which I advocate and the "decentralized" form of government you advocate, beyond scale and number of people represented? Or perhaps there is no representation, it boils down essentially to direct democracy on a highly localized level?

    Regarding the penal issue, I would say that many of us on the Left would like to see the punishment model of the Justice system left behind and a rehabilitation model embraced. This psychology-friendly approach is quite agnostic to the freewill issue, which would be ideal given that the scientific evidence is lacking for it, in my opinion.

  2. "[T]he nearer earthly government approximates what things are in heaven the more Christian it is. I do believe -- whether it can be realized or not -- that the anarchist society approaches nearer to this ideal than do other forms of government."

    I must admit I am confused by this statement. It would seem to me that the heavenly system of "government" consists of God as the Supreme King, (I'm thinking of both Revelation and the theological development of kingship in the OT). So I am confused as to how an Anarchist system can claim to be closer to this system if they are rejecting a centralized government for a decentralized government.

    I recognize that earthly rulers can never be as interested in the common good as God is, and I often fantasize about how ideal it would be if the centralized State didn't exist so that communities could be freer to self-govern. Yet, I have always had trouble reconciling this to the fact that God is a King, and as such, the ideal seems to be the opposite of this system.

  3. Hi Gabriel! I'm relatively new to your blog, but this post caught my attention. I have quite a few friends who advocate the Christian Anarchist perspective, and while I am legitimately intrigued by it I have some practical questions which I don't feel have been satisfactorily addressed. I'd be really interested to get your input - would you mind if I emailed you privately about this?

    (Feel free to say no, I know you must have a lot of correspondence already!)

    1. By all means e-mail me if you like. I am, however, intending to continue writing about this for a few more posts, and I may possibly come to the subject you're interested in in a later post, so it's up to you -- either way is fine with me.