The Radical Next Door: The Los Angeles Catholic Worker during the Cold War

Friday 8 December 2023

Covis, Leonardo. Southern California Quarterly 91, no. 1 (2009): 69–111.

The article concerns the activities of a Catholic pacifist organisation, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, during the Cold War. Specifically, Covis attempts to account for the fact that the Los Angeles Catholic Worker managed to avoid the decline in activity and membership which most anti-war and anti-nuclear organisations in the USA experienced over the course of the 1970s. To this end, he argues for a methodology which prioritises the experiences and motivations of individual volunteers over aggregate data regarding the organisation’s membership, on the grounds that the latter line of inquiry can yield only generalisations which fail to account for the very particular factors which actually cause any individual to take the radical decision to join such an organisation. He considers, for example, the case of Jeff Dietrich, a member of the group who in 1978 was arrested for blocking roads leading to a military weapons convention being held in Anaheim. Covis details Dietrich’s fears about whether he would be able to cope with imprisonment, and the effect which the experience of prison had upon his principles and subsequent activism, emphasising the importance of this sort of personal experience to the nature and success of anti-war activism generally.

Covis emphasises the group’s foundations in the broader Catholic Worker movement which had been founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s, characterised by principles which were Catholic, anarchist, and pacifist, and devoted both to political activism and to what it usually refers to as “works of mercy”, involving practical work against poverty, with its members living in community and in voluntary poverty. Catholic Worker communities were autonomous, albeit sharing these principles, and varied in the extent to which they focussed on poverty or peace work. Covis emphasises the unique ideological foundations of the group as a reason for its persistence during the 1970s: the fact that it was not dedicated solely to anti-war activism, and the fact that its anti-war work was a consequence of broader religious principles and not its sole reason for existing, allowed it to continue to attract members even during a period when anti-war in themselves had become relatively unattractive. The specific vision of peace that the Los Angeles Catholic Worker held was crucial to its effectiveness as an agent of anti-war activism.

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