Meet Peter Maurin, the Labor Activist Who Started a Revolution
Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, insisted the true founder of the Worker was an eccentric French peasant 20 years her senior.
On December 8, 1932, Day returned to her New York City apartment to find a stranger named Peter Maurin waiting for her. Just four months later, on May Day 1933, they published the first Catholic Worker newspaper together.
“Peter gave us a vision,” Day said. As a recent convert, she was seeking a way to marry the activism she had embraced throughout her youth with her new Catholic faith. This witty peasant-philosopher provided Day with the education she had been praying for.
Although Peter Maurin is a household name within the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day is a much more recognizable figure. To fully understand the movement they set in motion, we have to understand Peter Maurin and his upbringing.
Peter was born Aristide Pierre Joseph Maurin on May 9, 1877, in the village of Oultet in the Lozère region of southern France. He was the oldest of 24 children and farmed with his family until the age of 14.
Oultet was a small farming village of about 15 families. The villagers walked to Mass together on Sundays; their livestock grazed on land held in common; and the families would bake bread together at a communal oven in the center of town. The oven provided a focal point for communal life as the townspeople came together while loaves baked to exchange news and discuss current events.
Peter’s upbringing showed him a different life was possible outside of industrial capitalism. The program Peter developed for social reform of “cult, culture, and cultivation” was a natural extension of his life growing up in the tight-knit community of Oultet where he and his neighbors lived, worked, and prayed together. For Peter, his peasant upbringing in France provided a blueprint for what a good and honorable life meant. “A gentleman is one who does not earn his bread off the sweat of another’s brow,” Peter would often say.
In a capitalist economy,
everybody is a coupon-clipper.
In a fascist economy,
everybody is a soldier.
In a Bolshevik economy,
everybody is a state employee.
In a syndicalist economy,
everybody is a union man.
In a technocratic economy,
everybody is an applied scientist.
In an agronomic economy,
every scholar is a worker,
and every worker can be a scholar.
—“Six Economies”, Peter Maurin, Easy Essay in The Catholic Worker Feb. 1951
Until 1903, Peter Maurin lived as a student, novice, and then teacher with a religious community known as the Christian Brothers. Early 20th-century France was abuzz with social movements. Maurin was attracted to Le Sillon — “the Furrow” — an intellectual and political movement with a strong emphasis on democracy. Maurin began selling their newspaper and attending their academic discussions, but moved on after deeming them too political.
His experience with the Christian Brothers and Le Sillon provided a framework for the rest of his life, though, and gave him a way to absorb the ideas of Jacques Maritain, Prince Kropotkin, Emmanuel Mounier, and many other thinkers.
In 1909, Maurin emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada. “I was always interested in the land and man’s life on the land. That is why I went homesteading in Canada,” he said. But shortly after arrival, his homesteading partner died in a hunting accident. Maurin moved on and became an itinerant worker. He crossed into the United States in 1911 and worked as a lumberjack in upstate New York and mined coal in Pennsylvania. Maurin even worked for the Associated Press — though, as he said, he was “wielding a mop, not a pen.”
He settled in Chicago in 1914. When Dorothy Day asked Maurin about this period of his life, he was cagey. But he did tell her, “I have not lived as a good Catholic all my life,” indicating some kind of re-conversion after drifting away from his faith. In 1925, Maurin moved from Chicago to Woodstock, New York and taught French. He began refusing wages for his work and offered his teaching as a gift. He asked for his students to give what they could in return.
In Woodstock, Maurin continued to work the land on a farm in the Catskills. When not farming, he spent his free time reading. For Maurin, living in touch with the land was essential for the intellectual life. “The scholars must become workers / so the workers may be scholars,” he wrote.
Maurin wanted a “green revolution” inspired by the Irish monks of the middle ages who evangelized the world through centers of hospitality and agricultural schools in the European monasteries they established. In the only known recording of Peter’s voice, Maurin lauded the Irish as lights of Christ during the “so-called dark ages.” He called upon contemporary Irish Catholics in the United States to emulate the example of their ancestors. “But we are now living in a real dark age / and one of the reasons / why the modern age is so dark / is because / too few Irish / have the light.”
Peter Maurin came to New York City to find a partner to help bring about a revolution to orient society around radical faith in God. An editor at Commonweal suggested that he contact Dorothy Day. After Maurin found Day, she said he spent the winter indoctrinating her.
Maurin was a voracious reader of Catholic philosophy and theology, and his broad reading gave him a deep understanding of Catholic social teaching. Just before their meeting, Day had prayed for guidance in combining her Catholic faith with her desire for social activism. Maurin’s green revolution of cult, culture, and cultivation — and his expert knowledge of Catholic theology — was the literal answer to her prayer.
Peter’s greatest intellectual and spiritual influence on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement is arguably the philosophy of personalism. The September 1936 edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper described their program in terms of a “personalist revolution.”
we believe in the dignity of (each person), the temple of
the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent his only
Son to take upon himself our sins … We are Personalists
because we believe that … a person, a creature of body
and soul, is greater than the State.
A personalist, at their core, takes responsibility for the care and well-being of all their neighbors. A personalist is the Good Samaritan who chooses to take care of the victim on the side of the road, rather than continue walking.
Maurin called socialism the offspring of capitalism. In his eyes, both capitalism and socialism regard money as the basis of reality. But to Peter Maurin, the person was the basis of reality. The development and cultivation of the human spirit — rather than economic development — would create a new society.
The world would be better off
if people tried to become better.
And people would become
if they stopped trying to become
For when everybody tries to
become better off
nobody is better off.
But when everybody tries to
everybody is better off.
—“Better and Better off,” Peter Maurin, Easy Essay in The Catholic Worker Apr. 1934
In an age of global economic instability and unemployment, Peter Maurin wrote brief, poetic formulations of his thought, which he called Easy Essays. They provided inspiration for those seeking to create a more just society. Maurin’s humorous and pithy essays of free verse became his unique literary form to express his ideas on everything from economics to Church history to contemporary politics.
Maurin’s Easy Essays were playful provocations, often using the idiosyncrasy of the English language and the absurdity and angst of modern society to educate and inspire. Maurin was a born teacher, Day said, and he was always hoping that his words would incite others to set off on their own personalist revolution.
Maurin spent much of his life after meeting Dorothy Day as he did before — traveling around the country, speaking to anyone who would listen about his vision of a new society, and living with much of the anonymous grace of poverty that he embraced throughout his life.
Last year, Lincoln Rice republished Maurin’s Easy Essays in a book called, The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin, to provide a new generation of readers with a better understanding of this overlooked figure. Rice relates an anecdote about Maurin being mistaken for a gas meter-reader when he arrived at the home of a professor hosting him for dinner. He sat patiently in the basement by the boiler while his hosts fretted over the tardiness of their honored guest. In some ways, Rice points out, Maurin, and his ideas, are still sitting in the basement, unrecognized.
Peter Maurin died at Maryfarm in Newburgh, New York, on May 15, 1949. His room on the farm was a converted chicken coop. He was laid out in a borrowed suit and was buried in a donated plot in Queens.
While Dorothy Day called Peter Maurin the true founder of the Catholic Worker, Maurin’s vision was broader than the movement born of his fateful encounter with Dorothy Day. Maurin’s vision of a new society depended on each and every person imagining the world anew. Communities like the Catholic Worker and the Mondragon Corporation participate in what Maurin imagined.
Maurin’s program for social change began not with the radicalization of the masses, but with relationship: “Share with me a bit of your mind, and I’ll share a bit of my mind, and both of us would have more in our minds,” he wrote.
But we don’t need to wait
till capitalism has collapsed
to lay the foundations
of the new society.
We can create a new society
within the shell of the old
with a philosophy of the new
which is not a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy;
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new.
—from “A Crisis of Collapse,” Peter Maurin, Easy Essay circa 1933-35