May Day and the "Christian Left"

I’m happy to report I have an article out at Commonweal on the labor ministry of Fr. Thomas J. Hagerty, a rogue Catholic priest who left his diocese to become an itinerant preacher for the Socialist Party of America, before leaving to help found the Industrial Workers of the World. I've been fascinated by his story for a long time, which is full of mystery and intrigue, and I'm glad I got to share a little bit of it on the high holy day of socialism.

The article follows the conclusion of a course I developed and taught this past semester at the Institute for Christian Studies on Christianity and anti-capitalism in the US and Canada. It starts with a theological look at May Day and concludes with more recent developments. As I’ve continued to process the material, two themes keep emerging for me. First, the labor movement is anything but secular, populated as it was—and still is—in the US and Canada with all kinds of characters, from heterodox and heretical socialist pastors to the encyclical-inspired politics of the Catholic Worker. Second, with all the talk about a “Christian Left” floating around, history suggests an understanding of the “Christian Left” (if it’s meaningful to talk about at all) is better adapted from a close look at the makeup of progressive movements rather than the pronouncements of pollsters, pundits, and politicians.

Hagerty’s story demonstrates both of these themes. As I explain in the Commonweal article, he was at the heart of some of the most significant labor struggles in the history of the United States. He had already become a self-described Marxist in seminary before the turn of the century—a significant rarity given the anti-Marxism of the institutional Church—and newspaper articles from the early 20th century regularly report his speeches were charismatic, well-reasoned, and enough to make suspicious listeners at least think twice. As a prominent union advocate, a rousing rhetor for the SPA, and a founding member of the IWW, Hagerty did more for the labor movement in three years than most of us will do in our entire lives. Put simply, you can’t tell the history of the labor movement in the United States without talking about this strange revolutionary reverend.

But Hagerty also rejected the idea, popular among other Catholics and Christians, that what Christians should be doing is creating their own, specifically Christian variants of institutions for struggle, like Catholic labor unions or parties. Instead, Hagerty lived out a radical solidarity that put him shoulder to shoulder with labor leaders and workers, Catholic and otherwise. The success of many early 20th century socialist projects depended on rejecting both an ideological refusal of faith as a condition of membership and on rejecting the identification of a faith tradition as the official language of the movement.

Hagerty’s approach as a Catholic priest and a socialist was not to craft the perfect moral vocabulary through which to filter his politics, but to get his hands dirty in the proletarian struggle, and to mobilize his own unique Christian formation for the sake of liberating workers. Hagerty was never embarrassed about his faith—indeed, it was an asset to getting Catholics involved in class struggle, who made up a particularly oppressed part of the working class—but his faith became more like a leaven in the socialist dough. If we want to understand the “Christian Left,” we have to look closely at where Christians show up in movements on the Left, not for a separate constituency somehow left behind today by electoral politics.

Both of these lessons seem clouded today. The ongoing presumption that class struggle means secular struggle, which appears on the side of certain would-be revolutionaries and reactionaries alike, is frankly historically untenable. It relies not on attention to the shape of political movements, nor on a “materialist” analysis that takes its cues from the goings-on of reality, nor even on a good understanding of the history of actual Christians and workers, but on ideological narratives that unnecessarily pit Christianity and the Left against one another.

As for the “Christian Left,” Hagerty’s story problematizes the notion that such a phrase most meaningfully identifies a version of liberal, progressive Christianity that hangs on every interview with Pete Buttigieg. The point is illustrated best by a line from Hagerty I quoted in my article: “Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and in my opinion it never will.” It’s a sentiment that isn’t lost to the radical early days of the IWW. Plenty of Christians today share that opinion, and the reduction of the “Christian Left” to a liberal voting bloc erases an important tradition of radicalism that is still alive today.

Hagerty’s story offers a lot to the imagination, which is what made him so compelling to study and write about. Most importantly, however, he is hardly alone as a Christian who felt he needed to throw himself headlong into the struggle for justice.

Today, on May Day, as I say at Commonweal, I’ll say a little prayer to Fr. Hagerty. I’ll also remember people like Rev. George Washington Woodbey, who was born a slave and served as the only Black delegate to the SPA conventions in 1904 and 1908, preaching from the pulpit and being in and out of jail for agitating in-between. I’ll recall Joe Wallace, a Catholic poet and a member of the Communist Party of Canada whose poems explored the relationship between his faith in the universal church and the global revolution. I’ll consider Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester, two Christian lesbians who joined the Communist Party USA, part of the Social Gospel they don’t seem to teach very often in seminaries today. And, naturally, I’ll think about the May Day martyrs themselves, like Rev. Samuel Fielden, a Methodist who gave the last speech before the bomb went off in Haymarket.

For Christians, May Day is an opportunity to school ourselves in the biographies of a communion of labor saints who leave behind multiple strategies, tools, and productive mistakes. It is also an opportunity to follow in their legacy, to show up at a march or an event at a union hall, and get to work. At bottom, regardless of scholarly studies or talk show interviews with politicians, the “Christian Left” is what we make it.

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