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In his critique of capitalism, Marx’s concern was the dignity of the human being, rooted in nature, and as a free, spiritual and social being. He argued that capitalism alienates humans from their own being, from nature, and from others. Whereas revolutionary Marxism seeks to abolish capitalism and create a classless society, the aim of the Catholic Worker movement is to restore and protect human dignity by building communities that practice compassion, non-violence, and solidarity with victims of injustice. Dorothy Day called this a ‘revolution of the heart’ that ‘has to start with each one of us’.

The Catholic Worker is a Catholic, ecumenical and pacifist movement that was started in 1933 in New York by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. They first published a newspaper and soon after opened the first house of hospitality for the poor and the homeless. There are now over 200 such communities around the world.

Our house of hospitality, called Giuseppe Conlon House, in North London, is run by a small community of volunteers who live together with destitute asylum seekers. We also publish a newsletter, help run a weekly soup kitchen, organise public events and take non-violent action against war, arms trade, and in solidarity with migrants and refugees. We live in a former church building leased to us rent-free by our Catholic diocese. Most of our food, toiletries and other household items are donated by local shops, schools, churches and members of the local community. We mainly rely on donations to pay our bills and do not receive any public funding.

Marx argued that work under capitalist conditions is alienating because it is not an activity that has value in itself and belongs to the worker, but only provides the means for the worker’s physical survival. As human beings we have the capacity to creatively shape the world around us, both the natural world and our society, through physical, intellectual and emotional work. Through our work we feel connected to nature and to the people around us. By taking away ownership of work from the worker, capitalism undermines this capacity and therefore isolates and oppresses the individual.

By living in community and offering hospitality at Giuseppe Conlon House, we try to overcome this alienation. The homeless men who live with us are, in most cases, refused asylum seekers and have no recourse to public funds. This means that they are not allowed to work for an income and cannot claim benefits. As a result, some say they feel that they are not really living life, they can’t contribute to society, they cannot support a family and they feel unvalued and lonely.

Living in community not only means living alongside each other, but creating something together. We all look after our shared living space and everyone contributes in different ways to building a sense of community. These activities are not governed by capitalist relations, but they do constitute work and therefore allow each of us to feel empowered, skilled and valuable.

For those of us who could work for an income, giving our work for free as a gift to our community and living in voluntary poverty is an act of faith. Fear of poverty makes us dependent on the capitalist system that promises security but also divides, isolates and dehumanises us. We try to overcome this fear by putting our faith in God who loves the poor and promises to provide for us.f

Nora Ziegler is a member of the London Catholic Worker and lives at Giuseppe Conlon House.