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Catholic Socialist

Socialism, it seems, has some serious PR problems. “Real, genuine, old-fashioned craziness,” says John C. Cort ’35, complaining of the socialist literature he gets in the mail, “without even asking,” at his Nahant, Massachusetts, home. In America, this reaction isn’t particularly surprising—except that Cort, 90, is hardly a curmudgeonly conservative.

Rather, he’s quite the opposite, as his recent memoir, Dreadful Conversions, testifies. Never straying far from the philosophical underpinnings of his Catholic faith, he recounts nearly a century of American radicalism: writing for the Catholic Worker and learning from its socialist publisher, Dorothy Day, and her anarchist colleague Peter Maurin; organizing workers at the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists during the Depression; running a Model Cities program, a newspaper guild, and a homeless shelter; crossing paths with Jimmy Hoffa and John and Robert Kennedy.

John Cort today (inset) and in the 1930s with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin (front row) of the Catholic Worker
Courtesy of John Cort

Why is this seasoned leftist now criticizing his own troops? Not for want of sympathy. Cort sounds paternally pained as he describes what he’s up against—a young man at an MIT People for Self-Management conference almost 30 years ago whom Cort overheard saying cheerfully, “What a great day to smash the state!” At the time, Cort found the quip amusing. But today, he says, with modern socialist theory so widely misunderstood, such remarks only “confirm many Americans’ reaction to the word ‘socialist’ as hopelessly wedded to a kind of crazy radicalism.”

Modern socialism is far more moderate, Cort says. He cites the Socialist Party’s Stockholm Declaration of 1989, which established that “what is important is social justice, whether it be in public ownership or private ownership.” But “we are abysmally ignorant in this country,” he gripes. “You find accredited, prestigious pundits, George Will types, who are still using ‘socialism’ in the old ‘communist’ sense.”

So how does one counter this?

“Well, you start by publishing books like [mine]!” he rejoins enthusiastically. He crafted Dreadful Conversions to be as much philosophical primer as autobiography, as much intellectual journey as recollection of days past. The journey began at Harvard with his first conversion: to Catholicism. One contemporary deemed Harvard a “positively bizarre” setting for such an event, but Cort, a student of French history and literature, was particularly inspired by his Catholic professors Louis Mercier, C.H. McIlwain, and Alfred North Whitehead.

Cort always eyed a life of political activism through the lens of his Catholic faith, but not until the mid 1970s did this focus prompt a second conversion: to socialism. He sees this shift as a necessary consequence of the convergence of socialist and Catholic thought. Looking to pinpoint the “soul of the Socialist movement,” he quotes the Marxian “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—which, he quickly points out, borrows from Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, and Saint Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians.

Cort’s broad theory of socialism encompasses virtually anyone concerned about the basic “satisfaction of human needs” and committed, even rhetorically, to a full-employment policy. “They accuse me of stretching socialism so thin,” he says. “Well, that’s true! I talk about closet-socialist Republicans.”

Dreadful Conversions chronicles a lifetime of uphill battles, but Cort shows little sign of letting up. He is now coeditor of Religious Socialism, a quarterly he hopes to revive after 26 dormant years. His struggle to counter the "general tendency of discouragement in the U.S. socialist movement" in the face of smash-the-state "crazies" and right-wing naysayers alike promises to be arduous. But, as his brother David used to say of their family—and as Cort writes in his book’s final paragraph—"Corts are all optimists in an insane kind of way."