Danilo Dolci & Cesar Chavez: Nonviolent Land Reform

by Joseph Geraci

Original poster; artist unknown; courtesy of gandhijis-talisman.posterous.com

An extraordinary meeting took place October 7 [1969] in New York City, between Danilo Dolci and Cesar Chavez. That two of the most prominent leaders of the nonviolent land reform and resistance movement should meet might afford a glimpse of not only where the movement was, but in what direction it might conceivably go.

The meeting was attended by only a handful of people: Mrs. Coley, who was handling the arrangements for Dolci’s visit; Mark Silverman, head of the grape boycott in New York State; Anne Israel, a supporter of the boycott in whose apartment Chavez was staying; Dorothy Day; the photographer Bob Fitch, and myself.  It was to begin at 6:30 P. M., but as Dolci was coming to the meeting directly from the airport, there was the inevitable delay. Chavez had arrived earlier with several co-workers, New York being the latest stop on their national tour. He walks with a slight limp, the result of a bone disease contracted after a fast. As we waited for Dolci, he told us that the recent grape boycott rally in Washington had been very successful. Spirits were high and there was a real determination to work hard and continue. In talking to some of the other boycotters there that evening one had the same impression. Mr. Ortiz, an organizer from Sacramento who will be helping Mark Silverman in New York, said that progress was slow but that everyone was very hopeful.

Peter Matthiessen arrived, the author of one of my favorite novels, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and one of the founders of The Paris Review. His two-part profile of Chavez had recently appeared in The New Yorker magazine (June 21 and 28, 1969), excerpts of a full-length study, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, to be published by Random House in late December or early January. Matthiessen’s profile concluded with a quote from a speech Chavez gave Thanksgiving Day, 1968 (it had been read for him as he was too sick to read it himself) and this quote seemed also to fit this meeting.

“It is how we use our lives that determine what kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief, that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice oneself for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men.”

Dolci arrived at 7:00 p.m. with Mrs. Coley and Frances Keene, his translator, and after warm greetings and introductions we began our talk. He was on a fund-raising tour and was to be in New York only three days. As I had remembered him from a previous visit (which I wrote about in the March-April CW) he was gracious and direct. Dorothy had visited him in Sicily in December of 1967 and he recalled that visit with warmth. Mrs. Coley mentioned in passing that The New Yorker had regrettably turned down a profile of Dolci; he looked startled and shrugged, as if it did not matter.

Dolci is not just an activist. He is also an important theorist of nonviolent reform, extending Gandhi’s sarvodaya theory and campaigns. He wrote in the British magazine Help  (#2, 1968):

“We must understand problems from within to gain the necessary impetus. We must acquire by careful self-analysis an exact knowledge of the problems, their causes, and the particular and structural impediments to progress. We must publish our findings, make the situations fully known to all and seek to be meticulously accurate in the analysis of particular situations without losing sight of the full picture.”

Dolci was asked whether he thought the Sicilian population was violent or nonviolent. He answered that it was nonviolent but manipulated by the Mafia. Sicilians at times expressed their anger and rage but for the most part there was inertia. Passive people, he went on, when presented with real possibilities of change begin to have hope; it is the task of the reformer to offer them recognizable and viable possibilities. Small farmers or small landholders under threat from the Mafia and large landowner interests didn’t much discuss questions of violence or nonviolence. They were pragmatists, with strong instincts about what would or would not work. It was essential to understand and analyze their instincts. Any reform movement had to grow out of the instincts of the people; it had to avoid at all costs being alienated or detached from the population for whom the movement was trying to effect reform. A nonviolent movement leader is someone who (as he wrote in the Introduction to his book Waste) makes the obvious clear to others. The task of this leader is to analyze clearly what is going on and to pass this analysis and knowledge on to the people; it is education. He considers himself an educator and his movement grew out of the instincts of the people. It was also necessary to understand that reform was a process of weaning individuals from a structure of authority they had inherited and been conditioned by.

Regarding those who might work for reform, there were four possible situations:

1. There were a few people who worked daily to bring about change.

2. There were a few who really dug their heels in against change.

3. There was the great mass waiting to see who won.

4. There were, on the rare occasion, majorities who would work together for real change.

As Dolci spoke he kept glancing at Chavez and finally interrupted himself to ask Chavez how he thought the situation of the farm workers compared to his Sicilian situation. Chavez answered immediately that the main difference was that the grape strikers were a minority group within a majority. As soon as change became an issue the general population considered the reformers outsiders and as outsiders they could be ignored. Thus the question of nonviolent reform meant that one reformed isolated groups, which then in turn placed a minority pressure on the general populace.

Dolci’s great problem was that the Sicilian population was so scattered and isolated as individuals or family groups in traditional groupings, that they had little intercommunication with others. For Chavez it was that in the American situation the main population formed a more or less conservative whole that was unwilling (inertia) to have meaningful dialogue with what they considered a reformist fringe.

In this situation another remark of Dolci’s became relevant. He said he thought that Sicilians were intelligent but politically naïve. The system was one of the father or authoritarian figure at the center from whom radiated those subject to his authority. But in reality the individual looked more to his own freedom than to the authority figure, and so it might be possible to construct the hypothesis that what Sicilians were looking for was a democratization of their lives in which authority is decentralized, a structure of responsibility wherein authority was personal and shared. New, decentralized groups could wean individuals from the wheel-hub structure and from these new democratized groups could emerge other more democratic groups that would encroach on and limit the authoritarian center.

Chavez said he thought that his own first step had to be fighting poverty and economically improving the plight of people. He had discovered that it was impossible to depend on political action to help him. “The boycott,” he said, “will do more to get political legislation than 30 years of political campaigning.”

Both Dolci and Chavez felt strongly that nonviolent reform, especially land reform, could not go forward on one level at a time; it was an organic whole, an organism that grew out of a total situation. A multiple approach protected a reform movement from manipulation, or as Dolci had written in the same article in Help quoted from above,  “If a movement is not ambitious enough in scope, it may quickly founder in sectarianism and manipulation.”

Was land or farm reform the future of the nonviolent movement? Chavez had said, here in the pages of The Catholic Worker (June 1968), “We must turn our minds to the power of the land,” and that was in fact what both he and Dolci had done. And that the land itself had “power” seemed a fact to both of them.

Dolci turned to the whole group to ask, “Is there unlimited ownership of private property in America?” He explained that in Sicily wealthy landowners had made a centuries-old alliance with the Mafia making it difficult for individuals to own small farm-holdings and restricting land ownership was very difficult. Our answer, of course, was that private property ownership was unlimited in America. Dolci replied, “To begin with, you absolutely have to limit private property ownership. That is the first step.” Small farm ownership, restricting corporate farming, decentralization of land ownership, making it easier for poor people to grow their own food was as important in Italy, Sicily, or the U.S. as it had been for Gandhi in India. But the enormity of what he was saying suddenly struck us all. Chavez laughed and Mrs. Keene said she felt it was impossible. We all erupted together in fact that it was next to impossible. Dolci gave us a comic expression scrunching up his shoulders, widening his eyes and throwing up his hands as if to say, but if you can’t take this first step it’s hopeless. Someone shot back a question to him, “The effectiveness of your nonviolent method depends on the fact that you can work from a local level to a general good. In this matter of limiting property ownership how could we in the U.S. work locally for the general good if it’s a federal or national problem?” Dolci wondered whether we could get state laws without having to go through the federal government. No one could think of any way to do this.

Cesar Chavez was quick to answer that indeed one of his most difficult problems was exerting local control over the forces impeding change. The U.S. Defense Department’s purchase of grapes had risen 350 per cent since the beginning of the grape boycott, and immigration officials had relaxed their regulations so that it was easier for boycotted farmers to import Mexican labor, subverting Chavez’s efforts. The Italian parliament would not cooperate either, Dolci said, and was in fact sabotaging his efforts. Central government, the System, obstructed reform, certainly a Gandhian insight.

Chavez made an interesting point. The boycott worked as a lever; you put the pressure on the East Coast (picketing stores, etc.) and the effect was felt on the West Coast (the big farmer combines couldn’t sell their grapes) but the effect was not necessarily immediate. Both spoke of the necessity of patience and perseverance. Dolci pointed out that Gandhi worked for decades to secure Indian independence.  He had been working in Sicily for “only 15 years”; the grape boycott was 4 years old. Both men are 45. Was time on their side? Both have the overriding conviction that nonviolence and peace are not mere propagandizing or local agitation, but entail entire social reform. One can only remember Dolci smiling playfully at the enormity of his own task.

Nonviolence and peace issues must be coupled to a reform movement that begins with the land. Chavez in Delano, Dolci in Partinico are providing the pattern for a new wave of social reform that is neither communist nor capitalist, but is Christian and Gandhian nonviolence. As Dolci said, “It is obvious that we may affect the quality of the future by the way we choose to solve our problems. A really new development cannot just happen; it is achieved by the conscious commitment of individuals.” And as Chavez said, “We must turn our minds to the power of the land.”

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in The Catholic Worker, October-November, 1969; pp. 3 & 8. Courtesy of The Catholic Worker, and the Marquette University Catholic Worker archive.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph Geraci is the director of the Satyagraha Foundation and editor of our website. His last novel is The Path of the Gods (Strand Publishing, London). At the time of writing this he was living fulltime at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York and was a member of the editorial collective.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi