U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Gandhi Roundtable, Part 5

Editor's Note

Dear reader: This is part five of our seven-part roundtable on Leilah Danielson’s remarkable book, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). The roundtable, in my humble opinion, has been a smashing success thus far. For part one, by me, go here. For part two, by Tim Lacy, go here. For part three, by Lilian Calles Barger, go here. For part four, by Wes Bishop, go here. This essay, by Janine Giordano Drake, explores the links between the social gospel and the autonomous radical labor movement. Janine is a specialist in US labor, religious, and political history at the University of Providence (Great Falls, Montana). She is currently completing her manuscript, “War for the Soul of the Christian Nation: Christian Socialists and Protestant America, 1880-1920.” Contributions to follow are by Ray Haberski, and a response to the roundtable from Danielson. Enjoy. Andrew H

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“The Radical Idea of Autonomous Unions”

By Janine Giordano Drake

Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi fills in a lot of gaps in the history of both labor and American Christianity. Historians of the Social Gospel are accustomed to talking about the collaboration between the labor movement and the mainline Protestant churches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. [1] But, on the whole, scholars of the Social Gospel rarely follow the folks who stop working for the churches and start working for the labor movement. They usually define the “Social Gospel” from the perspective of ministers, especially those who went out of their way to insist that socialist and communist ideologies had no place in the church. Many of these ministers of the early twentieth century identified those who stopped regular church attendance as those who “fell away,” or lost their faith. They defined their faith in part through their commitment to an institutional, denominational church. Historians of the Social Gospel have often treated religious radicals in the same way.

Meanwhile, scholars of labor and the Left have taught us to become conversant in the debates among union liberals, socialists, social democrats, and communists in the 1930s. But, many still accept the religious, Red Scare propaganda that the communist labor movement—rather than religious and pacifist radicals—built the energy behind the AFL and the CIO during the Depression. A few recent books on the relationships between church leaders and union leaders in the 1930s have begun to correct this misunderstanding. They have taught us that many “labor priests” and “labor pastors” worked tirelessly to organize for the CIO. [2] A few notable books have appeared on the role of pacifists in twentieth century culture. [3] But, scholars of American radicalism too often dismiss these spiritual and religious radicals of the 1930s as either apolitical or fundamentally conservative.  Some have even suggested that clergy in support of the labor movement have been more oriented around papal encyclicals than radical social change. The reality is much more complicated. Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi is not only a first-rate biography of an important activist and thinker, but it is also a much-needed meditation on the relationship among the radical labor movement, the trade union movement, and dominant cultures of Protestant Christianity. These subjects rarely get examined at once. But, the fact that these were the main categories of Abraham Muste’s life illustrates that they really ought to be taken together more often.

Thanks to the scholarly breadth of expertise in this roundtable, I will focus my comments on just one important “labor history” intervention which I hope scholars will continue to explore: Danielson shows that AJ Muste, both despite and because of his radicalism, wanted unions to become a center of community life. To Muste, union-communities were radical organizations by their very nature. By offering members services to meet “all their varied needs” as human beings, Muste hoped that unions would “hold the worker to his union and thus build up labor morale” (76). Their communities would naturally inspire direct action. Muste’s commitment to the centrality of unions-as-community-centers led him to orchestrate the 1919 Lawrence Strike. It led him to partner with Brookwood Labor College through thick and thin, even when it required stomaching the bureaucratic politics of the AFL. As Muste explained,

When Labor undertakes to write and produce its own movies, to do its own radio broadcasting, then it gives notice that it expects to do its own dreaming henceforth… And this is of great importance, for the dreams that men dream, the visions that they see, probably have far more to do with their abstract thinking in determining how they shall vote and act (93).

Danielson’s long view of Muste shows us that it was not Trotskyist or communist politics that inspired his commitment to unions, but his commitment to the trade union that inspired his alignment with some of these far-left radicalisms. It is time that more historians took seriously how radical it was to empower autonomous, local unions during the 1930s. As Danielson expertly shows, many at Brookwood from the American Federation of Labor wanted to minimize the controversial discussions and critique that naturally arise among labor leaders. By the mid 1930s, their emphasis on top-down leadership and control offered little respect for the intellectual production of rank-and-file workers and the autonomy of unions as grassroots, democratic organizations. Danielson shows us that Muste’s radicalism hinged on his deep defense of workers’ rights to debate, dissent and organize on their own. Against the wishes of many AFL and Democratic Party bureaucrats, he wanted local unions to have the resources to create their own visions of the future republic. Real support for grassroots unions, she shows, was a much more radical stance in the Depression than many might assume.

Where did this deep commitment to unions come from? Danielson does not explore this question directly, but suggests that it may derive from his background as a minister and his training in the Social Gospel. I think this is a question that all historians, and particularly historians of the Left, ought to think about. I have argued that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Social Gospel was organized around building up the size and influence of churches within twentieth century life. [4] Many churches supported unions as economic organizations, but they rarely (if ever) supported the social and cultural functions of unions that Muste thought ought to be primary. In my reading of Muste’s politics, he sought to extend to unions the moral and cultural power that churches had claimed exclusively for themselves. Because he believed unions had the potential for moral social transformation, he believed they should be nonviolent in their direct action. Muste’s commitment to unions was not only a political commitment but an illustration of his concept of a functional church. His commitment to unions appears to be a direct response to the hegemony of anti-socialist and pro-war church leaders.

Historians have often missed the fact that the church-sponsored Red Scares of the World War I era thwarted many committed Christians from the mainline churches, but did not necessarily distance their Christian commitments from the labor movement. Put another way, the Red Scare did not do nearly as much damage to the labor movement as many historians have assumed. As Muste’s life shows, the roots of the radical labor movement of the 1930s were not simply communist and syndicalist, but also Dutch Reformed, peace-directed, and nonviolent. We need more scholars to probe the interwar partnerships between liberal Social Gospelers, particularly within the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, and the American labor movement. Astoundingly little work has been done on the subject. We need more scholars to explore the reasons workers responded positively to union membership drives in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. To what extent were American Christians enticed by the very promise of autonomous, democratic unions that Muste fought for? To what extent did these Christians continue to model their vision of a healthy union off their vision of a healthy church? To what extent are the histories of churches and the labor movement more interwoven than we have presumed? The more we explore the religious radicalisms of the 1930s and 1940s, the more we find that the Social Gospel movement did not end abruptly in the 1920s.

Danielson has led us in an extraordinary exploration of the tensions between the trades- union movement and the radical labor movement of the twentieth century. Her book reminds us that the twentieth century labor movement owes much more to pragmatist intellectuals and religious leaders than the trades union bureaucrats of this era would ever admit. We need to follow Danielson’s lead in recognizing that many rank and file workers, and even many labor leaders, built the twentieth century trade union movement without ever swallowing the propaganda of trades-union bureaucrats.

[1] Heath Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015);  Christopher Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2017).

[2] Matthew Pehl, The Making of Working-Class Religion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

[3] Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Marian Mollin, Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

[4] Janine Giordano Drake, “War for the Soul of the Christian Nation: Christian Socialists versus the Federal Council of Churches, 1901-1912,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14:3 (Fall 2017), 55-80.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I really appreciate Janine Giordano Drake’s comments here about the labor movement of the 1920s, which I discovered was far more creative and critical than the standard narrative of the AFL’s conservatism would have us believe. Many of the militant unionists I discuss in American Gandhi were members of AFL unions, but they pushed against their subordinate role and attempted to build an inclusive, militant, labor consciousness and culture from the ground up that would offer a real alternative to the business culture that solidified in the 1920s. These were the years of welfare capitalism, Americanization programs, Fordism, etc. and progressive workers recognized this for what it was: an attempt not only to coopt unionism, but to coopt working-class culture. The goal of the workers’ education movement was not only to develop good organizers, but also to build a counter-hegemonic culture (complete with institutions such as labor radio, labor theater, labor schools, labor sports, labor summer camps for working-class children, etc.) that would offer an alternative to capitalist culture.

    These workers had allies in a progressive network that included leftists and liberals alike – and, as Janine emphasizes, progressive clergy and laity. In the book, I position Muste as part of the Social Gospel movement, but also separated him from it, perhaps too forcefully. On the one hand, there were real differences between him and his fellow Christian pacifist-socialists insofar as he recognized that they were often paternalistic and moralizing, and almost congenitally uncomfortable with expressions of collective protest. In the book, I suggest that this had to do with his working-class immigrant background. It also had something to do with his Calvinist background, which, as Wes Bishop comments, engendered a pessimism about human nature that differentiated him from other Social Gospelers. Still, Janine is on to something important when she suggests that “he sought to extend to unions the moral and cultural power that churches had claimed exclusively for themselves.” As minister, he had had very definite ideas about the role of the church and had been extraordinarily successful in transforming his two pastorates into vibrant and expansive centers of religious and community life. Surely this influenced his broad vision of unionism, and probably the same was true of other labor ministers and Christian unionists.

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