U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Gandhi Roundtable, Part 1

Editor's Note

Dear reader: What follows is part one 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). This essay, by me, provides a thorough overview of Muste’s life and Danielson’s book, and concludes by asking some probing questions about what Muste’s life means for the American left. Contributions to follow are by Tim Lacy, Wes Bishop, Lilian Calles Barger, Janine Giordano Drake, Ray Haberski, and a response to the roundtable from Danielson. Enjoy. Andrew

“A.J. Muste: The Contradictions and Promise of the American Left”

by Andrew Hartman

No single individual better embodied the contradictions and promise of the twentieth-century American left than A.J. Muste. Lest you think this a wild overstatement, read the following lengthy passage from the introduction of Leilah Danielson’s fantastic biography of Muste, American Gandhi:

Like others who came of age in the 1910s, [Muste] was a modernist, convinced of the plasticity of the self and the environment. But in the 1930s and 1940s, he shared in the introspective turn of many of his comrades, questioning his assumptions about reason, history, and progress. Rather than retreat from his socialist convictions, however, he remade them for the new era of the “American Century,” in which organization, bureaucracy, and conformity appeared to threaten human freedom as much as class inequality and poverty had in earlier decades. The result was a new kind of ‘prophetic politics’ in which action and commitment represented an effort not only to change society but also to maintain one’s humanity against the “anti-human.” His existential politics and style resonated deeply with the New Left, making him an ideal figure for exploring change and continuity in radical politics over the course of the twentieth century.

While Muste represents significant historical formations, he was unique. He occupied an anomalous place in the history of American radicalism: he was a Social Gospel minister yet he was a working-class immigrant; he was an intellectual and idealist yet he was beloved by the practical and down-to-earth workers who rallied to his vision of militant industrial unionism in the 1920s and 1930s; he was an anti-Stalinist yet he refused to condone McCarthyism and opposed the Cold War; he was the foremost theoretician of Ghandian nonviolence in the United States yet he publicly chastised the civil rights leadership for failing to respond to the challenges posed by black power and U.S. empire; he was a devout Christian yet he was held in high esteem by the Marxist, secular left; he was an Old Leftist yet he supported and celebrated the New Left.

Muste was an idealist—a prophet, even—who remained true to his radical vision of the good life. Yet he was also a pragmatist—in the expansive Deweyan sense rather than the mundane sense—and believed that the best way to achieve the good life was to work within or alongside broad-based coalitions. Danielson highlights the tensions between his idealism and pragmatism to tease out the contradictions and promise of the American left across the twentieth century. The result is a highly engaging political and intellectual biography that also serves as a challenge to a re-emergent contemporary left.

When Muste was a boy, his family left rural Holland for Grand Rapids, Michigan, a common destination for Dutch Reformed Calvinist immigrants. As the brightest and oldest son of working-class parents who emphasized education, Muste thrived in school, and left Michigan in 1906 to attend the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He hated the provincial climate at New Brunswick. But by contrast this made the time he spent in New York City’s vibrant intellectual culture that much more meaningful. It was in the city where he learned about William James, whose ideas about religion began to shake Muste out of his Calvinist roots. Instead of limiting his understanding of God to His revealed word, as Calvinists did, Muste began to think about the variety of religious experiences.

After graduating from seminary, Muste took a ministry job at the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Fort Washington was a Dutch Reformed church, but living in the city pushed Muste even further along a modernist path. Studying at nearby Union Theological Seminary completed his break with Calvinism. Muste embraced the Social Gospel that was sweeping through mainline American Protestantism. Such irreconcilable theological differences compelled him to leave Fort Washington and take a ministry position at a Congregationalist church in Newton, Massachusetts that welcomed the Social Gospel.

During Muste’s time in Manhattan, in addition to attending Union Theological he also joined several reading clubs, where he encountered socialist ideas for the first time. These ideas convinced him to vote for Eugene Debs in the dramatic 1912 presidential election. Thus, by the time he arrived in Newton, Muste was primed for radical political activism. He began moving in Quaker, pacifist, and various other nonconformist circles, and joined the Fellowship of Reconstruction (FOR)—the beginning of a long relationship between Muste and that important pacifist organization.

In the pre-World War I years, the broad liberal-left, which was perhaps best represented by Max Eastman’s experimental and socialist little magazine of politics and culture, The Masses, saw no need to divide their attention between personal liberation and social emancipation. They could be radical individualists who sought release from Victorian cultural restrictions, and also socialists who sought collective solutions to political and economic equality. In this milieu, as Danielson makes clear, it was possible, indeed likely, that a burgeoning pacifist and ethical idealist like Muste would see himself aligned with revolutionary socialists who wanted to liberate the working class from the grips of an exploitative ruling class. But World War I shattered such broad-based left-liberal political dreams.

World War I and its aftermath was a period of political repression against the left. American entry into the European bloodbath in 1917 had the effect of rendering pacifism suspect. Antiwar expressions were made illegal by the Espionage Act. Many went to prison for voicing antiwar dissent, most famously Debs. The Bolshevik Revolution, and the red scare that followed in the form of the Palmer Raids that led to the deportation of thousands of radicals, made socialism exceedingly dubious in the eyes of most Americans. Liberals tended to support the war—and cower before state repression, when not cheering it on—thus isolating leftists and pacifists.

In this context, Muste was forced to resign from his minister position due to his outspoken pacifism. This had the effect of further radicalizing him. By the late 1910s, Muste had become a committed militant on behalf of the labor movement. Muste exchanged the pulpit for the picket line.

Perhaps nobody else was more capable of transitioning from the pacifist movement, which was largely Protestant and middle-class, to the labor movement, which was largely immigrant and working-class. In fact, the historical divide between reformist liberalism and revolutionary leftism often hinged on this class divide. But Muste, who hailed from an immigrant, working-class family before climbing into the ranks of the Social Gospel elite, was a cultural and class traveler. This served him well as a leader of various radical movements across his long life.

In the 1920s, Muste combined his prophetic belief in the power of ideas with his newfound labor radicalism to become the nation’s foremost leader of the workers’ education movement. This movement took off in the 1920s as way to bring leftist intellectuals together with working-class radicals. Socialist revolution was the objective of the worker’s education movement. In 1921, Muste was appointed director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, an idyllic hamlet about 75 miles north of New York City. During Muste’s decade-long tenure, Brookwood hosted hundreds of labor movement activists as students. Dozens of left-wing intellectual luminaries spent time at the school as teachers, including William Z. Foster, Roger Baldwin, V.F. Calverton, Sinclair Lewis, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Asa Philip Randolph, Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, and more.

Brookwood was respected for its non-sectarian approach to the many issues that threatened to divide the broad left-labor landscape. Muste’s school sought to work alongside the existing labor movement, which was led in this period by the staid American Federation of Laborers (AFL). But Brookwood also had an expansive vision of socialist revolution, and thus also worked with the various left-wing parties that sprouted up in the decade following the Bolshevik Revolution, including the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). By the late 1920s, however, as the nation’s economy was laid waste by the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, such ecumenism could not hold. The AFL attacked Brookwood for its efforts to radicalize its rank-and file with the Marxist view that capital and labor were irreconcilable. And on its left flank, the CPUSA, before its Popular Front stage, sought to disrupt the school’s efforts to build a popular front.

Muste also succumbed to an ideological crisis of the sort that was so common in the chiliastic 1930s. He became more and more committed to socialist revolution and less and less committed to playing nice with the stingily conservative AFL. Since the Brookwood faculty valued its non-partisan stance relative to the labor movement, they worked to have Muste removed as director of the school. This freed him up to lead the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), which allowed Muste to take his efforts to radicalize the labor movement to whole new levels.

Even as the CPLA, which dominated Muste’s life in the early 1930s, wanted to revolutionize the labor movement, it was vehemently anti-sectarian—unlike most Marxist parties at the time. The CPLA operated from the assumption that it should work together with most other left-wing parties and unions. Muste believed that the theories of Karl Marx supported this praxis approach, a vision of Marx largely informed by CPLA fellow traveler Sidney Hook, who leavened his Marx with Dewey. Those who took this approach became known as “Musteites”—pragmatic in compromising with people outside their sect, except with the Democratic Party.

Compromise with the Democratic Party was a line Muste would not cross—and he remained consistent in this even as his political priorities underwent dramatic shifts. Muste saw compromise with Democrats as the road to cooptation—even at a time when most radicals, including the CPUSA, joined Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition as a pragmatic move to shore up social democracy and working-class power in the face of the global fascist threat. Danielson claims Muste’s refusal to compromise with the New Deal “revealed a revolutionary purism.”

For a short time in the 1930s, Muste’s pragmatism seemed to have disappeared, as the CPLA became increasingly revolutionary. Muste was not alone, of course. “The whole structure of American society seemed to be going to pieces,” as Edmund Wilson wrote. Why not revolution? In this brief period, Muste rejected Christianity in favor of Marxism. “The people who adopted some form of Marxian philosophy,” he said, “who were doing something about the situation, who were banding people together for action, who were putting up a fight. Unless you were indifferent or despairing, you lined up with them.” In 1934, the CPLA changed its name to the American Workers Party (AWP); instead of a radial appendage of the labor movement, the AWP would be a more strictly defined capital P Party in the Leninist vanguard sense. Muste likened being in the AWP to being one of God’s elect. Despite giving up on God, Muste situated his activism in millennial terms—much like so many other Marxists in that period.

The notion that a left-wing labor party represented a secular second coming might seem absurd in retrospect, but 1934 was a year of labor upheaval unlike any other. That year, a massive wave of strikes put the fear of God and Labor into beleaguered capitalists across the nation. The Musteites played a crucial role in one such strike, at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo, Ohio. Their picket signs reflected the revolutionary exuberance in the air: “1776—1865—1934.” Workers won a remarkable victory against Electric Auto-Lite after a protracted, violent struggle—a victory that labor historians consider a watershed moment in that it led to the creation of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Many on the left saw the AWP as an up-and-coming left-wing party that might rival the CPUSA—thanks to the victory in Toledo but also due to the respect that Muste commanded. The Communist League of America (CLA), a Trotskyist party led by James Cannon and Max Shachtman, who were expelled by the CPUSA in 1928 for siding with Trotsky over Stalin, sought to merge with the AWP. Some of the newer, intellectual members of the AWP, including Hook and James Burnham, welcomed the merger on the premise that it would bring more theoretical sophistication to the party. Older members, those who followed Muste from Brookwood into the CPLA, were skeptical because they assumed the Trotskyists would obsess over the Soviet Union and CPUSA—an obsession that they believed would negate the AWP’s stated mission to focus on American working-class concerns.

After a heated internal debate that rocked the AWP, the CLA did indeed merge into the AWP, thanks to Muste’s support for the merger. The newly formed fusion party called itself the Workers Party of the United States (WPUSA). The WPUSA “statement of principle and action” was decidedly tilted towards Trotskyist issues, such as support for a Fourth International to challenge Soviet leadership over the international left. This was precisely the type of move that the anti-merger AWP members feared: it embroiled their party in sectarian debates that had little to do with building an American working-class socialist movement. Many former CPLA and AWP members left the WPUSA, and Muste was alienated from many of his old friends and allies.

It did not take long for Muste himself to grow disgusted with the Trotskyist faction within the WPUSA. In 1936, the party undertook a “French Turn”: it mimicked French Trotskyist tactics by disbanding and entering the Socialist Party with the objective of covertly moving it to the left. Muste, who had lots of experience working with the Socialist Party from his Brookwood years, contended that the Socialist Party was too reformist—too parliamentary and not syndicalist enough—and would never turn left. Moreover, a secret campaign went against Muste’s vision of working-class ethics. But despite opposing the move, Muste went along with it and joined the Socialist Party. The effort failed, as Muste had predicted, and the WPUSAers were expelled from the Socialist Party in 1937. It was then that Cannon, Shachtman, and the rest of the WPUSA holdovers formed the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), which has been the main engine of American Trotskyism ever since.

Just prior to the WPUSA expulsion from the Socialist Party, Muste had reached his breaking point with the sectarian left. Sensing his deep frustration, friends raised money for him and his wife to travel to Europe on vacation, where he might rest and contemplate his next move. Muste’s first stop on his European vacation was Norway, which was ironic because there he met Trotsky. He came away from that meeting deeply impressed by “the old man,” as the Trotskyists called him. But after that encounter, Muste left work behind as he and his wife toured Europe as vacationers. While in Paris, he had a vision of sorts while sitting in a medieval church. Muste determined then that he was going to leave the revolutionary Marxist movement and return to Christianity.

In the years after he left the sectarian left and the radical labor movement, Muste moved away from Marxism because its materialism, he thought, led humans to treat each other as expedient. Muste wanted the left to recognize that moral and ethical imperatives were just as important as political and economic ones. In this way, he joined multitudes of postwar religious critics of totalitarianism. But unlike many or even most of the anti-totalitarians, Muste beseeched religious Americans to fight for labor justice and against war.

Muste was hardly the only person on the left to make a dramatic political shift in the tumultuous 1930s. A few short years after he left the world of Trotskyism, so too did Hook and Burnham. But whereas Hook and Burnham both became deeply committed anticommunists—following a well-worn ex-Trotskyist path—Muste remained firmly on the broad left-liberal side of the political spectrum by rejoining the pacifist movement. Indeed, Muste’s name became synonymous with American pacifism in the postwar years. In Danielson’s words, Muste built “a new radical politics based on nonviolence.”

Muste’s varied experiences allowed him to craft his influential new style of pacifism, which took some things from Gandhi but was mostly an indigenous American philosophy. Danielson writes:

It was his exposure to liberal theology and the mystical tradition that gave him an abiding faith in the power of love. It was his long held preference for syndicalism over the parliamentary approach of the Socialist Party that led him to direct action. It was his experience on the left that convinced him that pacifists had to dedicate themselves to fighting oppression with the conviction and spirit of self-sacrifice that motivated Communists. It was his understanding of Christianity as a prophetic religion that encouraged him to interpret Christ suffering on the cross as a social concept. Thus, Muste drew upon the history of American radicalism and the prophetic tradition to make his argument that pacifists had to engage in nonviolent resistance.

Muste worked to ensure that his brand of pacifism was the type that shaped FOR. Such a militant form of pacifism alienated many of the middle-class white Protestants in the ranks of FOR, but it also inspired many budding civil rights activists, including James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, whom Muste worked closely with. His alliance with civil rights activists, his existentialist critique of modernity, and his withering criticism of Cold War liberal realists like Reinhold Niebuhr (Muste asked: “Just what is the workable compromise between the prophets and Machiavelli?”), ensured that Muste would be well received by the young New Left that came of age in the 1960s. Most than that, it confirmed Muste’s position as a respected leader of the movement against the Vietnam War—the largest antiwar movement in the history of the United States.

Ethical pacifism of the older type, which did not draw distinctions between imperialist or anti-imperialist violence, stood no chance of influencing a New Left that was much more committed to resisting racism and American imperial power than it was to nonviolence as a principle. But Muste made these distinctions, and argued with his pacifist comrades that they must have empathy for those people around the world fighting for independence. He believed that American military aggression in Vietnam was the principle source of violence there, and that pacifists should fight the American war machine—nonviolently, of course—not lecture the Vietnamese about how to resist such a clear injustice. Muste matched rhetoric with action by traveling first to Saigon to protest the American military, and then to Hanoi where he met with Ho Chi Minh and bore witness to the carnage American bombs were sowing.

Muste died in 1967, shortly after his trip to Hanoi, at the age of 82. He was widely memorialized. New Left historian Staughton Lynd wrote: “Historians of the future who want to know what it meant to live with integrity in the twentieth-century era of wars and revolutions will very likely begin with the life of A.J. Muste.” I think this is true. Muste was no saint, but he did indeed live a life of integrity.

But I don’t think integrity is what makes Muste interesting to historians. Rather, Muste is relevant to us now—and accessible, thanks to Danielson’s impeccable biography—because his life as an activist demonstrates the ways in which the left-liberal side of the American political spectrum is rife with contradictions (and promise, but only if the contradictions can be overcome).

Muste spent a good portion of his life working to overcome the divisions that separated different elements of the left. This was most evident late in his life as he tried, often successfully, to bring together pacifists and Black Power activists although the former saw the latter’s philosophy as an ethical threat to their own. But even he suffered from the puritanical impulse of the sectarian mind. In the 1930s, Muste’s revolutionary vigor led him to join Trotskyists instead of seeking common ground with a Democratic Party that was, for the first and perhaps only time, willing to take sides with the working class against capacious capitalists. But before we make too much of that criticism, we should note that even then, dangers loomed in a coalition with Democrats. The militant unions of the 1930s that joined forces with New Deal Democrats were shortly thereafter co-opted by corporate-military-industrial complex. Muste was often right, but not always. American Gandhi grapples with these problems with a great deal of intelligence and empathy.

Muste’s biography speaks to another major contradiction that has beleaguered the American left—one that goes unmentioned by Danielson. Can a left in the United States, one of the most religious nations in the world, be secular? Or does the left, to fit in with the natives, need an explicit moralism? After flirting with the secular Marxist left that saw itself as scientific—that was informed by Trotsky’s philosophical system of dialectical materialism, a Soviet-inflected offshoot of Marxism in which it was theorized that historical patterns gave rise to contradictions that then gave rise to new patterns—Muste chose to return to his religious, moralistic, prophetic roots. In part this reconversion had to do with his personal temperament. But it also had to do with his desire to connect with Americans.

But a radical vision that connects with Americans is not necessarily the best approach to transforming capitalism into socialism. At least, this is the argument that many socialist have long made. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels critiqued utopian socialism—the nineteenth-century version of moralistic radicalism—which they viewed as a naïve approach to fighting capitalism. Marx and Engels wrote that utopian socialists like Robert Owen fantasized that “historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action.”

Muste did more than perhaps any other American in the twentieth century to show us ways to circumvent the contradictions of a left-wing movement for peace, socialism, and racial justice in a nation historically committed to war, capitalism, and race-based hierarchy. But the contradictions remain, and it’s up to us to continue to think through them. It’s up to us to act in ways to overcome them.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. For Muste at least, pragmatism was more of a personal creed than an instrumentalist answer to social problems. It engendered an experimental, reflective approach to labor organizing and political activism, and it provided a philosophical rationale for his idealism. But he and the other militant unionists I describe as labor pragmatists were also radicals who always insisted that their long term goal was a socialist society. Hence their criticism of the AFL’s bread and butter unionism. They likely would have approached the problem of employment from two angles. In the short term, it was essential for all workers to work under humane conditions with collective bargaining rights; they tended to focus on labor organization as the path forward, but they also pushed for pro-labor legislation. In the long-term, they aimed to overthrow capitalism, which alienated workers from their labor and prevented their full development as whole human beings. I hope that provides some insight into your interesting question.

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