U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Gandhi Roundtable, Part 2

Editor's Note

Dear reader: What follows is part two 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). For part one, by me, go here. This essay, by Tim Lacy, is a meditation on Muste’s Christian theology in relation to his leftist politics. Regular readers of this blog will be quite familiar with Tim’s work, which includes his book,The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Contributions to follow are by Wes Bishop, Lilian Calles Barger, Janine Giordano Drake, Ray Haberski, and a response to the roundtable from Danielson. Enjoy. Andrew H

A.J. Muste with Dorothy Day

“The Unrealistic, Hell-Raising Prophetism of A.J. Muste”

By Tim Lacy

A.J. Muste first emerged, to me, as a mysterious but intriguing historical figure in the work of Lawrence S. Wittner. I came to Wittner as a graduate student by studying his classic, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement.[1]  That book introduced me to the history of the movement for world federal government, which drew my attention through my dissertation’s protagonist, Mortimer J. Adler. Adler’s 1944 book, How to Think About War and Peace, which I had read a few years before, argued for world federal government as the primary, viable, and practical vehicle for world peace. Wittner helped me understand why and when Adler wrote his provocation. And Muste was a key actor in Wittner’s overall story.

Muste—as relayed by Wittner—felt that leaders desirous of “harmonious international order” would be “well advised,” as of 1942, “to concentrate on the economic, cultural, and spiritual conditions of peace.” As a consequence, “legal and military means” occupied lower rungs of the priority list. Muste and his cohort rejected top-down enforcement through “international police” and “peacekeeping operations.” They argued that the “political unity” necessary for world government “develops from a sense of community.” “Peace,” concluded Muste, “is the horse and world government the cart,” not vice versa. [2]

As graduate students are wont to do, I read Wittner’s book somewhat quickly. This left Muste somewhat mysterious to me. In reviewing Rebels Against War to jog my memory, I see now that he was, in effect, the book’s central character. Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, and Dwight Macdonald were addressed by Wittner, but Muste appears in nearly every chapter. Muste should’ve been a more important figure, to Adler, in wrestling with world government. And Leilah Danielson’s work confirms that sense of things.


Danielson’s richly detailed book on Muste, American Gandhi, superbly conveys why her subject loomed large for Wittner. Danielson’s work deals with Muste in the context of labor, religion, politics, and the life of the mind. It is also a historical biography.  This complicated intersection of categorization and themes underscores the convergences that surface in Muste’s life. It was a life that bridged the Old and New Left over the course of twentieth-century America (p. 14). Danielson reanimates Muste as both a powerful exemplar and cautionary tale for today’s leftists, and especially its left-leaning Christians. Indeed, the last is the focus of this essay—i.e. the maze of Muste’s theology and philosophy of religion in relation to his political commitments.

The complexity of Muste’s life reveals itself in Danielson’s long list of little labor and antiwar organizations he started, joined, or helped (pp. ix-x). One lesson to draw from this A-Z list of little orgs (conveniently inserted as a glossary at the start of the book) is that sometimes important institutions last only a few years, responding to context and the issue/s at hand. Danielson also communicates Muste’s complexity through a number of keywords and nodes of unity. The term “tension” performs a lot of heavy lifting for the author, justifiably so. Other keywords are prophecy, faith, nonviolence, pacifism, and pragmatic sensibility.

Muste was a Christian socialist who maintained a true social focus, over an abstract ideological commitment to the same. Yet he also retained, in his thought, the modern desire for individual expression. For example, he was not one to retire into smaller religious communities to retain purity of ideology (p. 13). Muste was a pragmatist who shunned both Niebuhrian realism and Communist idealism. Indeed, Danielson ably relays his pragmatism and sense of praxis (p. 70). Muste somehow maintained an optimism about human nature, which he combined with a personal theology of the prophetic tradition (i.e. Christian) and his pragmatism. His Protestant-inflected politics evolved into an existentialist framework, tied to humanistic commitment via direct action (p. 2, 8). Finally, and most importantly, Muste was a pacifist and advocate for nonviolence. His “pacificism,” consisted of “revolutionary nonviolence” (p. 11, 16). It is clear that Muste was willing to live with a number of real tensions and apparent intellectual paradoxes.  As Danielson relays, Muste worked in the gray areas between realism and idealism, collectivism and liberalism, as well as internationalism and Americanism (p. 18).

What interested this reader the most, both personally and professionally, was how the author connected these tensions and paradoxes to Muste’s Christian background and ongoing faith.

Danielson roots Muste’s vision of action, or praxis, in a self-made Christian labor theory connected to the prophetic tradition. Abraham, of the Old Testament, sits at the base of Muste’s worldview. For Muste, all Christians, like Abraham, must leave the city of their ancestors and bring the city of God into existence. That coming forth, if you will, is a very human endeavor and act of creation, charged and inspired by God. Humans must then work communally, with each other and God. Danielson successfully charts how Muste layered his theology with the thought of Emerson and William James, which helped Muste operate in a tradition of religious humanism. Danielson asserts that James gave Muste a modern theological tone, along with a focus on lived experience. James also sanctioned mysticism as a source of inspiration. Altogether these influences fostered a message of working as individuals, but interdependently and in a social context, to effect justice with hope and love (p. 17, 30, 45, 49).

To Muste, the Enlightenment was an imperfect endeavor, necessitating divine intervention from prophetic voices. Modern-day prophets interjected new dreams and creations. By the mid-1930s, Muste would argue that the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, science, and historical progress had marginalized other values—i.e. love, empathy, and cooperation—that progressive revolutionaries hoped might enable a socialist society (p. 182). Christianity in particular could bring these values to the table.

But Muste’s preference for mystical experiences and inwardness, underscored by Danielson and not uncommon in the history of Protestantism—worked against, in my view, his desire for solidarity (p. 49). One cannot possess a cosmopolitan openness to all, and a desire for universal brotherhood, while harboring a religious individualism, as did Muste, that pressed against the difficult kind of material sharing that would enable practical, living communion with others. It’s not to be wondered then that Muste would become something of an Isaiah, a voice crying in the wilderness. Muste’s pragmatic sensibility, an ideology that might’ve enabled his desire for human community and helped in his dealings with the labor movement, was overwhelmed by his prophetic tendencies.

That leaning and that eventuality speaks to his historical context. As Muste’s prophetic desire for nonviolence and pacifism came to the fore in the 1940s, it bumped against wartime solidarity. And then in the postwar era, the need for the patriotic conformism of a hot war was reinforced by the Cold War. Whatever was good and true about socialist or communist ideals was overwhelmed by fears of Stalinism expressed in the new Red Scare. While those with world government aspirations, like Adler, were hesitantly tolerated in American society, Muste’s pacifism forced him into a life of individualistic dissent (p. 59). He could never minister in a traditional way to a larger flock, or be a regular citizen engaged in the daily grind of slow change and reform.


Of all the organizations in which Muste was involved, the Fellowship of Reconciliation offered him a theological home. He first expressed, in FOR, a pacifism in concert with a philosophy of non-violence. In its earliest iterations, expressed during World War I and in the 1920s, that philosophy involved an assumption that can only be described as a matter of extreme faith in relation to the middle decades of the twentieth century. Fellowship members argued that if an opponent could not be converted, “it was better to let evil triumph than to violate their fundamental principles of nonviolence and love” (p. 71). The idea then was that you become a witness, or martyr, to nonviolence, noncoercion, and love.

That kind of Christian-based sacrifice for meaningful change was clearly a stumbling block for Americans, Communists, many socialists, and even some of Muste’s fellow Christians. A person holding this kind of philosophy of protest will necessarily become one who is a voice crying in the wilderness. Even those barely acquainted with history know that many die uselessly and for unjust reasons. What’s the use of adding another desiccated corpse to that cord of dead wood? How will my dead body inspire another? And who says that my fight, conducted with every ounce of soul, bones, and skin, won’t convert the assailant as much as my acquiescence? Does not the battle generate respect, and possibly conversion? What if I’m nonviolent until the last possible moment, and then as violent as I can be in resisting evil?

As a person inclined toward nonviolence, after spending a better part of his life fighting to get to this point, these are not idle, impersonal questions. What brings about change in the other? How do I know what’s best to bring about that change in a particular circumstance?

Danielson works, from chapter 8 onward, to remake Muste’s earlier idealism by showing how he dropped his labor activism and 1930s flirtations with being a Communist ideologue (p. 201), and moved toward a more pragmatic pacifism. Key to this change was Gandhian nonviolence. With this transition, Muste’s religious faith and philosophy of nonviolence split the difference, in some ways, between the living-and-dying dichotomy I pose above.

Starting in 1941 when he assumed leadership of FOR, Muste’s nonviolence became Gandhian in its development as ideology of aggressive action. It was now a confrontational tactic for direct action (pp. 9, 202-203, 205). It was vision for change that avoided soft sacrifice and a passivist pacifism. It allowed for a prophetic vision of new society and politics based on justice. It was a philosophy that could sustain movements–that could shake the ideological mountains of a nation, if not the world. In the memorable words of those 1970s rockers from southern Missouri, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “if you want to get to heaven, you got to raise a little hell.” Raising hell involved merging, in Danielson’s words, Marxist-Leninism with pacifism and Christianity. This is what made Muste an “America’s Gandhi.”


This faith was, philosophically, purposely unrealistic. Although I’m sure other reviews in this roundtable will explore what follows (esp. Haberski’s), the question of realism is worth pursuing in relation to Muste’s theology of nonviolence. More specifically, Muste’s unrealism was opposed to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and others like him. Muste’s pragmatic nonviolence subverted Niebuhr’s critique of soft liberal Protestantism and its pacifistic tendencies. For his part, Niebuhr’s realism rested on a sharp demarcation “between the morality of individuals” and the morality of groups. Based on this, he forwarded the idea that coercion (i.e. violence) was necessary for social order (though not sufficient for it). As expressed in his 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, and relayed by Danielson: “Since violence was not ‘intrinsically immoral’, the ‘real question’ was ‘what are the political possibilities of establishing justice through violence?’” (pp. 206-208).

Muste’s “prophetic stance” collapsed the distinction between Christian rules for individual persons and people generally. Here’s how Danielson relays Muste’s theological response to Niebuhrian realism:

Just as the prophets emphasized the importance of repentance, Christ suffering on the cross was essentially a repentant act; it suggested that taking responsibility for one’s own sins would liberate others to do the same. Thus, Muste concluded, by expressing love and accepting that one might be killed, it would be possible to fundamentally transform human society and usher in the day of peace. …[Muste] had a “strong conviction about human frailty and corruption,” and believed that, ultimately, redemption was only possible through Jesus Christ. Yet he insisted that this was “not the Christian last word.” …Forgiveness came…with the charge “go and sin no more.” “The scriptures,” [Muste] wrote…to Niebuhr, “are not simply an extended commentary on the single text, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” We read in them the commandment, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and the promise, “Behold, I make all things new.” (p. 207)

With perfection as the goal, realism was obviously off the table. Christians, moreover, were obligated to follow the command to Abraham: go and bring the city of God into existence. Cities required concerted action, and human flaws required coordinated human corrective actions.

Danielson relays that, to Muste, Niebuhrian realism was “an apology for acquiescence and inaction, and was ultimately reactionary.” Niebuhr placed limits on human aspirations catalyzed by Christianity. Realists, Muste wrote, “radically misapprehend basic elements in Biblical prophetic religion.” They saw history as cyclical, almost Manichean. To Muste this kind of heresy had no place in Christianity. The goal of prophesy was “God’s reign of justice, fraternity, and peace” (p. 208). And the only way toward that vision was a nonviolence that felt illogical, or as just a Bible-based faith and revolutionary way or life. Bringing the city of God would require “the discipline, commitment, and spirit of self-sacrifice that had been exhibited by Communists” (pp. 207-208).

This was the prophetic faith that Muste carried to the end of his days. His actions, in that revolutionary mode, are expertly covered by Danielson for the rest of the book, until his death in 1967.


If I have any complaint at all about American Gandhi, it’s that Danielson doesn’t make more time for some of the ecumenical aspects of Muste’s influences. By this I mean, in particular, a set of figures from Catholic circles. They arise in Danielson’s narrative at a pivotal point in Muste’s transition from Communist ideology and praxis to Gandhian direct action. As with the above passages on Niebuhr, the characters that stood out to me—namely, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, and perhaps others from the Catholic Worker movement—appeared in the late 1930s and early 1940s (pp. 205-206, 406n8, 406n11.)

An exploration of these Catholic influences might have fleshed out further the dialectics of thought and action, politics and praxis, and religion and practice that are central aspects of the complexity of Muste’s life. I would be interested to know more about whether Catholic activists reinforced, or drew Muste away from, anarcho-syndicalist aspects of his political outlook. Or perhaps having the firm pacifism of Day and Catholic Workers in the background provided Muste with an incentive to push direct action? An exploration of Day’s influence might have helped tease out the complementariness of prophecy, anarchism, syndicalism, and socialism (as a political philosophy) in the postwar era. At the very least, one could find others to blame for Muste’s unrealistic, hell-raising prophetism. I jest.

This “complaint” is mere quibbling. I loved reading and studying American Gandhi. I am proud to now have it on my history bookshelves. Danielson’s excellent work on Muste will sit for me, on my mental shelf, next to Day and other political-theological exemplars. – TL



[1] Lawrence S. Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984). This was a revised edition, the first published in 1969. The first book carried the story only up to 1960.

[2] Wittner, 179, 180, 180n51.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, thanks so much for this essay. I wonder if you could adjudge for me which was greater: the tension within Muste between the prophetic mode and what I would call the pastoral mode (e.g., his desire for solidarity/working in concert with others), or the tension between Muste and the broader culture (e.g., the many mental doors that shut tight against pacifism during WWII/the Cold War).

    There are some ways in which the two might be combined, but really only on the fringes of society. That is, the prophet who is “without honor” in his own country is then the outcast, and can minister pastorally to and among and alongside other outcasts (perhaps among those who are outcast for different “sins” against village propriety).

    Is that what we see in Muste — the prophet become pastor? Or is it the reverse? The pastor become prophet?

    And the role of William James is riveting here — if anybody’s philosophy could bridge the practical divide between prophetic and pastoral, of course it would be his. The question is how, and if it “worked” or didn’t in Muste’s life.

    Anyway, thanks for this essay. Much to think about.

    • LD: Thanks for the comment. I’ve been fighting a head cold since Monday night, which has slowed down everything.

      On which tension was greater, I think it was contextual. By that point in his life he had decided on the role of the prophet (after the Trotsky mode that Andrew underscored in his review). I think desire for cultural solidarity during WWII and after (i.e. containment) turned him into an outlier—until he integrated his work with the CRM. He was a prophet without honor in relation to outward (foreign) war and violence, but slowly obtained honor during the civil discontent that was the CRM. He was able to minister to other domestic outcasts. So the prophet was able to become a pastor, again—like he was during the labor school period of the 1920s (at Brookwood Labor College).

      I think WJames “worked” for Muste. James bridged Muste’s interests. But I don’t think that James was a conscious reference point for Muste during his second pastoral period with the CRM. – TL

  2. Reading the first two essays in this roundtable and noting both the references to ‘prophecy’ and the intersection between Muste and American Trotskyism, I’m reminded (with a nudge from Wiki) that Isaac Deutscher called the three volumes of his Trotsky biography The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. So the moral is that everything is connected. 😉

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