U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Gandhi Roundtable, Part 4

Editor's Note

Dear reader: This is part four 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. For part two, by Tim Lacy, go here. For part three, by Lilian Calles Barger, go here. This essay, by Wes Bishop, examines Danielson’s book as a meditation on the pragmatic and democratic traditions in the American left and what those mean for today’s left. Wes is a doctoral student in American History at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His concentration is U.S. intellectual history, labor history, social reform movements, and political economy. Contributions to follow are by Janine Giordano Drake, Ray Haberski, and a response to the roundtable from Danielson. Enjoy. Andrew H

“A.J. Muste: Morality and Pragmatist Thought as a Basis of Social Action”

by Wesley Bishop

Leilah Danielson has written a thoroughly researched, and much needed biography with American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. Much of the success of this book rests on the fact that Danielson provides neither a strict biography nor a general history of liberal/left wing social movements. Instead, Danielson blends both to form a flowing narrative that analyzes the second half of 20th century US history, and the attempts of figures like A.J. Muste to reshape it into a more just, egalitarian, and ethical society.

“I argue that Muste was a prophet,” Danielson writes, “he drew upon his Christian faith and the example of the Hebrew prophetic tradition to call the American people to righteousness, to repent of their sins and build a new world where ‘every man would sit under own vine and fig tree, and none should make them afraid.’ His prophetic sensibility underscores the messianic dreams that animated many American radicals, both religious and secular, giving them the courage to challenge the ideological and coercive structures of power, often at considerable personal risk, (pp. 1-2).”

This combination of morality in popular political action, however, was not without risk, as Danielson explains, “messianism always threatened to become megalomania; indeed, the history of American radicalism is rich with examples of individuals and movements who succumbed to delusions of grandeur to compensate for political marginality, (pp. 2).”

Danielson then proceeds to chronicle what she sees as a fraught history of social change by tracing the life and work of A.J. Muste, the Dutch-born American clergyman and social activist. Danielson does this by first tracing the biographical origins of Muste— chronicling his family and early life— while arguing that early Calvinist influences played a pivotal role in the development of Muste, both as a thinker and activist. “Indeed, although he would later reject Calvinistic theological doctrines like predestination, his religious heritage shaped his life and politics long after he left the Reformed Church,” Danielson explains. “In particular, he retained ‘a strong conviction about human frailty and corruption; and the belief that one’s life must conform to the ‘imperious demand’ of the gospel, (pp. 22).”

Danielson views this distinction as vital to understanding not only Muste’s later thoughts and political actions, but also why he was so radically different and historically significant as a social activist and thinker. “Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, when he developed a critique of Marxism and the Enlightenment tradition more broadly, he seemed to echo [Abraham] Kuyper in his insistence that belief in God was ultimately the only way to save humankind from destroying itself, (pp. 22-23).”

This pessimism concerning human nature, and its doubt toward liberalism in general is, according to Danielson, what “differentiated him from his fellow Social Gospel clergy,” Danielson explains. “It would also,” Danielson continues, “make him the most thoughtful and insightful pacifist critic of neo-orthodoxy… (pp. 23).”

Danielson continues throughout the rest of the book to illustrate how Muste came to occupy such a vital, and historically significant position in the history of both US social movements and in the broader intellectual history of non-violent democratic action.

Undoubtedly, the meticulous research Danielson has done and her engaging narrative will ensure that her book is a standard text for future scholars interested in Muste. Likewise, those who are interested in the broader context of liberal/left divisions in politics, and the larger history of social reform will find that Danielson has done the not so easy task of turning a biography into a broader cultural history that also serves as a meditation on leftist politics.

This is largely attributable to the way in which Danielson presents both Muste’s understanding of social action, and how a specific strain of social activism in the US has been grounded in both pragmatism and a belief in democracy as a set of moral values.

In this way, a belief in God translated into a belief that humanity was capable of salvation, or at least that the societies of humanity were capable of improvement, but that the process itself was tied to the actions of individuals. In this way, a form of direct democracy which centered the basis of democratic life in the individual and their acts, not the state or the practices of electoral politics, held the key to both personal salvation and societal betterment. “Character is built by action rather than by thought,” Muste said in 1905. “Contemplation does not beget virtues… Revelation is powerless if it enlightens only the reason…faith is valid only when it leads to action, so its ultimate satisfaction is found only in the active life,” (pp. 19).

The role of the intellectual, therefore, was not to merely theorize or explain society or social movements, but to think and then most importantly act. This distinction Danielson draws is important to contemporary leftist thought for two broad reasons.

First, it contributes yet another vital entry in the studies of American pragmatism, and demonstrates how important that system of 19th century thought has been to American society and politics. Why? Because it formulates action as the intersection of faith, thought, and societal wide epistemology. As William James argued, no “truth” could ever be arrived at with any kind of certainty. Instead, truth was an action that happened to an idea in its everyday use. People followed ideas to a kind of bedrock of belief, and when that belief was finally arrived at it was up to the person not to simply shrug in nihilistic fashion at the futility of certainty, but to take a leap of faith, or a “will to believe” as James put it. From this leap of faith, social action was prescribed meaning, and that meaning was in large part the achievement of the individual deciding what was important and acting on their own ideas. This spirit animates ethical democratic action, but does it from a framework that is both constantly shifting while also deeply influenced by own personal beliefs.

Muste, Danielson explains, was riddled with contradictions in his own thought process, calling “on peace activists to avoid united fronts, while keeping the lines of communication with Communists open. He called on them to be ‘prophets,’ while at the same time instructing them to be ‘canny’ and pragmatic. He called for an absolute commitment to nonviolence, while urging qualified support for third world revolutionaries… For Muste, such were the inevitable contradictions of living as a revolutionary and a pacifist in a sinful world, and he was not troubled by them, (pp.16).”

Second, Danielson also inserts herself into a growing debate among leftist academics over the role intellectuals play in social movements. There is a somewhat common belief found in the never-ending digital café culture of our time that intellectuals are merely to play the role of not just theorizing broader actions, but justifying and explaining actions of movements to the broader public. This seemingly is a benign and useful service to provide, but it runs into trouble when groups or individuals are uncritically supported by the leftist intellectual.

A kind of “you can do no wrong” attitude arises, with the intellectual finding ways to justify individuals, actions, and political movements/parties as a matter of predetermined faith. This not only lobotomizes the intellectual, but it does a profound disservice to the social movement in question and its ability to enact democratic change.

What Danielson’s work does, without ever explicitly stating this, is remind us that intellectuals have no more a special role in social movements than cab drivers or stay-at-home parents. We need not serve as a kind of “activist whisperer” for the broader society, but can instead acknowledge that we as intellectuals are just part of a broader society. Danielson’s study of Muste shows us this through example, and in doing so reminds us of Emerson’s famous line that we should be “men thinking” not “thinking-men.” In other words, our humanity and human individualism is more important than our social function. As such, we participate in social movements and direct democratic actions as leftist thinkers, not to theorize or justify any and all actions, but because that participation in society is central to our being as both ethical and political creatures.

Danielson’s superb study illustrates this in such a profound and subtle way (and it should be added addresses several other current liberal vs. left issues) that her book American Gandhi cannot be recommended enough. It is bound to become a vital entry in the way we think not just about Muste, but also the broader question of direct democratic action.

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  1. Love the reminder of Emerson’s distinction, Wesley. I think you’re right that Muste’s individualism is—in a way that would be most likely sad to him—a big takeaway. Being an unAmerican prophet (in the sense Haberski underlined) is lonely business, but it is sometimes the order of the day. – TL

    • Thanks Tim! Emerson’s “American Scholar” has had a big impact on the way I think about the role of intellectuals in society. If our humanity is the feature of our being that precedes occupation/social function then the question naturally arises how do we define and demarcate that humanness? I saw you are reading After Virtue and had some critiques of the way human rights are treated. I’ve yet to read it, but would like to hear more from you since a big part of your critique seemed to be on the inability of MacIntyre to formulate a useful definition of various aspects of human.

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