Review of American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century, , Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
By Scott Ward
WN: In the Great Assize, A. J. Muste will be shown to have been right:
There Is No Way to Peace, Peace Is the Way.
Or, in the words of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese “Napalm Girl”:
That picture will always serve as a reminder of the unspeakable evil of which humanity is capable. Still, I believe that peace, love, hope and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapon.
In 1957, Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste sat down to write his autobiography. Had he finished it, the book undoubtedly would have been filled with the friends and acquaintances he made among the various workers, intellectuals, preachers, activists, sinners, and saints whom he had met over the seventy-two years that he spent on Earth. It would have told the story of a Calvinist intellectual preacher who transformed into a revolutionary labor leader, before finally transforming into a radical prophet of Christian pacifism. But he never finished the book. Muste was a busy man, and there was always a world that needed redeeming. When he died ten years later, scores of mourners, from New York to Tanzania to Hanoi, hailed the loss of one of the brightest minds and most tireless spirits that had animated the nonconformist left. Historian Leilah Danielson attempts to complete the work that Muste did not.
It is most useful to see Danielson’s story as an intellectual history disguised as biography. Muste blended Christian idealism with a pragmatism born out of the experience of an activist. As his thought evolved during his long life, he also developed an almost prophetic vision of a peaceful Christian world. Danielson, importantly, also uses Muste’s story as a lens on the (mostly radical) left from early 20th century progressives through the anti-war “New Left” of the 1960’s.
…In joining with the Democrats – the party of Jim Crow and militarism according to Muste – labor had shackled itself to racist capitalism and surrendered to militaristic nationalism. By 1936, Muste left the labor movement behind and with reconnect with his pacifist Christian roots.
I don’t do this to change the country, I do this so the country won’t change me.—A. J. Muste
The onset of the Vietnam War marked the capstone of Muste’s global vision, and it would be somewhat of an obsession for the remainder of his life. In his view, the United States was leveraging its massive military superiority in a racist colonial war to oppress the people of North Vietnam. He would spend the last few years of his life trying to build a broad coalition of activists against the war, even traveling to Hanoi and meeting Ho Chi Minh.
The Second World War and, especially, the use of atomic weaponry at the end of it, seem to have ignited the prophetic tradition of Christianity in Muste. While he would never fully abandon the struggle against capitalism, his attention clearly turned toward anti-war/military/nuclear activism. Danielson argues that the emerging Cold War, global de-colonization struggles, and the American civil rights movement all crystallized into a single pacifist struggle against racist, violent nation-states, and the racist, violent American state, in particular.
Danielson traces Muste’s participation in a veritable laundry list of leftist organizations: the Amalgamated Textile Workers, ACLU, Brookwood, Fellowship of Reconciliation, SANE, the Peacemakers, and MOBE to only name a few. Likewise, Muste seems to have corresponded with members of the Old Left and New and seemingly everyone in between, from Norman Thomas and Sidney Hook to Tom Hayden and Bayard Rustin. In this sense, Muste’s own life in activism provides the reader with a first-hand account of just how fractious the pre-New Deal labor movement was; or how the monstrous violence of the atomic age could drive the alienation of the New Left.
Danielson is at her best in the last chapters detailing Muste’s increasing horror as he understood the United States emerging role a global force of violence and domination, perhaps even an existential threat to the world itself. The revolutionary potential of labor had been co-opted by a Democratic Party that was just as eager as the Republicans to build a national security state with an endless reach. America had sacrificed its soul, even as it achieved unparalleled economic and military superiority.
Muste would have seen the killing power of predator drones and the savage torture techniques of CIA interrogators not as accidents or regretful necessities in the long war to make the world safe for democracy, but as the logical, perhaps inevitable culmination of the “American Century.”
Please click on: “There Is No Way to Peace, Peace Is the Way”