Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century

By Powell, Christopher | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century


Powell, Christopher, Labour/Le Travail


Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2014)

Those familiar with the history of the anti-Vietnam War movement would know the name Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste. So too would scholars of the civil rights movement, the pre-Vietnam peace movement, pacifism in America, and American Protestantism. Muste lived a long and active life. At the time of his death in 1967 he led America's largest antiwar coalition. But from 1919 to 1936 Muste committed himself to the labour movement. Yet, asserts historian Leilah Danielson, "there is virtually no historical memory of [Muste] as a labor leader." (336-337) Her biography of him, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century has corrected this sin of omission.

Danielson places Muste's life within the context of his religious convictions. "Muste was a prophet," argues Danielson; "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," according to the prophet Micah, "'every man would sit under his own vine and fig tree and none should make them afraid.'" (1)

Born in Zierikzee, Netherlands, in 1885, Muste immigrated with his working-class family to the United States at the age of six where he was raised and educated in the Dutch Reform tradition. Valedictorian of his high school class, he took degrees from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New York University, Columbia, and Union Theological Seminary. Early, he rejected fundamental Reform theology and embraced pacifism. In 1916 he joined the newly-established Fellowship of Reconciliation (for). Once America entered the war, rather than modify his pacifist preaching as requested by his church, he resigned as minister, assisted those evading the draft, and played a leading role in the establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1919 he assumed the leadership of a textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He organized the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America and was appointed chair of Brookwood Labor College. Under his leadership, Brookwood "anticipated" Antonio Gramsci's ideas of culture and hegemony a decade prior to the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the cultural front. (67)

In the late 1920s Muste organized the Conference for Progressive Labour Action (CPLA). Independent of the Communists on the left, and the American Federation of Labor on the right, the CPLA originally described itself as "flexible and democratic." But as Muste exchanged his Christian and pacifist ideals for those of Marx and Lenin, the CPLA came to define itself as a "permanent, revolutionary, vanguard organization," under Muste's control. (154) In 1934 he merged the organization, now the American Workers Party, with the Trotskyist Communist League of America to become the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). Danielson describes the organization as "Bolshevik." Trotskyist leader James Cannon described the merger as an attempt to "remove a centrist obstacle from our path." (192) In February 1936, the WPUS executed what it called a "French Turn," disbanding the organization, ordering its members to join the Socialist Party (sp) where, as a faction, they would capture it. Muste strongly opposed the idea, saying it violated "working-class ethics," but when he lost the vote he dutifully joined the sp and faithfully attended his faction meetings. (194) By the spring, "surrounded by comrades he viewed as untrustworthy and cruel," and a member of the sp, a party he had always loathed, Muste, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, heard the voice of God. He returned to the church. (198)

Curiously, given that the period 1936-1940 was America's golden age of labour and the left, Danielson tells us very little of Muste's life during this period other than him being reinstated as a minister and teaching at Union Theological. …

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