A. J. Muste and the Politics of Peace

By Donald Wells | 1987-12-01 12:00:00


We cannot have peace if we are only concerned with peace .War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life. If we want to attack war, we have to attack that way of life.
-- A.J. Muste

When A.J. Muste, the "American Gandhi," died in 1967 at the age of 82, he left behind a lifetime's legacy of thought and action for peace. As the outstanding American peace activist and strategist of his generation, his thinking about the paths to peace is as worthy of consideration today in the era of Mutual Assured Destruction as it was during the Depression, World War Two, the Korean War, and the wars in Vietnam. In no small part this is because he focussed on "the big problems" -- the relation of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism to war, the role of individual psychology in both acquiescence and resistance to war, the kind of economics that can create and sustain a world at peace, the place of religion in guiding the peace movement to make ethical choices about political questions, and, not least, the question of how those who aspire to a peaceful world should live.

At the root of his life's work lay a profound religious commitment. Muste began his working life as an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church but was unable to subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine in its entirety, and later became a Congregationalist minister. Then, the "lightning bolt" of the First World War struck -- the most fundamental turning point in his life. The problem, he wrote, was "simply one of Christian conscience." Influenced by his reading of Christian mystics, especially the Quaker, Rufus Jones, and by Quaker "peace testimony" ("the first time these things suggested anything to me other than the man on the Quaker Oats box"), he concluded that he could not "bend" the Sermon on the Mount to justify support for the war. In 1916 he became an avowed Christian pacifist.

At this point his pacifism was narrowly theological, and not at all influenced by economic and political considerations. That soon changed. The early years of this century were a period of heroic labor struggles and prophetic optimism about the future of humanity. Many saw the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 as a long-sought-for opening to world revolution. Although he had no direct connection to these struggles and events, Muste became more and more sympathetic to them. Furthermore, his open pacifism in a time when the U.S. was entering the war made many members of his own congregation hostile to him. Tensions increased until, finally, he resigned from his pulpit. From then until the end of the war, Muste devoted himself to defending conscientious objectors.

In 1919, the year of the great wave of general strikes (not only in Winnipeg but around the world), he concluded that "nonviolence had to prove itself in actual struggle," and became active in the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Textile Strike. The picketers, who were being brutally attacked by the police, were considering violent retaliation, a response which would have played into the employers' hands. Muste persuaded the picketers to use nonviolent methods, and after four months of hardship, during which he was beaten and jailed, the workers won. This was the beginning of a critical broadening of not only his experience but also of his pacifism, which now included active participation in the struggles of the working class.

Like the Canadian pacifist and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the New Democratic Patty), J.S. Woodsworth, Muste worked for both peace and social justice. Muste's goal was to create "the Kingdom of God on earth" through a mass movement that was both radical and nonviolent. He called on "those who can bring themselves to renounce wealth, position and power accruing from a social system based on violence" and urged them to join with "the struggle of the masses toward the light" so that they could help, "more, doubtless, by life than by words" to create "a technique of social progress less crude, costly and slow than mankind has yet evolved."

After serving more than two years as secretary to the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America, he became, in 1921, the director of the famous Brookwood Labor College, a unique educational institution for trade unionists. There he dedicated his energies to helping workers to think critically about "the human struggle through the ages" and to develop a life-philosophy and skills that would help them in the struggles of their own lives. Brookwood thrived for several years until the conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor, the mainstream of organized labor, began to view his activism, and the activism of his students, with alarm. Both he and Brookwood College were attacked and undermined by the official leaders of those they sought to serve. In 1933, after twelve years at Brookwood, Muste left. Too pacifist for the Christians in time of world war, he was too radical for labor leaders in a time of class war.

He did not leave the working class, however. An indefatigable organizer of workers and the unemployed in the depths of the Depression, he became more committed to socialist revolution than ever. It was during this period that Muste joined forces with Trotskyists in the Workers Party of the USA -- an experience which precipitated another critical change in his thinking: he abandoned nonviolence. His attraction to Communism was based less on doctrine (he read little of either Marx of Lenin) than on an emotional affinity. He considered leftists "religious" because they were "virtually completely committed" to a "class-less and warless world." He felt they were "the true church" imbued with the Judeo-Christian vision of a 'new earth in which righteousness dwelleth'."

In the 1930s, as today, most leftists considered pacifism to be a refuge of the middle class, an individualistic and unrealistic, if not irresponsible, refusal to come to terms with the harsh collective realities faced by workers. Among other things, it neglected the daily violence of overwork, hunger, physical abuse, and hazardous living and working conditions that were the lot of many workers. Many leftists felt that pacifists also neglected the hard lessons of history. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was the model for most of the revolutionary left at that time and there, as in all social revolutions thus far, history did not give workers a choice between pacifism and violence. Instead, the only meaningful choice was between the violence of the right and the counter-violence of the left. Most educated leftists were well aware that, throughout history, no ruling class had ever voluntarily forfeited its power. Further-more, the pacifism conventionally associated with Christianity had typically been an ally of the ruling class, suppressing resistance to the social order by promising an otherworldly reward for virtuous submission in this "vale of tears."

Like most of the Marxist left, Muste fully recognized that the call for a peaceful society was being used to sustain a capitalist social order leased on the systematic exploitation of workers. He therefore came to believe that "revolutionary action did not in principle exclude violence; that violence in taking over power would almost certainly be necessary and hence justified." In a 1935 essay, "Trade Unions and Revolution," he demanded that trade union leadership be taken away from "the trade union bureaucrats with their limited vision ... and from the social democrats with their reformist, parliamentarian, pacifist [sic], social democratic outlook"

By 1936, however, he broke with the Trotskyists, having become as disillusioned with them as he had been with the leadership of the American Federation of Labor. In August of that year he walked into a church in France and said to himself "This is where you belong." On that day, he renounced Marxisrn-Leninism and returned to the source of his pacifism, the "True International," the "Church of Christ."

In retrospect, Muste referred to his Marxist-Leninist years as a "detour." His disillusionment was fundamental. He abandoned what he regard as an almost exclusive reliance on "social engineering" that "neglected too much what happened inside the human being." Equally, but more problematically, he rejected his previous justification, based on necessity, for the violence of class war, referring to the pacifism of those who oppose war between nations while they "idealize and glorify" war between social classes as a kind of "pseudo or partial pacifism" that "breaks down." "Inextricably mingled with and in the end corrupting, thwarting, and largely defeating all that is fine, idealistic, courageous, self-sacrificing in the proletarian movement," he asserted, "is the philosophy of power, the will to power, the desire to humiliate and dominate over or destroy the opponent -- the theory that 'the end justifies the means.' There is a succumbing to the spirit which largely dominates the existing social and political order and an acceptance of the methods of capitalism at its worst." He similarly rejected the Marxist espousal of a temporary dictatorship, based on control of state power by the working class majority. He had learned, he wrote succinctly, that it is impossible to "overcome violence by violence or establish democracy by dictatorship." Finally, he rejected not only the Workers Party of the USA, of which he had been a leader, but the entire concept of the Leninist Party as midwife of history -- the core concept upon which orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory and politics are premised. Such a party could not work, he believed, as a vehicle for creating genuine socialism. Looking back on his experiences with the Workers Party, he wrote that the experience that "hurt the most" was the "pettiness and duplicity and self-indulgence and ruthlessness and lack of human sensitiveness and moral standards in 'The Party' itself." Like a Calvinist God, the party was a deity "to which the individual must surrender himself utterly." He warned that if such a party were considered "the sole instrument for the salvation of mankind," then one could expect the party to become an "instrument of unspeakable pride and tyranny."

Unlike many others in these years who also denounced the Marxist-Leninist 'god that failed,' Muste refused to turn his back on the working class. In 1936, in his essay "Return to Pacifism," he wrote: "I have said to those who claimed that they desired to obey the teachings of Jesus in our time that they must ... identify themselves with this [working-class] movement or at least wholeheartedly support it. I do not now repudiate all this." Nor did he repudiate socialism. Instead, he concluded that world peace and socialism were Siamese twins: neither could exist without the other.


... without a strong and moral non-Communist left we shall not escape nuclear war.
- A.J. Muste

Just before the entry of the U.S. into World War II, Muste wrote an important essay entitled "The World Task of Pacifism" in which he explained his renewed purpose in fostering a mass movement which 'renounces war and organized violence of all kinds." Pointing to Gandhi's example in India, he argued that pacifists "must go on to show that evil can be overcome and a new order built in the spirit by the method of nonviolence." Unlike Gandhi, however, (who favored returning India to a pre-industrial, village-based economy) Muste's vision of a pacifist economy had the industrial working class at its core. As with most of Muste's ideas, his model of socialism came from personal experience especially his experience and subsequent critique of Leninist party organization. The new order he envisaged had little in common with the socialism of the Soviet Union but would be based on a kind of socialism that was possible "without the creation either of a totalitarian state or of a political machine which, besides crushing the liberty of the individual, could fail in the narrow economic sense because of bureaucratic administration and attendant red tape."

A decentralized economy that allowed considerable local decision-making was a key clement of his political vision. This was based in part on his understanding of the trade unionism of his day. Back in 1935, in the midst of his Marxist-Leninist "detour," he had observed that unions had become "the repositories of immense amounts of information about the operation of industry" and concluded that this was crucial to the eventual development of workers' councils to run industry. While rejecting the validity of the Leninist party, he retained this concept of workers' control.

These positions were directly related. Both Lenin and Trotsky condemned workers' control in favor of monopoly power for the Bolshevik Party. Although there is no indication that Muste was aware of it, early in the revolution the Bolsheviks had destroyed the worker-controlled factory committees that workers had created to run industry. The Bolsheviks had also ruthlessly suppressed the resistance of dissenting workers, soldiers and peasants who opposed the dictatorship of the party. Muste's commitment, on the other hand was to the "grassroots" rather than to any political elite. For Muste, workers' control and decentralized decision-making were consistent with his preference for forms of social organization which would allow people to make moral choices -- and that freedom became both the primary means and the ultimate end of his politics.

There is in Muste's vision an enduring distrust of the claims of any institutionalized authority intervening between the human and the divine. Or between humanity and history. Hence his concern to create an economy that would avoid "the deadening of initiative and the accompanying temptation to avoid responsibility." If a mass movement is to give leadership in building a better world, he advised, "it must not only invent, it must experiment with schemes for a more decentralized, human and cooperative way of living." That experimentation in democratic socialism, he was convinced, should begin immediately. "Whether there can be a democratic society," he wrote, depends upon whether people are "capable of making moral decisions and therefore of ....... a free society."

Important as it was, the economic basis of the new pacifist order was for Muste (as for Gandhi) only one part of a much broader conception of pacifism. In the most fundamental sense, this pacifism constituted a spiritual choice:

"To break out of the shell of the Self, which is all the time seeking to defend itself against its brothers and therefore commits aggression against them; to know in one's inmost being the unity of all men in God; to express love at every moment and in every relationship, to be channels of this quiet, unobtrusive, persistent force which is always there, which ever goes on, 'alter the tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart' -- this is the meaning of pacifism."

Muste underlined the importance of moral choice itself when he explained that his son had enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. "His mother and I could not be a conscience for him," he wrote, "nor he for us .... The man who goes into war having seriously thought his way to that decision is on a higher moral level than the smug pacifist who has no notion of the ambiguities and contradictions the decision involves."

Muste's unbending opposition to American participation in the Second World War left him (as it left all American and Canadian pacifists at the time) politically marginalized. Few could understand his refusal to choose war against fascism as a lesser evil than the possibility of fascist triumph. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, placed the whole issue of war in a new context, one that Muste, with the symbolic allusiveness of William Blake and the Old Testament prophets, was quick to grasp:

"This is the terror by night, the arrow that flieth by day, the pestilence that stalketh in the darkness, the destruction that wasteth at noonday. This is the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation such as hath not been seen from the beginning of the world until now. This perchance is the Beast of the Apocalypse, who seemed to the ecstatic seer to be leopard, bear, lion and dragon in one, after whom the whole earth wondered and worshipped in terror, crying, 'Who is like unto the Beast? And who is able to war with him?"'


There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
- A.J. Muste

Thus began a critical new phase in Muste's pacifist career, one that would see little change in his thinking about basics but considerable imaginativeness in his choice of nonviolent, direct action tactics of civil disobedience. No doubt, many peace activists today will recognize much of this tactical legacy. In the mid 1950s, for example, when the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States told the North American population to congregate at designated safe areas (while top officials fled to special shelters) during civil defense drills, Muste refused. He and his fellow protesters met outside the city hall in New York carrying signs that declared: "End War -- the Only Defense Against Atomic Weapons" -- an act for which they were arrested by police and called "murderers" by the presiding judge. At their trial, they replied that, in an era of nuclear weapons, bomb shelters "facilitate mass burial" and that "such drills serve primarily to condition the public to accept and expect war, instead of demanding peace and working for it."

In 1957, on the 12th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Muste walked into a restricted nuclear testing area near Las Vegas and was arrested. A year later, he and others lay down in front of trucks carrying materials for the construction of an ICBM base in Wyoming. Well in advance of similar actions by Greenpeace, he organized the 1958 voyage of protest ships into nuclear test areas of the Pacific. In 1959, at the age of 74, he climbed over the fences surrounding Mead Airforce Base at Omaha, Nebraska. He was key to the San Francisco-Moscow Peace March of 1960 during which protesters walked across the United States and Europe demonstrating that they were opposed to the war policies of both East and West.

During the last years of his life Muste devoted most of his energies to building an effective pacifist response to the American war in Vietnam. An "unrepentant unilateralist on political as well as moral grounds," he called on the United States government to withdraw from Vietnam and to disarm unilaterally at least to the level of Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. This would change the "behavior of peoples toward one another," he argued. It would be a "spiritual atom bomb" to preserve mankind. He had great faith in such miracles and repeatedly urged other nations and leaders to renounce military power. He also made numerous appeals to scientists, academics, and church people to bring pressure against militarism. Muste held to the conviction that kindness begets kindness, despite so much evidence that kindness in politics can easily be taken as a sign of weakness and fear. He also maintained that the peace movement should not be daunted by its many defeats. "1 agree that there is a sense in which the so-called peace movement has failed," he wrote toward the end of his life, but the real problem, he believed, was that too many had lost touch with their best instincts: "Joy and growth come from following our deepest impulses, however foolish they may seem to some, or dangerous, and even though the apparent outcome may be defeat."

Elsewhere, he wrote that "we have to get away from the wisdom and realism which have brought us where we are." The crisis he saw around him was "deeper than politics." The crisis "has to do with ultimates," he wrote, "with what it is to be human, with the presuppositions by which men live, with the nature of the resources upon which we draw in extremity, the quality of the life men seek, the values which they embrace, the drums to which they match, the commands they dare not disobey. It is essential that we think about these things." By considering Muste's life, we can do just that.

Those who would like to know more about A.J. Muste and his thinking may wish to consult the following:

Nat Hentoff ed, The Essays of A.J. Muste, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, 1967; A.J. Muste, Not by Might; Christianity: the Way to Human Decency, Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1971; J.A.O. Robinson, Abraham Went Out.. A Biography of AJ. Muste, Temple Univ. Philadelphia, 1981.

Donald Wells is a labor economist writing in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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