A. J. Muste Was a Prophet of the 20th-Century US Left

This Easter, we should remember the rich tradition of Christian socialism in the US. And one of that tradition’s most important figures is the radical leader A. J. Muste, whose religious faith animated his commitment to socialism and nonviolence.

Christian socialist A. J. Muste was a leader in the most important US movements of the twentieth century. (Bernard Gotfryd / Library of Congress)

The dominant historical narrative of the twentieth-century US left is overwhelmingly secular, neglecting the role of religion. Nowhere is that more evident than the virtual absence of A. J. Muste from American historical memory. When Muste appears in history books, it is often solely in reference to his influence on civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet Muste was a leader in the most important social movements of the twentieth century — not only civil rights but socialism, labor, civil liberties, pacifism, and the antiwar movements. He was a beloved figure on the US left, known for his unique ability to “transcend bitter sectarian conflicts and build coalitions which advanced common purposes,” as Michael Kazin has observed. When Muste died in 1967, newspapers in the United States, India, and around the globe proclaimed that the world had lost “the American Gandhi.”

To understand the twentieth-century US left, then, one must understand A. J. Muste and the religious faith that animated his commitment to socialism and nonviolence.

Muste’s Early Years

Muste’s radical career began during World War I. A Dutch immigrant, he had been raised and ordained in the Calvinist Reformed Church of America. But when he accepted a pastorate in Upper Manhattan, he began taking classes at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, which pushed him toward a modern religiosity and sensibility.

In 1914, Muste left the Reformed Church to become the minister of a more liberal congregation outside of Boston. Once there, he felt a deep connection to the region’s history of nonconformity. He joined the Socialist Party and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a transnational organization whose members pledged to build “a world-order based on Love” by following the example of “the life and death of Jesus Christ.”

Yet pacifism and socialism were anathema in the repressive atmosphere that swept the country after President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. Muste lost his pulpit and became a founding member of the nascent American Civil Liberties Union.

A. J. Muste c. 1930. (Public domain)

Still eager to put his radical ideals into practice, Muste traveled in 1919 to nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts, to see if he might be of service to the thirty thousand textile workers on strike, in one of the many industrial conflicts during a year that saw millions walk off the job. He was quickly elected head of the strike committee, having earned the trust and admiration of workers for his inspiring speeches and pragmatic ability to get things done.

After four violent and turbulent months, the strike ended in victory with Muste elected national secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Textile Workers of America. The union would ultimately be defeated by the Red Scare that blanketed the United States in the postwar years, but Muste had found his cause: only through working-class internationalism, organization, and power would a new world be born.

These views placed him on the far left of the FOR, which insisted that strikes were coercive and therefore a form of violence. More broadly, mainline Protestantism was far too “identified with the status quo” for Muste’s taste. It now seemed to him that the revolutionary left “was the true church. Here was the fellowship drawn together and drawn forward by the Judeo-Christian prophetic vision of ‘a new earth in which righteousness dwelleth.’”

A Radical Christian

Muste’s commitment to labor’s emancipation continued through the 1930s. The Musteites, as they were known, differed from other left-wing groups in their preference for action over theory, believing that praxis was the most effective method for building working-class consciousness and power. By the early 1930s, they could boast of having organized hundreds of thousands of workers in their Unemployed Leagues and of playing a leading role in the movement for industrial democracy — including the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, one of the crucial strikes of the New Deal era.

But, in 1935, the Musteites made a fateful decision to merge with the Communist League of America, a Trotskyist group led by James P. Cannon, and form the Workers Party USA. It didn’t go well. The Trotskyists reneged on the conditions of the merger and worked behind the scenes to undermine Muste’s leadership.

Broken in body and spirit, in the summer of 1936, Muste vacationed in Europe, where he found himself drawn back into Christianity. While sightseeing in Paris, he entered a church where he was “saved,” he would later recount, by a mystical experience that reignited his religious faith and his commitment to nonviolence.

After his reconversion to Christianity, Muste came to see his experience on the secular left as a parable for the limitations of left-wing political action that de-emphasized individual morality. As he would argue in his 1940 book, Non-Violence in an Aggressive World, the “proletarian movement” had been “right in prophesying that men cannot live the good life under a ‘bad system,’” but they had erred in assuming that a “good system” would automatically create “good men.” Questions of ethics and morality — of the relationship between means and ends — had to be faced if radicals hoped to build a just and peaceful society. “If we are to have a new world,” Muste asserted, “we must have new men; if you want a revolution, you must be revolutionized.”

Muste’s critique echoed that of other leftists who had begun to rediscover the virtues of democracy in the face of Stalinism. Yet whereas many of them were on the path toward deradicalization, Muste developed a new left politics for the “American Century” — an era characterized by US military and cultural dominance, a Cold War with the Soviet Union, a nuclear arms race, and decolonization in the Global South. Essentially, Muste envisioned the creation of a new church, or fellowship, that would prophetically oppose racism, nationalism, and war using Gandhian satyagraha — or, as he called it, nonviolent direct action.

Fighting Jim Crow

In 1940, Muste was given the chance to realize his vision when the FOR hired him as national secretary.

The organization was roiled with crisis, constantly grappling with the meaning and ethics of pacifism in the context of acute class struggle and the rise of fascism in Europe. Keen to maintain its political relevance in the face of dwindling membership and prestige, the national committee had decided it was finally time to overcome its apprehensions about the “coercive” aspects of Gandhian nonviolence and put it into practice as a method of social change. With his impeccable radical credentials, Muste was the ideal figure to move the peace movement in this new direction.

Muste’s efforts sparked a renaissance in American pacifism. He hired a slew of young organizers, including James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley, to carry out his vision. The main targets of their early experiments with nonviolence were racial discrimination and segregation. In numerous forums, Muste made the case that Christians should “refuse to cooperate” with Jim Crow institutions and practices.

Under his leadership, the FOR and its sister organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, desegregated restaurants, swimming pools, and other sites of consumption throughout the Midwest and Northeast in the 1940s and 1950s. When a grassroots civil rights movement blossomed in the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, Muste was largely responsible for raising financial and institutional support to send figures like Rustin, Smiley, and James Lawson to the South, where they trained activists in nonviolent tactics.

Martin Luther King Jr himself gave Muste immense credit, arguing in 1963 that “the current emphasis on nonviolent direct action in the race relations field is due more to A. J. than anyone else in the country.”

“Against the War-Making and Conscripting State”

Muste and other pacifists who embraced nonviolence in the 1940s were not only concerned with attacking white supremacy but also American nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Their concerns had magnified with the dropping of the atomic bomb and the onset of the Cold War. To persuade his fellow Americans to repent for the “sin” of atomic warfare and renounce the bomb, he and other radical pacifists engaged in civil disobedience “against the war-making and conscripting State” by refusing to register for the draft or pay taxes for war.

Pacifist resistance failed to spark an antiwar movement in the early years of the Cold War, so dominated by anti-communist consensus and political conformity. But this began to change in the mid-1950s amid rising concerns about nuclear fallout, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin.

Seizing the opportunity, Muste attempted to revitalize and unite the US left around anti-militarism, nonalignment in the Cold War, and revolutionary nonviolence. These efforts included the founding of Liberation magazine in 1956, which would become an important organ of the New Left, and the formation of a new group called the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) to promote and coordinate civil disobedience campaigns.

Muste was at the center of the action. As head of CNVA, he organized and participated in countless demonstrations, including a 1959 protest at the Mead Missile Base in Omaha, Nebraska, which featured the seventy-four-year-old Muste climbing over the fence and being arrested by the authorities.

He also built connections with the European peace movement and with anti-colonial activists in Africa and India. Among the most dramatic transnational peace protests he helped organize were the 1959 Sahara protest against “nuclear imperialism,” the 1961 San Francisco to Moscow March for Peace, and the 1963 International Friendship March from New Delhi to Peking. The alliances and friendships that came out of these efforts made Muste an internationally renowned peace leader, earning him the moniker “American Gandhi.”

Starting in 1964, Muste became utterly consumed with ending the war in Vietnam. “I cannot get it out of my head or my guts that Americans are away over there,” he said, “not only shooting at people but dropping bombs on them, roasting them with napalm and all the rest.” Over the next several years, he worked relentlessly to overcome the divisions in the broad left and the peace and civil rights movements, which were inhibiting a stronger stance against President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war. These efforts culminated in the formation of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (aka the MOBE), with Muste serving as national chairman.

Muste called for nonviolent resistance to the war, presiding over the draft card burnings at the US Capitol and participating in myriad civil disobedience campaigns. His final act of defiance, at age eighty-two, was to bypass the State Department and visit with Ho Chi Minh to “convey the spirit of peace to the stricken people of Vietnam.” He died on February 11, 1967, soon after his return.

“Without a Vision, the People Perish”

Central to Muste’s enduring radical politics was his philosophy of history as a joint project of human beings and God. Drawing parallels to his biblical namesake, Muste held that history began when Abraham left the city of his ancestors. By going out to find “a city which existed — and yet had to be brought into existence,” Abraham demonstrated that divinity was to be found in the history of human work and creation.

For Muste, “the crucial thing about men, or societies, is not where they came from but where they are going.” It was precisely when “human communities” decided to “intervene in their own destiny” that history was made rather than lived.

The decades since Muste’s death haven’t been pretty for left-wing politics. The Left has faltered and declined, at times losing faith even in the power of human beings to make change. But Muste would have insisted on the human and divine imperative to continue dreaming and creating. “Without a vision, the people perish,” he wrote in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, paraphrasing Proverbs 29:18.

Regardless of whether one shares his pacifism or religious faith, Muste’s thoughtful and determined efforts to win a more just, peaceful world should inspire us to rebuild a dynamic left that can once again reshape US politics.