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

Published on: May 18, 2015

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

Reviewed by Staughton Lynd and Andy Piascik


A Question
American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century is the most comprehensive and thoroughly-researched account of the life of A.J. Muste yet to appear. It is particularly valuable in its treatment of the years that Muste devoted to building a radical labor movement, 1919 to 1936.  This review limits itself to that period of Muste’s life.
Muste’s decision in August 1936 to give up labor advocacy and (as he put it) “return to pacifism” is puzzling.  During the 1920’s and early 1930’s Muste had dedicated himself to the creation of industrial unionism, with the ultimate goal of a transition to socialism. And at first glance it might seem that he and his colleagues were on a pathway to success.  In 1934 there had been successful general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo; Musteites, as they were called, provided leadership in Toledo. The tragic outcome of labor protest in Marion and Gastonia, North Carolina nonetheless proved prelude to a nationwide strike of textile workers.  In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), providing an administrative framework for the adoption of collective bargaining. Sit-ins, beginning in the Akron rubber plants and later in the automobile assembly complex of Flint, Michigan, were proving that rank-and-file direct action was capable of confronting the largest private corporations.
So why, at this historical moment, did Muste conclude that his lifelong vision of what today we call “un otro mundo,” another world, directed him to turn his attention away from the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations to entities such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation?
Abraham Johannes Muste was born in the Netherlands. His family emigrated to the United States in 1891 and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a working-class city in which the major industry was making furniture.  Muste worked in furniture factories during summer as a teenager. 
A college education at nearby Hope College led to graduate study for the Dutch Reformed ministry and, by the time of World War I, a pastorate in a Congregational church.  By 1916 Muste had become a pacifist.  In December 1917, under pressure because of his new views, he resigned.
Early in 1919, Muste and his wife Anne were living near Boston as part of a small, informal group called the Comradeship. In his unfinished autobiography, Muste recalls how he and another of the comrades rose at five, bundled themselves in their overcoats against the cold, and read the New Testament together.
Muste’s life changed dramatically when he did support work for striking textile workers in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had led the famous Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence in 1912 but by 1919, the local chapter had largely been suppressed out of existence.
Muste and others from the Comradeship quickly gained the trust of the workers and became leaders of the strike.  Among a work force made up of many nationalities who spoke a variety of languages, the ability to speak and write English was apparently a precious gift.  In scope, length and in its ultimate victory, the 1919 strike was every bit as important as the famous 1912 strike. Along the way, Muste was one of many beaten and jailed.
After the strike, Muste’s commitment to the working class deepened. He dedicated himself to building a radical labor movement and to developing an organic American revolutionary movement. It is to this period of Muste’s life that Danielson adds much rich detail.
Muste spent two years as head of a new union formed in the last days of the 1919 Lawrence strike, the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (ATWA). Though Danielson points out the emphasis the ATWA put on being responsible, in contrast apparently to the IWW, it was, like the IWW, explicitly revolutionary. As Danielson relates it, Muste’s involvement with the ATWA, like his involvement in the textile strike, was criticized by many fellow pacifists including some from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
Muste chose nonviolent class struggle and broke with pacifists who favored reconciliation and viewed strikes as coercive. He concluded that the real origins of violence were capitalist property relations and law enforcement and that, as Danielson puts it, “the language of peace could function to maintain the status quo.” In addition, Muste was impressed by what the strikers accomplished through solidarity and militant nonviolent action. He understood, after Lawrence, that it was no longer necessary for a person of principle to stand apart from the masses, that being true to one’s conscience was not necessarily a lonely crusade.
In 1921, Muste left his position at the ATWA to participate in the formation of the Brookwood Labor College, with which he would be affiliated until 1933. The move was precipitated in part, according to Danielson, by Muste’s belief that labor organizations should cultivate a working-class culture. To that end, Muste and the other founders made Brookwood a school for workers funded by progressive unions and with faculty who had backgrounds in the labor movement.
Conference for Progressive Labor Action
By 1928, Muste’s radical unionism led him to form the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) as an alternative to the American Federation of Labor and the Communist Party. He wrote a sixteen-point Challenge to Progressives that became the foundation of the group. The Challenge included prescient calls to organize unions industrially, with special attention to women, black and immigrant workers. The group officially came into being in early 1929, with labor educators, rank-and-file workers and left-wing Socialists as its backbone.
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s was a period of great labor tumult and the staff of the CPLA’s publication Labor Age, Muste included, did a terrific job, given its limited resources, of covering strikes and rank-and-file insurgencies such as the one in the United Mineworkers. Reading Labor Age today, one is struck by its vast superiority to AFL publications and the Communist Daily Worker, as well as by how it consistently addressed problems of labor that remain with us 85 years later.
Although the CPLA never had more than a small percentage of black members, it did some successful organizing among blacks in the South and elsewhere, organizing that continued when the CPLA in 1933 became the American Workers Party (AWP). That was especially true in many chapters of the AWP’s and CPLA’s Unemployed League. In Danielson’s telling of it, the CPLA/AWP had a grasp of the state of black workers that distinguished it from the Socialist Party, which held that workers were workers, with no distinction for the oppression of blacks as blacks (or Chicanos as Chicanos, Chinese as Chinese, and Native Americans as Native Americans).
The CPLA and AWP also struggled honestly for an organic, US road to black liberation in a way the Communist Party did not. The CP, for example, initially rejected a call by a core of its black members for support of self-determination for African-Americans, including possible formation of a black nation in the southern part of the United States. They fell in line with the idea only after directives from the Soviet Union ordered them to do so, and the Communist Party’s adherence to black self-determination generally remained contingent on Moscow, with the desires and actual struggles of blacks in the US of less importance.
The CPLA also struggled more ambitiously, though not necessarily more successfully than other groups, with patriarchy both within and without the labor and radical movements. Danielson points out that the CPLA prioritized work with women and successfully recruited many female workers, educators and organizers into its fold. Very few women no matter their skills, however, achieved positions of leadership within the organization and the CPLA shared the shortcomings of other radical groups by never delving very deeply into the expectations that women would be dutiful wives, lovers and mothers as well as workers. Nor did the CPLA, for all of Muste’s emphasis on the need for working-class culture, break in any way with traditional cultural views of the value of women’s work, and failed to recognize the necessity of addressing childcare, reproductive rights, sexual freedom and other issues that would burst forth a generation later with Second Wave Feminism.
American Workers Party
At the end of 1933, the CPLA’s members transformed the organization into the American Workers Party. As Danielson relates it, Muste and other CPLA/AWP leaders were deeply influenced by Marxism-Leninism and saw a need to create an alternative revolutionary pole to the Communist Party. Though Muste never renounced pacifism, its influence on him was less in this period than at any other time of his adult life.
Though at the time and for the rest of his life Muste referred to the 1933-36 period as his time as a Marxist-Leninist, there are clear indications he never abandoned his commitment to worker self-organization and decentralized direct democracy. In “Trade Unions and the Revolution,” a 1935 pamphlet, for example, Muste writes as if trying to have it both ways. While assuring readers of the necessity of the leadership of a vanguard party, his speculation about how working class revolution might occur, with emphasis on strike organizations, a Central Labor Union, soviets and workers’ councils, at times reads more like Rosa Luxemburg or even anarcho-syndicalism than Lenin.
Spearheading national organization of the unemployed and leading strikes in the industrial hubs of Toledo and Akron were probably the AWP’s most notable accomplishments. Muste was quite active at this time travelling, writing, convening meetings, giving speeches, and rallying support for strikes and the unemployed. During the Toledo strike, when he was again arrested, the AWP succeeded in cultivating working-class unity as it has rarely been achieved. With virtually every one of Toledo’s thousands of auto workers out on strike, the unemployed in similar numbers joined the fray with no immediate self-interest other than the recognition that their collective fate was linked directly to the fates of the strikers.
In spite of successes in Toledo and elsewhere, the AWP operated throughout its brief existence in the shadow of the much larger Communist Party. It was partly for this reason that its leaders attempted to expand its influence by agreeing to merge with the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) in December 1934 to form the Workers Party (WP). Small and isolated, the Trotskyists made no pretense of building a movement based on American conditions. Their roots were in Communist Party factionalism and political battles in the Soviet Union, and they followed Trotsky’s edicts as slavishly as the CP followed Stalin’s. Though the CLA had scored a major success in the Minneapolis general strike earlier in 1934, it was not focused on organizing or movement-building so much as on in-fighting and the proper crossing of every “t” and dotting of every “i” in their many theoretical flights of fancy.
Key AWP members opposed the merger and departed immediately; many others left throughout 1935. Muste lasted only until June 1936 by which time he had come to see his worst fears about the merger realized. The last straw was the decision by the CLA grouping within the Workers Party to raid the Socialist Party (as ordered by Trotsky, of course).
Though in the end Muste recoiled from Marxism-Leninism, his foray into revolutionary working-class politics impacted the work he did over the remainder of his life. He remained committed to what became known in the early 1960’s as participatory democracy, to action over theory, and never gave up on the possibility of a sea change in popular consciousness. That belief was justified with the emergence of a New Left in 1960.
Though he turned 75 in 1960, Muste was widely accepted by a generation of radicals who saw in him an authenticity they admired and sought to emulate. Unlike so many, he walked the talk. He also trained key figures of the Black Freedom Struggle and the movement against the US wars in Indochina, and inspired many more, to this day  – indeed, the spirit of Muste lives in Rojava, Chiapas and many other places.
Some Tentative Answers
There appear to be three basic reasons for Muste’s refusal to follow many of his close associates into work within the emerging CIO.  Each of these concerns is just as pressing today as it was in the 1930’s.
     1.Muste and his AWP and Brookwood colleagues rejected the autocratic leadership of John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) and dominant personality in the CIO. Regarding Muste’s hostility to John L. Lewis’ style of leadership, Danielson refers to John L. Lewis as Muste’s “old nemesis.” Like Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union, Muste, Brookwood faculty and students, and his comrades in the AWP strongly supported efforts to give rank-and-file miners a voice in UMW decision-making. They supported John Brophy, whom Muste described in his unfinished autobiography as a “symbol of the anti-Lewis forces in that union,” and opposed AFL president William Green whom Muste characterized as “Lewis’ stooge.”  Likewise Muste championed indefatigable West Virginia miner Frank Keeney against Lewis’ arbitrary top-down retaliation.
In this connection it is important to be as precise as possible about what Muste found offensive in Lewis.  Danielson repeatedly calls Muste a “pragmatist.”  However, “pragmatism” is a word with many connotations and might also be used to describe the outlook of the business unionists like Lewis whom Muste fiercely opposed.  Muste preferred to emphasize learning from “experience” as opposed to the attempt to force theory and predetermined decisions on others. Here are Muste’s own words:
“Brookwood might have survived, might have been supported by the unions born under the New Deal and become a flourishing CIO training school. . . .  If, in this sense, Brookwood were to have “flourished,” I would still have been out of it.  To have become identified with the New Deal, with the C.I.O. top leadership and, presently, with support of the war—this would have been for me the abandonment of my deepest convictions and the collapse of inner integrity.”
     2. Muste was convinced that a world war was imminent and that “business unions” like the nascent industrial unions of the CIO would support it. He proved absolutely correct in his prediction that the CIO leadership would support United States involvement in World War II. It needs to be emphasized that the CIO’s uncritical support of the war also entailed agreement not to strike for the duration and thus the destruction of the culture of shopfloor direct action that had built industrial unions in the rubber, automobile, meatpacking, electrical and steel industries only a few years before.  The Social Democratic parties of Europe destroyed the Second International when in August 1914 they abandoned their pledge to wage a general strike if war were declared and voted taxes for their respective national governments. Arguably the CIO destroyed the hope of radical trade unionism in the United States by promising not to strike in the months following Pearl Harbor.
     3. Muste was revolted by what he called the “pettiness and duplicity and self-indulgence and ruthlessness and lack of human sensitivities and of moral standards” in left-wing political parties. He decided to draw back from that snakepit of offensive practices at roughly the same time that the Moscow purge trials were becoming known and Ignazio Silone published his novel Bread and Wine. The soul of the Left was at stake. Among major protagonists in that drama surely A.J. emerges as one of the most honorable.
Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many book and articles who worked with A.J. Muste on Liberation magazine and other projcts in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He can be reached at Andy Piascik is an activist who contributes regularly to Z, Znet and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at

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