By David McNair
October 21, 2002
"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"There is no way to peace, peace is the way."—A.J. Muste
At the end of his biography of A.J. Muste (Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste, Macmillan, 1963), Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff paints a grim picture of the peace movement. "As for myself, I have enormous doubts as to whether Muste and others like him will ever reach enough people so that the primitiveness of the way men rule and are ruled is finally ended. It may well be too late to prevent the obliteration of mankind…" But then he holds out Muste as a beacon of hope. "Muste, however, will continue to act in the fierce belief that so long as there is life, the forces of death–however they are euphemized and disguised by the rulers and nearly all the ruled–must be resisted." Muste was a beacon of hope to many. Hentoff, in fact, calls himself an imperfect disciple of Muste. Martin Luther King said that "unequivocally the emphasis on non-violent direct action in race relations is due more to A.J. Muste than to anyone else in the country." Others considered him America’s Gandhi. Muste, in fact, was such a key figure in the non-violence protest movement—playing a central role in anti-war/anti-violence activity during both World Wars, the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and Vietnam—that it’s hard to believe he was a mere man and not some angel of God sent to earth to be a voice of reason during the violent madness of the 20th Century. Yet A.J. Muste, unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King, is virtually unknown to the general public. Like most people who are not inclined to take popular positions, who don’t fit neatly into the chapters of middle school history books, Muste’s extraordinary life has naturally been back-shelved by the writers and librarians of modern history. After all, what do you do with a radical Christian/Marxist pacifist who stood up at a Quaker Meeting in 1940 and said, "If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all"?
Abraham Johannes Muste was born in Holland on January 8, 1885. At the age of six, he was brought to the U.S. and raised by a Republican family in the strict Calvinist traditions of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1909, he was ordained a minister in that church. Increasingly disillusioned with the teachings of the Reformed Church, however, Muste became the pastor of a Congregational Church. But when war broke out in Europe, he became a full-blown pacifist, inspired by the Christian mysticism of the Quakers. Shortly afterward, Muste was forced out of the Congregational Church for his views and started working with the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union in Boston. In 1919, he was called on to support strikers in the textile industry, and, by the early 1920s, the former Dutch Reformed minister had become a key figure in the trade union movement. As further evidence of the contradictory allegiances that would characterize his philosophy on non-violence and activism for the rest of his life, Muste became openly revolutionary and played a leading role in forming the American Workers Party in 1933, during the Depression. He eventually abandoned his Christian pacifism and became an avowed Marxist-Leninist. He was a key figure in organizing the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and helped form the Trotskyist Workers Party of America.
However, in 1936, uncomfortable with the violence inherent in revolutionary activity, he traveled to Norway to meet with Leon Trotsky. When he returned to the U.S., he was once again a Christian pacifist. Most friends and colleagues say Muste never reconciled his Christian and Marxist tendencies. But the two parts of him informed each other and contributed to one of the most dynamic philosophies of non-violent action in the 20th Century, one that sought to combine the heavenly desire for peace on earth with the earthly desire for social justice.
In his later years, Muste refused to slow down and, during the Cold War, led the Committee for Nonviolent Action. Its members sailed ships into nuclear test zones in the Pacific, hopped barbed-wire fences at nuclear installations, and tried to block the launching of American nuclear submarines in rowboats. During the Vietnam War, Muste led a group of pacifists to Saigon to demonstrate for peace and was arrested and deported. Later, he met with the violent revolutionary Ho Chi Minh to discuss peace efforts. On February 11, 1967, Muste died suddenly in New York City at the age of 82.
Now that Congress has handed over its constitutional power to wage war on Iraq to the President of the United States, the "logical outcome of a certain way of life" that Muste spoke of seems to have been affirmed. Only twenty-three Senators opposed a resolution giving the President the unchecked authority to launch an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. As we begin the new century, our leaders seem intent on continuing a way of life that will almost certainly lead to the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people, just as that way of life led to the deaths of so many in the last century. It is not a happy time for pacifists and peace activists, whose voices go unheard in the national media and whose convictions have been deemed naïve, unpatriotic, and even cowardly by the conservatively pragmatic, un-sensuous minds that seem to dominate the airwaves and characterize the age we live in.
The strength in Muste’s approach to non-violence rested in his religious faith and his belief in individual freedom and social justice. In fact, that strength seemed to be a direct result of the contradictory forces (Christian/Marxist) within himself as he tried to reconcile them and as he began to recognize that struggle as the work of peace itself. "Christians can never be fatalists," he once said. And when a reporter asked Muste during a protest if he really thought he was going to change the policies of this country by standing alone at night in front of the White House with a candle, he replied, "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me." Muste recognized that in order to change the world, you have to change people. To achieve peace, you have to inspire people to look deeper into the root causes of a conflict, to come to terms with contradictory feelings of love and hate, and to recognize that the desire for peace wasn’t about being a dove. It was about being a spiritual warrior. "I was not impressed with the sentimental, easy-going pacifism of the earlier part of the century," Muste told Hentoff in his biography. "People then felt that if they sat and talked pleasantly of peace and love, they would solve the problems of the world…but simply advocating ‘love’ won’t do it… reconciliation is not synonymous with smoothing things over in the conventional sense. Reconciliation, in every relationship, requires bringing the deep causes of the conflict to the surface and that may be very painful. It is when the deep differences have been faced and the pain of that experienced, that healing and reconciliation may take place."
Of course, there were those who admired Muste’s ideals but who considered his relentless pacifism defenseless against human evil. "Perhaps if people like you were permitted to survive under Communism, " said a philosophy professor in a letter to Muste. "…instead of being among the first who were liquidated, I might accept the risks of its brutal triumph to the risks of opposing it."
When Hentoff wrote "it may well be too late to prevent the obliteration of mankind" in his 1963 biography of Muste, he was talking about nuclear war. Almost forty years later, however, we are still here. Unfortunately, men seem to rule and be ruled just as primitively, and there is more violence and conflict in the world than we can keep track of. What would Muste say about the peace movement today? What would he do to fight the American government’s move toward restricting the right to assemble and protest? (See Neal Shaffer’s essay, "Protest Too Little") What would he do to curtail our government’s move toward war?
Odds are that he’d be engaged in some Sisyphean effort to awaken our sleeping minds to the injustice of it all. Odds are that he’d be upset by the way we’ve allowed the terrorists to steal the show. Because, in the end, Muste’s life was less about working out particular issues and conflicts and more about the task of encouraging humanity itself to evolve in a peaceful direction.
To find out more about A.J. Muste or to help continue his legacy, visit the A.J. Muste Memorial Foundation at www.ajmuste.org
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.