[Marxism] Fwd: Fwd: Review: American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century by Leilah Danielson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 14 08:23:39 MDT 2019


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This review of /American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of 
Radicalism in the Twentieth Century /by Leilah Danielson was published 
in /Z Magazine/. Solidarity,


*American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the 
Twentieth Century*by Leilah Danielson (Philadelphia: University of 
Pennsylvania Press)
///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 that the Musteites were also deeply immersed in 
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 
**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 
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, activist and author of many 
books and articles who worked with A.J. Muste on /Liberation/magazine 
and other projects in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He can be reached at 
//salynd at aol.com/ <mailto:salynd at aol.com>/.//Andy Piascik is a long-time 
activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel 
/In Motion/.  He can be reached at andypiascik at yahoo.com 
<mailto:andypiascik at yahoo.com>.///

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