Our author Q&A train chugs on with Leilah Danielson, whose new book is called American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. When Abraham Johannes Muste died in 1967, newspapers throughout the world referred to him as the "American Gandhi." Best known for his role in the labor movement of the 1930s and his leadership of the peace movement in the postwar era, Muste was one of the most charismatic figures of the American left in his time. Had he written the story of his life, it would also have been the story of social and political struggles in the United States during the twentieth century.
(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience; Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World)
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Penn Press: Why do you believe that, thus far, A.J. Muste has suffered from “historical neglect”?
Leilah Danielson: This has long puzzled me because the archival record provides overwhelming evidence of his central role as theoretician and organizer in dozens of organizations and social movements. One reason may have to do with the long-standing influence of social and cultural history, which emphasizes the agency of ordinary people. My own work is deeply indebted to social-historical methods (and I think this is evident in American Gandhi, which embeds Muste in his communities and contexts), but I also think that its egalitarian thrust has often led historians to neglect the influence and power of leaders, institutions, and larger structural forces.
Another reason relates to the Cold War. Historians of labor and the liberal-left tradition have tended to organize their inquiry around the question of affiliation with the Communist Party. As a result, they have sometimes failed to appreciate activists and social formations on their own terms. We can see this in the historical treatment of Muste, which gives inordinate attention to his short-lived stint as head of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party because it speaks to his anti-Stalinist bonafides. Meanwhile, his prior 15-year career in the labor movement is glossed over, which I argue has prevented us from fully understanding the roots of 1930s industrial unionism and the cultural front.
Finally, there’s the issue of Muste’s pacifism. Long ago, Reinhold Niebuhr developed an incisive and penetrating critique of pacifism as unrealistic, a charge that has been repeated in various iterations since. Yet the fact of pacifist idealism does not mean that it was historically and politically irrelevant. Historians should know better.
Of all Muste’s great achievements, which do you believe still has a significant effect on us in this day and age?
The so-called “Musteites” (his movement of militant unionists and working-class intellectuals) led the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, which historians consider a watershed moment in labor history that helped to lead to the birth of the United Auto Workers and the CIO.
Aside from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muste was the single most important person involved in making Gandhian nonviolence a central feature of American political culture.
He also presaged and facilitated the ’60s generation’s alienation from the liberal establishment over U.S. foreign policy, a legacy that continues to haunt progressive politics today. Indeed, it was largely due to his vision and efforts that sections of the peace movement, the civil rights movement, and the liberal Protestant community broke away from their exclusionary politics and joined his broad and militant coalition against the war in Vietnam.
What inspired you to attach the epithet “American Gandhi” to Muste (outside of the context of him winning the Gandhi Peace Award in 1966)?
To some degree it was quite literal: When Muste died in 1967, news reports in the United States and throughout the world referred to him as the “American Gandhi.” More broadly, though, “American Gandhi” speaks to my larger thesis that the use of Gandhian nonviolence in the United States was not simply a matter of American activists reading about Gandhi and then implementing his ideas. Rather, it was a complex cultural and historical process in which Muste played a central role.
How strongly do you believe Muste’s religious beliefs impacted his social and/or public work?
They fundamentally shaped his identity and his politics. Even during the years when he abandoned his faith, he was inspired by the cross and the prophetic vision of “a new heaven and a new earth”—he simply substituted communists for the “true church” and the vanguard party for the “elect.”
How do you believe Muste was able to appeal to the “Marxist, secular left,” given his devout commitment to his Christian faith?
It probably had to do with the totality of his commitment. In the parlance of the New Left, he “put his body on the line” long before doing so was in vogue. But there’s more to it than that. He may have rejected contemporaneous Marxist theory and practice when he “reconverted” to Christianity in 1936, but, as Time magazine commented, he remained “vaguely Marxian.” He continued to identify as a revolutionary and to reject the parliamentarianism of social democracy. The Marxist lexicon—e.g. praxis, dialectics, alienation—also continued to inflect his political criticism and practice.
How much of Muste’s drive and/or work do you believe arose from the politically charged atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s? In other words, do you believe Muste’s drive and/or work could possibly be a product of his environment?
Muste came of age at a time when Protestant liberals had redefined religious life as engagement rather than retreat. His essentially public “way of life” was certainly reinforced by the political culture of the interwar years, but it also stayed with him through the postwar era, when American culture became increasingly privatized.
Do you have further explanatory details about Muste’s “mystical experience,” or “reconversion,” to Christianity? What do you mean by the term “mystical”?
As a young minister, Muste was profoundly influenced by William James and Rufus Jones, both of whom celebrated transcendent experiences of the divine as sources of vitality and truth. Thus, he was inclined to interpret personal feelings of awe and mystery as messages from God about how he should live his life. Of course, as a historian, I struggled to make sense of his faith and worldview, which is so different from my own. But I decided to accept his account of these experiences as real and important, since they clearly mediated his personal and political decisions.
How was Muste able to form groups such as the Peacemakers?
Muste’s political genius was rooted in his pragmatism and his organizational savvy. He was a firm believer that ideals must be grounded in practice and the individual in community, which drew him to collective political projects and differentiated him from his more libertarian comrades in the radical pacifist movement. He was also a tremendously skilled organizer and a shrewd political strategist. As David McReynolds observed to me, he was both “a saint” and as “sly as a fox.”
What enabled Muste to step forward and be a leader amongst other like-minded people (e.g. pacifists, socialists, etc.)?
Sources from his years as a minister, labor organizer, Marxist revolutionary, and peace activist overwhelmingly suggest that it was his modest, unassuming manner and dialogic method of communication that enabled him to assume leadership positions. But close observers also noted that he was astute and calculating. For example, he was quite willing to chastise subordinates who failed to follow the party line or meet his expectations.
How important was Muste’s wife, Anne, to his successes, and would he have been able to become a widely recognized figure without her assistance?
The invisibility of Anne Muste speaks volumes about the ways in which gender structured and enabled male dominance of politics and culture during Muste’s times (and ours). But Muste was so sure of his convictions that he probably would have attained the same level of public esteem and influence without her.
Was Muste’s vision and/or life at all tied to the idea of the American Dream? Did he have his own dream for America and its people/citizens?
His early experience of emigration was formative. He often recalled that the Dutch, unlike southern and eastern European immigrants, were welcomed with open arms. To be included in the nationalistic narratives of late nineteenth century America meant that he strongly identified with Abraham Lincoln as the “great emancipator” and imbibed notions of the United States as a “city on a hill,” a place without monarchy and conscription, unlike the “old world.” Perhaps this is why he was so shocked by the repression of the World War I era and mortified by the militarization of American society during and after World War II. As he despaired, he invoked the American jeremiad, hoping that somehow Americans would be persuaded of their sin but also the possibility of their redemption. In the end, he was disappointed.
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Leilah Danielson is Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century is available now.