e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

"Peace is the way."

Quick: who originally said “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.“??

That quote is often attributed to either Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is actually a quote from A.J. Muste.

A.J. who?

A.J. Muste was a revolutionary socialist and one of the most important American labor organizers of the 1920’s and 30’s. He was also a pacifist and a Christian minister who played a critical role in the anti-war movement during the 1960’s.

In 1912 Muste voted for Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for president of the United States. Soon thereafter he left the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church and became a Congregationalist pastor, but his activism and outspokenness cost him his pastorship after only three years, and then he became a Quaker.

In 1919, Muste was involved in strike support work during the strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which was part of a nationwide labor uprising that approached being a nationwide General Strike (in part inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia). In 1921 he became the founding director of the Broockwood Labor College, which was dedicated to promoting class consciousness among American workers. Although officially allied with the American Federation of Labor, Brookwood was far more radical than the AFL and quickly became an embarrassment.

In 1929 Muste helped to form the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which was committed to industrial unionism as opposed to the narrow craft-union approach of the AFL. During the early years of the Depression the CPLA became increasingly radical and its members helped to launch the American Workers Party (AWP), which openly proclaimed itself to be “revolutionary”. By this time Muste, now leader of the AWP, considered himself a Marxist.

In February 1934 workers at the Electric Auto-Lite company of Toledo, Ohio went on strike demanding recognition of their union. The newly formed American Workers Party played a key role in supporting and leading the strike. The AWP had been very active among unemployed workers in Toledo. One of the tried and true tactics for breaking a strike is to bring in unemployed workers (affectionately known as “scabs”) to replace the workers on strike, thus effectively ending the strike and “busting” the union. But the AWP turned the tables on the employers and brought thousands of unemployed workers to encircle the Auto-Lite plant in sympathy with the strikers.

Why would unemployed workers do such a thing? The simple two-word answer is “class consciousness”, an idea to which A.J. Muste was deeply committed. The AWP had convinced unemployed workers that, first of all, they were still workers regardless of not being employed. Workers, from a socialist perspective, are all those who must rely on their own “labor power” in order to survive. When unemployed workers side with the employers and help to break strikes, they are working against their own class interests, according to this way of looking at things. Rather than fighting each other, workers must stand together and demand improvements for all.

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike was one of the most successful and important labor actions in U.S. history, and is considered to have paved the way to the eventual formation of the (once) powerful Council of Industrial Organizations. But Muste had wanted the strike to go much further than it did. He believed that the situation was ripe for an industry wide general strike to shut down the entire US automobile industry. Even once the strike was settled, against Muste’s urging, he continued to agitate for “welding the militants” together in order to form “a fighting force”, and if this wasn’t done immediately he warned that “There will be no unions worth the name”, a prophecy that took a little longer than Muste had anticipated, but turned out to be true nevertheless.

By 1937 Muste had become disillusioned with the Marxist left, and he returned to Christianity and pacifism. In 1940 he became president of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a position he held for the next 13 years. But despite changing religious and political affiliations Muste’s commitment to radical social change never wavered. He befriended leaders of national liberation movements in Africa, worked for the civil rights and nuclear disarmament movements in the US, defended draft resisters, etc, etc.

By the time of the outbreak of the Vietnam War A.J. Muste was a legendary figure among social and political activists, but essentially unknown to the general public. He was possibly the only person who commanded respect from all of the groups and grouplets that came to make up the anti-war movement. Muste was equally comfortable talking to deeply religious pacifists and revolution-plotting Marxists, and he had the admiration of leaders and followers of both the old and the new left. Muste’s crucial contributions to the anti-war movement are discussed at length in Fred Halstead‘s first hand account Out Now!

In 1966 Muste wrote an article for Liberation magazine (which he and David Dellinger had begun 10 years earlier) on The Movement to Stop the Vietnam War. He assessed the burgeoning anti-war movement by expressing doubt as to whether or not “the movement is about to come into existence …. But I am convinced that movement revolt cannot be suppressed.” In other words, at age 81, and 45 years after casting his vote for Eugene Debs, Abraham Johannes Muste was still idealistically looking forward to the revolution, but was clear headed enough to realize that it would take more than college students and peaceniks, even in large numbers, to bring it about.

During the 1919 Lawrence textile strike, when Muste was elected as executive secretary by the 30,000 strikers, this is how he had advised them:

I told them, in line with the strike committee’s decision, that to permit ourselves to be provoked into violence would mean defeating ourselves; that our real power was in our solidarity and our capacity to endure suffering rather than to give up the fight for the right to organize; that no one could “weave wool with machine guns;” that cheerfulness was better for morale than bitterness and that therefore we would smile as we passed the machine guns and the police on the way from the hall to the picket lines around the mills. I told the spies, who were sure to be in the audience, to go and tell the police and the mill managements that this was our policy.
[Sketches for an Autobiography, p. 70]

Personally I don’t subscribe to the idea of pacifism, but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring many of its proponents. I think that all too often the memories of great revolutionaries like Gandhi, Muste and King are subjected to the insidious process of “santaclausification“. There was nothing non-confrontational about Gandhi, Muste or King, in fact in their time they were viewed, correctly, as militants, radicals and dangerous trouble makers. This was primarily because they were completely uncompromising in their goals. After all, the word “radical” literally means “of or going to the root or origin”. I won’t presume to say what pacifism does mean, since I am not a pacifist, but it is very clear that to Gandhi, Muste and King pacifism did not mean negotiating away the just demands of the oppressed in the interest of making peace with the oppressors.

Much more information about A.J. Muste can be found at the website for the A. J. Muste Memorial Institute.

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