ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialist Review, Spring 1964


Robert Chester

A Unique Figure


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, p.62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Peace Agitator – The Story of A.J. Muste
by Nat Hentoff
Macmillan Company, 1963. 269 pp. $5.95.

Anyone who has contact with the radical or peace movement sooner or later comes across the name of A.J. (Abraham Johannes) Muste. Yet no one ever got around to writing a biography of this anomalous and contradictory figure. Nat Hentoff, a staff writer of the New Yorker magazine, has finally done the job.

At the age of 79, after 50 years of continuous activity, A.J. is still going strong. Ordained as a minister in 1909, he turned to pacifism during the First World War. In 1918 Muste found himself propelled, by accident, into leadership of the Lawrence textile strike and turned his interests to the labor movement. After some organization activity he founded and became educational director of Brookwood Labor College, an institution designed to train workers for union leadership. Moving to the left, Muste resigned from Brookwood to head the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which under the radicalizing impact of the depression converted itself into the American Workers party and then fused with the Trotskyists to found the Workers party of America. Two years later, in 1936, Muste reversed his course, and rejecting Marxism, returned to the church and pacifism. Since then he has been a radical non-violent Christian pacifist with anarchist tendencies.

Nat Hentoff’s biography presents all the major facts but lacks political penetration in explaining them. Everything seems to happen through personal decision without any relation to the background from which these decisions spring. While Muste’s role in the peace movement is presented in detail, and they are extensive, no explanation is given for its sudden growth only in the past six years and its recent decline.

Hentoff’s bias against the revolutionary movement is apparent in his description of Muste’s period in the Workers party. The author quotes extensively from Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism, but the quotes are juggled and misapplied. Political struggles are converted into intrigues of dubious moral character. When Muste, who was never adept in factional struggle, tried to protect some of his friends who were preparing to split and join the Stalinists, Cannon warned him of the danger of protecting them against those who he agreed had a correct political line. Hentoff’s interpretation is that Cannon “placed party discipline over personal friendship.”

Muste’s theory of action is based on moral concepts of the individual – the polar opposite of Marxist theory. “The Christian position ...” he states, “provides the one measure by which the capitalist system stands thoroughly and effectively condemned because it makes the relation ... of brotherhood between human beings impossible. So long, however, as the matter remains on the plane of economics and self-interest,” he claims, “no one is in a position to condemn another. When we feel indignation ... we then enter the realm of standards and values, the realm in which moral judgment is pronounced ... the realm of morality and religion.” Muste’s strategy was well expressed by Richard Gregg in his The Power of Non-violence “the non-violence and good will of the victim act in the same way that the lack of physical opposition by the user of physical jiujitsu does, causing the attacker to lose his moral balance.”

Muste has tried to apply this “moral jiujitsu” in his personal action: the attempt to enter the Mead missile base in Nebraska; sponsoring trips by sailing ships into atomic test areas; sitdowns on atomic submarines; disobedience in civil defense alerts; peace walks to Moscow, Cuba, etc. His is the spiritual teacher of figures like Bayard Rustin, James Farmer and Martin Luther King.

Despite his deep-going differences with them Muste remains a prominent and respected figure in radical circles. His personal integrity is unchallenged. He is always ready to support any labor or civil liberties case, and is always available to anyone who wishes to consult him or appeals for aid. A.J. is a unique figure on the American scene.

Top of page

ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 2 June 2009