Commentary Magazine

Peace Agitator, by Nat Hentoff

The Radicalism of A. J. Muste

Peace Agitator.
by Nat Hentoff.
Macmillan. 269 pp. $5.95.

A. J. Muste—Abraham Johannes—the well-known pacifist, has been an active American radical for over fifty years. Seeking for most of his life to transform society through the “power of non-violence,” he has been a distinctly untypical reformer on the American political landscape. These days, moreover, when concern with pacifism and the techniques of civil disobedience loom so large in the thought and action of both civil rights groups and the intellectual community, Muste appears as a particularly pertinent figure. Unfortunately, Nat Hentoff's biography of Muste hardly scratches the surface of its subject. Not much more than an intermittently useful guide to the main facts of Muste's life, it offers little sense of the intellectual and emotional world a pacifist inhabits, nor any clear assessment of Muste's influence on either American radicalism or the larger society. Somehow it even avoids a serious estimate of pacifism.

Still, the facts about Muste are worth having, even in the undigested form in which Hentoff presents them. Especially interesting are the details about the radical's manifestly unradical upbringing and the first years of his career. In 1891, when he was six, his family emigrated from Holland and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan—a hard-working, conservative Dutch community that Muste remembers as being “allergic to unions or ‘agitators’ of any kind.” At the age of thirteen or so, disciplined, bright, and resolute, he decided to become a minister, and pursued his objective with characteristic diligence. He graduated from a (Calvinist) Dutch Reformed College, completed his ministerial training at a seminary in New Jersey, and then married a young girl whose father was also a minister—a small fact that gives a nice sense of the homeliness of his early life.

Muste started on the road to radicalism during his seminary days. As part of his training—it was 1908—he assisted at a church on New York's Lower East Side, and for the first time saw the misery of a true slum. “This was a very different poverty,” Muste recalls in Peace Agitator, “than that of the furniture-factory workers [of Grand Rapids] or even that of the poor farmers of the Middle West during ‘the hard times.’” In the next few years he witnessed such dismaying and brutal events as the Triangle fire disaster and the IWW-led strikes in Paterson. Muste began to explore the literature of radicalism, and found his theology changing as his social concerns became more intense. By 1914 he no longer could accept the literal interpretation of the Bible or the whole of Calvinist dogma.

The decisive fork in the road came with the approach of World War I. Muste saw no way to deny his belief that “just” wars were a practical impossibility. He declared himself a pacifist, advocated non-violence in all spheres of life, and thereby ended his days as an ordinary if devoted man of the cloth. From this point, his career became that of a confirmed radical, and in one way or another, he became involved with every major radical concern of the next fifty years.

At the close of the war, he set himself to organizing locals and leading strikes—all the while advocating non-violence. Then the problems of lower-class education began to absorb him, and he helped establish and direct the influential Brookwood Labor College, where union members came to study labor history and contemporary social problems. In the 30's, impelled by the intense and widespread feeling among radicals that the struggle of the working class demanded direct participation, Muste turned to politics and helped found the American Workers party, an organization he hoped would be both democratic and revolutionary.


It was during this period that Muste briefly but passionately diverged from the non-violent doctrines to which he has devoted most of his career. “I had become a Trotskyite Marxist Leninist,” he reports, “and had accordingly ceased to think of myself as a Christian and a pacifist.” This detour in Muste's life, a curious and intriguing episode which the reader must fit together from a scattering of facts and comments, involves the most distressing aspects of radical politics during the 30's. Muste had tried to get Brook-wood to devote less of its time to “passive” teaching and to enter more directly into the midst of the labor struggle, and in his demand had become bitterly adamant and even wild. “That evenness of temperament we'd all thought was an unchangeable characteristic of A.J.,” a staff member recalls, “was gone.” It was upon losing the fight at Brookwood that he formed the Workers party. For the first and only time in his career Muste apparently had caught the radical's fever—an absolute knowledge of how the future could and should be made—and his new certainty left little room for dissent or for merely moderate commitment. Even his wife, ordinarily unquestioning in her support, found occasion to complain.

If one reads between the lines of Peace Agitator, it is clear that the pacifist's turn to revolutionary politics exacted a practical and psychic cost he had never anticipated. His difficulties began when he merged his Workers party with the Trotskyites. A precondition of the merger was the latter's promise that they would not join the Socialist party (as their French counterparts had done) in order to take it over from within. Yet once the merger was completed, the Trotskyites proceeded to do just that. Muste found himself powerless, and the democratic and revolutionary party which he had envisioned and had worked for so devotedly (and almost violently) was swallowed up in bitter factionalism.

It took several unhappy months and a long vacation in Europe to give Muste back his sense of himself. It was the summer of 1936, and Muste, exhausted by the internecine struggles he had left behind, was further dismayed by the arms buildup that was everywhere visible. One day while sitting in a church on the Left Bank, he was overcome by a sudden feeling of absolute clarity: “This is where you belong, in the church, not outside it.” For Muste, this recon-version to pacifism did not signify a break with socialism, only a return, as he would phrase it, to Christian non-violence. It meant saying “no” to the man he briefly had been and to any ideology that led to acts not justifiable in themselves.

Since then, Muste has continued to apply himself with apparently limitless vigor to the issues of integration and peace, and to the problems of the new nations in Africa. He advocates civil disobedience as strongly as ever, and regularly practices it—he has paid no federal taxes since 1948. Admired by the young and respected by his contemporaries, he has become the “grand old man” of American pacifism.

In examining Muste's life, Hentoff is weakest and least sophisticated on precisely those issues which currently make such an examination so relevant: the influence, validity, and future importance of pacifism. Hentoff suggests in general that pacifism has been a major source of the peace movement and the civil rights struggle, and that pacifist “ideology” can provide a viable basis for systematic political action. But he treats these notions as tentatively as if they were merely chance observations. His analysis of Muste's own ideas follows suit. He quotes the pacifist as saying that “the peace movement either has to take part in the development of new political forces and new political organizations, or it has itself to be somehow or other a force for political change.” In response, he typically hedges—“Muste may be correct, at least in part,” he begins—thereby making even vaguer what was hardly concrete to begin with.

In such manner, he overlooks perhaps the two most obvious long-range implications of the current interest in pacifism. One is that the tactics of non-violence, used in an increasing variety of situations, probably will become permanent weapons in the arsenal of citizen protest: they offer extremely effective means to fight City Hall. The second is that the spirit of these tactics and of pacifism in general very likely will continue to work upon the future attitudes of many people now between the ages, say, of fifteen and twenty-five, just as the spirit of Marxism and revolutionary politics has remained with those who were young in the 30's.

So far as Muste personally is concerned, he emerges from Peace Agitator as even more than a notably honest and good man. He also appears to be a wholly contented and inwardly peaceful one. It is clear he has not worked to change the world simply because it held no place for him, the motive that moves so many radicals. He has been inspired by thoroughly affirmative desires—to make life more humane, to make all men leaders, to show others that they themselves could change the world if they wanted to.

Several years ago, I heard Muste explain almost angrily to a group intending to stage a protest march against fallout that they should not concern themselves with the many people who refused to join them. Each person in the march, he admonished, should be concerned only with what he himself was doing. In comments such as these, almost second nature to the pacifist, he matter-of-factly displays his own motives. Neither vindictiveness nor imagined superiority charges his radicalism, but a robust, a dignifying assurance and a vital self-satisfaction. These are unusual and happy traits in any man, and particularly so in someone who takes a position as recalcitrant as Muste's. Indeed, his most significant contribution to his younger followers may well turn out to be neither his thought nor the variety of radical organizations he has helped found, but rather his style and the example of his character. His firmness has not destroyed his humanity. Muste is one of those rare reformers who has stood opposed to American society for half a century, yet still continues to honor his fellow men.

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