A. J. Muste

A. J. Muste

Abraham Johannes Muste was born in Holland in 1885 and brought to the U.S. as a child of six. He obtained a magna cum laude degree from Union Theological Seminary. When war broke out in Europe, A.J. became a pacifist, inspired by the Christian mysticism of the Quakers, and started working with the fledging American Civil Liberties Union in Boston.

In 1919, when the textile industry strikers appealed for help from the religious community, he suddenly found himself thrust into the center of the great labor strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In the early 1920s A.J. became director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. For several years during the 1920s he served as Chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation but steadily drifted toward revolutionary politics, and in 1929 he helped form the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), seeking to reform the AF of L from within. When the Depression broke like a storm over America, the CPLA became openly revolutionary and was instrumental in forming the American Workers Party in 1933--a "democratically organized revolutionary party" in which A.J. played the leading role.

In 1936 went to Europe to meet with Leon Trotsky. He had left the U.S. as a Marxist-Leninist, but returned that same year as a Christian pacifist. It is not clear what caused the religious experience he had on the trip, but he was deeply changed. For the second time in his life, A.J. burned his bridges behind him, although he did remain active in the labor movement, heading the Presbyterian Labor Temple on 14th Street in Manhattan. In 1940 he became Executive Secretary of the religious pacifist organization, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a post he held until 1953.

Under A.J.'s leadership, FOR stimulated the organization of the Congress on Racial Equality, the first of the militant civil rights groups. At the age of 68 A.J. "retired."

A.J.'s life after retirement was not rich with honors but with action. He continued for nearly another twenty years to trouble the society around him. He became the leader of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, an organization whose members sailed ships into nuclear test zones in the Pacific, hopped barbed wire fences into nuclear installations in this country, and went out in rowboats to try to block the launching of American nuclear submarines. In 1961 a team of pacifists completed an extraordinary walk all the way from San Francisco to Moscow, and thanks largely to the diplomacy of A.J., was able to carry the message of unilateral disarmament not only to towns all across the country, but even into Moscow's Red Square.

A.J. was close to the emerging liberation movements in Africa, and helped organize the World Peace Brigade which worked closely with Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. African leaders often met first with A.J. on their visits to this country--and only later with the State Department. A.J. served as close friend and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

But it was with the onset of the Vietnam War and its fierce popular opposition that A.J. entered what may have been the most active period of his life. He alone was trusted by all the radical groups, he alone was able to act as the center around which they could organize the vast coalition of energies which became the American movement to end that war. In 1966 he led a group a pacifists to Saigon, where after trying to demonstrate for peace, they were arrested and deported. Late that same year, he flew with a small team of religious leaders to Hanoi where they met with Ho Chi Minh. Old men meeting in the midst of war, one of them committed to the path of violent change, the other to nonviolence. Less than a month later, A.J. died suddenly in New York City.

There are two themes that ran through A.J. Muste's life so clearly and marked his own actions so decisively, that the conflict between them became a dialectic, never resolved. One theme was peace, nonviolence, profound reverence for life. The other theme was social justice. To respect life meant to struggle to achieve social justice, yet the struggle for social justice invariably disturbed the peace and risked the nonviolence so central to A.J. The life-destroying institutions of injustice which A.J. saw around him were intolerable--yet violent social change was also intolerable. It was this "dialectic" which led him into the Marxist-Leninist movement and then back into the religious pacifist movement. Those who worked most closely with him are convinced that he was never fully able to leave behind his Christian mysticism when he was a Marxist-Leninist, and that on his return to the Church he brought with him much of his Marxism.