American Gandhi: An Interview with Leilah Danielson

Mark Edwards

The following is an interview with Leilah Danielson, Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University and author of the wonderful new book, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).  Like all great biographies, Danielson’s work offers fresh insights on the major developments of Muste’s time, including the fortunes and follies of the American left, the formation of the civil rights and peace crusades, and (most exciting to me) the radical foundations of the mostly forgotten workers’ education movement of the 1920s.  This study should have broad appeal for historians of American leftism, labor, and politics, as well as for scholars of religion.

1. What first drew you to Muste?
I have long been interested in the history of social movements and the left and Muste seemed to appear everywhere I turned.  As an undergraduate, my senior thesis was on the cultural critic Paul Goodman, who frequently referenced Muste as a comrade and source of inspiration.  Then, as a graduate student, my first research project was on the civil rights leader James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality.  Again, it was clearly evident that Muste’s role in early CORE was fundamental.  The same thing happened again when I conducted research for my dissertation on the history of Christianity and American peace activism; Muste was the pivot upon which everything – theory, organization, and action – seemed to turn. 

2. You place Muste within the “liberal-left tradition” (p. 3) in America.  Could you elaborate a bit on that concept, as well as its connections to pragmatism?  To Communism?  To Christianity?
I borrowed this term from Doug Rossinow’s book, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).  In it, he argues that the split between radicals and liberals in the Cold War represented a break from a dynamic history of left-liberal collaborations from the late 19th-century through the 1940s united by “a transformative concept of social progress.” (4) He also suggests that recovering this tradition offers the key to reviving progressive politics today.

The history of Muste’s career illuminates Rossinow’s thesis on a number of levels.  Ideologically, he often straddled the divides between liberalism and radicalism: As a socialist, he challenged liberals to recognize that collectivist implications of their egalitarian ideals, while, as a civil libertarian, he challenged labor and the left to pay attention to means as well as ends.

Like many radicals in the 1940s, Muste broke with liberalism over questions of war and U.S. foreign policy.  He also broke with communism, viewing it as a totalitarian ideology, and focused instead on building a “third way” of nonalignment and nonviolence.  Later, in the late 1950s, he attempted to resuscitate a left-liberal alliance yet faced tremendous opposition from anticommunist liberals and socialists alike; only the younger generation of civil rights and new left activists agreed with him that a non-exclusionary approach was necessary to reenergize the American reform tradition.  He would finally manage to build a liberal-left coalition against the war in Vietnam in 1966, but it was full of fissures and it broke apart soon after he died.

In the book, I posit the tension between liberalism and radicalism in terms of pragmatism and prophetism.  Doing so allowed me to highlight the role of Christianity in shaping Muste’s political commitments and concerns.  It also expresses my central thesis that Muste was both a pragmatist and a prophet.  He believed that ideals must be grounded in practice and the individual in community, which drew him to collective political projects and inspired a dialogic method of communication that brought different groups of people together.  The tension between the poles of pragmatism and prophetism, realism and idealism served as a source of creativity and dynamism, but also as a source of frustration that, over time, pushed Muste to assume a more prophetic posture.

3. You write that the Musteites coming out of the Brookwood Labor College and Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) “played a key role in jump-starting the movement for industrial unionism” (p. 6).  Do you think historians of American labor and the left more generally have missed Muste’s significance?  If so, why?

Thank you for asking this question!  One of my most exciting discoveries in conducting research for this book was that Muste and his comrades in the 1920s and early 1930s laid much of the theoretical and organizational groundwork for emergence of industrial unionism and the “cultural front.”

Muste’s religious background may be one of the reasons why labor historians have neglected his influence.  Despite the innovations of cultural history, they have been reluctant to grapple with religion’s role in shaping working-class subjectivities, except to view it as an obstacle to class consciousness.  Here’s a small example of how this bias can inhibit historical understanding:  Historians have often extrapolated from Muste’s Protestantism that he was came from a middle-class background.  In fact, however, he grew up in working-class Grand Rapids; his father was an unskilled laborer in the city’s furniture industry.

The long-standing influence of social history, which downplays the role of unions, leaders, and ideas in working-class history, also may have something to do with Muste’s neglect.  Most of the “Musteites” were union militants who wanted to push the labor movement to the left.  Their influence is thus best found in working-class institutions like unions, labor colleges, labor federations, etc.

There’s also 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.

4. Calling Muste a “prophet” (p. 1) brings to mind another twentieth-century political theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who Muste often contended with.  You show that Muste accused Niebuhr and the Christian Realists of having “renounced the prophetic tradition” (p. 9).  Do you think Muste has more right to the title than Niebuhr?
I think they both have rights to the title, but for different reasons.  Niebuhr was prophetic in pointing to the moral inconsistencies and contradictions in pacifist thought and action in the 1930s.  Muste and other pacifists were still fighting World War I; they refused to recognize any distinction between the Allied and fascist powers, and they ultimately failed to provide any alternative except crucifixion for the victims of fascist aggression. But they also played a prophetic role in showing how the Allies violated their own rhetoric in the process of fighting the war (e.g. Japanese internment, the use of obliteration and atomic bombing).

Muste, moreover, proved prophetic when he predicted that realism would serve as an apology for the exercise of American power and would place a damper upon the idealism that inspires social reform.   We need to recall that Niebuhr became a cold warrior who essentially condoned the U.S.’s containment policy, including the buildup of nuclear weapons.  He also failed to take a prophetic role in race relations, cautioning African Americans to take a gradualist approach.  Muste, by contrast, spoke “truth to power,” putting his body quite literally “on the line” in an effort to awaken his fellow Americans to their sins of race and empire but also to the possibilities for repentance through action.

5. You conclude that “Muste was more effective and influential when he combined his idealism with pragmatism—when he focused on coalition building and worked for immediate as well as long-term goals” (p. 338).  Do you think Muste’s “messianic impulses” (p. 2) led him to the wrong side of WWII and the Cold War, as the Realists charged?
I think Muste’s response to the Cold War was prophetic, not messianic.  He quite consciously adopted a utopian approach (I call it a politics of “un-realism” to draw a contrast with his rival Reinhold Niebuhr) in hopes that it would break through the conformist culture of the Cold War.  He turned out to be wrong, but that was not entirely his fault.

I see Muste’s messianism coming into play when he seemed to lose touch with reality.  During World War I, he truly seemed to believe that the end of days was at hand and this had consequences for his family’s well-being. The same was true during the labor upheavals of 1934-35 when he became convinced that social revolution was imminent and that he was destined to play a central role in it.  This delusion caused him to alienate his comrades and to violate his personal ethical code.  His response to World War II was messianic insofar as he seemed to believe that there were possibilities for “reconciliation” with the Nazis as late as 1940.  In the end, however, he conceded defeat and counseled pacifists NOT to “sabotage or obstruct the war measures of the government” and instead focus their energies upon building pacifist fellowship, protecting civil liberties and the rights of conscientious objection, and seeking “human betterment and reconciliation” at home, particularly by befriending interned Japanese Americans and fighting for black equality. 

6. You quote Martin Luther King, Jr., who once claimed, “The current emphasis on nonviolent direct action in the race relations field is due more to A. J. than to anyone else in this country” (p. 15).  Do you agree with King?  Was Muste’s contributions to the civil rights and peace movements truly singular?
What King is suggesting by this quote is the theological and organizational role Muste played.  His efforts were instrumental in facilitating and institutionalizing pacifist experiments with nonviolence that preceded the emergence of the grassroots movement in the South.  He also played a critical role in maintaining the legitimacy of pacifism in theological circles during the years when Niebuhrian realism was hegemonic (which is why, for example, that King read Muste and attended one his talks while in divinity school).  Finally, Muste used his influence to provide substantial organizational and financial assistance to the Civil Rights Movement when it emerged in the south.

The way to appreciate Muste’s role is by paying attention to the small details, not just the charismatic personality.   He was a brilliant thinker and inspiring prophet, but 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.”

7. What do you think Muste would have to say about the state of the American left today?  Do you think he’d be a critic of the “cultural left,” like another pragmatist, Richard Rorty, was in Achieving Our Country?
I think he would take a dialectical approach, viewing the emergence of the cultural left as a necessary and important correction.  After all, he was one of only a few white “old lefists” who sought dialogue with the Black Power Movement.  But he also would have insisted that social transformation is contingent upon having a sense of shared humanity and vision.  He often drew a parallel to his biblical namesake.  By leaving the city of his ancestors and going out to find “a city which existed – and yet had to be brought into existence,” Abraham demonstrated that divinity was to be found in the history of human work and creation.  For Muste, in other words, “the crucial thing about men, or societies, is not where they came from but where they are going.”


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