- Christian pacifist, labor-union activist, Marxist
See also: A.J. Muste
in Holland on
January 8, 1885, Abraham
Johannes Muste was brought
to the U.S. at age six and was raised in what he would later describe as the
“exceedingly orthodox” Calvinist traditions of the Dutch Reformed
Church. In the early 1900s, Muste studied at the Union Theological
Seminary in New York and was exposed to the teachings of the Social
Gospel, which sought to apply
biblical principles to the problems associated with
In 1909 he was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed
the 1912 U.S. presidential election, Muste cast his ballot for the
socialist Eugene Debs. Two years later he
changed his religious affiliation and became pastor of a Congregational Church.
World War I broke out in Europe, Muste, inspired by the Christian
mysticism of the Quakers, emerged as an outspoken pacifist. In 1919, when
textile-industry strikers appealed to the religious community for
support, Muste, playing the
role of labor-union activist, found himself mired unexpectedly in the turmoil of contentious work stoppages in Massachusetts. Soon thereafter he began working with the
newly formed American
Civil Liberties Union in Boston and took a church post with the Friends in Providence.
In the early 1920s,
Muste became director of the (now-defunct) Katonah, New York-based
Brookwood Labor College, whose
curriculum focused on the theory and practice of labor militancy. Throughout the decade, he drifted steadily toward revolutionary
politics. In 1929 Muste helped form the Conference for Progressive
Labor Action, which
grew into an openly revolutionary organization and was instrumental
in the 1933 establishment of the radical American Workers Party, in which Muste
was the major player.
Around that same time, Muste abandoned
his Christian pacifism and became a Marxist-Leninist who merged his
group with James Cannon's Trotskyist movement, forming the Workers Party of America. But in 1936, Muste, troubled
by certain elements of revolutionary activity,
traveled to Norway and met personally with Leon Trotsky; when he
returned from that trip, Muste again proclaimed himself a Christian
in the labor movement, Muste in 1940 began a 13-year stint as the executive secretary of Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a
religious pacifist organization. He also sponsored the founding and
early work of the Congress of Racial Equality, and he defended
conscientious objectors during World War II.
1942, with the U.S. involved in two military fronts, Muste published War
Is the Enemy,
wherein he presented a "Pacifist Proposal" stipulating that:
attempt [should] be made to fasten sole war-guilt on any nation or group
of nations”; all nations should collaborate to build a "federal world
government"; the wealthy U.S. should “offer to invest the
billions which it would otherwise devote to war preparation and war,
in a sound international plan for the economic rehabilitation of
Europe and Asia"; America should launch a national program “to
provide decent housing,... adequate medical and hospital service, and
equal educational facilities for all”; and all nations should dispose of their war armaments “as rapidly as possible.”
1953 Muste retired from his position with FOR and became the leader of
the Committee for Nonviolent Action, an organization whose members
engaged in anti-nuclear activism. He also emerged as a prominent figure in the
anti-Vietnam War movement, personally taking part in a number of
widely publicized civil-disobedience events.
Muste co-founded the monthly antiwar journal Liberation,
which served as a key forum for radical views during the rise of the
New Left. He also organized the American Forum for Socialist
Education, in an effort to unify socialists, pacifists, and
disaffected Communists into a left-wing coalition soon after
the Stalin and McCarthy eras had ended.
In its biography of Muste, the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute notes that its namesake "was close to the emerging liberation movements in Africa" during the 1950s and '60s. Indeed, he helped organize the World Peace
Brigade which worked closely with Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius
Nyerere of Tanzania.
the Cold War with the Soviet empire, Muste issued
a call for America's unilateral disarmament. In 1961 he used diplomacy to pave the way for a team of
pacifists to publicly carry that message in
a much-heralded trek from San Francisco all the way to Moscow's Red
A passionate opponent of American efforts to prevent a
Communist takeover of South Vietnam, Muste in
1966 led a group of American
pacifists to Saigon, South Vietnam, where, after trying to demonstrate
for peace, they were arrested and deported. In January 1967, Muste traveled
to North Vietnam with a delegation of clergy and met with the Communist
dictator Ho Chi Minh. A few weeks later, on
February 11, Muste died in New York City.
1974 a group of self-proclaimed pacifists established the A.J. Muste
Memorial Institute in Muste's memory.
 Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), p. 500.