Abraham Johannes (AJ) Muste was born in the Zierikzee province of Zealand in the Netherlands on January 8, 1885. His parents, Martin Muste and Adriana Jonker, immigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1891. Their transit to the United States was not particularly pleasant; they were crowded into steerage on a two week journey in hostile seas.
As a young boy in America, he was captivated by the image of Abraham Lincoln. This initial interest inspired him to explore the life of this illustrious American president, and was deeply moved and influenced by what he had learned. His family was conservative in politics and orthodox in religion. Although his parents were devoutly religious, Muste was never exposed to hellfire preaching growing up in the church. In spite of the fact that his father was not particularly happy with his son’s avowed political beliefs, Muste eventually persuaded his father to accept the idea of pacifism.
For half of a century, Muste was a radical activist with an untiring devotion to the causes of peace and social justice. He was, in fact, one of the pioneers of non-violent resistance as a technique for social action. He was so dedicated to non-violence that he was referred to as the “American Gandhi”; Gandhi was an inspiration to him. Muste was so influential and charismatic that his followers were called, “Musteites.” During his long personal history of social action, he went through a number of stages during the maturation of his personal philosophy.
As a young man, Muste entered Hope College in Holland, Michigan and ultimately pursued a career in the ministry, training at the Graduate Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in America in New Brunswick, New Jersey and the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1909, he was ordained minister of the Reformed Church. During his sojourn as minister, World War I broke out in Europe. Despite intense pressure from his contemporaries, Muste stubbornly held on to his pacifist beliefs. Ultimately, his convictions led to his ejection from the ministry; he was forced to resign from his church in Newtonville, Massachusetts. The fact that the church sided with the government in this regard and abandoned what Muste believed were fundamental Christian principles left him considerably disheartened.
Muste ultimately drifted away from religion and began to embrace political action in the area of social justice. He became involved in the struggles of labor during the tumultuous era when workers were attempting to organize into labor unions as a way of forcing changes in the abysmal nature of labor conditions at that time. This was also the era that saw the rise of interest in such politically diverse worldviews as embraced by communism and anarchism. He became General Secretary of the Amalgamate Textile Workers. He held this position from 1921 through 1933.
During this period, he became the Director of the Brookwood Labor College – an institution dedicated to the training of militant and progressive labor leaders. In the course of his work he was attracted to Trotskyist-Marxist ideas in regards to the plight of workers and the need to organize labor. At that time, the communists were very much involved in the early formation of labor unions. He became involved in numerous strikes, including the Toledo Auto-Lite, GM and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber strikes.
Ultimately, Muste became disenchanted with communism; he found the tactics that the party employed were disingenuous and heavy-handed. He came to see Trotsky as yet another dictator not unlike Lenin or Stalin. In 1936, he rejected Marxist-Leninism and rejoined the non-violence movement.
In 1940, he became Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the United States. He held this position until 1953. Muste became convinced that in order to achieve a just society, major social dislocation is necessary. In 1962, he wrote, “We are now in an age when men will have to choose deliberately to exchange the values, the concepts of security, and much else which characterizes contemporary society, and seek another way of life. If that is so, the peace movement has to act on that assumption, and this means that the whole picture of our condition and the radical choice must be placed before people – not a diluted gospel, a program geared so that they are ready to “buy now.”
Seeing the inevitability of the American entrance into what would be referred to as World War II, Muste refuted the argument that governments are sometimes called upon to resort to war to oppose an “aggressor” nation. In his book entitled, Non-violence in an Aggressive World (1940), he claimed that “The line-up in the world is read in terms of “peace-loving” versus “persistently aggressive” nations. That is superficial and misleading. It is the same reading that brought us disaster twenty years ago. The real line-up is between satiated powers, determined to hang on to the 85 percent of the earth’s vital resources which they control, even if that means plunging the world into another war, and another set of powers equally determined to change the imperialist status even if that means plunging the world into another war.” He went on to caution that as soon as a nation finds itself on the path of war preparation, it strengthens the forces on the right and moves the society towards fascism.
In regards to war preparations prior to World War II, A. J. Muste further stated, “The United States is not ready for disarmament and war-renunciation. What then shall we propose? A little war-preparation, purely defensive preparation, refined economic warfare which can be safely waged at a distance against supposedly sinful nations? Surely they are no alternatives at all (such as moderate war-preparations in this day!), or they are alternatives which lead straight to disaster.” As a result of these strong convictions, he advocated total draft refusal. This was a remarkably courageous stand in terms of the powerful national sentiment that was skewed towards war and that accepted the inevitability of conflict.
Following the ‘Great War,” Muste became deeply concerned over what he perceived as a drift towards a nuclear holocaust. He became the Chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, a member of the executive committee on the War Resister’s League and a participant in Omaha Action, a group dedicated to nonviolent action against nuclear policy. As a member of the latter group, he was arrested in 1959 for climbing over a barbed-wire fence at the Atlas missile base near Omaha, Nebraska. He became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and editor of Liberation Magazine.
In his life, Muste underwent a number of personal transformations, but maintained a tenacious adherence to the causes of peace and social justice that resided within the core of his being. As a person of deep moral commitment, he was unafraid to openly express his viewpoint, take what he considered to be appropriate action and freely admit to his own personal errors in judgment.
A.J. Muste died on February 11, 1967. One of Muste’s cohorts in the pursuit of peace through nonviolent action made the following comment, “A.J. is the spiritual chairman of every major pacifist demonstration in the country and often is the actual chairman. He’s the number one peacemaker in America.”
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