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On A. J. Muste

There is a remarkable photograph of A. J. Muste, a tight-lipped old man, climbing over the fence at a missile base in Nebraska, with two burly Air Police waiting to arrest him, and a reporter with open mouth, blabbing away. It is a staged public ritual in high Byzantine style. Presumably, since we see the backs of the police, the news photographer is inside the compound where Muste, however, will be arrested for trespassing. The scene is blocked somewhat like Greek drama with a central sacrificial hero, but it is not even emotionally real, because of the on-stage presence of the reporter. It is “alienated” Epic Theater, as Brecht called it. The symbolic idea of it all is that A. J. Muste is obstructing the destruction of the world by nuclear bombs.

Of course, in an important sense, the pacifist is here more for real than the soldiers and certainly than the reporter. It is self-contradictory for the soldiers and their scientists to be bent on such vast or total destruction for any of the political or moral reasons that are alleged; and what the reporter is doing is quite ethereal. Whereas Muste is at least making one normal response to danger—either stop them or run away—and it will be a somewhat real jail. Yet in the objective situation his behavior is symbolical and infantile-magical. When the picture is taken, there is no atomic war going on. If and when there will be a war, any opposing action will be too late, so Muste makes logical sense. But average people seem to find it impossible to think through this obvious logic and to respond to anything but immediate perceptible catastrophe; indeed, they are busy by the millions, all over the world, in preparing the catastrophe. Thus, the direct pacifist action—“you are putting me in mortal danger; I try in every way, including with my body, my rowboat, my sailboat, to forestall you”—is prima facie reasonable but it has no social credibility. To the extent that such action is a personal Bearing Witness, declaring, “I must do this in order to live on without guilt,” it could have a certain reality. But since A. J. is rather calculatingly political, the photograph lacks also this kind of passion; it is Byzantine rather than a martyr-play.

A new book on Muste that Nat Hentoff is preparing, to be published by The New Yorker and as a book in January by Macmillan, has the paradoxical title, Peace Agitator, and this expresses the same objective dilemma. Muste cannot fight for peace in a concrete conflict—as, for example, he fought (non-violently) on labor picketlines in the Twenties, when the police also were not taking part in staged scenes. He must first, from outside, intervene in a smoothly going concern and agitate, create a factitious conflict, arousing people to their own advantage when they couldn’t care less. We Jews call it hocking a tchainik, banging on an empty tea-kettle. It is a thankless occupation. Ordinarily one could not do it for long and maintain one’s dignity. This year Muste will be seventy-nine.


Nevertheless, for many thousands of Americans (including myself), and especially for many of the best of the young, A. J. Muste is an authentic Great Man, not a stage hero nor an image of public relations. We in America are very much lacking admirable fathers at present—I cannot think of a single person in high public office whom many intelligent persons regard with deep respect—but A. J. is always regarded with respect. The photograph of Muste, with its ambiguities of appearance and reality, suggests another aspect which, for Americans at least, is more central than even the issue of nuclear war. In this aspect Muste is quite simply genuine, and the others in the picture, and most of us who look at the picture, are not genuine.

We see—in his favorite straw hat, excellent for sitting in the bleachers during baseball games and also for hot summer days climbing fences in Nebraska—a gentleman citizen from Victorian times who is grimly and tartly expressing his dissent, as if a citizen had the right and duty to do so. This rather ordinary assumption of his is entirely unrealistic and fantastically out of date—he is a surviving Dodo—but it happens that those who do not share the assumption do not have a body politic at all; they are unsubstantial. Only the Dodo is real, so we have to call him Nestor. People gape at this, not as at a creature from another world, but as a surviving freeman among slaves. What is passing through the mind of the excited and dismayed boy in the left foreground, waist deep in the meadow? He is watching, besides all the ambiguities of the token act, the symbol, the “leadership,” a crotchety old man still doing something as a free political act, as if it were not the case that nothing can be done. The society he lives in is his, and that’s how he looks.

Embodied in this crotchety dignity (genre of J. S. Mill) is, of course, an ancestry of protestants. The Reverend Muste was brought up Dutch Reformed. But in my opinion, it is just the citizenly part of the Reformation—free conscience acting in secular life—that has stuck with A.J., and this is very American. His apocalyptic and messianic utterances, mostly out of the prophets, are usually fairly accurate readings of the real political and military situation; he has gradually shed his puritanism; and even his non-violence sounds more like moral philosophy and prudent politics than Christian love or Hindu pantheism. To put it somewhat arrogantly in Milton’s style: he is doing the Lord’s work, though no doubt because of the Spirit in him.

It has been said that A. J. has a charismatic effect on his followers. Possibly, but I have not observed it, nor that there are “followers.” People seem rather to respect and rely on his apparently indefatigable willingness to take his characteristic position in every relevant circumstance; remaining consistent with himself, to be open to improvisations; and especially to come across, when the task is his task. He is what he is and people rely on it. He is not the spokesman of a party platform. Neither is he a “leader,” for there is no darkness and therefore no transference and charisma. His effect on his disciples seems to be the love due to an attentive good father, the (sometimes ashamed) giving up of extravagant inconsistencies before a man who is firmly consistent, and soldierly loyalty to a careful and courageous general. I have known him only in recent years, and my admiration is greatest when at a rally he always says something specific to the occasion and the news, without slogans and without repeating a song and dance. I can then agree. This is not a charismatic effect, which would be more incantational—and would leave me right where it found me.

To be sure, in these recent years one cannot avoid another feeling. I have seen him on a freezing day, frail, in a thin coat, stealing away from a picketline (guiltily!) to buy a cup of hot coffee at Riker’s. This is hard to take.


From what I have seen of Hentoff’s research. I am struck, as I expected to be, by the straight line of his life and its unusually healthy “normalcy.” When he was a six-year-old immigrant at Ellis Island, they called him Abe Lincoln; he won an 8th-grade prize essay on child labor; he was a good athlete; at seventeen he won the state prize for oratory; he was deeply impressed by Emerson on responsibility; inevitably he waited for a happy marriage that lasted for half a century; he knew Norman Thomas at Union Theological; as a young pastor he chose to stand out against World War I and gravitated to the Quakers who took him in; and then he was thick in the bitter strikes of the early Twenties. A career like this is a lovely illustration of how, in our world, simple honor and good sense, consistently applied, can get you real far into the outfield.

One thinks of John Dewey, another friend of Muste’s. There seems to be a happy inevitability in the intellectual and emotional growth of these energetic citizenly warriors, and in the occasions that confront them—it is a story without internal peripeties, more epic than novelistic. Not, of course, that there is no drama and suffering: A. J. has, finally, to leave a good church living because it is not consistent with himself, and he has, finally, to quit the Trotskyist party for the same reason. Since they have an easy faith that the world is open for their action, heroes like this are bound to go on occasional wrong rides; but being secure in what they themselves are, they can jump off.

The distressing fact for these healthy and integral spirits, it seems to me, especially if they have a citizenly bent, is that they have to play the scenes that Big History dreams up, the events on the front pages of the Times, though of course they respond to them in their own way. They are too sane to be able to withdraw from the front page world; they are too sound to be corrupted by it and become “important” in it. What, then, if the Institutions, Powers, Parties, and even Revolutions that make the news are on the whole pretty spurious and irrelevant to any human good one way or the other? Contrast even Debs and Dewey with Thomas and Muste: within a few decades Big Domestic Politics became too phony for serious people to be committed actors in it. Muste’s serious actions are shoestring operations and “agitation.”

Rather boringly, however, he continued for a long time to think and talk about the Powers and the wars of the Powers, as if some good could come of it. (Though he never sank to the games theory and higher diplomacy of the Committee for Correspondence and Erich Fromm.) I think that his lapse into Trotskyism was the result of such a delusory nostalgia—he did not realize for a time that under modern conditions such Party politics was becoming, and had become, intrinsically statist, and that Power had become an empty end-in-itself. On the other hand, the world-wide colonial revolutions of his later concern are real human issues, and Muste’s world-traveling knowledge of them has made him, in my opinion, the foremost political analyst in the country.

Then let me add to the portrait of Nestor in the eyes of the third and the fourth generation: He is a survivor of the days when constitutional and revolutionary politics were real! He flexibly takes part in the para-political improvisations that are now the genuine article, but he can still discuss them in a framework of reasoned theory rather than in sit-in pulpit oratory or go-limp jive.


I would not be candid, in praising A. J., if I did not mention my disagreements. Perhaps they come down to this: Muste seems to think of society and social change as consisting of individual persons, masses, and movements, the persons coalescing as part of the movements; but society rather consists of communities, citizens cooperating to assert their interests, and making political inventions. In my opinion, there is a difference between what A.J. is and what he thinks he is. As a figure in American history, he is impressive (to me) as a surviving populist, a populist in a period of transition to one world. Populism, undercutting the conventional parties and being fluidly democratic, wants only to be more simply democratic; it wants initiative, referendum, and recall, a Jeffersonian regionalism and decentralization. It sees that the modern state has become anti-democratic in principle, and one must, like A. J., continually dissent. In his thinking, however, A. J. comes on not like a populist but a Gandhian, calling for a religious conversion, with mass enthusiasm and possibly with leaders. In “advanced” countries, it seems to me, such movements would be a regression—they would lead to technocracies if not fascism; just as the labor “movement” led to the Organized System. Movements make sense for colonial revolutions, but they do not promise a future of freedom in “backward” countries either. What we need in respect of war and racism is not love—love is more than is necessary and it is too much—but common sense and social justice, in terms of practical proposals for a peaceful and fraternal world. When A. J. speaks somewhere of the “family of mankind,” it is the old missionary cropping out. One must not love far-off people—it is dangerous; it is enough to get off their backs, and for you and your neighbors to get together and improve your lot.

Muste is our most astute political analyst. But almost invariably he analyzes the interplay of controllers, of powers—and the way to defeat or paralyze them. His writing is astoundingly blank in the details of production, livelihood, psychosexuality, education, law and crime, communications, parliamentary method, etc. that constitute vitality and freedom. His actions and choices in these matters are right and even exemplary, but he doesn’t seem to think them important. When he “returned” to Christianity after his Marxist period, he explained, “I knew by 1936 that I could no longer apply the techniques of Lenin and Trotsky because they violated my personal convictions.” That’s a good reason, and a basic kind of reason for everybody; but it seems to me that for an A. J. Muste it misses the point. We expect him to see that even politically these techniques are part and parcel of the power politics and sovereignties that they operate in.

A more recent example: the Indian non-violentists have been embarrassed by the border dispute with China; but the embarrassment stems precisely from the border—a national boundary is itself violent. The pacifist problem is to learn to do without that boundary.

Let me put it another way. The desirable form of peace action is neither agitating nor a pacifist movement, but reconstructing, so far as we can, a peaceful world. Sharing with hungry peoples and giving them the basic means to take care of themselves; withdrawing from absurd and destructive production and converting to useful production or to worthwhile leisure; refusing (or dodging) conscription, not to make a point but to have a worthwhile career; walking across the boundaries and making friends; exchanging culture and even populations; researching a functional regionalism to replace spheres of influence. Needless to say, A. J. has been a chief champion in many of these things too.

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