Our author Q&A train chugs on with Leilah Danielson, whose new book is called American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. When Abraham Johannes Muste died in 1967, newspapers throughout the world referred to him as the "American Gandhi." Best known for his role in the labor movement of the 1930s and his leadership of the peace movement in the postwar era, Muste was one of the most charismatic figures of the American left in his time. Had he written the story of his life, it would also have been the story of social and political struggles in the United States during the twentieth century.
(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience; Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World)
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Penn Press: Why do you believe that, thus far, A.J. Muste has suffered from “historical neglect”?
Leilah Danielson: This has long puzzled me because the archival record provides overwhelming evidence of his central role as theoretician and organizer in dozens of organizations and social movements. One reason may have to do with the long-standing influence of social and cultural history, which emphasizes the agency of ordinary people. My own work is deeply indebted to social-historical methods (and I think this is evident in American Gandhi, which embeds Muste in his communities and contexts), but I also think that its egalitarian thrust has often led historians to neglect the influence and power of leaders, institutions, and larger structural forces.
Another reason relates to the Cold War. Historians of labor and the liberal-left tradition have tended to organize their inquiry around the question of affiliation with the Communist Party. As a result, they have sometimes failed to appreciate activists and social formations on their own terms. We can see this in the historical treatment of Muste, which gives inordinate attention to his short-lived stint as head of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party because it speaks to his anti-Stalinist bonafides. Meanwhile, his prior 15-year career in the labor movement is glossed over, which I argue has prevented us from fully understanding the roots of 1930s industrial unionism and the cultural front.
Finally, there’s 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.