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Abraham Johannes Muste, born on January 8, 1885, died on February 11, 1967. Known to the public as A.J. Muste and to his friends and associates simply as “A.J.,” he was a remarkable and in some ways enigmatic figure bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Born in Holland, he was brought to the U.S. as a child of six and raised by a Republican family in the strict Calvinist traditions of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1909 he was ordained a minister in that church, and married Anna Huizenga, with whom he was to share the next 40 years and raise three children. In the normal course of events Muste would have lived out his life within those conservative limits, perhaps with theological distinction, but without great impact on the temporal world. His record at the time of his ordination: class valedictorian at Hope College, captain of the basketball team, a magna cum laude degree from Union Theological Seminary.
Yet, A.J. soon made a decision that would begin a lifetime of carefully considered radical activism. In the 1912 presidential election he cast his vote for Eugene Victor Debs. In 1914, increasingly uncomfortable with the Reformed Church, he became pastor of a Congregational Church. When war broke out in Europe, A.J. became a pacifist, inspired by the Christian mysticism of the Quakers. Three years later these beliefs cost him his church. He then started working with the fledging American Civil Liberties Union in Boston, and took a church post with the Friends in Providence. In 1919, when the textile industry strikers appealed for help from the religious community, he suddenly found himself thrust into the center of the great labor strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In the early 1920s A.J. became director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. This school was of enormous importance in labor history; its curriculum consisted of the theory and practice of labor militancy—so much so that the American Federation of Labor found Brookwood Labor College a considerable embarrassment. The young Dutch Reformed minister had become a respected—and controversial—figure in the trade union movement.
For several years during the 1920s he served as Chairman of thp Fellowship of Reconciliation but steadily drifted toward revolutionary politics, and in 1929 he helped form the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), seeking to reform the AF of L from within. When the Depression broke like a storm over America, the CPLA became openly revolutionary and was instrumental in forming the American Workers Party in 1933—a “democratically organized revolutionary party” in which A.J. played the leading role.
(Part two next issue: his return to pacifism)