Muste and revolutionary nonviolence

IssueJune - July 2023
Photo: AJ Muste Memorial Institute
Feature by Milan Rai

‘In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist: in such a world a non-revolutionary pacifism is a contradiction in terms, a monstrosity.’ – AJ Muste, 1928

This insight is a foundation stone for the tradition of revolutionary nonviolence that Peace News comes out of and, in decades past, has contributed to.

In his classic 1928 essay, ‘Pacifism and class war’, US Christian pacifist AJ Muste warned against the assumption that ‘violence is solely or chiefly committed by the rebels against oppression, and that this violence constitutes the heart of our problem.’

Instead, Muste pointed out that ‘the economic, social, political order in which we live was built up largely by violence, is now being extended by violence, and is maintained only by violence.’

According to Muste, the foremost task of someone committed to nonviolence is therefore: ‘to denounce the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil – material and spiritual – this entails for the masses of people throughout the world; and to exhort all rulers in social, political, industrial life, all who occupy places of privilege, all who are the beneficiaries of the present state of things, to relinquish every attempt to hold on to wealth, position and power by force, to give up the instruments of violence on which they annually spend billions of wealth produced by the sweat and anguish of the toilers.’

Muste rightly observed: ‘So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this 90 percent of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the 10 percent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.’

At the end of ‘Pacifism and Class War’, Muste wrote: ‘Those who can bring themselves to renounce wealth, position and power accruing from a social system based on violence and putting a premium on acquisitiveness, and to identify themselves in some real fashion with the struggle of the masses toward the light, may help in a measure – more, doubtless, by life than by words – to devise a more excellent way, a technique of social progress less crude, brutal, costly and slow than [hu]mankind has yet evolved.’

Noam Chomsky commented on this passage in 1967, shortly after Muste’s death: ‘It is a remarkable tribute to AJ Muste that his life’s work can be measured by such standards as these. His essays are invariably thoughtful and provocative; his life, however, is an inspiration with hardly a parallel in twentieth-century America.’