Commentary Magazine


Norman Thomas, by W.A. Swanberg

Idealist’s Progress

Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist.
by W. A. Swanberg.
Scribner’s. 494 pp. $14.95.

If an autobiography is the story of a life written by its subject, there should be a word to describe the story of a life which must be written by its readers. Whether or not the word exists, W. A. Swanberg has assembled such a book about the American socialist leader Norman Thomas. It provides, at great length, an outline of its subject, leaving to the reader the task not only of penciling in the physical and intellectual details, but also of providing his own analysis and judgment. Thus, instead of excerpts from Thomas’s speeches, we are given laudatory letters received by Thomas from those who heard him give them. Instead of selections from Thomas’s books, we are given a statement originating with Thomas’s son to the effect that his father’s books were written too hastily. Those of Thomas’s letters which Swanberg does include rarely help the reader to follow the development of an opinion or position. In short, this biography, as they say in Hollywood, is a star vehicle, made up of reaction shots.

To judge from Swanberg’s narrative, reactions by Norman Thomas fall into two distinct categories. First come those people, described by Swanberg with loving care, who saw in Thomas the incarnation of their own belief that the essential basis for improvement in the human condition—for Progress, as Thomas felt free to call it—is moral conviction. Norman Thomas was a man capable of clinging to a lonely and even a dangerous stand that embodied in pure form moral truisms which most people accept in the abstract but can live with only when diluted. For example, he carried the generally popular view that peace is good to the generally unpopular conclusion of advocating pacifism and refusing to serve in the nation’s armed forces. Thomas’s moral certainty on this and other issues inspired several generations of Americans and culminated in a quite extraordinary amount of hero worship, even on the part of those who did not or could not understand his positions, or even explicitly rejected them.

In the case of the older Jews who made up the bulk of the Eastern membership of the Socialist Party, U.S.A., Thomas’s blend of Old Testament prophesy with the authentic style of the Presbyterian ministry seemed for a time to proffer a special welcome to the political life of America (their relation to him became much more complicated and ambiguous in the Depression and the war against Nazi Germany). To younger Jews in the 30’s, Thomas became something of a sanitized father-substitute, a strong, almost majestic figure who was clearly much more at home in America than their own parents and who made the break from family tradition and into radical politics easier than it might otherwise have been. For Americans generally, Thomas’s energetic enthusiasm, his ability to explain socialist principles in terms that “any Rotarian can grasp” (as a reviewer of one of his books put it), his marriage to a descendant of an old wealthy American family—all combined to suggest that just about anyone could become a moral absolutist, if only he were willing to be ruled by his righteous indignation.

This is all very well, even though it is impossible to know how effectively it changed the moral content of lives other than Thomas’s. But the very terms in which Thomas presented himself to this class of people would suggest that his appeal was essentially religious rather than political, and it is therefore important to recall that Thomas was, by his own choice, a political figure. Which brings us to the second category of reactions to Thomas, those based on an estimate of his success in turning moral fervor into effective political action.

In this connection, Swanberg makes the familiar assertion that many of the New Deal reforms executed by Roosevelt were originally proposed in the early platforms of the Socialist party. Unfortunately, as proof of Thomas’s political effectiveness, such assertions can best be described as weak and variable. There is no evidence that Roosevelt or his advisers turned to socialist doctrine for clues to policies that were generally in the air as the business slump deepened in the early 30’s. One might guess to the contrary that Roosevelt, the supreme pragmatist, found certain programs somewhat less acceptable because they had originally been part of socialist doctrine and would therefore be harder to get past the legislature.

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An even more important test than the acceptability of his party’s program was Thomas’s role as a party leader. An essential element in practical morality is the successful execution of group responsibilities which one has voluntarily assumed; Thomas’s stewardship of his party fails very badly by this standard. Not only did the Socialists play no part in executing the policies which they may or may not have originally propounded, but under Thomas’s leadership they won no important elective offices anywhere in the United States, and party membership shrank to nothing. The party was successfully raided by Communists and Trotskyists from the Left, and by New Dealers from the Right. In the decades since 1930, when socialist parties have risen to power through the electoral process all over the industrial world, the Socialist Party, U.S.A. has withered away.

Aside from winning elections, a respectable task for a political party dedicated to sweeping changes in government and social structure is the clarification of theory. On these grounds, Thomas is even weaker than on the practical grounds of political effectiveness. His vague pronouncements (“Production for use,” “free access to raw materials”) were pirated by others largely because they were in fact vague. Thomas’s interest in political theory and analysis was no deeper than that of Theodore Roosevelt, whom he detested but somewhat resembled in his taste for action. Swanberg tells us (he means it as praise) that Thomas studied Marx with less ardor than he studied P. G. Wodehouse This is acceptable literary taste, but there is no evidence that Thomas studied any of the other political theorists, economists, sociologists—radical or conservative—whom most educated people consider helpful to an understanding of the contemporary condition.

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Finally, one must ask whether Thomas’s moral fervor and public stands on critical issues were indeed helpful to Progress. Here his admirers can claim some genuinely constructive efforts to set against the failures. Although initially a strong supporter of the Leninist revolution, Thomas was not blind to the defects of Stalinism. His anti-Stalinism, based on a suspicion of all governments except those which he saw as the victims of injustice, was firm, solid, persistent, and, once he had learned the painful lessons of American Stalinist duplicity, intelligent. He was an early opponent of American involvement in Indochina, as well as a critic of those elements in the antiwar movement who, as he once put it, loved the Vietcong more than they loved peace. He worked hard for civil rights in America, freedom for India, and other broad and general decencies.

On the other hand, he had great difficulty in dealing with issues which did not present clear-cut choices between good and evil; and on some of the major issues of the past forty years, Thomas’s absolutist convictions led him into curious contradictions. A pacifist for most of his adult life, he nevertheless supported arms for the Spanish republic so that it could defend itself. His announced grounds were his fear of the growing fascist power. Yet when World War II broke out, he reverted to pacifism. Were the fascist dictatorships less menacing after they had achieved full power? Was the United States less pure than Spain? Still, he supported a negotiated peace with Germany.

Similarly, his announced sympathy for victims of injustice, and for movements of national self-determination, did not prevent him from holding an anti-Zionist and later an anti-Israel position (Swanberg tells us he objected to Israel’s “linking of state and religion”). In the course of a trip to the Middle East in 1956, in the company of a man whom Swanberg describes as also an anti-Zionist, though a Jew, Thomas decided that the Israelis had unfairly kept the property abandoned by fleeing Arabs in 1948; not a word here on Jewish property confiscated by the various Arab governments in the Middle East, or on the Jewish refugees from Arab lands who equaled in number the Palestinian refugees.

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Swanberg makes clear Thomas’s itch for action, but does not examine the degree to which his activism was used to evade deeper consideration of the issues, the weighing of alternatives, or the designing of appropriate strategies. Thomas was always prepared to take risks—and to have others take risks—in order to achieve the absolutist moral position; his response to those who questioned the wisdom of such a stand was to say that without such risk-taking we are all doomed anyway. The same response, however, could be used to justify any desperate undertaking at all. While Thomas will always enjoy the admiration of those who treasure moral fervor in the name of goals they believe in, his new biographer fails to show that the cause of Progress was in the least served by those qualities in his subject—absolute conviction, absolute lack of any sense of irony, and absolute readiness for action—which defined the nature of Norman Thomas’s “idealism.”

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