Commentary Magazine


Norman Thomas

To the Editor:

In his review of my book, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist [Books in Review, February], Roger Starr says: “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.”

Astonished, having been chided with more reason by other reviewers for quoting too damned much from Thomas, I have gone over the book and report the following:

There are thirty-seven direct or indirect quotations from ten of his books, eight of which were composed of his speeches tied together into expository narrative: America’s Way Out, The Choices Before Us, The Test of Freedom, Keep America Out of War, Prerequisites for Peace, A Socialist’s Faith, Socialism Reexamined, and The Choices.

There are direct quotations from seventeen speeches. There are quotations from two of his pamphlets. There are quotations from fourteen publications in which he gave his political views, in some of them repeatedly: the Nation, the Christian Century, the World Tomorrow, the New Leader, the North American Review, the American Magazine, the Call, Harper’s, Annals of the American Academy, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, New America, Playboy, the Progressive, and the Saturday Review. His own syndicated newspaper column, in which he discussed current issues twice a week, is quoted directly or indirectly thirty-six times. Three Thomas open letters are quoted, as are scores of his letters to Socialist leaders or others commenting on issues.

What’s that again, Mr. Starr?

A few of Mr. Starr’s other statements are correct, but more are mistaken as they would not be had he read my book with professorial attention and an open mind. He manages a wisecrack by twisting my observation that Thomas may have studied Wodehouse more than Marx. He erroneously says that Thomas refused to serve in the armed forces; that he was a pacifist “most of his adult life”; that he “reverted to pacifism” in World War II when he did not, being opposed to U.S. involvement (until Pearl Harbor) for other reasons clearly explained in the book; and that Thomas, a grandmaster in irony, lacked “any sense of irony.” The Henry Luce Professor’s description of Thomas as “anti-Israel” is a libel on a man who was far from infallible but who was never anti-Israel, anti-Arab, or anti-anybody of good will.

While Mr. Starr’s factual irresponsibility may not have been evident to COMMENTARY, his hostility to Thomas hangs out in broad daylight. The usual civility is to find someone reasonably impartial to review a book. It seems unlikely that COMMENTARY would exploit so palpable a grudge unless it shared the grudge.

W. A. Swanberg
Newton, Connecticut

____________

 

To the Editor:

If one were hipped on the conspiracy theory of history, one might conclude that Roger Starr’s vicious review of W.A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist was Mr. Starr’s revenge as Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University against Swanberg, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his slashing biography, Luce and His Empire. But of course that must have been mere coincidence.

However, a reviewer is supposed to deal with the substance of a book, which Mr. Starr avoided doing. His first two paragraphs allegedly describe Swanberg’s book in a way which made me rub my eyes to find out if Mr. Starr read the same book I did. He charges that Swanberg gave no excerpts from Thomas’s speeches or books, and that those Thomas letters included by Swanberg “rarely helped the reader to follow the development of an opinion or position.” I could list scores of excerpts which demonstrate that Mr. Starr is inaccurate. For instance, Thomas’s speech to 15,000 at a Socialist picnic in Brooklyn in 1932:

There are between ten and twelve million unemployed in the nation—200,000 in New York City alone without either work or relief.

Men and women search the garbage cans . . . competing with rats and stray cats. . . . That’s how the celebrated law of supply and demand works under capitalism. . . . Next winter we may see a complete breakdown, made more terrible by riots and actual starvation.

No hope? No hope unless we declare war on poverty with the energy with which we warred on Germany. No hope, unless we seek to repeal unemployment with a hundred times the fervor and intelligence men seek to repeal the discredited 18th Amendment. . . .

Here is where our Socialist plan begins. . . . We intend to subsidize consumption instead of letting the subsidies all go to producers seeking profit. . . . The federal government should grant emergency subsidies to unemployed families on a weekly basis. . . . We must begin to think in terms of ten billions. . . . The next great Socialist principle is the five-day week. . . . A system of unemployment insurance must be set up. . . . There is no conceivable physical reason why every American family should not be well fed, well clothed, well housed, possessing its own radio and automobile, and, above all, free from the dread fear of tomorrow which is the tyrant of our waking and sleeping hours.

But Mr. Starr’s dismissal of Swanberg’s book is only an excuse for his savage attack on Norman Thomas as a “moral absolutist” who never served the “cause of Progress.”

As a close friend and associate of Norman Thomas (I was national secretary of the Socialist party from 1942 to 1950, ran Thomas’s 1944 and 1948 presidential campaigns, and wrote Norman Thomas: A Biography, published by W.W. Norton in 1964), I can testify that Swanberg is far closer to the truth about Thomas than is Mr. Starr.

When he applied for membership in the Socialist party in 1918, Thomas wrote:

Perhaps to certain members of the party my Socialism would not be of the most orthodox variety. As you know, I have a profound fear of the undue exaltation of the state and a profound faith that the new world we desire must depend upon freedom and fellowship rather than upon any sort of coercion whatsoever. I am interested in political parties only to the extent to which they may be serviceable in advancing certain ideals and in winning liberty for men and women. My accepting of the Socialist platform is on the basis of general principles rather than of details. If I were a farmer and lived in certain states of the Middle West, it is quite likely that I should be a member of the Nonpartisan League.

While Thomas was a pacifist during World War I, he supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and though he at first opposed American intervention in World War II (recalling the attacks on civil liberties during World War I and fearing that American entry in the war would create fascism at home), Thomas did not revert to pacifism. He changed his position to “critical support” of the war effort when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Mr. Starr questions Thomas’s influence on Roosevelt and his advisers, arguing that the policies they adopted were “generally in the air as the business slump deepened in the early 30′s.” But Vermont Royster, in the Wall Street Journal in 1972, remembered it quite differently:

Sometimes the mavericks have actually affected the outcome of a presidential election, and even more often they have turned out to have a major influence on the subsequent political direction of the country by a sort of delayed reaction to the policies of those who did get elected President. The most startling instance was 1932. FDR’s New Deal has become so much a part of our political consciousness that we forget how little of it showed in his campaign against Hoover. If you want to see whence the New Deal sprang, turn to Norman Thomas and his Socialist party . . . recall the Socialist platform of 1932. It called for heavy appropriations for relief and public works, government-employment aid, unemployment insurance, minimum-wage laws, relief for homeowners on their mortgages, an agricultural-support program, and an old-age pension program, Thomas also plugged for deficit financing, if needed, and a more steeply graduated income tax. Sound familiar? The lesson of this is that minority groups often defy the laws of gravity: that is, they exert political pull disproportionate to their mass. . . . Though the victory goes to others, they also serve.

In writing about Norman Thomas’s trip to the Middle East in 1957, made at the suggestion of the American Jewish Committee (not 1956, Mr. Starr), Mr. Starr quotes Swanberg as describing Don Peretz, Thomas’s travel companion, as “an anti-Zionist, though a Jew.” Peretz, then a member of the foreign-affairs department of the American Jewish Committee, was a “non-Zionist” not an “anti-Zionist,” and Swanberg accurately describes him as such. Mr. Starr apparently recognizes no distinction between the two, but he still owes it to the reader to quote correctly.

More about the trip. The American Jewish Committee asked Thomas to go to the Middle East because it felt that he might be able to secure fairer treatment for Jews in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Thomas agreed to go, but added that he would also urge Israel to “hasten the process already begun of turning the Arabs who did not leave Israel into first- rather than second-class citizens.”

When Thomas got to Israel, he reported that he found far more tolerance in discussions of Arab refugee and minority problems there than in the United States. But he did object to Israel’s “linking of state and religion”—and so do many Israelis and many American Jews.

Mr. Starr insists that the cause of “Progress” was not “in the least served by . . . absolute conviction, absolute lack of any sense of irony, and absolute readiness for action—which defined the nature of Norman Thomas’s ‘idealism.’ ”

Pages could be filled demonstrating Thomas’s search for complex answers to complex problems. But I plead guilty, for Thomas, to Mr. Starr’s charge of “absolute readiness for action.” “He has proved that there is something truly glorious in being forever engaged in the pursuit of justice and equality. He is one of the bravest men I ever met,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. “Norman Thomas’s courageous championship of exhausted sharecroppers in the South, of persecuted Japanese-Americans in World War II, of conscientious objectors in federal prisons, of exploited hospital workers in Northern cities, of Mississippi Negroes fighting for the right to vote, his lifelong campaign for economic and social democracy, and his unceasing drive for the maximum international cooperation for peace with justice have endeared him to millions around the globe.” “Above all else,” the Washington Post editorialized, on Thomas’s seventy-fifth birthday, “he has been a conscience of the American people . . . among the most influential individuals in 20th-century politics.”

I think their judgment was demonstrably better than that of COMMENTARY’s “reviewer.”

Harry Fleischman
Wantagh, New York

____________

 

Roger Starr writes:

I am grateful that W. A. Swanberg had the time to count the thirty-seven “direct and indirect” quotations from Norman Thomas’s books which he claims to have included in his 494 pages of text (one quote per 13½ pages for the statistical-minded). Since none of the books is listed as such in the index and few, if any, are identified in the text, the research must have been arduous. We can thus understand why Mr. Swanberg ran out of time in which to tell us how many quotations were in Thomas’s words and how many were not. If Mr. Swanberg can find more time to spend on the matter, he might count the far more numerous quotations about Thomas which he inserted in his text. His purpose, I take it, was hagiography; but all the quotations reveal is the cheering fact that many Americans are ready to express warm sympathy for a political leader who strikes them as humane and courageous, without troubling themselves to examine his ideology.

None of Mr. Swanberg’s quotations helps in the essential task of explaining why Thomas considered himself not a social democrat nor a social reformer, but a Socialist, presumably a Marxian Socialist. Although Thomas’s definition of himself enabled him to avoid the entangling alliances with “impure” labor unions that have been central to social democracy and gradualist socialism in other countries, Mr. Swanberg never indicates what fundamental Socialist doctrines in economics, governance, and history Thomas accepted, enabling him to define himself politically as he did.

With regard to specific points, I did not mean to say that Thomas refused service in the armed forces, though he certainly would have, if asked. I said that he “advocated pacifism and refusing to serve in the nation’s armed forces.” I meant that he encouraged conscientious objection for those threatened by conscription. I would have written a clearer sentence if I had used the noun, “refusal,” in place of the gerund, “refusing,” but the distinction is hardly calamitous since I was not criticizing Thomas for his pacifism but rather praising his courage in holding “pure” positions despite public animosity.

Mr. Swanberg’s objection to my assertion that Thomas reverted to pacifism after urging military volunteers to aid the Spanish republic is part of his general confusion on the issue of pacifism. Early in the book, Mr. Swanberg explains that Thomas believed a man could be a pacifist even without religious convictions; despite this clear statement, he later, in discussing Thomas’s Spanish proposal, says that Thomas had, “of course, given up pacifism when he lost his faith in God.” But if it was not a vestigial pacifism that inspired Thomas’s tactical anti-war alliance with Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee in 1941, we should have to search for some less praiseworthy psychological explanation for his blindness to the peril of a Nazi-fascist victory over Britain and France. Mr. Swanberg does not search for such a psychological alternative, and I think he should be content with my polite concession that Thomas reverted to pacifism.

When Mr. Swanberg insists that Thomas was a master of irony, he seems to mean that Thomas used ridicule or satire to attack political opponents. The irony I meant is a very different quality, the sense that one’s own motivations may be other than what they seem, the perception that what one intends as altruism may indeed mask a drive for personal dominance. It occurred to me repeatedly in reading Mr. Swanberg’s book—between the lines—that some of Thomas’s undoubted political failures were the result of his own incapacity to understand himself and his own motives. Mr. Swanberg avoids all such questions because, I think, he fears they may lead him away from simple adulation of the man he chooses to call “The Last Idealist.”

My belief that Norman Thomas was complex and both more interesting and more exasperating than he appears in this book strikes Mr. Swanberg as hostility. I must admit that I believe Thomas’s career to have failed, but if the editors of COMMENTARY asked me to review the book because they perceived in me a secret dislike for Thomas, the man, they knew more about me than I did. Mr. Swanberg says my hostility to Thomas hangs out in broad daylight. I find disquieting the symbolic overtones in such a description, but if anything hangs out, in my opinion, it is my regret that Mr. Swanberg failed to write a more penetrating book about what is a more interesting subject than he lets on.

Like Mr. Swanberg’s book, Harry Fleischman’s letter fails to provide any explanation of how Norman Thomas reached his Socialist positions, and what those positions literally implied. As though to dramatize his own misunderstanding, Mr. Fleischman reprints a 1932 speech which appears in Mr. Swanberg’s book. The speech, though compassionate and moving, leaves the interested reader in complete mystification as to what Socialism meant to Thomas—then, earlier, or later. Why is Thomas’s vision of a radio in every home and a car in every garage different from Herbert Hoover’s dream of chickens and pots? How does the idea of subsidizing consumption improve on the idea of subsidizing production? How, under Socialism, would such a distinction be maintained? What has the five-day week to do with Socialism?

Following the Swanberg model, Mr. Fleischman then rolls out a series of testimonials. These support Thomas, the man, against an assertion of mine which Mr. Fleischman misquotes by a wide margin. He accuses me of saying that Thomas never served the cause of Progress. While it is true that I said that the qualities which Swanberg offers as defining “idealism” are not shown by him to have helped the cause of Progress, I also praised Thomas for “some genuinely constructive efforts to set against the failures” and specified the constructive efforts at some length.

Mr. Fleischman defends Thomas’s position on Israel by saying that he was opposed to Israel’s linking of religion and state. Although I did not comment on Mr. Swanberg’s own identical assertion in this regard, it seems to me unspeakably naive to expect no linkage between religion and government (the nature of which linkage is difficult to define) in a state which came into existence precisely in response to religious persecution. Mr. Fleischman is, however, correct that Mr. Swanberg calls Don Peretz a “non-Zionist” and not an “anti-Zionist,” as I reported.

I may be excused for finding greater interest in Mr. Fleischman’s suggestion that I wrote a “vicious” review of the Swanberg book because I am Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values and seek to exact revenge for a book Mr. Swanberg wrote about Luce. This accusation will be found convincing by just about every paranoiac who doesn’t know that I never heard of the Swanberg book on Luce until Mr. Fleischman mentioned it in his letter.

Still more fascinating is the sleazy device by which Mr. Fleischman seeks to avoid blame for originating his canard—he casts his slander in the form of a semi-denial, by suggesting that it would take “one hipped on the conspiracy theory” to frame it. I note that Mr. Fleischman boasts of having managed Thomas’s campaign for the Presidency in 1948. If this is a sample of the moral level at which he conducted the campaign, I shall yet come to regret my vote for Thomas in that Wallace-studded year.

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