I started Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, by W.A. Swanberg. Norman Thomas was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President of the United States between 1928-1948.
Why am I reading this book? For a variety of reasons. I became somewhat interested in leftist politics as I did some reading about Richard Nixon for my Year (or More) of Nixon. As I read some books for that, I tended to admire leftist figures who had concern for the poor—-not just in word, but also in deed—-and who stood up to the special interests for what they believed was the good of the country. I thought about the Red Scares, which sometimes conflated Communists with Socialists, when there were actually plenty of Socialists who opposed Communism and the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. I wanted to learn more about this. I also was curious about the critiques that Socialists made of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, since I usually read right-wing critiques of Roosevelt’s policies. Moreover, because Norman Thomas at one time was a Presbyterian minister, I wondered what role religion played in his commitment to socialism.
I’d like to use as my starting-point something that Swanberg says on pages 45-46:
“Among those who knew Thomas and were aware of his many talents, there was no doubt as to the gift that drove him to exertions beyond most men’s stamina. It was capacity for indignation over injustice. The injustices done the ignorant and defenseless masses could be traced to the compact minority of the rich, the educated, the well-connected, the shrewd, the aggressive and expedient. They were often admirable people—-consider the Stewarts [who were Norman Thomas’ in-laws]—-but they lived in a world apart from the masses, did not understand them and were either the believers or the exploiters of that easy rationalization. ‘The poor are always with us.’ For years Thomas’s indignation had made him a crusader for measures against poverty. Now he had a new and allied cause in the threat of American entry into [World War I]—-a threat which came from that same influential and affluent minority. An enormous advantage, possessed by no other proletarian leader to the extent that he possessed it, was his connection with that affluent minority. Being almost as much at home on Fifth Avenue as he was in Harlem, feeling in his heart that Fifth Avenue was basically good even if at fault, he was saved from the rancor and animosity that spoiled the efforts of many friends of the masses. He saw himself as an educator of both classes, and his lectures were animated with an understanding and a humor that made his barbs tolerable.”
Here are some points:
—-As the above passage states, Thomas had connections with the elites. Thomas himself was born to a fairly well-off minister, and Thomas married into a family of privilege. Thomas went to Princeton University, when Woodrow Wilson was the President of Princeton. Both were acquainted with one another, and Wilson as President of the United States even went to bat (somewhat) for Thomas when Thomas was getting into trouble for his vocal opposition to American intervention in World War I.
—-Around 1905-1906, Thomas stayed with a minister friend whose parish was close to slums. There, Thomas saw things that impacted the rest of his life. Thomas would return to slums after that, and he witnessed poverty, drunkenness, businesses taking advantage of ethnic divisions between immigrant workers to prevent them from joining together to form a union, low wages, unemployment, and crime.
—-The above passage talks about Thomas’ optimism about people. Thomas long had positive feelings about people. As a child, Thomas was non-athletic, skinny, and bookish, the sort of person you’d expect for others to pick on. But Thomas enjoyed being around people, and they gravitated towards him, so he wasn’t bullied. (This is not to suggest, however, that people who are bullied are somehow at fault, for there are plenty of people who get bullied even after they try to be friendly.) And Thomas was a leader, as when he organized students to challenge an authoritarian head of his school to bring in an outside speaker for their graduation ceremonies.
—-The above passage says that Thomas felt that the well-off Fifth Avenue people were basically good at heart, yet he did not care for how some of them used the Bible passage about the poor always being with us as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the status quo. As a minister, Thomas was an advocate of the Social Gospel, which stressed the importance of creating a just society. He tended to think that such issues as the historicity of Jesus’ miracles and the virgin birth were unimportant in light of the harsh realities that the poor experienced. Thomas also was critical of how Christian leaders appealed to the good afterlife as a way to encourage the oppressed to endure their conditions rather than organizing to improve them, and Thomas had issues with the Christian doctrine of hell. At one point, Thomas gave a sermon in which he said that God rewards people in this life if they help the poor. Moreover, Thomas attributed much of the crime in the slums to poverty.
—-Thomas opposed U.S. intervention in World War I. My impression is that he joined the Socialist Party because that was one of the few organizations, even on the Left, that was against the U.S. entering the war. Thomas’ brother Evan got in trouble as a conscientious objector and had to spend time in a harsh work-camp, and a friend wrote: “I feel ashamed of myself to be having a good time in Paris and classed as a young tin hero because through no fault of mine a Boche shell dropped beside me. Much as I may disagree with him, I must say that Evan has what in college we call guts” (page 69).
In my opinion, what’s ironic is that Thomas recognized the depravity that human beings did—-that the better-off exploited those not as well-off economically, that there may be not-so-pure motives behind the idealistic platitudes that politicians use in support of war, etc.—-and yet Thomas pushed for a political program that critics could label as utopian and idealistic, in that it had an overly optimistic view of human nature. The dilemma in which I find myself is that I know that there are problems in the country that need to be fixed. Yet, when the government seeks to fix them, that creates another set of problems. Many would say that the government should therefore do nothing. But that approach doesn’t fix anything, either, for it just leaves the problems as they are.
Another consideration: While I agree with Thomas that a belief in an afterlife can be used to perpetuate oppression, I also believe that the opposite can be true, since, in Matthew 25, entrance into the good afterlife is based on helping the least of these. Moreover, it’s not always the case that helping people will bring one rewards in the here-and-now, and so some people may need to believe in an afterlife to be motivated to do the right thing.