On page 216 of his biography on six-time Socialist U.S. Presidential candidate Norman Thomas, entitled Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, W.A. Swanberg quotes a New York Times article that said the following:
“Norman Thomas has proved an eye-opener to European Socialists. Wherever he has stopped…he has been eagerly questioned on the differences between the American and European brands of Socialism. Europeans have been astonished by his view that the hope of American Socialism lies in the farmers, and perhaps more astonished by his belief that in some farming areas it has already taken root. To most of his questioners, Socialism has been a growth in the industrial areas; and his admission that American factory hands usually vote for the old parties rather than the Socialist Party has aroused a good deal of respect for his frankness.”
From what I can see, at least in what I have read in Swanberg’s book so far, Swanberg does not address why Norman Thomas believed that the hope of American Socialism rested in the farmers rather than the industrial workers. But, based upon what I read in this article, my guess is that a number of small farmers in the United States did not like having to take out loans to pay hefty sums of money for farming equipment, only to lose their farms when they could not pay off their debts; it cost a lot of money for small farmers to produce and then to distribute their products, and they were dependent on the capitalist system for this, a system that charged them high prices. It’s not surprising, therefore, that at least some small farmers would be drawn to systemic change. Many industrial workers in the U.S., on the other hand, were satisfied with the Democratic Party, especially during and after the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, because it championed labor unions, which helped provide them with a decent standard of living. Why would they want to vote Socialist, when they were doing well under the Democrats?
One question that I have had concerns the extent to which Socialists believe in private property. Do they support abolishing it altogether, or are they for allowing private ownership in some (maybe even many) areas? In his 1962 book Six Crises, Richard Nixon discusses Polish resistance to Communism: “The Polish farmer loves his land and his horses, as his father did before him[, so he] refuses to be moved into co-operative farms on the inflexible Communist design.” Does Socialism try to force farmers into collectivism?
From what I read in the Socialist Party USA’s platform (and this may be the most recent one), it appears that the Socialist Party supports farming co-operatives and public ownership of corporate farms, as well as “socially owned enterprises in the areas of transportation, storage, and processing of agricultural goods, controlled by boards comprised of farmers, farm workers, and community members.” (The idea is probably that this would eliminate small farmers’ vulnerable state of dependence on capitalists for the transportation and processing of their products.) Yet, it also supports the family farm. It states that “We call for family farmers whose land was taken in foreclosures to be given their land and equipment back, or be given comparable land and equipment or monetary compensation.” This implies private ownership by small farmers of their land.
Another question that I have had is whether Norman Thomas seriously believed that he could win when he ran for President, or if he was simply trying to make a statement. The New York Times quote with which I opened this post indicates that Thomas looked to the American farmers for hope that Socialism would triumph in the U.S., and Thomas said that Socialism was taking root within some farming communities. In 1939, however, Norman’s wife Violet remarked to a reporter that her husband would never become President of the United States! But, prior to that point, it seems to me that Thomas thought that it was plausible that Socialism could win in the United States. He expected for people to become disenchanted with the New Deal and how corporate profits increased 36 percent in 1935 while employment only went up by 2 and 1/2 percent. But divisions within the Socialist movement did not help it politically, as Socialists debated and parted company over such issues as whether Communists should be allowed into the movement (Thomas initially said yes and hoped that they might grow up, while the Old Guard Socialists said no), and whether Socialists should support U.S. entry into World War II (Thomas said no, whereas a number on the Left supported the U.S. entering it to defeat fascism abroad).
(On the issue of war and pacifism, what’s interesting is that Thomas supported assisting the defense of the Spanish Republic, which was under assault from Franco, who was backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Thomas supported the Spanish Republic, even though he recognized that it was far from pure and itself had violent elements, for he thought that it was preferable to Franco. Swanberg says that Thomas moved away from pacifism after he lost his faith in God. Yet, Thomas still opposed U.S. intervention into World War II, one reason being that he feared it would result in Fascist policies in the U.S. Thomas may have had in mind the repression of civil liberties in the United States during World War I.)