I have three items on my latest reading of W.A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist. Norman Thomas was a six-time Socialist candidate for President of the United States.
1. I wondered in my last post how Thomas proposed to combat Communism, since he was critical of right-wingers who supported a more belligerent approach to Communism. In my latest reading, Swanberg said that Thomas had a correspondence with Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia, and that Thomas criticized Tito’s human-rights abuses and praised Tito when Tito made improvements in the area of human rights. I think that Thomas tried to fight Communism the way that he sought to tackle a number of other social ills: through persuasion.
2. I’ve also wondered about Thomas’ religion. Thomas started out as a minister of the social Gospel, which emphasized social justice. He later lost his faith after one of his sons died. When his wife later died, Thomas did not seek comfort in Christianity. Yet, Thomas said that he wanted a Christian service at his funeral (albeit one that didn’t emphasize personal immortality), and he denied that he was an atheist, asserting that God was behind human progress. Later, Thomas said that humans were responsible for their own progress. Yet, Hiroshima and the arms race made him less optimistic about human beings. And Thomas did not feel that Christianity was really making people better.
A criticism of Socialism that many make is that it is too idealistic about human nature. Maybe, but I’d say that human nature is a negative factor in all sorts of systems—-capitalism, Communism, Socialism, etc. Does Christianity change people? Perhaps it can, in that its teachings can provide people with a sense of moral obligation. But there are many cases in which it does not change people—-it does not make them unselfish, or sensitive to people’s needs. Would I say, though, that human nature is entirely bad (i.e., selfish, hateful, etc.)? Not really, for it also has compassion and rationality. I can understand why Thomas maintained some faith that human rationality would be a key to human progress. Unfortunately, however, selfishness, pride, and greed stand in the way, and that’s one reason that there are wars and exploitation of people. Perhaps Thomas continually hoped that he could make a difference by appealing to the better angels of people’s nature. In some areas, maybe he was slightly optimistic, for Swanberg notes that, in the 1960 Presidential debate, both candidates on some level supported policies that Socialists had advocated years earlier. But Thomas was also disappointed in that debate because both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were for increased military spending. What can one do to help bring about reform? Keep talking, I guess. Keep persuading. Keep appealing to people’s rationality.
3. On page 438, Swanberg says that Kennedy tried to justify his positions to Thomas. Why? Why was the President of the United States explaining himself to some marginal Presidential candidate from the past? How could a Socialist like Thomas get an audience with Eisenhower, or share a stage with Senator Barry Goldwater for a debate? On page 438, Swanberg says that Thomas was considered to be a national institution. That’s probably why, at least in later years, he was accorded so much respect.