I finished W.A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, which is about six-time Socialist Presidential candidate Norman Thomas.
Swanberg closes the book with Thomas’ death in 1968. Swanberg says that Thomas appealed to people’s better angels and got some results, as Thomas persuaded more and more Americans to oppose the Vietnam War. This highlights what I like about this book: that it’s about how a person who is concerned about social justice can make a difference. Thomas wrote letters to prominent people and debated them in public. He wrote a column and gave speeches. He was not the ablest politician, but he spoke up for what he felt was right. He praised and criticized Republicans and Democrats, for his commitment was to what he thought was right.
Many of us, including myself, don’t have some of the assets that Norman Thomas had. Thomas was born into a family of relative privilege and attended Princeton, so he had connections with the Establishment. He was able to get an audience with Presidents and foreign leaders. In his later years, he was regarded as a national institution. But many of us, even without such connections, can still make our voices heard. We can write to our public officials, who in many cases respond to their mail. (I’ve often gotten responses, and sometimes I have not.) We can write letters to the editor, which, believe it or not, are often read by more people than are actual syndicated columns. (I’ve read this in a couple of sources, plus I’ve gotten feedback in the past about letters to editors that I have written.) We can blog.
And, like Thomas, we don’t have to hitch ourselves to the entire agenda of a political party or a candidate, for we can simply stand for what we believe is right. And we can praise or criticize our public officials according to whether or not they act according to our understanding of what is right. I feel that President Barack Obama and the Democrats are better for the country than the Republicans are, but I don’t have to be shy when there are elements of Obama’s health care plan that I do not care for. Sometimes, highlighting problems can be a path to encouraging a solution. At the very least, it can be an educational experience.
In terms of what I didn’t like about the book, I’ll admit that I found Swanberg’s discussions of the disputes within the political Left to be tedious and boring. Yet, it was essential that Swanberg include that topic, for that was a key element of Thomas’ life. I also felt that Swanberg should have been clearer on what Thomas’ stances were regarding private property and religion. My impression was that Thomas in the 1930’s was for some private ownership of property, while only certain industries would be nationalized under his program, but later Swanberg says that Thomas moderated his position to support some private ownership. So was Thomas for private ownership in the 1930’s or not? On religion, I was unclear about whether or not Thomas believed in God. Swanberg says a couple of times that Thomas lost his faith, yet Swanberg also quotes Thomas’ denial that he (Thomas) was an atheist.
Overall, however, I found this to be an interesting book. Swanberg’s affection for his subject is evident from the stories that Swanberg tells. Swanberg himself, like Thomas, was a person with Socialist ideas who later moderated his positions. Yet, Swanberg presents a three-dimensional look at Thomas, respecting the man while not writing a hagiography.