The Last Idealist

WARNING: This is a long post.

“They watched him bang away at Berkeley and other campuses, a man nearing eighty-one commanding the attention of student crowds usually scornful of anyone over thirty.”

NOT Bernie Sanders. Norman Thomas.

The Book of the Week is “Norman Thomas, The Last Idealist” by W.A. Swanberg, published in 1976.

Born in November 1884 in Marion, Ohio, Thomas began attending divinity school in 1908, pursuant to his parents’ wish for him to become a Presbyterian reverend, like his father. He espoused the political ideology of a socialist, believing that antisocial behavior could be eliminated if people the world over were provided with a decent standard of living, as there would be no class resentment.

However, Thomas’ marriage to an heiress allowed him to live better than those he aided financially. Initially, the couple lived on an ethnically mixed, high-crime block in East Harlem, among Irish, Jews, Italians and Hungarians. He ministered to parishioners and established social programs at various churches.

Thomas was a charismatic public speaker and a pacifist, keeping busy “eight days a week” with all kinds of political, social and religious groups. He rubbed shoulders with the political influencers of the day, including president Woodrow Wilson. During WWI, he asked the president to refrain from conscripting conscientious objectors– both the devout and those who held sketchy religious beliefs like atheists (and agnostics like himself).

Thomas got in trouble and was forced to resign from his various groups for pacifist speechifying and distribution of pacifist publications (which were censored)– a clear and present danger once America entered WWI. Conscientious objectors and pacifists like himself were getting arrested and jailed. He railed that all Americans had a right to free speech (and later helped found the ACLU); hypocritically, the country was fighting the war in order to combat the fascist Prussians.

Although in 1917 Thomas endorsed the Socialist Party candidate Morris Hillquit for mayor of New York City, Thomas actually delayed joining the Party until the end of the war. Hillquit thought Thomas could be instrumental in getting more Gentiles to join, as the New York City chapter was overwhelmingly Jewish.

Both the Socialist and Communist parties ran candidates for mayor even though they knew they would lose. Each hoped to convert the members of the other’s Party to join their own. The socialists’ enemies smeared them all as Bolshevists (though only a few were on the far left fringe), as the Russian Revolution heated up.

In the 1920’s, the ruling class committed a lot of violence against the working class when there occurred labor unrest. The Palmer raids resulted in beatings, arrests and jailings. The government reasoned that violence was a necessary (temporary!) evil in restoring democracy. That was the same thinking of the Communists in America who felt the Soviets were creating the right kind of political system, but that the oppression would eventually cease.

Thomas wisely stayed Socialist through the decades, as he saw that Communists were totalitarian. Nevertheless, he was conflicted, as he took heart in the fact that the Russians fought against Fascism: by aiding the Loyalists in Spain during its civil war, and during WWII. Some American Communists were thrown for a loop after Stalin made a pact with Hitler in 1939; others, when Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s human rights abuses and atrocities in 1956.

In 1920, New York State Assembly speaker Thaddeus Sweet, a Republican, took the undemocratic action of suspending five New York State Assembly members just for being in the Socialist Party. Their constituents included sixty thousand voters in New York City. The Assembly voted 145-2 to expel them altogether. They were accused of seeking to break up traditional families, being anti-religious, and opposing capitalism.

In 1933, membership in the Socialist Party reached its peak, numbering about nineteen thousand. But those who had been spellbound by the shrewd, entertaining Thomas, began to back FDR instead; the latter began to offer similar social programs and was already president. Many voters thought the evils of capitalism had caused the Great Depression. Others turned to hatred spouted by rabble rousers like Father Coughlin, Hitler and Mussolini.

In the 1930’s, there were heated discussions, debates and decisions that never pleased everyone, between and among all the different factions (Communists, Trotskyites, Old Guard, Militant-Centrist, etc.) in election years and at political conventions. Up until 1936, they used various communications outlets to spread their gospel: the Rand School, the Jewish Daily Forward, a radio station, publications like the New Leader, and a summer camp.

In 1940, the American Labor Party favored FDR, who supported capitalism and war. Thomas acted as a spoiler, as he was still an anti-capitalist and pacifist. He bristled at Britain’s colonialism in India. Jews in New York City felt the need to fight Hitler, so their allegiance lay with FDR, especially after December 1941.

Arguably, Thomas engaged in hypocrisy in his choosing to ally with the Nazi-friendly Charles Lindbergh, but only because the latter wanted America to stay out of the war. Lindbergh, and Joseph P. Kennedy were the kinds of individuals who attached themselves to Hitler because they thought Germany would win the war. That way, in the end, they’d be on the winning side. They would get the spoils. Fortunately, on WWII, they guessed wrong.

Fast forward to spring 1960. After the U-2 incident, Thomas wrote, “… in the widely played game of peacetime espionage, we lie and cheat like the rest of them– only better, we now boast, because of our technical skill. In the anarchy of sovereign nations there are no morals, there is no crime, except to be caught.”

In summer 1963, Thomas, a Princeton University graduate, got his article published in the alumni magazine. He expressed his dismay that the school received a bit more than half (!) of its total budget from federal grants. He wanted to know what proportion of those were made on behalf of the Pentagon. No word on whether anyone answered him. Later, Thomas was bothered that the younger generation was rooting for the NLF and the Vietcong rather than trying to lobby LBJ to stop the Vietnam War. He advised them to wash, instead of burn, the American flag.

In the mid to late 1960’s, Thomas was able to push his causes because his articles were printed in the national, high-circulation Life and Playboy and Esquire magazines; he also did TV interviews with highly rated shows. Unfortunately, publicity is only a small ingredient that is part of the planning process in getting people to adopt causes. Thomas, even with all his popularity, lacked the other ingredients on and off during the entire course of his career: funding and executing (actually getting elected to office).

Read the book to learn of the numerous elective offices for which Thomas ran as a Socialist and his adventures in connection therewith globally: speaking, publishing and socializing with diplomats; of the details of decades-long Socialist Party infighting; the shocking revelation that came to light about the CIA in 1967; and much, much more.

ENDNOTE: This blogger would like to clarify once and for all, what characterizes a few different economic and political systems.

First:

With SOCIALISM, the people collectively own entities, and share and share alike. These can be profit-seeking businesses. The government can own entities that provide essential services, that should not be profit-seeking (but some of their subcontractors are, anyway), such as libraries, welfare, healthcare, early childhood education, infrastructure, and social programs.

With COMMUNISM, the government owns profit-seeking entities (businesses) in whole or in part (as in the former Soviet Union and China). So yes, these include public-private partnerships in which there are clearly outrageous conflicts of interest that result in patronage and profiteering. So, arguably, the former Soviet Union and China have both Socialism and Communism to a large degree.

Also, see a bunch of this blog’s posts: Wikinomics, Here At the New Yorker (beginning with the 9th paragraph), Street Without A Name, Against the Grain, Crossing the River, and Patriot Number One. Lastly, see a bunch of excerpts from this blog’s posts:

  • Klima got a job with a construction crew [in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s], where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”
  • Fast forward to 2007. Dubai’s small population of about a million citizens (mostly royal family members) allowed the government to adopt a socialist policy of generous entitlements, including an average annual $55,000 in stimulus money, and low-cost or no-cost: cooling of their lavish homes, car-fuel, food, education, healthcare, and water.
  • In late 1993, mayor Chirac [in Paris, France]– a socialist at heart– agreed to start a (no-charge) ambulance service for the homeless in Paris. By 1995, via the city council, against the wishes of the socialist (federal) government, he provided free medical care to 150,000 homeless people.
  • In the early 1920’s, “After 2 decades of debate and agitation, the rise and fall of Populist, Progressive and Socialist parties…” and lots of labor unrest, there was general consensus between government and American business “… that the role of government was not to supersede or control the corporation, but to legalize and legitimize it by regulating its excesses.” [As is well known, capitalism flourished until the late 1920’s.]
  • Because East Germany was a police state with a socialist mentality, the people availed themselves of a free university education. Merkel got hers, as well as a doctorate in nuclear physics. In exchange, she was required to work for the government for a specific period.
  • They examined democratic, autocratic and socialistic models of leadership. The most mature group was found in the first model. The second spawned a form of Nazism. The third model’s group members displayed resentment of lazy and non-cooperative individuals.
  • Although Communism preaches godlessness, the supervising Soviet government [in East Germany] allowed some religious activity among the local citizens. Merkel’s family was spied on by the Stasi- the secret police. It was cost-effective and efficient. For, all the socially dangerous elements (potential subversives) were in one place.
  • For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.
  • Blakely thought that bringing capitalism to them [Siberian people] would be a good thing. However, they soon developed an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Once they were made of aware of their severe deprivation by the media and increased their connections with the rest of the world, they became depressed. Previously, they had been happy due to their ignorance of how materially poor they were.
  • After the Korean War, the Communist Party of North Korea oppressed business owners– who were considered evil capitalists, but praised farmers and peasants– who were considered virtuous; they served the Party. Adults were forced to attend self-criticism meetings every Saturday morning. The meeting leaders punished them by making them stand up against the wall while others stared at them. Around the time she started school, Jang and her mother went to a theater for the first time. They saw a movie written by their fearless leader, Kim il-sung. Of course, it ended happily because the peasants conquered the landlords.
  • Once in power [in 2000, Communist] Putin actually kick-started the Russian economy by nationalizing oil companies, and taking control of the gas industry and television.
  • In order for any native (Chinese) to prevail at a journalism career, joining the Communist Party was mandatory. This involved attending Party conferences on some weekends.
  • Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under [Communist] Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production.
  • It examines the issue of whether Berlusconi practiced Fascism, not necessarily through creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, but through monopolistically broadcasting propaganda in the guise of education, to the masses. He combined his business dealings with politics to amass a staggering amount of power, with the usual conflicts of interest that come with the territory.
  • He [Charles Koch] became a convert to it [Libertarianism] in its most extreme form. It espouses the belief that a purely capitalist society is the best economic system. This means total deregulation, no entitlements such as government-administered retirement or medical plans, no unions, no socialism of any kind, no income tax, and a government whose role is only to protect citizens and property from each other and outsiders, and from fraud. As a result of their political mentality, Charles and David could have cared less about the environmental destruction and wrongful deaths their company caused due to poorly maintained oil and gas pipelines. Perhaps to salve his conscience, David made huge donations to cultural institutions, especially in New York City. The liberals (hypocritically) gratefully accepted the money, notwithstanding David’s political activities that led to rack and ruin.
  • In the early 1990’s, [Soviet] leader Boris Yeltsin became a convert of [Jeffrey] Sachs. The result was mass corruption. On the other hand, this has helped the United States and other nations with already evolved [mostly] capitalist systems to maintain their economic dominance in the world. This blogger is not saying such a goal is right or wrong, but merely suggesting that this might have been Sachs’ goal.

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