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V. Norman Thomas--Why Not? | The Nation

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V. Norman Thomas--Why Not?

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In the midst of the Great Depression, the indefatigable Socialist leader, Norman Thomas, finds more Americans than ever listening to the party's message. As Thomas would find out later, perhaps the person paying the most attention was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

About the Author

He stands on the platform of Mecca Temple in New York on Armistice Day, and explains the price that we must pay for peace. Speaking with him is a distinguished quartette: Nicholas Murray Butler, Alanson B. Houghton, John W. Davis, Alfred E. Smith. At the beginning of the meeting the average reporter would have made a mental note that he was speaking with them; but not at the end. For that tremendous audience of the elite, the intelligentsia, the sophisticates of public affairs, has been swept off its feet--and by a Socialist whose very earnestness is moving, whose remarks will seem in cold print on the morrow as full of depth as when spoken, and whose eloquence is irresistible.

He stands in the center of a milling crowd on a Socialist picnic; the well-to-do are pretty generally absent, for these are hard-handed laboring people come to manifest their economic solidarity. Thomas gets the reception of an idolized comrade, one who has not only the knack of expressing vividly the hunger of their spirits, but of arousing passionate personal loyalty. He stands on a stump at Garfield, New Jersey, a suburb of Passaic, where freedom of assembly has just been denied to striking mill workers. He gets as far as a few words about historic American liberties, declares this to be his first stump speech made from a bone fide stump, and is manhandled by a sheriff and a group of zealous deputies, who proceed to lock him up overnight for want of $10,000 bail money in his pockets.

He stands behind the pulpit of a church, filling again the ministerial role which gave him the platform training he finds so great an asset now --though there is only the slightest trace of orthodox homiletics in his bearing. He takes his listeners from personal strivings up to a larger struggle on behalf of all mankind. Communists, when they tire of branding him as "yellow," "traitor," "fake," or "reactionary," hurl the ultimate epithet--"sky-pilot."

He stands on the rostrum of a famous university making the Commencement address at the request of the graduating class. He speaks at once with dignity and fire, with practical realism and sensitive imagination. There is youth in him, and the students respond to it. He takes them into a world of problematic reward but of hearty adventure. He stands at the door of a room where a committee of the "best minds" has been fashioning the outlines of a fairer universe. He has perhaps maintained silence up to now; but before he rushes off to his sixth committee meeting for the day he will present a series of cogent ideas in rapid-fire manner, often enough of them to keep the session going for another two or three hours.

When he speaks it is his depth of conviction that counts, primarily. But he is the fortunate owner of a rich, resonant voice, and has the gift of speaking at high speed yet with clarity and freedom from oratorical bombast. Sometimes he speaks too often, and then occasionally he loses unity and tends to substitute a not unpleasing satire for ideas; but as a rule he can rise above heavy fatigue and nearly do his best. He must be tired, he is tired, a good deal of the time. When he gets warmed up he will pace back and forth, his long legs and flashing eyes emphasizing his vehement sincerity. He uses his arms but little, and never flails the air; once in a while he will crook one arm at an impossible angle, round his fingers out into a hollow ball, and draw the fingertips together tensely, as if he had something mighty important in his hand. He has the audience.

Norman Thomas, however, is no mere spellbinder. He is a first-rate executive, turning off titanic avalanches of correspondence, dictating articles and his regular editorials syndicated to the labor press, and signing letters, as a caller put it, "with one hand while carrying on a conversation with the other." The very height which, with his graying hair and his native dignity, makes him so impressive on the boards, makes him look out of place, somehow, in the confines of an office. He appears to reach down from an intense altitude to the top of his desk, and his knees are obviously never quite at home. But the League for Industrial Democracy, of which he is executive director, seems to thrive under the weight of his lanky frame.

Thomas's early career was promising enough--his brilliance is still remembered at Princeton, just as it was brought uncomfortably back to Woodrow Wilson, his former teacher, when the war-time Administration all but put an end to his "seditious" activities as the first editor of the World Tomorrow. But more significant than his early contacts with Wilsonism, or even his still earlier introduction to Hardingism as a newsboy selling the Marion Star on the streets of his native Ohio town, are his recent years. Thomas has gained and grown extraordinarily. He is a living defiance to all the cynicism of the Oslers about the inability of men to advance in middle age. Those who knew him during the trying days of the war, when he stood faithful to his internationalism; or in the post-war days when he seemed for a time to be consumed with inner bitterness at the treachery of the idealistic institutions he had trusted; or when he got his bearings and swung into the Socialist movement with humility and zest, yet with a somewhat naive simplification of complex social forces--these friends marvel most of all at his steady growth in power, his expanded breadth of human understanding, his tightened grasp on the detailed mechanisms of city, national, and international statecraft. Today, as Tammany Hall and countless facile reactionaries are aware, the man who takes on Norman Thomas in a debate over detailed, concrete governmental problems, especially those of New York City, is monkeying with a buzz saw.

His book, "America's Way Out," and the new volume, "As I See It," will go on attracting added support. But what makes him formidable in spite of his present minority position is his capacity for bringing life into practical matters of public policy. It was this phase of his campaign for the mayoralty of New York City that rolled up 175,000 votes, an amazing total, everything considered. Many, however, in the ranks of radical labor contemplate with distrust, even with horror, his heightened prestige. They see it purchased at the price of too much moderation, too little contact with the laboring masses. The New Leader, the Socialist weekly, heads his department with a stalwart drawing calculated to destroy the dangerous suspicion of intellectualism by picturing him as a beefy walking delegate. But even this undercurrent of fear cannot diminish his widening circle of repute. And the economic experience of numerous Americans during the last two years has unquestionably made them more tolerant, for the first time in their lives, of the gospel of peaceful economic revolution.

Nevertheless, as a genuine Presidential possibility Thomas belongs not to the present but only to a speculative future. Largely because a multitude of American radicals have succumbed to the doctrine of defeatism, neither Thomas nor anybody like him can yet hope to gain political control. It would be foolish to minimize the enormous barriers that the social and political conditions of our time have thrown across the road to power. But the same lack of political hardihood which made liberals and radicals run away from their great opportunity after La Follette's 5,000,000 votes in 1924, chiefly because in the first campaign they had failed to win, is holding up the march to power now. Where were the 5,000,000 in 1928? Their absence cannot be explained on the ground that these voters were mainly the same ones who had hit the Bull Moose trail in 1912, and later, growing fatigued with the passing of time, reclined in the Smith-Tammany wigwam of 1928. For the same thing has happened to the parties of the left. In 1912, despite the three-cornered contest among Taft, Wilson, and T. R., with shouts for the New Freedom and the New Trust-Busting between them drowning out the impressive Taft chuckle, the Socialist Party rolled up a vote of 901,873. The combined vote of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party in 1920 reached the mark of 950,974. But in 1928, notwithstanding the fact of woman suffrage and the increase in average longevity which medical science, with dubious wisdom, had given our citizens, the best these two parties could pile up, together with the growing Workers' Party and the ephemeral vest-pocket Farmer Labor Party of Colonel Frank E. Webb, was 344,183. Looking at this slump in terms of percentages, it is even more revealing. In 1920 radical votes constituted approximately 3 percent of the total votes cast; in 1928 they amounted to less than 1 percent. What happened to the other, 2 percent?

The plain fact is that the large vote of 1920, chiefly run up behind Eugene Debs, was less a vote of Socialist conviction than a vote of bitter protest. The Socialist vote of 1912 was the peak of political socialism; it was the climax of vigorous education, comparative liveliness within the trade unions, and a general spirit of infectious liberal sentiment. But 1920 was different. Emerging from the war, those multitudes who had been directly victims of repression or who had indirectly felt themselves wronged by the immeasurable crime, seized upon the almost legendary figure of the imprisoned Debs as a happy vehicle for their rebellion. At bottom, its good vote notwithstanding, the Socialist Party was almost fatally weakened by the oppression of the war and the internal split which had come with the conflict's end. Officially, the party had bravely opposed the war. Debs went splendidly to jail; Berger and the party's executive staff stood trial; not a few Socialist leaders and more obscure spokesmen from the rank and file suffered persecution; Morris Hillquit in 1917 campaigned for the mayoralty of New York on a courageous anti-war platform. But the trail of other party Solons was in many places rather slippery. Comrades Spargo, Phelps Stokes, and Walling had worked up military enthusiasms and suspended the ancient camaraderie. Upton Sinclair had not loved Prophet Karl any less, but had loved Prophet Woodrow more. The old Christian Socialist had vindicated a long ecclesiastical tradition by being the first Socialist journal to back up the war. That ardent rebel, Haldeman-Julius, out in the safety of his Kansas cyclone cellar, also had swung behind the war, appropriately enough changing the title of his influential Socialist paper from the Appeal to Reason to the New Appeal. It was after this disintegration that Norman Thomas came into the party. Everywhere was Socialist wreckage, partly the product of the war and partly of the internecine conflict that raged up to the time of the left-wing split. That the pieces could be picked up and rebuilt into anything tangible seemed hard to believe, but the job was done. Thomas did not do it; it was accomplished by a corps of experienced, if somewhat too experienced, leaders. But it took Thomas to breathe life into the machine again and teach it to walk in a forward direction.

When 1924 came along, by a far more sacrificial and generous move than its collaborators usually realized, the Socialist Party threw itself into the La Follette drive, emerging with its own machinery gear-stripped and its esprit de corps considerably dissipated. In 1928 it suffered because of the dropping of its name off the ballot in 1924 in many States. Small wonder, then, that in the heat of the contest between those flaming knights-errant of liberalism, Herbert Hoover and Alfred Smith, even as good a man as Norman Thomas, a man little known to the old-timers that had once massed behind Gene Debs, could hardly project his constructive program into the uproar of fake issues. Shouts did not come from the crowds when candidates talked of export debentures or reparations; it was a race, so far as the bleachers were concerned, between the Drinkers and the Drys; or a spiritual rivalry between a dangerous Catholicism and the harmless inner light of Quakerdom; or wild New York against the sound, clean open spaces of the West; or "raddio" against misleading figures which the average Hoover fan could not then tell were incorrect. Getting people to listen to intelligent discussions of economic questions was like getting them to cheer for the fourth dimension. A certain Socialist speaker complained, after talking faithfully to innumerable street audiences about the war debts, real wages, superpower, and increased consumption of goods, that in two months he had seen nothing but tonsils.

But 1928 is hardly 1932. While he would be rash who would predict a political overturn on any available evidence at the present moment, discontent is deeper than it was in 1920. If Franklin D. Roosevelt is nominated by the Democrats, he may reap the benefit of it. But let no one fancy that a Roosevelt victory necessarily forecasts a slender Socialist vote, for history belies any such assumption. It is an interesting phenomenon of politics that the heaviest Socialist votes for the Presidential ticket have come in years when moderately liberal Democrats have run. For Cox, badly beaten though he was by the anti-Wilson reaction, ran in 1920 as a liberal and progressive; in 1912 the Roosevelt-Wilson combination only swelled the Socialist total, and even in 1916, when the Socialists ran the inconspicuous Benson, they polled almost 600,000 despite the appealing pledge of the Democrats to keep us out of war.

There are many phases of renewed Socialist activity which do not bring praise from critics farther to the left. Within the party itself there are frequent protests. Some of these emanate from militants justly fearful of a drift away from the basic concept of the class struggle. There would be fewer complaints of this character if the objectors followed in the wake of Thomas among the labor bodies to which he is constantly bringing encouragement, hope, and a fighting spirit. Some of the doubters are veterans who have become so accustomed to overwhelming defeat that they bridle against the loosening of ideology inevitable in any growing movement. But it is safe to say that of all the groups seeking political expression in this country today, discounting the small and extreme parties whose dogmatic theologies engender a sectarian solidarity, the Socialists are most united.

The party has been picking up, its gains in the capture of political office in the 1931 elections more than offsetting the losses. Inquiries by mail are vastly multiplied; the literature issued is more than tenfold the amount put out in 1927. Membership goes steadily, if slowly, upward. A dozen new Socialist journals were founded last year and old ones have grown. Even where losses occurred, as in Reading, the loss was in control rather than support, for the vote increased and membership has doubled. It took a fusion of the old parties to create the setback -- a neat lesson in the method by which a political realignment can be brought to pass.

But no Socialist gain, on the whole, has been greater than the influence that Norman Thomas has exerted over the public on behalf of socialism. For, whatever his critics may say, he has never run as an individual appealing for personal support. He has invariably stressed his devotion to Socialist principles, asking for votes as an exponent of socialism. Perhaps his socialism is without benefit of Marx; perhaps, judging from the manner in which the more alert members of the liberal churches are swinging to him, it is not without benefit of clergy, and that to the cynics is a cause of great distress. But however any skeptic may dissent from Thomas's socialism or fear the final consequences of party leadership by a man at once an idealist, an ex-minister, an author of books, and an intellectual, not one can accuse him of making his socialism subsidiary. Has he, despite his writings, an adequately detailed plan for the economic transformation of America? Most observers, friends and foes alike, would answer in the negative. But who has a better plan, who can at the same time lead and carry with him a great enough body of loyal followers?

No Socialist, in the wisdom of insistence on party first, likes to assume that the nomination of Norman Thomas in 1932 is a foregone conclusion. But most Socialists know that Thomas it must be, or else the campaign will fall flat and wind up profitless. There are plenty of other capable leaders in the ranks; American socialism is by no means the party of incompetents that faithful readers of the editorials in conservative newspapers fondly imagine it to be. But no matter how many Thomas's defects, he will probably be named, he will make a hard try, he will pull down a worthwhile vote. It will not be a mere vote of protest --the Democrats will fall heir to the real grudge votes. Socialist votes this time will be registered for the creation of a new economic order, for the building of an eventually powerful party. Whether or not some liberal party ticket may arise, either spontaneously or under the cultivation of the League for Independent Political Action, it is too soon to say. It is unlikely that the Socialist Party, officially, will join in a formal coalition. The party's leaders believe that to rush into a mass movement for a liberal Presidential ticket without a well-organized party to buttress the ticket with experience and momentum would be a fatal error in the long run. It is not impossible that thousands of people who before 1932 have hesitated to support an out-and-out Socialist will decide that this is now exactly the thing for them to do.

One thing is sure: There are countless voters who are not convinced that the way out is socialism but who wish to push forward into genuinely progressive and humane policies the more advanced of the old-party candidates, should the man of their choice be victorious. Even if this is as far as they can persuade themselves to go, overlooking the way in which party organization sways the chief, they must reckon with the demonstrated fact that a large Socialist vote has exerted a marked pressure in the past on otherwise conventional platform-makers and in a smaller measure on administrative policies. Whoever the next President might be, he could not escape the effect of a huge Socialist vote. It would haunt his table like Banquo's ghost whenever he contemplated a reactionary, anti-labor, or inhuman move. It would nudge his elbow whenever he lapsed into that utilitarian coma which serves the interests desiring to have nothing done.

Norman Thomas will discourage, however, the proponents of the "good man" theory of Presidential candidates. He will demand votes for his party's program. He will have to contend once more against the familiar fears about votes "thrown away." One day shortly after the 1928 election a well-known progressive society woman rushed up to the erstwhile campaigner and exclaimed warmly, "Mr. Thomas, I had my mind all made up to vote for you, for I thought you were the best candidate and had the best platform.

But at the very last minute I went into the polling booth and voted for Al Smith, just because I didn't want to throw my vote away! And... and..." "And so you did," finished Thomas, with a nice mixture of humor and asperity. Clearly they were legion who, in 1928, conceived their duty as this woman voter saw it. There will doubtless be enough of them this time. But Thomas will ride into that stampede with full speed in 1932, and when the shouting is over, not all the hesitant ones will have given their blessing to the huge and single Republican-Democratic Party, even though that great organization, in our quadrennial rodeo, again stages a "thrilling" round-up for the entertainment of the public and the joint profit of its management.

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