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A Historian Considers American Socialism

Norman Thomas

As the 2016 Presidential election moves along through the coming conventions to Election Day itself, interest in “Socialism” has grown in our society somewhat in proportion to the apparent successes in the primaries of Bernie Sanders of Vermont, second term U.S. senator and 16 years a Socialist claiming congressman.

Sanders is not the first Socialist to run for a major office in our country, not even the first to run for President. The name of Eugene V. Debs is well known as a Socialist who was fiery and got jailed in World War I—all long ago. His successors carry far less baggage and are more relevant for us. A serious campaign for President was mounted by Socialists and Communists alike in 1928, and Socialism was promoted through the New Deal years and beyond.

The hero of the movement, back then, was for years the educated and articulate Norman Thomas. Socialists campaigned seriously for mayorial offices in Milwaukee, Wis., Reading, Pa., and New York City—even governor of California (in 1934). The Socialist newspaper The New Leader (1924-2006) was a literate spokesman for the cause.

We want to know what being a Socialist means. Bernie Sanders seems virtually mute on Socialism these days as he asks Democrats to help him get the nation’s top office. We should know more than we do about his professed ideology.

In instinctive reaction, we won’t join those who say look to Sweden, Denmark or the British Labour Party. Analogy with us is troublesome. These countries are very unlike our giant and powerful United States with its Wall Street, its oil, that giant highway system, farms that are incorporated, and money that is the standard for the world.

We also have a giant Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Ours is, after all, a land 3,000 miles “coast to coast,” a giant place of mountains, valleys, lakes, deserts, coasts, cities, and a remarkable diversity of people. The 50 states have governments; so do those more than 3,000 counties and all those cities. Advocating real Socialism for America must be thought thorugh carefully.

Oddly, the place to begin on what this country’s Socialists profess is with what they decided long ago to reject. They reject Lenin and Stalin and, on doctrine, Trotsky. Socialists totally reject membership in the Third International that emerged after World War I. And how did that happen?

Initially, Socialists wished the Soviet Union well, while watchfully waiting. When the Third International arrived after World War I, and it arrogantly tried to unify worldwide the wild and wooly revolutionary doctrine being spread from Moscow, American Socialists stepped back. Any leader could soon see that here was ruthless conspiracy, with a reliance on money and spies.

In August,1920 the Second Congress of the Third International met in Moscow and drafted the uncompromisingly defiant “Twenty-one Demands”that would forever separate Socialists from Communists everywhere. (That many intellectuals seem never to have heard of the ultimatum just reflects on them. It could not be more important in the long history of planetary radicalism.)

The chief objective of the Demands (I once wrote) was “to isolate the Communists of the world from their previous mooring and develop purity of doctrine and practice within the party ranks.” Moreover, the document would make clear “who would be party members, what leaders might do, and how both might do it.”

Harsh or not, it was reprinted at once in the N. Y. Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Current History; it was not secret. Stressed within its belligerent pages was the idea of unquestioning obedience, with the goal uniformity among international Communists. The Monitor thought it uncompromising.

The future Socialists of the world, including America, could see at once that compliance with any future demands of the Third International was going to be the sine qua non of Communist membership. Nor did those who drafted it expect compromise or surrender from Socialists. Reliability as to doctrine would be the watchword; groveling to the U.S.S.R appropriate.

“Really revolutionary propaganda and agitation” was expected in the coming era of “intensified civil war.” Any who rejected the Conditions was to be expelled at once from the Third International.

The word “Party” used by Communists had nothing in common with its use in common political activities in the West. The list of Demands was silent on elections, nominees for office, conventions and campaign speeches, and voting. The goal, it made abundantly clear, was “the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.” And, there was to be no confidence in “bourgeois laws.” Much was said about the need for infiltration and control of trade unions.

It is vital to say again at this point that the Socialist Party of the United States “rejected membership in the new International reluctantly but nonetheless decisively.” The Soviet Union, in theory, was to be considered a noble experiment to be wished well (more or less), but the means that had brought it into being were to be totally rejected here at home.

Before long (1923) Lenin himself seized an opportunity to uphold the Demands (during the Third Congress), just ignoring vigorous protests from delegates from Italy, Germany, and other nations who said that doing that was certain to inhibit growth of their new parties.

The Communist Party that emerged in America in the years after 1920 “came and went” in name from time to time, following opportunism and expediency. Many know of its going underground in World War II as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. jointly fought Hitler, for example. Less known is its vote much earlier, on April 7, 1923, to dissolve.

For several years it had a new “front” organization called the Workers Party of America, a name it used in the election of 1924. Meanwhile, by the end of the decade there had been organized a Pittsburgh based Socialist Labor Party and a Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party.

It is the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas and its doctrines over the years that have undoubtedly been absorbed and espoused by Bernie Sanders. He has several years to go as the Socialist United States Senator from Vermont. The election of 2016 has made him famous as a Socialist stereotype. Yet other leaders of that party should be at least mentioned.

Four are Morris Hillquit of New York City, James H. Maurer of Reading, Pennsylvania, and Daniel W. Hoan and Victor Berger of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two ran for mayor of their cities and won, and served in office. Hillquit and Norman Thomas before him had little chance of carrying New York, but they tried anyway. This writer had Hillquit’s personal papers broken out of a wooden box for their first use in the Wisconsin State Historical Society in spring, 1952 and found them pleasant going. (Since the Party sold its papers to Duke University; I used them there.)

Victor Berger of Milwaukee served in Congress four terms, taking the floor 29 times, introducing both bills and resolutions. One of his wisecracks was: “The average man does not know the difference between socialism, anarchism, nihilism, communism, and rheumatism. They are all fearful and wicked ‘isms’ to him.”

Anyone who seeks strong, unequivocal, public statements from Socialists about their “fundamental beliefs” may be a bit disappointed. Blending in to run as a Democrat requires careful tact. Socialist author Upton Sinclair, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in California, once gave campaigning a shot. The Socialist goal, said he, was the gradual transformation of natural wealth resources and basic industries to public ownership. A “socialist state,” of course, is bound to be the goal. The best vehicle for getting there is, it is hoped, is with the help of the trade union movement—or at least it might be if “the despoilers” (a dated categorization) can be thwarted.

Considering the handsome and constructive leader for decades, Norman Thomas (of Princeton and Union seminary), a worker for welfare groups, and supporter of many a worthy voluntary organization, one finds his “socialism” (though ardent) carefully proclaimed. Its nature was usually buried under prose devoted to his generally praiseworthy life as an American, urbane man of affairs. (As a boy he delivered to neighbors the newspaper published by future President Warren Harding. As an adult, even William F. Buckley respected him.)

Often, Thomas did try to tell repeatedly why he was a socialist. He said he favored freedom and justice for the individual, a free press and free speech. Achieving these things, and socialism too, would have to come through the ballot. That totally ruled out Communism. His idealistic vision was for a world wherein a fellowship of free men might live in peace. As for him, he publicly and consistently opposed the involvement of the United States in World Wars I and II and Vietnam as well.

Well, good. But it is capitalism that is the major enemy. Another is ownership of property in private hands. Reading Socialist speeches and documents of yesteryear, it can be hard to find declarations that, though pertinent and practical, are very offensive to a welfare capitalist property holder in America. Using diplomatic speech when pushing their doctrine seems somehow de rigueur.

Just how do we convert to Socialism? Officially, this should be spelled out to be the exact way: The Constitution is to be modified in a convention with one omnibus major goal: the nationalization of coal mines, water sites, industrial power systems, railroads … and communications “to recover the rightful heritage of the people.”

Continuing: All sorts of activities are to be shifted to operation by government (as has been tried and partly achieved in the New Deal and LBJ years). It is tempting to say that all the reforms one ever heard of were sought in the late 1920s Socialist platforms and key speeches. The preferred tone is normally proposals—not demands.

Reading masses of Socialist literature of the 1920s and 1930s, it is hard for those familiar with the New Deal and the Democratic Party speeches of later years to avoid the conclusion that the political figures of the Socialist Party “urged all that” years earlier. The words of Norman Thomas, as a public figure on display in the late 1920s, read in retrospect as one quite prescient. The subjects he discussed do sound like predictions of things to be debated and enacted.

Today’s reader does come to realize—if at all alert—that this group of Marxists is preparing hopefully to convert resources and industries to government control and ownership, and that incalculably large units of private property with stockholders are somehow to have their ownership transferred from where it is to, well, everybody probably except its owners. That is to be done somehow or other.

There can be pride in being a Socialist. The New Leader, the party organ, editorialized once about a recent Convention: it had been enough “to make you hold up your head and stick out your chest and be all-fired proud of the fact that you are a Socialist.”

One thing that intellectuals should bear in mind about Socialist lingo. They speak of “workers of the mind” and “workers of the hand.” A special target has long been, they admit, teachers, ministers, artists, and writers; that is, articulate leaders among us. Success has been considerable.

Names of famous persons show up in lists of authors speaking kindly of Socialism. The writings of allegedly Socialist editors, columnists, and others who write to persuade are full of cheerful acceptance. I am reluctant to offer names, for maybe they weren’t Socialist. Many by reputation are considered merely “reformers.” Finally, I don’t even know when or if they quit being party members—if they ever were. The truth is that a vast array of smart persons with solid educations have “flirted” with Socialist preaching.

Socialists in earlier decades did sometimes have to endure caustic critics. Said Arthur Garfield Hays, author of Let Freedom Ring of Socialists then: “Your socialism has become a religion. You have a pattern. Economics must fit into that pattern. You have a philosophy. You have a dogma. … You forget that any system of society is a means, not an end.” (New Leader, Nov. 3, 1928.)

Some years ago when coming to the end of a considerable written discussion of Socialism, I ventured to summarize—in conclusion—the nature of Socialist politicians in action, leaders who spent vast amounts of time enthusiastically making appeals to American citizens. My conclusion was that Socialists displayed “a naïve but enthusiastic mixture of the realistic and the unrealistic; the idealistic and the opportunistic; the enduring—and the ephemeral.”

Marxist leaders “dreamed dreams of perfectionism and thought they could see just over the horizon a better land and a better world.”

In the mid 1960s this non-Socialist summed up the thinking of true believers:

“The Socialist Party was a threat to private ownership of property, to the continuing existence of a balanced two-party system, and to the continuation of a society more interested in opportunity than class consciousness. It did not, on fundamentals, deserve the support of the American electorate.” Moreover,

“No amount of admiration which some may want to give to individuals, reformist program, or occasional idealism of individual expression should wave aside these plain and altogether vital facts.”

At the same time I ventured to summarize my convictions on the value of the overall American electoral system: “The election,” I observed, “had been a political contest—not a battle, struggle, or ideological war.” *

*Quoted from Vaughn Davis Bornet, Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic (Wash., D.C., Spartan Press, 1964), pp. 320, 322. A detailed analysis and summary of the Demands appears on pages 268-281 of my lengthy microfilmed doctoral thesis, Labor and Politics in 1928 (Stanford University, 1951, 520 pages). Domestic Communism in the U.S. is summarized from that work in Bornet, “The Communist Party in the Presidential Election of 1928,” Western Political Quarterly, XI, no. 3 (Sept., 1958), pp. 514-538.