Thursday, May 30, 2013

Norman Thomas on the Soviet Union, Government, and Religion

My latest reading of W.A. Swanberg's Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist covered Thomas' views on the Soviet Union, the 1932 platform of the Socialist Party, and Thomas' changing religious views.

Thomas was critical of the Soviet Union's tyranny, favored "evolutionary and constitutional change" rather than violent revolution (Swanberg on page 105), and was far from being a doctrinaire Marxist.  A number of Communists viewed Thomas as rather bourgeois, and Thomas himself struggled to justify how he, a Socialist, could be well-off financially, saying that he could not help living in a capitalistic society, or that he wanted the best for his kids.  At the same time, on the issue of the Soviet Union, Thomas held out hope that the U.S.S.R.'s tyranny would be merely transitional, and he stated that "Russia is disproving the fallacy of the necessity of the worship of the profit motive to make men work and work hard" (page 130).  Moreover, Thomas disagreed with fellow Socialist Morris Hillquist because Hillquist "served as counsel for the Standard Oil and Vacuum Oil companies in their lawsuits to regain oil lands which had been nationalized by Soviet Russia" (Swanberg on page 129).

On the 1932 platform of the Socialist Party, Swanberg summarizes it as follows: it "favored public works, a shorter work week, agricultural relief, unemployment insurance, the elimination of child labor, old-age pensions, slum clearance, low-cost housing, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and the nationalization of basic industries" (page 135).  Thomas conveyed a remarkable vision: "There is no conceivable physical reason why every American family should not be well fed, well clothed, well housed, possessing its own radio and automobile, and, above all, free from that dread fear of tomorrow which is the tyrant of our waking and sleeping hours" (Thomas' words, quoted on page 135).

Thomas was critical of President Herbert Hoover for prioritizing a balanced budget over helping those who were suffering on account of the Great Depression, and Thomas stated that Hoover "promised prosperity to us all but has fought off every dole except a dole to bankers [the Reconstruction Finance Corporation]" (Thomas' words, quoted on page 125).  Thomas also criticized Roosevelt's favorable emphasis on the importance of a balanced federal budget.  One might argue that Thomas, as a Socialist, had a statist view on government, but Thomas asserted the contrary, saying: "I have a profound fear of the undue exaltation of the State and a profound faith that the new world we desire must depend upon freedom and fellowship rather than upon any sort of coercion whatsoever."  Thomas indeed defended civil liberties when the government was attacking them in the name of patriotism, and so in that sense he was anti-authoritarian; but I doubt that, were Socialism to be effected, it would proceed without any coercion by the state, for corporations and the wealthy probably would not voluntarily contribute large sums of their money to Socialistic programs.

I'm curious about how the nuts-and-bolts of Socialism would work.  If basic industries are nationalized, what for-profit corporations would exist to serve as a source of revenue for the government to redistribute wealth?  I guess it depends on the definition of "basic industries" (Swanberg's words).

On Thomas' view of religion, Thomas became more skeptical about religion after the death of his son, as he questioned whether a loving God would be omnipotent and allow so many problems in the world.  For Thomas, if change were to be effected, human beings would have to be the ones to do it.  Yet, Socialists still appealed to Thomas, a former clergy-person, in their attempt to refute the charge that they were anti-religion.

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