Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Norman Thomas and Huey Long

I've been reading W.A. Swanberg's biography of Socialist Norman Thomas, entitled Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist.  Swanberg talks about Thomas' relationship with Huey Long, the controversial populist Governor of Louisiana.

Essentially, what I get out of Swanberg's description is that Thomas thought of Long as a demagogue, who could start a coup during the uncertain times of the Great Depression.  According to Swanberg, Thomas regarded Long's Share-Our-Wealth proposal as "pie in the sky to attain power", and Thomas believed that Long was insincere because Thomas' impression was that Long did not really believe that capitalism could be saved by a redistribution of wealth.  Thomas may have also seen Long as a political competitor: Thomas was told that sharecroppers would flock to Long's Share-Our Wealth plan rather than the Socialist Party if the Socialists did not get on the ball.  Thomas planned to take a tour through Louisiana "to expose the demagoguery of Long's share-the-wealth plan" (Thomas, as quoted on page 198), but Long predicted that Thomas wouldn't get three people to listen to him.  As Swanberg notes, Long was right: Long was assassinated three weeks before Thomas was to begin his tour, so Thomas cancelled the event.

Huey Long is also mentioned on page 162 of Swanberg's book.  When a woman was arrested in New Orleans for distributing Socialist literature, Thomas called the American Civil Liberties Union as well as "sent to the New Orleans Times-Picayune a blistering opinion of law enforcement in that Huey Long realm."  Thomas perhaps saw Huey Long as authoritarian in his governorship of Louisiana.

What was the difference between Long's program and that of Norman Thomas?  I can only guess.  According to this wikipedia article on Long's Share-Our-Wealth program, which draws from this article, the plan had the following elements:

"He proposed capping personal fortunes at $50 million and repeated his call to limit annual income to $1 million and inheritances to $5 million. (He also suggested reducing the cap on personal fortunes to $10 million–$15 million per individual, if necessary, and later lowered the cap to $5 million–$8 million in printed materials.) The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000–3,000, or one-third of the average family homestead value and income. Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free college education and vocational training for all able students, old-age pensions, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, greater federal regulation of economic activity, a month's vacation for every worker and limiting the work week to thirty hours to boost employment."

A lot of Long's Share-Our-Wealth plan appears to overlap with Thomas' proposals and the 1932 Socialist Party platform, which Swanberg discusses on page 135: public works projects, "a shorter work week", "agricultural relief", "old-age pensions", and "higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy" (Swanberg's words on page 135).  I do notice a few differences, however----and I base this on my limited knowledge about these two men's programs, so I'm open to correction.  One difference is that Thomas called for "the nationalization of basic industries" (Swanberg on page 135), but I don't see anything about nationalization in Long's program; Long probably just wanted to tax the industries' profits at a higher rate.  Another difference is that I don't see anything about a guaranteed annual income in Thomas' program.

In Long's debate with Thomas, Long "declared that the lands and flocks of Abraham in the Bible were capitalistic at God's own inspiration and complained that under Socialism a man would not even own his garters" (page 164).  But my impression is that Thomas was not entirely against private property, for he said in 1932 that "There is no conceivable reason why every American family should not be well fed, well clothed, well housed, possessing its own radio and automobile" (Thomas, as quoted on page 135).

This article in The Nation may shed some light on the difference between Long and Socialists, as well as the low level respect that Long had for Socialists:

"'Will you kindly explain to me, Senator,' I asked him at his Capitol, which was on the twelfth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, 'how you can share wealth without socializing the productive process?' 'Never explain, my boy, never explain! For explanation is the mother of sectarianism.' He laughed with enormous joy at his own brilliance. 'But let's suppose,' he continued, 'just for the sake of argument, that you're right, that you can't share wealth without socializing its creation. That's socialism, isn't it? And will you please tell me what sense there is in running on a Socialist ticket in America today? What's the use of being right only to be defeated? First you must come into power—POWER—and then you do things.'"

Long here appears to oppose socializing production, as well as regards the Socialist ticket as inept.  But was Thomas for socializing all production, since he supported higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, which seems to imply that corporations would still exist, under his program?

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