Norman Thomas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

W. A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas is a loving tribute to America’s favorite Socialist. In his half century of political involvement, Thomas bridged the separate worlds of socialism and capitalism. His socialism was American rather than European, Christian rather than Marxist, and democratic rather than totalitarian. A gadfly to the American conscience, always teaching, beseeching Americans in that resonant, booming voice of his like an Old Testament prophet, he was never frightening like Eugene Debs and was never prosecuted or persecuted. Where Debs had Americanized socialism for the laboring man, Thomas had Americanized socialism for the middle class.

Swanberg is one of America’s most distinguished biographers. This is his ninth biography; other works include Citizen Hearst, Pulitzer, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Luce and His Empire. A Midwesterner like Thomas, Swanberg first saw Thomas when he was a student at the University of Minnesota. Swanberg, a Socialist at the time, voted for Thomas in the 1932 election; he was so impressed by him at the time that he “may have got my vote even had he been a Bolshevist or Falangist.”

Born in Marion, Ohio, in 1884, also the home town of Warren G. Harding, Thomas was the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers. A sickly and shy child, he had several close calls with croup and scarlet fever. For a while he was a delivery boy for Harding’s Marion Daily Star. He attended Bucknell for one year before transferring to Princeton, and in 1905 graduated from Princeton at the head of his class. After working in a New York City settlement house, he traveled in Europe, attended the Union Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1911. While pastor of the East Harlem Church, he became involved with the antiwar movement, becoming chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and No-Conscription League. Strongly critical of America’s declaration of war, he aided Roger Baldwin in founding the American Civil Liberties Union in 1917 to help conscientious objectors, one of whom was his younger brother Evan.

By 1918 Thomas had joined the Socialist Party and had left the Presbyterian pulpit. He served on the staff of the Nation for a year and then became a director of the League for International Democracy, the educational arm of the Socialist Party. His first political campaign was when he ran for governor of New York as a Socialist in 1924; in 1925 and 1929 he ran for mayor of New York City. With the death of Eugene Debs in 1926, Thomas became the leader of the Socialist Party. He would run for the Presidency six times, one more than Debs did, on the Socialist ticket between 1928 and 1948; his best race was in 1932, when he received over 800,000 votes. He supported the nationalization of basic industry, elimination of child labor, unemployment insurance, and old age pensions.

During the New Deal, while many people maintained that Roosevelt stole most of the Socialist platform, Thomas said that Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform “unless he carried it out on a stretcher.” He attacked Roosevelt for not supporting more reforms and for not nationalizing certain industries and the nation’s resources. Thomas led the fight to condemn the inequities of the Agricultural Adjustment Act on Southern tenant farmers. The acreage reduction proposals removed thousands of cropper families from the farms, and what had once been a local scandal now became a national one. Thomas traveled to Arkansas and delivered some of his most dramatic speeches. At the town of Birdsong, a drunken mob of planters and sheriff’s police attacked Thomas, kicked him off the speaker’s platform and chased him out of town, yelling “We don’t need no Gawd-damn Yankee Bastard to tell us what to do with our niggers.” Thomas left the state further committed to encouraging the nation’s sense of justice. He wrote a letter to Roosevelt emphasizing that the situation was the most dangerous he had ever seen. Getting no satisfaction from Roosevelt’s lieutenants, Thomas visited the President, who rejected Thomas’ plans for helping the croppers as unworkable, saying “Norman, I am a damned sight better politician than you are.” “Well, certainly, Mr. President,” Thomas replied. “You are on that side of the table and I’m on this.”

Thomas was ambivalent toward the Soviet Union. He criticized Stalin’s secret police and the show trials of the 1930’s, but he asserted that the Soviet economic system was progressive. He was active in antiwar organizations in the late 1930’s, speaking at the same rallies with...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. August 29, 1976, p. M2.

Library Journal. CI, October 15, 1976, p. 2168.

New York Times. November 24, 1976, p. 31.

Newsweek. LVIII, November 8, 1976, p. 103.

Progressive. XL, December, 1976, p. 54.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVIII, November 22, 1976, p. 20.