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in defense of norman thomas

June 4, 2009

I received an email this week with a link to an LP recording by Ronald Reagan for the Operation Coffee Cup campaign against medicare, or as Reagan called it, “socialized medicine.” Although Reagan’s speech against “socialized medicine” was originally recorded in 1961, I find it surprisingly relevant to what’s happening today with the current debate over health care reform and the non-story about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s inclusion of a quote by Norman Thomas, six time Socialist Party presidential candidate, co-founder of the ACLU and fellow Princeton alumi, on her 1976 Princeton yearbook page.

What really bothered me about this, besides the slam of medicare as a danger to democracy and individual liberty of course, is Reagan’s characterization of Thomas’ political views, which I find unfair and misleading. As it happens, I’ve just started reading Thomas’ A Socialist Faith, so I feel an urge to write a short defense of Thomas.

To begin with, Reagan starts out with a quote often attributed to Thomas (although I’ve never been able to find the original source, and neither has, which is, “The American people will never vote for socialism. But, under the name of ‘liberalism,’ the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program,” and then uses that as a segue to discuss another “threat” facing the U.S. that is “with us” and “more imminent”—the imposition of “statism or socialism” by way of medicine (cue scary sounding music).

While it’s true that Thomas was a socialist, Reagan completely misrepresents his politics by utilizing the same socialism = statism straw man argument that almost every conservative propagates to death—as if every extreme form of government intervention in the economy in which production is dominated by an authoritarian political regime or state is equivalent to socialism. For starters, there are many different forms of socialism, but the type of socialism that Thomas represented, the form I think most democratic socialists represent, is nothing like the the authoritarian and militaristic style of socialism that dominated China and Russia. In fact, most socialists wouldn’t even consider what they had as socialism. Even Lenin and Trotsky, two Bolshevik Party leaders and revolutionaries, acknowledged that fact.

What Thomas represented was a mass movement towards economic democracy — collectively owned and democratically controlled production based on need rather than profit — and the creation of an egalitarian, classless society. Besides a very brief period just after the 1917 Russian Revolution, there wasn’t even anything close to worker owned and democratically controlled production in either country, let alone the creation of an egalitarian, classless society. What places like the Soviet Union and China had was nothing more than an authoritarian form of state capitalism, a system in which the state owns and/or controls the means of production. They were socialist in name only. And this isn’t simply some sort of modern reinterpretation of socialism as some like to suggest. In fact, this very point was made by Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1896 when he said:

Nobody has combatted State Socialism more than we German Socialists; nobody has shown more distinctively than I, that State Socialism is really State capitalism!

Frederick Engels also made this distinction a decade earlier when he argued in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that state-ownership of certain industries isn’t the same thing as socialism, nor does it solve the problems inherent in the capitalist system, most notably the exploitation of its working-class citizens.

At the very least, in any form of state socialism, the people must be in control the state in a directly democratic way. As Eric Ruder put it in What is Socialism?, “The critical determining factor of whether state ownership of the means of production (or the means of finance) has a socialist character depends on the answer to a simple question: If the state controls the economy, who controls the state?”

In Russia’s case, the working class was decimated on the front lines of WWI and the Russian Civil War, as well as by famine, and the Bolshevik Party basically ended up substituting itself for the working class by taking over its role in the government. After two relatively bloodless revolutions — the first being a spontaneous event that lead to the abdication of the Tsar in February of 1917 and the second being the removal of the unpopular and ineffective Provisional Government by the Bolshevik Party in October of the same year — the country erupted into civil war, and the Allied Power’s intervention in Russia’s Civil War on the side of pro-monarchist and anti-Bolshevik forces didn’t help matters any. During this time, the Bolshevik-lead government became increasingly more brutal and repressive in an effort to hold on to power amidst the chaos and upheaval. They suppressed rival political organizations and began taking away power from what was left of the directly democratic workers’ councils (i.e., soviets) that consisted of worker-elected delegates with both legislative and executive powers. These events paved the way for Josef Stalin’s eventual rise to power and the formation of the U.S.S.R.

In a time immediately following the second Red Scare and in the midst of the Cold War when the fear of “socialism” was high, what Reagan essentially did at the onset of the recording by equating Thomas with socialism and socialism with statism was to imply that Thomas himself supported the same kind of oppressive statist policies as Stalin. Furthermore, by equating medicare to “socialized medicine,” he was trying to utilize that fear in an effort to discourage support for the passage of medicare by implying that it was nothing but an insidious plot by socialists to take over the U.S. So even though he only mentions Thomas at the beginning and end of the recording, I think this mischaracterization of Thomas’ political views is clearly evident when seen within the context of Reagan’s entire monologue.

Besides the fact that single-payer heath insurance for the elderly isn’t a bad thing, especially for the elderly themselves, Thomas didn’t support Stalin, nor did he desire to transform the U.S. into another Soviet dictatorship. In fact, he actively spoke out against Stalin and the oppressiveness of the Soviet Union. In 1948, for example, he denounced Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship as a menace in a private letter to President Truman. And in 1950, he wrote in his book, A Socialist Faith:

Even democratic socialists like myself, despite fears of dictatorship, viewed the Russian revolution optimistically until the time of Stalin’s purges or, in some cases, until his pact with Hitler. The disillusionment was bitter and painful. It drove some of its victims far to the right. Later on, Russian resistance to Hitler’s attack brought Stalin widespread confidence and support in the United States even from conservatives. The single speech most uncritically eulogistic of Stalin which I ever heard from a noncommunist was given by Wendell Willkie, titular leader of the Republican Party, after the trip on which he discovered “one world.”

At the end of the war, so tolerant was American opinion of Stalin, which whom we had been allied in the fighting, that I felt obliged to spend much energy in speech and writing to elaborate the facts about Stalin’s betrayal of the ideals of true socialism. So rapidly did this situation change, however, and so deeply were the American people stirred by the development of the cold war, that it became no longer necessary for me to work out in detail a criticism of communist totalitarianism.

In addition, Thomas wasn’t a statist in the sense that I think Reagan meant, and neither are most democratic socialists. Like most other socialists, he wanted to take power from the state and give it back to the citizens, especially the workers, which is in direct contrast to the right-wing view of statism promulgated by the likes of Ayn Rand, who heavily influenced conservative ideology throughout the 50s and 60s. In The Objectivist Newsletter, for example, she writes:

A statist system—whether of a communist, fascist, Nazi, socialist or “welfare” type—is based on the . . . government’s unlimited power, which means: on the rule of brute force. The differences among statist systems are only a matter of time and degree; the principle is the same. Under statism, the government is not a policeman, but a legalized criminal that holds the power to use physical force in any manner and for any purpose it pleases against legally disarmed, defenseless victims.

Nothing can ever justify so monstrously evil a theory. Nothing can justify the horror, the brutality, the plunder, the destruction, the starvation, the slave-labor camps, the torture chambers, the wholesale slaughter of statist dictatorships.

In her view, “any kind or degree of such control, by any group, for any purpose whatsoever—rests on the basic principle of statism, the principle that man’s life belongs to the state,” and this is precisely the kind of statism that I think Reagan was referring to. Thomas, on the other hand, knew quite well the dangers posed by such a state, which was why he was so critical of the revolutionary Marxists’ theories and practices of Lenin, Trotsky, etc. In A Socialist Faith, for example, he points out that, “Lenin did not so much interpret as modify Marxism by his development of the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Earlier in the book, he mentions that Marx himself never explains this term, but that much later Engels wrote “the Paris Commune … was the dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Thomas then stresses that the Paris Commune was “concerned to destroy the bureaucratic military machine” and that “[i]t was never a one-party government with stringent controls over working-class freedom of speech and association such as the Bolsheviks later imposed.”

Thus, while people like Rand and Reagan associated all forms of socialism with Stalin-esque dictatorship, Thomas himself flatly rejected such a system. As Raymond Gregory notes in Norman Thomas: The Great Dissenter, Thomas, who was not only a pacifist but a staunch defender of civil rights, was attacked by communists for his dedication to constitutional change rather than violent revolution to achieve socialistic goals, as well as for his rejection of “any sort of coercion whatsoever,” which made it impossible for him to “accept the Bolshevik concept of Soviet control and dominance.” He made this position abundantly clear in his application for membership in the Socialist Party when he wrote:

Perhaps to certain members of the party my socialism would not be of the most orthodox variety … 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 any sort of coercion whatsoever. I am interested in political parties only to the extent in which they may be serviceable in advancing certain ideals and in winning liberty for men and women.

If Thomas supported statism at all, the type of statism that he supported was one in which the state — geared toward guaranteeing civil rights and providing basic social needs — was in direct control of the people. Like Rand, who equated government power with “the power of coercion by physical force,” Thomas feared and shunned an all-powerful state, but he didn’t see government itself as the main problem; he saw it as the platform by which change through democratic means was possible. And the only way to achieve such a state was by giving the power back to the people, not taking it away under threats of violence or through the restriction of individual rights. In other words, Thomas saw social ownership as a tool in a movement concerned with the common good, not as an end in itself.

So while I certainly think that it’s fair to point out the places where hard-core socialists/Marxists ran amok, I don’t think it’s fair to categorize all socialists as would-be Stalins, especially Norman Thomas. He was by no means perfect, but he was anything but a threat to the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


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  1. Christopher M. Hughes, MD permalink

    Thanks for this, Jason!

    I'm doing a talk on the 44th Anniversary of Medicare tonight and was wondering who Norman Thomas was and why Reagan was quoting him.

    After reading you post and knowing about the work of George Lakoff and John Dean about the way conservatives think, this makes a lot of sense.

    When conservaives talk of government they talk about “it” and “them,” in an adversarial mode, whereas I think most liberals view governnment in the true democratic sense, as “us” and “our elected representatives,” whom we can throw out of office when they aren't behaving as we wish.

    There is also the authoritarian-submissive mindset that makes them wary. They feel they must obey the leaders, the authorities, and so any socialism IS statism. I think that is why they fear Obama: they know he has the authority of the presidency and are afraid he will use it as a convative would.


  2. I completely agree, Dr. Hughes. Well said.

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