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in defense of norman thomas (edited version)

June 9, 2009

Listening to Ronald Reagan’s 1961 LP recording for the Operation Coffee Cup campaign against medicare, or as Reagan called it, “socialized medicine,” I’m reminded of the current debate over health care reform and the non-story about Sonia Sotomayor’s inclusion of a quote by Norman Thomas on her 1976 Princeton yearbook page. What really bothers 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.

To begin with, Reagan starts out with a quote often attributed to Thomas (although I’ve never been able to find the original source), 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.

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 Josef 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.

Besides the fact that single-payer heath insurance for the elderly isn’t a bad thing, 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:

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. Like most 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.

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. 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’ rejection of ‘any sort of coercion whatsoever’ made it impossible for him to accept the Bolshevik concept of Soviet control and dominance,” and 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, it 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.

He was by no means perfect, but he was anything but a threat to the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

(Edited version submitted to the Socialist and the Socialist WebZine.)

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