Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist
by W.A. Swanberg
Scribner’s, 528 pp., $14.95
Large radical movements often have had both their saintly figures and their politicians. The socialist movement in America, having been small and unsuccessful, had to combine the two images into one, in the person of Norman Thomas. Not that Thomas was either a saint or a very practical politician; but he did create the impression of being both because he usually took a high line of purity, honesty, and morality while his daily political life was filled with the lowly run of activities, with meetings, lectures, election campaigns, party infighting, committees, fund raising, rallies, protests. As Sartre said of Camus, he carried his moral pedestal with him, but, unlike Camus, who was a private man and for whom morality was a style of thinking, Thomas had his pedestal on constant public display in a politics of perpetual motion.
Of course, in this combination of the idealist with the activist we can see the peculiarly American politics of conscience that shaped so much of our native radicalism and dissent. We can see a little of Thoreau and Emerson, the abolitionists, figures like William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs, and, more recently, the anarchic rebels of the new left. And in this mix, which includes a bit of populism, some radical theory along with an impatience with theory, and a general reliance on homespun thinking and moral instincts, we can also see the reasons for the persistent appeal as well as the predictable failure of the left in America. Here, too, is its traditional dilemma, as it has tried to adapt European philosophies to the native bent for empiricism and the emphasis on morality in progressive politics. Hence radicals have swung back and forth between big theories and good deeds.
W.A. Swanberg, in his biography of Norman Thomas, draws few conclusions, but his account of Thomas’s life reveals it to be a classic example of the American reformer—born with an unquenchable optimism, but in the end resigned to disappointment, and in between, as in Thomas’s case, absorbed in a constant activity that substitutes immediate for ultimate ends. As Irving Howe aptly observed in The New York Times Book Review, the book is an oldfashioned biography, which is both good and bad, but its virtues are implicit and its faults explicit. Howe was pleased to note that the biography does not go in for deep or complicated analyses of Thomas’s psychological motivations that would not have explained anything. And it is indeed refreshing these days to see a biography stay away from the kind of study of the inner life made fashionable by psycho-history. This exercise in analytic self-restraint by Swanberg is particularly commendable when one considers that Thomas may not have had time for an inner life or that even if he had it would not have had for us the same interest that, say, the brooding psyche of a writer might have, whose life is continuous with his work. What is lacking, however, is critical detachment …
Suez September 15, 1977