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 from Thomas’s opinions, from his frenetic activities, from the entire movement for which he was both the figurehead and the spokesman. There is only occasional criticism of Thomas’s blunders and inconsistencies, and scarcely any attempt to assess or put into a larger perspective the place of the Socialist Party in America, or to connect it with Thomas’s own political career.

Had Swanberg gone into the essentially moral and ameliorative functions of the Socialist Party, he might have been able to illustrate how peculiarly suited were Thomas’s gifts to its marginal but well-publicized position in American society. The reasons for the isolation of the left are well known, though radical movements, in their early state of euphoria, tend to forget them. For one thing, there is the trade union embargo of socialist ideas as though they were foreign imports; and even though the new left pretended that a radical movement could ignore the working class, the fact is that a socialist party without union support is like a conservative party without business support. No wonder that the Socialist Party in America was limited to being the political and moral conscience of the country. And for this role the socialists found their natural leader in Norman Thomas, the politician with the soul of a clergyman.

Instead of considering these general questions, Swanberg presents us with a breathless account of the personal and political events in Thomas’s life, in a stream of declarative statements, following each other bumper to bumper, most of the time without any verbal, thematic, or chronological connectives. Rarely are we told when or why something happened, except that it took place in a certain period of Thomas’s life, and we are led to assume that everything Thomas did was somehow in keeping with his moral sense and his drive to keep going.


The story, even if told in too much detail, in the style of a family saga, by someone who cannot leave anything out, is not without considerable interest, however, especially as it is the story of a period and of a phase of radical history in which most of our current conflicts and predicaments were incubated. It begins in Thomas’s childhood in Marion, Ohio, in a family that seems almost destined to produce a radical, highminded reformer. A family of missionaries, preachers, provincial moralists, they typified the good folk of the small towns of America, generous but narrow, open-minded but full of conventional prejudices, who have kept alive the best instincts of the country. They had the kind of prominence and respect, along with the limited power, accorded the lesser clergy of America. Norman Thomas went to Princeton, where he was exposed to upper-class conscience and taste, studied for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary, which was a center of the “Social Gospel” movement, and married a rich woman with social connections—a combination of preparations that helped to mold the patrician crusader for justice and friend of the oppressed and dispossessed. A long stint at Neighborhood House, where he learned at first hand the misery of the ghetto, rounded out his early political experience and left him with his lifelong concern for the victims of the system. He was ordained, but his service to religion became largely a matter of social morality and help to the needy.

Up to this point, Thomas’s history reads like that of many independent and social-minded churchmen. However, his entry into modern politics and his long engagement in the issues and factional squabbles of the left began with his joining the Socialist Party in 1918. From then on, he was all over the liberal and radical scene: clashing with the socialist old guard, who, as Thomas soon realized, disliked revolutionaries more than they did capitalists; opposing World War I; allying with the Trotskyists against the conservatives in the Socialist Party; fighting the communists; leading the struggle for civil liberties and free speech; supporting workers’ right to strike; backing the movement against segregation; taking a stand against Vietnam. At the end of his life, Thomas was deep in anti-Stalinist activities, and attempting to avoid their pitfalls. He was also trying to find a position for himself on the question of Israel, but having trouble steering a middle course.

Clearly, the pattern of Thomas’s political life followed the history of the non-Stalinist left in this country. He was involved in virtually all the major questions. In the argument over US entry into World War I, which divided the left, he was on the side of the opposition. He at first supported the Russian Revolution, which brought him into conflict with the right wing of the Socialist Party, led by Morris Hillquit and Louis Waldman, then allied himself with those who thought it a new form of totalitarianism. He regarded World War II as an imperialist war—a traditional left position that led to a break with such old friends and colleagues as Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Paul Blanshard, David Dubinsky, Paul Douglas, Walter and Victor Reuther, and Albert Sprague Coolidge, the well-to-do socialist. Later he lost more friends and allies when he refused to support Roosevelt. During the McCarthy period Thomas was once more in the middle, coming out against McCarthy but not softening his anticommunist views. On Vietnam, Thomas again took an early and prescient—though unpopular—stand, when he wrote, in 1962:

In Vietnam, the Kennedy administration has already taken a long chance on full scale war by the degree to which it is involving American military forces in aid to a numerous South Vietnamese army which is apparently reluctant to do its own effective fighting…. Our military power is not going to stop Communism in the long run simply by shoring up governments like Diem’s…. This sort of thing…may indeed grow into a new sort of imperialism to manage governments which mismanage their own affairs. Still worse, it could grow into a cruel guerrilla war….

In retrospect, Thomas seems to have been on the just side of most issues, though it may be more accurate to say that he landed there. This is not to detract from Thomas’s accomplishments but it does indicate that though he had all the personal attributes of a leader he was actually more a representative of his time than an innovator. The truth is that he was a leader in the sense that he was a courageous and charismatic figure; but it must be said that he was not a leader in ideas. There he was for many years—for longer than most lifetimes—the central socialist figure in the United States, yet one does not associate him with any specific theory or political program.


Perhaps this says as much about the country or about the socialist movement as it does about Norman Thomas, but it does suggest that the native brand of socialism has been more a matter of conscience and personal appeal than of doctrine. For while the Socialist Party may have played a part in promoting civil rights or social welfare, it did not contribute any theories—or ideas—toward understanding what is surely the basic dilemma of our time, the dilemma of overcoming the chaos of Western democracy without falling into the dictatorial order of the Russian variety of communism.

In essence, Thomas was a moral and political counterpuncher: instead of relating events to a theory or program he reacted to events according to commonly held ideals of justice and truth. If garment workers on strike in Patterson were prevented from assembling and were clubbed, Thomas was there to protest, to tell the world about it, to get thrown into jail with his fellow martyrs. At the time of the Palmer raids, Thomas was on the streets upholding constitutional freedoms. When the Japanese Americans were rounded up during World War II, Thomas became the stentorian conscience of the country—one of the few to do so. During the Spanish Civil War, Thomas did everything he could to get American aid for the loyalists; then, when the anticommunist antifascists were persecuted by the communists, Thomas turned his protests in that direction.

He made clear his opposition to the British and French invasion of Egypt, and protested the suppression of the Hungarian revolution by the Russian army. When communists like Earl Browder, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Alexander Trachtenberg were arrested, he did not hide the fact that he had no use for their politics, but immediately came to their defense—cooperating with his old ally, the ACLU, and his old friend, Roger Baldwin. (He had earlier led the drive to drop Flynn from the board of the ACLU.) When the bombing began in Vietnam, Thomas made outraged speeches, sent telegrams, signed petitions.

This is the record of a heroic crusader. And, indeed, Thomas’s political history sounds like a recapitulation of the honorable causes of the twentieth century and the social evils that have troubled the country. But, as I have suggested, it was done instinctively and with a smattering of liberal and socialist doctrine. All his life, Thomas never left any doubt about either his discomfort with or his scant knowledge of political theory, particularly Marxist theory. In this respect, he was an exponent of the great American tradition of political action without excess intellectual baggage.

This lack of a basic theory or perspective led, I believe, to a number of unfortunate mistakes by Thomas, though it must be said, of course, that people armed with theories have been proven to be just as capable of losing their heads. For example, in his opposition to World War II, Thomas found himself with some strange allies, like Lindbergh and the America firsters, though he did finally break with them. In the Socialist inner Party disputes, Thomas’s temperament generally led him toward the left. But since he had no clear doctrine or perspective of his own, he could react only to specific situations. In his conflict, for example, with the right wing, whose leaders were Hillquit, Waldman, and Algernon Lee, among others, and which had strong ties to the needle trade unions headed by David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, Thomas sensed a complacency like that of the German Social Democrats but without their power, and a parochial attachment to the largely Jewish community of unionists in New York. But Thomas had no real alternative program to build an opposition. Similarly, when the Trotskyists joined the party en masse, Thomas at first welcomed the infusion of a radical element, but later had to side with the conservatives when the Trotskyists were expelled in 1937 for their disruptive tactics.

In his later years, when Thomas was on the anticommunist circuit, he was sent on junkets by organizations he afterward discovered were paid for by the CIA. Thus his main asset, his image of political purity, was clouded in the final phase of his life, though he did try to put a good face on his activities by claiming that the cause was still good even if the money was bad. But it seems to me from my own experience that he could have known better, for, even if it could not be proven, CIA support of certain organizations and publications was a much discussed secret in the circles Thomas moved in. (Some independent people may have been taken out once or twice, but that was not the same as going steady with the CIA.) In a way, Thomas’s strength, his confidence in his own sense of right and wrong and his ability to act quickly on it, was also his weakness, for he seemed to lack the skepticism and the self-doubt that make so many of us unfit for a life of political activism, and doom us to one of speculation and a constant questioning of handy political solutions.

Perhaps Thomas’s overriding commitment, aside from justice, was to peace—obviously a noble commitment, but one bound to put a practical man of politics into awkward and inconsistent positions. Nor is pacifism a substitute for socialism. Hence Thomas had to juggle his values when the Nazi atrocities against the Jews became known, and he was able ultimately to resolve his dilemma only by accepting the war as a fait accompli and coming out for a just peace. At the end of his life, he was very active in setting up various peace organizations—again a high human aim, but one that was difficult to coordinate with his other views, particularly his strong anticommunism. I am not suggesting that Thomas had to be a hawk, only that pacifism could not form the theoretical basis for the rest of his politics.

The central force in Thomas’s life was his passion for justice, and it was a personal rather than a theoretical drive. It was the concern of the socially conscious, high-minded patrician—the priest who tends to the sufferings of the flock. It was reform from above. This might be more desirable—and more honest—than the demagogic versions of reform from below propagated by populists and the communists. But I would think that a large and democratic socialist party could not be built on a principle of moral aristocracy. Perhaps no other method would have been any more successful. Still, the Socialist Party under Thomas’s leadership reflected his impatience with organization and his flair for publicity as against political action. It was a party of patrons and people of good will, composed mostly of the liberal intelligentsia of New York, a few trade unionists with European roots, and a sprinkling of progressives throughout the country. A party without a mass base, the Socialist Party existed largely in the public activities of Norman Thomas, who was almost a oneman party in himself.

Thomas’s moral approach to politics—so American—explains his natural transition from the pulpit to the picket line. It also connects Thomas with the long tradition of churchmen involved in pacifism, social work, and political protest. (Throughout his life, Thomas kept one foot in this world of the engaged clergy, which included many of his friends, like William Sloane Coffin, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Haynes Holmes, John Nevin Sayre, and A.J. Muste.) As we know, the church tends to become a medium of dissent when the normal political channels are closed, as in the communist countries, or hostile, as in this country on certain issues. But it is also true that in such situations American political movements, like the Socialist Party, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War protests, for example, have taken on a clerical accent.

Thomas’s moral attitude to politics also can be seen to lie behind his attempts to remedy injustice not only by the usual route of social protest but also by going to the top—no doubt facilitated by his having a summer house in Oyster Bay with powerful neighbors, and by his wife’s and his many social connections. He was constantly in touch with presidents, members of the cabinet, and heads of government agencies, trying to persuade them to ignore their natural constituencies and political considerations and to act in the name of abstract principles. There was, of course, something shrewdly disingenuous and charming about this person-to-person appeal that was not entirely lost on Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, all of whom displayed a certain amount of affection and respect for the shrill but attractive socialist who insisted on reminding them that they, too, had a conscience.

I knew Thomas only slightly, and mostly in his last phase. I met him at several committee meetings a few times in the Fifties and early Sixties. He was, to tell the truth, an imposing figure, but not an intellectually impressive one. So tall and thin as to look elongated, he seemed to be all head and voice. His forehead appeared to be too big for his head, and his voice too big for his body. One remembers him as always talking—or, rather, booming, like a permanent hookup of a loudspeaker to some Olympian broadcasting center. When he talked, everyone listened, though, as I recall, he did not so much introduce new ideas as put a rhetorical stamp on a position already in formulation.

But I must admit that my impressions of Norman Thomas were prejudiced by my earlier assessment of his political effectiveness. I had been brought up to believe that the Socialist Party in this country was by its nature ineffectual, and that Norman Thomas, despite the fact that he did help to improve the political atmosphere for radical and dissenting activities, did not represent a force for basic change—of the kind which, I had been taught, could be effected only by transforming the system. The lesson I had learned was that failed socialist movements were not sufficiently committed to changing the status quo. Nor did the “socialism” of the Socialist Party in America seem to represent, even to its members, a realizable goal toward which they were working—if by socialism one did not mean simply progressive legislation or a welfare state but a society free of the inequities of the capitalist system.

This is not to diminish the accomplishments of Thomas, or of his fellow socialists, nor is it fruitful to ask of Thomas, retroactively, that he be something other than what he was. For it is doubtful that any socialist movement could make much headway in America so long as a large part of the middle and working classes continues to enjoy a relatively high degree of affluence, and so long as their level of political consciousness and prejudice remains as low as it is. And the fact that the two-party system does not represent clear ideological differences, as European parties do, not only confuses the issues but makes it possible for the Democratic Party to present itself as the instrument of progress, and to accommodate those dissidents who might normally gravitate toward a socialist party. Against these odds, Norman Thomas was a somewhat quixotic but commanding figure, and perhaps one of his greatest achievements was to make it almost respectable to call oneself a socialist outside New York. Swanberg says Thomas was the “last idealist”—I hope not. But Thomas was, it might also be said, the first socialist celebrity in this country.

This Issue

March 3, 1977