Continuing series on the history of Socialism in America
After Eugene Debs began to fade, the reins of socialism in America were picked up by Norman Thomas.
Thomas was born in Marion, Ohio to Emma and Weddington Thomas. Weddington was a Presbyterian minister. He had an uneventful childhood, and the family moved to Pennsylvania. Thomas started at Bucknell University, but inherited wealth from an uncle, and transferred to Princeton, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1905.
His new found wealth allowed him the luxury of a “gap year”, where he traveled around the world, and volunteered working in a “settlement house”, similar to the Hull House in Chicago. Thomas then followed after his father, joining Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and took a pastorate in the Presbyterian Church in 1911, and soon had his own church in East Harlem, an Italian neighborhood. When the church cut funding for social programs, Thomas became disenchanted, and resigned. Thomas was adamantly pacifist, and as the world descended into war in 1914, he denounced the fighting. When Morris Hillquit of the Socialist Party ran for mayor of New York City on a pacifist platform, Thomas wrote to him, and received an invitation to work for Hillquit’s campaign. He joined the Socialist Party, and advocated social programs and relief for the poor. He helped found National Civil Liberties Bureau, a precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Thomas increasingly spent time on politics, running for governor of New York, the US Senate, and mayor of New York City, all unsuccessfully. After Debs death in 1926, the Socialist party was desperate – membership was falling, and the main officers of the party were foreign born, therefore ineligible to run for United States President. They turned to Thomas.
In 1928, Thomas became the Socialist Party candidate for president, and he ran in each of the subsequent six presidential elections. The party platform:
- “Nationalization of our natural resources, beginning with the coal mines and water sites, particularly at Boulder Dam and Muscle Shoals.” (Boulder Dam, renamed Hoover Dam, and Muscle Shoals are now both federal government projects.)
- “A publicly owned giant power system under which the federal government shall cooperate with the states and municipalities in the distribution of electrical energy to the people at cost.” (Tennessee Valley Authority.)
- “National ownership and democratic management of railroads and other means of transportation and communication.” (Railroad passenger service is completely nationalized through Amtrak. Some freight service is nationalized through Conrail. The FCC controls communications by telephone, telegraph, radio, and television.)
- “Increase of taxation on high income levels, of corporation taxes and inheritance taxes, the proceeds to be used for old age pensions and other forms of social insurance.” (In 1928, highest personal income tax rate, 25 percent; in 1978, 70 percent; in 1928, corporate tax rate, 12 percent; in 1978, 48 percent; in 1928, top federal estate tax rate, 20 percent; in 1978, 70 percent.)
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
“”The Socialist Party will no longer be running a candidate for president. The Democratic Party is leading this country to Socialism much faster than we could ever hope to.” ~ Norman Thomas
In 1934, the Socialist Party split, largely over the 1934 Declaration, which committed the organization to “refuse collectively to sanction or support any international war” and condemned the “bogus democracy of capitalist parliamentarianism” in favor of establishment of a “genuine workers’ democracy.”
In 1937, Thomas returned from Europe determined to restore order in the Socialist Party. He and his followers in the party teamed up with the Clarity majority of the National Executive Committee and gave the green light to the New York Right Wing to expel the Appeal faction from the organization. These expulsions led to the departure of virtually the whole of the party’s youth section, who affiliated to the new Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Demoralization set in and the Socialist Party withered, its membership level below that of 1928
Upton Sinclair, long time socialist and author of “The Jungle” ran for governor of California on for the Socialist party, barely receiving any votes. The next election, he ran as a Democrat, on a platform of “End Poverty in California” and astonished everyone by winning the nomination, but not the general election.
Thomas opposed the Lend-Lease program that supported Britain as WW 2 broke out, and only reluctantly supported the declaration of war following Pearl Harbor.
Thomas was an early supporter of both birth control and abortion, with ties to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.
Following WW2, Thomas declined in importance as the Socialist party fell into disfavor among the Red Scare. In 1956, the party morphed into the Democratic Socialist Federation, and in 1972, the Social Democrats.
Thomas died at the age of 84 on December 19, 1968, in Cold Spring Harbor, NY where he had lived for some years. Pursuant to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered on Long Island.