On November 20, 1884, Norman Thomas was born. He passed away December 19, 1968, having led the Socialist Party of America from the death of Eugene Victor Debs in 1926. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Thomas came to Socialism from the Social Gospel he discovered as a seminarian. He was a strong anti-militarist and opposed both the First and Second World Wars. In addition to his work on behalf of democratic socialism, Thomas worked as an editor for The Nation, helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, and advocated for the availability of birth control. Evan Thomas, contemporary author and journalist, is Norman’s grandson.
Humanistic Socialism and the Future
by Norman Thomas
A prolific writer, the following essay originally appeared in Erich Fromm’s published symposium on Socialist Humanism in 1965 —
If by socialism one understands a highly collective economy with a great deal of government planning and control, sweetened by much welfare legislation, then it is virtually inevitable. It is the logical extension of present developments – always assuming that we do not destroy ourselves in war. If by socialism one understands a fraternal society of free men, managing for their common good the natural resources and the marvelous tools at their command, socialism is far from inevitable.
Not even the election of Sen. Barry Goldwater would have seriously checked the present drift toward a vulgar socialism or, more accurately, toward a social order of a garrison state with welfare features. If the Cold War should soon subside, as is quite improbable, what we might achieve by drift would be a welfare state capitalism (rather than true socialism) with a tender regard not for the “free enterprise” it would verbally honor, but for a maximum preservation of private profit, in a managed economy.
All the outstanding developments of the century make a return to anything like a true laissez-faire economy impossible. In my own now remote youth when I was taught this economy it was already the victim of the private collectivism of the great corporations which it bred. Today, it is elementary to say that the population explosion, war and the war economy, automation and the exhaustion of easily obtainable natural resources, including water, require a degree of overall planning and integration in the economic process inconceivable to Adam Smith. We are on the verge of a possible economy of abundance very different from anything possible in the past history or experience of the human race. Man has made the scientific discoveries and technical inventions necessary for the production of abundance. They have brought him to the threshold of a conquest of space inconceivable as late as the beginning of World War II. But in affluent America we still have 40 to 50 million persons living below a decent standard of subsistence and in the whole world two thirds of mankind subsisting within a narrow margin between hunger and starvation. The lookout for a better future is clouded by the alarming increase of population as well as by the follies and gross inadequacies of our political and economic systems. They still point toward war, and, even if it is avoided, we are not assured of the conquest of poverty, illiteracy, and disease.
No serious thinker or writer dares to propose that we can use our scientific and technical mastery over natural energy and resources for the solution of these problems except by authoritative planning, requiring, for many years to come, increased governmental control, and probably ownership. Moreover, a good life for mankind can never be attained or maintained unless in important respects our planning and controls are world-wide, rather than inspired by the now dominant religion of nationalism.
An observer, noting only or chiefly the breathtaking achievements of men in mastery of physical energy and material things, might be astonished at our general and pervasive lack of elation and confidence in our kind. Our literature, arts, and daily conversation express at the worst sort of content for ouselves, and a doubt of our rationality. We are passengers on a ship of fools. We pursue happiness, mostly in vain, and the pleasures of the senses. We tried to escape by wallowing in sexuality. Utopia has no place in our atlas. For us there is no heavenly vision.
Like all sweeping generalizations, this ignores important exceptions and modifications. But it is true enough to be profoundly disturbing to those of us who remember a higher self-appraisal by our kind. Part of the trouble is the amazing contrast between our mastery of natural forces in our mastery of ourselves and our institutions; part of it is a revulsion from two world wars, while we prepare frantically for third; part of it is the decline of religious faith and spiritual authority, even as we build more and more churches and temples.
Nevertheless, I do not think that our failure with ourselves and our social institutions is so complete as to compel us to apathy, cynicism, and despair. In my lifetime, despite our wars and hates, we have made social progress along many lines, even if it has been so far overbalanced by our progress in command of natural forces. And that progress has been due in large part to the conscious or unconscious power of socialist thinking and organization.
This is not the current faith. As I travel in our beautiful country, addressing many audiences, especially in our colleges and universities, I find from the questions I always encourage after speaking, and from other contacts, singularly little disposition to challenge my criticisms on a moral or humanistic basis or to dispute my warnings concerning our future if we drift. What is alleged is that somehow individual freedom will parish with capitalism – nowadays usually and inaccurately called “free enterprise.”
This semantic affection for freedom reveals a certain degree of conscience. In my younger days the great argument was that capitalism was the only way to get production, but now capitalism as such is seldom praised, but rather “freedom,” a freedom defined by one college lad as “my right to try to be as rich as Paul Getty.” Not for him a concern for society which would give the quality of legal rights and, so far as possible, opportunity to every man regardless of race, creed, or color; not for him Milton’s passion for the right “to know, to argue and to utter,” above all other rights.
This persistent identification of freedom with the right of strong or lucky man to make great profit out of absentee ownership, or out of management and exploitation of other men’s labor, is part of the sickness of our times. It is true that we can have a generally socialist economy under an excessively authoritarian, even a totalitarian state. From this fact derives my opposition to communism. It is true that nations under socialist governments, e.g., Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries, if not achieved utopia or a perfect balance between the one and the many, but they have released rather than further enslaved the common man.
Rather than allege that socialism with end freedom, my questioners more often profess or imply a profound disbelief that man, the individual, can do anything of importance to avert war or to make the whole world fraternity of free men who will use our marvelous powers for general abundance, for life, not death. The difficulties they raise are real and great, but to largely our generation takes them as a foreordained defeat, not as a challenge. It is the kind and degree of defeat which for more or less fortunate individuals can be indefinitely assuaged by material abundance and sexuality. The one danger they care about arises from a communist devil, not to be analyzed and understood, but only to be feared and hated, against which they can be defended only by emulating in some degree is antilibertarian policies and to the endless piling up of weapons of obliteration. It is in this atmosphere that humanistic socialism must live and work. It is to this atmosphere that it must provide an alternative. Its supporters may not proclaim certain victory, but neither can its pessimistic critics prove that forces beyond man’s control doom us to suicide.
In the face of this situation, what is required of humanistic socialism? On its positive program, it must steadily strive to preserve and improve its good record of concern for the individual man, his civil liberties, his place in democracy, his right to adequate educational and health facilities provided by society. It will recognize that while it must provide and use a strong state, the state must always exist for men, not man for the state; that good government demands more than universal suffrage; that it requires the existence of balancing forces of real strength – labor unions, professional societies, cooperatives, etc. – which are not puppets of the state. It must be able to deal with a population explosion in terms of regard for the individual in the present context of bitter poverty.
It is much easier to write the foregoing paragraph than to carry out its principles. The machinery of democracy cannot be quite the same in urban and rural societies or in the age of automation, as in the earlier stages of the Industrial Revolution. The American Constitution has served us fairly well; its separation of powers between the federal and state governments, and among the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, has not paralyzed action. But the bad record of Congress in recent years begins to challenge that statement. It can do much by reforming its own procedures and by establishing a higher degree of each party’s responsibility to its own professed platform. Perhaps some constitutional amendment will be in order. This must be a major concern for socialist consideration.
Socialism ought to be enormously aided in winning men’s loyalty because men have reached the threshold of an economy of abundance, as against the economy of scarcity characteristic of the past. This economy, thanks to cybernetics, will make hard, repetitive, assembly-line work, manual and mental, far less necessary. While we should rejoice in these facts, easy satisfaction is impossible, because in our country we have not found the way to distribute abundance, or to manage the unemployment and the leisure associated with the rapid progress of automation, while the vast majority of the world’s people live in nations destitute of the capital goods essential for the production of abundance. In their poverty and ignorance they continue the population explosion which threatens any desirable future. Humanistic socialism must deal with the situation in terms of programs, going beyond sermons on the beauty of fraternity.
Historically, socialism has been largely based on the doctrine of class conflict and the appeal to the “working class,” but in our present situation that appeal is by no means adequate. Logically, there is a recognizable division between all workers of all types and the owners of the tools and facilities and resources these workers must use in order to live. But various facts make it difficult to organize a humanistic socialist movement almost solely along the lines of this division. Here are some of the reasons:
1) Historically men have not been united for action only – or even chiefly – by economic class but rather by association in tribes, city-states, and nations. Often the outstanding sense of fellowship has been among those who profess the same religion. It is one thing to argue that a dominant economic elite has repeatedly manipulated these loyalties to its own advantage, but this does not prove the primacy of the class struggle.
2) While the workers of the world may have had nothing to lose but their chains, historically there’s been an enormous difference in the weight of these chains in various countries, and between different classes of workers within each nation. In the U.S., thanks quite largely to the trade unions, which have been a class weapon, organized labor has its own organized place in society; many of its members belong to some degree also to an owning class, by reason not merely of ownership of their own homes, but capitalistic shares of stocks. Collectively the unions have huge resources in stocks and bonds. Despite their well advertised faults, unions are invaluable to the workers and indeed to any healthy society. But they do not represent the majority of the workers and they can hardly be considered as a surrogate for mankind in the struggle for justice and fraternity. Humanistic socialism needs very urgently to win them to its support, but it cannot be based simply upon that support.
Humanistic socialism therefore cannot escape the ethical appeal to the human family. In some sense it must speak to men’s needs as consumers, more than producers – especially in the coming age of automation – and its appeal must exalt the great intangibles of peace and fraternity.
Implicit in all this is the recognition of socialism’s duty to deal better with such great problems as: control of automation for the general good; democracy in industry – and in the unions – as well as in the political state; the role of management – a factor not to be completely identified with ownership – in the processes of production and distribution; and, above all, the economics and politics of our garrison state. We shall not be able to deal satisfactorily with this last problem while we depend upon peace through balance of terror. And this consideration leads to an affirmation that the supreme business of socialism must be with peace. No longer can we choose between peace or freedom. We must win and preserve freedom in peace. Liberty will not rise from the awful wastes of nuclear war to walk serenely with its miserable survivors among the corpses of the dead and the agonies of the dying.
None of these great problems will be solved simply by a vast extension of public ownership by a mighty state. Yet socialism should still demand extensions of social ownership with the government as agent – which socialist ownership, be it noted, is not synonymous with nationalization. Modern democratic socialists want to extend public ownership, but they by no means believe it necessary or desirable for government – even a socialist government – to own all the means of production and distribution. Controls necessary to the public interest can be established through labor legislation, taxation, etc. There will be a place for the mechanism of price and profit. Cooperatives of both producers and consumers should play a large role under democratic socialism. There should be a place for individual initiative which can be variously encouraged.
Bearing these facts in mind, how far should public ownership extended in America? Priority in extending it depends in part upon special conditions including the state of public opinion and the particular plans under discussion. Acquisition should be by purchase, because it would be unfair arbitrarily to expropriate some owners without compensation, leaving others to exist as before. Moreover, expropriation invites violence and strife far more costly than compensation. Socialism, however, should be on guard against unloading on the government being prepped for nearly bankrupt public utilities. It is grimly amusing that the state, the target for the arrows of conservative critics, is accepted by many of them as the essential savior of ill-run or ill-fated enterprises such as the British coal mines and railroads.
What then should be socially owned? Certainly the natural resources which should be the common possession of mankind. In our country the federal government is by far in the best position to organize socially owned coal, iron, or oil industries, but state governments must participate in working out plans, because they own much of the land where minerals exist, and because they depend on land taxation to provide funds for education and other necessary functions.
Large forests and acreage of reforested land should be socially owned and socially used not only for lumber and wood products but for protection against floods.
As for the surface of the earth, man’s desire for a piece of land he can call his own is deeply rooted and widespread. Private ownership of land, with exceptions I have mentioned, should therefore be permitted, but on the basis of occupancy and use. It is axiomatic that the rental value of land is a social creation. I may let my lot go to ragweed, but I can get far more for it than my friend who has cultivated his garden if my lot is located near a town or city. I think socialists might well adopt Henry George’s principle that the rental value of land, apart from improvements, belongs to society and should be taxed accordingly.
The tax, however, should not be a single tax. Government revenues at all levels should be principally derived from three major sources: a tax on land rather than improvements to it, a very heavy inheritance tax, and income tax. Of course, there could be taxation of the sort that hurts consumers unfairly. I think this is true in general of sales taxes and I suppose there could be taxation of the sort which will unduly inhibit economic initiative by reducing incentives. This might be true of badly devised income taxes but in America I worry less about that than about the escape of excessive wealth from unfair burden of taxes. Very heavy inheritance taxes properly adjusted to the care of widows and minor children would be an expression of social justice that would not unduly paralyze incentive. I doubt many fathers work principally in order that their descendents may not have to.
To public ownership of natural resources I should add public utilities, certainly those which serve as best as monopolies or near-monopolies. The system of ownership should be flexible, allowing for extension both of the TVA type of enterprise, and of the existing rural electrification.
My next candidate for public ownership would be in industry like steel. It is basic to our economy and is currently in the hands of an oligopoly which manages to administer prices with little or no regard for competition.
Perhaps even more than urging public ownership, socialism must challenge the way in which national income is divided among the people. The noblest ideal would be the Marxist theory “from each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.” I have been skeptical of the practicality of that ideal, but am now beginning to wonder, along with Robert Theobald, whether automation may not drive us to something very like it, since the provision of jobs in an economy of abundance may become in many ways so difficult.
Let me repeat my conviction that social ownership cannot be a cure-all. It will leave us face-to-face with problems of the role of unions, the relations of management and men, and the effective application of democracy to industry, matters on which socialism has been inclined to mark time. Properly thought-out taxation and the proper control of money and currency also fall into the category of problems requiring further exploration by humanistic socialism.
But let me also repeat that my belief that socialism’s most pressing concern must be with the problem of survival in the nuclear age. Peace by deterrence or balance of terror will someday collapse by accident, passion, miscalculation, or design. Meanwhile, the enormous expenditure of the arms race imposes upon us very largely the economy, politics, and standards of civil liberty appropriate to a garrison state. It becomes essential to any system that seeking the support of thoughtful men to find an alternative to war.
Here socialism ought to be a greater force than it has been, although I think it can be fairly said that statements of the Socialist International and certainly of the American Socialist Party in its 1962 platform had been far the best political utterances on the subject of peace. Democratic socialism wants to win by nonviolent methods, and that requires the utilization of machinery of political action in existing states. It is, therefore, not strange that, to quote Paul Henry Spaak, “the thing that socialists have learned to nationalize best is socialism.” It has not, however, forgotten internationalism; it can and should develop not only an opposition to the religion of the absolute sovereign national state, but an alternative to it through a world federation. However, we must relinquish the notion that socialism, victorious in nation after nation, will automatically bring peace. Its principles must consciously be applied on an international rather than a national scale, if it is best to serve humankind. In a world that is seen the rise and the tactics of communism, and the extent of the religion of nationalism, it will easy doctrine that capitalism is the sole cause of war, and socialism its sure and only cure, cannot stand. Socialism must develop a conscious program for peace.
More than that, it must recover its old dynamic. How that can be done and what political tactics it can most widely use are questions lying beyond the scope of this article. Humanistic socialism cannot live on its rich heritage. It can only draw wisdom and courage from that heritage to press on.