To answer “Is Bernie really a Socialist?” it is necessary to understand who other Socialists were and what they stood for. In American history, Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas were foremost.
Nearly 50 years ago, the campus posters at Indiana State University announced that a leading socialist would speak in the Tirey Memorial Union. I was a young college kid from rural Indiana and knew nothing about socialists. Weren’t they just weak communists? So I ended up in a seat in a near-empty auditorium, perhaps to hear a crazed advocate of a failed political policy.
As the house lights went down, an aide escorted a tall elderly man dressed in a 3-piece suit to the podium. I remember thinking, “Good grief, blind and feeble too!” And then he took hold of the podium.
Norman Thomas was one of three great orators I have heard in my lifetime. In spite of his age, he had a commanding but gentle voice full of compassion and drive. He looked more “presidential” than any of today’s candidates. Defying his obviously weak condition, Thomas spoke passionately for more than an hour. He did not talk down to us. He talked with us. The sparse audience of students was spellbound. When my classmates and I left the auditorium that night, we were much less provincial. The world wasn’t simple anymore.
Norman Thomas died on December 19, 1968. But he had spoken throughout his lifetime, sometimes to three or four audiences a day. He did not speak for fame, but because he felt he had to speak. He felt duty-bound to raise the consciousness and sense of justice in those who heard him. I learned more about this man because already many books in the library had been written by him and about him.
Valedictorian of his class at Princeton in 1905, Thomas went on to graduate from seminary and serve as a Presbyterian minister. However, his anti-war position during World War I drew him out of the church and toward the pacificist Socialist Party of America. He edited a magazine called The World Tomorrow that promoted liberal Christian social activism. Thomas was also one of the founders of the early form of the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Eugene Debs died in 1926, it left a vacuum in the Socialist Party that only a great speaker such as Norman Thomas could fill. Debs had been their candidate for five elections; Thomas would run as their presidential nominee for six, beginning in 1928. Except for union workers, middle and upper class Americans did not view socialism with favor. But when most heard Norman Thomas speak, their stereotypes of radicalism rapidly evaporated. He was admired even if he did not gain their votes.
Norman Thomas recognized the racial injustice and spoke in life-threatening situations in the South long before any others. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an article in Pageant magazine about Thomas as “The Bravest Man I Ever Met.” King recalls a boy asking who was this white speaker at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and the father replies: “That’s Norman Thomas. He was for us before any other white folks were.”
Socialists come in many denominations and the party was impossible to hold together. Thomas was not a Marxist and became very critical of the Soviet system. In his book Socialism Re-examined, he dismissed the idea of class warfare: “Plain hunger, and other pressing material wants, have set tribe against tribe and nation against nation in violent conflict, far more often than class against class.”
What Norman Thomas championed included collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions (social security), and public works projects. In response to the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal built upon the “educational spadework” of Norman Thomas and his party, according to Murray Seidler’s Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel.
Thomas eventually concluded that the Socialist Party could never win a presidential election in America; they would have to work for their ideals through influencing policies in the dominant parties.
Once, he was introduced to an audience as “the champion of lost causes.” As he rose to that podium, he responded: “I am not the champion of lost causes, but the champion of causes not yet won.”
I have always felt fortunate to have witnessed Norman Thomas speak, if only for a hour.