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28106Today is the birthday of Norman Thomas, 1884 - 1968

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  • Rick Kissell
    Nov 20, 2012
      Humanistic Socialism and
      the Future
      by Norman Thomas

      This essay appeared in Socialist
      Humanism: An International Symposiumedited by Erich Fromm
      and published in 1965. Norman Thomas was the leader of the Socialist
      Party in the United States after the death of Eugene Debs in 1926
      until Thomas' death on December 19, 1968. The June 1965 article about Norman Thomas written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Pageantmagazinecan be found at: http://warisacrime.org/content/bravest-man-i-ever-met-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-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

      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

      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.

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