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Full text of "Why I am a socialist?"


WHY 



I AM A 
SOCIALIST 



By NORMAN THOMAS 



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WHY I AM A SOCIALIST 

By Norman Thomas 



I am A socialist because I believe that in our dark and troubled 
world, which blessed with the machinery to abolish poverty, 
lives in the shadow of unemployment and economic insecurity and 
the deeper shadow of ever threatening war, socialism — international 
socialism — is our only hope of averting catastrophe and establishing 
plenty, peace, and freedom. 

In the earlier editions of this leaflet which was originally a re- 
print of an article written by request for the Princeton Alumni 
Weekly, I did not begin on so urgent a note. Instead I began with 
some more or less facetious reference to the lack of anything in my 
birthplace, or my years at Princeton, to explain my socialism. But 
in the intervening years the Indian summer of capitalism, the largely 
illusory and wholly unsound prosperity of Wall Street's gambling 
orgy, has come to a bitter end. There is a general consciousness that 
though we may blunder out of the depths of this depression we are 
living in the end of an epoch. Not merely the economics of capitalism 
but the psychology native to an acquisitive society, shows signs of the 
decadence of the times. Our standards are shaken, our hope is turned 
to profound pessimism, our whole order is sick with racketeering 
which is not confined to the illegal crimes of the underworld, but is 
natural to a society whose favorite text has been, "My son, get riches 
— honestly if possible." And now that riches disappear, and we are 
told that men starve because they have produced too much, the state 
of our leadership, economic and political, shows how deep seated is 
the paralysis of our national will. Drift in America, the newspaper 
headlines fairly shout, is drift to disaster not to true prosperity, to 
war not peace, to dictatorship not democracy. 

The philosophy of muddling through, the consolation that we 
shall survive this crisis since we have survived others only to stumble 
into another some seven or eight years hence, is no comfort at all. 






It ignores the increasing seriousness of crisis in our complex society 
and the increasing danger that the same machinery which makes 
possible, more abundant life, will make possible wholesale death. 

The wise man is tempted to one of two philosophies, either the 
philosophy of Spengler that this process of decay of civilizations is 
inevitable and the crisis of western civilization beyond hope of solu- 
tion by our effort, or the philosophy of Lenin which is the philosophy 
of salvation under the dictatorship of a working class party, out of 
the inevitable catastrophe to which capitalism hurls us. Both phil- 
osophies have truth ; neither has the whole, the inevitable truth for 
America. We near the end of an epoch but we may better emerge 
into the new cooperative society in our western world by doing all 
that is in us to avoid and minimize catastrophe, to improve democ- 
racy rather than to embrace dictatorship. The drift to disaster has 
not yet brought us to inevitable cataclysm. There is still time. I am 
a Socialist and not a Communist. 

POVERTY IS INEXCUSABLE 

Let us begin by trying to diagnose briefly the historical pro- 
J cesses, in particular the changes in men's methods of making 
a living which have brought us where we are. We shall probably 
agree that only today, or yesterday at the earliest, after the long 
millenniums of man's life on this planet, has he acquired the technical 
skill, the command over the forces of nature, the physical power 
to produce enough and more for all his children upon the face of the 
earth. From the first dawn of human life poverty has been princi- 
pally due to man's imperfect knowledge of natural forces. For un- 
numbered generations he wrestled for a living with a capricious and 
often unfriendly Nature, armed only with the power of his own 
hands and the muscles of the few animals he had been able to 
domesticate, aided by a very imperfect utilization of the weight of 
falling water on primitive mill wheels and of the winds of heaven 
to sail his boats and turn his mills. That was all. Today it has been 
estimated that each of us Americans has the equivalent of the labor 
of more than thirty slaves in the energy of steam, electricity and 



internal combusion engines. The energy thus available for the work 
of men is increasing by leaps and bounds. It is applied to machinery 
of marvelous ingenuity. The long age of Markham's "Man With 
the Hoe" is gone forever. It is possible that the pressure of popula- 
tion upon food supply may bring about a new age of poverty. That 
pressure does not exist today if the world is taken as a unit, and the 
decline of the birth rate and the increasing knowledge of scientific 
birth control give some hope that this ultimate danger may be 
avoided. 

In other words, the old excuse of the classical philosophers for 
human slavery no longer exists. The bitter toil of the many is not 
the necessary basis for the culture of the few. In the words of Pro- 
fessor Simon Patten we have passed from a necessary "pain economy" 
to a possible "pleasure economy" as a basis for civilization. Yet even 
in the prosperous America of which men boasted when I first wrote 
this leaflet how far we were from the abolition of poverty! Even 
then we did not produce enough to do more than provide a mini- 
mum budget of wealth and decency were we to distribute what we 
produce by a system more equitable than that under which 1 per 
cent of the receivers of income obtain 20 per cent of the national 
income; 10 per cent receive 40 per cent of the total income, while 
the poorest 25 per cent receive only 3% per cent. 

Today with some ten million unemployed and a shrinkage in the 
national income measured in tens of billions, the situation is in- 
finitely worse. Yet there is almost no limit to what we could pro- 
duce ; our plant is intact, but farmers are advised to produce a 
third less cotton and wheat, and the waste of natural gas and oil 
goes on apace. 



HOW BAD IS HUMAN NATURE? 

OR this state OF affairs there are today only two possible 
explanations. One blames our fate on human nature; the other 
upon the inadequacy of human ideals and institutions. The first is 
popular because it gives men an excuse for enjoying whatsoever 
advantages they may have. It is no longer fashionable to affirm 



F 



that this is the best of possible worlds. But one may without any 
strain on the intellect or any demand upon energy or will declare 
that it is the best of possible words and go about his own business 
or pleasure with a sense of intellectual superiority. Here I have 
space only to remark that this dogma of the incapacity of men to 
control for social advantage the machinery they have had the wit 
to create is as unscientific and as yet unproved as the optimistic faith 
of some early radicals in the "infinite perfectability" of human na- 
ture. At the very least we should not adopt it with further examina- 
tion into social institutions and ideals. The madness of our civiliza- 
tion may arise less from our unalterable biological inheritance than 
from the system — political and economic — under which we live, a 
system which lags dangerously behind the demands of our inter- 
dependent society. 

I am aware that to speak of a capitalist or any other system is 
to invite the scorn of those who insist that in the changing process 
of our economic life there is no rigorous system. There is truth in 
the argument. Certainly Ricardo or Adam Smith would not recog- 
nize the child of their economic dogmas. Men are still trying to 
justify economic practices by an almost religious faith in, let us say, 
the "automatic working" of those markets with which they them- 
selves spend many of their working hours successfully interfering 
by high tariffs, trade agreements, etc. Nevertheless we can describe 
the capitalist system as characterized by an emphasis upon private 
ownership of property for power and the operation of that owner- 
ship for the profit of the owners. This is a system which has played 
its part in human history — a part nowhere more sincerely eulogized 
than in the famous Communist Manifesto itself. But whatever the 
historic necessity for capitalism, it is not today giving men the 
bread, the security, the peace, the freedom, the brotherhood which 
they have a right to expect. And this was true before the depression 
made it tragically obvious. 

Mr. Hoover's estimate of an average annual wage for Amer- 
ican workers of $1,280 was not only insufficient on the average to 
maintain the minimum budgets of health and decency which have 



been set forth by various authorities, but it implied a tragic amount 

of suffering for the large group below this average. 

There is no use in repeating that threadbare capitalist boast 

that we have more things than ever before and that workers are 

better off than were ancient kings. The point is that no age has 

ever so tragically failed to use the machinery it had for ease and 

security of living. Things may have increased but so has insecurity. 

The peasant and artisan of old was assured work and an honorable 

place in his family and community while he lived. He knew nothing 

of the dead line at forty or forty-five which gives new terror to old 

age. He knew almost nothing of unemployment as a social disease 

which in so-called normal times affects some ten per cent of the 

workers and is today the lot of twenty-five to thirty-three per cent 

of them. 

WHY CRISES COME 

This unemployment is inherent in the system. Wealth is 
created by the labor of hand and brain of the great mass of 
workers. At no time do they collectively get in social income 
(schools, roads, parks, etc.) or personal income the equivalent of 
what they produce. That to a large degree is drained off by land- 
lords, owners of great aggregations of machinery, manipulators of 
credit. To be sure these men and women spend and invest but 
wastefully and without comprehensive plan. A surplus which the 
workers cannot pay back because of the bad distribution inherent 
in the profit system piles up. Every seven or eight years there is a 
crisis until slowly, with reduced spending power, the surplus is 
absorbed by these who made it. In this crisis machinery stops. We 
have the poverty of "overproduction" which may be real enough 
in some lines but in the aggregate is under-consumption. This un- 
employment may be alleviated, grudgingly and under pressure, by 
an owning class; it cannot be cured. 

It is accentuated especially in times of rapid mechanical prog- 
ress by improvement in machinery. In the long run under capitalism 
these improvements have made more things possible and hence more 
jobs and shorter hours. But in the short run they have thrown out 



men with less consideration than a farmer has to give his mule. 
And children eat or cry for bread in the short run ! What we call 
technological unemployment cannot be cured so long as the kindest 
of employers must put in machinery only to increase profits in a 
competitive society. Ordinarily that means reducing payrolls by 
firing men. Only when the rate of introduction of machinery is 
controlled by the possibility of reducing hours or profitably absorb- 
ing displaced workers in new industry will the curse of technological 
unemployment be ended. 

That means planned production and distribution for use, not 
profit, which is socialism, not capitalism. It is not even possible 
under the capitalist syndicalism or fascism implied in the Swope 
plan and other proposals toward which America drifts really to 
eliminate poverty and unemployment, much less exploitation and 
war. The relentless consolidation of industry and the growth of 
capitalist collectivism destroy all the old academic defences of 
capitalism in the name of the regulatory power of competition as 
effectively as socialism. But, Mr. Swope's trade assocations, regu- 
lated by a government which in turn will be controlled by the more 
powerful corporations still keeps a dominance of private property 
and private profit, landlordism and speculation and hence maldis- 
tribution, recurring crises, and exploitation of the workers. To keep 
the workers content, there will still be need to cry up nationalism 
against internationalism, making wars more likely. 

Indeed, it is unnecessary to do more than point out that the worst 
danger of cataclysm in a capitalist society is the danger of war 
arising out of imperialism born of the union of capitalism and 
nationalism. In an interdependent world there can be no lasting 
peace by simply preventing particular wars. The ethics of the 
acquisitive society, the madness of jingoism and the frantic struggle 
of interdependent nations for an impossible sort of economic self- 
sufficiency and for ever more markets and power — these are the 
natural foundations of a war-ridden society. Merely to realize the 
cost of modern war cannot save us except as it inspires us to lay the 
basis for true peace in a federation of cooperative commonwealths. 



I 



WHAT DO YOU MEAN, LIBERTY t 

Our final count in our indictment of capitalism is that under 
it men do not enjoy freedom and brotherhood. It is customary 
to attack Socialism as the foe of individual liberty. It is quite true 
that the problem of the relation of the individual to society will 
not be automatically solved by Socialism. But it is not the cham- 
pions of the present order who have a right to pose as the defenders 
of liberty in a society where property is so much better defended 
than life, and where freedom is too generally the possession of the 
man who is strong enough to take it for himself. The regimentation 
of ideas through a property-controlled press and the economic fear 
under which most workers live, whether they wear overalls or 
white collars, makes real freedom an almost non-existent com- 
modity. Diogenes might find an honest man with a lantern. He 
would have to look for a free man with a searchlight in our mod- 
ern age. As for brotherhood in other than a sentimental sense, 
that is denied by the very nature of a system based on 

The good old rule, the ancient plan 
That he should take who has the power, 
And he should keep who can. 
Kindness there is among us, and charity. Yes, and a capacity for 
brotherhood but not the reality of that "fellowship which is life." 
As individuals alone we cannot achieve the brotherhood we seek. 
That requires organization and collective action. 

These failures of our civilization in spite of its tremendous me- 
chanical competence are, I repeat, the natural consequence of the 
economic principles and their corresponding ethical ideas on which 
we operate. They are inherent in the system and not excrescences 
on it. 

THE SOCIALIST PROPOSAL 

What do the socialists propose to do about this situation? 
In Socialism as in every great historic movement there are 
divergences of opinion and ideas. There is the sharp division be- 
tween Socialists and Communists, principally on the important 



question of methods and tactics. In general, however, Socialists pro- 
pose to bring about as rapidly as possible the social ownership of 
land, natural resources and the principal means of production, there- 
by abolishing the possibility of the existence of any class on an 
income derived not from work but from ownership. This does not 
necessarily mean that no man will have a home that he can call his 
own. His right will rest on use and not on a title deed. The rental 
value of land belongs to society and not to the individual. Socialism 
would end the monstrous and absurd injustice under which gen- 
erations of men and women can live in luxury without useful labor 
of any sort because they were wise enough to pick an ancestor who 
in his day had been clever enough to pick, let us say, a farm in New 
York City on or near which some six million people now have to 
live. This is a criticism not of individuals but of the social system 
which heretofore we have collectively tolerated. Socialists unlike 
single taxers object not merely to economic dynasties founded on 
ownership of land and natural resources but to similar dynasties 
founded on the ownership of stocks and bonds passed from genera- 
tion to generation by inheritance. They do no texpect to abolish 
them with the stroke of the pen or the sword. They do not expect 
to abolish them at all without struggle. 

But the deadliness of modern war between nations or classes is 
so horrible, and the probable effect of it on a highly organized society 
so great that it becomes of the highest importance to carry on the 
struggle to the utmost possible point by non-violent means. The old 
barricade is an inadequate symbol of revolution against a class which 
controls airplanes and poison gas. Mere revolt will not save a 
society which needs reorganization. In a time of the general ac- 
ceptance of the inevitability of or desirability of wholesale violence, 
it needs to be pointed out that there are other methods of struggle 
than wholesale violence which is increasingly self defeating. Russia 
endured her years of revolution precisely because she was nearer the 
soil. The sufferings of Moscow and Leningrad would have made 
bedlam, not constructive revolution, in New York and Chicago. 
We ought to be able to learn from Russia's planned economy and her 

10 



success with other than the supreme profit motive, without slavishly 
copying everything in a country greatly different from our own in 
background, tradition, material development. 

Among other things the Russian experiment, no less than the 
experience of Socialist parties in Western Europe which have got 
some degree of power, shows clearly that not even the most cataclys- 
mic revolution can create overnight those habits of mind and that 
social machinery necessary to the successful functioning of a new 
social order. 

Any revolution peaceful or violent involves reeducation. We do 
not seek and cannot achieve the bliss of some static, unchanging 
Utopia by one supreme act. Fortunately the Spanish revolution 
gives hope that ancient despotisms of King and landlord can be abol- 
ished and the new order begun with a minimum of bloody violence 
— if only the workers are awake and organized so that they will 
not aid their masters to enslave them. This is not to say that the 
struggle can always be bound by legalism or that Socialists are 
non-resistants who would never use force to win or still better to 
protect what they have won. We want to minimize violence and 
throw the onus of it, if it comes, where it belongs: on an owning 
class that will not give up while it can hypnotise anyone to fight 
in its behalf. 

Our principal means by which we expect to make progress in- 
clude the organization of labor industrially through labor unions, 
of the power of consumers through consumers' cooperatives, and of 
citizens through a labor party. The reliance of Socialism is upon 
the working class, not because of the peculiar virtues possessed by 
the working class but because it is peculiarly in its interest to end 
exploitation and waste. The class struggle may not be as simple or 
clear-cut as some Socialist agitators have supposed. It is, neverthe- 
less, a fact of history, and a fact plain to be seen in our present 
line up on questions of unemployment relief, justice to workers 
and the methods of our strikes. But it is also a fact of history that 
very valuable sympathy and leadership have been given to the ex- 
ploited classes down through the ages by men of more favored 

11 



groups to whom justice and the ultimate good of society are dearer 
than any immediate class interest of their own. The hope of peaceful 
and intelligent progress depends in no small degree upon increasing 
the number of these men and women who thus transcend class lines. 

WANTED: A WORKERS' PARTY 

When, therefore, Socialists in the United States as in Eng- 
land speak of a labor party they do not confine its member- 
ship to industrial or agricultural workers. They welcome all those 
who will honestly strive for Socialist ideals. 

Even conservatives who still have some faith in democratic politi- 
cal processes should, I think, welcome a party with ideas and a 
program. Our present two-party system lives on the strength of 
organization rather than of principle. Both parties belong to the 
same general set of masters who pay their bills. It is their business 
to obscure issues and to amuse and distract the people. It would ap- 
pear that we select presidents as we select jurors, on the ground 
that they have no opinions that can be discovered. The senior 
Senator from New York was once the Republican Mayor of Ann 
Arbor, Michigan. He is now the Democratic Senator from New 
York and all he ever changed was his address. This is characteristic 
of the two old parties which fight only for office. Observe how ut- 
terly both parties in this respect lack program and new leadership. 

SOME IMMEDIATE OBJECTIVES 

What we need, what the Socialist Party seeks to supply, is 
organized, disciplined, intelligent action in cities, states and 
nation through a party based consciously on the interests of the 
great producing masses. 

This leaflet is not a Socialist platform of immediate proposals. 
But one reason why I am a Socialist is that excellent proposals do 
exist. All proposals for alleviating unemployment and protecting 
old age, and for other social legislation had their origin or impetus 
from socialism. If the Socialist unemployment proposals of 1928 

12 



had been adopted then how much suffering would have been re- 
lieved! If after the depression came our supplementary demand for 
direct federal aid and for an immense housing program directed 
against slums and shacks had been adopted, we should not face 
now the probability that men must steal, starve or fight. 

If the Socialist view of the World War had prevailed, or if a 
Socialist peace had been made, how much better off America would 
have been ! No valuable immediate program of international rela- 
tions can fail to heed the socialist demands for disarmament, can- 
cellation of war debt9 and reparations provided the money is not 
used for armament, for recognition of Russia, reduction of tariffs, 
a sound fiscal system and for the allocation of raw materials. 

No sound system of taxation can ignore the Socialist contention 
that beside the land taxation I have discussed, income and inherit- 
ance taxation is not only the just, practical and equitable form of 
taxation but of itself an aid in the redistribution of wealth and the 
socialization of industry which Socialism seeks. 

For one part of the Socialist program I must take a little more of 
my limited space. Socialism will earnestly and vigorously seek to 
put in operation a progressive system for the acquisition and demo- 
cratic or functional control of natural monopolies and basic indus- 
tries, including banking. The principle to be followed here is that 
which J. A. Hobson has ably expounded : namely, that we should 
proceed to take over those economic processes in which already the 
engineer is more important than the entrepreneur. These are many 
and basic. The real social revolution, as Veblen pointed out, will 
come when engineers and administrators work for society as they 
now work for absentee owners. The method of acquisition pre- 
ferable in a peaceful society is compensation in bonds amortized 
out of earnings of industry, the income of which must be subject 
to heavy income taxation. All industry should, of course, be subject 
to the general guidance of an economic planning board. 

At this point I can almost hear the usual shouts of protest, 
"What, do you want a lot of politicians to run our industries? 
How about graft and inefficiency in government service?" Etc., 



13 



etc. I have not space to answer these questions in detail but to 
answer them in principle is relatively easy. No modern Socialist of 
any stripe wants bureaucratic political government of industries 
through a set of post master generals or their equivalent. We propose 
to have public ownership with title vested in the nation, state or 
municipality, but control under a public authority representing so 
far as may be possible the genuine and permanent interests not of 
profit seeking private owners but of producers in the particular in- 
dustry and consumers of its products or services. There will have to 
be a considerable variety in structure to meet the needs of coal 
mines, railroads, etc. In every case we shall try to put a premium on 
efficiency through the intelligent application of the merit system. 
We shall temper bureaucracy, moreover, by a recognition of the 
union and a direct sanctioning of collective bargaining. And, of 
course, we recognize that with socialized industries will or should 
go along a development of consumers' cooperation in the distribution 
of goods and in other lines like housing. 

Even now the case for the honesty and efficiency of private as 
against government business is grossly overstated. Indeed the chief 
source of graft in government arises from the efforts of private 
business to get special privileges and perpetual right to what belongs 
to the people. It was the oil industry which sought to corrupt the 
government, not the government the oil industry. Again in private 
industry there is an immense deal of nepotism, favoritism and graft 
which is accepted as a matter of course, though it is challenged in 
the public service. Sinclair and his fellow buccaneers robbed their 
own stockholders of 25 cents a barrel in the Continental Trading 
Company. It was not the directors or the stockholders who dis- 
covered the fact or protested effectively and compelled restitution. 
It was the much abused government. 

Eulogists of private business and critics of the government deal 
more in assertion than proof and they are not always careful as to 
the honesty of their statements. Witness the dishonest attacks on 
the very successful Ontario hydro electric development and the 
Canadian National Railroad. Witness, too, the substantial achieve- 

14 



ments of the Bureau of Standards in Washington in the service of 
the government and the people and the success of governmental 
building of the Panama Canal when private enterprise failed. There 
is no panacea against dishonesty but a stock gambling world of 
business cannot afford to talk as loosely as it does about jgraft. In- 
deed many of the men who most deplore the inefficiency of our 
government rejoice in that very inefficiency as an excuse for their 
opposition to this immediate program of gradual socialization which 
I have urged. But every day's news of the breakdown of private 
ownership in bituminous coal fields and the immense fraud worked 
upon the public by the propaganda of the associated power interests 
is an argument for the Socialist remedy. 

A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE 

Such are some of the immediate issues. But beyond any im- 
mediate program lies the necessity of a philosophy of life. We 
need to oppose the shabby capitalist religion of Babbitt and the 
Rotary Clubs with a higher religion of intelligent cooperation in 
the use of the world's wealth for the abolition of poverty and war 
and the realization of freedom and brotherhood. 

Socialism is more than the sum total of specific changes however 
sweeping they are. It is a way of life and loyalty. It lives by its 
vision of what lies beyond today's achievement. Out of this loyalty 
and vision new honesties and abilities will emerge and new leaders 
as in other great periods of hope, will arise. 

The task before us outruns the life of one generation or the 
functions of any political party. The party or the movement which 
undertakes it will often falter and fail. Socialism as an organized 
movement here and abroad is a movement of men, not supermen. 
It has its disappointments and failures, but nowhere except in the 
Socialist movement do I find any heartening answer to that great 
challenge of our day and generation : how shall we, men of all na- 
tions and races, forced by the development of our machine civiliza- 
tion into dependence upon one another, work our destiny in terms 
of world-wide fellowship instead of exploitation and strife. 

15 




Publications of the League for Industrial Democracy 

These include the L. I. D. Monthly and the 
following books, leaflets and pamphlets: 

America's Way Out: A Program for Democracy. 

Norman Thomas (Macmillan, 1931) $2.50 

Concentration in American Industry. Harry W. Laidler 

(Crowell, 1931 $3.75 

A History of Socialist Thought. Harry W. Laidler 
(Crowell, 1927) $3.50 

What Is Socialism? Jessie Wallace Hughan (Vanguard, 
1928) 35<S 

New Tactics in Social Conflict. Edited by Harry W. 
Laidler and Norman Thomas, 1926 50?! 

Socialism of Our Times. Edited by Harry W. Laidler 
and Norman Thomas, 1929 50^ 

Old Age Security. Abraham Epstein, 1930 15# 

How America Lives, Harry W. Laidler, 1932 15^ 

Public Ownership Here and Abroad. Harry W. Laidler, 
1931 15(t 

The New Capitalism and the Socialist. Harry W. Laid- 
ler, 1931 10# 

Unemployment And Its Remedies. Harry W. Laidler, 
1931 25tf 

Southern Labor in Revolt. Kenneth Meiklejohn and 
Peter Nehemkis, 1930 100 

The Social Management of American Forests. Robert 
Marshall, 1930 10# 

The People's Fight for Coal and Power. H. S. Raushen- 

bush, 1926 10# 

Roads to Freedom. Harry \V. Laidler, 1930 10# 

Why I Am a Socialist. Norman Thomas, 1932 Be 

Waste and the Machine Age. Stuart Chase, 1931 15^ 

Poor Old Competition. Stuart Chase, 1931 10^ 

Looking Forward; Discussion Outlines, 1931 15^ 

The Unemployed (An Emergency Magazine) 10# 

Disarm! (An Emergency Magazine) 10^ 

Lower Prices for Quantity Orders 

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