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Full text of "Why I am a socialist?"

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Why 

Am a 
Socialis 



By NORMAN THOMA 



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WHY I AM A SOCIALIST 

By 

NORMAN THOMAS 



This little pamphlet is neither a confession, a true story, nor 
an autobiography. There is no reason why I am a Socialist 
which does not apply with equal force to other men and women. 
I am a Socialist because I believe that in Socialism, in this day and 
generation lies our best, indeed our only hope of plenty, peace and 
freedom. Or to put the matter negatively, I am a Socialist because I 
believe that in Socialism lies our only escape from a long cycle of 
poverty, dictatorship and war. 

Even today this statement which, in the light of events since 
1914, seems to me obvious will doubtless seem to most of you to 
require proof. When I was first asked to write an article under this 
title by a college magazine, it was generally felt that for an Amer- 
ican, with reasonable luck in respect to health, a job, and an edu- 
cation, to be a Socialist was a peculiarity which required special 
explanation. For that, you see, was in the gilt and tinsel days of the 
'20s, when the first and last commandment for thousands of Amer- 
icans was "Don't sell America short," and any man with a spare 
five dollars was supposedly able to make a killing on Wall Street. 

Those days are gone forever. One of the striking facts about our 
present improvement in business conditions (this is written early 
in 1936) is the widespread recognition, even by its beneficiaries, that 
"recovery" is insecure and impermanent. 

Despite the present belief of our Tories that a return to the 
Coolidge epoch is possible and would be Paradise for them, not only 



430272 



is their hope fantastically impossible, but their Paradise was a sorry 
place at best. Its frantic gamblers' prosperity carried within it the 
seeds of the catastrophic depression which ended it, and while it 
lasted it was not far from hell for millions of exploited workers. 
At the height of our prosperity in 19,29 we did not produce what 
we should have and we distributed what we produced with a cruel 
and grotesque lack of fairness or justice. As conservative a study as 
that of the Brookings Institution in America s Capacity) to Produce 
tells us that a reasonable use of our then capacity to produce would 
have given us enough more to raise the annual income of every 
family in the United States to the $2,000 level without cutting off 
jany at the top. (That also would have been worth doing.) There 
(were sixteen million four hundred thousand families with incomes 
below that level. A third of our people then needed to be rehoused. 
There were then between two and three million unemployed. And 
many more million of share croppers and other tenant farmers had 
Ian annual income of less than five hundred dollars for each family. 
C But instead of going to work to use our productive capacity more 
efficiently in order to banish poverty, our system went into a kind 
of nose-spin. From an annual earned income of about eighty-three 
/ billion dollars we dropped to an earned income of about thirty-eight 
billion dollars in 1932. Whatever the degree of our recovery since 
then, because of the New Deal or in spite of the New Deal, we 
have by no means regained the ground that was lost. The rate of 
increase of our production does not equal the rate of increase of our 
debt. Re-employment lags far behind the rate of increase in pro- 
duction since "recovery" began. There is no reason to expect the 
standing army of the unemployed to fall below eight million ; they 
must be kept quiet under the most hard-boiled administration by the 
old prescription of bread and circuses. Nothing else is in sight ex- 
cept a temporary boom of wild inflation with the dreadful after- 
math of depression. 

Now it is important to observe that the great depression which 



began in October, 1929, was not caused by any terrible natural 
disaster or by any new war. It was certainly not caused by any 
"radical" tinkering with our machinery. God, presumably, was in 
His Heaven, the Republicans in Washington, and the banker cap- 
tains of capitalism were in full command. There was not even a 
New Deal for the conservatives to blame until 1933. For what hap- 
pened, it is plain enough that the system itself and the captains and 
kings who ruled under it must bear the responsibility. 

To my mind this simple statement of fact more than completes 
whatever might have been lacking in the proof which the Great War 
and the faults of the Coolidge prosperity afforded that the capitalist 
system was disintegrating beyond the possibility of a few simple 
reforms to set it right. It is easy enough in retrospect to criticize . 
the various efforts of Mr. Roosevelt's New Deal in pursuit of 
"recovery and reform" from the standpoint of a sound progressiv- 
ism theoretically possible under capitalism. Practically I do not 
believe that any reform measures within the limitations of the 
American political and economic situation, would have been feasible 
or successful to a greater degree than the New Deal has been. And 
that, even the friendly critic must agree, has brought no sense of,' 
permanence or security to masses of Americans who suffer all the* 
pangs of poverty in the midst of potential abundance. 

What are we to blame for this failure of men to use the natural 
resources, the machinery and the power which already are sufficient 
for modest abundance for all, for security and abundance rather 
than for insecurity and poverty? What indeed can we blame but 
the system itself, whether under the forms of the old deal or of the 
new? What is the nature of that system? For Mr. Hoover it was, 
curiously enough,, a system of "rugged individualism." In order to 
justify capitalism he talked as if we lived in the age of the pioneers 
although, at the very time he spoke, that age had gone forever. The 
characteristic mark of the ownership of the means of production 
under Hoover, as under Roosevelt, is irresponsibility. Multitudes 






of absentee owners give no thought, no effort, no direction whatso- 
ever, to the industries from whence they derive their incomes. A 
lucky guess with the investment of a comparatively small sum of 
money may make a man a millionaire. When the guess is on the Irish 
sweepstakes and the reward is not in the millions Mr. Hoover and 
the conservative economists call it gambling; when it is on stocks, 
oil wells, or corner lots, they call it investment and its rewards 
the profits of rugged individualism. Moreover, this system before 
the depression was no longer regulated by competition. It was large- 
ly subject to private monopoly. The hundred largest corporations 
controlled fifty percent of the business wealth of America and were, 
in turn, controlled by less than two thousand directors, most of 
whom, our various investigations have discovered, did not direct. 

The characteristic mark of our system is that it leaves in the hands 
of private owners the land, the natural resources, the great machin- 
ery, the power, necessary for our common life. And these private 
owners or the managers who act for them, use or fail to use what 
they own, solely in accordance with what they think will make for 
their own profit. Their profit depends upon relative scarcity. There 
would be no rent on land if there was not a limitation on con- 
venient lots in the cities and a great difference in fertility and 
accessibility in the country. To keep up the price of bananas many 
a cargo boat has been partially lightened of its load in New York 
or New Orleans harbor. To put up the price of cotton under the 
New Deal we were taxed to pay great landowners not to plant 
cotton even though the children of the workers had no cotton for 
underclothes. This dependence of profit upon relative scarcity was 
somewhat obscured during the nineteenth and early twentieth 
century by the extraordinary increase in productive capacity and by 
the utilization of new lands in America by a rapidly increasing 
population. Today's technological improvement only makes more 
glaring our incapacity to use it for abundance under the profit 
system. 



The New Deal did, indeed, impose various regulations and some 
reforms on private capitalism. It even increased the amount of gov- 
ernment ownership. But it still clung to the principle of production 
for profit. To a certain extent it replaced private capitalism by state 
capitalism. The distinction between state capitalism and Socialism 
must be kept in mind. Government ownership under Socialism is for 
the purpose of rewarding workers for their toil and for providing 
abundance. Government ownership and government regulation 
under capitalism, in the last analysis, are for the purpose of stabiliz- 
ing and perpetuating the profit system and the division of the na- 
tional income under which an owning class gets the cream and the 
workers get the skimmed milk. 

I am a Socialist because reflection on these facts makes it so 
plain to me that it is idle to talk about using our machinery for 
abundance or of planning for abundance under the profit system. 
The whole theory of the profit system was that it worked auto- 
matically; it made planning unnecessary. True enough, it is an 
impossible task to plan successfully for the social use of what 
individuals own. It is plain nonsense to say that we don't have to 
plan for abundance. How can we expect to have anything but 
scarcity and insecurity if, in this age of specialization and great 
machinery, there is no plan by cooperative effort to see that we get 
what we need, and what can be produced ? 

The case for Socialism arises logically and reasonably out of our 
examination of the development of capitalism and its present failure 
to use the machinery of abundance for the conquest of poverty. So- 
cialism says: "Let us go about the business of making machinery pro- 
vide abundance directly. Let us begin by asking, not what price 
will bring profit to private owners, but how much food, clothing 
and shelter do we need for the good life for men. Then let us pro- 
duce for the use of men, women, and children, in order to supply 
them with abundance." 

Clearly this requires social ownership of the principal means of 






production and distribution. This not in order to abolish all private 
property but to give to the exploited workers, for the first time in 
the long history of mankind, the good things of life which labor of 
hand and brain, applied to the power-driven machine, can produce. 
We may make mistakes in social planning, but we can learn by our 
experience — without planning our whole economic system becomes 
one tragic mistake. Abundance is possible when we can set our en- 
gineers and technicians to planning for society, instead of planning, 
in so far as they can plan at all, for the profits of an owning class. 

This Socialist proposal seems to me wholly reasonable. It is not, 
of course, self -executing. It is not a patent medicine which will 
work while we sleep. Like every other good thing the achievement 
of Socialism will be the result of struggle, and the successful ap- 
plication of Socialism requires intelligence and the capacity for co- 
operative effort. The collapse of capitalism is inevitable. But there 
is no inevitability about Socialism or shared abundance. We may 
have a long stretch of chaos, wars, dictatorships, and regimented 
poverty. This can be prevented only by men who will not accept 
poverty in the midst of potential abundance, and the eternal ex- 
ploitation of workers with hand and brain. Not man but the elec- 
trical and other power which drives machinery must be the slave of 
tomorrow's world. 

But this is only part of the reason why I am a Socialist. It is not 
merely plenty that we want, but peace. Everybody knows that ma- 
chinery which can conquer poverty also makes war incredibly dis- 
astrous. Yet war is more appropriate to the strife and hate and ex- 
ploitation of our capitalist-nationalist system than is peace. You will 
observe that I have added to capitalist the word nationalist as a 
more comprehensive description of our disintegrating system. Men 
are divided not only into economic classes but into nations. And na- 
tions as well as men are divided into the Houses of Have and 
Have-not. We live in an interdependent world where not even the 
capitalist nations with the most resources, the United States, the 



( 



British and. French empires, are fully self-sufficient. Yet each nation 
claims absolute sovereignty, absolute sway over its citizens, and 
blindly sees its economic prosperity, not in cooperation, but in shut- 
ting out its neighbors from its own markets. Meanwhile it seeks 
aggressively to capture the markets of the world, to obtain sources 
of raw materials outside its borders, and a place for its capitalists 
!to invest more profitably than at home the surplus wealth they have 
acquired by the successful exploitation of the workers who are their 
pwn fellow countrymen. 

Modern wars arise out of the clash of nations for power and 
profit. The heady wine of an emotional patriotism makes men blind 
and drunk so that they cannot see that out of this struggle for 
power and profit there can be neither true prosperity nor true peace. 
Some things indeed we may do now to make our participation in war 
less likely. We cannot make peace secure or glorious under the 
loyalties of the institutions of capitalist-nationalism. It was my 
conviction of this truth which finally made me a Socialist during 
the Great War of 1914-1918. It is a conviction which has ever 
deepened. The hardest task for Socialism, as recent history shows, 
is to bring about a real unity of workers with hand and brain across 
the lines of nation, race and creed. Yet it is only in the federation 
of cooperative commonwealths, to which, alas, even Socialists have 
been more loyal in word than in deed, that there is hope of lasting 
peace. 

The third reason that I have already suggested for my faith in 
Socialism is that I want a world of freedom. This we do not have 
and cannot have under the shadow of war and the bondage of 
capitalist exploitation. Diogenes, with his lantern, might find an 
honest man in our present society, but it would take a strong search- 
light to find a free man. Of course in all generations there is a 
sense in which freedom is something which must be won. It is also, 
if it is to be real, something which must be shared. None of us is 
free in a country where Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings are 






still in jail ; where a Governor like McNutt of Indiana can arbi- 
trarily proclaim military law superseding the ordinary civil law for 
purposes of keeping labor in order ; where the hideous floggings of 
Florida and the terror of night riding in Arkansas and Alabama 
are used to keep workers in subjection. All workers live more or 
less in fear of those who control their jobs or the tools without which 
they have no jobs. There is, for a great many of us, a kind of haunt- 
ing fear of a jobless tomorrow or an unwanted and unrecompensed 
old age. These things can be ended. They can be ended with the 
end of exploitation which a proper control of a machine age makes 
possible. They can be ended by a society of comrades. The Tree of 
Freedom today has feeble roots for itself except as it may grow in 
the soil of shared abundance. 

But it is just at this point that Socialism is most often chal- 
lenged. It is asserted that Socialism is an end to freedom, not the 
beginning of a larger liberty. Those who make that assertion very 
often are people like the members of the present Liberty League in 
America to whom freedom means only the right to grab all you can 
and keep all you have grabbed. This is not true freedom at all. The 
freedom we seek is the freedom which guarantees to the individual, 
justice even from those who do not wish to be just to him; which 
assures to him to the right "to know, to utter, and to argue freely 
according to conscience" — in short that noble company of rights: 
free speech, free press, free assemblage, free association, for which 
man has so long struggled. It is true enough that under the circum- 
stances of a machine age which make some collectivism imperative 
we cannot have the freedom of Daniel Boone or one of the pioneers 
whose ideal was to live so far from his neighbors that he could not 
hear his neighbor's hound dog bark. The price of our freedom is 
freedom in fellowship or in cooperation. Moreover it is true that 
there is a discipline which the struggle against tyranny requires 
which may sometimes compel a subordination of individual "rights" 
in the essential struggle to change the system. 

10 



Nevertheless I am a Socialist and not a Communist largely be- 
cause I believe that even in a transition period we must maintain civil 
and religious liberty for the individual. Very great things have been 
accomplished in Russia. The most disquieting fact about Russia 
is that there is so little sign that the dictatorship is withering away. 
That dictatorship still imposes a rigid regimentation and at times 
prostitutes justice to terrorism. When Kirov was assassinated by a 
former Communist it was a terrible crime. But when the Russian 
government thereupon put to death more than a hundred persons 
on its blacklist and increased the bitterness of imprisonment or 
surveillance for unknown hundreds it was a greater crime. It was a 
crime not excused by the exigencies of a revolutionary crisis. It was 
a crime directly derived from the Communist theory that justice 
is to be understood only in terms of the safety of that abstraction, 
the "working masses," which safety is infallibly interpreted by the 
dictatorship of the one party in power. In this sort of justice lies 
neither security nor liberty for the new society. They are to be 
found only in realizing true democracy. This must be more than 
nose counting if it is to have power or value. Those who really 
desire to maintain democracy will prove it by their understanding 
of civil liberty. This fact organized Socialism has accepted to a 
degree that Communism has not. Loyalty to the idea of justice and 
civil liberty for the individual may sometimes prove difficult in 
the hour of struggle. It is the only loyalty which can prevent the 
gradual degeneration of men under the new society to the level 
of a community of more or less well fed and well tended cows. 

S I am a Socialist, then, because I believe in freedom, peace, and 
plenty and know that they cannot be realized in my generation, 
or my children's or for many which may follow hereafter, unless 
they are realized promptly in a cooperative commonwealth or 
rather in a Federation of Cooperative Commonwealths which will 
embrace the world. 

But, I am often asked — indeed, I sometimes ask myself — is this 



11 



great goal of the Federation of Cooperative Commonwealths prac- 
ticable? This little pamphlet is not the place to give a full or ade- 
quate answer. It is not even my business in this personal statement 
to recite a carefully thought-out platform for American Socialism. 
Negatively let me point out that if Socialism is not practicable then 
there is no hope for us. Certainly there is no hope in a disintegrat- 
ing capitalism, with the practical certainty of a new cycle of wars 
and tyranny. Positively, let me point out that the goal of abundance 
in a society of free men who harness for life rather than death the 
machinery which can produce abundance is so desirable that it 
ought to compel men to move heaven and earth to make it prac- 
ticable. 

But there are reasons other than these for believing in the prac- 
ticability of Socialism. There has been encouraging progress made 
in the cooperation of men in the management of their own affairs. 
I ask you to consider with me the history of labor unionism. It is 
a magnificent record of the onward march of exploited workers. I 
ask you to consider what consumers' cooperatives have accomplish- 
ed. They have shown the capacity of plain men and women to 
manage in voluntary association the distribution of goods on an- 
other principle than the principle of private profit. I ask you to 
examine the success of a great deal of public ownership — roads, 
schools, waterworks, etc. — even under the handicap of capitalist 
institutions and the profit system. The record is far better than a 
press belonging to big business would lead you to believe. Finally, I 
ask you to ponder with me the record that Socialists have made. It 
is not a perfect record. They have made mistakes. They have met 
defeat. But even in our own country the best governed city over 
the longest period of time is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the lead- 
er in that good government is the Socialist Party which has kept 
Mayor Hoan continuously in office for almost twenty years. Then 
look at the enormous progress already made toward socialism under 
the Communist Party in Russia. That progress has been made out 

12 



library 

University of Tt 
still, Te; 

of the pit of Czarist tyranny, war, revolution and attempted counter- 
revolution. Consider also the substantial progress, without domestic 
or foreign war, in the Scandinavian countries toward a new society 
under the political initiative of Socialist parties. I am a Socialist be- 
cause examination of these achievements convinces me that Social- 
ism is practicable. 

Furthermore, reflection on all these things and upon the logic of 
the system persuades me that we need not look forward in America 
to a Socialism frustrated and corrupted by the lordship of an al- 
mighty political state. We can have industrial democracy. Social- 
ized railroads and coal mines can be administered under director- 
ates representing consumers and producers. Our general strategy in 
the holy war against poverty can be laid down by a council of war, 
an economic planning council, representative of agriculture as well 
as industry. 

While we work out this change we can take better, not worse 
care of the unemployed, the old and the children. The change to 
the new order can take account of immediate demands of workers. 
They need not be fed only with the bread of hope in a better to- 
morrow. In proportion to the number of workers who awake and 
organize for themselves and their children the struggle can be car- 
ried on in orderly and peaceful fashion. Separate an owning class 
from its dupes and its resistance will be weak. The more peaceful 
the revolution the more priceless its boon. This does not imply pas- 
sivism or faith in romantic parliamentarianism. The Socialism in 
which I believe must have the courage to stand out against tyrants 
and their dupes in face of war and fascism. We dare not stop 
with merely asking vested privilege and an owning class to grant 
us as a concession what is ours by right. 

In this struggle the appeal is big enough for mankind. There is 
no man in the world who would not be better off with the menace 
of war and poverty and insecurity banished. There are few men in 
the world who would not, as individuals, be better off economically 

13 



430272 



under the abundance of planned production for use. The appeal 
which moves me is an appeal to men and women of goodwill to 
bring in this Socialist society. But the very nature of our predatory 
society makes the appeal of Socialism strongest to workers. The term 
includes all who do the necessary, honorable and useful tasks of 
the world, who create its material or cultural wealth. We shall 
never have a true cooperative commonwealth until men think of 
their reward as workers who create all wealth and not any longer 
of their reward as owners of property which enables them to exploit 
other men's labor. That is one of the reasons why our great Socialist 
appeal must be always to the workers with hand and brain, in city 
and country. It is they who have so long been exploited. It is they 
who can and must be free. 

It is on this note of hope that I end this statement of my reasons 
for being a Socialist. It is not a hope which "creates of its own 
wreck the thing it contemplates." It is not a private and personal 
hope. It is a hope that must be shared, that must be expressed in 
organization of labor unions, farmers' unions, consumers' coopera- 
tives, a political party of farmers and workers. It is only by such 
organization, inspired by Socialist principles, that we can fulfill the 
dreams and hopes of the prophets, the patriots, and the saints down 
through the ages. Ours is a great responsibility. To us has been 
given the mechanical power to conquer poverty and release men 
from immemorial bondage. Let us harness that power for life, 
not death. 



U 



Publications of the League for Industrial Democracy 

NORMAN THOMAS 

Why I Am A Socialist (L.I.D.) $ .05 

The Plight of the Sharecropper (LJ.D.r 10 

War As A Socialist Sees It (L.I.D.) 05 

HARRY W. LAIDLER 

How America Lives (L.I.D.) 15 

America in the Depression, Supplement to How America Lives 10 

Incentives Under Capitalism and Socialism (L.I.D.) 15 

Public Ownership Here and Abroad (L.I.D.) .13 

Unemployment and Its Remedies (L.I.D.) ,25 

Socialist Planning and a Socialist Program — Edited by Dr. Laidler .35 
Putting the Constitution to Work (L.I.D.) 15 

STUART CHASE 

Waste and the Machine Age (L.I.D.) 15 

Poor Old Competition (L.I.D.) 10 

JOHN DEWEY 

Education and a New Social Order (L.I.D.) 05 

HAROLD J. LASKI— Karl Marx (L.I.D.) 25 

Fascism, A Diagnosis of the Causes of Fascism 10 

MAURICE GOLDBLOOM, JOHN HERLING, JOEL SEIDMAN and 

ELIZABETH YARD— Strikes Under the New Deal (L.I.D.) 15 

HOWARD KESTER— Revolt Among the Sharecroppers 50 

JOSEPH P. LASH— Campus Strikes Against War (L.I.D.) 10 

JOHN BAUER— America's Struggle for Electric Power (L.I.D.) 10 

HELEN ALFRED— Municipal Housing 10 

Looking Forward, Discussion Outlines, 1934, 1935, 1986 10 

HERBERT SOLOW— Union Smashing in Sacramento 05 

Wisdom, Justice and Moderation — The Case of Angelo Herndnn 

$1.50 per 100 or 02 

Tampa — Tar and Terror — $1.50 per 100 or 02 

The Scottsboro Case — The Scottsboro Defense Committee 05 

The Truth About the Waterfront — International Longshoremen's Ass'n .65 

WALTER WILSON— Militia— Friend or Foe of Liberty 10 

BOOKS 

NORMAN THOMAS 

War— No Profit, No Glory, No Need (Stokes, 1985) 1.50 

Human Exploitations (Stokes) 2.75 

The Choice Before Us (Macmillan, 1934) 2.50 

As I See It (Macmillan) 2.00 

America's Way Out (Macmillan) 2.50 

HARRY W. LAIDLER 

A Program for Modern America (Crowell, 1936) 2.50 

Socializing our Democracy (Harpers, 1935) 8.00 

Concentration of Control in American Industry (Crowell) 8.75 

The Road Ahead (Crowell) 1.00 

History of Socialist Thought (Crowell) 8.50 

A Program for Modern America (Crowell) 2.50 

{Lower Prices for Quantity Orders) 



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