Uses and abuses: George Orwell and Norman Thomas

Following Terry Glavin (linked here) and the Fat Man (linked here), Rosie Bell has a really good response to Julian Barnes’ recent NYRB George Orwell essay. Among other things, like the Fat Man she addresses his appeal to libertarians and conservatives of various sorts.

An example of the appropriation of Orwell by the right comes from this post at an American anti-Obama blog. The post is entitled “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” This, of course, is the opening passage from Orwell’s amazing novel 1984. Compelling graphics show a Soviet American flag and Obama as Big Brother. Of course, it is a serious abuse of the concept of totalitarianism to think of Obama’s mild reforms as totalitarianism: there is no similarity between what Orwell observed the Soviet dictatorship doing and what Obama is doing.

Along with another quote from Orwell is this “quote” from Norman Thomas:

thomas“The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

Norman Thomas, Socialist leader, 1944

This Thomas quote is, I am fairly sure, a fabrication. If you google it, the hits all come from right-wing sites: over 54,000 hits. Malicious editors, usually anonymous, attempt to write it into Thomas’ wikipedia article, from which it is quoted by lazy bloggers as if everything in wikipedia is a fact (e.g. Standing on Truth, Moose Tracks, DaveGJ, and (slightly more intelligently) Kempite - to list those who have added to the myth this week alone).

A query at the talk page for Thomas’ wikipedia article has a response from Jim Miller, a university librarian, suggesting that the origin is a distortion of a comment made by Upton Sinclair to Norman Thomas:

We can build evidence for the possibility, or questionability, of this by looking at other people’s efforts to find it – for example, books.google.com search: liberalism socialism “norman thomas” gets 84 hits, including Lou Cannon. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. PublicAffairs, 2003. ISBN: 1586480308. (F866.4.R43 C36 2003 in most academic libraries; in 979.4… or BIO section of most public libraries). On page 125, Cannon says [of Reagan] …”a favorite line was this supposed prediction of Norman Thomas…”, and “This is a suspect quotation, and Reagan gave no reference for it”. Cannon also says in a note “If Thomas said this, I have been unable to find evidence of it….”

Naturally, a thorough researcher would try to find many other such books, from people of various political bents, to build a case that such a quote is either probable, possible, or unlikely. One would think such a striking quote would make it into biographies of Thomas; try the tables of contents and indexes for “Liberalism”, etc. Even statements from social and political historians (who claim to have looked for such a quote) can help build a case for or against it.

But it IS a good example of how even a false quote can take on a life of its own, because it shows how hard it is to prove a person did NOT say something – even if a “grand champion” history reference expert DOES end up finding this particular quote somewhere in unpublished Norman Thomas correspondence.”*

The right uses this fabricated “quote” to substantiate a double lie: that American liberalism is somehow socialism in disguise, and that socialism is by definition a form of totalitarianism or tyranny. The fact that Norman Thomas was a democratic socialist, who fought hard against all forms of totalitarianism or tyranny, not least the Soviet dictatorship, is utterly lost on them. The fact that American liberalism has, at most, called for mild forms of state regulation and never for any kind of socialisation of the economy is also, of course, lost on them.

*Footnote: Thanks to Bilber and Kathy for link to hoax-sniffers Snopes who are still “undecided” on the authenticity of this quote.

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  1. In response to your post, I’d like to clear up a few issues. First of all, I never stated in my post or anywhere on my site that we’re now living under a totalitarian government headed by Barack Obama. To suggest that I have is disingenuous. If you had bothered to read the older posts, you’d would have understood that I’m talking about the direction that the United States is heading, and that direction is toward Socialism and a “soft tyranny.”

    When you say “it is a serious abuse of the concept of totalitarianism to think of Obama’s mild reforms as totalitarianism,” you suppose incorrectly that the reforms that are being laid out are “mild.” Barack Obama is the most left-radical president that this country has ever seen and the changes that he is planning to impose are both sweeping and counter to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. In many cases, they are unconstitutional.

    Please explain what it means to “abuse the concept of totalitarianism?” If there is such an abuse, I proclaim here that I am against it in the same way that I am against any kind of abuse, whether it be child abuse, elder abuse, or drug abuse. I hereby call for the initiation of a charity to end this terrible abuse.

    Next, let’s examine the alleged Thomas quote. At the time that I posted the quote, it appeared in Wikipedia (someone has removed it). It was *sourced* and attributed as being from a 1944 speech. It also said:

    “He went on to say: ‘I no longer need to run as a Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democrat Party has adopted our platform.'”

    This bit was tagged with “this needs a source.” I looked it up online and couldn’t find any sources for the added quote, so I left this part out of the post.

    If I was just some right-wing idiot dupe, as you imply, I would have ran that part on my blog. It certainly is more damning than the part that I quoted.

    Whether or not Norman Thomas actually uttered those woreds doesn’t change the truth of the statement. I could run the quote with the attribution “author unknown, attributed to Norman Thomas, and it would be just as true.

    Your statement: “The fact that American liberalism has, at most, called for mild forms of state regulation and never for any kind of socialisation of the economy,” shows that you are either dishonest, or at best delusional. Because you state it as fact doesn’t make it so. For an interesting piece on the Marxist roots of Black Liberation Theology, see http://tinyurl.com/5cfnp8.

  2. Sorry live4freedom, I guess I was interpreted the, er, liberal use of the word “tyranny”, the use of the words “Big Brother”, the image of the Soviet flag, the term “American dictator” and other such clues as meaning that you thought that Obama’s administration is totalitarian. My apologies for getting that wrong.

    My point is that Orwell saw the Soviet dictatorship in action in Spain; his comrades saw it in action in Russia. It slaughtered vast numbers of people. It did not tolerate any criticism or dissent. Someone like you would not be alive if you said about Stalin what you say about Obama. To make a comparison between Obama and Stalin (which you do, e.g. in the flag image) or with Orwell’s 1984 dystopia (which again you do) – even if you do not use the term “totalitarian” – is obscene.

    I am not in the business of defending Obama or American liberalism, not having any particular liking for them, so I’ll leave others to respond to your specific charges.

    On Wikipedia: no, Wikipedia never gave a proper source. The 8 March version you might have seen had no source. An earlier version in Feb had this source: http://www.people.ubr.com/political/by-first-name/n/norman-thomas/norman-thomas-quotes.aspx – a user-edited resource with no citations.

  3. good article … many people who use and disseminate this forgeries are only opposed to authoritarian systems in which they are not in power … reminds me of another forgery by conspiracy theorists, the “Red Symphony” pretending to be an interrogation protocol with Christian Rakovsky from 1938

  4. I enjoy your blog, Poumista.

    “The right uses this fabricated “quote” to substantiate a double lie: that American liberalism is somehow socialism in disguise, and that socialism is by definition a form of totalitarianism or tyranny.”

    I think the linkage between liberalism, socialism and communism was also explicated by Whittaker Chambers (who never makes reference to this supposed Thomas quote in his autobiography “Witness”).

    To simplify, Chambers thought the following:

    liberalism = socialism = communism

    Another individual who made a link between state planning/market intervention and totalitarianism was Hayek. I don’t think he ever uses the Thomas quote either.

    My point is, the right does not require this quote (fake or otherwise) to support their idea that market intervention leads to fascism and communism. There are plenty of other sources of this idea without needing to make up a fake quote.

    Keep blogging. Thanks for adding me to your blogroll and I will reciprocate soon.

    –TNC

    • You’re right: they don’t need this quote, and if the quote is faked it is not exactly the worst of sins. I am totally opposed to Chambers’ and Hayek’s versions of this thesis. Of course, there has been a tolalitarian strain in the broader socialist movement, but socialism has, to borrow Hal Draper’s words, two souls (if not more!). The libertarian and democratic socialist traditions cannot be regarded as totalitarian in any way.

      Because totalitarianism is such an important issue, it is important to use it with some precision.

      Incidentally, this is an issue one of my favourite bloggers, Fat Man at the Keyboard, has addressed more than once: http://fatmanonakeyboard.blogspot.com/2008/09/thoughts-on-totalitarianism.html

      http://fatmanonakeyboard.blogspot.com/2008/10/free-to-disagree.html

  5. I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  6. [...] 2: on Orwell’s attitude to communism and socialism, by a mole in the ground (relevant to this, and follows on from this [...]

  7. Great site this poumista.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

  8. [...] little bit of left history relevant to this: PatriotDems on the “Red Dunhams” of Washington State, [...]

  9. The Thomas “quote” appears to be a distortion of a letter Upton Sinclair sent to him in 1951: “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.”

  10. [...] back I debuted in the 32nd Carnival of Socialism, hosted by AVPS. Lastly POUMISTA looks at the use and abuse of George Orwell – quite timely as a few right wing establishment writers have made the shortlist [...]

  11. [...] Read the rest. It’s relevant to this. [...]

  12. ‎”Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. In the “new order”, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture VIA infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” Antonio Gramisci-Italian Communist

    ~America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves~ Abraham Lincoln

    ~They that would give up essential liberty for temperary security, deserves neither liberty or security, and will get niether one.~ Ben Franklin

    ~And Socialism=Communism ~Karl Marx wrote: Socialism is not a form of government but a “state”. A policed and engineered state in which the nation takes on in “transition” from a Capitolist to a Communist society.

  13. The first part of the Gramsci quote, commonly attributed to a very young Gramsci (May of 1916 the Italian Socialist newspaper Avanti) may not be a fake, as it is kind of Gramscian, but it is interesting that it widely circulates on fascist and far right websites but I have never seen a good bit of evidence for it. The second part of this quote is not a quote at all but a paraphrase, pasted from a far right website, of his later arguments. Even there, the right-wing websites get it wrong, because they generally say: “He later wrote L ‘Ordine Nuovo [New Order”. In fact, that was the name of a periodical he co-edited.

    As for the Marx quote here, it is not even vaguely a paraphrase, but pure nonsense.

    More examples of internet false factoids, Randy.

  14. [...] Uses and abuses: George Orwell and Norman Thomas [...]

  15. [...] Uses and abuses: George Orwell and Norman Thomas « Poumista [...]

  16. I don’t need a quote real or unreal to see the police state & big brother continue to grow in the USA…..I also am not silly enough to think its just the evil democrats. The republicans themselves are guilty of most of the slander they throw on the Democrats.

  17. [...] Uses and abuses: George Orwell and Norman Thomas [...]


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