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The Personal Price of Free Speech
Scott Nearing: 1883-1983

By Jean Hay
April 1997
(Written for a class on Media and the Law)

Eugene Debs described him as ``the greatest teacher in the United States.'' Philosopher H. L. Mencken said of him, ``There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character. Nearing has it.'' Even the Dead Poets Society's recent inductee, beatnik Allen Ginsberg, had an opinion: ``Scott Nearing was a grand old man, a real mensch.'' 1

Yet, except for die-hard left-wing activists and some in the environmental movement, few people these days have heard of Scott Nearing and fewer still think of him as a front-line defender of freedom of speech and the press in the first half of this century.

For Nearing, free speech was the means to an end -- the delivery of his message, one usually with a theme of economic justice. Yet he found himself repeatedly defending not just the message he was trying to convey, but his right to convey it. While all of his defenses were notable, many of them were unsuccessful. And in several instances, there was a high personal price to pay for keeping integrity intact.

The course of Scott Nearing's life could be said to closely parallel the 20th century evolution of free speech, in the restrictions placed on it, and on him. Referring only tangentially to the substance of his messages, we will examine a few of those parallels.

Scott Nearing was born to a wealthy family in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in 1883. He died in his rustic stone house overlooking Penobscot Bay in Harborside, Maine in 1983. In the century he was alive, Nearing experienced the transformation of modern society on many levels.

He was a young boy when the fresh inventions of Thomas Edison startled the world, and only middle-aged, by his standard, when many of those inventions became mundane household appliances. He was a young man, a pacifist, excited by the promise of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and dismayed as major clashes of philosophies led to first one, and then two world wars, resulting in the massacre of millions of civilians and soldiers around the globe.

But Scott Nearing was not an idle witness to such events. He spoke out, at every opportunity, and seemingly on every hot topic, long before it reached the consciousness of society at large. In the process, he became one of the country's great and persistent defenders of individual freedom.

The breadth of his investigations is astonishing.

Scott Nearing wrote The Solution of the Child Labor Problem in 1911 when most businessmen considered child labor a solution, not a problem.2 He wrote Women and Social Progress in 1912, when women were still considered second-class citizens and could not vote.3

In 1917, as America poised to enter World War I, Nearing wrote The Great Madness, in which he detailed the underlying dynamics of the war machine, and called the Conscription Bill ``un-American,'' and a law which ``clearly violated the spirit of the constitution and the traditions of American life.''4

He wrote Oil and the Germs of War in 1923, before many people had connected the two and nearly six decades before the Persian Gulf War became the most recent conflict to prove his point.5

In 1929, Scott Nearing was writing about the economic, social, and political realities, and graphically describing the lynchings, of Black America, at a time when that race was referred to as Negro, or worse, and those lynchings were announced in newspapers under coming events.6

In 1933, Nearing wrote Fascism, which he believed to be the first warning to the world about what he considered a form of unleashed capitalism.7

His outspokenness cost him.

Scott Nearing lost two college teaching jobs when he refused to tone down the expression of his beliefs. Invitations on the lecture circuit dried up. He was considered such a threat that his private personal papers were seized by the Justice Department in 1916, before the FBI was even invented. He was charged under the Espionage Act for opposing World War I.8

He spent his final four decades writing, self-publishing his books and pamphlets when that was the only way to get his writings into print, and eking out a living in the woods and fields, first in Vermont, and later in Maine.

At the end of his life he was revered by many thousands, but not for the left-wing politics which first drove him into, and then forced him to leave, the Socialist and Communist parties. The reverence of his new followers was for the lifestyle Scott and his second wife Helen spelled out in Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. It was a book which brought thousands of young people back to the land and off the grid in the 1970s as modern-day homesteaders.9

Few of those young hippies who briefly reversed Maine's population out-migration in that decade knew much of Scott Nearing's committed radical past. Nor could they imagine the wrinkled, stooped, sometimes cranky old man hoeing potatoes in his organic garden as the firebrand orator who stirred thousands in his speeches and lectures with the likes of no less than Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow early in the century.

It was difficult to picture the short, wiry man rhythmically, steadily and patiently hand-sawing mountains of tree trunks and branches into 16-inch lengths for the kitchen woodstove as a defendant in a federal courtroom in 1919, charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for writing an anti-war pamphlet.

More than a few were surprised to see Nearing, this quiet man in self-imposed exile from modern society and all its commercialized trappings, make a cameo appearance as a ``witness'' in Reds, the controversial 1981 movie produced and directed by Warren Beatty, about Nearing's friend John Reed and the Russian Revolution of 1917.10 It was hard for the ``don't trust anyone over 30'' crowd of the Vietnam War era, who saw Nearing as simply a somewhat older rebelling peer just doing his thing and showing them how to do theirs, to fathom that in 1917, when John Reed and the Russian Revolution were in full swing, Scott Nearing was 34 years old.11

The teaching jobs went first
Scott Nearing graduated from, and started teaching at, the Wharton School of Economics, part of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1906. He immediately developed a teaching philosophy: ``I felt I had a mission to carry out, to teach the truth as it was, or at least as I saw it.''12

  It was the era of Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and other ``muckrakers.'' Nearing joined the fray, looking at how income was distributed, tracking the flow of money between laborers and business owners. He soon began to focus on child labor.

``What I learned about then prevailing conditions has been summed up in a notable quatrain by my old friend, Sally Cleghorn: `The golf links lie so near the mill that almost any day the working children can look out and see the men at play,' '' Nearing wrote in his 1972 political autobiography, The Making of a Radical.13

``Mine was a sensitive field,'' he wrote. ``Pennsylvania's free enterprisers were employing large numbers of children in its mines, its mills, and its factories. Joseph Grundy, a prominent Republican in a Republican State, was a leader in the fight against child labor legislation. The University of Pennsylvania, a private institution, was beginning to get large appropriations from the State legislature.''14

Nearing was warned by a college administrator to tone down the rhetoric. He responded by meticulously attending to his teaching duties, and increasing his off-campus lecturing. He wrote widely-used scholarly economic textbooks, but also popular magazine articles and political pamphlets.15 His popularity grew -- in most but not all quarters. As World War I approached, he was warned by a friend at Wharton to ``get under the big business umbrella before it is too late.''16

After the semester closed at Wharton in June 1915, Nearing received a brief note from Provost Edgar F. Smith, advising him that the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania had not renewed his contract. Not one to take things lying down, Nearing immediately mailed out 1,500 press releases to newspapers in Pennsylvania and across the nation, to press associations, associates in other universities, and other influential people.17

His dismissal became national news. The governor was flooded with telegrams urging him to delay signing a $1 million appropriation for the school until Nearing was rehired. Several prominent colleagues wrote eloquent letters, defending the concept of faculty academic freedom, even when they didn't agree with what Nearing had to say. The Philadelphia North American, the New York World, the Chicago Herald, the New York Evening Post, the Philadelphia Public Ledger came to his defense. The New York Times, however, did not, saying in an editorial: ``Let us say it frankly, there is altogether too much foolish babbling on the part of some professors.''18

Ignoring the outpouring of support from around the country, the trustees held firm and Nearing did not return to campus. But threats of similar action to other like-minded professors suddenly disappeared.

Despite his credentials, only one school, the University of Toledo in Ohio, offered Nearing a teaching position. Nearing gladly accepted, and was welcomed as a progressive social scientist. The next year, 1916, Woodrow Wilson was reelected on a pledge to keep the country out of the war then raging in Europe. Six months later the opposite was about to occur, and pacifist Nearing again became a target. A liberal, progressive minister, Allan Stockdale, who had befriended Nearing, suddenly railed against him from the pulpit:

``Scott Nearing should shut up and stay shut up. He should not mislead or deceive the people who have not had the educational advantages he has had. There was a time in the country when a pro and con discussion of peace or war was allowable. But when the country is thrust into war it is no time to preach disloyalty or to talk dissension. Men who do are guilty of treason. They are traitors.''19

Feeling the pressure, the university trustees dismissed Nearing in a one-vote split majority. Over the course of the next few days, every trustee who had voted to dismiss made a point of personally apologizing to Nearing with the words he was to hear many times in the years ahead: ``There is nothing personal about this.''20

Nearing recognized the political in that ``nothing personal.''

``My own career lay in ruins; my experience and competence as a professional teacher were brushed aside, but these personal frustrations, disappointments and disasters were only straws in a whirlwind that was starting to blow through the whole country,'' Nearing later wrote. ``The significant wreckage resulted from the abandonment of the American dream and the replacement of American idealism by the hard-headed, hard-fisted policy of the American Century imposed on mankind by hucksters and their strong-arm squads operating on land and sea and in the air.''21

That summer, while he was away teaching at Chautauqua Summer School in New York, his home in Toledo was searched by federal authorities over his secretary's protests, and all his papers trucked off.

``Since that day I have not kept files of personal records or letters,'' Nearing later wrote. ``Living as an unwilling citizen in a warfare state, I feel that the fewer records one has, the better.''22

War's impact on freedom of speech
With all full academic teaching jobs closed to him, Nearing joined the staff of the anti-war Rand School of Social Science in New York City, run by the American Socialist Society, and wrote several 32-page anti-war pamphlets which the Society published, including one titled The Great Madness.

About the same time, Nearing became a member of the Socialist Party, and ran for Congress on that ticket in 1918, against incumbent Fiorello LaGuardia. Theirs were the only two names on the ballot. Out of fear over the rising popularity of the Socialist Party, both the Democratic and Republican parties nominated LaGuardia as a fusion candidate.23

The Nearing candidacy came at a time, his biographer wrote, when ``indictments and prosecution against those who spoke or wrote against the war were increasingly commonplace. Newspapers were harassed, offices raided and mail opened; even the specter of deportation was raised. In New York City, so many dissenters who took to the streets to protest the war were jailed that the New York Call mused whether the prison on Blackwell's Island might request a local Socialist party charter. ... It was under these conditions that the political campaign emerged as the best remaining forum for public discussion and struggle.''24

In his speech accepting his party's nomination, Nearing said he would go to Congress ``opposing the present Democratic administration because it passed and enforced an Espionage law and other similar laws under which the rights ... guaranteed by the Constitution, have been abridged and denied.''25

Nearing was very familiar with that Espionage law. At the time of his nomination acceptance speech, Nearing was under federal indictment, charged with violating it. The Great Madness was the government's sole piece of evidence. The Rand School, which had published the pamphlet, was also named in the indictment.

Nearing and his publisher were not alone. The American Labor Yearbook 1919-1920 estimated 4,500 prosecutions involving freedom of speech, press and assemblage while the U.S. was in the war (April 1917 to November 1918). Of those, nearly a thousand (998) were under the Espionage Act. An estimated 1,500 were convicted and sent to prison.26

``Curiously, not one enemy agent was convicted under the Espionage Act,'' wrote Steve Sherman in A Scott Nearing Reader. `` U.S. government prosecution, however, sent many American radicals and pacifists to prison.''27

Among them were Max Eastman, Rose Pastor Stokes, and 1912 Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who had earned a million votes in the 1912 election only to be sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1918.28

In November 1918, Nearing lost to LaGuardia by a vote of 14,523 to 6,214.29 His trial under the Espionage Act began three months later.

Nearing viewed the trial, held Feb. 6-19, 1919, as a perfect opportunity to explain his anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, anti-war, pro-peace positions one paragraph at a time to a packed courtroom full of newspaper reporters. He admitted writing the pamphlet and stood behind every word.

It was, he said, a ``wonderful chance to do some educational work. If we had had to buy the newspaper space devoted to that trial, it would have cost millions and would not have reached as many people.''30

The jury was made up of the most prominent and successful businessmen in the jury pool, Nearing said, ``on the theory that those who have arrived are more secure than those who are still climbing.''31

Scott Nearing not only took the stand, he addressed the jury at the close of his trial. Although not a lawyer, he used his considerable oratory skills to outline for the jury the philosophies and motivations behind his writings. Here are some excerpts from his closing argument which deal with freedom of speech:

Gentlemen, I am on trial here before you, charged with obstructing the recruiting and enlistment service to the detriment of the service, to the injury of the service, and with attempting and causing insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and the refusal of duty within the military and naval forces ...

The prosecution has not been able to show a single instance in which recruiting was obstructed ... a single instance in which insubordination, disloyalty, and refusal of duty were caused. It has been 17 or 18 months since this pamphlet was published. During that time there have been about 19,000 copies of it loose in the country, and the prosecution was unable to bring before you a single instance where these things have actually occurred. ...

So that the only act that is alleged against me is an expression of my opinions: writing in this book and expressing my opinions on the St. Louis Proclamation, of the Socialist Party platform. ... I am charged with writing and having sent that writing to a publisher and had it published ... therefore if I am convicted under this indictment I will be convicted for an expression of my opinions. There is no other evidence before you except my opinions. ...

I believe that democracy is a better form of social organization than aristocracy, or monarchy or any other form of government that the world has ever known. Discussion is one of the purposes of democracy. Democracy means that a people talking a question over, thinking it out and reaching a decision upon it, may then register that decision.

The only way to have intelligent public opinion is to have discussion, and the moment you check discussion you destroy democracy. ... The only way in which we can preserve democracy is to reserve to every citizen of the democracy the right to express the convictions that he has: the right to be right and the right to be wrong. The Constitution does not guarantee us only the right to be correct, we have a right to be honest and in error. And the views that I have expressed in this pamphlet I expressed honestly. I believe they are right. The future will show whether or not I was correct, but under the laws, as I understand it, and under the Constitution as I understand it, every citizen in this country has a right to express himself -- subject always to the law, subject always to the limitations which the law prescribes -- has a right to express himself on public questions. The moment any administration enters and shuts down that right, that moment democracy ceases to exist. ...

I am an American, my ancestors have been Americans for more than 200 years. As an American I have certain rights and certain duties. Among my rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution are the rights of free speech and the free press; the right to speak and print the convictions that I have. It was for those rights that our ancestors left Europe and came here. It is for those rights that some of us are contending today.

I do not care for the prosperity of this country if we are going to have gag laws. I care not for the wealth of this country if we are going to be forbidden to have free speech, and an opportunity for expressing our minds and expressing our opinions and discussing the great issues that are before us. ... In America we want liberty. And I believe that as an American citizen, that is the dearest possession for which I can contend. That is my right constitutionally and legally. But if there were no constitution and no law, it would be my right as a member of a democratic society.

... Citizenship involves duties as well as rights. ... When I believe that our country is in danger, our common life and our common liberties are in peril, then it is my duty to warn you, it is my duty to speak out and continue to speak out as long as I have an opportunity to do so....

Gentlemen, I want to say to you that I want to see America free. I want to see liberty, opportunity and democracy here, as well as in every other country on earth. As long as America is not free, you are not free and I am not free....

I have expressed my hopes, my ideals, my ambitions for liberty in America, and for brotherhood and peace among all people of the world. I have done what I could, and for the time being the matter is in your hands.''32

It took the jury 30 hours to reach its verdict: Nearing was acquitted of the charges for writing The Great Madness, ``the only radical of the times to have been dismissed from these and similar war-inspired charges.''33

But the American Socialist Society was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act for publishing that same pamphlet. The Rand School appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to review the case. The Rand School paid its $3,000 fine in single dollar bills.34

Nearing wrote later that when the jury verdict was announced, he rushed from the courtroom to call his mother. An armed uniformed court attendant stopped him in the courthouse corridor. ``Excuse me sir,'' the officer said with a strong Irish brogue, ``It may not be becoming in me to say this to you, but if it were not for you and the likes of you, me and the likes of me would be in chains and we know it.'' 35

Parting company with party politics
Despite his strong showing as a Socialist Party congressional candidate, Nearing was a member of that party for only five years, leaving in 1922 when the leadership persisted in denouncing the Soviet Union, a position Nearing could not abide.36

Rather than turn to the logical alternative, he sat out the next five years as the Communist Party in the United States went through factional disputes and personality-power struggles. Convinced by a friend that he could accomplish more from the inside than from the outside, he signed up in 1927. The Communist Party hesitated, but finally accepted this controversial figure as a member.37

It was a short affiliation. Three years later, Nearing once again chose freedom of speech over conformity, and politely resigned when the Communist Party would not publish his latest writing because it did not conform with Lenin's essay Imperialism.38

The American Communist Party would have none of it. Pointing out that ``The revolutionary party of the working class cannot be satisfied with `sympathy' from its members, it must demand subordination of the individual to the line and to the activities of the Party and the revolutionary working class,'' the American Communist Party declared Scott Nearing's thinking to be seriously flawed, refused to accept his resignation, and instead expelled him as a recalcitrant.39

A column by Mike Gold in the Daily Worker explained: ``Some of Scott Nearing's public utterances have deviated from the Communist Party line. This was not because the party line was false, or sectarian, or unrealistic, but because Scott Nearing had lapsed into a moment of mystic individualism.''40

Communication Blackout
At the very time radio, telephone, movies and television were expanding into all parts of American life, Nearing found his choices shrinking. The irony was not lost on him.

``All through the 1900-17 period,'' he wrote, ``there were liberals and radicals who printed newspapers, edited and wrote for magazines, preached, propagandized, organized. Liberals and radicals were elected or appointed to public office: local, state, and federal. Liberalism and radicalism in the United States were recognized as a normal part of public life. Up to this point, for decades, the Left had enjoyed a position among recognized American institutions. Differences of opinion were not only tolerated, but extolled as a `natural right.'''41

What happened? Nearing had the answer: big business had seized control of the communication channels.42 Every piece of news, he contended, was screened to see if it was ``in the best interests of the business-politicos-military-public-relations oligarchy which makes policy.''43

``Step by step, year by year, war by war, the interests of big business were synchronized with the public interests until big business made the policy decisions which determined what was good for people to hear, see, and read -- therefore good for the best interests of the United States Oligarchy and the American Empire,'' Nearing wrote.44

``By the middle 1930s this brainwashing campaign had become so effective that controversial issues were termed subversive, against the public interest, unpatriotic, disloyal, even traitorous,'' Nearing wrote. ``Leftist speakers were neither encouraged nor permitted to air their views. Often they were mobbed, and leftist meetings were attacked and broken up by hundred-percent Americans frequently aided by the police.''45

Those business interests had the backing of government officials.

``During a strike in Paterson, New Jersey,'' Nearing noted by way of example, ``Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, then a young, enthusiastic, fiery union organizer, announced that she would speak in Paterson. Chief of Police Bimba stated publicly that she would not. `But I have the right under the Constitution to speak,' Elizabeth protested. `You may have the right,' the police chief rejoined, `but we have the power, and we will prevent you.' Elizabeth did not speak.''46

That was the situation in which Nearing found himself for the next 50 years of his life.

``I have the `right' to speak, write, print, publish, but my words dropped into a deep well of oblivion. I have the `right' to teach, but no university or school in the country would accept me. I could speak, but few public forums would allow me on their platforms. I could write, but my books were not published by recognized firms, nor were they reviewed in magazines or papers or stocked in book stores.''47

Nearing had no kind words for the communications monopoly. Again, he found it was ``nothing personal.''

``As far as the press was concerned, the formula was simple. National advertisers and national advertising provide the funds needed to make the system operate. Papers that spoke for the oligarchs and their interests got the advertising. Others died of financial malnutrition.''

An article he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post on wages and the standard of living was rejected. He was told, ``We need circulation to get and keep advertising. We come out once a week and must publish articles which leave a good taste in the mouth so that our readers of this week will buy the magazine next week. Your article does not leave a good taste in the mouth.''48

Asked by the editor of The Nation to write an article on his home state of Pennsylvania, he presented them with a study on how the manufacturers and merchants of death had taken over the commonwealth of brotherly love. The article was rejected because ``it lacked grace.'' 49

The Daily Worker, New York Times, and Christian Science Monitor refused to accept advertisements for his books, including one dealing with the issue of freedom. A book publisher only wanted to know if another book, then in manuscript form, would sell 15,000 copies.50

Nearing kept writing, joining with cohorts in what he called the subsidized left, whenever he could. He and Louis Lochner established a news service, Federated Press, which fed stories and press releases to 150 labor and radical newspapers. With printing costs paid by sponsors, he wrote a World Events newsletter. He lectured at every opportunity.51

Meanwhile, Nearing's marriage fell apart, he adopted vegetarianism, he met the woman who would be his second wife (Helen Knothe), and together they took to the woods of Vermont, where they raised a large garden and made maple syrup as a cash crop. He continued to write, talk and teach.

On Nearing's 62nd birthday, August 6, 1945, Harry Truman gave the order to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. That day Nearing wrote President Truman: ``Your government is no longer mine.''52

Later years
``Through the years I have talked, written, lectured, and debated with minimal effect,'' Nearing wrote in his 1971 autobiography. ``Those who will listen to my voice or read my writings are fewer in number than they were 20, 30, and especially 40 years ago. There are even times when I seem to be talking and writing entirely to myself and a handful of friends and associates. What does one do in such a situation, with something to say and few ways of getting it across? .... How does one feed, house, and clothe oneself during fifty years of exclusion from the primary channels of communication and with no dependable source of income?''53

Nearing answered his own question:

``Homesteading fitted nicely into the predicament which faced me in the 1930s. .... If one is to be poor, it is better to be poor in the country than in the city because one can at least grow one's own food instead of having to buy it from the barrows or pick it out of garbage cans on city streets.''54

First in Vermont, and then in Maine, the Nearings homesteaded, travelling, lecturing and writing in the winter when their farmland was frozen and they could not garden. Scott and Helen documented their rural sustenance life in Living the Good Life. They also wrote The Maple Sugar Book, which was the first, and may still be the only, full treatment of that subject. Those two books, self-published in 1950 and 1954, were reissued by Random House in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War. The anti-establishment tone and practical how-to information contained in them struck a chord with the anti-war movement, and the Nearings suddenly became American icons, a mantle they did not always wear comfortably.

Thousands trekked to the Nearings waterfront home during the 1970s and 1980s, many expressing the simple desire to see for themselves that what was in the books actually existed on the face of the earth. It was a concept true to the times as well as to several arms agreements -- trust, but verify.55

In his ninth decade, as far as most people who then were getting to know him were concerned, Scott Nearing was an abrupt but hardworking, brilliant but distant visionary who stood on principle regardless of the personal cost. Many were vaguely aware that Nearing's background and unpopularity drove him into the woods, but those who were trying to do likewise seemed to care little about the details of his colorful past. In fact, the discordance was so complete that last February [1997] many members on the new governing board of the Good Life Center, set up after both Helen and Scott had died, had to be reminded to include the couple's political, not just environmental, spiritual and gardening, views in the organization's mission statement.56

In many ways Scott Nearing was the personification of the changing dynamics in communication in the century he was alive. Described by his peers as a great orator, he reached his zenith when communications technology was in its infancy, and attendance at public meetings was part of the ordinary social fabric.

The need to personally attend open lectures to get vital information on the issues of the day diminished in the public's mind when segments of speeches or summaries of events could be heard on the radio in the privacy of one's home.

Business interests soon recognized the benefits of the new media, and came to dominate the industry. And, as Nearing learned, that filter of corporate ownership left many people with ideas unfriendly to business simply stuck in the sieve. It was a dynamic very similar to the one Nearing had experienced when business leaders on the boards of colleges and universities exerted pressure to stifle members of the faculty who expressed controversial views.

Nearing's response was to reject all business interests and the media they controlled, and to return to a way of life which predated all that. He grew his own food. He felled trees for lumber to build whatever buildings or furniture he needed, and for firewood to heat his home and cook his food. He developed an edible cash crop, maple syrup in Vermont and highbush blueberries in Maine, to pay the property taxes and most of the remaining costs of living. He cut a familiar figure, with a wheelbarrow and a truck, as he collected seaweed washed up on the beach to enrich his compost piles and garden. He and friends built stone walls around the garden to keep out the deer, and in his ninth decade, built a stone house with rocks mined from a cliff on the property.

It was a world he could understand and sustain, and one which sustained him in his later years. It was a simple way of life, one that -- along with the monthly checks from Social Security, a trust fund set up by his sister, and several life insurance companies payments -- allowed him to write and travel after the chores were done.

Notably, Nearing's rejection of society, and it of him, was so complete by the 1950s that he witnessed the McCarthy era from the sidelines. Nearing only mentions that era once in his autobiography, and then only in passing. His biographer does not bring up the subject at all.

Nearing's bitterness about his ostracism by society for much of the century was partially ameliorated in his later life by the adoration of the Baby Boomers after the reissuance of Living the Good Life. For them Nearing represented the responsible dropout, a strange mixture of hard-working Puritan ethic and personal protest of the political.

But Scott Nearing was not entirely a victim of circumstances, technology advances and big business. He was also a victim of his own talents, limitations, and arrogance.

Scott Nearing was, by all accounts, a great orator. He knew how to dish it out, how to play to the audience, how to draw in the interest, counterpoint the argument, decimate the opposition, up close and personal. The texts of some of his speeches reveal an ear for the sound bite which would be the envy of today's politician. It is clear from his writings that he enjoyed the live performances, immensely enjoyed thinking on his feet in front of an audience which appreciated the repartee. Without question, he put on a good show.

Unfortunately, Nearing could not seem to write as well as he spoke. The best that can be said about his writings is that they are uneven. Some, such as the accounts of his trip through the South in Black America are riveting. Others are so loaded down with pedantic dogma that it is difficult to plod through them for the ideas they contain.

And then there were the times, as he proudly recounted in his autobiography, when he was willing if not eager to tell the stark truth as he saw it despite the ramifications.

``Beginning with the war of 1917-18 I deliberately stopped introducing any form of humor or lightness into my talks,'' he wrote. ``I stopped being a `successful, pleasing lecturer.' I went onto the platform, presented my material in as clear a way as possible, said what I had to say and let it go at that. I no longer tried to ingratiate myself with audiences or with the organizations sponsoring the lectures. Before each lecture I said to myself: `This is the last time I shall appear on this platform'; then I went ahead and said what I had to say, letting the chips fall where they would.''57

In another example, Nearing explained that he acknowledged the death in World War II of the son of a former labor movement worker by writing a note to the boy's mother expressing the sentiment that such a death was the logical outcome of a way of life ``built upon organized destruction and mass murder.'' (See extensive excerpt below)

``It was not a kind letter under the circumstances, but it was true,'' Nearing explained. ``I wrote it because I thought the time had come for John and Mary to face the music of a comfortable, secure life built on a foundation of exploitation and war.''58

Those episodes, to my mind, are telling. They also suggest a mindset that may have been a bigger factor in Nearing's rejection by the mainstream media than he was willing to acknowledge.

Here was a man who had spent the eight decades of his adulthood trying to enlighten the world. He had lost two jobs in the battle against censorship of ideas. He was the only man able to convince a post-WWI jury that freedom of speech was more important than complicity in war. He was without a doubt an intense, hard-working, well-traveled, well-read, courageous, focused man of integrity and principle.

Yet this remarkable man, in the century-long process that was his life, somehow did not manage to grasp the basics of human communication: compassion, empathy, and humility.


Although it was footnoted, the extensive excerpt below from Scott Nearings autobiography, The Making of a Radical, was not part of the original piece above. For those who might not have access to that book, this excerpt is included here as an example to more graphically illustrate what I see as Nearing's lack of compassion, empathy and humility.

Note that even while Nearing admitted he knew nothing about the dead man except that he was Mary and John's son, he presumed his old friends were solely to blame for their grown son's decision to join the military, and were therefore directly responsible for his death. But reaching this conclusion was not enough for Nearing -- he had to pound the parents, his old friends, over the head with it. It is clear that Nearing felt that his former labor workers would not understand what he saw as the lethal consequences of their actions if he did not explicitly express his views directly to them in the strongest manner possible. He states that he decided that it was time for them to "face the music," as if they hadn't already done that in the most tragic way possible. And Nearing sent his letters, knowing full well that it was the darkest period in their lives.

Remember, these words are Scott Nearing's own. He used this illustration to help us understand how he conducted his life. I believe his words are very telling.

The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography, by Scott Nearing (Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1972) pp. 281-284 excerpt:

Let me illustrate with the true story of a young American couple, "John" and "Mary." Both were working in the labor movement. He was steady-going and a plugger; she was vivid, energetic, active. Both had high hopes in the early 1920s of helping to create a better United States.

Then came the fat years, with their lure of pelf and power for all who would worship the Golden Calf. My young friends enlisted in his service, in a respectable profession, and began climbing. Within ten years they were close to the top of a big business. The labor movement was far behind -- all but forgotten. The world deemed them well-fixed and successful.

Another ten years slipped by. The concern of which they were a part joined with other big businesses in a united effort to escape depression by way of war business. The first born of my friends, grown near to man's estate, decided to join the hue and cry, entered the air force, went to Europe and played his part in dropping high explosives on "enemies" --old, young, of both sexes and all conditions of life. He was killed on one of his terror missions.

The young wife of the dead aviator wrote a slight book about her hero husband. She told what a nice chap he was, how readily he took to flying, how much his fellow bombardiers appreciated him and how tragic it was when his life was snuffed out. The book was sent to me by Mary, the boy's mother.

I acknowledged the book and wrote Mary that while I did not know the detail about her son, I could tell her the story of my nephew, who left college, enlisted in the Air Force, made a brilliant record for himself and went down to his death in the Pacific. "So long," I wrote her, "as fine, capable young men respond thus to the call of the big shots, destroying and murdering at the word of command, fine young men will be snuffed out in their early years, leaving mothers and wives to lament their loss. This holds true whether they respond to the orders of Roosevelt, Hitler, or any other commander-in-chief. It is up to the fine young men and those who love them to learn this lesson and to find and follow a way of life that is not built upon organized destruction and mass murder."

It was not a kind letter under the circumstances, but it was true. I wrote it because I thought the time had come for John and Mary to face the music of a comfortable, secure life built on a foundation of exploitation and war.

Mary was away from home when my letter arrived. John opened it and wrote me that Mary was still beside herself with grief, that she had not been able to reconcile herself to the loss of her first born and that, with my permission, he would destroy the letter, lest it plunge her afresh into despairing anguish. He added that it would be appropriate and pleasant if I wrote her a nice letter acknowledging receipt of the book.

I answered, agreeing to the destruction of the letter, and decided to let the matter rest there. But John was not satisfied. He wrote again, "Please write a little note to Mary, merely saying that you got the book, so that she will not keep expecting some acknowledgment from you."

Well, he had asked for it, so I wrote him:

Dear John:

We live in a society of butchers and murderers. we butcher fellow creatures for food and for sport, and murder fellow humans for pelf and for power. Years ago you and Mary decided to go to work for the plunderers and killers who run our social system. In return, you got considerable comfort, a measure of recognition and some power. Then they murdered your beloved son. That was part of the price you paid for living in a world run by plunderers and killers. No use blinking the facts. You know them as well or better than I do.

When I wrote Mary, I did not put it quite so baldly as this, but I stated the issue clearly enough so that she might get the point, learn the bitter lesson and profit by it. You asked me to cancel that letter. I agreed.

Now you ask me to tell one of our conventional social lies, --to write and say it is a nice book and thank her for sending it. Destroy the letter? Yes, if you wish. That is a negative lie--dodging the issue by saying nothing about it. Write a socially correct note, pretending to express a sentiment I do not feel? No. That is a positive lie and I will have no part in telling it.

You and I (and Mary) are getting on in years. We should have learned to face the music. I am all for facing it here and now. I either say what I think or I say nothing. I think we live in a community built on lies, robbery, butchery and murder. There is no dodging the issue. I also think that the lying, robbery, butchery and murder will continue till we face the facts, turn about and reshape our lives. Again there is no dodging.

Also, I say it is time we stood up and told each other the truth, without fear of favor … This is grim doctrine, but we live in a grim world where millions of young victims are paying with their lives for ignorance, stupidity, greed, hypocrisy and connivance. Maybe it is wiser to tell Mary, after all.

I hesitated for a couple of days before I sent the letter to John. He was in his late fifties. Twenty-five years before, while in the labor movement, he could take hard knocks. Could he still take them? Would they do him any good? Then there was Mary, bowed down by her grief. Could she meet the issue or would it crush her? Twenty-five eyars ago she would have met it and held to her course. A quarter century of soft bourgeois living might have so corrupted her that she could not stand up to the implications of the social system under which she had eaten from the fleshpots.

Against these personal and private considerations I set social responsibility. The leaders of the West were doing what they could to perpetuate a war system. In the press and over radio, at the graduation exercises in Annapolis and West Point, in the elementary and high schools and universities, they were straining every nerve to recruit a new crop of youngsters who would destroy and kill on order. I sent the letter…..


1 Saltmarsh, John, Scott Nearing: an Intellectual Biography (Temple University Press, Phila., 1991) p. iii.

2 Nearing, Scott, The Solution of the Child Labor Problem (New York: Moffat, Yard, & Company, 1911)

3 Nearing, Scott, with Nellie M. S. Nearing, Woman and Social Progress: A Discussion of the Biologic, Domestic, Industrial, and Social Possibilities of American Women (New York: Macmillan Company, 1912)

4 Nearing, Scott, The Great Madness (New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1917)

5 Nearing, Scott, Oil and the Germs of War (Ridgewood, N.J.: Nellie Seeds Nearing, 1923)

6 Nearing, Scott, Black America, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) p. 199.

7 Sherman, Steve, ed., A Scott Nearing Reader: The Good Life in Bad Times (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989) p. 200.

8 Nearing, Scott, The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography (Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1972)

9 Nearing, Scott, with Helen Nearing, Living the Good Life (Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1954)

10 Reds (1981), produced, directed, starring Warren Beatty.

11 Observations of this author, 1972 to 1983

12 Nearing, Radical, p. 43.

13 Ibid., p. 39.

14 Ibid. p. 57.

15 Ibid. p. 72-73.

16 Ibid. p. 83.

17 Ibid., p. 84.

18 Ibid. p. 85-96.

19 Ibid. p. 100.

20 Ibid. p. 101.

21 Ibid. p. 128.

22 Ibid. p. 109-110.

23 Saltmarsh, p. 148.

24 Saltmarsh, p. 147.

25 New York Times, Sept. 12, 1918.

26 Trachtenberg, Alexander, editor, The American Labor Yearbook 1919-1920 (New York: Rand School, 1920) p 91.

27 Sherman, p. 85.

28 Ibid.

29 Saltmarsh, p. 154.

30 Nearing, Radical, p. 116.

31 Ibid.

32 Sherman, p. 89-106.

33 Ibid., p. 10.

34 Nearing, Radical, p. 117.

35 Ibid., p. 118.

36 Ibid., p. 145-46.

37 Ibid., p. 147.

38 Ibid., p. 149.

39 Ibid., p. 151-2.

40 Ibid., p. 152.

41 Ibid., p. 158.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., p. 165.

44 Ibid., p. 166.

45 Ibid., p. 160.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., p. 169.

49 Ibid., p. 171.

50 Ibid., p. 172.

51 Ibid., p. 175.

52 Ibid., p. 203.

53 Ibid., p. 208.

54 Ibid., p. 210.

55 Observations of this author, 1972-1983.

56 Observations of this author, board meeting, Voluntown, Conn., Feb. 22, 1997.

57 Nearing, Radical, p. 68.

58 Ibid., p. 282.


Nearing, S., Black America. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Nearing, S., Freedom: Promise and Menace. Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1961.

Nearing, S., The Great Madness. New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1917.

Nearing, S. & Nearing, H., Living the Good Life. Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1954.

Nearing, S., The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography. Harborside, Me.: Social Science Institute, 1972.

Nearing, S. & Nearing, H., Maple Sugar Book. New York: John Day, 1950.

Nearing, S., Oil and the Germs of War. Ridgewood, N.J.: Nellie Seeds Nearing, 1923.

Nearing, S., The Solution of the Child Labor Problem. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company.

Nearing, S., with Nearing, N. M. S., Woman and Social Progress: A Discussion of the Biologic, Domestic, Industrial, and Social Possibilities of American Women. New York: Macmillan Company, 1912

Reds, (1981), Warren Beatty.

Saltmarsh, J., Scott Nearing: an Intellectual Biography. Phila.: Temple University Press, 1991.

Sherman, S., A Scott Nearing Reader: The Good Life in Bad Times. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989.

Trachtenberg, A., ed., The American Labor Yearbook 1919-1920. New York: Rand School, 1920.

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