Nearing was born in Morris Run, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, the heart of the state's coal country. Nearing's grandfather, Winfield Scott Nearing, had arrived in Tioga County with his family in 1864, at the age of 35, when he accepted a job as a civil and mining engineer. Before the end of the year he had assumed full control of mining operations as the superintendent of the Morris Run Coal Company, a position of authority which he held for the remainder of his working life. An intense, driven man, Scott Nearing's grandfather studied science and nature, practiced gardening and carpentry, and regularly received crates of books from New York City, amassing a large personal library. In his memoirs written late in his life, Scott Nearing would recall his grandfather as one of the four most influential figures in his life. Nearing's upbringing was that of a young bourgeois, his mother employing a part-time tutor and two Polish servants to clean the gleaming white house atop a hill overlooking the town. Scott's brother recalled that the citizens of Morris Run had treated the handsome and intelligent Scott "the way they would treat the heir to the nobleman. ... They all treated him with awe."
Nearing's father was a small businessman and stockbroker, his mother a vigorous, energetic, and idealistic woman whom Nearing later credited with instilling in him an appreciation for the higher things in life: nature, books, and the arts. Despite an upbringing in a life of privilege made possible in no small measure by the harsh anti-union policies of his patriarchal grandfather, young Scott nevertheless developed a social conscience, which one of his biographers describes as "a burr under his skin that none of his relatives acquired and that no interpretation satisfactorily explains."
Nearing graduated from high school in 1901 and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Law School, "where corporate bias so violated his idealism that after one year he quit." Instead, he studied oratory at Temple University in Philadelphia and enrolled in the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania, where he immersed himself in the emerging science of economics. At the Wharton School, Nearing was deeply influenced by Simon Nelson Patten, an innovative and unconventional educator and founding father of the American Economic Association. Nearing distinguished himself as a "Wharton man" during the progressive era, one of the proverbial "best and brightest" trained in practical economics to be readied for a place as a responsible leader of the community. In the words of another of his students, Patten taught innovative thinking—"making use of creative intelligence to master new situations irrespective of received dogma." Nearing seems to have found these new intellectual tools for potential social change to be exciting and liberating. He completed his undergraduate program in just three years, while simultaneously engaging in campus politics and competitive debate.
Nearing received his BS degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1905 and his PhD in Economics in 1909. From 1905 to 1907, he served as the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Committee, a volunteer society working to solve the child labor problem in the state. From 1908 until 1915 while living in Arden, Delaware, Nearing taught economics and sociology at the Wharton School and Swarthmore College, authoring a stream of books on economics and social problems. Nearing was a staunch advocate of a "new economics," which insisted that
Much as Karl Marx drew radical implications from the ideas of the conservative Hegel, Nearing took the economic logic of his department head, Simon Patten, and made radical inferences about wealth and the distribution of income that his mentor had hesitated to draw. He believed that unfettered wealth stifled initiative and impeded economic advancement, and hoped that progressive thinkers among the ownership class would come to realize the negative impact of economic parasitism and accept their civic duty of enlightened leadership. Nearing outlined an economic republicanism based on "four basic democratic concepts—equality of opportunity, civic obligation, popular government, and human rights."
While living in Arden in 1910, Nearing learned about The Landlord's Game, the forerunner of Monopoly, and taught it to his students. This use of the game as an instructional device led to its spread among colleges.
But Nearing's aggressive social activism in the classroom and through the printed word brought him into conflict with his employers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, resulting in his dismissal and his emergence as a cause célèbre of the American radical movement during the next decade. On the morning of June 16, 1915, Nearing's secretary telephoned him to report that a letter from the provost had arrived, saying that "as the term of your appointment as assistant professor of economics for 1914–1915 is about to expire, I am directed by the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to inform you that it will not be renewed." Penn's board of trustees was heavily stacked with bankers, corporation lawyers, financiers, and corporation executives, and Nearing's writing had not gone unnoticed. His tenuous situation had been exacerbated by an open letter to The North American in which he challenged the right wing evangelist Billy Sunday to apply the Gospel to the conditions of industrial capitalism, including "the railroad interests ... the traction company ... the manufacturers ... the vested interests." Reaction to Nearing's dismissal from the academy was swift, with department head Patten and others issuing statements condemning the decision. Progressives in the Wharton School quickly compiled a summary of the facts of the case and sent it to 1500 newspapers, journals, and academics around the country. Even conservatives in the faculty were deeply troubled since, as one Wharton professor observed, "the moment Nearing went, any conservative statement became but the spoken word of a 'kept' professor." Conversely, some radicals felt vindicated in their belief in the conservative nature of the American academy. Socialist writer Upton Sinclair told Nearing in an open letter that "You do not belong in a university. You belong with us Socialists and free lances . ... Instead of addressing small numbers of college boys, you will be able to address large audiences of men." Nearing's dismissal was retrospectively called by one historian "the most famous breach of academic freedom" of the era.
From the fall of 1915, Nearing was established as a radical "public man." He joined the American Union Against Militarism in 1916 and delivered a series of speeches condemning the "Preparedness" campaign then being promoted by Woodrow Wilson and the nation's political elite. He also remained a university professor, teaching Social Science at the city-owned Toledo University from 1915 through 1917. The intense nationalistic feeling that swept the country now that America was embroiled at last in the war in Europe spelled the end of Nearing's Toledo days, as he later recalled in his memoirs:
Nearing packed up his things and moved to New York City, where he became a founding member of the People's Council of America for Democracy and Peace, a national pacifist organization established at the First American Conference for Peace and Democracy, held May 30–31, 1917. He assumed the chairmanship of that organization that fall. On July 1, 1917, Nearing joined the Socialist Party and began a new job, working for the next six years as a lecturer in economics and sociology at the Socialist Party's Rand School of Social Science.
Nearing was a prolific public speaker during this time, estimating that he had given approximately 200 speeches a year during the war years. Nearing also authored a series of pamphlets, published by the Rand School, one of which, The Great Madness: A Victory for the American Plutocracy, resulted in his indictment under the Espionage Act for alleged "obstruction to the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States." This indictment came down in April 1918, but it was not until February 1919—that is, several months after the war in Europe had actually ended—that the trial against Nearing and the Rand School actually commenced.
The prosecution attempted to show that Nearing, by writing against militarism, had illegally interfered with the ability of the United States government to recruit and conscript troops for its military activities in Europe. It spent its effort making Nearing admit that he had written and spoken against militarism and the war in Europe—which he was quite willing to do. But at the end of the trial, Nearing addressed the jury and made a key point:
The judge in the case, Julius M. Mayer, dismissed the first two counts of the indictment, alleging conspiracy, without sending them to the jury. Following deliberation, the jury found Nearing not guilty but the American Socialist Society guilty on the third and fourth counts of the indictment. On March 21, 1919, sentence was passed and the American Socialist Society was fined $3,000 (short of the maximum fine of $10,000), a sum ultimately collected through small donations from Socialists, labor groups, and civil libertarians in New York City.
The Socialist Party of America split in the summer of 1919, with a factionalized Communist movement leaving to forge an underground existence in the years after the Palmer Raids. A significant organized "left wing" inspired by the Communist International remained in the party through 1921. Nearing seems not to have participated in the factional politics of these years, but his sympathies may well have rested with the former Socialists now building the various communist parties. As an employee of the Socialist Party-affiliated Rand School of Social Science, Nearing remained in the Socialist Party until the end of 1923.
The dramatic decline of the size and strength of the Socialist Party in the first years of the 1920s took a toll on Nearing. The plummeting membership of the SPA—down below the 13,500 member mark for 1921—stood in marked contrast to the new and rapidly growing "Legal Political Party" of the Communists, the Workers Party of America (WPA), which surpassed the Socialist Party in size in 1922 after only a few months of existence. Nearing searched his soul in a January 1923 lecture at the Rand School, later published in the Socialist press, posing the question "What Can the Radical Do?" Nearing argued that the function of the radical was not administrative, but that of external critic:
It was the radical's additional function to get in touch with like-minded people in unions, cooperatives, and the sphere of political propaganda, Nearing added. It was the Communist Party's Trade Union Educational League that was currently "the liveliest thing in the trade unionism of the Middle West," attempting at "boring from within" to radicalize the American Federation of Labor. Outside the AF of L, on the "radical left" was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), attempting to found revolutionary industrial unions. In contrast, cooperators were, by the nature of their task, localized and conservative, in Nearing's view. Publishing was in disarray, with Charles H. Kerr & Co. disorganized by wartime repression and the economics of publishing such that the production of inexpensive books was nearly impossible. Nearing produced concrete figures to show that since 1912, membership in the Socialist Party had "steadily declined" and drew an explosive conclusion from this:
Despite these misgivings, the potential of the growing organization appealed to Nearing over the malaise of the fading organization. He finally applied for membership in the WPA in December 1924 but was initially rejected, living for the next two years as a non-party fellow traveler of the organization. He finally gained admission to the Workers (Communist) Party in 1927 and went to work on the staff of its daily newspaper, The Daily Worker, on May 9, 1928, remaining there until resigning in January 1930 to publish a study on imperialism that failed to pass the organization's ideological scrutiny. According to at least one historian, Nearing was formally expelled from the CPUSA in 1930 in connection with this decision.
In 1925, Nearing spent two months in the Soviet Union visiting schools and talking with educational authorities. "It was a fascinating experience to visit this important educational laboratory in its opening experimental stages," he later recalled, noting that theories were then being actively tested with regard to subject matter, method of instruction, and social organization of students and teachers alike. The result of this visit was Education in Soviet Russia, one of the first serious studies of the nascent Soviet educational system.
In 1925 or 1926, Nearing taught a class on the law of social revolution. According to Whittaker Chambers, "an infiltration of Communists ... really ran the class, steered the discussions," and tried to "make the law of social revolution a Marxian law." Members included Dale Zysman, Sam Krieger, Eve Dorf, and her husband Ben Davidson, as well as Alfred J. Brooks, Myra Page, Benjamin Mandel, and Rachel Ragozin. It also included Carrie Katz, first wife of Sidney Hook, and Nerma Berman, wife of Isaiah Oggins. The result of this effort was The Law of Social Revolution. A Co-Operative Study By the Labor Research Study Group (New York: Social Science Publishers, 1926).
In 1927, Nearing made his first trip to Asia, traveling to China by ship for a three-month stay. En route, the Kuomintang Party split, with forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek attacking and summarily executing their former Communist allies. As Nearing later recalled:
While there, Nearing rather boldly gave a speech at Yenching University on his book The American Empire, in a room darkened so that audience members could not be later identified and denounced. Upon his return to the United States, Nearing wrote Whither China?, a book on the Chinese situation.
Nearing remained a prominent figure of the American Left throughout the decade of the 1920s, producing a series of pamphlets on various radical political themes. He was also engaged professionally on the lecture circuit, making use of an agent to arrange speaking tours for about 20 years. These speaking tours continued into the early 1930s, by which time public interest in attending live speeches and debates on political themes had waned and ill health forced Nearing's agent into retirement.
Nearing and his first wife, Nellie Marguerite Seeds Nearing, were the parents of John Scott. They adopted a second son, Robert Nearing. John Scott wrote a participant's account of having worked in industry in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. His book, Behind the Urals, tells of the great effort being put into building an industrial complex out of reach of an invasion, indicating that Stalin foresaw the Second World War. When the purge trials started in the mid-thirties—also an indication of Stalin's preparation for war—Scott was advised to leave, and escaped with his Russian wife and little daughter via the trans-Siberian railroad.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Nearing and Helen Knothe lived together in Winhall in rural Vermont, where they had purchased a rather large forest tract for $2200 and a moderate-sized farm for $2500. Nearing and Knothe lived a largely ascetic and self-reliant life, growing much of their own food and putting up nine stone buildings over the course of two decades. Cash was earned from producing maple syrup and maple sugar from the trees on their land and from Scott Nearing's occasional paid lectures.
However, in her book "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life", Jean Hay Bright documents that the Nearings were both heavily subsidized by substantial inheritances which supported their forest farm. In 1934, around the time they purchased the Vermont property, Helen inherited between $30,000–$40,000 from former suitor J. J. van der Leeuw (equivalent to $550,000 in 2018). Scott received an inheritance from his father that was said to be "at least a million dollars" in 1940 according to Nearing's son Robert. Hay Bright's calculations make clear that while very hard working homesteaders, the Nearings never came close to supporting themselves on their "cash crops" as they state.
A consistent pacifist, Nearing opposed American participation in World War II throughout the conflict. In 1943 he was fired by the Federated Press for his anti-war position, which Managing Editor Carl Haessler criticized as "childish." Nearing was particularly shocked by the nuclear bombing of Japan, writing to President Harry S. Truman on August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, that "your government is no longer mine."
In 1954 he co-authored Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World with his second wife, Helen. The book, in which war, famine, and poverty were discussed, described a nineteen-year "back to the land experiment," and also advocated a modern-day "homesteading."
In the winter of 1956–57, the couple toured Canada, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, generating a book about their experiences called Socialists Around the World. The following winter, with their passports issued in 1956 nearing expiration, they embarked upon a trip through the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The pair visited Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Baku, Taskent, and Irkutsk, touring schools and universities, apartment buildings in the process of construction, factories, and collective farms in the course of their trip. In China they saw Peking (Beijing), Wuhan and Nanking. They returned home to Brooksville, Maine, to write a book on their experiences, The Brave New World. The two countries were characterized in the travelogue as "peaceful socialist giants":
After their travels to the USSR and China, New Century Publishers produced Nearing's pamphlets on Eastern Europe and Cuba in 1962 and 1963.
As the Vietnam War took center stage in the mid-1960s, and as a large back-to-the-land movement developed in the U.S., a renewed interest in Nearing's work and ideas occurred. Hundreds of anti-war believers flocked to Nearing's home in Maine to learn homesteading practical-living skills, some also to hear a master radical's anti-war message.
In 1973, the University of Pennsylvania formally reversed its dismissal of Nearing in 1915 by awarding him the title of Honorary Emeritus Professor of Economics. During this time, Nearing praised Albania and described its people as "rested, secure, hopeful, cheerful," adding that "they are building solidly and fundamentally for a better future."
Foreign policy analyst
In addition to working variously as a teacher, paid public speaker, and author, Nearing wrote commentary on foreign affairs throughout his life. As an octogenarian summing up his life, Nearing recalled:
Through the years, his writings on foreign affairs were distributed via several different channels. In 1921 Nearing was, along with his colleague Louis Lochner, a co-founder of a forerunner of the Federated Press, a news service that sent out domestic and international news releases and picture mats five days a week to the labor and radical press in America. Nearing remained a regular contributor to the Federated Press (controlled by the Communist Party for most of its existence) until 1943, when he was fired for his antiwar position, which Federated Press editor Carl Haessler characterized as "childish." Nearing then began to contribute to an obscure monthly newsletter from Florida, World Events.
Shortly after its founding in 1949, Nearing began contributing a "World Events" column to the independent theoretical Monthly Review, established by dissident Marxist economists Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. Nearing tellingly characterized the objective of this publication as "the dissemination of a true understanding of society and the reporting of dependable news of the movement toward a socialist society which is steadily spreading over the face of the globe." Through the decades, Nearing wrote thousands of pages of news and commentary on these themes, retiring from this activity only in 1970, at the age of 87.
Nearing died on August 24, 1983, eighteen days after his 100th birthday. His death was described by his wife as a conscious leaving of life brought about by fasting. In the month before his death, his wife fed him an all-liquid diet as per his wishes. These details were glossed over by Helen Nearing in "Loving and Leaving the Good Life".
In the years after Scott's death, many people wrote to Helen lamenting the fact that they had tried and failed to emulate Scott's clean and deliberate death, and it was felt that Helen hoped LeConte would set the record straight after her death.
In the summer of 1991, the North American Vegetarian Society inducted Helen and Scott Nearing into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame.
During his 1919 trial for allegedly obstructing American military recruitment during World War I, at which he testified in his own defense, the prosecution asked Nearing whether he was a "pacifist socialist." Nearing's reply was illuminating; he replied that he was a "pacifist" and left it at that. Prosecutor Earl B. Barnes was taken aback and asked for clarification:
Half a century later, in his 1972 autobiography The Making of a Radical, Nearing described himself as a pacifist, a socialist, and a vegetarian, writing, "I became a vegetarian because I was persuaded that life is as valid for other creatures as it is for humans. I do not need dead animal bodies to keep me alive, strong and healthy. Therefore, I will not kill for food." Nearing listed his four most influential teachers as Henry George, Leo Tolstoy, Simon Nelson Patten, his grandfather, and his mother. Other influences he acknowledged in his memoirs included Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Confucius, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Otis Whitman, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Victor Hugo, Edward Bellamy, Olive Schreiner, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe.
Nearing's journey over a century was described by one biographer as follows:
This view, that Nearing chose to "drop out" of politics and society itself and live life as a rugged agrarian individualist at one with nature, is a common interpretation—and certainly one with some merit. Another possible reading of Nearing's motivations and decision-making lies in his own writing. Nearing repeatedly drew inspiration from the life story of Count Leo Tolstoi, whose life Nearing clearly saw as analogous to his own:
The tension between the dissident individual and the group was an unenviable one, Nearing believed. In the conflict between the solitary individual and the community, Nearing identified only three possible outcomes:
Nearing's chosen lifestyle of "Tolstoian," ascetic, rural self-sufficiency may be reasonably interpreted as the attempt of a self-aware dissident individual to avoid inevitably negative participation in the internal life of the group (be it a government or a political party), while retaining a keen and almost obsessive interest in the dynamics of society and the world as a whole.