Socialist rabble-rouser Eugene Debs received almost a million votes for President more than once—the last time was while he was in prison.
Bernie Sanders made the word "socialist" suddenly popular this year. But the Socialist Party was once a powerful third party here in the United States. It captured the hearts and minds of millions of working-class people and intellectuals who supported a serious challenge to the status quo.
Debs ran for the first time in 1900, in the era of the "Robber Barons," a brutal time economically for all but the very wealthy. The top 1 percent fought tooth-and-nail to keep every nickel they squeezed from the wage slaves whose twelve and sixteen-hour days fueled the industrial revolution.
Eugene Debs helped organize the American Railway Union in 1893, which shut down most rail travel west of Detroit when workers went on strike in the summer of 1894. Workers organized the strike after massive cuts in pay at the Pullman Palace Car Company, and only returned to work after President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago to break up the strike. As an organizer of the strike, Debs received his first prison sentence.
In the six months he spent behind bars, Debs read a lot, including Karl Marx. In 1901 he helped found the first Socialist Party in the United States, going on extended speaking tours and amassing a large following. In just ten years Debs would run for President as theSocialist Party candidate, in one election receiving almost a million votes (he ran a total of five times for president).
It would be 2016 before a candidate with any socialist affiliation would get traction like that again — Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist Senator from Vermont.
The August, 1912 issue of La Follette’s Weekly (the precursor to The Progressive), ran several paragraphs of the acceptance speech Debs gave for the nomination by the Socialist Party. You can almost hear these words in the voice of Bernie Sanders:
“[The world’s workers] have produced all of the world’s wealth and supported all the world’s governments. They have conquered all things but their own freedom. They are still the subject class in every nation on earth and the chief function of every government is to keep them at the mercy of their masters. “There are no boundary lines to separate race from race, sex from sex, or creed from creed in the Socialist party. The common rights of all are equally recognized “… Every human being is entitled to sunlight and air, to what his labor produces, and to an equal chance with every other human being to unfold and ripen and give to the world the riches of his mind and soul. “The Socialist Party is the one party which stands squarely and uncompromisingly for . . . one party pledged in every fiber of its being to the economic freedom of all the people.”
Debs also helped found the Industrial Workers of the World. The "Wobblies," as they came to be known, were popular for some twenty years, becoming such a threat to the ruling class (and even to some of the more progressive wings of the Democratic and Republican parties) that within a few years of the end of World War I, it was effectively dismantled, although it still exists today. Many of its leaders were deported and jailed, and internal conflicts took a lot of its remaining energy.
In the lead-up to World War I, Debs and other members of the Socialist Party were increasingly watched and sometimes pursued under "sedition" laws. Debs offered this perspective on war in 1915:
"I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight for the working class. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary, even to the barricades."
For its time, the 1912 Socialist Party platform was quite radical, including:
- A minimum wage
- An end to child labor
- Rights for black Americans
- Improving working conditions
- Increasing the number of people who can vote
The nerve of those damned Socialists! Just as Sanders forced the Democratic party to the left in 2016, the popularity of Debs and the tenets of the Socialist Party pushed Democrats and even Republicans to be more progressive. In 1912, Debs won almost 6 percent of the popular vote.
As World War I raged, Eugene Debs delivered his final public speech in June of 1918, at the Socialist Party convention. He spoke to a crowd of 1,200 near a jail where several of his fellow Socialist Party colleagues were housed for "antiwar agitation." He famously said (see this re-enactment by actor Mark Ruffalo):
“...it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish their corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war, and they alone make peace. Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto, and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace."
These words were used later to sentence Debs to prison for ten years under the Sedition Act of 1918. It was from there that he received nearly one million votes for president in 1920 (3.5 percent of the popular vote). He ran as simply “Convict No. 9653.”
Debs's health deteriorated in the horrid prison conditions of the time, and President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921, when the war had ended and cooler heads prevailed in our country. He died in a sanitarium in 1926 from heart problems that developed during his time in prison.
There's a museum in his birthplace, Terre Haute, Indiana, that is well worth a visit. It's been twenty years since I was there, but it left quite an impression on me, as did seeing his handwritten quotes and the original publications they came from. Here are a few gems:
"Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most — that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least." — Walls and Bars, 1927 "I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world." — "When I Shall Fight," Appeal to Reason, Sept. 1915 "I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence." — Statement to the Court upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act, Sept. 1918
Brandon Weber has written for Upworthy, Liberals Unite, and Good.Is magazine, mostly on economics, labor union history, and working people. He is working on two books, one on forgotten labor history and one on the fatally flawed foster and adoption system, and some ways to fix it.