Changing the Conversation: Socialist for President

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By Maurice Isserman

“It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs.” Those are the first words spoken in a 1979 documentary (you can find it on YouTube) about the man who, running on the Socialist Party ticket in 1912, won nearly a million votes. Debs’s 6% of the total vote was, at least electorally, the high-water mark for U.S. socialism. The producer of the half-hour educational film intended to restore Debs to his rightful place in U.S. historical memory was one Bernie Sanders of Burlington, Vermont. At the time a marginally employed 38-year-old radical organizer, he would enjoy his own electoral triumph two years later by being elected Burlington’s mayor. Sanders’s documentary about Debs is earnest and informative, and distinctly low-budget. He wound up voicing the famous bits from Debs’s speeches himself (“I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out”), which can be entertaining, given the Brooklyn transplant’s still very pronounced accent.

Debs was not from Brooklyn. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. Although his family prospered, Debs dropped out of school at age 14 to take a job on the railroad and worked his way up to the position of locomotive fireman, a skilled occupation. He also worked his way up the ranks of his craft union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, becoming its Grand Secretary. And he launched a career in mainstream politics, winning election on the Democratic ticket to become city clerk of Terre Haute, followed by a seat in the state legislature.

But in the 1890s, he took a new direction politically. Becoming convinced of the need for industrial unionism (which, unlike craft unions, united skilled and unskilled workers), he organized the American Railway Union. After enjoying some initial successes, and rapidly expanding its membership to more than 150,000, the ARU launched a national rail strike in solidarity with workers already on strike against the Illinois-based Pullman Company (which manufactured sleeping cars for the railroads). Federal troops were dispatched to break the strike, widespread violence ensued, and Debs wound up in prison for defying an injunction. Soon afterward, he was drawn to the socialist movement, and in the first years of the 20th century became the newly unified Socialist Party’s most famous and eloquent spokesman, as well as perennial presidential candidate. By 1912, when Debs made his fourth run for president, the Party had 100,000 members, ten times its membership in 1900, and counted scores of elected officials across the country.

Historian Nick Salvatore’s 1982 biography, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, remains the best single source on Debs’s life and legacy. Debs, Salvatore reminds us, “was not born a Socialist, and he did not reject American values when he became one.” Rather, he understood, and was able to persuade many others, that the greatest threat to individual autonomy and the well-being of families and communities, as well as democratic self-rule, was represented by the unbridled growth of corporate power. “Debs understood that a commitment to the class struggle was neither unpatriotic nor irreligious.” On the contrary, Salvatore writes, “such a commitment was the very fulfillment of the basic democratic promise of American life.”

The year 2015 is not 1912. Bernie Sanders is not Eugene Debs. But from Occupy to Bernie-mentum, echoes of the Debsian message still resonate today.

Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 45 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.