Changing the Conversation: Socialist for President

 p13_-_SP_1912.jpg

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.

 

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.

 

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 3 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But check out their short the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 2 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.