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.
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