The unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders, an Independent Senator from Vermont who is proud of his Democratic Socialist label, has been almost as shocking to the American punditry as the lasting power of Donald Trump, who appears to be gaffe-proof. It has been quite a while — possibly never — since a self-proclaimed socialist has become this popular in the United States. Indeed, the government and the capitalist class have always been quick to shutdown any movement that could threaten their control, and during the Cold War, just being a socialist was a major liability to one’s career and even one’s freedom. Capitalist propaganda and the red-scare (a hysteria that was embraced by both liberals and conservatives) turned the word into a terrible slur, and the socialist movement declined rapidly.
In American history, however, there is one socialist who experienced a similar kind of popularity, and he happens to be one of Sanders’ political heroes, Eugene V. Debs. Indeed, back in 1979, Sanders made a documentary about Debs, who was the Socialist Party of America’s presidential candidate for the first two decades of the 20th century (managing to get 6 percent of the popular vote in the 1912 election), and it has also been reported that he has a plaque of Debs in his office.
While Debs may have never held office like Sanders, his influence on American politics was great. Before being arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918 for opposing the first world war and encouraging resistance to the military draft, the socialist party was a major force in America, along with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union that Debs had founded along with other labor leaders, including “Big Bill” Haywood, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Daniel De Leon, and others. World War 1 was a perfect excuse for the government to crack down on these organizations, and in 1917, the Espionage Act was signed into law, leading to hundreds of union and socialist leaders arrest.
Debs started his activist career in the 1870’s, and was elected secretary of the Terre Haute lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875. In these early years, he was not a radical, but rather conservative — indeed, he disliked the idea of strikes, especially after the violent railroad strikes of 1877. In Philip Dray’s “There is Power in a Union,” he writes of Debs’ early years:
“Beginning in 1880, Debs union work as grand secretary of the firemen’s brotherhood as ‘one perpetual organizing trip’ of overnight train rides, stump speeches, meeting halls, saloons, and the shops and roundhouses where railway men could be found. His devotion to the cause was unquestionable, but what began to make Debs truly memorable was his giving nature, a passion for identifying with the lost, the desperate, or underprivileged. He became known for simple Christ-like acts of generosity, such as presenting clothes from his own valise to those in need, or making impulsive gifts of money. ‘While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free.’ he once declared. By the time the ARU (American Railway Union) emerged in 1893 he was one of America’s most admired labor leaders, a man surely marked in the eyes of his followers for glory and greatness.”
Debs made his transformation from a mildly conservative labor leader to a radical socialist in 1894, after the Pullman Strike. The ARU was one of the first industrial unions in America, organizing all workers in the railroad industry, regardless of their craft or skill level — in contrast to the craft unions. The Pullman Strike began in May of 1894 against the Pullman Company, a leading manufacturer of railroad cars at the time. In June, Debs called for a massive boycott of Pullman cars, and workers in 27 states and U.S. territories joined in the boycott, creating a nationwide standstill. This resulted in the mainstream newspapers — hyperbolic as always — labeling the ARU leader “King Debs” and an “enemy of the human race.”
The strike was eventually broken up by federal troops and police, and Debs was arrested for contempt of court after an injunction had been filed that he could not say or do anything to carry on the strike. He spent six months in prison, and in those months he studied socialist and Marxist writings, and departed his cell a radical.
“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism,” he wrote two years after leaving prison, “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.”
As the leader of the Socialist Party of America, Debs ran for president five times throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, and during its peak, the party had 1,200 office holders in 340 municipalities. At one point, President Theodore Roosevelt had questioned his Attorney General whether it was possible to go after Debs criminally for some of his writings. During these years, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was also founded. The IWW was “one big union,” as opposed to a federation of different unions, like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and it was open to all people, regardless of race or gender, which was rare at the time (the AFL was mostly made up of white men). On the IWW, or the “wobblies,” as they came to be known, Howard Zinn writes in his classic, “A People’s History of the United States:”
“It was an immensely powerful idea. In the ten exciting years after its birth, the IWW became a threat to the capitalist class, exactly when capitalist growth was enormous and profits huge. The IWW never had more than five to ten thousands enrolled members at any one time; people came and went, and perhaps a hundred thousand were members at one time or another. But their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers. They travelled everywhere (many were unemployed or migrant workers); they organized, wrote, spoke, sang, spread their message and their spirit.”
When the Espionage Act of 1917 was passed, the government wasted little time in cracking down on the wobblies, the socialists, and other radical groups who protested the war. In a speech opposing the war, Debs said to a roaring crowd: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder… And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”
Unfortunately, the subject class was no match for the master class. After being arrested for speaking out against the war, Debs refused to defend himself at his trial, but did make a statement to the jury:
“I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone…I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.”
For one last time, Debs ran for president from his prison cell in 1920, and received nearly one million votes. In December of 1921, President Warren Harding commuted Debs sentence to time served, and he died five years later at the age of 70.
Eugene V. Debs is to Bernie Sanders what Abraham Lincoln is to Barack Obama. It is easy to see why Sanders admires the old Socialist leader. He was a tireless champion of the working class, who went to prison before sacrificing his integrity, and made the capitalist class (or as Sanders calls it, the billionaire class) shudder with fear. Last week, Sanders announced that he is planning a “major speech” on Democratic Socialism, and while providing examples of modern European countries like Denmark and Norway is no doubt important, it would be remiss to leave out America’s own radical past and one of its foremost leaders. As Eric Foner wrote in The Nation last week, in a letter to the Senator:
“I urge you to reconsider how you respond to the inevitable questions about what you mean by democratic socialism and peaceful revolution. The next time, embrace our own American radical tradition. There’s nothing wrong with Denmark; we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa). But most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia. More importantly, your response inadvertently reinforces the idea that socialism is a foreign import. Instead, talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values… Each generation of Americans had made its own contribution to an ongoing radical tradition, and you are following in their footsteps. So next time, forget about Denmark and talk about (Thomas) Paine, (Frederick) Douglass, FDR, and Debs as forebears of a movement that can make the United States a fairer, more equal, more just society.”
America has a rich history of radicalism, and Sanders is quite simply reviving this long tradition after decades of dormancy. It has been nearly a century since Debs was sentenced to prison for opposing the first World War, and today, opposition and revolt are more important than ever.