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You know how your dad makes jokes about how the dictionary definition of "sarcasm" is just a picture of your face? (Good one, Dad.) Well, if you Google "Socialism in America," you end up looking at picture after picture of our boy Eugene Debs.
And he's a handsome devil: he kind of looks like Robert Duvall.
But apart from being easy on the eyes, E.V. Debs was basically synonymous with American Socialism in the early part of the 20th century.
People even called him the "grand old man of the Socialist Party," when he made his famous "Bending Cross" speech in 1918. He objected to the "old" part, but Debs was a little silver at this point in his life. Plus, Debs had first gained his national reputation as a union organizer decades earlier, during the infamous Pullman Strike of 1894.
But he wasn't a socialist back then—he believed that unions should work through the existing political system. Debs helped enlarge the reputation and strength of unions in 1894 as he led his much larger ARU (American Railroad Union) on strike in support of the smaller union of Pullman workers who made the Pullman railroad cars.
Debs' idea that "we're all in this together"—a cooperative spirit that would come to dominate all of his political philosophy—won him huge admiration among workers and a national audience at this time…as well as a six-month jail term. The Pullman strike brought much of the nation's transportation system to a standstill.
In fact, he was so famous he was being lampooned. (That's how you know you've made it.) Check out this cartoon showing Debs as King of the Railroads that appeared in Harpers' Weekly in 1894.
When Debs emerged from prison in 1895, he was amazed to find 100,000 workers waiting to cheer for him in Chicago. He also emerged from prison with a new way of looking at the world, through the lens of Socialism. Someone had given Debs a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital to read while he was in prison…where he certainly had plenty of free time for dense books.
Marx's critique of capitalism and belief in the inevitable socialist workers revolution seized hold of Debs, giving him hope that a remade economy would be more just for the working class.
Debs himself had working-class roots, and his history was a theme that echoed through his speeches and his political activity throughout his entire life. To be fair, his is an awesome American story of rising from worker to politician: one of six children, he was born to immigrant parents who were the struggling owners of a grocery store.
Debs had to drop out of high school to help his family and worked for several years in the railroad yards of his hometown, beautiful Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs went on to become both a union official and a political candidate in Indiana politics, until he came to believe that it was in organizing workers that he would make his mark.
In the early 1900s, Debs helped to found the Socialist Party and became its perennial candidate for President, running in 1900, 1904, and 1908. (Failure was an option for Debs, but quitting? Not so much.)
In 1912, as Socialism became a more popular and mainstream philosophy in American, Debs had his greatest electoral success, gaining a pretty hefty 6% of the vote. (This was by far the best showing by a third party candidate until the Dixiecrat candidacy of Strom Thurmond in 1948.)
But in 1914, the beginning of World War I brought a crisis for Socialists, both in America and around the world.
The older and larger Socialist parties of Europe (where Marxism began) decided that their parties should support their home countries in the war effort during World War I.
Even though they viewed this war an unjust one, being fought to extend the dominance and profits of the business elites, European socialists got behind the war effort. But America's Socialists weren't torn over the issue of war because America hadn't entered it yet.
Debs and other Socialist leaders fiercely criticized the war in these early years. And we mean fierce.
Check out this ferocity:
The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives. (Source)
For American Socialists, the crisis of patriotism came when America entered the war in 1917. American Socialists debated what their stand should be at a conference in St. Louis. Debs himself was too sick to attend, but he agreed with the majority who felt that the war was still wrong and unfair to workers.
The Socialists organized anti-draft rallies and continued with their anti-war speeches. When Debs' health improved, he rejoined the anti-war call, at first emphasizing his pacifism,
I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world. (Source "When Shall I Fight," Appeal to Reason, September 11, 1915)
But soon enough, Debs was ratcheting up his criticism of the government's motives for the war, saying:
I would rather be arrested as a traitor than fight a war for Wall Street. (Source)
Yeah. As you can tell, Debs was a dude with a penchant for making pithy, inspiring, and inflammatory statements.
And surprise, surprise: it was that kind of talk that led to Debs' arrest.
His June 18, 1918, speech in Canton was seen as impeding the government's ability to raise an army, something forbidden by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918. At his trial in September 1918, Debs never contested his guilt, as his speech had been consistent with what he had been saying about the war for four years.
Now facing a much longer prison sentence as a much older man (but at the very high point of his national fame), Debs still eloquently self-identified with the lowest members of society in the speech's famous opening. Saying he's "not one bit better than the meanest on earth," he contemplates his imprisonment calmly and observes that "from that time [age 14] my heart has been with the working class" (1).
And make no mistake: it's for the workers and the cause of Socialism that Debs was prepared to go to jail. After decrying the poor conditions of America's workers, he contrasts that with the great wealth of the nation's elites.
Debs explains, in simple terms, the goals of Socialism and then presents an optimistic assessment of why Socialism will triumph. He had good reason to sound this hopeful note, as the successes of the Russian Revolution were freshly achieved. Lenin himself had recently complimented Debs in an August 1918 letter to American workers, calling him "one of the most beloved leaders of the American proletariat" (source).
Debs' speech and imprisonment gave new energy to socialists across America. One of Debs' biographers wrote that,
Debs' words gave a demoralized movement a new focus and rallying point […] The image of the sixty-three-year-old leader risking jail for principle sparked Socialists everywhere. ( Source: Freeberg, Ernest, Democracy's Prisoner, 2008)
And it's true: it did spark Socialists across the nation. Debs famously ran for president one last time…from his jail cell. Say what you will about Debs, but that's a gutsy move.
Debs' lawyers, before his jailing, had appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional. The court ruled against him, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the majority opinion that found the law to be a legitimate exercise of national security measures during wartime.
Meanwhile, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) worked tirelessly to try to win a presidential pardon or commutation of sentence for Debs. Woodrow Wilson would hear nothing of this, remarking that,
While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them [...] This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration. (Source: Ginger, Ray The Bending Cross, pp. 358)
In 1921, with the war more of a distant wound, President Harding commuted Debs' sentence after he'd served three years in prison. Most of the provisions of the Espionage and Sedition Laws had lapsed by that point and Debs was released on Christmas Day.
Debs had stood his ground and, once again, was greeted by an outpouring of admiration for having the courage of his convictions. And we're hoping that someone got him a nice cup of eggnog and a few candy canes to mark his festive release date.