|Eugene Debs fought his final Presidential campaign from a prison cell.|
It is no secret or surprise to socialists that the American revolution was laced with contradictory aspirations from the very beginning. For every Tom Paine there were ten Burkian conservatives who saw the new nation as epitomising the promise of early bourgeois capitalism and imperialism.
Once the 13 states had freed themselves of the Royal British yoke, private property was enshrined to include the right to own human slaves, taxation for the greater good was derided as a breach of liberty and the invocation of the Common Weal to defend the individual left the USA at odds with its espoused values from the very start – a phenomenon that persists to this very day and the director Oliver Stone has described as “the United States’ unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice and realpolitik.”
In the first seven decades of the 19th century, many Americans pursued what they termed their “Manifest Destiny” – the destruction of Native peoples' cultures and seizure of their lands in the belief that this was God’s Will. In a country rich in natural resources, and unimpeded by archaic social conventions or physical infrastructure, American capitalists were able to seize the technological initiative from older European states and develop their own industrial revolution. Many fortunes were made, reinforcing the sense of the American Dream of individualism, but ignoring the reality of a growing, struggling proletariat. With mass migration often of the poorest sections of European societies used to undercut the wages of existing labour, American capitalism soon developed along the same elitist, unequal lines as the European versions.
But so did opposition to this twisted polity grow. Revolutionary America had supported the French revolution at least initially and the social ideas forged then were as influential in the USA as elsewhere. Tom Paine’s personal involvement in both was an important boost, but other Americans during the 19th century looked for a better society too. The anti-slavery movement was a key part of this, as were some Christian groups and socialist thinkers, including the poet Walt Whitman, whose espousal of humanitarian equality ran through his widely disseminated writings
Abraham Lincoln and many Republicans, while not embracing socialism as an ideology, invoked socialist ideas in their programmes – the fluidity of US politics may be obscured to some extent by the ideological stance of the parties in recent decades. It’s interesting to note that the American contribution to the international Republican forces in the Spanish civil war was titled the Abraham Lincoln brigade.
Additionally, perversely perhaps as it was an outcome of the conquest of native America that gave the space and resources for it, many socialists established living communes to create socialist societies from scratch across the US territories. As many as 1,200 existed by the 1880s, seeking to exist separately from capitalist society.
However, large scale capital was as prevalent in dominating Washington politics as it was in any European government. In particular, it mobilised to oppose the rising trade union movement. American unions were organised on craft lines and were inherently conservative, focussing on the narrow interests of their members alone rather than wider society or economics. And it was in this environment that Eugene Victor Debs was to first come into activism and agitation for change.
Debs was born in 1855 to French migrants who ran a prosperous, thoroughly bourgeois textile mill in Terre Haute, Indiana. However, he dropped out of public school at the age of 14 and worked on the railways, eventually becoming a night fireman on the run from Terre Haute to Indianopolis and earning a dollar a night. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875 and attended the national convention, soon becoming editor of the Fireman’s Magazine and later Grand Secretary of the BLF. He also became active in local politics and served one term as a Democrat on the Indianna State Assembly.
Debs initially took a fairly conventional view of unionism, seeking co-operation and concentrating on services for members. But as time went by, he saw the injustices of the railroad companies, who were among the richest and worst-behaved corporations. After the Burlington strike was brutally broken in 1888, he grew closer to the idea of industrial unions and a more confrontational stance – especially as the two decades from 1975 were seeing the first major recession in the newly industrialised world.
He left the BLF and in 1893 with George Howard as vice-president, Debs established the American Railway Union – the first industrial union in the USA and inclusive of unskilled workers. Unlike the non-striking BLF, the ARU held its first strike in 1894 against the Great Northern Railway and membership rocketed as workers organised across the US railways. Chicago, Illinois, was at the centre.
|The Pullman strike was violently suppressed.|
This led in the following year to the Pullman Strike, which Debs initially opposed, but embraced when he saw it was the clear demand of the members.
The Pullman corporation used the economic crash of 1894, the Great Panic, to justify cutting wages by 28%. In response, the ARU’s members in Illinois refused to handle Pullman coaches and this was eventually extended until 80,000 rail workers boycotted Pullman.
The press called the action the Debs Revolt and denounced him as an enemy of the human race, not just management. The Government sent the army against the strikers on the grounds that the boycott was interfering with the mail, which was a federal offence. 30 railwaymen were shot dead, thousands were sacked and blacklisted, and Debs was arrested and jailed. He was sent to Woodstock prison for six months.
It was there that Debs began to question the system that had killed workers and imprisoned him.
"...I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy and Blatchford early appealed to me. The Cooperative Commonwealth of Gronlund also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance – and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light."
He was visited in prison by Victor Berger, a newspaper editor from Milwaukee in Wisconsin, where there was a rising socialist movement. Berger talked passionately about his socialism and gave him a copy of Das Kapital which Debs described as “providential” and after reading it, he emerged from jail with a transformed view of the world and his mission in it.
Returning to his union duties, he persuaded the ARU to join with the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth to establish the Social Democracy of America. This still had a focus on Chicago with 11 of its 50 branches there, but had a reach throughout the Eastern USA. It sought to combine trade union organising and socialist communes with political action. But it quickly became evident that the communes were ill at ease with engaging with mainstream political and industrial life. At its first convention in 1898, it split and Debs and Berger went with the minority to set up the Social Democratic Party, under which title he stood for President in 1900, winning 87,000 votes, 0.6% of the total.
In 1901, the SDP merged with elements of the much older Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America, which was to endure until 1972.
The Socialist Party was a broad church initially at any rate. It joined the Second International of global socialist parties and caught and shaped the radical sense of the time, named historically as the Progressive Era, when a wide range of people and thinking coalesced to demand change in the USA. The appalling conditions in factories and big city housing, the rural poverty across the mid-west and the South, the continuing exclusion and exploitation of people of colour, created a powder keg that even some capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie found either morally unacceptable or politically dangerous, or both. Although many reformers did not embrace socialism, socialist thinking and proposals heavily influenced them and even eventually policy-making.
Debs himself was influenced by Marx but also by Whitman, Paine, Wendell Phillips and the later writings of Mark Twain. He often invoked religious imagery in his speeches, referencing Jesus as a working craftsman, but organised religion was of no interest to him – the pulpit always sided with the Masters in his view.
Debs sought peaceful revolution, but accepted that at the point of revolution, some degree of force would be necessary and although he embraced electoral politics, this was more about having a platform to promote and spread socialism than to win legislative power to change society by parliamentary means. He did not see himself becoming President and believed that, when the time came, others would organise the new society. In 1906, he said:
“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”
Although he embraced the broad movement, he was sceptical of the so-called “sewer socialists”, who followed a community politics approach to develop socialism from the ground up via existing institutions, especially at city level. This tactic did enjoy some success. In its time, the Socialist Party won over 1,200 elections, including two members of Congress – Berger and Meyer London – as well as 70 Mayors and 32 state legislators. Berger’s home city of Milwaukee became a particularly centre of socialist government, implementing widespread reform of housing, education and welfare that helped hundreds of thousands of people. But inevitably they had to, or were seen to, compromise with the existing system.
In this context, the decision of the party to join with the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), headed by Big Bill Heywood, in 1911, was set to divide the party. Heywood debated with Morris Hillquit, a champion of the sewer socialists, in 1911 in New York and the event dissolved into trading personal insults, presaging the 1913 split when the IWW left the party.
But Debs himself, although firmly on the left of the party, managed to transcend many of these divisions and even after various splits maintained productive personal relationships with socialists of all tendencies. He stood for President of the USA five times. His 1912 run was in many ways the most successful, while his final 1920 one was the most striking and poignant.
In 1912, reflecting the turmoil of the progressive era and the rise of socialist thinking and home and abroad, as well as all the contradictions of a now rapidly expanding but inherently grossly unequal and inequitable capitalist system, the Presidential election was a uniquely four-way contest.
Former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, uncle of the later Democrat President FDR, formed his own Bull Moose Progressive Party to challenge as a capitalist reformer. Roosevelt openly boasted of stealing what he termed the "reasonable" elements of socialism.
Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats grabbed large parts of the Socialist Party platform including housing and child labour reform, while for the Republicans, incumbent President Taft denounced Debs and his party an unAmerican.
Debs ran a powerful, well-funded campaign across the entire USA. The Socialist Party was at its peak with 150,000 members and the IWW on board. There were well-organised parties across the country, education programmes in place and a dozen daily newspapers as well as some sympathetic journalists and editors in more mainstream journals.
His line was revolutionary. The interests of capital and labour were and always would be in conflict and could never be reconciled. Liberals and progressives might seek to ease the symptoms of the conflict; only socialist would remove the cause by demolishing the capitalist system and starting anew. He opposed regulating corporations – instead, the people should simply seize them.
The resulting vote saw Wilson win with Roosevelt defeating Taft – the best 3rd party result in history and the worst outcome for a sitting President. For the SPA and Debs, the 901,555 votes and 6% share was the strongest electoral performance for socialists anywhere in the world at that time.
In the years that followed, the Democrats were to neutralise some of the Socialists' appeal by tackling a few of the worst excesses of capital while the IWW split weakened the party significantly, with a decline of almost a third in membership by 1914.
The First World War brought new challenges – while Wilson initially promised to keep the USA out of the war, his anglophile attitude caused concern among many German immigrant communities, many of which were close to the Socialist Party. Berger himself was of German background and this led to the Socialists opponents tarring their opposition to the war as being pro-Kaiser rather than anti-war.
Debs himself spoke out against the war, but found some influential socialists, including the author Upton Sinclair, arguing for a war for democracy. A party referendum was 90% for neutrality in 1915, but there were clear tensions within the party and some were directed at members of German descent.
However, he did not run for President in 1916 although in many ways fear of war had improved Socialist prospects. He cited exhaustion as his reason, though he stood in his native Indianna for Congress, coming a strong second. Meanwhile, a journalist, Allan Benson, stood for President and polled 600,000 votes – his anti-war platform was founded on no offensive war being legal unless a popular referendum ratified it. Woodrow Wilson, running on a repeated promise of no war, narrowly won re-election and soon reneged completely on his commitment to peace.
When the time came and Wilson called for war in April 1917, Debs returned to national anti-war campaigning, especially when the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act outlawed anything deemed to interfere with the war effort and a number of socialists were jailed as a result.
|Woodrow Wilson, War President|
He welcomed the then ongoing Soviet revolution:
“Out of Russia, the land of despotism and dungeons, of exile and death to political agitators flashed the red flame of revolution in the night of Capitalism’s wars.”
Capitalism was, he believed, about to collapse, so “Must we send the workers of one country against those of another because a citizen has been torpedoed on the high seas, while we do nothing about the 600,000 working men that are crushed each year needlessly under our industrial machinery?”
And facing the denunciation of Wilson and Roosevelt and other warmongers clamouring for a so-called patriotic war, Debs said:
“I have no country to fight for; my country is the Earth and I am a citizen of the world. Let the capitalists do their own fighting and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”
In June 1918, joining a protest outside Canton prison in Ohio where three socialists were being held, Debs denounced the war as one of conquest and plunger where “the Master class has always declared the war and the subject class has fought the battles.”
He was arrested and charged with 10 breaches of the Espionage Act. He pled guilty and on 18 November 1918, a week after the war had ended, he was jailed for 10 years. His sentence began on 13 April 1919 and was marked soon after by a May Day riot in Cleveland.
Debs ran again for President from his prison cell, leading to leaflet asking people to vote for Prisoner 9653 with a photograph of a now increasingly frail man. In spite of the huge crackdown on socialists and anarchists in the two years after the war, with J Edgar Hoover making his virulent anti-communism evident for the first time, Debs saw his vote tally reach over 919,799, the highest vote ever achieved by an American socialist.
He was released by the new President, Warren Harding, who hosted him at the Whitehouse and he returned to a hero’s welcome in Indiana. But he was a broken man and his health never recovered from prison. He wrote on prison reform, but his main activity was being treated for a circulatory disorder and he died of heart failure in Illinois in October 1926 at the age of 70.
The Socialist party itself declined and split almost as soon as Debs was imprisoned – it divided over whether or not to join Comintern and faced severe attacks sponsored by the Government as part of the Red Scare of 1919 to 1921 – thousands were imprisoned, sacked or deported; socialist meetings were broken up by thugs and police; 5 Socialists elected and re-elected to the New York state assembly were expelled by the Republican majority for being “unAmerican”; trumped up charges of violence were brought against activists and some were even lynched – an act the press saw as cleansing of the American soul.
But socialism remained influential with five million striking in 1919 alone. After backing the independent “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s 1924 campaign for left progressivism which took 17% of the national vote, the Socialist Norman Thomas stood for President several times from 1928 onwards, peaking at 884,000 votes in 1932. Socialist party members were even employed by FDR to help shape the New Deal in response to the rise of populists like Huey Long in the 1930s.
But the Socialist Party lost support when it first admitted and then split with Trotskyists after disagreements on the Spanish civil war. By 1941 it had declined to a small core and this fell further when it opposed the war against Hitler. Although many American Communists joined it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, it fought its final Presidential campaign in the same year, polling just 2,044 votes. There was some revival in the 1960s in the civil right movement, but the party was split over whether to seek to influence the Democratic Party or take a more independent stance. In 1972, it renamed itself Social Democrats USA before splitting again into the Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats. With the recent rise in interest in socialism in the USA, it has been largely bypassed by followers of Bernie Sanders and younger people looking for an alternative to neoliberalism - Sanders' use of the terms "socialism" and "revolution" is of course open to some discussion, but his relative success in mobilising a whole swathe of younger people to the concept shows the growing thirst for real change in contemporary American politics.
Debs himself remains a slight quixotic character, representing the optimism of the age as well as the apocalyptic character it took on alongside rampant capitalism and the industrial-scale world war. He was passionate, committed and risked his all for his cause – he fought capital and in response capital denounced him, beat and killed his comrades, threatened and imprisoned him and eventually in effect murdered him. But his words echo through time and are as relevant today as ever.
As he faced a decade in jail, these are some passages from his speech to the jury at his 1918 trial and committal:
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul....
Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.
Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
I am ready to receive your sentence.