Home > Uncategorized > The Inspiring Example of Eugene V. Debs – posted 7/26/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2015

The Inspiring Example of Eugene V. Debs – posted 7/26/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2015

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2015 under the title “Man of the People”.

Probably, like almost everybody, I have been surprised by the surge of Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential race. At first, I thought, given the proximity to Vermont, he might do well in New Hampshire. Then I thought he might do well in Iowa. He has been drawing large crowds wherever he goes. That includes surprising places like Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston.

It does not take a political genius to realize that, at this time, his message is resonating in a powerful way. Sanders’ arguments about the dangers of income inequality are the same arguments he has made for the last 40 years.

I had read that Sanders was inspired by the example of Eugene V. Debs. There is a plaque of Debs in Senator Sanders’ office. Back in 1979, Sanders produced an audio documentary about Debs. In the liner notes for the documentary, Sanders wrote the following:

“It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs. If you are the average American who watches television 40 hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm deodorants, every hack politician in your state, and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century. Why? Why haven’t they told you about Gene Debs and the ideas he fought for. The answer is simple: more than a half century after his death, the handful of people who own and control the country, including the mass media, and the educational system still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.”

So who was this guy Eugene Debs and why does he matter? Is he as important as the Kardashians?

I think it is fair to say Debs was one of the most revered figures in the history of the American Left. He was the most popular and effective socialist figure ever to appear in America. Throughout his life, Debs advocated for fair wages, worker’s rights, social justice, and equality. For 30 years, from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Debs was the spokesperson for a democratic socialist vision for America.

Really, those were the glory days for American socialism. It always has been a minority movement but, for a time, it had a significant following.

Debs did not come from Berkeley or Cambridge. He was born in Terra Haute, Indiana in 1855 and he grew up there. I know about Debs’ Indiana roots from reading Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut often wrote that he took pride in being from the same state as Debs. Vonnegut even named the protagonist in his novel Hocus Pocus after Debs.

Debs went off to work on the railroad at age 15. He started as a yard laborer, moved on to painter, and finally became a locomotive fireman. He helped to organize the first lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in Terra Haute. He then quickly rose in the National Brotherhood. In his job, Debs traveled around the country to organize and assist in the formation of new lodges.

Through his work and travels, Debs became familiar with almost every sector of the American working class. Always interested in politics, Debs was repeatedly elected Town Clerk in Terra Haute. He also got elected as a state representative in the Indiana state legislature in 1884 but he did not seek reelection there. His heart was more in organizing.

In 1893, Debs went on to organize the American Railway Union (ARU), an industry-wide union dedicated to the rights of every worker in the railway industry. Although he had previously built the Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, he found craft unionism too narrow. Debs believed solidarity could not be achieved under the old craft set-up.

After a significant victory in a battle over a wage cut by the Great Northern Railroad, Debs and the ARU faced off against George Pullman and his railroad company in the massive Pullman strike. The story is novel-worthy. A federal judge who had been appointed through the influence of George Pullman issued injunctions that forbid virtually all union activity. Also, the court had 700 strikers arrested including Debs and other ARU leaders.

Debs did six months in prison. With the ARU smashed, Debs had time in prison to reflect. He had started organizing with an idealistic, humanitarian perspective. He now saw the need for a class viewpoint. He came to see that all workers shared an identical interest. The Pullman strike reinforced Debs’ growing class consciousness.

He came to the conclusion that a workers’ political party needed to be organized to defend workers’ interests politically. At the same time, he favored a class-wide union to defend workers’ interests economically. In 1897, Debs went on to found the Social Democratic Party which became the American Socialist Party.

Debs made his first run for the Presidency in 1900. He subsequently ran for president four more times. During the next 18 years, he travelled the country incessantly. He went by train and spoke everywhere in the country, often giving 6 to 10 speeches a day. He threw himself heart and soul into the effort. Debs brought hundreds of thousands of people into the Socialist Party. Debs increased his vote totals as he ran. By 1912, he got 900,000 votes which was 6% of the total votes cast.

When the United States chose to enter World War I, Debs took an anti-war position and spoke out against the war. He believed the decision to enter the war was motivated by capitalism. In 1918, under the Espionage Act of 1917, Debs was arrested. The Espionage Act made it a crime to give speeches that interfered with the war effort. The court sentenced Debs to 10 years in federal prison.

Always quotable, in his speech to the court, Debs said:

“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it and while there is a criminal element, I am of it and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

He went on to describe his general outlook this way:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. ”

In his last run for President in 1920, Debs received 900,000 votes. At the time, Debs was Prisoner 9653. He ran the race from jail. He remained incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. President Harding commuted Debs’s sentence in 1921.

When people consider greatest Americans, the usual candidates named are former Presidents. Lincoln does come to mind. However, I would place Debs in my own top five. His oratorical skills were legendary. He fought selflessly for working people his whole life. Debs was total salt of the earth. He identified with the down and out – not leaders or bureaucrats. He always remained down-to-earth, informal, with the democratic spirit of a Midwesterner.

For Debs, socialism was the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government of whatever variety.

Bernie Sanders could not have picked a more noble person to serve as inspiration. I will leave the last word to Debs:

“If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make the claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

  1. Pat Dawson
    July 27, 2015 at 4:19 am

    Wow! Love that final quote. Really enjoyed this piece and glad you have introduced me to someone I know nothing about, but want to.

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