Socialism According to Eugene V. Debs by Elizabeth Schulte

Eugene V. Debs Museum

Image by Tommy Miles via Flickr

Dandelion Salad

by Elizabeth Schulte
July 9, 2015

What did the man who Bernie Sanders today claims as his personal hero really stand for? Elizabeth Schulte tells the story of American socialism’s best-known figure.

IT’S NOT your typical presidential candidate who identifies as a socialist, but Bernie Sanders does. A poster of Eugene V. Debs, the popular Socialist Party leader of the early 20th century, hangs on his office wall as a tribute to Sanders’ self-proclaimed hero.

Like Debs, who ran for president five times, Sanders is also running for president. But that, my friends, is where the similarities end.

The socialism of Bernie Sanders—who says he’s running as a Democrat to shift the debate to the left–is fundamentally different from that of Eugene Debs, who committed his life to spreading the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Sanders is promoting something that falls far, far short of the fundamental change that Debs fought for. Sanders relegates socialism to the realm of nice ideas that can be talked about, but never really be implemented—while he accepts what little the Democratic Party is willing to concede.

For Sanders, the working class is a “constituency,” a backdrop to the political campaigns he runs and the legislative work he does. For Debs, the working class was in the foreground of everything he hope to achieve—because he believed, as a convinced Marxist, that workers have to make the fundamental and lasting transformation that he called socialism.

The fact that the mainstream media has been forced to acknowledge the existence of Eugene V. Debs recently is a little victory, since his story is largely buried. In fact, Debs’ home in Terre Haute, Indiana, now the location of a modest museum, served as a fraternity house from 1948 to 1962. The brothers of Tau Sigma Alpha were probably too busy partying to think about the legacy of the town’s famous resident.

At best, Debs is treated like an anachronism—a relic of a bygone era and a reminder of the days of old-fashioned ideas like socialism. But the true legacy of Eugene V Debs speaks to America’s radical tradition during his own time and the potential popularity of socialist ideas today.

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LIKE MOST socialists, Debs arrived at radical ideas out of his experiences of capitalism.

His life coincided with a huge transformation in U.S. society, and those events impacted the way he looked at the world. When Debs was 8 years old in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. At the age of 14, he got a job painting signs for the railroad—a year later, in 1870, he became a railroad fireman. The same year, John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, which would become the largest multinational corporation in the world.

When Debs was 22 in 1877, railroad workers across the country went on strike against poverty wages and dangerous working conditions. Nine years later, an explosion went off at a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, the epicenter of the fight for the eight-hour day—and radicals and anarchists were framed for it, leading to the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs. Seven years later, Debs helped organize the first industrial union: the American Railway Union.

Debs came of age during the era of the robber barons, times of unbridled greed and capitalist expansion. The growth of the railroads meant that modern cites began to emerge across the country. During this time, the U.S. also experienced repeated economic depressions. The image of men riding the rails and looking for work was a familiar one.

Debs worked on the railroad for a few years—before he became an organizer for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen—and he developed a deep understanding of the daily dangers faced by railroad workers. In 1893, he helped start the American Railway Union (ARU), which was inspired by the militant Western Federation of Miners founded the same year.

Debs was forever changed as a leader of the Pullman strike in Chicago in 1894 against the Pullman Sleeping Car Co. The federal government intervened against strikers, provoking violence that ended in the deaths of 13 workers. With this, Debs learned both the power of the working class when it used the strike weapon—and the lengths the federal government would go to side with the bosses against workers. As he wrote in 1902 in an article titled “How I became a socialist”:

The combined corporations were paralyzed and helpless. At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes—and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in Socialism, though wholly unaware that it was called by that name.

An army of detectives, thugs and murderers were equipped with badge and beer and bludgeon and turned loose; old hulks of cars were fired; the alarm bells tolled; the people were terrified; the most startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered, and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago’s white throat was in the clutch of a red mob; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and headquarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the “lawful’ authorities of the federal government; and when in company with my loyal comrades I found myself in Cook County jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder, and by some fateful coincidence I was given the cell occupied just previous to his execution by the assassin of Mayor Carter Harrison Sr., overlooking the spot, a few feet distant, where anarchists were hanged a few years before, I had another exceedingly practical and impressive lesson in Socialism.

Later confrontations with the state and police convinced Debs of the violence of the government and the need for workers to organize their own self-defense. So by 1914, in response to the horrible brutality meted out on a tent colony of striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, Debs argued in an article in the International Socialist Review that the mineworkers’ unions should create a “Gunman’s Defense Fund.”

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THESE EXPERIENCES also exposed to Debs the futility of relying on politicians to win better conditions for working people. Previously, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party—he campaigned for the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryant in 1896. Workers needed their own organization, he concluded, and Debs devoted the rest of his life to building it.

He helped found the Socialist Party (SP) in 1901 and ran on the party ticket for president five times. In 1912, he won almost a million votes, good for about 6 percent of total. In 1920, he ran from prison where he was incarcerated for his opposition to the First World War, and won almost a million votes again. In 1908, he traveled across the country in a train dubbed the “Red Special,” speaking to thousands of people about socialism.

During his campaigns, Debs challenged the capitalist politicians and explained why they had nothing to offer workers. And he had advice for left-wing Democrats: If they really supported left-wing ideas, then they should defect and join the Socialists:

The radical and progressive elements of the former Democracy have been evicted and must seek other quarters. They were an unmitigated nuisance in the conservative counsels of the old party. They were for the “common people” and the trusts have no use for such a party.

Where but to the Socialist Party can these progressive people turn?…Every true democrat should thank Wall Street for driving them out of a party that is democratic in name only, and into one that is democratic in fact.

Above all, election campaigns for Debs were opportunities to create a platform for socialist ideas and make an argument that it was the working class, not politicians, that had the power to transform society. He made this point to fellow SP members in 1911:

We should seek only to register the actual vote of Socialism, no more no less. In our propaganda we should state our principles clearly, speak the truth fearlessly, seeking night to flatter not to offend, but only to convince those who should be with us and win them to our cause through an intelligent understanding of its mission…

Voting for Socialism is not Socialism any more than a menu is a meal. Socialism must be organized drilled, equipped and the place to begin is in the industries where the workers are employed…

Without such economic organization and the economic power with which it is clothed, and without the industrial co-operative training, discipline and efficiency which are its corollaries, the fruit of any political victories the workers may achieve will turn to ashes on their lips.

The electoral campaign was only a means to a greater cause, the self-organization of the working class. In this way, Debs agreed with the left wing of the Socialist Party—people like Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, who would help found the Industrial Workers of the World. They advocated workers taking control where the power of the ruling class was rooted—in the factories. But he disagreed with others on the left who argued that elections had no role to play at all. He thought the two things—election campaigns and workplace organizing—were both jobs for socialists.

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REPEATEDLY, DEBS emphasized that socialism had to be achieved by workers themselves. In a 1905 speech, he argued:

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.

You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist an instant without you. You would just begin to live without him. You do everything and he has everything, and some of you imagine that if it were not for him you would have no work. As a matter of fact, he does not employ you at all; you employ him to take from you what you produce, and he faithfully sticks to this task.

If you can stand it, he can; and if you don’t change this relation, I am sure he won’t. You make the automobile, he rides in it. If it were not for you, he would walk; and if it were not for him, you would ride.

Within the SP, members had very different ideas about socialism and how it would be achieved. Some believed in socialism as a steady increase in social reforms achieved by socialists being elected to political office—others looked to a revolutionary transformation of society. As a result, conservative and backward ideas, like the racism of SP leaders Victor Berger, existed alongside the revolutionary socialism of Debs.

Divisions grew between the SP left and right and came to the breaking point with the First World War and the successful workers’ revolution in Russia.

Debs proudly represented to internationalist position of genuine socialists. He opposed the imperialist war, in the face of the epidemic of patriotism that caught hold across the U.S. and the state repression faced by antiwar activists who dared to speak out.

Debs’ famous Canton speech in 1918—which was almost two long and dutifully transcribed by a federal government stenographer planted in the audience–remains necessary reading for socialists today. At the age of 63, he was sentenced to prison, based on the speech, which was submitted by the prosecution during Debs’ trial.

When news that Russian workers had taken power in 1917 reached the U.S., Debs celebrated the revolution. Like leftists around the world, he was inspired by the Russian workers’ example and gained confidence in the fight against war and for the self-emancipation of the working class.

Eventually, those leftists who remained in the SP quit to help form a new Communist Party on the model of what Lenin and the Bolsheviks had built in Russia. Debs, while he supported the Russian Revolution and remained a revolutionary, nonetheless stayed in the SP.

For his final presidential campaign in 1920, Debs ran as inmate #9653 from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. From jail, Debs learned more about the injustice system from his fellow prisoners. He became so beloved that when he was released, they presented him with a hand-carved cane depicting historic labor struggles.

In Walls and Bars, Debs outlined his unwavering vision of a socialist future:

Under Socialism no man will depend upon another for a job, or upon the self-interest or good will of another for a chance to earn bread for his wife and child. No man will work to make a profit for another, to enrich an idler, for the idler will no longer own the means of life. No man will be an economic dependent, and no man need feel the pinch of poverty that robs life of all joy and ends finally in the county house, the prison and potters’ field…

Industrial self-government, social democracy, will completely revolutionize the community life. For the first time in history the people will be truly free and rule themselves, and when this comes to pass poverty will vanish like mist before the sunrise. When poverty goes out of the world the prison will remain only as a monument to the ages before light dawned upon darkness and civilization came to mankind.

Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and

from the archives:

How Debs Became A Socialist by Paul D’Amato

Chris Hedges: Bernie Sanders Has Made No Mention of the Military, Part 3 + Our Night with Bernie by Bruce Gagnon

Bernie Sanders is no Eugene Debs by Howie Hawkins + Will Bernie Sanders Take on Hillary Clinton? by Ralph Nader

Chris Hedges: Bernie Sanders is Giving Legitimacy to the Democratic Party

Invest in Activism, Not Bernie Sanders by David Swanson + The Problem with Bernie Sanders by Ashley Smith

27 thoughts on “Socialism According to Eugene V. Debs by Elizabeth Schulte

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  7. From the November 1, 1918 edition of the NY Daily Call, the Socialist newspaper of the time, comes this definition from Art Young’s Political Primer, a regular feature in the paper: “What is Socialism? It is business operated for public benefit instead of private profit.”

    Sounds like a Benefit or B corporation, now available in about 28 states.

    In the November 1917 elections, about 18 Socialist Party candidates were elected to office, NY State Assemblymen and NYC Aldermen, who proposed a living wage for city works, and one NYC municipal judge, probably the first democratically elected Socialist judge in the world.

    That election and that year may have been the high-water mark of American socialism. So far.

  8. Pingback: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I Have Some Questions For You by Lo | Dandelion Salad

  9. This comparison is fundamentally flawed, as it is out of the historical and politico-economic contexts of Debs times and the current era, in which Sanders is operating. In spite of the monstrous and brutal repressions of the revolutionary working class organizations and movements, before, during, and after the First World War, there were valid reasons for hopes and expectations for socialist transformations of this society, as for significant sections of the working class and its leaders, like the IWW and Western Federation of Miners (WFM) etc., the most important objective was to wrest the political power from the capitalist class and replace it with that of the working class and its allies. Those hopes and expectations still had valid basis during the Second World War. Twenty percent of the unions of CIO were controlled by communists until 1945. Now, overwhelming part of the working class in the US is unorganized. It is in such a dismal state that only 7.2 percent of it is organized into unions in the private sector (2009 figures) and it does not even have its own working class political party. This situation is very different from 1945, when almost 36 percent of American workers were represented by the unions. As a result of another wave of repression by the combined forces of government, congress, judiciary, and police, that potential was again extinguished. CIO was merged with the AFL, which throughout much of its existence, had cooperated with the capitalist class and was rewarded for that, when IWW and WFM were being decimated. After 1950, the working class never regained its revolutionary flame. Instead, its leaders worked hand-in-glove with the imperialist government and CIA in various Third World countries for subversion and pacification of the revolutionary working class movements and organizations.

    After decades of imperialist fascism in the Third World, it is now returning home. Currently, the masses and majority of the working class here have enormous mass psychological potential for fascism. There are no large, powerful, and dedicated revolutionary working class organizations, like the IWW and WFM now. Almost all the political parties and organizations are turning even more to the right. Even the current Communist Party of USA has been trying to act as Obama’s tail. Socialism has been betrayed in the former USSR, China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe. These are very different times than those of Debs, Big Bill Haywood etc. Haywood had seen more clearly that direct action and revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist rule was much more important than the electoral politics. As a result of his disagreements with the Socialist Party leadership on these issues and his fearless and honest public pronouncements, he was forced to leave the party, along with large numbers of other IWW members.

    Socialism in this country will never come through electoral politics. As Haywood had insisted, it will only come through direct action and revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist and imperialist rule. American workers, under leaders like him, had waged an exemplary and heroic struggle and fight for that purpose. Currently, there is nothing like that going on in this country. The Occupy Movement was a dismal failure. It was doomed to that because of its structural flaws, which were identified and analyzed by this writer in some of the articles at that time. In many countries, a lot of people are fighting and scarifying their lives for what they believe to be the right and just causes. Here, all one hears and sees is incessant and repetitious verbal diarrhea by leftist intellectuals and celebrities, which becomes blasé and has little practical impact. As far as the electoral politics is concerned, in the current conditions, any significant leftward movement of the political parties, the working class, and labor unions would constitute important progress. The candidates should be compared to each other in that regard, and not to those long gone, who were operating in very different historical contexts. Bernie Sanders has some important flaws and deficiencies. However, he is by far the best of all the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, in that regard. Even better candidate is Jill Stein of the Green Party, who has had better leftist program, goals, and objectives than all of the candidates during the past four decades.

    • Well, I completely agree with you Fazal, Jill Stein actually talks sense. I also find careerist sophism and waffle hard to stomach ~ utterly bereft of relevance, with some notable exceptions. Fact is, we are all different with respect to our unique life experiences, and we have to resist or outgrow many of the circumstances that may tend to shape our convictions, or end up determining how we live and to whom we pay deference.

      Personally I’m sick and tired of class rhetoric and binding stereotypes. Why restrict ourselves with these artificially contrived social conventions? Do we have to be trapped by the karmic lottery of birth? Surely integrity is what counts, not privilege, victimisation or any species of conditioned “branding.”

      Deprivation is the real crime, and in that respect I suppose I must consider myself to be a militant green socialist, but I find even that category hard to wear as a “badge” as well. Any political persona can become a false identity, that masks all kinds of suppressed tendencies.

      Even worse, are those architectures of control that regulate our prescribed options. These mental constructs are cages, and cages are uniquely human inventions, that serve no useful purpose other than to condition a submissive response or support a spurious sense of security and intimidate us into complicity….

      In that respect, & media “massaging” generally, how would you rate the work of Sut Jhally?

      And…have you any further thoughts on the “Malala syndrome” or whether Shaista Aziz presented a reasonably argued account in her Guardian piece last year ?

      • In this country, the word “socialism” has been assigned various subjective meanings and contents, and has become very confused. Whenever I talk about socialism, I mean that in the Marxist sense, as a stage towards the development of communism. Also, socialism and communism are not religions. These are sciences and their various categories and processes are also scientific, which are to be placed and analyzed within particular historical conditions. Evidently, one’s choices and actions are also conditioned and limited by those historical conditions.

        You seem to be denying the existence or relevance of the objective reality of classes and class struggle in the politico-economic, historical, and social processes, and trying to substitute your solipsistic feelings for those, in face of all the colossal past and current historical evidence, to the contrary! The role of classes and class struggle, as the motive force of historical developments and changes, was discovered long before Marx, by the French historians of Restoration, like Augustine Thierry, Francois Mignet, and Francois Guizot, and before them by the French socialist Saint Simon. English economists William Petty, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo also had contributed to the theories of classes and labor value. All the great historical changes and revolutions were the result of class struggles and replacement of the political power of the previous ruling classes with new ones. The leaders of the French Revolution of 1789-1794 were very much aware of the class basis of their revolution. Marx contributed to those theories by clarifying and elaborating those theories scientifically and proposing scientific definitions of the classes, based on their relations to the means of productions. Later, numerous great minds, including Lenin, further developed the knowledge of capitalism, imperialism, war and peace, etc., all on the basis of the theories of class struggle. Even Albert Einstein, who had focused his genius on physics, wrote about the class struggle and need for the socialist transformation of society. In this country, some of the most knowledgeable and important writers on these subjects are James Petras, Michael Parenti, and the late Victor Perlo.

        I do not need or want to know why you are engaging in such bizarre solipsism. That is your own responsibility.

        As far as the Guardian article on Malala is concerned, it is self-evidently shallow, confusionist, and omissive of the role of BBC, American and NATO imperialists and their puppet Pakistani military and government, and Western news media in creating, concocting, and inflating that little tool of imperialist disinformation and psychological warfare to grotesque levels. It only contains statements of a few selected individuals on the matter, including the writer’s own mother. Western media and academic journals are dominated by the whores of capitalism and imperialism and the powers that be, and, with very few exceptions, only allow the publications of articles within certain boundaries. Even such shallow and confusionist articles get through the censors, if these fit into the plots.

        Sut Jhally has said or done nothing original or new. What ever he has said or done, has been said or done a lot better and on more profound and deeper levels than him by numerous others, e.g., by James Pertas.

  10. It is sobering to reflect on the extraordinary legacy of Debs as we endure the waking nightmare that is now haunting the entire globe.

    It is indeed paradoxical, that the “solidarity” of corporations relying on their collective power through the steel grip of financial institutions, can terrorise even “enlightened monarchs” who cannot act independently of this monolithic engine of extraction and exploitation for the sake of a few “chosen” people ~ but all in the name of progress and higher living standards for everyone.

    I am not a fatalist, but something as unyielding as sustaining-at-any-cost as this horror-show capitalist hegemony that will never concede an inch, persuades me, that the only changes that can now make any substantial difference, will come as a result of cataclysmic geophysical and cosmic forces. Disruption to the biosphere itself. Volcanic upheaval and seismic nuclear forces.

    That is arguably a rational empirical view, although I would not rule out some totally unpredictable event, like a radical new discovery, some new energy source or a completely unique social movement arising out of Africa and completely shifting the balance of power internationally. But how probable is that? Even realistic?

    Seems to me there are broadly two types of human being (other than the obvious gender distinction) ~ those who seek truth and only live for truth, and those who just desire symbolic value. Even value is a slippery entity, but it translates into some type of tangible token ~ like trophy art or celebrity, or being worshipped by your obsequious offspring.

    Maybe immortality is closer to the mark, that is to say, the kind of immortality that a corpse enjoys, forever preserved under glass, to be admired by dead souls forever shuffling past in submissive reverential adoration.

    I learned today that China is creating a 100,000 head dairy unit to feed Russia ~ what!? Frankly….I despair. Now we know for sure mankind is not only mad but doomed, literally being led to the slaughter.

    Enjoy your German beer and “oriental” cheese Vlad.

    • Thanks for your commentary, as always, David.

      I’m also hoping that changes will occur without drastic climate disruptions, etc. Social movements are the way to get there. Educating the youth is key. It’s their future; they have much more at stake. There are more and more small to medium sized businesses that are co-ops where all workers are owners of the business. It is a growing development. We need to support those businesses, too.


      • Yes Lo, I agree, thanks for the link. I’m very keen on cooperative enterprise as you know, it really is the most fulfilling option in my opinion.

        Because of my strong support for agroecology/agroforestry and sustainable indigenous farming practices, the news about China jumping on the CAFO cruelty wagon to supply Russia with “cheese” just filled me with utter foreboding ~ I mean supporting 100K cows in one unit??? that is beyond hell on Earth ~ just consider the environmental consequences. This scale of “collective” planning is simply insane.

  11. Americans should realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with socialism – creating a nation where all citizens are well-off and where ‘equal opportunity’ isn’t just a slogan.

  12. First off — to try and compare anyone to Debs is impossible . Debs was not only unique in his Socialism , but also his work in prison reform has been only rivaled by Brubaker and Colson . Neither of whom were Socialists . .. but were just as effective in Prison reform .

    Second — Not all Socialists believe the same thing . I am an unapologetic Socialist and i have radical ideas that are in sync with Debs and some (not many) that are not.

    3rd — Normam Thomas ran for President time and time again , but he was no Debs either . However, he pushed things in a good direction.

    conclusion : to put up a litmus test for what a Socialist is who runs for president is rather silly . Socialist can agree amongst themselves .

    Bernie Sanders running for President will force those who have demonized the word ”Socialist” to be confronted with the word in their face . Now , this may not please other Socialists , but who cares ?

    When Ron Paul ran for President as a Republican it really pissed off the Libertarians . but who cares ?

    my point is is that it is important for those voices to be out there . And as much as i hate and have been persecuted by the 2 party MONSTER for my 3 rd party and independent voting and debating for electoral reform …. i am glad that fringe voices are out there .

    i just wish Jesse Ventura would run !!!!!

  13. Pingback: Chris Hedges: Bernie Sanders Has Made No Mention of the Military, Part 3 + Our Night with Bernie by Bruce Gagnon | Dandelion Salad

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