Almost a Century Ago, Another
Democratic Socialist Ran for President of the United States—From His
By Lawrence S. Wittner
November 28, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" -
In the early
twentieth century, roughly a century before Bernie Sanders’s
long-shot run for the White House, another prominent democratic
Eugene V. Debs, waged his own campaigns for the presidency.
Debs began his political career as a labor leader.
Growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, he dropped out of school at the
age of fourteen to work on the railroads, scraping the grease from
the trucks of freight engines. In later years, convinced that the
division of workers into small craft unions made them easy pickings
for the giant railroad corporations, Debs founded the American
Railway Union, leading it in the dramatic Pullman Strike of 1894.
Taking the side of the railroad corporations, the federal government
acted to crush the strike, send Debs and other union leaders to
jail, and destroy the American Railway Union.
As Debs brooded on these events, he concluded
that, although industry-wide unions were vital, they could not win
their battles for economic and social justice while giant
corporations dominated the government. In Europe, workers were
forming labor and socialist parties. Why not in America? At the
beginning of 1897, in an open letter to the remnants of the American
Railway Union, he wrote: “I am for Socialism because I am for
humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”
In 1901, together with small groups of union
activists, former Populists, socialists, and a sprinkling of
intellectuals and reformers, Debs established the Socialist Party of
America. Socialist Party campaigns were a mixture of “immediate
demands”—minimum wages, maximum hours, abolition of child labor, and
women’s suffrage—and utopian visions. On the municipal level, the
party challenged local corruption and championed improved public
services. Each reform, the party stressed, extended democracy from
politics to the economy, leading to the ultimate goal of “the
In response, the party’s strength grew rapidly
and, by 1912, the Socialist Party, with Debs as its presidential
candidate, was a force to be reckoned with. In speech after speech,
Debs set crowds ablaze. Eighteen thousand people crowded into
Philadelphia’s Convention Hall to hear him. Another 22,000 packed
New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In the Southwest, his
revivalistic zeal appealed deeply to tenant farmers and miners. In
the Middle West, he captured the hearts of Polish- and
German-Americans. In the East, Jewish garment workers plastered
their walls with his picture. As the novelist John Dos Passos noted,
Debs encouraged workers to “want the world he wanted, a world . . .
where everybody would split even.”
The 1912 election results confirmed the party’s
progress. That year, Debs drew 901,000 votes. Socialist Party
membership also reached a peak: 118,000 Americans. Like its
counterparts abroad (for example, the British Labour Party), the
Socialist Party seemed to be rising to power. Socialists held 1,200
public offices in 340 American cities, including 79 mayors in 24
However, by 1920, Debs faced a very different
situation. His beloved Socialist Party lay in ruins, while he was
locked up again in prison.
Behind the crisis of American socialism lay World
War I and its
accompanying atmosphere of fear and intolerance. In response to
the Congressional declaration of war in April 1917, delegates at an
emergency party convention declared their “unalterable opposition”
to it. Fierce government repression and vigilante action followed,
destroying the party organization. Drawing upon the Espionage Act—a
loosely-written law prohibiting any obstruction of the war
effort—the federal government began prosecuting Socialist Party
leaders. Many were convicted, usually for speeches or writings
critical of the war, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Meanwhile, the postmaster general banned virtually every Socialist
newspaper, magazine, or other publication from the mails. Socialist
Congressman Victor Berger, convicted under the Espionage Act, was
expelled from the House of Representatives, re-elected by the
voters, and then expelled again.
Outraged by this assault upon civil liberties,
Debs delivered a blistering speech that June at a party rally in
Canton, Ohio, not far from the jail where two Socialist Party
leaders had recently been hung by their wrists from a prison rafter.
As federal agents circulated conspicuously through the crowd, he
declared boldly: “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.” Thirteen days later, a federal
grand jury indicted Debs for violating the Espionage Act.
At his trial, Debs freely conceded his guilt. “I
have been accused of having obstructed the war,” he stated. “I admit
it. Gentlemen, I abhor war.” Facing a possible 60-year prison
sentence, the aging Socialist leader refused to flinch. “Your
Honor,” he said, “years ago I recognized my kinship with all living
things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better. . . .
While there is a lower class, I am in it; . . . while there is a
soul in prison, I am not free.”
Sentenced to ten years in prison, Debs spent a
substantial portion of it in the maximum security penitentiary in
Atlanta. Here he labored in the prison workhouse and, for fifteen
hours a day, was confined with five other men to a small, stiflingly
hot Southern jail cell. Reports began to filter out that the 63-year
old Socialist leader was near death. Moreover, the prison’s security
restrictions weighed heavily upon him. Visiting privileges were
limited, while Debs’s letters—restricted to a single sheet of paper
per week—could be written only to an authorized group of family
members. In a particularly vindictive act, the Wilson administration
cut off Debs’s mail and visiting privileges. Nevertheless, Debs
remained a charismatic figure, beloved by his fellow prisoners.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Party continued to
disintegrate. A portion of the party, inspired by the Bolshevik
revolution in Russia and convinced by government repression that
American democracy was a sham, demanded a “revolutionary” strategy.
When they failed to capture control of the Socialist Party from more
moderate forces, they split off and formed two competing Communist
organizations whose leaders raced off to Moscow to secure
recognition from the new Communist International. Debs spoke out
strongly against them. “The Moscow program,” he said, “is
outrageous, autocratic, ridiculous.” Thereafter, Socialists and
Communists were rivals—and sometimes enemies—in the United States
and around the world.
Meanwhile, in 1920, the battered Socialist Party
leadership convinced Debs to make yet another run for the
presidency. Confined to his prison cell and with his party in
shambles, Debs could not wage an effective campaign. Indeed, he was
allowed no more than a weekly press release by prison authorities.
Nevertheless, he provided a potent symbol of democratic socialist
ideals and government repression. In the election, he garnered
923,000 votes—a smaller percentage of the overall total (enhanced by
women’s suffrage) than he had drawn in the past, but the largest
vote ever drawn by a democratic socialist candidate for the
In late 1921, the new Republican administration of
Warren G. Harding, barraged by petitions calling for Debs’s freedom,
commuted his sentence and released him from captivity. After an
emotional farewell from his fellow prisoners, Debs traveled to the
White House for a remarkably friendly meeting with the President.
Then Debs caught a train to Terre Haute, where he was greeted by a
wild, cheering crowd of 25,000 that lifted him off his feet and
carried him to the front steps of his home.
Although Debs died some four years later, many of
the democratic socialist ideas he championed—minimum wages, maximum
hours, unemployment insurance, the abolition of child labor,
collective bargaining rights, health and safety regulations,
worker’s compensation, social security, and a variety of publicly
funded services—having attained some popularity, became incorporated
into the program of the Democratic Party and, later, enacted into
the presidential campaign of
Bernie Sanders, a
political activist who has long revered Debs, be able to extend
Debs’s legacy by securing national healthcare, free college
education, a $15 minimum wage, a break-up of the giant banks, a more
peaceful foreign policy, and other reforms? Debs’s political career
illustrates both the difficulties and the possibilities.
Lawrence Wittner is
Professor of History emeritus
at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about
university corporatization and rebellion, What’s
Going On at Aardvark?