American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Debs
Directed by Yale Strom (2018)
Many analysts on the left are comparing “socialist” Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to that of social Eugene Debs 100 years ago. As portrayed in this film, Debs was very different than I imagined him to be. I had always pictured him as a bookish intellectual. He was actually more of a populist like Donald Trump
Born in 1855, in 1893, he co-founded the American Railway Union (ARU) and was instrumental in the 1894 Pullman strike involving 250,000 workers across 27 states. In 1895, he was imprisoned for the first time for after the ARU violated a federal injunction ordering strikers back to work. It was during his first imprisonment that a friend introduced him to socialism by giving him a copy of Das Kapital to read.
Following his release, he co-founded the Socialist Party of America. He was their presidential candidate in 1900,1904, 1908, 1912, 1916, and 1920. Rather than focusing on theoretical socialist concepts, his campaigns preached a kind of “liberation theology,”*, focusing on the social precepts (love, cooperation, compassion for the poor) promoted in the New Testament.
In 1904, Debs’ campaign team held massive evangelical-style camp meetings highlighting the plight of Southern tenant farmers.
In 1912, Debs helped found the anarchist-leaning International Workers of the World (IWW), the only union representing women, blacks, tenant farmers, and other low income groups. Bill Haywood, an IWW co-founder, was also a member of the Socialist Party’s executive committee. In 1912, Debs got 1 million votes, which was 6% of the popular vote.
In 1917, there was a split in the Socialist Party, when Woodrow Wilson entered World War I by declaring war on Germany. Debs, who opposed the war, was arrested in 1918 for violating the Espionage Act.** In 1920, he became the first person to run for president from a prison cell, receiving 3.4% of the popular vote.
Inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, by 1924 most of Debs’ socialist comrades had become communists. In that election, Debs campaigned for Progressive Party candidate Robert LaFollette, who received 5 million votes (17% of the popular vote).
*Liberation theology, prominent throughout Latin American during the 20th century, is a belief system combines Christianity’s social concern for the poor with a drive for oppressed people’s political liberation.
**Among other provisions, the Espionage Act makes it illegal to interfere with armed forced recruitment while the US is at war.
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