Almost a Century Ago, another Democratic Socialist Ran for President of the United States—from His Prison Cell
By Lawrence S. Wittner
In the early twentieth century, roughly a century before Bernie Sanders’s long-shot run for the White House, another prominent democratic socialist, 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 14 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 cooperative commonwealth.”
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 states.
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 10 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 15 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 presidency.
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 law.
Will 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.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, 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 UAardvark?