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Why Socialism is a Bad Word: The Story of Eugene Victor Debs

Gen Z is more likely to have a favorable view of socialism than any other generation.

Shuttertstock/Prazis Images

June 16, 1918. A crowd of around 1,200 workers gather in Canton, Ohio, to listen to labor activist and political leader Eugene Victor Debs give a speech opposing US involvement in WWI, specifically the drafting of young men. “The working class has never yet had a voice in declaring war,” says Debs. “If war is right, let it be declared by the people—you, who have your lives to lose.” Two weeks later, he was arrested.

His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. On March 10, 1919, his ten-year sentence was found unanimously to be constitutional. Many reading this may wonder how this is possible. How is a speech opposing war and the drafting of young men not protected under the freedom of speech? Well, according to the official opinion of Chief Justice Edward D White:

“Such a speech is not protected because of the fact that the purpose to oppose the war and obstruct recruiting, and the expressions used in that regard, were but incidental parts of a general propaganda of socialism and expressions of a general and conscientious belief.”

Official Opinion of Chief Justice Edward D White

This was not the first time Debs found himself in trouble with the law. Back in 1895, Debs found himself again in the Supreme Court challenging the federal injunction ordering workers of the American Railway Union back to work, putting an end to the Pullman Strike of 1894 and resulted in Debs being given a six-month sentence for violating a court order.

So, who was the man who was twice jailed fighting for workers’ rights and opposing a war that killed 40 million in total? He was the face of American Socialism. He is a big part of the reason why Americans have the eight-hour work day, weekends off, and why Labor Day is a national holiday.

Portrait of Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Victor Debs. Shutterstock/Everett Collection

On November 5, 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born to French immigrant parents in Terre Haute, Indiana. He dropped out of high school at fourteen to work as a railroad painter. When he was fifteen, he worked as a fireman for the railyards while attending night classes at a local business school. He continued to work blue-collar jobs for the next few years, fireman, painter, and grocer, until in 1875, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a trade union for firemen and rail workers at the time.

The Story of Eugene Victor Debs

Debs became deeply involved in the organization and, just three years in, was elected as an associate editor for the BLF’s monthly magazine. Through this, he became deeply embedded in his local community and was eventually elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 1885 as a Democrat. In the 1880s, Debs would be your average liberal today. Moderate, not radical at all.

He thought the relationship between capital and labor should be a friendly, non-confrontational one. The BLF was not so much a union in today’s sense, but rather it was a networking fraternity focusing on providing opportunities for workers instead of collectively bargaining with employers for better pay, working conditions, etc. His experience over the next ten years would change that.

Remember, in the 1870s and 1880s, unions were not widely established entities. America was at the height of its industrial revolution, with productivity and profits seeing record highs that people like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, or Andrew Pullman (railroad tycoon) did not want to see hindered by pesky things like fair wages, safe working conditions, and benefits for workers. This was the Robber Baron era, the precursor to what would become the Roaring 20s, where the wealthy lived like kings and the poor like peasants (kind of like today).

A deciding moment in Debs’s shift from your average Democrat to America’s most famous socialist was the Burlington Railroad strike of 1888. In short, it was a ten-month strike that was a complete failure. Every employee who went on strike was replaced. 

From Democrat to Socialist

Fast forward just a few years later to Debs’s first stint in prison for his involvement in the Pullman Strike. He tried to work within the system, and the system put him in prison, where he read people like Karl Marx and was sent letters and other reading materials from a slew of socialists who had learned about his incarceration.

His own experience and readings exposed an inherent flaw in capitalism. Capital and labor are not comrades in the industry but opposing forces that have entirely different priorities. Capital wants the most work out of labor for the least pay. Labor wants the most pay for the least work.

The Chicago jail sentences were followed by six months at Woodstock and it was here that Socialism gradually laid hold of me in its own irresistible fashion. Books and pamphlets and letters from socialists came by every mail and I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy and Blatchford early appealed to me. The ‘Cooperative Commonwealth’ of Gronlund also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance—and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light.”

Debs, Eugene V. (April 1902). “How I Became a Socialist”. The Comrade. Archived from the original on November 11, 2011. 

In 1897, Debs openly declared himself a socialist, and in 1901 started what would become the most successful socialist political party in American history: The Socialist Party of America (SPA). The party was heavily influenced by immigrants from European socialist nations and was a direct result of the labor movement in the United States. They were the reactions of working-class Americans recognizing the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism, and it did not end with the formation of unions and political parties. They actually ran candidates and got them elected. 

In the early 20th century, SPA elected two representatives to Congress (Victor L. Berger and Meyer London), dozens of state legislators, over 100 mayors in cities like Milwaukee, Pasadena, Toledo, and thousands of lesser officials on the local levels. Can you guess the state with the most Socialist elected officials?

 Oklahoma: 175 state and local elected officials in 1912, in a state that today has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country. It was a different world. In 1917, Socialists won 20% of the vote in 14 of America’s largest cities—30% in some areas—even ten seats in the NY State Assembly.

The SPA’s most famous and successful figure, by far, was Eugene Victor Debs. They ran the Indiana State Senator Eugene V Debs for president five times and got over 900,000 votes twice (in 1912 and 1920). During the 1920 election, Debs was jailed for the speech he gave in Canon, Ohio, and got almost a million votes while running from prison. Keep in mind, in 1920, the US population was just over 100 million, a third of what it is today, so getting 900 thousand votes in 1920 would be like getting 2.7 million votes in 2024.

Legacy

1920 was the peak of Deb’s popularity in American politics and the socialist movement in general. Bernie Sanders said in a 2016 interview that Debs was “probably the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.” The socialist movement in America is again gaining some moment in contemporary American politics, especially amongst Gen Z voters. When asked in a Harris Poll in May of 2023, “How willing would you be to trade today’s form of capitalism for socialism,” 55% of Gen Z respondents said they would be willing. 

Socialism as a whole, however, is a very taboo and misunderstood topic in American politics. That same Harris poll also said that overall, Americans still view capitalism as the best economic system available today, and a big reason for that is because of events like Red Scare McCarthyism in the 50’s and 60’s but also the treatment of America’s first socialists like Debs at the turn of the century. Unionization efforts were often met with violence from the police and military.

The 1894 Pullman Strike that landed Debs in prison for six months resulted in the deaths of over 30 people, including $80 million worth of damage. The injunction Debs was found guilty of being in violation of was enforced by the United States Army. President Grover Cleveland sent the Army to Chicago to put an end to the strike.

During this era, socialist newspaper offices were firebombed by civilian vigilante groups. Socialists and union activists at this time were often immigrants from places like Poland and Ireland, and they faced a decent amount of racism and bigotry.

Through the same act that got Debs arrested, the 1917 Espionage Act, the federal government arrested 2,000 people on “charges of inspiring resistance to military recruitment.” According to Smithsonian magazine, “States passed sedition laws and arrested dissenters. The American Defense Society, a right-wing vigilante group, pulled anti-war speakers off soapboxes in New York City.

The American Protective League, a national group of 250,000 volunteers acting with the blessing of U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, searched their neighbors’ homes and mail and reported the allegedly disloyal.”

Gen Z Activists
Shutterstock/Lomb

The word socialism in America has become twisted to mean anti-democratic. You’ll hear conservative arguments from groups like The Heritage Foundation saying that socialism is a utopian fantasy that is destined to devolve into dictatorship. It should be noted that this is the same group behind Project 2025, a conservative think tank project that proposes policies like unitary executive theory, a controversial constitutional interpretation that argues the president should have total power over the executive branch.

Regardless of arguments for or against socialism, America’s concept of it has been heavily informed, and, in some cases like Debs, even persecuted and censored by greater powers.

Written By

I am a 26 year old grad student interested in politics, basketball, literature, and cooking.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Arieh Lebowitz

    February 3, 2024 at 9:47 pm

    “The Eugene V. Debs Museum is the former house of Eugene V. Debs and Katherine Metzel Debs. After changing hands for many years, it was purchased in 1962 by a small group of Terre Hautians who had a strong admiration for Debs. It is now owned and operated by the Debs Foundation as a free museum.”

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