Eugene Debs and the Idea of Socialism
by Howard Zinn
excerpted from the book
Howard Zinn on History
Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989, we heard a constant
refrain in the press and from the mouths of politicians, that
socialism had been discredited, and capitalism was the wave of
the future. I was annoyed by the way Stalinism was mistaken for
socialism, and wanted to recapture that idea of socialism which
had inspired millions of people in this country before the Bolshevik
revolution ever existed. No one represented that idea more eloquently
than the socialist leader Eugene Debs.
We are always in need of radicals who are also lovable and
so we would do well to bring back to public attention the person
of Eugene Victor Debs. Ninety years ago, at the time The Progressive
was born, Debs was nationally famous as leader of the Socialist
Party, and the poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote of him:
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Judgement Seat
Debs was what every socialist or anarchist or radical should
be fierce in his convictions, kind and compassionate in his personal
relations. Sam Moore, a fellow inmate of the Atlanta penitentiary,
where Debs was imprisoned for opposing the first world war, told,
years later, how he felt as Debs was about to be released on Christmas
Day 1921: "As miserable as I was, I would defy fate with
all its cruelty as long as Debs held my hand, and I was the most
miserably happiest man on earth when I knew he was going home
Debs had won the hearts of his fellow prisoners in Atlanta.
He had fought for them in a hundred ways, and refused any special
privileges for himself. That day of Debs' release from Atlanta
prison, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every
cellblock to allow over two thousand inmates to mass in front
of the main jail building to say goodbye to Eugene Debs. As he
started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he
turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms
to the other prisoners.
This was not his first prison experience. In 1894, not yet
a Socialist, but an organizer of railroad workers in the American
Railway Union, he had led a nationwide boycott of the railroads
in support of the striking workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company.
They effectively tied up the railroad system, burned hundreds
of railway cars, and were met with the full force of the capitalist
state: Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer,
got a court injunction to prohibit blocking trains. President
Cleveland called out the army, which used bayonets, and rifle
fire on a crowd of five thousand strike sympathizers in Chicago.
Seven hundred were arrested. Thirteen were shot to death.
Debs was jailed for violating a court injunction prohibiting
him from doing or saying anything to carry on the strike. In court,
he denied he was a socialist, but during his six months in prison
he read socialist literature, and the events of the strike took
on a deeper meaning. He wrote later: "I was to be baptized
in Socialism in the roar of conflict...in the gleam of every bayonet
and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed...."
From then on Debs devoted his life energy to the cause of
working people, and the dream of a socialist society. He stood
on the platform with Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood in 1905
at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World.
He was a magnificent speaker, his long body leaning forward from
the podium, his arm raised dramatically. Thousands came to hear
him talk, all over the country.
With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and the build-up
of war fever against Germany, some Socialists succumbed to the
talk of "preparedness," but Debs was adamantly opposed.
When President Wilson and Congress brought the nation into the
war in 1917, speech was no longer free. The Espionage Act made
it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in
the armed forces.
Soon, close to a thousand people were in prison for protesting
the war. The producer of a movie called The Spirit of '76, about
the American revolution, was sentenced to ten years in prison
for promoting anti-British feeling at a time when England and
the U.S. were allies, and thus discouraging enlistment in the
military. The case was officially labeled The U.S. vs. 'The Spirit
Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio in support of the men and
women in jail for opposing the war. He told his listeners: "Wars
throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder....
And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared
the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles."
He was found guilty, and sentenced to ten years in prison by a
judge who denounced those "who would strike the sword from
the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself
against a foreign and brutal power."
In court, Debs had refused to call any witnesses, declaring:
"I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it.
I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone." Before
sentencing, Debs spoke to judge and jury, uttering perhaps his
most famous words (in his home town of Terre Haute, Indiana, recently,
I was among two hundred people gathered to honor Debs' memory,
who began the evening by reciting those words, words which moved
me deeply when I first read them): "While there is a lower
class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of
it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The "liberal" Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for
a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict, on the ground that
Debs' speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. The
"liberal" Woodrow Wilson, with the war over, and Debs
still in prison, sixty-five, and in poor health, turned down his
Attorney General's recommendation that Debs be released. He was
in prison for thirty two months, and then in 1921, the Republican
Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day.
Today, when capitalism, "the free market," "private
enterprise," are being hailed as triumphant in the world,
as the system to be exported to every part of the world, it is
a good time to remember Debs, and to rekindle, the idea of socialism.
To see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a sign of
the failure of socialism, is to mistake the monstrous tyranny
created by Stalin for the vision of an egalitarian and democratic
society which has inspired enormous numbers of people all over
the world. Indeed, the removal of the Soviet Union as the false
surrogate for the idea of socialism creates a great opportunity.
We can now reintroduce genuine socialism to a world feeling the
sickness of capitalism-its nationalist hatreds, its perpetual
warfare, riches for a small number of people in a small number
of countries, and hunger, homelessness, insecurity for everyone
Here in the United States we should recall that enthusiasm
for socialism-production for use instead of profit, economic and
social equality, solidarity with our brothers and sisters all
over the world- was at its height before the Soviet Union came
In the era of Debs, the first seventeen years of the twentieth
century-until war created an opportunity to crush the movement-millions
of Americans declared their adherence to the principles of socialism.
Those were years of bitter labor struggles, the great walkouts
of women garment workers in New York, the victorious multi-ethnic
strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the unbelievable
courage of coal miners in Colorado, defying the power and wealth
of the Rockefellers. The I.W.W. was born-revolutionary, militant,
demanding "one big union" for everyone, skilled and
unskilled, black and white, men and women, native-born and foreign-born.
Over a million people read the "Appeal to Reason"
and other socialist newspapers. In proportion to population, it
would be as if today, over three million Americans read a socialist
press. The party had 100,000 members, and twelve hundred office-holders
in 340 municipalities. Socialism was especially strong in the
Southwest, among tenant farmers, railroad workers, coal miners,
lumberjacks. Oklahoma, home of the fiery Kate Richards O'Hare
(jailed for opposing the war, she hurled a book through a skylight
to bring fresh air into the foul-smelling jail block, bringing
cheers from her fellow inmates) had 12,000 dues paying members
in 1914 and over a hundred socialists in local offices.
The point of recalling all this is to remind us of the powerful
appeal of the socialist idea to people alienated from the political
system and aware of the growing stark disparities in income and
wealth-as so many Americans are today. The word itself-"socialism"-may
still carry the distortions of recent experience in bad places
usurping the name. But anyone who goes around the country, or
reads carefully the public opinion surveys over the past decade,
can see that huge numbers of Americans agree on what should be
the fundamental elements of a decent society: guaranteed food,
housing, medical care for everyone; bread and butter as better
guarantees of "national security" than guns and bombs,
democratic control of corporate power, equal rights for all races,
genders and sexual orientations, a recognition of the rights of
immigrants as the unrecognized counterparts of our parents and
grandparents,, the rejection of war and violence as solutions
for tyranny and injustice.
There are people fearful of the word, all along the political
spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination
to hold up before a troubled public those ideas which are both
bold and inviting, the more bold the more inviting. That's what
the remembering of Debs and the socialist idea can do for us.
Zinn On History