Eugene V Debs (1855-1926), a heroic revolutionary socialist, did as much as anyone to make socialist ideas and politics an important current in the US working class movement.
Debs was born just before the American Civil War, with the country on the brink of massive social transition and rapid industrialisation.
He became a railway worker when they were emerging into what the historian Mike Davis calls the “social vanguard” of the US working class.
Playing a role in major class struggles, he developed into a courageous and militant trade union leader and indeed the “father” of American socialism.
A gathering of small socialist parties invited Debs to stand as their candidate for president in 1900.
Though he wrote that, “I wish no office, no honours—empty baubles all,” he reluctantly accepted the nomination.
He won around 90,000 votes.
The new Socialist Party of America was officially launched in 1901—the first mass socialist party in the US history.
Debs put his oratorical powers at the party’s disposal, visiting every state during the 1904 presidential election campaign.
Debs spoke directly to workers’ common experience of suffering from exploitation, and named the main enemy responsible—capitalism.
Crowds flocked to hear him, and the Socialist vote quadrupled to over 400,000.
Debs fought for socialism outside of election periods too.
He devoted himself to building up unions among unorganised sections of the working class, which at the time was often a rather dangerous business.
In 1905, he helped helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant union movement.
“Give me the rank and file every day in the week,” he insisted. “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
In 1908, Debs enthralled his mass working class audiences—often several thousand strong—with his optimistic vision about the “rising sun of socialism”.
One of Debs’ outstanding achievements was that he helped to humanise and clarify the meaning of socialism itself.
For him, if not for the reformists who came to dominate the Socialist Party, socialism was something that could only come through the self-activity of working people themselves.
“You will never vote the Socialist Republic into existence,” Debs noted.
“You will have to lay its foundations in industrial democracy.”
Debs always stood fervently against any attempt to get votes on the cheap by compromising fundamental socialist principles for the sake of fake “popularity”.
By the time of the 1912 presidential elections, the influence of the Socialist Party had grown and established itself.
It now had elected representatives, around 120,000 members and hundreds of publications.
Debs won more than 900,000 votes when he ran for the White House in that year—a remarkable 6 percent.
Despite ill health resulting from physical exhaustion, Debs, whose personal watchwords were “Educate! Agitate! Organise!” never rested.
He was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918 after he made a great revolutionary speech in Canton, Ohio.
He had opposed the US’s participation in the First World War and championed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
He declared in his statement to the court, “Years ago I recognised my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest of the earth.
“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.”
He ran for president for the fifth and final time in 1920, from his prison cell. He polled almost a million votes, a testament to his devotion to the struggles of the exploited and oppressed.
His electoral campaigns at least partially vindicated his own unflinching faith in the power of the working class.
They also leave an encouraging and inspiring practical example from which much can be learnt.
As Debs, a socialist who embodied the spirit of revolutionary democracy at the heart of class struggles, urged, “Vote as you strike and strike as you vote.”
After all, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want and get it.”