Socialist Worker

US elections - before Bernie Sanders came Eugene Debs

Bernie Sanders is not the first person to define themselves as a socialist and make a big electoral impact in the US. Charlie Kimber looks at Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair

Issue No. 2498

Eugene Debs speaking to trade unionists as a socialist candidate in 1912

Eugene Debs speaking to trade unionists as a socialist candidate in 1912 (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)

Eugene Debs, was jailed twice—once for leading a strike, once for speaking out against imperialist war.

He was the most successful socialist to stand for US president, winning 6 percent of the national vote in 1912 and nearly a million votes in 1920 when he was in prison.

Debs was a revolutionary who used elections to develop a political movement based on the struggles of working people.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution he declared, “From the top of my head to the soles of my shoes, I am a Bolshevik.”

Born in 1855 to migrant parents, he left school at 14 and worked on the railways. He was active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen union and became an official.

In 1885 he was elected to the Indiana state assembly as a Democrat.

Debs’ experience in 1888 of a bitter strike broken by scabbing and repression convinced him of the need for a union that reached out to “unskilled” workers.

In 1893 he founded the American Railway Union that was soon involved in the great Pullman strike against the company that operated most of the country’s railroads. It soon became the biggest strike in US history at the time.

The bosses used hired gunmen to intimidate strikers (13 were shot dead) and the government won an injunction to halt the strike. Debs was convicted of defying the injunction and jailed for six months.

While inside he avidly consumed socialist literature, including Karl Marx’s Capital. Debs said Capital “set the wires humming in my system”.

He emerged from prison at the age of 40 as a revolutionary, and had broken forever from the Democrats.

He helped to bring together groups of socialists and in 1900 ran for president, gaining less than 1 percent of the vote.


He didn’t believe that elections would bring socialism, and later denounced the “sewer socialists” who compromised to win local office and bring in minor reforms.

He was also suspicious of leaders, saying, “I do not want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are.

“I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.”

His vision was that, “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

Debs spent most of his time organising and supporting struggle. He was one of the instigators of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union.

But he did think elections, and political struggle more generally, could boost the battles in workplaces and localities.

Against those who wanted to just build unions, Debs argued, “Some say politics means destruction to labour organisation but the reverse is the fact.”

Debs refused to make concessions to racism in order to win votes. He said, “The man who seeks to arouse prejudice among workingmen is not their friend. He who advises the white wage worker to look down upon the black wage-worker is the enemy of both.” He would not speak to segregated audiences.

Women garment workers in New York in 1910 during the uprising of the 20,000

Women garment workers in New York in 1910 during the 'uprising of the 20,000'

He ran again in 1904 (gaining 3 percent of the vote) and 1908 (3 percent again). Then came a great upsurge in struggle as major strikes swept the US from 1909 to 1913. The IWW led local general strikes in Lawrence and Patterson.

Debs’ 1912 campaign was part of this movement. He campaigned across the country, drawing in huge crowds who would gladly listen to him speak for two hours. He won 6 percent of the vote, the highest figure ever for a socialist.


His Socialist Party of America (SPA) had real roots. US labour historian Melvyn Dubofsky writes, “By 1914 the party had elected two members of Congress, and counted a membership of over 100,000.

“At various times between 1910 and 1916 the SPA controlled municipal governments in Schenectady, New York; Reading, Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dayton and Toledo, Ohio; Granite City, Illinois; Butte, Montana; Berkeley, California, and numerous other cities.”

As in every other part of the world, the First World War divided socialists.

Debs was utterly against the slaughter and agitated against it. In 1918 he made a speech against the call-up for the military and was arrested on ten counts of sedition. He was sentenced to ten years in jail.

After conviction he spoke from the dock. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence,” he said.

“Years ago I recognised my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth.

“I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

From prison he secured nearly a million votes in the 1920 election, an extraordinary tribute to his popularity. But prison broke his health and he died in 1926.

The challenge again is to build a movement and a party that are separate from what Debs denounced as “the Republican-Democratic party” which represents “the capitalist class in the class struggle.

As Debs said, “They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Watch Bernie Sanders’ 1979 documentary on Eugene Debs

How Upton Sinclair connected with a radicalising US in 1934

Upton Sinclair was already a famous socialist writer when he ran to be California governor in 1934.

His novel The Jungle exposed the appalling and dangerous conditions in the Chicago meat industry.

Later ones tore into Wall Street financiers, the oil industry and the idle rich.

He supported Debs’ Socialist Party for a while and was hurled further into activity by the mass unemployment of the 1930s depression.

“To me the remedy was obvious,” he wrote. “The factories were idle and the workers had no money.

“Let them be put to work on the state’s credit and produce goods for their own use, and set up a system of exchange by which the goods could be distributed.”

Sinclair had run for governor of California as a socialist, and won small votes. His friends convinced him to run again—as a Democrat. He launched the End Poverty in California (EPIC) plan.

It called on the state to put unemployed people to work in co-operatives dedicated to “production for use, not for profit”.


It was not an openly socialist campaign but it was rooted in wide scale mobilisation and threatened to encroach on the wealth of the elite.

The year 1934 saw three great strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo which electrified the working class. The US was radicalising.

The establishment was terrified that someone who at least partially reflected the gathering anti-capitalist fury could be elected.

But Sinclair’s most dangerous opponents were the Democratic establishment. Fearful of being labelled as “reds”, they turned on him.

Some did a deal with his opponent and some funded a liberal Progressive party to channel votes away from Sinclair.

Despite all this Sinclair nearly won, gaining 37 percent of the vote.

Reeling from the attacks on him, Sinclair learned the wrong lessons. “The American people will take socialism, but they won’t take the label.

“Our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.”

In fact his campaign had shown the support for radical ideas, but that the Democratic party was a dead-end.

Read more

  • Statement to the Court, 1918 by Eugene Debs
  • Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs, £14
  • Fighting Back by John Newsinger, £12
  • Occupy! A short history of workers’ occupations by Dave Sherry, £5

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