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Socialist who ran for the White house

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
Eugene V Debs won nearly a million votes when he stood for the US presidency in 1912. His campaign has many lessons for today, says Chris Bambery
Issue 1925

Next week US voters will be presented with a choice between two openly pro-war and big business candidates, George Bush and John Kerry. The anti-corporate, pro-union challenger, Ralph Nader, has been barred from even standing in key states like Pennsylvania.

But back in 1912 Eugene V Debs won nearly one million votes in the presidential election campaigning for full blooded socialism and attacking both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Debs argued against simply accepting that the choice was always between one of the two mainstream parties, saying, “With either of these parties in power, one thing is always certain, and that is the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class is under the saddle.”

Debs argued against the idea that all that was possible was to plump for the lesser of two evils, the Democrats. He argued in 1912, “The workers in the mills and factories, in the mines and on the farms and railways, never had a party of their own until the Socialist Party was organised.

“They divided their votes between the parties of their masters. They did not realise they were using their ballots to forge their own fetters.”

Debs won 897,000 votes on election day, 6 percent of the ballot before women had the right to vote. He was the most popular figure in the US socialist movement.

In the 1912 campaign the socialist cause was put in 323 different publications—five dailies, 262 weeklies and ten monthlies, plus 46 publications in foreign languages, of which eight were dailies. The Socialist Party’s membership soared to 117,984.

Five times between 1900 and 1920 Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket. His first campaign in 1900 won the support of the paper Appeal to Reason, whose circulation would reach 600,000.

That year, in a six-week tour, Debs criss-crossed the country in what was described as “the first truly national campaign of the American socialist movement”.

The result was modest—87,000 votes—but in 1904 and 1908 he gathered over 400,000 votes.

In his last challenge in 1920 he campaigned from behind bars. He had been imprisoned for making a speech two years earlier denouncing the First World War. The US had entered the war just months before.

Debs had told a cheering crowd that US democracy was a sham, that the Bolsheviks who had made the 1917 revolution in Russia were right, and that it was the duty of every worker to join the socialists.

For those words he was sentenced to ten years in prison despite being 64 years old. A massive campaign secured his release in 1921.

Right up to his death in 1926 Debs championed socialism and revolution.

James P Cannon was an outstanding figure in the US left in the last century. He was a key organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World union, and a founder of the Communist Party and then of the Trotskyist movement.

Looking back, he wrote of Debs: “He was truly indigenous, about as American as you can get, and he did far more than anyone else to ‘Americanise’ socialism…

“Debs campaigned for the overthrow of capitalism by workers’ revolution, and refused to settle for anything less.

“As he himself expressed it, he ‘determined to stick to the main issue and stay on the main track, no matter how alluring some of the by-ways may appear’.

“In Debs the movement finally found a man who really spoke the language of the country, and who knew how to explain the imported idea of socialism to the American workers in relation to their own experiences.”

Debs speaks

Words that built the fight

‘REACH YOUR fellow workers with the socialist viewpoint.

Tell my comrades that I entered the prison doors a flaming revolutionist, my head erect, my spirit untamed and my soul unconquered.’

On his experience in prison after the First World War

‘You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist for an instant without you. You would just begin to live without him. You do everything and he has everything. You make the automobile, he rides in it. If it were not for you, he would walk and if it were not for him, you would ride.’

Addressing a public meeting in New York City in 1905

‘I am opposed to every war but one. I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.

This is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of the war.’

On being sentenced to ten years jail for treason in 1918

‘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.’

From “When I Shall Fight”, Age to Reason, 11 September 1915

‘I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want and get it.’

On the experience of standing in the presidential elections

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