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The Midwestern Socialist

By: 
R. Burke

After nearly a century, it seems that the idea of Socialism is finally gaining popular appeal. Almost 40 years of Neoliberal economic orthodoxy is taking a toll upon society and the environment. Growing inequality, anthropogenic climate change, endless wars, financial crises, and a government more responsive to the needs of the capitalist class than those of the masses, among other things, is causing people to look more critically towards capitalism. Younger people, the first generation in the US that cannot expect to do better than their parents economically, are becoming more sympathetic to a socialist alternative. In their new book Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, Noah Van Sciver, Paul Buhle, and Steve Max remind us of a time in history when the socialist movement first became a force on the U.S. political scene.

Born to immigrants of Alsatian origin in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, young Debs was named for two French novelists: Eugene Sue & Victor Hugo. Contrary to the stereotypes prevalent in contemporary culture, it is clear that the socialist movement of the late 19th& early 20thcentury had its roots deep in the soil of the American Midwest. The authors point out that John Chapman, known as “Johnny Appleseed,” had died in the nearby town of Fort Worth only a decade previous to Eugene’s birth. Debs’ Socialism grew directly out of the conditions faced by the Midwestern workers of the time. Indeed young Eugene would decide to quit school in order to help support his struggling family by getting a job as a painter with the Vandalia railroad line. In 1873, during what was the worst depression to hit the US, Debs was fired from his job. He then went to St. Louis, which in 1877 was the center of a general strike against the railroads, one that was crushed by federal troops.

Returning to Terre Haute, Debs was able to find work on the railroad again. He promptly joined a union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, where he quickly became the grand secretary and editor of the Locomotive Fireman’s Magazine. At this time a growing sympathy for radical ideals began to emerge. The authors mention his personal acquaintance with figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Robert G. Ingersoll, the “great free thinker of America.” In 1884 Debs served a single term in the Indiana General Assembly as a Democratic state representative. Here he began to recognize the limitations of attempting to work within the Democratic Party, a dilemma that many American Socialists would have to grapple with over the next century or so.

Deciding to concentrate on his union activities, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen soon doubled its membership to 5,000. The authors point out that Debs worked to overcome class, regional and religious divisions amongst railroad workers. Marrying Katherine Menzel in 1885 Debs and his wife embarked on “an expensive honeymoon that leaves them broke” on their return home. Kate Debs would always complain about the way he would give away his money to unemployed railway workers. With such a generous spirit, it is no wonder that he would later come to read Edward Bellamy’s classic Looking Backwards, that depicted a 21st century socialist United States.

After a number of failed strikes Debs came to realize that this was due to the failure of railroad craft unions to support each other’s actions. Thus in 1893 the American Railway Union was founded to unite the separate craft unions, and Debs became its first president. This led to a successful strike against the Great Northern Line, but in 1894 Debs was sent to jail for six months for advocating a general strike against the Pullman company. In jail he read Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, and became a socialist. In I895 he became the leader of the new Social Democratic Party of America and in 1900 was its presidential candidate.

In 1901 the Social Democratic Party and former members of the Socialist Labor Party merged to form the Socialist Party of America. Debs was the presidential candidate in 1904 and again in 1908. In between these campaigns he was one of the founders, along with the Western Federation of Miners leader Big Bill Haywood, of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1912 he again ran for president, winning more than 901,000 votes at a time when the Socialist Party of America was at its greatest strength of 118, 000 members. 

The fortunes of the Socialist Party, and of Debs himself, changed after the entry of the US into the First World War. Unlike socialist parties in Europe, American socialists were more determined to oppose an clearly imperialist war. In April of 1917 the party pledged “unalterable, continuous, active, and public opposition to the war and conscription” at a meeting in St. Louis. Debs had been unwell and did not attend that meeting, but was in full support of the St. Louis platform. When he stated his opposition to the war in a speech in Canton, Ohio he was arrested and sent to prison for violating the Sedition and Espionage acts. His final presidential campaign in 1920 was run while he was in prison. He received nearly 1,000,000 votes, the high point for socialist electoral politics in the US. 

The final section of Eugene V. Debs: a Graphic Biographyis devoted to tracing the fortunes of Debs’ Socialist Party and the tradition that attempted to carry on his legacy. After the Bolshevik Revolution many socialists flocked to the fledgling communist movement, inspired by the success of the revolution in Russia. This sapped the strength of the Socialist Party of America. Debs’ mantle was taken over by Norman Thomas, who would come to be known as ‘Mr. Socialism’ to a US audience. The party would never regain its former strength. After the Second World War many socialists compromised themselves by throwing aside their opposition to imperialism, and supporting the Cold War era foreign policy of the US government. Some, such as Democratic Socialists of America leader Michael Harrington, would belatedly come to oppose the Vietnam War, but only after years of antagonizing younger members of the burgeoning New Left.

Eugene V. Debs: a Graphic Biography is an easily read and informative ‘beginners guide’ to the history of Debs, his party and the tradition associated with him. As Americans, particularly younger people, begin to look with greater favor on socialist politics this book is quite welcome. It is however a largely nostalgic look at a time past that is unlikely to be repeated. Debs remains an inspiring figure for his commitment to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, but the tradition of Democratic Socialism that claims his legacy is today mostly involved in attempting to push the Democratic Party leftwards. While I wish them luck in doing so, it is hard to escape the apprehension that it is unlikely that a party that is essentially a tool of corporate capitalism can be remade as a vehicle for socialism. I think it highly likely that over the next decade many of the new Democratic Socialists will come to realize that it will be necessary to break with the Democrats and form a new party, much as the Republican Party originated in a break with the Whigs in the 19thcentury. If that were to happen, then we could truly say that the revolutionary legacy of Eugene Victor Debs is alive and well.

Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography

Art by Noah Van Scriber; Script by Paul Buhle and Steve Max with Dave Nance

ISBN-13: 978-1-78663-687-4

Verso Books, London, 2019

128 pages

$19.95

Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis.