Eugene Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio in 1918. He was arrested shortly thereafter on charges of sedition. CREDIT: <a href=""> Domain</a>
Eugene Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio in 1918. He was arrested shortly thereafter on charges of sedition. CREDIT: Domain

The Crack-Up: Eugene Debs & the Origins of Socialism in the U.S., with Maurice Isserman

Jul 8, 2019

Hamilton College's Maurice Isserman and historian Ted Widmer discuss American socialism in the early 1900s and the influence of Eugene Debs, a politician and trade unionist who received nearly a million votes for president in 1912. How did this movement influence Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement? What's the difference between Debs and Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, a podcast series about the year 1919 and the way it continues to affect us.

We're delighted today to be speaking with Maurice Isserman, professor of history at Hamilton College.

Thank you so much for being here, Maurice.


TED WIDMER: You wrote a wonderful piece about a presidential candidate who isn't taught that widely in American grade schools or high schools but played a very important role in the early history of the 20th century, Eugene Debs. Can you tell us how you first got interested in Debs?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I discovered Debs myself when I was an undergraduate history major. I hadn't known much about the history of American socialism. This was 1968, so I was interested in the history of American radicalism. But, like many young activists in the 1960s, I sort of thought we had invented the wheel, and I looked back in history and discovered that no, we hadn't. We had these predecessors, including Eugene Debs, who ran five times as the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in what was the high point for the influence of democratic socialism in the United States, a term we hear a great deal about these days because of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).

But it has a really interesting history, especially in the period from about 1900 through the First World War, so the period I was considering in my op-ed for the Times. Debs came out of the labor movement; he had been a leader of a railroad union. Railroads were very important in the history of American labor and unions in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Debs underwent a conversion to socialism around the turn of the century. He had been a Democrat—he had actually been elected to the Indiana State Legislature as a Democratic candidate—and then had been a populist.

In 1900 he took part in the foundation of a new Socialist Party of the United States, which began with about 10,000 members and by 1912 had grown to 100,000 members. He ran for president beginning that year and had won about 100,000 votes. By 1912 he received nearly a million votes, which was about 6 percent of the total, and in some states he went into double digits—and not the states you necessarily would think of. Oklahoma was actually the state in which the Debs campaign attracted the highest percentage of voters. He also had support in places you'd expect, like the Lower East Side of New York, Milwaukee, and other immigrant communities. So this was a very diverse movement with national strength across the continent. Very strong in the Pacific Northwest and California, in mining communities in the West.

Debs was a really quintessentially American figure. He was the child of French immigrants, but he was born in Terre Haute, grew up there, schooled there. His version of American socialism was very much spoken in an American idiom. He was not particularly religious himself, but he had schooled himself reading the King James Bible growing up and his eloquent speeches often drew upon that scriptural tradition.

TED WIDMER: You mean the New Testament mainly?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, Old and New Testaments. He was very much regarded by his followers as a prophetic figure, as a kind of a prophet. He was looking down the road to the new world and he was summoning up what he thought was the best of the American experience and tradition as the basis for what he saw as a higher form of democracy, democratic socialism.

TED WIDMER: We've already heard, even though the 2020 campaign is just in the earliest stages, but Pete Buttigieg has been talking about religion and thinking about it from this perspective I think you're talking about, about caring for the poor and the elderly, a vision for the whole society.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Yes. Coming from Indiana, maybe he's drawing on some of those same strains in the culture that link prophetic religion with a radical—well, I don't think Buttigieg's vision of the future is all that radical—but with a reformist aim.


Is Terre Haute a factory town? What kind of household does he grow up in?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: His father was a grocer. It was an industrial town and a railroads crossroad, which is how he got a job starting at, I think, age 15. He dropped out of school to help support the family, as many young men would have done in that era, and he worked his way up. He became a skilled railroad worker, and then became involved in trade union activism.

He was involved in what's called a craft union. Craft unions organize people of a certain skill. They don't try to organize everybody who works in a particular industry. But through his experiences in labor organizing he became a convert to the notion of industrial unionism. In an industrial union—the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers—everybody in a particular workplace will belong to the same union.

In the 1890s he founded an important organization called the American Railway Union, which quickly grew to over 100,000 members and was involved in epic labor struggles—the Pullman strike of 1894, which was lost, like many epic labor struggles tended to be. Out of that experience and some other experiences in the later 19th century, he was drawn to the vision of socialism, which was an international movement, had a vision of international solidarity of all the workers, and for a while seemed to really be the wave of the future. It was growing very strong parties in Western Europe and in other parts of the world. The American Socialist Party took its place in this international upheaval and challenge to capitalism.

TED WIDMER: As Debs is evolving from craft unions to industrial unions, is that in response to circumstances around the labor strikes you mentioned (Pullman), or is he reading on European strategies, or a mixture of the two?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I think he was reacting to changes in American society. The average factory before the Civil War had about 10 employees. In the aftermath of the Civil War you suddenly get giant steelworks and chemical works, the railroads of course had thousands of employees. The old idea—Lincoln's idea and before him Benjamin Franklin's idea—that any skilled workman could become self-employed, could open up his own workshop, manufacture shoes, and hire other young promising men to work for him, and they in turn would go on to become independent, that was fading. If you go to work in a steel mill, even if you're a skilled worker, you're never going to open up your own steel mill.

So what Debs thought was that Americans were becoming dependent upon their employers, they were at the mercy of their employers, in this new hugely expanding industrial economy. The United States is becoming the foremost industrial power in the world in the years leading up to the First World War. So he thought that circumstances had changed.

Had he been born before the Civil War, he might well have shared Lincoln's optimism about social mobility. But he saw that this was no longer possible, he believed this was no longer possible, and the only way you could restore the independence and the citizenship in the largest sense of that term that Americans had enjoyed prior to this great change in the economy was through cooperation, was through building strong unions, was through electing their own working-class members/brothers to public office, creating new kinds of institutions that drew upon the collective power of many individuals, rather than seeing America simply as an arena in which rugged individuals made their own way forward.

TED WIDMER: Right. So when does a political strategy start to emerge and when does he begin to think about the presidency?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Lots of small parties put forward presidential candidates in the late-19th century—the Greenback Labor Party, the Populist Party, and so forth. It was not yet ingrained in common wisdom that there was only room for two parties, a Democratic Party and a Republican Party. That would become certainly the norm in the later 20th century. But the political arena still seemed open to a new party emerging. I mean within living memory the Republicans had gone from being a brand-new party supplanting the Whigs to becoming the ruling party. Why not the Socialist Party?

So the Socialist Party in the Debsian era, from 1900 through the First World War, was very much oriented towards electoral politics. It put forth its own candidates at every level, from local office, from mayors and city councils; to state level; to federal level.

There are now two members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a descendant group from Debs' Socialist Party, sitting in Congress, and in the Debsian era there were two members of the Socialist Party, running as Socialists not as Democrats, elected to Congress, one of them from the Lower East Side of New York and the other from Milwaukee. There were Socialist mayors in places like Butte, Montana, as well as Berkeley, California, and so forth. At one point, I think, there were about 1,000 Socialists who held office at one level or another of government.

So there was—going up to just before the First World War, so up through the 1912 election—this optimism that each year the Socialists grew stronger, their organization grew bigger, various newspapers associated with the Socialist Party had larger and larger readerships, and that this was going to be a kind of automatic progression.

There were revolutionaries, people who thought of themselves as revolutionaries, in the Socialist Party, but they didn't conceive of revolution as something that was going to happen in one fell swoop on the later model of the Bolshevik Revolution, that the masses rise up and they raise the red flag. This was a movement committed to legal democratic (small D) forms of advancing their program.

Of course, that vision comes under severe stress when the First World War breaks out, when the United States in 1917 enters into the First World War.

TED WIDMER: Is there the same fear of foreign influence that we later see after the Russian Revolution and throughout the 20th century? In, say, 1912 is it just a kind of platform of economic security without the fear of a foreign domination; or is there some of that?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Certainly, Socialists' opponents and rivals would point to its international affiliations. It was part of what was called the Socialist International. The British Socialists and the French Socialists and the German Socialists all belonged to an international federation. But these were all independent. This is not like the later Communist International, where all orders came down from Moscow and the national parties around the world got into lockstep.

There were certain principles held in common. One of them was that in the case of a capitalist war—that is to say a war between England and Germany or France and Germany or Germany and Russia—in which the interests of the peoples involved were not represented, wars of aggression, wars for expansion, that workers would stand against their capitalist classes in Germany, in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States. So there was that kind of internationalism.

But there was also independence, which didn't keep opponents against them from saying, "This is un-American; maybe in Germany it makes sense, but it certainly doesn't make sense here," and so forth.

TED WIDMER: There must have been tremendous emotion on both sides as exactly that scenario is happening and huge numbers of impoverished young men from working-class backgrounds are being killed in a war that could be called a "capitalist war."

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right, and it was a very disillusioning moment for Socialists around the world. But in the United States, because the United States wasn't initially involved, instead of that international solidarity kicking in that had been talked about for so long and was celebrated in song and verse, the working classes of England and France and Germany and Russia all went off with a fair amount of enthusiasm for the most part in 1914 to begin slaughtering each other. Their Socialist parties for the most part got into line in Germany and France and Britain.

Not in Russia. Russia was one of those places, like the United States, where the Socialists remained true to that international vision. Of course, in Russia Socialists couldn't operate in the open. The tsarist regime cracked down on them. If you were identified as a Socialist, you were off to Siberia. But they remained true to that anti-war vision through 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power and took Russia out of the war.

TED WIDMER: So where is Debs year-to-year of World War I as a dissenter? It's so hard for each individual. You feel the patriotism, but then you also see the terrible human cost. So how does he move across those years of the war?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: They were difficult years for him. He was not in good health. He was approaching his sixties by that point. For the first time since 1900 he did not run a presidential campaign in 1916. In his absence, the Socialist Party vote dropped. And the slaughter on the Western Front of course was sobering to observe. But the United States was not yet a belligerent, and Woodrow Wilson in 1916 was, as everyone knows, campaigning as "the man who kept us out of war." So being anti-war up through 1916 was not a necessarily damning stance to take, or unpatriotic stance to take.

There were those, like Teddy Roosevelt, who called for preparedness and really called for intervention; if the United States was going to be a great power, then it needed to get into the war. Wilson, after his reelection in 1916, comes to that position. Before that he tried to maintain himself as a neutral arbiter, above the conflict, calling for a "peace without victory" that all sides could agree to. But in the spring of 1917, in response to the resumption of German submarine warfare and other events, he comes to believe that the only way the United States can help end the war is by getting into the war, by becoming a belligerent. That then puts the Socialists in a very different position vis-à-vis the government.

TED WIDMER: What are the acts by which Debs begins to get in real deep water?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Early in the war the government passes something called the Espionage Act, which sounds like it's going to punish people who spy on behalf of the enemy, the definition of espionage. But really it was a measure designed to punish those who opposed the war effort in any way—in public speeches, in writings, and so forth—criminalizing dissent from the war, criminalizing opposition to the war.

For one thing, it was used to suppress the Socialist press. Much of the Socialist press was printed in big cities and sent out by the mails, and the U.S. postmaster, citing the Espionage Act, basically shut down the Socialist press, because it expressed anti-war views. Antiwar magazines, like The Masses, which was published in Greenwich Village—John Reed was associated with that—that was shut down and its editors were tried for violation of the Espionage Act. Individual Socialists at the state level were tried and convicted.

Debs was not immediately affected. He actually felt kind of ashamed that he wasn't more involved. But again, his health wasn't well. He certainly supported the Socialist Party's anti-war position.

But then in 1918 in Canton, Ohio, he gives a speech—he's there to support some local Socialists who were in jail for opposing the war—which is mostly a speech about civil liberties and the necessity to protect civil liberties, but also outlines the traditional Socialist opposition to a capitalist war, really only a couple of paragraphs in a speech that went on for an hour. Speeches in those days tended to run long and crowds saw them as a form of entertainment as well as a form of enlightenment.

Anyway, there were federal agents in the audience writing down his words, and the Justice Department indicts Debs for violating the Espionage Act, which again had nothing to do with espionage but had everything to do with free expression, which you would think would be constitutionally guaranteed.

He goes to trial and is convicted, and in the spring of 1919 he is carted off to federal prison, winding up in Atlanta Penitentiary, with a 10-year sentence for having given one speech.

TED WIDMER: That seems extraordinarily punitive. Was that in line with other punishments of that time or was it much heavier?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: No, there were hundreds of members of the Socialist Party, anarchists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was a radical labor federation that Debs had helped start in 1905, who were arrested and imprisoned. Some of them wound up serving longer terms than Debs, many of them received a 10-year sentence.

Debs' sentence is commuted by President Warren G. Harding, a Republican president, who succeeds Woodrow Wilson in 1921. So he only serves about two years in federal penitentiary, but it's a hard two years and his health is broken.

And the Socialist Party's health is broken both by that and by the splits within the radical movement that grew out of the Russian Revolution. Some people said we should emulate the Bolsheviks; they founded a Communist Party.

And so that early promise of democratic socialism in the United States in the Debsian era, 1900 to the First World War, was never restored thereafter. The Socialist Party enjoyed a modest growth under Norman Thomas, who also ran for the presidency numerous times in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but it was never as vital or as large an organization as it had been before the First World War.

TED WIDMER: Can you help me understand how FDR would have been thinking about Debs? He's doing a lot of things where he was accused of being a Socialist or moving the country to the left, but he's pretty clearly not a Socialist. So how do you think about those distinctions?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I don't know if FDR thought much about Debs. He did think about Norman Thomas, who was a fellow New Yorker. He was certainly often accused of carrying out the Socialist platform or carrying out the communist platform. Norman Thomas, the Socialist leader, once famously said, "Yeah, he carried out the Socialist platform on a stretcher."

He took certain aspects of Socialist belief and policy—like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and so forth—and created a rudimentary American social welfare state much more modest than those existing in Western Europe, but his purpose was to save capitalism, not to undermine it.

He was once asked to explain his philosophy, and he said, "I'm a Christian and a Democrat, period." That was what it was. So he certainly did not see himself in the tradition of Debs or Thomas.

It's interesting that Bernie Sanders, when asked his definition of democratic socialism, hearkens back to FDR.


MAURICE ISSERMAN: People have argued—Paul Krugman has argued, I think very cogently, in The Times—that looking at Bernie Sanders' policies, he is really more of a social democrat than a democratic Socialist; that is, someone who basically takes the continued existence of capitalism for granted but wants to make it fairer, wants to create more opportunity, wants to create a more robust safety net, and so forth.

TED WIDMER: You mentioned Social Security. Aren't there ideas in the current political landscape that you can trace back to Debs and his fellow Socialists around 1912?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, certainly a belief in the value of organizing labor. Socialists were involved in creating some of the great industrial unions—the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and so forth, the United Auto Workers (UAW)—the Reuther brothers in the 1930, Walter Reuther and his brothers, who were in the leadership of the United Auto Workers, came out of the Socialist Party and the Socialist movement.

The Democratic Party, which for many years was the Roosevelt coalition or the New Deal coalition, which essentially ran the country from the 1930s up to the early 1970s, had strong ties to the labor movement—in some places, like Michigan, basically the United Auto Workers was the Democratic Party—but kind of forgot about that as American manufacturing shrank, as industrial unions shrank. The UAW today is a shadow of its former self, the United Steel Workers even more so.

So they looked to other constituencies, to Silicon Valley or to Wall Street or to whatever. That was kind of the essence of Bill Clinton's social vision—not that there weren't progressive aspects to that, but he certainly wasn't looking back to the Debs promise or Roosevelt tradition.

I think the through-line today, the heritage, is that democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders and like AOC want the Democratic Party to restore its ties to organized labor, to use political clout on behalf of organized labor, to expand the ranks of organized labor.

Now, that brings up a significant difference though between today's democratic Socialist and the Debsian democratic Socialists. AOC is a congresswoman who is a Democrat. Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. They aren't running as third-party candidates, which was the Debs position and the Norman Thomas position. They thought it was poison to support a bourgeois party, a capitalist party, like the Republicans or the Democrats.

The transition in outlook really comes in the 1960s and the 1970s and it's associated with a third Socialist leader named Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America, the book that sparked the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Harrington talked about being "the left wing of the possible," about building coalitions with labor, with civil rights groups, with feminist groups, with environmentalists, and working within the Democratic Party with progressive forces to push the party leftward.

That is essentially what Bernie Sanders has done and it's what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is doing. So in that sense, although they are in some ways descendants of Eugene Debs, they also have very different political projects.


You mentioned Walter Reuther a moment ago. I remember he was a very important ally of Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement.


TED WIDMER: Does that come out of a kind of colorblindness of the Socialist movement, or can we say that they were imperfect on racial questions?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I think we can say, especially in the Debsian era, they were imperfect. Debs himself wanted to see black workers as well as white workers organized in the same unions. But there were segregated locals in the South, segregated chapters of the Socialist Party.

Debs famously said at one point, "We have no special program for blacks"—except he said "for Negroes" in those days—so the Socialist Party had a kind of universal platform that it welcomed, at least in many places, blacks to join in supporting, but it didn't recognize that African Americans had their own special needs, their own needs to organize separately, their own challenges and dangers they faced that weren't faced universally by other workers, by white workers.

There were some important figures in the black community who became Socialists. W. E. B. Du Bois for a while. The NAACP was partially founded by members of the Socialist Party.

A. Philip Randolph, who becomes an important labor leader as the founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a Socialist in the Debsian era who remained active through the 1930s and into the 1960s; he was the director of the March on Washington in 1963, and his chief organizer was a man named Bayard Rustin, an African American who was also a Socialist. So there is a kind of through-line there.

Martin Luther King never publicly identified himself as a democratic Socialist—he had enough problems as it was, people attacking him as a communist for advocating what would seem the mildest demands for equal treatment and protection before the law—but in private he was quite frank about his belief that capitalism was an inherently unfair and cruel system and that something like democratic socialism—his vision of democratic socialism, of course, very much informed by his Christian beliefs—was desirable. That was a project for down the road.

And we also forget that even in the 1963 March on Washington, most remember for King's "I Have a Dream" speech and so forth, the demands were for freedom but they were also for jobs. "Jobs and Freedom" was the slogan for the March on Washington.

So King always had this other side to his beliefs. He was for civil rights, he was for equal opportunity, but he was very sympathetic to the labor movement and portions of the labor movement were very helpful to him—the United Auto Workers, United Packinghouse Workers of America, Local 1199, and a number of other unions.

TED WIDMER: We're heading toward an election that we all fear and expect will be incredibly divisive.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: That's pretty much a given.

TED WIDMER: It's a given.

So how can we retain a shred of dignity, remembering some of these ideas from 100 years ago, which you resurrected powerfully in your piece—the aspiration of working-class people for decent treatment in the workplace, Social Security, unemployment insurance—without hearing all of the shrill dog-whistle attacks, "socialism, communism, Karl Marx"? How can Democrats on the left avoid that sort of attack and how can Republicans read history a little better than they usually do?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Again, the divisiveness and the attacks are pretty much a given. Every expansion of the social welfare state—from Social Security, to Medicare in the 1960s—has been attacked as Socialist. Ronald Reagan, not yet governor of California but in 1964, attacked Medicare and said it's the first step on the "slippery slope to totalitarianism." Of course, today Medicare is a universally popular program, which is why people like Bernie Sanders and AOC when they talk about universal health care or national health insurance pitch it as "Medicare for all."

So you can't avoid the attacks. You can simply present your ideas as clearly and in as American an idiom—like Debs liked to do—as you can. I think Elizabeth Warren among the presidential candidates is really a master of that ability to talk about ideas in a serious way, which will hopefully—it's not going to turn off the criticism, but it will hopefully overcome it.

In Western Europe, where socialism was much more powerful, socialism is not a bogeyman, it's not a scare word. You don't really get anywhere by saying, "Jeremy Corbyn is a Socialist." Well, of course he's a Socialist; those are his ideas. You can disagree with his ideas, you can reject the Labour Party and support the Conservatives, but it's not because there's a confusion between who Jeremy Corbyn is and who Joseph Stalin is, or between the National Health Service in Britain and the current situation in Venezuela, for example.

TED WIDMER: There's so many strange echoes and ricochets of history at the moment. There always was an implied fear that Russians would be influencing American politics through the left.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: There are definitely ironies here.

TED WIDMER: And yet it's all on the right right now. It feels much more fearful in that direction than anything that would come through the political left.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Yes. With Trump's wink and a nod to Putin about "now don't go interfering in our elections," that reminds us of just how much things have changed, and what the Republican reaction would have been if the situation were reversed and it was Barack Obama playing footsie with the Russian leader. But that's the world we live in.

TED WIDMER: Do you think there will come a moment in the next few years where the accusations of socialism will just run out of gas and it won't be as terrifying a word as it was in the middle of the 20th century?

MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, that has already happened in terms of the younger generation. The public opinion polling shows that as many of the Millennials today are well disposed to the idea of democratic socialism as are well disposed to capitalism. That's something you wouldn't have predicted a decade ago, but many things have intervened—the financial crisis of 2008, the crisis of college debt, the influence of Occupy Wall Street—that seem to have changed the mind of the younger generation. Younger generations tend to become older and more influential and maybe they will carry that—they're not going to move en masse into Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or other Socialist organizations; I don't think that's going to happen—but it might result in the attack on socialism being less potent than it was in the past.

For much of the 20th century the attack on socialism as a concept was tied into the existence of the Soviet Union, which was a genuine threat to national security. But most Americans today were born after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet bogeyman simply is not as scary an image as it once was. And Venezuela is no substitute for the Soviet Union as a scary bogeyman.

TED WIDMER: Well, if we are going to choose a better path forward politically, I feel—and I'm sure you do too—that knowing our history is a pretty healthy way to think through our options.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I certainly agree with that.

TED WIDMER: I'm just so grateful to you for your really erudite and clear explanations of this fascinating part of American history.

MAURICE ISSERMAN: I thank you for the opportunity to talk about it.

TED WIDMER: We've been listening to Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College.

Thank you again, Maurice, for a wonderful conversation.

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