We’re all socialists now? If so, then where is our Eugene Debs?

OK, Guerrilla Historians, let’s be clear. Do we really live in a new age of Americn socialism?

If so, then here’s my question: Where is our Eugene Debs?

Yes, after months of government bailouts of banks, investment firms, insurance giants, car companies, and all the rest, it sure looks a lot like public control of the means of production. But that kind of talk is European socialism. Don’t forget, in America, we had our own home-grown brand, articulated by the likes of Big Bill Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), Emma Goldman (who perferred being called Anarchist and was highly disillisioned by Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and its clearest, most articulate voice of all, Eugene Debs.

Debs ran for president five times as a socialist, winning almost a million votes — six percent of the total popular count — both in 1912 and 1920 (even though in 1920 he ran from a Federal prison cell). Debs avoided esoteric theory. He defined his socialism in terms of justice, community, solidarity, and self-reliance, stemming from Jefferson and Lincoln as much as Marx or Engels. That’s why he was so popular, not in universities, but in the American heartland and in working and immigrant neighborhoods.

To Debs, the evil of capitalism was no abstraction. Debs formed his peculiar view of socialism after leading the epic Pullman Palace Car strike of 1894, started as strictly non-violent and ultimately crushed by vigilantees, detectives, and Federal troops. Debs himself was jailed in the affair for violating an injunction, and that was where we first read Karl Marx. Debs would go to prison again, in 1918, convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the draft and suppression of free speech during World War I.

This was the age of sweat shops and worse, long before basic health and safety rules, pensions, or worker rights. Resisters like Debs risked being blacklisted, jailed, or lynched. The rise of labor back then was the great civil rights / human rights struggle of the age.

Our society in 2009 has changed dramatically from Eugene Debs’s America a century ago. But if we all now have to become socialists to get through the current economic collapse, then I at least want a leader like Debs, a socialist not ashamed of the name, willing to fight as an underdog, prepared to sacrifice personal freedom for principle, and able, through his speeches, to inspire his followers to march cheerfully to the barricades.

If you think I’m a fan, I can’t deny the obvious. Here are two great recent books about Debs that might win you over too:

Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg and
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore.
— Hear his voice on YouTube.