“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.” 

If you are a fan of Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders like I am, then I hope you will enjoy and learn from my next Groundbreaker, Eugene V. Debs. In fact, if you are a fan of Bernie, you should know about Debs, as he is the man who inspired Bernie. Though he isn’t exactly like Debs, there still might not be the Bernie we know without him.

So who was Eugene Debs? Maybe you’ve heard about him in a history class or textbook, as the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America. I remember him occupying maybe a paragraph in my high school history books, but that was about it. But he should be taught more extensively than he is, and as we will see, his beliefs are probably the reason he isn’t. In short, Debs was a bad-ass, ahead of his time in many ways.

And yes, as you’ve noticed by looking at his picture, he is white, and my usual practice is to profile Groundbreakers who are non-white, non-male, and other marginalized groups. But Debs is a rare exception to that rule, as he fought for most of his adult life for the rights of poor, working people.

Eugene Victor Debs was born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. After dropping out of high school when he was 14, he started working for a railroad company. He eventually realized that the railroad brotherhoods did not have the real interests of the workers, especially less skilled workers, at heart.

He helped found the American Railway Union in 1893, which was open to all railway workers, not just skilled workers. The ARU gained as many as 150,000 members nationally, making it one of the largest unions in the country. Perhaps most importantly, Debs wanted to include black members in the union, but was overruled by a vote. The railway workers went on strike, known as the Pullman Strike, for 18 days, which won them a significant wage increase. But the rich and powerful bosses were spooked, and did all they could to gut the power of unions so that such a strike would never happen again. Debs believed excluding black railway workers negatively affected the effort, since they were understandably unwilling to work with their white counterparts (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States).

Debs was sent to prison for 6 months for defying an injunction, and the union was busted. It was in prison where he began reading socialist literature, including Marx’s Das Kapital. He went from a Democrat and full believer in the capitalist system to a full-blown Socialist by the time he left prison.

In 1905, Debs was part of a group that helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago. The IWW was for workers who wanted more radical change than was being offered by large unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and to include workers of any sex, race, or skill level. They believed in direct action instead of making contracts with employers, since this would prevent labor leaders from striking corrupt deals with employers or, worse, politicians. The workers would be in charge, a true democracy (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States). The membership was never high, but their message and legacy had an important effect on labor in the early 20th century, and the union still exists today.

The part of Debs’ life that is perhaps most impressive is what could be called his career of running for president. He ran for president 5 times on the Socialist Party of America ticket, which was formed from the remnants of the ARU: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He did better each time he ran: starting with 87,945 votes in 1900, 420,810 votes in 1904, 420,852 in 1908, and 901,551 in 1912.

And in a move of extra bad-assery, in 1920 he ran while serving a ten-year term in prison for speaking out against World War I. His speech railed against the ruling class who always declares war, while the working class must sacrifice everything. He was convicted of violating Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a case decided by the Supreme Court. It was outlandishly argued that his speech, which should supposedly be protected by the First Amendment, obstructed enlistment in the military for the war, and promoted disobedience by those already there.

He accomplished his last presidential campaign by releasing one press release per week, and in an era before the internet, received 913,693 votes, which is the most ever earned by a Socialist candidate. Not bad for running a campaign from prison! He never won any electoral votes and received a small percentage of the popular vote, but did pretty well while always up against the bankrolled Democrats and Republicans (sound familiar?).

In 1921, at age 66, Debs was pardoned for his “crime” of protesting the war by President Warren G. Harding, and returned home to Terre Haute. He was celebrated upon his return home because of his ultimate commitment to fighting for the people and the workers. He died in 1926 at the age of 70.

Debs’ legacy is important in so many ways, both to the early 20th century and even today. Due to his work, the Socialists had 100,000 members in America and controlled the governments of 33 cities in 1912. There was even a Socialist serving in Congress. Unfortunately this was the high watermark, as this changed once WWI broke out, since Socialists were against the war. Since it was illegal to be against the war due to the Espionage Act, many Socialists lost their jobs and were imprisoned, like Debs. The only war Debs supported was the one for the Socialist cause.

The issues Debs was talking about and fighting for are still a long way from being solved today: fairness for workers, inclusion of all workers in efforts, union busting, and the gap between rich and poor, just to name a few. Bernie Sanders has taken up many of these causes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, following in the footsteps of his hero, Debs. And Bernie came even closer to being president than Debs did (rant for another day), but just imagine what Debs could have done if he was even a congressman or Senator, much less President! Bernie would be the first to say that he stands on the shoulders of Debs, as he lay the groundwork for so much of what has made Bernie popular over the past 40 years. And they probably would have their differences in policy, but much of the overall message is the same. What is particularly fascinating is that despite the message we often hear that we are a capitalist, center-right country, Debs still had a fair amount of support for his policies that simply wanted to improve the lot of the American worker. Despite all the noise, those policies have always been popular.

I find Debs such a fascinating and significant figure in American history, and someone to look to in these troubling times. I will admit that I’ve been having an especially rough time dealing with what has been happening over the past few weeks. But working on this blog helps me cope in some small way, since it helps remind me that there have always been people who fought against the bad stuff. And though days like today make me feel like we’ve made little progress over the years, the Groundbreakers remind me of the progress that has been made due to ordinary people fighting and not giving up. That, to me, is the most important thing Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders have in common: no matter how much BS they’ve had to face, they just keep on fighting.

“…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.”

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Eugene Debs interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.




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