Bernie Sanders, who’s come closest than any other socialist to the White House, is a mayor-turned-congressman-turned-senator. His closest counterpart ran for the presidency from an Atlanta prison cell in one election, garnered 6 percent of the national vote in another, and still inspires the left 104 years after his greatest ballot-box success.
Sanders himself has called Eugene V. Debs “probably the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.”
Gleaned from biographies dating back to 1949, here are 5 surprising facts about Debs, aka Convict 9653, aka the most famous American political prisoner, aka one of the most successful independent candidates for president in US history.
1. He wasn’t exactly a political outsider
Debs the socialist was a product of Debs the Democratic politician. He actually served a term in the Indiana legislature in the 1880s.
Before that, he’d been a high-school drop out from Terre Haute, Ind., who began working on the railroads at the age of 14.
The Pullman railroad strike in 1894 changed his political beliefs for good. He led the strike action against railroad companies, convincing 150,000 workers to walk off the job. Debs managed to halt the rail system in much of the country for days. But the federal government quashed the strike with “court injunctions, guns and prisons,” writes Ernest Freeberg in his 2008 book “Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War and the Right to Dissent.”
As a result, Debs abandoned the Democratic Party because he believed, as Freeberg puts it, that “an unholy alliance between government and capitalism was subverting American democracy.” The press, the legal system, and the government all worked against workers, he believed, and it was his job to fight back.
2. He could be quite the bigot
Debs loved to tell jokes in black dialect, and he failed to stand up for the rights of African-Americans in his early years as a union activist. Nick Salvatore, author of 1982’s “Eugene V. Debs; Citizen and Socialist,” writes that he supported keeping blacks out of jobs in the South, and he stood in favor of segregation on trains.
He also dismissed and insulted Italians, Chinese, Jews, and immigrants in general. “The most difficult problem Debs encountered centered on the issue of race and nationality,” Salvatore writes, because he definitively linked the labor movement to one group – Anglo-Saxon men.
But Debs did evolve on racial issues, at least to a degree. While some leaders of the Socialist Party were racists, Debs became convinced “that white workingmen would be exploited so long as the Negroes were held in an inferior position,” writes Ray Ginger in the 1949 biography “Bending Cross.” He stood up against some racism, but “refused to concede that poor Negroes were in a worse position than poor white people.”
3. He was no fringe candidate.
In 1895, 100,000 people flocked to see Debs at a train depot in Chicago after he’d become a hero (and served a jail term) after the Pullman strike. Years later, a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden gave him a standing-ovation for 29 minutes in 1912.
Debs was especially popular in progressive Midwestern and Western states. In 1912, the year of his best performance at the ballot box, he drew an impressive 6 percent of the vote in a field of 4 major candidates. He garnered 16 percent of the vote in Nevada and Oklahoma, 10-13 percent in Arizona, California, Montana, Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho, and 8 percent in Ohio, North Dakota, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
And in the Democratic stronghold of Florida, he got more votes than both Teddy Roosevelt, who’d split from the Republican Party, and GOP incumbent William Howard Taft.
But in Vermont, now Bernie Sanders country, he drew just 1 percent of the vote.
4. He was conflicted over Communism.
Debs was sympathetic in some ways to the Communist movement, and he once wrote an article praising Bolsheviks who “have stood with more than Spartan courage against the foul assaults of the whole criminal capitalist world.” And he agreed with Vladimir Lenin that the Russian revolution required capitalists to lose their civil liberties: “[T]he revolution must protect itself.... I heartily support the Russian revolution without reservation.”
But, as Ginger writes in “Bending Cross,” Debs wasn’t swayed by Marxism, and he began to despise the strict discipline within the US Communist movement: “He had always ignored the official policies of his party, making up his own policies as he went along.” By 1924, he saw Communists as enemies, not allies and was disturbed by the excesses in the Soviet Union.
5. He went from prison to the White House.
Debs made a stand for freedom during World War I, and the price he paid may have been his life.
The trouble began in Ohio in 1918 when he spoke at a rally against the war, saying that the working class shed the blood on the battlefield without a voice in declaring war. “If war is right,” he said, “let it be declared by the people....”
His enemies believed he’d crossed the line into unlawful language, with one editor calling him a “treasonably-inclined blatherskite.” Prosecutors took him to trial in Cleveland, and a jury convicted him of incitement and provoking resistance. The Christian Science Monitor was not sympathetic to Debs, saying he’d abused the rights granted by a tolerant American majority. Off to prison he went.
He wouldn’t leave until President Warren Harding commuted his sentence in 1921 after winning the 1920 election; Debs got few votes from behind bars. Amazingly, Debs actually got to meet with the president at the White House upon leaving prison, and he told Harding that he wouldn’t stop standing up for his beliefs.
The time in prison wrecked his health, and he did not recover. Debs died in 1926 at the age of 70. As Salvatore puts it in “Citizen and Socialist,” he’d touched “his fellow citizens with a power and immediacy that has rarely been equaled.”
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.