A million votes for socialism: the story of Eugene Debs, an American radical

Amy Thomas introduces one of the key figures from the hidden history of US radicalism

Barack Obama has broken the hearts of the millions of Americans who voted him into power. As he has spent up to $US14 trillion bailing out the banks, millions have been thrown out of their homes and into poverty.

It is only thanks to these betrayals that the increasingly rabid Republican Party has any chance come November’s elections.

The Occupy movement that emerged last October was a glimpse of an alternative to this electoral merry-go-round. It’s often claimed that the US population is fundamentally conservative. But US history is full of radical movements that challenged the existing political system. One of the most powerful came early last century.

This movement was personified in the life of the legendary Eugene Debs—a union militant and socialist. In 1920, he won one million votes for President for the US Socialist Party—from a prison cell serving time for agitating against the First World War. A master orator, a principled militant and a fighter to the end, Debs inspired thousands of US workers with his vision of a socialist society.

His story is an argument against falling into the trap of “lesser evilism”, of seeing the Democrats as the only alternative to the Republicans, and a testimony to the often-underestimated radical potential of the American working class.


Debs’ political career began as a union militant in a railroad strike in Pullman, Illinois in 1894. Three thousand railroad employees, led by Debs, began a wildcat strike in response to a 28 per cent wage cut, bringing west Chicago to a halt. The workers were locked out, but their stance inspired over 100,000 railroad workers across the nation to refuse to switch Pullman cars onto trains.

The response from the state was fierce. Strikebreakers were called in to break the picket line, mostly blacks desperate for work. The state called in the California militia, but the soldiers refused orders. Then the courts ruled the strike illegal.

Debs called on strikers to respect law and order and offered arbitration to settle the dispute. But instead the government called out state troops to occupy Chicago, who used bayonets and then guns on striking workers. The whole town erupted in defense of the strike, stopping scab trains manned by soldiers by tipping them over.

President Grover then stepped in on the side of the bosses, banning public assemblies in Chicago and several other cities. Debs begged the trade union officials at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for a national strike, but they refused, and the strike was defeated. Thirteen workers were killed in the dispute. Debs was convicted of “contempt of court” and sent to prison for the first time.

In prison, reflecting on his experience and reading the works of Karl Marx, Debs became a socialist. After experiencing the might of the state mobilised against workers, the betrayal of the courts, and the foot-dragging of the AFL, he became convinced of the need for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism, writing from his cell: “I was to be baptised in socialism in the roar of conflict… in the gleam of every Bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.”


Debs joined the US Socialist Party at its foundation in 1901. He became the party’s leading public figure. Debs wrote scathing critiques of the ruling class in the Socialist Party’s Appeal to Reason, calling “exploitation [of workers] … the conventional term for robbery” and arguing workers should seek to “overthrow that exploiting 2 per cent”, anticipating the Occupy movement’s lingo.

He constantly emphasised working class self-activity as the key to changing society, saying famously, “Voting for socialism is not socialism any more than a menu is a meal … it is therefore not a question of reform, but revolution”.

Along with Big Bill Haywood, he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, whose vision was one big union that united workers across craft and industry lines.

The IWW led key struggles such as the Lawrence “bread and roses strike” of 1912, famous for uniting mostly immigrant, women workers in a successful battle over wages.

Debs identified with the Russian revolution in 1917, saying, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am a Bolshevik, and proud of it.” He argued that Russian workers, by taking control of factories and forming Soviets of soldiers and workers as an alternative to capitalist parliamentary democracy, had, “laid the foundation of the first real democracy that ever drew the breath of life in this world.”

Eugene Debs ran for President from prison

Anti-war agitation

Unlike other parties in the Second International, the Socialist Party rightly opposed World War I. Debs gave a typically rousing speech against the war on June 16, 1918 in Canton, Ohio. He sharply criticised the imperialist nature of the war and asked why working class people should be sent to slaughter other working class people, saying:

“The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons…

“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives…

“The working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses—the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring a war.”

He was convicted for intending, “to cause insubordination and disloyalty within the armed forces of the US”. Many other leading anti-war agitators were also locked up under wartime “espionage” legislation.

Upon his conviction, he famously said, “Your Honour, years ago, I recognised my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

It was during this stint in prison that Debs won nearly one million votes for President. His time there inspired him to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appear in his only published book, Walls and Bars.

In 1921, President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served. Upon his release, the other prisoners sent him off with a roar of cheers. A crowd of 50,000 greeted him upon return to the city of Terre Haute.

Democrats and Social Democracy

One particular strength of Debs and the Socialist Party is that they rejected compromise with the Democrats. The modern image of the Democrats is similar to that of the Australian Labor Party—a party formed by trade unions with the support of the left. But they have always been a straightforward capitalist party, where unions and workers have little influence.

Debs wrote in a Socialist Party pamphlet that, “As a rule, large capitalists are Republicans and small capitalists are Democrats, but workingmen must remember that they are all capitalists… all politically supporting their class interests”.

It wasn’t until after Debs’ death that the Democrats gained any kind of reputation for being progressive, after implementing the New Deal in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt. Before that they were the party of the white slave owners in the US South. Black Americans had historically voted Republican following the American Civil War.

The huge growth of the Socialist Party—with up to 100,000 members in 1912—was testament to the bankruptcy of the two major parties. In the 1912 elections where Debs stood for President 12,000 socialists were elected to local office, including 79 mayors.

But not everybody in the Socialist Party saw things the same way as Debs. They were a broad party, comprising both reformists and revolutionaries.

In public life, the party’s most famous and popular leaders were its radicals—Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and legendary union organiser Mother Jones. Yet the politics of the party’s official leadership, its reformist wing, followed those of the Second International in all respects except support for the war. Rather than advocating the overthrow of capitalism, they thought they could gradually reform it by winning seats in parliament and that society would “evolve” towards socialism. The effect was that the leadership promoted passivity and conservatism.

While the right of the party sought to win positions in the AFL, the left formed the IWW as a radical alternative. While the right supported segregation and immigration restrictions, the left spoke out against them.

But Debs abstained from the fight inside the organisation. He only attended one party conference in his 25 years of membership. When the conservative leadership expelled Bill Haywood and other IWW leaders for their “anarchism”, Debs remained silent, and later distanced himself from them. The party would eventually split acrimoniously in the inter-war years.


Debs died of heart failure in 1926. Of his own life, he wrote, “The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars.”

His militant, class struggle politics inspired American workers to fight for a better day—an organisation of thousands that shared that vision could have changed the course of history.

In his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow socialist, Heywood Broun wrote, “That old man with burning eyes actually believed that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man! And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around I believe it myself.”

Read more from Debs on the Marxist Internet Archive


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