Eugene V. Debs…why is he so important?
by David Walters
As a very young teenager growing up in socialist household in suburban New York, Debs always played out the iconic, quintessential “Socialist” for me. Being radicalized by the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movement Debs represented everything that was “good” about socialism with none of the warts of blemishes we hear so much about in terms of the “Left”.
Debs is also portrayed, accurately, as quintessentially “American”. He was a first generation native born American whose parents had emigrated from the Alsace region of France before the US Civil War. He was integrated into a mostly non-immigrant working class struggles. The immigrant contribution to those struggles would change under the impact of the great railroad strike he lead in great “Pullman Strike” of 1894, and his founding of the often immigrant dominated Socialist Party of America. In fact, he was the greatest Socialist the United States has ever seen.
Debs’ relationship to European Marxism is most interesting. He declared himself a socialist in 1897. Prior to this he evolved from a “simply trade unionist” on the rail roads, to a “Populist” to a radical and revolutionary Socialist over the course of decades. Debs is known to have assigned the great Austrian-American socialist, Victor Berger the task of winning him to socialism. He thanked him for his conversion via a signed copy of Marx’s Capital. There appears to be little evidence for this and it is something of an “urban legend” on the socialist left. Few Debs historians ascribe this as totally true. However, at least metaphorically, the role of European socialism on the influence of Debs is no legend. The truly massive socialist immigrant communities, ranged from radical Finns on 'The Mesabi Iron Range' in North-Eastern Minnesota to the German immigrant communities in Milwaukee and New York, to the large Yiddish speaking Jewish working class of New York Cities garment district. Debs surrounded himself with the great thinkers and activists of this mish-mash of “foreign” revolutionary (and not-so-revolutionary”) working class immigrants. Most notably Debs also read the greatest of socialist theoretician/teachers of the newly formed Socialist International, Karl Kautsky (in whom there has been a rather skewed intellectual interest of late in the US socialist movement). Many translated books and pamphlets by him are found in his personal library. Just as the issue of “reformism/Revisionist” and “revolutionary” politics and program defined the debates of the European social-democracy so too did this begin to effect the much less influential socialist movement in the U.S. When we say “social-democracy” we do mean the giant collective almost hegemonic movement that encompassed all socialists during the pre-WWI period. There is no evidence that Debs “lined up” with one personage or tendency in Europe. He stood aloof from these debates internationally, which by and large effected the more insular German, Russian and Jewish sections of the socialist parties of the time. Debs did however, place himself, abstractly from these actual debates, on the side of revolutionary socialism. In action - and at least as his thousands of essay and columns he wrote in his socialist period demonstrate - he opposed the reformist “get along to go along” reform-minded socialists that the likes of Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit represented.
Debs’ politics were formed from this period (1897 onward) and it can be summed up this way: Debs was for the organizational and political independence of the working class. He never wavered from this. Ever. He believed that only the working class (which, admittedly was far easier to define in this period that it is today) was the motive force for socialist revolution. He balanced his approach to electoral politics with actual working class organizing on the ground. He never believed for example that elections where the way toward a socialist victory, but only an important component as a way to offer the working class that independence from the parties of Big Capital. Perhaps the most famous “saying” of Debs, with regards to elections, is this: “It is better to vote for something you do want, and not get it, then to vote for something you don’t want, and get that”.
One thing one may notice when reading Debs or any works from Marxist and socialist authors prior to, say, the 1960s, is that the term “The Left” is never used. Debs spoke to workers, to the oppressed and disenfranchised. There was no amorphous and class indistinct “Left” in this classical period. He focused on the proletariat and only the proletariat. His made little distinction between the socialist organization of the Socialist Party of America and the working class he wanted to see that party represent. Quite different from todays’ Left I would say.
Keeping one’s eye on the prize: the working class in power, was what drove Debs 100 years ago. It should be no different today whether it be in North America, South America, Europe, Africa or Asia. That is the legacy of Eugene V. Debs.
David Walters is a founding member and director of the 'Marxist Internet Archive'; and co-editor of the 6 volume “Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs” published by Haymarket Books in Chicago, Illinois. He is the administrator of the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive on the Marxists Internet Archive.