Debs: The Last Presidential Candidate Worth Voting For

Bernie Sanders’ attempts to appeal to the legacy of a true class militant like Eugene Debs are laughable and pathetic, writes Anton Johannsen. 

Jeb? DEBS!

Jeb? DEBS!

I’m an anarchist. I’m a communist, too. Don’t worry. I’ve read my Marx, and I keep the faith. I know the differences between a socialist, an anarchist and a communist, or the supposed ones anyhow. I know that Albert Parsons felt he had exhausted Chicago’s corrupt and ensnaring local system of political governance, and this drove him toward political anarchism. I know that nothing short of revolution can deal with the antagonisms inherent in capitalism. This and many other historical lessons have made me very skeptical of electoralism.

But I always said I would vote for Eugene V. Debs. A founding member of both the IWW, and the Socialist Party of America, Debs was born in Indiana in 1854. He got work in younger years in rail car painting, and as he began a local political life in the Democratic party, also became a member of the existing Railway unions.

By the 1890’s he helped form one of the first examples of industrial unionism, the American Railway Union. Shortly thereafter, he took up leadership of the Pullman Strike, and was arrested on charges of interfering with the U.S. Post (as the railcars produced by Pullman were meant to carry mail).

While in jail for this for 6 months, Debs read Kautsky, Marx, and other socialist authors and became enamored with the ideas.

“…I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy and Blatchford early appealed to me. The Cooperative Commonwealth of Gronlund also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance – and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light.”

By 1897 he began to openly advocate for socialism, and work to develop a socialist party.

Pullman Railway Workers Confront Illinois National Guard

Pullman Railway Workers Confront Illinois National Guard

The Debs of this period actually quite embodied the conservative, anti-immigrant politics of the Democratic party of the time. He regarded immigration as a burden on the American worker, who would be in competition with low-wage workers. However, as Debs himself latter reflected that during the Pullman Strike he was “…baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict.” Before reading Marx, the ARU and Debs were faced with uniting Railway workers who had been historically divided by craft unions that had no qualms scabbing on each-other. This practical task is that to which Deb refers, along with the brutal putting down of the strike by the National Guard, Federal Troops, and Grover Cleveland, the Democratic President. As a result of these experiences Debs would move away from his anti-immigrant, pro-Democratic Party stance.

Further, Debs’ development makes the cynical, ignorant, self-interested ideology of Bernie Sanders and his “socialist” advocates so strikingly clear. Unlike Sanders’ xenophobic line on immigration, or trade with China, torn straight from the failed ideology of AFL-CIO bureaucrats, Debs refused to support any proposal to limit immigration while running for President:

“Having just read the majority report of the Committee on Immigration. It is utterly unsocialistic, reactionary and in truth outrageous, and I hope you will oppose with all your power. The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation. . . .

Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.

Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fibre that will prevail against the world.”

Later, in 1916, the SPA’s central committee drafted the National Program to accompany Debs run for President. Instead of the usual party convention used to draft a program, the SPA decided to save funds and have it drafted by the more conservative executive committee, and then put it to referendum. Debs suggestions embody clearly three principles from which so many “socialists” have strayed far from these days:

First: The class struggle should be more clearly and specifically stated and more emphatically declared…
Second: The platform should declare in positive and unequivocal terms in favor of revolutionary economic organization, and state the reason for it. (Here is referring to, for example, the IWW)…
Third: I am opposed with every drop in my veins to the two declarations in favor of war. If these are permitted to stand the party might as well declare openly in favor of militarism…”

The second two reasons are the most important for us today. Since the failure of the Bolshevik revolution, most “socialists” have been bouncing around the globe trying to support third-world bonapartist dictators and nationalist uprising. Aside from integrating emerging capitalist countries into the foreign policy designs of the USSR, this terrible digression demoralized the world working class, and at every turn impeded a basic socialist principle: Capitalism is served in it’s inevitable and intermittent crises by recourse to bloody, destructive and terrifying war; civil war, guerilla war, imperialist competition, coup d’etats. If the working class is to be anything like an organized force to combat capital, it must abandon it’s mythological national heritages, and stand for the world.

I would vote Debs because he was relentless in his critique of the corrupt, reformist, craft-oriented AFL. The second argument, that socialists ought to support not reformist, bureaucratic unions, but fighting, ideologically socialist, or class unions is certainly one of the most unpopular ideas of today. There is no shortage of preening, “secret” communists who “go where the workers are”, those 7-8% that still are in “unions” to pursue William Fosters grand strategy of “boring from within” (and it sure is BORING!). This isn’t to say workers in those places ought not to fight tooth and nail to put communist revolution on the agenda. Indeed it is to say they must do so purely on an understanding that capitalism cannot dispense with class struggle, that the only hope for humanity is that workers dispense with capitalism, by winning the class war!

Cheap, dime-a-dozen politicians trying to reinvigorate the base of a war-mongering, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist racket like the Democratic Party might occasionally appeal to some vague notion of Debs. Debs himself, however, was unequivocal, uncompromising, and a true working class leader.

Eugene Debs Speaking

A final example: Debs spent the years leading up to US involvement in WWI railing against “preparedness” as promulgated by militarists and industrialists. When the war came, Debs continued to condemn it. Doing what any real socialist ought to, he encouraged draft dodging and resistance on the part of working people everywhere. For this, he was charged with sedition, and sentenced to 10 years in prison as well as being “disenfranchised for life.” Debs spoke in his defense during the trial:

“Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means….

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul….

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own. When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing– that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”

While in prison, Eugene Debs ran for President another time. He was not a scheming politician. He was not lapdog to the Democrats and their moneyed-masters. He was a socialist, committed indefatigably to the millions of workers of the world, not only in the U.S., but everywhere because a socialist has no country. 

Debs Convict for PresidentTrue, Debs like many socialist of the period had a tendency to paper over deep and long running racial tensions that fractured U.S. society. Then again at times he could be exceedingly lucid:

“As a social party we receive the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms. We are the party of the working class, the whole working class, and we will not suffer ourselves to be divided by any specious appeal to race prejudice; and if we should be coaxed or driven from the straight road we will be lost in the wilderness and ought to perish there, for we shall no longer be a Socialist party….

There never was any social inferiority that was not the shrivelled fruit of economic inequality. The Negro, given economic freedom, will not ask the white man any social favors; and the burning question of “social equality” will disappear like mist before the sunrise.

I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: “The class struggle is colorless.” The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side….”

What seems like a genuine thrust for equality, was likely hamstrung by taking races as given, instead of seeing racism as the social process by which racist relations are “objectified” in race. It is certainly true that there is no intrinsic difference between people of different races, but there are pernicious and complex social relations which often take cover in the guise of flesh.  Neverless it seems to me that Debs, in many of his principles, has plenty to offer socialists of today.

If you want a career politician like Bernie Sanders to “broker” a better deal for “American Workers” with the capitalist class, at the expense of struggling workers in Mexico, Korea, China, etc. then go for it. And in 4 years or so all the pensions and benefits, paltry as they are, that are granted to you for shirking your own class, will be wiped out by another capitalist crisis. Trumka, Sanders, Clinton, will all come back around to pander to you and tell you how hard they’re working to harmonize the interests of labor and capital yet again.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next Debs.

“I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight for the working class. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.” – Eugene V. Debs

Works Referenced or otherwise worth reading:
Class Unionism
The Negro Question in the Class Struggle
John Brown America’s Greatest Hero
A Letter from Debs on Immigration
On the Proposed National Platform
Canton Ohio Anti-War Speech
Statement to the Court 1918

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6 thoughts on “Debs: The Last Presidential Candidate Worth Voting For

  1. I don’t know why this person is voting for Bernie; I don’t know if they mean in the primaries, or for president (I doubt they know). I don’t really buy the whole “tactical voting” line, as that’s always offered up as reasons to vote poorly. They usually go “Yeah, but things will be better for x group under Bernie” or “This candidate has it right on this issue!.” Obama “had it right” on singlepayer all through his campaign, and the political process that saw him, and a majority of his party get into executive and legislative positions, gave us the tiny reformist nudge that is the Affordable Care Act.

    I think that it is incredibly naive.

    I also don’t think we’re committing an unforgiveable blunder by encouraging people to vote for someone who has been dead for 89 years. 😀

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  2. Debs on the race problem sounds a like Bernie Sanders: it’s all the result of economic inequality. This is not intended as a plea for Sanders—quite the contrary—but rather as a critique of Debs. Du Bois responded by asking, “If Socialism is going to settle the American problem of race prejudice without direct attack along these lines by Socialists, why is it necessary for Socialists to fight along other lines?” (Reposted from About page)

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  3. Debs’ contention that there “is no race problem as distinct from a labor problem” does try and reduce it to the problems of workers generally. But race is more pernicious, and does of course have it’s own logic worth trying to understand, and fighting against. However, as you’ve pointed out in your blog pieces, we cannot really divorce the two. Certainly we cannot collapse one into the other; the harder work is understanding how they work together, and what solutions can be found for the problems that manifest as a result of a racist understanding of the world.

    Is it me, or is that Du Bois quote worded awkwardly? Do you have a link to a source for it? Is he saying: Socialists say “if we just get socialism, race will disappear” is a way for them to ignore addressing concrete problems of racism? I agree with that.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m posting this here to add to the discussion: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/debs-socialism-race-du-bois-socialist-party-black-liberation/

    Quote: Eugene V. Debs began “The Negro in the Class Struggle” (1903) by criticizing socialists who “either share directly in the race hostility against the Negro, or avoid the issue, or apologize for the social obliteration of the color line in the class struggle,” so it is remarkable that the essay and its author have come to epitomize white radicals’ alleged indifference to racism and its significance to the history of the working class in the United States.

    This is what I was referring to when I suggested he could be lucid, specifically the line about “apologizing for the social obliteration.” This is the kind of pernicious racism that persists; conservative craft unions, sanctity of hard-work and labor liberalism, summed up well in Phil Ochs’ line “I love puerto ricans and negores, as long as they don’t live next door!”

    The piece goes onto argue that Debs’ writings on the “Color Question” were him fighting for integration of the Party and it’s locals, and against the “Resolution on the Negro Question” from 1901. I’m grateful, because I thought that Debs was arguing against segregation in the party, but I couldn’t find the sources (a copy of the resolution linked to in the article).

    What’s more, this goes a step to bolstering the critique that Adolph Reed Jr. offers; that vague “anti-racism” has replaced a programmatic politics which sees race and class as intimately linked, and offers up class-oriented but also race specific solutions. The piece traces some of the history of the idea of the “Debsian View of Race” which the author argues is misguided.

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