This is Eugene V Debs, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World an the five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for president. Debs ran in each race from 1900 to 1920. In 1920 he ran even though he was then in federal prison in Atlanta.
Why am I telling you this century old story of an American radical? Why now? It's simple. Today would be his 158th birthday. And there is something in his story to inspire us to move beyond our present despair and frustration, something to give us courage. This history, the history of the American left from a century ago, is worth remembering, especially now.
Please follow me across the barricade.
On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio in opposition to World War I and was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was convicted, sentenced to serve ten years in prison and disenfranchised for life.
Debs made his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized 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.
What a statement! How un-nuanced. How clear. And, sadly, how unlike most modern political speeches. This shouldn't be a surprise. At the beginning of the last century there were no sound bites, no TV, no focus groups, no polling, no illusions about policy, no triangulation. Debs knew his enemy for what it was, and he wanted to lift up his allies. He received 6% of the presidential vote in 1912, but it was inconceivable that he'd change his positions to increase his total by a single vote. The election for him wasn't about winning the presidency. It was about being a strong, unfailing, and consistent voice for the interests of working people. As Debs said,
I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get it.
He was an incredibly forceful, inspiring, exciting speaker. He inspired the best parts of his audience's hearts, he spoke directly to their idealism. In his eulogy for Debs, for example, Heywood Broun said,
That old man with the burning eyes actually believes 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.
Debs, however, wasn't entirely comfortable with being a leader. He told and audience in Utah in 1910
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.
I can imagine that there might be objections to this story I am telling. You'd be entirely correct to argue that Eugene Debs was a radical. He was a Socialist and not a Democrat. He was a Wobblie. Some would argue he was an anarchist. Some would point out that he was a twice convicted criminal. He was on the left flank of American politics at the turn of the century. And he was one who inspired radical changes in America at the turn of the last century. The objections are that surely, after a century, the same tactic, holding a strong ideological position no matter what, just cannot work. My argument is simple: it can. And, in fact, not holding a strong position leads to dilution, disillusionment, despair, and ultimately oppression. We, like Debs, need to prefer losing a vote than winning something we don't want.
I find enormous inspiration in Debs. For inspiration in 2013, now, when we so sorely need it, I suggest we look again at those on the far, left flank a century ago. That's where the fire is. That's where the inspiration is. And that's where the good changes to our society have always, always come from, from the radical left.
Debs, I think, understood this. That's why he said
When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong.
We need to find that kind of courage in ourselves and we need it to inspire our politics.