Interview: Labor Historian Nick Salvatore on Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Socialism in Modern American Politics
2016 has been a banner year for socialism in American political discourse. In January, 43 percent of respondents to a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, taken of likely Democratic caucus-goers, said they would use the word ‘socialist’ describe themselves. Recently, a majority of Democrats polled said socialism has “a positive impact on society.” Conservatives, including those at the American Action Network, who commissioned the latter poll, have used socialism’s increasingly prominent place in American political life to animate their base, claiming that Bernie Sanders’s success in the Democratic primaries has pushed Hillary Clinton to the left on economic and social issues.
Sanders, for his part, embraces the “Socialist” and “Democratic Socialist” labels often applied to him by the right, and by the mainstream press. His success recalls the only other Socialist presidential candidate in history to receive nearly any mainstream attention: Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party of America’s perennial presidential candidate in the early 20th century. Early in his career as a writer and politician, Sanders produced a documentary about Debs with the intent to air it as an educational special on public television. In it, Sanders’ voices Debs, despite the accent mismatch.
Much has been made of Sanders’s efforts to make mainstream an acceptance of socialist programs and ways of thinking. I spoke to Nick Salvatore, Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and author of a biography of Debs, on Debs’s heritage in our politics.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Let’s start with some basic background on Eugene Debs’s career as a presidential candidate? What was his most defining campaign?
He ran 5 times between 1900 and 1920. The only one he didn’t make was in 1916, when he was recuperating from a variety of illnesses. And I think by far the most important was the 1912 one, and not just because he got the most votes (that’s when he got roughly 6 percent — 900,000 votes). The movement, in one way, was really approaching its height. And so there were plenty of people who didn’t vote for him. In many states, the Socialist vote in 1912 rose significantly over 1908, so that was seen as a “we’re on the road, we’re on the way” kind of thing.
But there were an awful lot of people who were attracted to Debs who came to the rallies and came to the speeches but who weren’t quite ready to pull the lever for the Socialist candidate. So 1912 was important in itself in terms of its numbers and its reach. But there was also an expectation that in 1914 — in the off-year election — they could really see an improvement. It turned out to be very different, but that was an expectation. 1912 was in many ways the apex of the electoral effort of a known Socialist candidate, certainly into the 1970s or 80s.
Who were his supporters? And what would describe someone attracted to Debs’s message, but unwilling to pull the lever for him?
The overwhelming majority of working class people did not vote for Eugene Debs. In fact, his vote totals declined in most of the eastern dates, which were the most heavily industrialized states, between 1908 and 1912. He picked up strength in the southwest and west. And in the southwest — in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas — it was primarily farmers who were in the midst of experiencing industrialization on the farm, as, from the late 1880s and ‘90s forward, corporate farming had developed in a major way in that area: by corporations buying up the land, hiring labor to farm the land, and using the latest technology from companies like International Harvester and others.
And they were also buying up the land themselves, these corporations, so that’s where he got a real boost. In the east, it wasn’t that he got no votes, but the voting dropped off from 1908, and part of that was because I think we always underestimate — in 2016 as well as in 1912 — the power of the American political culture on Americans, whether the be working class or middle class. I heard once something to the effect of “Poor Gene, he gave his heart to this movement and the voters never paid attention to him.” And I think that’s true. So Gene Debs in 1912 finished 4th out of 4 presidential candidates.
I do think that was something that, at a point later in his life when he was feeling despondent, Debs said something like — and this isn’t a direct quote — “The people can have anything they want, but the problem is they don’t want anything.” And he was really despondent. It may have been when he was in prison in Atlanta in 1920.
1912 is enigmatic in a way. It’s certainly the height of Debs’s electoral career and the party’s electoral success. There were 20 new state reps, some mayors… But over the next three years, the Socialist Party’s membership dropped from about 120 or 130,000 to 80,000. So they were even losing some of their core members: not just those who pulled the lever on election day because they were moved by Debs’s speech but didn’t want to join the party per se, but the core party members began to fall off. It’s an apex and at the same time the beginning of the decline of the Socialist Party.
What was Debs’s message? And do you see any similarities between that and what Bernie Sanders is saying today?
From about 1909, 1910 through 1913, if there was one phrase that gets used repeatedly in lecture and speech after speech after speech, it’s the following: “I’m not a labor leader, I wouldn’t lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else has to lead you out. But someone else will lead you out. You have to use your head as well as your hands and get yourself out of your present circumstance.”
Time after time after time, he emphasised — and it’s a classic American emphasis — the role of the individual in taking action to correct whatever the situation is. He is not negating socialism here: what he’s saying is that there’s no quick fix. And you as the listener have to figure out ways of working with others to engage the issue and to do something about it.
There was a lot of infighting in the Socialist movement in 1910, 1911, and a lot of it had to do with the Industrial Workers of the World. And Debs was terrible whenever serious tension arose and conflict arose. He headed for a closet to go hide in. He was a serious leader in other ways, but his avoiding the conflict and avoiding really seriously working for a resolution of some kind was really debilitating. With him disappearing, all sorts of other people could do what they wanted to do.
He wrote letters to friends about how scared he was of the Milwaukee Socialist congressman Victor Berger, who was and a leader in the Milwaukee and Wisconsin movement and a power in the Socialist movement. But Debs, who was very bureaucratically-oriented, would never take him on despite good friends of his saying “Gene, you should do it.” In other words, he was really a human being. He has a lot of foibles and I wish he didn’t, but I didn’t lose my respect for him.
Do you see any similarities between what Debs’s did and what Bernie Sanders is doing now?
I’m going to suggest the major difference between the Debs era and what Bernie Sanders is dealing with now has less to do with socialism than it has to do with capitalism. When Debs was organizing — and he began formally as a Socialist in 1897, at the tail end of the 19th century into the first quarter of the 20th century — capitalism was in a process of beginning to solidify itself. And by the end of the 19th century, you really did begin to have the major corporations — many of whom are still with us today even if their names have changed — more firmly established.
But for the working people, many of them, as industrialization and major corporations and major forms of industrial production began to migrate, not just in large cities, you had more and more people experiencing industrial capitalism for the first time. And I don’t mean this in a silly way, but they were in something of a state of shock, because they took the small entrepreneur, the small businessman, the artisan who has his own shop, as well as the farmer.. they’re used to being self employed. They have an identity that’s part of the American identity. They’re self-employed, they do good work, et cetera, and all of a sudden now they find they can’t compete economically: That they’ve been bought out, essentially, and in the process of that they’ve lost the niche that they had. Some of them are drawn to socialism because they see in socialism the possibility of regaining a value in their work that they feel has been taken from them in this transition.
The difference between then and now is enormous. We have lived in an advanced capitalist society since at least the end of World War II. That society has framed our culture. It’s framed our politics and it continues to do so. We always think about the 1960s, but without capitalism, we wouldn’t have our music. Its freaky to think about, actually: We thought in the ‘60s that we were creating a new culture, but that didn’t quite happen that way.
So I look at Bernie now and I’m not particularly enthused by him. It’s very ironic because I’ve never voted for Hillary Clinton. I’ve always had difficulty with her and with her husband, but Bernie actually scares me, because there’s no substance to what he’s seeing. There’s a lot of words but whenever anyone asks him “how are you going to pay for this?…” Sympathetic economists say it will cost $77 billion. And he kind of smiles and just keeps on going on. But that’s not responsible. You can’t do that.
So I think between the really different stage of capitalism, the global market, a tremendous transformation of the nature of work in the last 30 years… I’ve listened numerous times, but I’ve never heard Bernie address the world that I know actually exists. So that doesn’t encourage me to be honest. I mean that’s at the core of what he’s got to address to me, and it’s got to be done in a way that is credible, and I haven’t seen that yet. I’ve not been active in any shape or form in supporting him.
What about the importance of labor unions? What role did they play during Debs’s time, and how has their role in American politics changed? What were the general rates of union participation in the workforce?
In 1910, 10 percent of the non-agricultural workforce was in a union. In 2016, 6.6 percent are in a union. Not a good tradition. The union movement didn’t grow until 1935, in the middle of the depression, because that’s when the organizing drives began to take effect in the CIO — the industrial union — and there were separate institutions of industrial unionists in auto, in steel, in rubber, et cetera. And it rose to, in ‘54 or ‘55, 35 percent.
There wasn’t a public sector at that point. Public sector unions aren’t allowed to organize until 1962 or ’63, so it’s just the private sector. And then after that, the two public and private sectors begin to organize. But they never get much above 35.5 percent, maybe 36 percent. But nothing beyond that. By themselves, the public sector has organized maybe as much as 37 percent. But when you put them together with the dropping rates in the other sectors, it drops the whole thing down.
So you’ve got 26 states now that have right to work laws, including Wisconsin and just recently, the 26th state was West Virginia — the birthplace, essentially, in terms of the struggle of the United Mine Workers, which doesn’t exist anymore because people are mining coal with fewer and fewer miners, if they’re mining coal at all.
It’s a whole different world. You know, the person who comes to mind for me in this regard, is Sara Horowitz, who is in New York and is the head of the freelancers Union. She’s a McArthur Fellow, she’s an incredibly inventive trade unionist who is working outside the framework because she’s attempting to, frankly, organize people like you who don’t work in the traditional job categories that usually get organized, if they get organized at all. She’s been doing this for 10 years — and she’s had some really pretty interesting successes.
It’s not that there won’t be any industry here, but it will be more and more difficult to organize, because, as the UAW found in Chattanooga in early 2015, even VW — which traditionally, because of the way its German firm is structured, has a strong labor presence on the board — finally said, “You come to organize our Chattanooga plant — we’re neutral. But we’re already thinking about sending the next model production down to Mexico. We’ll stay neutral in this, but the writing is already on the wall.”
I remember in the Chattanooga case, when they opened the plant in 2011, they had something like 80,000 applicants for 2,000 jobs because the rate of pay and the benefits they were offering were almost unheard of in Tennessee. They were being offered what was considered a good union contract. But the reason there were so many applicants was because of the incredible poverty. So, I see Bernie as a kind of…I know this is not popular to say, but his time has passed some time ago and that’s why I think of Sara Horowitz: because she’s trying to think out new ways of organizing people and reaching out in ways that the AFL-CIO has lagged to say the least, in even trying to think about it. So, sorry. I wish I had a happier story to tell.
Was Debs involved in voter registration and get out the vote efforts in the same way that politicians are today?
Some of the local parties may have tried to do that, but mainly Debs was an incredible speaker. There’s no recording of him so I can’t tell you how good he sounds but by all of the reports, he could hold an audience. He had an audience of 20,000 people but there’s no microphone. Not everybody could hear him, but there’s some magnetism in this guy that… I’m thinking particularly of an open air speech in Chicago, and there was a reporter who went through and started asking people, “What are you doing here?” And person after person said something to the idea of, “That’s Gene Debs, I can feel what he’s telling me.” He had a magnetism that his reputation created but also perhaps was a result of the way he held himself and gestured. But mainly, it was speeches by him and by others, and as I said, local party efforts to get out the vote.
But they didn’t, as far as I know, go door-to-door in the way we would do today: go up to people who you may know from voting records that you have that say that ‘they didn’t vote for our guys last time, but we want to go see if we can get them interested this time.’ That was not done back then, as far as I know.
In the Democratic Party, in the cities, usually there was a Democratic club in each ward, in each neighborhood, but also there was a saloon that was also a sort of subsidiary of the Democratic club run by the guy who had very tight ties to the club. And that’s where working people got their support. I mean, you were down on your luck and you would maybe get a job, if you were loyal to the party and showed up and voted and did all that sort of stuff. You could get a loan, a variety of turkeys at Christmas, free of charge. And so there was a way in which the Democratic Party really tried to — and they were in fact rather successful — organize the working people.
They were literally offering cash on the ballots in different ways, but it was support that was often desperately needed and was really appreciated. Any alternative party was working against that kind of a system, and most major cities had that kind of system. So they didn’t do that. They did have the large rallies and sometimes got really impressive numbers.
By 1917, Debs had voiced his opposition to joining the war, against Woodrow Wilson, who said he would never pardon him. How did he position himself against the war? Can you describe the nativism or nationalism that existed in the United States at that time?
Wilson ran on a no war, peace platform in 1916 and then by April he was joining the Allied Forces. But Debs and many socialists protested.
The kind of nativism that Donald Trump specializes in is not just a new invention. For example, in 1917, in community after community, especially throughout the Midwest, people of German descent were called out into the street and told to burn their books. There was one miner in a county over from where Debs grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, who was murdered because he refused to burn his books, even though he protested that he was an American. He was German-born like many immigrants.
So there was an ugliness in the culture that was appearing again and Debs, in June of 1918 — he was sick much of that year — went to the Ohio state Socialist picnic, an annual event, and he gave a stirring anti-war speech. It was his first speech in months — he had spent months still recuperating. He was on the rote for like 40 years, did a lot of drinking, a lot of carousing, and his body was suffering. But he was getting his strength back and really wanted to be part of the anti-war movement, especially because many socialists were refusing induction for example or protesting the war and suffering consequences for it.
He went and he actually gave a fairly careful speech. He didn’t argue for immediate and total resistance or anything of that nature, but he heavily critiqued the war and the politics of it and the impact of it. He was arrested and ultimately was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and he traveled first to West Virginia and after a month there he’s transferred to a federal prison in Atlanta, where he was for about 3 years. In 1921, the Republican president, Warren Harding, not only gives him a Christmas pardon but tells the warden to put Debs on a train to Washington: “Have him come to the White House, I want to meet him.” It’s absolutely bizarre. The president just wanted to meet him. He was a fellow Midwesterner who had completely different politics, but he just wanted to meet this guy who he’d heard about.
What effect did prison have on Debs?
Debs came out of jail weakened. He only had one picture in his prison cell — or a cut out — of the crucified Christ, and it was that only picture he had up. It was a very tough period for him.
There’s an incredible story I’ve heard that explains Debs’s human persona: the day Debs was released from prison, the warden opened all of the cells, and the other prisoners all came to the side of the prison where they could see the winding road leading form the main gate out to where he would be picked up by the car to go to the depot. And Debs had apparently been this incredible, kind angel. He had nothing to offer in any material way — he didn’t have special privileges there or anything like that, but just his interactions over three years, even when he was really depressed, made an impression. And reports say that the cheering from the prisoners was just overwhelming. He just turns around — and there’s a soundless video of it — and waves to them, and gets into the car. I think he really tried to live in many ways — not all ways — his socialist beliefs on the human level.
And he was very very good on the speeches and very very good at the rallies, and dynamic in the days he had his strength, from all accounts. But he was never a theoretician. He always backed away from political conflict, even within the Socialist Party. It scared him, somehow. I mean, he was Gene Debs, but he often wouldn’t fight for the principles he stood for. He was scared by some of the powers of the party. As I said, he was a very human human being.
So he was in jail during the 1920 election.
And he ran. He got more numerical votes but less of a percentage of the popular vote, because 1920 was the first time women voted in America. And so the size of the electorate rose enormously. And I think he got 3 percent of the total vote, although he got maybe 100,000 more over 1912. And then he’s active for about 3 years. And he first, in his enthusiasm, embraces the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist Party and that lasts less than a year, in fact maybe not even half a year. And then he retracts all of that, but stays a Socialist. But the world has changed dramatically by that time. And then he gets sick again, and this will be a sickness that begins in 1924 and continues on and off into 1925, when he’s finally entered into a hospice care in Chicago, and that’s where he dies in 1926.
He was born in 1855 — was formed in a 19th century world — and he tried to adapt as best he could to a 20th century reality. By that, I mean the large rallies and all that were one of the major ways they did their politics in the 19th century. And by the 20th century, they’re beginning to move into what we would see as the beginning of the whole modern approach, part of which has to do with what you were talking about — direct contact with the voters — as opposed to the mass rallies. The Socialist Party’s advertising was never large. They put material out but were not in any way as engaged as the Democrats or Republicans.
Are there any lessons we can draw today from Debs’s career or placement along the political spectrum?
I’m not certain. Let me put it this way: From roughly 1904-1905, when Debs went on a southern tour, he refused to give his socialist speech to segregated audience because socialists aren’t immune from racism, either. They had blacks and whites separated in Mobile and other spots along the southern tour and he refused to speak. He said, “No this isn’t socialism.” This is one area that Bernie is less than eloquent on. Again, I think because the eras are so different politically and economically, it’s difficult to make a direct comparison. In 1912, Debs’ socialism was still a viable promise or certainty for many in that political culture and many parts of the world, but I don’t think today we can say anything approximating that here or anywhere else in the world.
The fate of socialism is very different at this point. But I think that’s profoundly different to me. So far, to me at least, even the most conservative Republican commentators I’ve come across haven’t gone after Bernie as a socialist. It’s almost as if it doesn’t make a difference. I think if he becomes the nominee, it’ll be different. Bernie and I grew up with the Soviet Union being shoved down our throats because we had to hide under our desks for drills. The point is, we are, in that regard, in a different place. He hooks them, earning to the “1 Percent,” but that’s not a full socialist program. Then again, I don’t think there is such a program at this point either.
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes part in a rally to preserve union pensions in Washington