When 1 million voted for socialism

August 31, 2012

We're told that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is the best the American political system has to offer--and that it's unrealistic to expect a left-wing campaign to win mass support. But in the early years of the 20th century, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs won up to 1 million votes in his five presidential campaigns.

In this article first published in the October 2004, Elizabeth Schulte describes what a presidential campaign that put workers' power on its agenda looked like.

"THE WORKERS in the mills and factories, in the mines and on the farms and railways never had a party of their own until the Socialist Party was organized," presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs said in 1912. "They divided their votes between the parties of their masters. They did not realize they were using their ballots to forge their own fetters."

During his Socialist Party (SP) campaign for president in 1912, Debs traveled across the country, speaking four or five times a day. It's estimated that Debs' socialist message reached half a million people.

That campaign year, some 323 newspapers and periodicals took up the cause for socialism. The Appeal to Reason, one of the most widely read socialist papers, reached a circulation of 600,000 copies in 1912.

On Election Day, Debs won 897,000 votes--which, considering that this was before women had the right to vote, amounted to 6 percent of the voting population. For the SP, the 1912 campaign translated into big growth, with the party reaching almost 118,000 dues-paying members.

Eugene V. Debs on the speakers' platform
Eugene V. Debs on the speakers' platform

In particular, the campaign succeeded in places with left-wing SP chapters that supported local workers' struggles. According to historian Ira Kipnis, the SP in Allegheny, Pa., where members participated in union activity and strikes, experienced a 300 percent increase in Socialist votes from 1908. This compared to far less impressive turnouts in conservative SP chapters in Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts.

THE 1912 campaign was the fourth of five presidential races that Debs ran in the early part of the century. In his last run in 1920, Debs campaigned from behind bars--in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he was jailed for opposing the First World War in his famous 1918 Canton speech. Debs' campaigns spoke to the thousands of working-class people who knew firsthand the corruption and brutality of capitalism--and challenged them to draw socialist conclusions.

Debs himself wasn't born a socialist. Like thousands of others, he was transformed by the world around him. His life, from 1855 to 1926, spanned an era of upheaval in U.S. capitalism--a huge expansion in industry, the rise of the wealthy robber barons like J.P. Morgan, repeated economic depressions, and an explosion in the size of U.S. working class.

These conditions produced some of history's bravest labor struggles--the fight for the eight-hour day; the great strike wave of 1877; the Pullman railway strike of 1894 in Chicago, which Debs helped lead; and the Lawrence, Mass., textile strike of 1912. Debs, a former supporter of populist Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan, eventually concluded that the Democrats were no friend to the U.S. working-class and that workers needed their own political party.

He helped found the SP in 1901. Debs used his political campaigns to point out the inequality and brutality of capitalism, and spread the ideas of unionism, class struggle and revolutionary socialism to an ever-growing audience.

One continual theme of his speeches was to shine a light on the corruption of the two-party system. "Both the Republican and Democratic parties will, as usual, strain every nerve to whip the 'voting kings' into line and every conceivable influence will be exerted to that end," Debs said during his 1900 campaign.

"Corruption funds, national, state and municipal, will flow out like lava tides; promises will be as plentiful as autumn leaves; from a thousand platforms, the Columbian orator will agitate the atmosphere, while brass bands, torchlight processions, glittering uniforms and free whisky dispensed by the ward-heeler will lend their combined influence to steer the 'patriots' to the capitalist chute that empties into the ballot box."

The Democrats, in particular, were a favorite target of Debs. "In referring to the Democratic Party in this discussion, we may save time by simply saying that...it is near enough like its Republican ally to pass for a twin brother," he said in a 1904 campaign speech in Indianapolis. "The former party of the 'common people' is no longer under the boycott of the plutocracy since it has adopted the Wall Street label."

Likewise, the Democrats attacked the Debs and the Socialist Party at every turn. For instance, in 1908, AFL head Samuel Gompers--who had thrown the union federation's official support behind Bryan--accused the Republicans of financing Debs' "Red Special" campaign train. The SP responded by printing the names and addresses of the 15,000 contributors who had given pennies, dimes and dollars to pay for the $35,000 train.

Debs encouraged progressives in the Democratic Party to defect and join the SP. "The radical and progressive elements of the former Democracy have been evicted and must seek other quarters," he said in 1904. "They were an unmitigated nuisance in the conservative counsels of the old party. They were for the 'common people,' and the trusts have no use for such a party.

"Where but to the Socialist Party can these progressive people turn?...Every true Democrat should thank Wall Street for driving them out of a party that is democratic in name only and into one that is democratic in fact." Debs concluded, "With either of these parties in power, one thing is always certain, and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class is under the saddle."

EVEN AS the SP experienced success in the 1912 election, divisions between the party's left and right wings were also coming to a head. Since its founding, debates raged over the purpose of the party and how socialism would be achieved--fundamentally, the question of reform or revolution.

The SP had held together, despite the festering disagreements. The right wing of the party saw electoral successes as the be-all and end-all of party activity, and attempted to pull the party further away from class struggle as it courted middle-class and even wealthy support.

The left, which included Western Federation of Miners and Industrial Workers of the World leader Big Bill Haywood, supported the eventual goal of a workers' revolution. Debs argued that the point of the electoral campaigns was not so much getting elected, but convincing workers of socialism and of the need to join a socialist organization.

"We should seek only to register the actual vote of Socialism, no more no less," he told fellow SP members in 1911. "In our propaganda, we should state our principles clearly, speak the truth fearlessly, seeking not to flatter, not to offend, but only to convince those who should be with us and win them to our cause through an intelligent understanding of its mission...

"Voting for Socialism is not Socialism any more than a menu is a meal. Socialism must be organized, drilled, equipped, and the place to begin is in the industries where the workers are employed...Without such economic organization and the economic power with which it is clothed, and without the industrial co-operative training, discipline and efficiency which are its corollaries, the fruit of any political victories the workers may achieve will turn to ashes on their lips."

With the coming of the First World War and the 1917 revolution in Russia, the differences within the SP could no longer be papered over. In 1919, left-wing delegates to the party's 1919 Chicago convention walked out and formed organizations that later became the Communist Party.

Unfortunately, though, Debs never intervened in the internal arguments about the future of the party--and he stuck with the SP after the left walked out. Many of Debs' speeches, however, are as relevant for socialists as they were a century ago. He gave voice to the concerns of workers everywhere, spurring them to break from the Democratic Party and have confidence in their own ability to win change.

"Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage," Debs told a New York audience in 1905. "He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.

"You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist an instant without you. You would just begin to live without him. You do everything, and he has everything, and some of you imagine that if it were not for him, you would have no work. As a matter of fact, he does not employ you at all; you employ him to take from you what you produce, and he faithfully sticks to this task.

"If you can stand it, he can; and if you don't change this relation, I am sure he won't. You make the automobile, he rides in it. If it were not for you, he would walk; and if it were not for him, you would ride."

First published in the October 1, 2004 issue of Socialist Worker.

Further Reading

From the archives