How Debs went from Democrat to Socialist

January 24, 2019

Kay Sweeney contributes to the discussion about socialists and the Democratic Party with a look at how socialist leader Eugene Debs made that transition.

EUGENE V. Debs ran for office as a leader of the Socialist Party (SP) in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. His political life is often held up as the most inspiring example of a socialist strategy in relation to the Democratic Party.

The context behind these campaigns is important. After the SP’s founding in 1901, the party’s membership grew to over 113,000 members by 1912. Debs’ campaigns, which he used to project socialist politics, were conducted in a very different time period, when tens of thousands — and sometimes hundreds of thousands — of people were already convinced of the need for an independent socialist alternative.

How did the left get to this point? And how was Eugene Debs himself won to building such a party? Examining the answers to such questions challenges common assumptions about the need for a “clean break” to win activists today to independent politics.

Debs’ early political career

Debs began his political career as a union leader and served several terms as a Democratic Party politician. He was firmly rooted in the Democratic Party for 16 years before he broke with it.

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In The Bending Cross, A Biography of Eugene V. Debs, Ray Ginger describes the beginning of the young union leader’s entrance into politics: “When [Debs] mounted the platform on August 30, 1878, for his first political speech, it was to champion the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the crucified, and the Democratic Party...[T]he next year, he was the Democratic nominee for City Clerk in Terre Haute, and easily won by an 1,100 majority.”

Debs was re-elected as city clerk in 1881. Then, in 1885, wanting to advocate for more legislation to protect workers, Debs was sworn into the state House of Representatives of Indiana as a Democrat. Ginger describes:

He had already drafted a bill which would require railroad companies to compensate their employees for injuries suffered on duty. Appointed to the Railway Committee, he maneuvered the bill through the lower chamber, and rejoiced when it was sent to the Senate. But his exaltation was short-lived. When the bill reached the State Senate, the members of that body toyed with it for a few days, finally cut the guts out of it. Debs, convinced that he had failed the railroad workers, promptly withdrew the bill from consideration.

Other measures in which Debs was deeply interested also went down to defeat. He bolted his party to vote with the Republicans on a bill to abolish all distinctions of race and color in the laws of Indiana, but the bill lost by three votes. He voted for a bill to extend suffrage to women; again, he was on the losing side. By the time for adjournment, Debs had decided not to stand for re-election. He was ill-suited for the compromise and favoritism of political life.

This experience led Debs to conclude that he could fight for reforms more effectively as a union leader than as a politician. It was a step forward in his understanding of the electoral system. But he remained a vocal advocate of “lesser evilism” and continued to campaign for Democrats.

Simultaneous to Debs’ development of political consciousness around the political system was his growing understanding of the relationship between labor and capital through his experiences as a union leader.

In the early 1870s, Debs believed strikes were unnecessary and that disputes between labor and capital could be resolved through fair negotiation. But with every struggle, and many more defeats than victories, Debs slowly began to better understand that the interests of capital were counterposed to the interests of working people.

Although his radicalization about the realities of class struggle grew and grew, it was not until the Pullman strike that Debs’ relationship with the Democratic Party would shatter.

From May through July of 1894, Debs helped lead a strike of over 125,000 railway workers that shut down 29 railroads in the Midwest. Despite his urgings for workers to remain nonviolent, Debs was ruthlessly slandered by the media.

When President Grover Cleveland mobilized the army to defeat the strike, Debs welcomed the troops, believing they would maintain order. But it soon became clear that the federal troops were there to support the strikebreakers. The government issued an injunction against the strike that led to Debs’ arrest.

The Pullman strike ended in a massive defeat. Debs continued to support and lead the strike, despite being slandered by the media and sentenced to months in jail. The overwhelming defeat was as demoralizing as it was radicalizing. For the first time, Ginger writes:

Eugene Debs, a lifelong Democrat who three times campaigned for Grover Cleveland, was deprived of faith in the major political parties by the actions of Cleveland and Olney. He could no longer advocate labor’s adherence to parties which were firmly controlled by the large corporations.

At the last strike meeting, Debs made a personal appeal to the workingmen: “I am a Populist, and I am in favor of wiping out both parties so they will never come into power again. I have been a Democrat all my life and I am ashamed to admit it. I want all of you to go to the polls and vote the People’s ticket.”

In the following year, as the 1896 presidential election came closer, the Populist Party debated which candidate to run. They nominated Debs, but he refused, feeling that his energies would not be best spent through an attempt to become president. Then, the Populists decided to endorse a Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, who had co-opted the Populist platform.

Debs joined the campaign for Bryan. But the election was an utter defeat. “Corruption, threats, and good luck brought a Republican landslide,” according to Ginger. This experience radicalized Debs further. As Ginger writes:

The steamroller tactics of [Republican businessman] Mark Hanna showed Debs that he had underestimated the power of corporations. Big Business not only had a firm grip on the government; it also had a firm grip on the American mind. The reform movement had run into a stone wall, which could not be scaled or breached, and could only be destroyed by means of a persistent, long-run battle to convert the common people to socialism. Resolving take up this task, Debs published his personal manifesto in the Railway Times on January 1, 1897.

This manifesto was the first time that Debs came out publicly in favor of socialism. Never again would he support a Democrat. Soon after, Debs joined the Social Democratic Party alongside well-known communists like Victor Berger. Five years later, he helped found the Socialist Party and became one of the most consistent and inspiring champions of a working-class third party and revolutionary socialism for the rest of his life.

They’ll sell us out...

Debs’ early life challenges some common notions about how people radicalize against the Democratic Party. Some argue that we shouldn’t work with the Democratic Party because it will betray us and pressure our imperfect candidates to compromise. If only we had perfect socialist candidates who were principled, didn’t have illusions in the Democrats...

But if the Debs of 1885 were around today, no one would have predicted he’d someday become a revolutionary socialist who would help convince over a million people to cast a protest vote against both parties.

It wasn’t just that the early Debs was a product of the politics of that era, his politics were behind his era. Ginger describes how, when others argued the necessity of strikes, Debs disagreed. When others argued the irreconcilable nature of class struggle, Debs ridiculed them. He stood for lesser evilism and he was firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party which sought to co-opt him.

But Debs didn’t “sell out.” After his term Indiana state legislature, he decided he would rather stay out of political positions than face another four years of pressure to compromise and watching progressive legislation fail.

It wasn’t that Debs was a better person than the hundreds of radical politicians who have betrayed the people once in office. The reality is that we just cannot predict the outcomes of today’s genuinely progressive politicians based on their current politics.

Something to break toward?

Some argue that we must focus our efforts on building a third-party alternative, even if it’s very small. They argue that this will help people break away from the Democrats, because they will have something to break towards.

But interestingly, Debs didn’t break from the Democrats by seeing a third party with a much better platform for change. At the height of the Populist Party in 1892, when they won over a million votes, Debs campaigned for Cleveland. As Ginger notes, “Debs never deserted a possible solution until he became convinced that it had failed.”

Debs joined the Populists only after Cleveland smashed the Pullman strike. This suggests that the betrayal of the Democrats, not the existence of an alternative, was the driving force behind Debs’ decision. But the smashing of the Pullman strike only brought him halfway.

It was the defeat of the Populist Party and witnessing the corporations pull out all their tricks to ensure a Republican victory that Debs radicalized against not only the Democratic Party, but the whole U.S. government. That’s when Debs understood that the U.S. was not a democracy, the working-class cannot vote its way to socialism, and the purpose of elections became projecting socialist ideas to the widest audience and building a working-class alterative.

The need for firsthand experience inside the Democrats?

A layer of activists today have been convinced of the need for an independent alternative to the Democrats without direct participation in the Democratic Party, with history and theory playing a strong role in their radicalization. But it’s likely that patient argument, history and theory cannot convince everyone, or even a majority of people, to radicalize against the Democrats.

There is abounding evidence that Debs was thoroughly exposed to radical arguments throughout the 1880s and 1890s. He was an avid reader of all political traditions. He met radicals and conservatives alike throughout the country. As editor of The Magazine, his office was flooded with articles about Marxism. Through the course of a decade of labor battles, Debs became an advocate of strikes and learned that workers and capitalists had opposing interests.

But participation in labor militancy alone wasn’t enough to convince Debs that the Democratic Party was not a friend of working people.

Attempting to enact change from above himself by his term in the Indiana legislature, seeing the very president he campaigned for smash the Pullman strike, witnessing the failure of the Populist endorsement of Bryan — this is what solidified Debs’ unwavering commitment to independent socialist organizing.

Thus, the recipe for Debs to become a socialist required at least two ingredients: witnessing the power of working-class struggle and firsthand experience of the failure of orienting on the Democrats.

Debs supported the Democrats throughout his early life, fully believing that the party was on workers’ side. He left with a very different understanding. That process took 16 years. But the driving force was the inherent contradiction between the class interests of oppressed and working-class people who are moving in struggle and the class interests of the ruling class that controls the Democratic Party.

Even the best revolutionaries can’t, by good ideas alone, lead such a massive break. But imagine if revolutionaries were there to contribute to one that arose from this inherent contradiction?

What can Debs’ radicalization mean for today?

Many revolutionaries agree that the working-class must accumulate a set of collective political lessons learned in the course of the struggle for reforms over many years before the class will become revolutionary.

Today, we face a situation where new activists are testing all possible methods for change. This generation set up tent cities through Occupy, blocked highways for Black Lives Matter, went on strike for teachers. And despite the best arguments of revolutionaries, a layer of new activists are building campaigns for socialist candidates running in the Democratic Party.

Rather than forecasting that this strategy will send the left to its ruin, revolutionaries should consider analyzing the historical situations in which people in the Democratic Party have radicalized against the party and consider how revolutionaries could intervene to deepen this radicalization.

Further Reading

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