Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), thrown in jail by Grover Cleveland for leading the Pullman Strike in 1894, would become the Socialist candidate for U.S. president five times, receiving 6% of the vote in 1912, and running his final campaign in 1920 from a federal prison cell, incarcerated by Woodrow Wilson for speaking out against World War I. A little more than a century ago, Debs—along with enough other Americans to scare the hell out of the U.S. ruling class—believed that with the defeat of chattel slavery, the next great victory would certainly be the defeat of wage slavery.
Gene Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, lived there throughout his life, and today the former home of Gene and his wife Kate is the home of the Eugene V. Debs Museum, located on the grounds of Indiana State University.
During a recent visit to the Debs Museum, I could feel how, a little more than a century ago, it seemed not only right but doable for the working class to wrest the means of production away from the ruling class. And here I could feel some of the sadness that Gene must have felt when he saw the lengths of violence that the U.S. ruling class—and their puppets in the U.S. government—would take to crush the working class so as to maintain control.
When I’ve read about Debs, what sticks out is his integrity, intelligence, generosity, tenacity, and courage, but hanging out in his former home for a few hours offered something more. It brought to life how Gene’s combination of personal traits was so formidable that he could create receptivity, at least in open-minded Americans, for an antidote to capitalism and its adverse effects of insecurity, self-absorption, anxiety, and depression—“symptoms” of an “economic injustice disorder” that plagued millions of Americans in his day and continues to do so today.
More later on Gene and my experience of the Debs Museum, but first: What the hell do Bill Walton and Larry Bird have to do with Gene and the museum?
The Debs Museum director Allison Duerk is full of fun facts, and during my visit, she mentioned that Bill Walton got Larry Bird to accompany him on a tour of the museum. Walton, as a UCLA student-athlete, was arrested in 1972 for protesting the Vietnam War, and in the mid-1980s he was a Boston Celtic teammate of Larry Bird. “Larry the Legend”—also known as “the Hick from French Lick”—grew up in French Lick, Indiana, and then became the greatest basketball player, by far, in the history of Terre Haute’s Indiana State University.
The Bird-Walton visit to the Debs Museum in Terre Haute occurred in 2013, following the dedication of a Larry Bird statue (close to the Debs museum) that was attended by Walton. This visit “was not a step in, step out visit,” according to Terre Haute’s Tribune-Star (“Bill Walton, Larry Bird Visit Eugene V. Debs Museum”), in which Gary Daily reported they spent a full hour and a half visiting the museum. Daily noted, “Walton spent some time looking over the list of distinguished recipients of the Debs Award, an honor bestowed on a person whose life work has been in concert with the ideals of Eugene V. Debs,” as Bill pointed out the names of Debs Award winners Pete Seeger, Coretta Scott King, and Howard Zinn.
Walton and Bird noticed that the first Debs Award recipient in 1965 was John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960, and Larry asked Bill, “Wasn’t Havlicek’s father a coal miner?” John Havlicek, a great Boston Celtic who had played in an era previous to Larry and Bill’s Celtic team, did have a grandfather and uncles who worked in the mines, as his parents’ owned a grocery store in a coal-and-steel town in eastern Ohio. Daily also recalled Bird asking something like, “How did Debs get around back then? How many miles did he travel on political and union organizing campaigns?” Daily concluded, “Bill Walton and Larry Bird found much in the Debs Home Museum that spoke to them.”
What spoke to me on my visit to the Debs Museum? Although I have long known many of the facts of Debs’s life, including the violence directed at him by the U.S. ruling class and its lackeys in the U.S. government, hanging out in Deb’s former home provoked a more visceral experience of just how ugly the ruling-class bastards can be when they are threatened, and how effective their violence has been.
Many Counterpunch readers are well acquainted with what is now called the “First Red Scare”—how Woodrow Wilson reversed himself from his 1916 campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and pushed for the U.S. entry into World War I, then orchestrated a massive pro-war propaganda campaign, along with pushing for the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917, the Sedition Act in 1918, and the Immigration Act in 1918 (also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act). This First Red Scare was used to crush the U.S. working class, and hanging out in the Debs Museum makes this catastrophic defeat painfully gut-wrenching. I could feel just how large and powerful socialist and libertarian-socialist (anarchist) organizations were, so much so that they terrified the U.S. ruling class. Leafing through the two large bound volumes of the Appeal to Reason that sit on a table in the Debs Museum was especially heartbreaking.
The Appeal to Reason (1895-1922), a hugely popular Left weekly periodical and supporter of the Socialist Party, was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt as a “vituperative organ of propaganda, anarchy and bloodshed.” Its writers included Debs, Jack London, Mary “Mother” Jones, and Upton Sinclair (whose The Jungle was first serially published in this periodical). The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains reports that the peak circulation of the Appeal to Reason was 760,000 in 1913. When one considers that the U.S. 1910 census shows a U.S. population of 92 million (approximately 27% of the current 340 million population), one feels just how large a threat in the early twentieth century a critically-thinking working class posed to the ruling class.
What happened to the Appeal to Reason? Through the Wilson government’s punishment of well-known firebrands—such as the imprisonment of Debs and deportation of Emma Goldman—and through other means, many anti-war Leftists were intimidated. In the case of the Appeal to Reason, this once anti-militaristic periodical became so intimidated by the fear of being seen as “unpatriotic,” it supported Wilson’s entry into World War I. And not long after this U-turn, the Appeal to Reason was abandoned by much of its disheartened readership and discontinued in 1922. In leafing through the pages of the Appeal to Reason at the Debs Museum, I could only feel sadness about its demise.
In the Debs house, there is a guest room, and Allison noted that among those who stayed there were Mother Jones and Upton Sinclair, and here I felt some sadness about Sinclair’s path. Debs and most socialists believed that the root cause of World War I was rival capitalist imperialist nations’ hunt for new markets, and that the result of this war would be a slaughter of the working class from all these nations; and so in the spring of 1917, there was a Socialist party referendum on entry into the war, with the rank-and-file overwhelmingly endorsing a militant anti-war position. However, Gene’s good friend Upton Sinclair rejected this anti-war position and supported U.S. entry into World War I.
The bighearted Debs maintained his friendship with Sinclair, even heaping praise on Sinclairs’s 1919 muckraking exposé of American journalism, The Brass Check. However, I imagine that when Gene discovered that his good friend had broken with the Socialist rank and file to support World War I, he must have felt worse that many Sandernistas felt when Bernie Sanders (who had previously pledged to support the winner of Democratic Party nomination) endorsed the pro-militarist neoliberal Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders, who made a documentary about his hero Debs in 1979, is today the most famous self-identified American “democratic socialist.” Sanders may one day win a Debs Award, as he certainly has made the word socialism popular again for many young people, but the word’s regained popularity has come at the expense of de-radicalizing its meaning. While young Bernie’s documentary celebrated Gene’s anti-capitalism, the older Bernie’s presidential campaigns were not campaigns that Gene would recognize as socialism. Here’s a couple of excerpts from a Gene Debs’s 1902 speech about The Mission of the Socialist Party:
“The only vital function of the present government is to keep the exploited class in subjection by their exploiters. Congress, state legislatures, and municipal councils as a rule legislate wholly in the interest of the ruling capitalist class.”
“Economic freedom can result only from collective ownership, and upon this vital principle the Socialist Party differs diametrically from every other party. Between private ownership and collective ownership there can be no compromise. . . . One gives us palaces and hovels, robes and rags, the other will secure to every man and woman their full product of his or her toil, abolish class rule, wipe out class distinction, secure the peace of society . . . .”
To be clear, Bernie’s policies are certainly more progressive than the mainstream Democratic Party, but to view them as socialist means we have to create another word for what Debs and his comrades stood for—an ideology that was so attractive and intoxicating for the working class that its truly revolutionary nature scared the hell out of some in the ruling class in 1912 to dangle some non-radical reforms (Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party 1912 platform included an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, campaign finance contribution restrictions, and the establishment of some type of social insurance system).
One final piece of sadness. Prior to my visit to the Debs Museum, I had known that following Gene’s release from prison in 1921, estimates of the crowd that welcomed his return to Terre Haute ranged from 25,000 to 50,000. A sad irony that I hadn’t known but learned from Allison was that in Terre Haute, the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School (now called Woodrow Wilson Middle School) was completed in 1927, a year after the death of Gene Debs, whose faltering health in his mid-sixties was further harmed by prison, courtesy of Woodrow Wilson.
My visit to the Debs Museum did have some playful moments. After Allison mentioned that Bill Walton got Larry Bird to accompany him on a tour of the Debs Museum, I joked with her about whether Bill Walton—famously a Deadhead—would have a more difficult time getting Larry to a Grateful Dead concert than to the Debs Museum. To this, Allsion informed me that while some Debs enthusiasts call themselves Debsians, a few call themselves Debsheads.
If you can’t get to Terre Haute and want to get a sense of Eugene V. Debs, his home, Allison Duerk, and other Debsheads, you can view online the documentary The Revolutionist: Eugene V. Debs, narrated by Danny Glover (the 2011 Debs Award winner), or check out Allison’s mini-museum tour.