“American Socialist”: Film Chronicles the Life of Labor Hero Eugene V. Debs

May Day is a workers’ holiday in socialist history, greeted with joy, celebration, picnics and speeches since at least the 1880s. In contrast, and exactly a century ago, May 1918 was a time of trepidation. The government of Woodrow Wilson, reacting to opposition of US entry into WWI, set out to squelch the free speech of antiwar protesters. At the same time, labor struggles had reached a point that threatened the administration, and so Wilson also set out to drive the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World out of business entirely, if possible.

Imagine the great socialist hero Eugene Debs at this moment. Sixty-two years old and physically worn out, discouraged because the socialist presidential vote two years earlier had fallen sharply from 1912, he nevertheless rallied his energies. He would speak about the horrors of war and the hopes of socialism, no matter the dangers to himself.

A century ago this coming June 16, Debs spoke to a crowd in Canton, Ohio, about the crisis rippling through every corner of US society. Before making his remarks to a cheering throng of a thousand who shared his worries but were also eager to laugh at his jokes, Debs had stopped at the local prison, where three leading socialists had already been confined for their antiwar ,and supposedly anti-patriotic, activities.

Debs anticipated the personal dangers just ahead but felt no inclination to moderate his message. He was shortly to be cut down — not assassinated, but imprisoned in poor health, removed (the authorities thought) from center stage. Still, 30 months or so after the speech, he nevertheless received a million votes for president, a first and last in US penal history.

Yale Strom’s film, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, is now being screened across the country, and covers many aspects of Debs’ personal life and career as a labor and socialist giant. It also offers so many piquant moments through visual documents and a vivid narrative that highlighting one or another becomes difficult. Perhaps, as so many writers of Debs’ own time did, we might touch upon two central themes: solidarity and martyrdom.

The first may be more difficult to understand, at least within the current context of a working-class life, because the experience in our time is mostly a fragmentation of blue-collar communities, mainly as a result of de-industrialization. The film offers a picture of that other time, a rocketing era of industrialization and urbanization that was also full of dislocation and fragmentation, with Debs himself learning, step by step, to make sense of it all.

The growing boy of railroad town Terra Haute, Indiana, was named after two radical French literary heroes, Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo. We see Debs in the film as a youthful railroad sign painter, then a local personality beloved for his kindliness. His character had been shaped well before he became a socialist: He defended sex workers from legalized abuse, and as a rising Democrat in the Indiana legislature, he was already an honest man among crooks.

Debs the labor leader soon outweighed Debs the politician, however, and the film offers an insightful look at the proud craftsmen of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, who were rapidly approaching a crisis. Debs saw how corporate monopolization broke down the meager advances the Brotherhood had made through hard-fought organizing. Though an extraordinary labor leader at this point, Debs — on the road for weeks at a time, hardly bothering to eat or sleep — was still no socialist. But he had, in this way, too, set his cap for what he would become.

Debs gradually drew the conclusion that only a union that included all railway workers could possibly defeat the corporate machine. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was unlike any other yet seen, and was also punished unlike any other strike at the time, as federal troops set against nonviolent strikers guilty only of showing solidarity toward each other and the populations of the “railroad towns” scattered across the West.

Equally notable, Samuel Gompers — head of the rising American Federation of Labor, who had been dedicated solely to the interests of skilled, white male workers — broke the strike through indifference to appeals for class solidarity.

Here, Strom’s narrative weakens for one of the few times, in my view, but for understandable reasons. Debs’ transition to the socialist movement was complex, perhaps too complex for easy telling. The Social Democracy of America that he led briefly was more utopian scheme for cooperative land settlement than a socialist movement in the normal sense. Inspired in no small part by the best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward, by newspaperman Edward Bellamy, it was also shaped by the Kansas newspaper, The Coming Nation (which would soon become the the Appeal to Reason) — for a while the best-selling weekly paper in all the US.

There is one more point that might have deserved more emphasis. Union Army veterans, known widely as “Abe’s Boys,” played a major part in reform movements of the late 19th century, from Reconstruction to labor, and populism to the utopian movements. In Debs’ old age, a socialist local in a tiny town might consist of Union veterans surviving in old-age homes. Like my own great-great grandfather, an abolitionist who later marched with Major General Tecumseh Sherman through Georgia, many of these men never once forgot the cause.

Still, Strom is on sound footing with the rise of the socialist movement. The archives of photos, drawings, available music and so on have been used to their best possible advantage, earning my salute to his whole staff, with particular praise for the photo researchers involved with the film. We see wonderful glimpses of crowds flocking to Debs: working-class men in derby hats, women sporting the hat-makers’ current designs (socialists led the hat-makers’ unions) and gather a fine sense of how open-air speaking was the great entertainment of the age, a least in good weather.

In awe of Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party rises in voting stats, in membership, in élan and enthusiasm — until they stop growing altogether. It would take more than one film can present, and a trip through unending arguments among scholars, to make sense of history’s disappointments. The ability of anti-socialists, political reformers and conservatives alike willing to form “fusion” tickets against local socialist candidates played a small part. The shifting demographics of the party, from homegrown members to immigrants with difficulty in voting, played another part. The defeat of some of history’s greatest strikes, not to mention internal conflicts, also added to the party’s troubles.

Strom, however, does get the most important element: the European War breaking out in 1914. In a stroke, the global optimism about a socialist future for humankind suffered a blow from which it may have never recovered. Debs and the bulk of the Socialist Party did not accept the war, emphatically decrying the US’s entry. Socialists nobly resisted with Debs at their head — even as he entered jail as a martyr in late 1918. And they faced repression, being treated as criminals with the encouragement of labor conservatives and US liberals.

The Debs saga has often centered upon the return of martyrdom, and for good reasons. Upton Sinclair, the great popular novelist himself, published a little volume of poetry about Debs in 1920, titled Debs and the Poets. It was a dripping, blood-filled cloth of agony, almost as if taken from the cross. But one of the great things Strom’s film does, from beginning to end, is break down the martyrdom theme into its constiuent parts, beginning with fellow prisoners heartbroken to see their beloved Debs leaving. For these men, Debs had the air of a saint. To see images of him weak and thin, physically broken but smiling, is an unforgettable experience, viewed any number of times.

There is a reason for this outpouring of sentiment in the film and in the audience, wherever the audience may be. Debs’ personal tragedy is the tragedy of the US socialist movement, but also the tragedy of all of us — and not just humans, but also Earth’s flora and fauna. Debs and the socialist movement did not fail the US; quite the reverse. He saw — and the film is quite clear about this — the world emerging from war as brutal, the war’s unprecedented slaughter as normalized, and a terrifying sign of what lay ahead.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs gives us hope and tragedy in equal measure. This is a film to be seen by everyone with socialistic inklings.