Lessons for Today: When a Socialist and Labor Leader Won a Million Votes

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“In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed.” So wrote Eugene Debs about his confrontation with violent police oppression while defending the right of workers to unionize for fair pay as a fighting union leader. This past year has seen many people – young and old, employed and unemployed – radicalized at the hands of “non-lethal” instruments of oppression: the sting of pepper spray and the flash of rubber bullets.

Debs’ response to an institutionalized disregard for the needs of working people was to tirelessly run for president on the Socialist Party ticket. 2012 marks the centennial of his most successful Presidential run, and there are many lessons to be gleaned from his campaign that stood for working people against the politics of Democrats and Republicans.

The years preceding the 1912 election season saw a newly globalized economy failing to meet the needs of working people. Textile workers in Lawrence, MA were working fifty-six-hour weeks for pay that kept them in tenement buildings that were openly referred to as “firetraps.” A doctor who examined many of the mill workers stated that, “because of malnutrition, work strain and occupational diseases, the average mill worker’s life was over twenty-two years shorter than the manufacturer,” which is a clinical way of saying that workers were dying for the bosses’ profit. In response to falling wages and mass factory closings, workers went out on strike to demand fair pay.

Globally, workers were striking in New York, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, emboldened by the strikes of coal workers across England, miners in New Zealand, and cross-industry strikes in Australia. The 1905 uprising of the Russian working class inspired millions worldwide as workers encountered the realities of capitalism: backbreaking work for starvation wages. With this backdrop, Debs ran on a platform that provided a real challenge to the “controlling oligarchy of wealth” and the “legislative representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties [that] remain faithful servants of the oppressors.”

Raising Consciousness

Across the American landscape that was having its resources and soil literally sapped dry by capitalist expansion, Debs tirelessly campaigned from coast to coast on his Red Express train. For the tired and hungry masses, Debs was a necessary amplification of their own voices. Standing on a platform in opposition to capitalist candidates Wilson, Roosevelt and Taft, Debs was able to bring the needs of working people – which had long been hidden away in collapsing tenements and dangerous factories – onto the national stage. The most tangible result of this third party presidential campaign was the wave of success in local elections: 136 cities elected members from the Socialist Party ticket.

Local working-class candidates were pushed out of obscurity and into state legislatures on the crest of a wave of consciousness. This wave was created by mass a mass outpouring of anger, and it was empowered by channeling support behind other Socialist Party candidates with a shared platform. The presidency of Woodrow Wilson was pushed further left by the growing politicization of the population in favor of child labor laws, anti-trust laws, and an eight hour day for railroad workers. These were all major platforms of Debs’ campaign which had successfully engaged and empowered important sections of American populace.

Relevance a Century Later

Today the two major parties offer a choice based mainly on social issues. Both will continue with the economic status quo that has meant foreclosure, hunger, diminishing social services and nonexistent job prospects for the 99% of America. Obama has gotten larger campaign contributions from Wall Street than any other preceding candidate, and Romney can’t go a week without a public gaffe showing his completely out of touch ignorance of the financial realities faced by the American people. The only candidate who openly speaks about the war is Ron Paul, and the overwhelming popularity of this antiwar stance has managed to blur over his otherwise racist, sexist, anti-worker agenda for many of his anti-establishment supporters.

With the looming elections of November, Democrats will likely run a lesser-evilism campaign, contrasting their stance on women’s and LGBT issues to the obvious bigotry of the Republican Party. However, with Democrats in office, the attacks on these groups have continued unabated. Debs publicly asserted during his campaign that, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” Unfortunately, no electoral campaign this year has the high profile or clear working-class base that Eugene Debs had a century ago.

Internationally, the Socialist Party in Ireland, Socialist Alternative’s sister organization, is an excellent example of the kind of campaign we need with elected, accountable candidates who only accept the average wage of the people they represent. The three elected candidates continuously use their time in parliament to fight against austerity measures, question the agenda of bailing out banks before people, and demand quality social services for Ireland. This is possible in the United States, as well. In the wake of overflowing anger embodied in massive strikes by Verizon workers and the wide sympathy for Occupy protests, huge sections of the American populace realize that the two parties are not working for them.

The 2012 election could provide an opportunity to put the needs of working people on the stage with Obama and Romney, further exposing the inadequacy of these candidates and offering the option to actually vote for something we want and need. Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant is running for Washington State Senate, and Socialist Alternative will be supporting other independent left candidates throughout the country – including a left independent candidate for president – while building movements and putting forward a democratic socialist alternative to war, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental destruction.

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