28 August, 2018
A Statement by Reid Kane Kotlas, 2018 Socialist Party Candidate for U.S. Senate (Vermont)
Bernie Sanders has long claimed Eugene Debs as his hero. Yet Sanders’s political trajectory could not be more starkly opposed to that of Debs.
Debs the Democrat
After rising up the ranks of the labor movement in the 1870s and ’80s, Debs was courted by the Democratic Party of Indiana to run for state legislature in 1884, and handily won the election. Yet his career as a Democratic Party politician was short-lived. As Ray Ginger, in his biography of Debs, The Bending Cross, recounts,
When Debs was sworn into the state House of Representatives on January 8, 1885, 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 exultation 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, but his reaction was much too extreme. By the standards of the times, that legislative session in Indiana was a good one; it passed a resolution supporting a Federal eight-hour law for all trades but agriculture, and wrote into law an equal rights act for all places of “public accommodation or amusements,” a township tax of 1 per cent for the support of the libraries, a mechanics’ lien law, coal-mine safety provisions, a prohibition on the importation of foreign contract-labor. But Eugene Debs felt that he had failed his electorate; when he reached home in March, he told Theodore that he would never again run for public office. [p. 42–43]
Over the following decade, Debs remained generally supportive of the Democratic Party, which nominally defended the cause of workers and farmers against the increasingly despotic owners of capital, whose interests were represented by the Republican Party. This was seemingly confirmed when the Republican Harrison administration aided the suppression of strikes at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892, and when Harrison’s Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, voiced support for the workers against the collusion of their employers and the state, contributing to his victory later that year.
Debs campaigned for Cleveland in ’92 out of support for the working class against the collusion of capital and the state. Yet Debs knew the Democrats were anything but consistent, and was more or less skeptical of the political establishment as a whole, siding with the Populist insurgency of workers and farmers in the early 1890s, which began organizing a new party. This skepticism was brutally validated when, in 1894, President Cleveland’s administration sent Federal troops to crush the Pullman Strike led by Debs’s recently formed American Railway Union.
This confirmed for Debs the necessity of independent political action on the part of the working class. The Democrats and Republicans alike supported the rule of capital against the struggle of the working class to improve their position in society. Only by representing themselves in the political sphere could the working class hope to break the collusion between capital and the state.
Yet the Populist movement was by no means uniform in its conviction to build an independent political party of workers and farmers, with many seeking instead to influence and transform one or both of the major parties. In the 1896 election, the Democratic Party sought to overcome the damage to its reputation that resulted from Cleveland’s suppression of the Pullman Strike, and to capitalize on the Populist insurgency, by nominating William Jennings Bryan — a Democrat popular within the Populist movement — as its Presidential candidate. The incipient People’s Party, rather than maintaining itself as an independent political force, also nominated Bryan, and much of the Populist movement was, as a result, folded into the Democratic Party base.
While Debs expressed support for the People’s Party, he had lost whatever remaining faith he had in the Democratic Party. He was won over to socialism in 1895 while serving his prison sentence for leading the Pullman strike, and while he maintained hopes in the People’s Party despite its endorsement of Bryan, and campaigned for it in 1896, he would ultimately recognize that the Populist movement failed because it was unable to preserve its independence.
Socialism, unlike Populism, reflected the necessity of independent political organization of the working class: rather than simply seeking reforms to ameliorate the condition of working people, the socialists proposed that the working class should organize itself to take power, as only the working people could realize the potential for freedom capital represented. Capital was the means of production through universal cooperation, and as such, it could not be effectively and responsibly managed by individual owners. It could only be administered through the conscious cooperative management of the workers themselves, who had to organize to take political power in order to wield it to that end....