Power  /  Biography

Eugene Debs Believed in Socialism Because He Believed in Democracy

Eugene Debs’s unswerving commitment to democracy and internationalism was born out of his revulsion at the tyranny of industrial capitalism.

Debs ultimately landed in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he would launch his fabled 1920 presidential bid. The campaign was, in many ways, the last hurrah of his political career. Allowed to write weekly dispatches, Debs again implored workers to reject the perfidies of the two major parties and vote for the movement that would stamp out the iniquities of capitalism. The Socialist Party, meanwhile, insisted that a vote for Debs was a vote for civil liberties. On Election Day, nearly 1 million people pulled the lever for the jailed socialist, the fifth and final time he would run for president.

Debs was well treated by his prison wardens, but he nevertheless saw his environs as the brutal product of capitalism. He refused to look down on his fellow prisoners, insisting that the social conditions that had produced their penury and shoved them into a life of crime were the true culprits.

Debs later compared the domination of the cell block to that of the workplace:

On the outside of the prison walls the wage slave begs his master for a job; on the inside he cowers before the club of his keeper. The entire process is a degenerating one and robs the human being, either as a wage slave walking the street or as a convict crouching in a cell, of every attribute of sovereignty and every quality that dignifies his nature.

The prisoners loved Debs. He gave them many of the gifts (flowers, cakes, boxes of fruit) that streamed in from supporters around the country. (He held on to the “silk pajamas monogrammed in red” that one union sent.) He helped them write letters, offered them counsel on their cases, provided advice about their personal problems.

When Debs was finally released on Christmas Day 1921, the incarcerated — let out of their cells to watch their fellow prisoner walk free — gathered to offer a final goodbye. As Debs strode down the sidewalk outside, hat and cane in hand, attired in a black suit and winter jacket, noticeably more haggard than when he entered, the prisoners roared from inside.


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

How America's most famous socialist was a democratic true-believer at heart.