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The American Socialism That Might Have Been

Despite their minority status, the Socialists had been a significant force in American politics before patriotic war hysteria brought on an era of repression.

Jubilant Socialists knew that if they did equally well in the 1918 midterm elections, their national vote total could for the first time rise into the millions. For Wilson, whose Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by the narrowest of margins, the possibility of Socialists gaining the balance of power there was horrifying. And so, already at war in Europe, his administration in effect declared war on the Socialists at home as well, using as its primary tool Wilson’s sweeping criminalization of dissent, the new 1917 Espionage Act. The toll would be devastating.

The Government’s Axe Falls

Already the party’s most popular woman, the fiery Kansas-born orator Kate Richards O’Hare —known as Red Kate for her politics and her mass of red hair—had been sentenced to five years under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. Still free on appeal, O’Hare, who knew the hardships of farm life firsthand and had run for both the House and the Senate, continued to draw audiences in the thousands when she spoke in the prairie states. Before long, however, her appeal was denied and she was sent to the Jefferson City, Missouri, penitentiary, where she found herself in the adjoining cell to anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman. The two would become lifelong friends.

In 1918, the government went after Debs. The pretext was a speech he had given from a park bandstand in Canton, Ohio, following a state convention of his beleaguered party. “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command,” he told the crowd. “But in all the history of the world you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.”

That was more than enough. Two weeks later, he was indicted and swiftly brought before a federal judge who just happened to be the former law firm partner of President Wilson’s secretary of war. At that trial, Debs spoke words that would long be quoted: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest of the earth. I said then, I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”