Eugene Debs and the Idea of Socialism

By Howard Zinn

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the scholar-activist Howard Zinn (1922–2010), author of A People’s History of the United States. In each Rethinking Schools issue this year, we have published a “Zinn at 100” essay. This is not nostalgia. We commemorate Howard Zinn because his writing continues to provide needed context for today’s events. 

This is the last column in the series. Previous columns have focused on the scourge of nationalism, the importance of teaching about the U.S. empire, and the power of social movements to counter the awfulness of the U.S. Supreme Court. In this column, Zinn writes that “it is a good time to remember [Eugene V.] Debs, and to rekindle, the idea of socialism.” This was true in 1999, when Zinn wrote this column for The Progressive, and it is true today, when there is widespread disgust for what the capitalist system has wrought throughout the world, but too little discussion of alternatives.

This year, Rethinking Schools endorsed Haymarket Books’ annual socialism conference because it so closely aligns with our values. One of the speakers, Barbara Ransby, is Distinguished Professor at University of Illinois, Chicago, and author of Making All Black Lives Matter. In a tweet about socialism during the 2020 Democratic debates, Ransby wrote that “most young people are not afraid of the term but in fact are critical and skeptical of capitalism, the racism embedded in it, and the greed and exploitation it encourages.”

The theme of the conference is “Change Everything.” It draws from the quote from noted abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore: We must “change one thing: everything.” When working with young people, let’s make sure that we pair a critical look at our society with a serious exploration of how it can be reimagined. As Howard Zinn suggests, toward this rethinking, we have inspiring activist currents to draw on.

— Rethinking Schools editors


Eugene V. Debs when he was set free from prison on Christmas Day, 1921. — Glasshouse Images


We are always in need of radicals who are also lovable, and so we would do well to bring back to public attention the person of Eugene Victor Debs. Ninety years ago, at the time The Progressive was born, Debs was nationally famous as leader of the Socialist Party, and the poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote of him:

As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Judgment Seat

Debs was what every socialist or anarchist or radical should be: fierce in his convictions, kind and compassionate in his personal relations. Sam Moore, a fellow inmate of the Atlanta penitentiary, where Debs was imprisoned for opposing the First World War, told, years later, how he felt as Debs was about to be released on Christmas Day, 1921: “As miserable as I was, I would defy fate with all its cruelty as long as Debs held my hand, and I was the most miserably happiest man on earth when I knew he was going home Christmas.”

Debs had won the hearts of his fellow prisoners in Atlanta. He had fought for them in a hundred ways, and refused any special privileges for himself. That day of Debs’ release from Atlanta prison, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cellblock to allow over 2,000 inmates to mass in front of the main jail building to say goodbye to Eugene Debs. As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.

This was not his first prison experience. In 1894, not yet a socialist, but an organizer of railroad workers in the American Railway Union, he had led a nationwide boycott of the railroads in support of the striking workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company. They effectively tied up the railroad system, burned hundreds of railway cars, and were met with the full force of the capitalist state: Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer, got a court injunction to prohibit blocking trains. President Cleveland called out the army, which used bayonets, and rifle fire on a crowd of 5,000 strike sympathizers in Chicago. Seven hundred were arrested. Thirteen were shot to death.

Debs was jailed for violating a court injunction prohibiting him from doing or saying anything to carry on the strike. In court, he denied he was a socialist, but during his six months in prison he read socialist literature, and the events of the strike took on a deeper meaning. He wrote later: “I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict. . . . in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.”

From then on, Debs devoted his life energy to the cause of working people, and the dream of a socialist society. He stood on the platform with Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood in 1905 at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World. He was a magnificent speaker, his long body leaning forward from the podium, his arm raised dramatically. Thousands came to hear him talk, all over the country.

“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.”

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and the build-up of war fever against Germany, some Socialists succumbed to the talk of “preparedness,” but Debs was adamantly opposed. When President Wilson and Congress brought the nation into the war in 1917, speech was no longer free. The Espionage Act made it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in the armed forces.

Soon, close to a thousand people were in prison for protesting the war. The producer of a movie called The Spirit of ’76, about the American revolution, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for promoting anti-British feeling at a time when England and the U.S. were allies, and thus discouraging enlistment in the military. The case was officially labeled The U.S. v. The Spirit Of ’76.

Throughout the week of the 100th anniversary of Howard Zinn’s birth on Aug. 24, 1922, there will be events for educators, archivists, and the wider community to learn from Zinn’s life and work — and to share the many ways that people continue to document and teach people’s history. The events, from August 23 – 25, 2022, are free and online.

Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, in support of the men and women in jail for opposing the war. He told his listeners: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” He was found guilty, and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a judge who denounced those “who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power.”

In court, Debs had refused to call any witnesses, declaring: “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone.” Before sentencing, Debs spoke to judge and jury, uttering perhaps his most famous words (in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, recently, I was among 200 people gathered to honor Debs’ memory, who began the evening by reciting those words, words which moved me deeply when I first read them): “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.”

The “liberal” Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict, on the ground that Debs’ speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. The “liberal” Woodrow Wilson, with the war over, and Debs still in prison, 65, and in poor health, turned down his Attorney General’s recommendation that Debs be released. He was in prison for 32 months, and then in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day.


Today, when capitalism, “the free market,” “private enterprise,” are being hailed as triumphant in the world, as the system to be exported to every part of the world, it is a good time to remember Debs, and to rekindle the idea of socialism.

To see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a sign of the failure of socialism is to mistake the monstrous tyranny created by Stalin for the vision of an egalitarian and democratic society which has inspired enormous numbers of people all over the world. Indeed, the removal of the Soviet Union as the false surrogate for the idea of socialism creates a great opportunity. We can now reintroduce genuine socialism to a world feeling the sickness of capitalism — its nationalist hatreds, its perpetual warfare, riches for a small number of people in a small number of countries, and hunger, homelessness, insecurity for everyone else.

Here in the United States we should recall that enthusiasm for socialism — production for use instead of profit, economic and social equality, solidarity with our brothers and sisters all over the world — was at its height before the Soviet Union came into being.

In the era of Debs, the first 17 years of the 20th century — until war created an opportunity to crush the movement — millions of Americans declared their adherence to the principles of socialism. Those were years of bitter labor struggles, the great walkouts of women garment workers in New York, the victorious multi-ethnic strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the unbelievable courage of coal miners in Colorado, defying the power and wealth of the Rockefellers. The I.W.W. was born — revolutionary, militant, demanding “one big union” for everyone, skilled and unskilled, Black and white, men and women, native-born and foreign-born.

Over a million people read Appeal to Reason and other socialist newspapers. In proportion to population, it would be as if today, over 3 million Americans read a socialist press. The party had 100,000 members, and 1,200 office-holders in 340 municipalities.

Over a million people read Appeal to Reason and other socialist newspapers. In proportion to population, it would be as if today, over 3 million Americans read a socialist press. The party had 100,000 members, and 1,200 office-holders in 340 municipalities. Socialism was especially strong in the Southwest, among tenant farmers, railroad workers, coal miners, lumberjacks. Oklahoma, home of the fiery Kate Richards O’Hare (jailed for opposing the war, she hurled a book through a skylight to bring fresh air into the foul-smelling jail block, bringing cheers from her fellow inmates) had 12,000 dues paying members in 1914 and over a hundred socialists in local offices. 

The point of recalling all this is to remind us of the powerful appeal of the socialist idea to people alienated from the political system and aware of the growing stark disparities in income and wealth — as so many Americans are today. The word itself — “socialism” — may still carry the distortions of recent experience in bad places usurping the name. But anyone who goes around the country, or reads carefully the public opinion surveys over the past decade, can see that huge numbers of Americans agree on what should be the fundamental elements of a decent society: guaranteed food, housing, medical care for everyone; bread and butter as better guarantees of “national security” than guns and bombs; democratic control of corporate power; equal rights for all races, genders, and sexual orientations; a recognition of the rights of immigrants as the unrecognized counterparts of our parents and grandparents; the rejection of war and violence as solutions for tyranny and injustice.

There are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas which are both bold and inviting, the more bold the more inviting. That’s what the remembering of Debs and the socialist idea can do for us.

This article originally appeared in The Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 1, January 1999.


Read the other “Zinn at 100” articles:

1) “Don’t Despair About the Supreme Court” by Howard Zinn

2) “Empire or Humanity” by Howard Zinn

3) “The Scourge of Nationalism” by Howard Zinn


A great book related to, and endorsed by, Howard Zinn:

A People’s History for the Classroom by Bill Bigelow was published in 2008 by Rethinking Schools in cooperation with Teaching for Change as part of the Zinn Education Project. The book complements Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It features thought-provoking teaching strategies — role plays, imaginative writing activities, student-friendly background readings, and more — that illustrate how a people’s history can be brought to life in the classroom.

“I can think of no better way to excite young people about the history of our country than to introduce them to the teaching activities in A People’s History for the Classroom.”
—Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States