Sanders, Debs and the Lessons of 1920

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Earlier this year, a photograph made the rounds on the Internet. It showed Bernie Sanders meeting a young supporter in Iowa. Bernie is smiling and pointing to the young man’s t-shirt. On the t-shirt, it says “Listen here, Bud, America deserved 9/11.”

The photo was a fake. In the real image, the photo on the young man’s shirt which brings a smile to the Senator’s face is one of Eugene V. Debs. And that makes a lot more sense.

Bernie Sanders has long admired Debs, who was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President in a number of elections more than a century ago. And many have drawn parallels between Debs’ campaign of 1920 and Sanders’ efforts today.

And while there’s an obvious parallel – a Socialist running with broad popular support – the differences are even more striking.

Debs had been leading an independent Socialist Party for nearly two decades, a party which had won elections across the country. There were many Socialist mayors, state legislators and even a few members of Congress. The party had its own extensive press, consisting of daily and weekly newspapers in a wide range of languages. And it was growing from year to year, reaching its greatest strength just before the outbreak of the First World War. (Though Debs won more votes in 1920 than he did in 1912, he won a higher percentage in the earlier contest.)

What brought the party down was the iron fist of the American government. The notorious Palmer raids, the deportation of foreign-born activists, the lynching of union militants (mainly from the IWW) – these were all part of a long and vicious (and ultimately successful) attempt to smash the working class movement in the United States. Debs himself was serving time in a federal prison, jailed for speaking out against US involvement in the war, at the time he ran for president.

The 1920 election was not the peak of Socialist strength; it was the beginning of the end for the party. Within six years, Debs died and the party faded into insignificance. Even the Communist Party, which grew to include tens of thousands of militant activists in the 1930s and 1940s, was never able to mount a presidential campaign of any significance.

When Bernie Sanders looks back at the 1920 Socialist campaign, he surely understands the advantages he has over Debs. He’s not under the threat of imprisonment and his supporters are not being deported and lynched. His vote total, even in the primaries, will very quickly exceed Debs’, as it did in 2016.

But he lacks the strong organisational base which Debs had. The Socialist Party in the years leading up to 1920 was a well-organised, powerful force in many communities. It recruited members, campaigned and carried out educational activities in between electoral cycles. Modelled on the German SPD, it aimed to create nothing less than a working class counter-culture.

Sanders did attempt to create an organisation to bridge the four year divide between 2016 and today. It is called ‘Our Revolution’ and it does good work. But it is not a political party, and lacks the discipline, resources and ideology of the old Socialist Party.

Whether Sanders wins or loses in 2020, his supporters need to consider whether a loose formation like ‘Our Revolution’ is enough. Perhaps like the Socialists of Debs’ time, they may decide that a more formal political structure (if not necessarily an independent political party) may be necessary to carry forward Sanders’ ideas.

What they must avoid at all costs is a repeat of what happened to the Socialist Party in the years following the election of 1920.