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“as Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Under the dual banners of the Red Flag and the Stars and Stripes, the Socialists waged a Presidential campaign with the customary paraphernalia of badges, buttons, ribbons, lithographs, and lantern slides, plus thousands of “little red stickers” and a catchy song, “The Dawning Day.” Theodore Roosevelt, President by inheritance, easily defeated the conservative Democrat, Judge Alton B. Parker, by over two and a half million votes. But Debs’s vote increased fourfold, to 402,895. One voter in thirty-six had voted for the Socialists, establishing them as a third party that, they were convinced, would in a decade or so become America’s first party.
In 1901 the Social Democrats united with dissident socialists to form the Socialist Party of the United States. During the next four years the party doubled its membership. Farmers of the West and Midwest, workers, scholars, intellectuals, liberal clergymen, suffragists, and social workers were drawn by their different roads to the Red Flag. Every state in the Union now had its Socialist locals. There were a hundred Socialist newspapers; there was the Rand School of Social Science in New York; there was the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, supported by Jack London’s lusty presence. Debs was now recognized across America as the popular spokesman for Socialism. In 1905 he helped “Big Bill” Haywood organize the lumberjacks and miners and other revolutionary-minded Westerners into the Industrial Workers of the World. Though himself inclined to the radicals, he managed to hold the radical and conservative wings of the party together. In 1908 he was nominated for the third time as Presidential candidate, but not by acclamation and not unanimously. Conservative Socialists like Victor Berger—“Slowcialists,” as some called them—were beginning to have reservations.
The Socialist campaign was made both widespread and spectacular by the Red Special, a train that Debs rented as his mobile headquarters. Decked out with red flags and banners, carrying a brass band, the Red Special’s three cars started from Chicago at the end of August on a twomonths’ journey that would take Debs across the West to California and back to Boston and New York to end with a ten-mile-long triumphant parade in Chicago. Crowds packed Boston’s Faneuil Hall and New York’s Hippodrome to hear him. Crowds lined the tracks at whistle stops to watch him pass. In sections of Wisconsin the schools were closed to let the children see the Red Special. Debs spoke until his throat was raw. Sometimes his voice failed him completely, and his younger brother Theodore, who much resembled him, took over in his place. “The ‘Red Special’ is a trump,” Debs wrote halfway across America. “The people are wild about it and the road will be lined with the cheering hosts of the proletarian revolution.”
But for all the Red Special’s sensational passage and the warm welcomes Debs received, the election results were coldly disillusioning. The Socialists increased their total of four years earlier by a mere eighteen thousand votes. Yet even as they were debating the discouraging results, in the months that followed they benefited from a sharp upturn in popular favor as a result of the Taft-Roosevelt split and the rise of Progressivism. In 1910 the Socialists even elected a mayor of Milwaukee, and Victor Berger became the first Socialist congressman, representing the same bumptious city. By 1911 some 435 Socialists had been elected to office in various parts of the country. Yet the party’s 1912 convention was marked by increasing dissent between the “Slowcialists” and the radicals. The conservatives finally forced through an amendment excluding those who, like Haywood’s iww Wobblies, favored industrial sabotage and violence over mere political agitation. Debs was in an anomalous position. He disliked any form of violence, and yet when he called for revolution he did not mean evolution. Never wholly trusting him, the conservatives put forward several other candidates to oppose him. Still, there could be no doubt about the outcome. Debs, like no other leader, had captured the imagination and the hearts of the rank-and-file party members. He was the inevitable candidate.
That election of 1912 was the most frenzied, the most viciously contested, since Bryan had run against McKinley in 1896. With Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party moving head-on against Taft and the embattled party regulars, the election of New Jersey’s Governor Woodrow Wilson was predictable. As Debs admitted to Lincoln Steffens, he himself campaigned for Socialist propaganda purposes, with never the remotest hope of winning. His campaign was as lively as ever, though it lacked the flamboyance of the Red Special this time. Again he toured the country, and again he brought the crowds to their feet with his electrifying delivery, his evangelistic denunciations of capitalism. The more optimistic Socialists had predicted he would gather in at least two million votes. Though this was wide of the mark, Debs did manage to more than double his 1908 vote. Almost one voter in sixteen had given the Socialists his allegiance. They seemed now a permanent force in American politics.
Kate Debs did not accompany her husband on his tours. His brother and his parents had followed him enthusiastically into Socialism, but there was a rumor that Kate had fainted when he announced his conversion. Socialism was alien to her bourgeois heart. She remained nevertheless a loyal wife. In a short article, “How My Wife Has Helped Me,” Debs wrote in 1922: