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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
Russia’s October Revolution came as a breath of life to the more intransigent American radicals and Socialists. For the great majority of Americans, carried away by their war sentiments, it seemed a betrayal. All who were not for America were against America. To speak out against the war became dangerous. Pressure for conformity culminated in the Espionage Act, a law so draconian that one could be sent to jail merely for commenting adversely on a soldier’s uniform or using language judged to aid the enemy’s cause. That act reactivated Debs, and he determined to defy it. On June 16, 1918, at Nimisilla Park in Canton, on a platform bare of flags, he made a defiant twohour speech that became a Socialist legend and that he knew would bring him to jail. “I would a thousand times rather be a free soul in jail than a sycophant and a coward in the streets,” he told a crowd of twelve hundred. Government agents took down every word he spoke. A fortnight later he was arrested.
He had expected no other outcome. On leaving for prison he threw a kiss to Kate from the train, and he told a friend en route that “she has stood shoulder to shoulder with me through every storm that has beat upon us and she is still standing firm now.” Yet in all the months he spent at the Atlanta penitentiary she never once visited him. Nor had she attended his trial. The reasons given by his biographers—her own ill health, the care of her aged mother, and the burden of running her Terre Haute house- seem hardly adequate. Debs’s one constant visitor was Mabel Curry, who gave up her own homelife for months to see and be near him. She visited him daily, smuggled notes past the guards for him, and even took charge of the large correspondence that came to him from all over the world. He was sixty-four when he entered the penitentiary, an old man in failing health. Yet the letters he wrote her in those years are those of a young lover—eager, idealistic, and, it must be admitted, somewhat florid and sentimental. There are few actual letters from prison, partly because Mabel was there much of the time to see him, partly because the one letter a week he was allowed to send he generally wrote to Kate.
In 1920 the battered Socialist Party, from which the Left Socialists had seceded the year before to form the Communist and the Communist Labor parties, met in convention in New York to choose a Presidential candidate. After a ritual singing of the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale” the delegates piled red roses around a portrait of the absent Debs, and he, Convict No. 9653, was nominated by acclaim. A delegation arrived at Atlanta to notify him formally, and he received them in his prison denims. He was allowed to issue statements of five hundred words a week, and that was the extent of his campaigning. In the year that had expanded the electorate to include women, he received 919,977 votes, 3.5 per cent of the total and about half his percentage of 1912. The victorious Harding had 16,152,200 votes. A few Socialists tried to take heart at almost a million votes, but the old-time Socialist leader Morris Hillquit sensed the election rightly as “the last flicker of the dying candle.” Over the decades the two major parties would borrow much from the Socialist program as the United States stumbled toward the welfare state. But Socialism as a third-party alternative was gone.
Following his release from Atlanta, Debs spent a half year with Kate in Terre Haute. At sixty-seven his health was broken. He was suffering from heart trouble, kidney trouble, arthritis, and blinding headaches, and his digestion had still not recovered from his prison diet. After six months in Terre Haute he went to the Lindlahr Sanitarium, a “nature” health resort near Chicago.
There in his room night after night the faded Socialist leader bent his head over his desk—he claimed to have had only three hairs left—writing to his Juno with all the fervor of an adolescent. Rarely did he mention politics or his Socialist activities. But he let her see the underlying sadness beneath the equanimity of his painfully assumed cheerful exterior. Most of his life, he admitted, had been spent in the depths and very little on peaks.
Debs lived on for six more years in increasingly poor health and reduced activity. When he had entered the penitentiary, he was so sympathetic to Soviet Russia that he had declared himself a Bolshevik from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. Now, when fellow travellers like Lincoln Steffens and Communist stalwarts like Ella Reeve Bloor urged him to show his allegiance to the Soviet state, he replied that “when the people of Russia aspire toward freedom I’m all for them, but I detest the terror which the Bolsheviks imposed to wrest and hold power. I still have, and always will have, a profound faith in the efficacy of the ballot.” Nor did he have any more sympathy for the American Communists, with their tactics of violence and underground activity. In 1923 he tried to resuscitate his dying party by a speaking tour of the major cities. Huge crowds came to listen to him, more out of curiosity and respect than conviction. Finally he collapsed and had to return to the sanitarium. He had stated that he would never run for President again. Nor, as 1924 approached, would his physical condition have allowed it. In that year the Socialists ran no candidate, but instead endorsed the candidate of the new Progressive Party, Wisconsin’s Senator Robert LaFollette.