Wednesday, November 4, Reverend William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays Movement and Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, spoke at Indiana University in Bloomington. Friday, November 6, Democratic presidential candidates appeared on a televised debate on MSNBC.
More modestly, also on November 6, 15 activists from a variety of movements in the Greater Lafayette, Indiana area watched a video and had a discussion about how the past can inform the present, what progressives can do to build a mass movement to create a more humane society, and what steps might be taken to continue dialogue, sharing experiences and ideas about social change. While lacking the visibility of the prominent speakers in Bloomington or the nationally televised candidates’ debates, the small meeting was informative, inspiring, and promising for the future.
The occasion was an event sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). CCDS members were interested in getting the word out about their 25 year-old organization. But more importantly they were interested in bringing experienced activists from various groups and projects together to share ideas and possible political projects with each other.
The impetus for this particular gathering was to remember, celebrate, and reflect on the life of Eugene V. Debs, five time presidential candidate under the banner of the Socialist Party. Born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs began his political life as a teenager, served a term in the Indiana legislature, worked on the railroad, and spearheaded the formation and national mobilization of the American Railway Union, an early industrial union. When the ARU supported a strike of Pullman workers in 1894, the federal government, encouraged by railroad moguls, bankers, and the media, sent troops to Chicago to crush the workers’ movement. Debs and some of his comrades were sentenced to six months in jail for leading the Pullman strike. And it was in jail, reading, studying, and reflecting, that Debs became a Socialist. For the remainder of his life he worked to mobilize the working class to use the ballot, the strike, and mass actions to organize and agitate for a new, humane, Socialist society. He believed that those who produced all the wealth of society, workers (Black/white, men/women, native born/immigrants) should receive the fruits of their labors. They should receive the value of what they produced. They should control the means of their production. And they should have a predominant voice in the political institutions in their society.
For thirty years as a leader of the newly constituted Socialist Party, Debs articulated this vision before hundreds of thousands of workers. He garnered millions of votes over his five presidential campaigns. His party, the Socialist Party, produced a national newspaper, The Appeal to Reason, in Emporia, Kansas, which at one time had 700,000 subscribers. His last incarceration resulted from his violation of the Sedition Act which prohibited any public opposition to World War I. He had made it clear in his famous 1918 anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, that the global working class had no interest in war; that the ruling class of bankers and manufacturers declared wars that workers were forced to fight.
The Eugene V. Debs birthday celebration opened with a showing of a 29-minute video on his life (“Bernie Sanders 1979 Documentary on Eugene V. Debs”) http://youtu.be/w82pFvUq3o8. The video, divided into eleven chapters, briefly discussed the lack of contemporary awareness of Debs and his movement; the rise of finance and manufacturing capital and its war on workers; the emergence of the Socialist Party as one working class response to capitalist exploitation; and the personal biography of Debs, from his youth in Terre Haute Indiana to national and global acclaim. It highlighted the theory that capitalism is an exploitative system that in the end was antithetical to the interests of workers. Capitalists sought to divide workers (by race, gender, ethnicity, and nation) to weaken their capacity to organize. The inextricable connection between opposing capitalism and war was emphasized.
After viewing the video, our group, which included persons from labor, the religious community, students, feminists, the local alternative newspaper, and participants in local chapters of Moral Mondays, the ACLU, and the NAACP, launched a conversation. First, we discussed the life of Eugene V. Debs. We analyzed his theoretical approach to social change and his concrete political activity. We briefly sketched the historical context in which he acted. We assessed his strengths and weaknesses. And we heard about how he is remembered in his home community, Terre Haute.
Secondly, we began to assess the meaning of Eugene V. Debs for the twenty-first century. We talked about whether broad sectors of the American people would be receptive to the vivid language Debs used to describe class struggle, the incompatibility of the interests of workers and capitalists, and whether the use of words like “revolution” and “socialism” would deter workers from participating in contemporary movements. We talked about how activists inspired by Debs could and should participate in the electoral arena and Debs’ claim that both major parties were capitalist parties. We discussed whether, even if this central proposition is correct today, we should participate within or outside the two party system. We disagreed with the stance of some on the Left who reject participation in the electoral process at all.
Finally, conversation inevitably led to analysis of the documentary filmmaker and now presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. We reflected on how much of the Sanders campaign was consistent with, or a deviation from, the message of Debs. And we discussed whether there was any reason to assume that making more concrete connections with the rich Socialist tradition of the past would make the Sanders campaign more effective.
The video was informative; the discussion probing and inspiring. Participants came away convinced that we need more discussions like the one we had just had. We had all been so busy building Moral Mondays, engaging in the Fight for $15, advocating for student rights, defending beleaguered trade unions, opposing military expansion in the Middle East, and producing a monthly newspaper that we had not stopped to take stock of what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what it was that was behind the variety of threats to the lives of most of us. We decided that we would find a way to continue to read and discuss materials together, watch short videos, and organize future conversations.
We will see what happens.