A Conversation about Debs and Socialism
Miller: Doug, let's talk about the origins of the Cold War during this
period. Communism, Bolshevism, Socialism. Tell us a little bit about Debs, I
mean the Socialist running for the presidency of the United States.
Brinkley: Debs is a very interesting character. And he's born in 1855
in Terre Haute, Indiana and he, early on, signed up with the Brotherhood of
He was conservative in the 19th Century. Debs. He was against
strikes. The great railway strikes of 1877, Debs was against them. The Pullman
strike of 1894, he was saying, workers should take it easy a little bit.
Miller: Don't get involved in this strike.
Brinkley: Don't get very involved in this.
Miller: He thought it would ruin his union.
Miller: A newly formed railroad union.
Brinkley: Yeah, it would ruin the union. But the 1896 election had a
profound impact on him. And he started questioning after that election, you
know, how, can trade unions really do anything in a capitalist society?
Doesn't big business have all the advantages? From 1896, he became a
Miller: What was different from this Socialist Party from the later
Brinkley: Well, the American Socialist Party of Debs, first off,
believed in Karl Marx. They believed in Das Kapital. They believed in
The Communist Manifesto. By 1917, with the Russian Revolution, for
example, and you have the advent of Lenin, they are talking there about a
Brinkley: Empowering the poor. So it was never as much of a connection
as some people would think between the American Socialist Party and what was
going on in the Soviet Union.
Miller: So this is a home-grown American Socialist Party.
Brinkley: Home-grown, with middle class values. And it was not in any
way anti-American, per se. These were workers that had rights.
Miller: Debs constantly talked about Jefferson and living up to the
ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.
Brinkley: That's what they used. Debs would use our documents to say,
"How can we do this?" And, you know, some people would say, well, the radical
Debs, and the radical Socialists, holding strikes. And he would say we are not
the ones perpetrating violence. The violence is on us. We're getting kicked.
We're getting hit over the head with clubs. We're getting beat up by the
Pinkertons, by the local police, by these strike breakers that the
corporations, whether it was in steel or coal fields.
Brinkley: That were doing this. We're not violent.
Miller: My grandmother was a member of the Socialist Party. In the
1930s, she used to deliver Socialist newspapers door-to-door. And later on,
when I learned about this, I'd shake my head. And she said, you know, we've
had six or seven Socialist mayors in this town. They call it "gas and water
socialism" because they'd take over the local gas company and the water company
and nationalize it.
But then all of a sudden, Socialism and Communism seemed to get lumped together
in the American mind and lumped together with Bolshevism and the Soviet Union.
When does that start to happen?
Brinkley: Well, really in the 1920s or after World War I because you
have the great Red Scare. There is this notion that there are anti-American
radicals everywhere and we've got to ferret them out and get rid of them. And
the Red Scare was a very brutal thing in 1919 and 1920.
Miller: Wasn't Hoover involved in that? J. Edgar Hoover?
Brinkley: J. Edgar Hoover is a real Washingtonian. After he got out of
law school, he went as his first job with the Justice Department in ferreting
out radicals. This was a guy in his 20s whose job was to say, "You're not
American enough." "You're not American enough." "This is a subversive." And he began a career of that. And he worked his way through the Justice Department to becoming a head of the Bureau of Investigation which by the 1930s became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. So from the '20s to 1972, J. Edgar Hoover oversaw the FBI but the whole Red Scare of the 1920s has a lot to do with the McCarthy period of the 1950s. And that both of them as trying to make people prove their Americanness. Let's swear your loyalty to the flag.
Debs was really talking about real people and how we can make their lives
better for them. And how we can get food on the table. How can we help and
improve working peoples' stature?
Miller: Whereas the Communist Party is dedicated to going underground
and subverting the capitalist system. They've declared war on the system and
aren't going to work it through the political system anymore.
Brinkley: Well, remember in the Russian Revolution, the United States
backed the white army versus the red army in Russia. I mean, we never liked
the advent of what was happening there, of communism or Leninism, mustering
there. We did not recognize the Soviet Union as it became called.
Miller: When did we first recognize it?
Brinkley: In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt came in and finally recognized it.
That's why Franklin Roosevelt is very admired in Russia today, during the Cold
War, because he recognized the Soviet Union and, of course, we fought with
Russia side by side to defeat Hitler in the Second World War. But, boy, it
didn't take long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the Cold War to ensue and
that Iron Curtain to go down across Europe. And at that point, Russia became
our pure enemy all the way up until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Miller: And what they are now, we're not quite sure.
Brinkley: It's interesting. I mean, you look at Leninism and Communism
and Socialism and Democracy and Totalitarianism and all these -isms in the
century. We can look now after 100 years of those -isms and say that it was
Democracy that won out. That it was the ideals of a Woodrow Wilson and a
Theodore Roosevelt. And a Debs to a degree.
At the end of the century, Democracy is what most people are looking for in the