Maurice Isserman

The New York Times published an essay titled "America’s Original Socialist" by Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History, on April 20. This was the fourth opinion piece written by Isserman and published in the Times in the last two years.

With the subheading "A century ago, Eugene V. Debs went to prison for his beliefs," the article chronicled Debs rise, first as an editor of a union publication, then as a Democrat in the Indiana legislature, and then as founder and president of the American Railway Union, before leading the Socialist movement.  In the mid-1890s Debs emerged "as the presidential standard-bearer for a small but growing Socialist movement," according to Isserman.

"In 1912 he won nearly a million votes, some 6 percent of the total. Immigrant neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and in Milwaukee were not the only places to turn out for Debs. In some states, such as Washington and California, and most surprisingly, Oklahoma, the Socialist Party’s share of the vote climbed into the double digits."

Debs was convicted in 1919 under the Espionage Act for a speech he made in 1918 in which he devoted just one paragraph to expressing the Socialist Party’s traditional opposition to war. “The master class has always declared the wars,” he [Debs] noted, while “the subject class has always fought the battles.” Isserman wrote, "But that was enough under the Espionage Act to bring his swift indictment and conviction." Debs served three years in prison and died in 1926, as the Socialist movement was falling apart.

Isserman closed his essay pondering the future for Debs' century-old movement, "Whether a current generation of Socialists, new to the movement and growing in numbers, will find a way to weave together the redemptive promise of moral protest and the practical achievements of political action is still to be determined."




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