Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was an American original, so original in fact that he is the only candidate in American history to have campaigned for the office of president of the United States while in jail.
That campaign took place in 1920, but Debs began running for president as a Socialist starting in 1900 and again in 1904, 1908 and 1912 when he got 901,255 votes or about 6 percent of the total vote. Convicted in 1918 for challenging U.S. entry into World War I, Debs was sentenced to a 10-year term in the Atlanta penitentiary. Nevertheless, in the 1920 election, he got 919,801 votes, about 3.5 percent of the total vote. President Warren G. Harding, whom he had opposed, commuted his sentence in 1921.
A new Debs biography is welcome since an unanswered question remains: Why have national labor, socialist or revolutionary parties foundered in the United States but not in other parts of the world, most notably Europe, where they have quite often become ruling political parties?
Early in the century it looked as if socialism in the United States might well become a viable, popular political creed. In 1912 the Socialist Party had more than 1,200 elected public officials, two members of Congress, and some 300 periodicals. At the 1912 American Federation of Labor convention, one-third of the delegates were Socialists. Yet even with the 1930s Depression and a charismatic leader - Norman Thomas - succeeding Debs who died at the age of 71, it all came to naught. Thomas was said to have thought that socialism was defeated because the Roosevelt New Deal had legitimized trade unions and inaugurated a welfare state.
At the turn of the century, a German economist, Werner Sombart, published an article titled, "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" His answer came in a melodramatic metaphor: "On the reefs of roast beef and apple-pie socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom." But probably the most widely accepted theory of why socialism never gained a foothold in America came from Louis Hartz, the Harvard political scientist. He argued that unlike Europe, America never knew feudalism or a feudal aristocracy, both of which in Europe created a politics of class.
Debs himself exemplified the openness of post-Civil War America. His parents were immigrants from Alsace. Their son, for whom hundreds of thousands voted, was able to run for president. He also published a magazine and traveled from one end of the country to the other without hindrance (except during World War I) preaching his gospel. …