In 1912, as the Socialist Party's candidate for President of the United States, Debs received over 897,000 votes. This was 6 percent of the total popular vote for the Presidency, or the equivalent of roughly 3 million votes in the 1948 election.
There were, in 1912, many Socialists in state legislatures, and 33 cities and towns had Socialist heads of government.
The popular interest in socialism was reflected in the enormous sale of socialist literature; pamphlets by socialists were printed in editions of hundreds of thousands; books by socialist authors often ranked with the best sellers of the day.
The Appeal to Reason, the most important national socialist newspaper of the period, had a subscription list of over 300,000 and on special occasions it reached a circulation of over 600,000.
While it is true that much of the radical strength of that period came from immigrants, particularly from the needle trade workers in the East, it is a mistake to assume, as many people so often do, that this was the most important part of the Left movement. It was not. Socialist Party strength was widely distributed--in the Middle West and Far West, as well as in the East.
Some time ago, I read through several years of the Appeal to Reason. In the issue of August 15, 1908, I found a breakdown of the subscription list of 300,000, by states. Oklahoma led the list with 24,402, California was second with 20,852, and New York was 15th with only 8,580 subscribers. Of the states ahead of New York, nine were west of the Mississippi.
The year 1912 represented the peak of radical voting strength; since that time it has declined. Today, 100 years after the birth of Debs, the Left movement in the United States is at its lowest ebb--not only in respect to vote-getting but in every other respect--strength of organization, numbers, influence, interest, literature. In regard to the radical press, this is easily demonstrated: take the circulation of the four journals represented on this platform [I. F. Stone's Weekly, Monthly Review, The American Socialist, and the National Guardian], add to it the circulation of the entire socialist Party and Communist Party press, The Call, The Daily Worker, Peoples World, Political Affairs, Masses & Mainstream, throw in the weeklies of the DeLeonites and the Trotskyites, and include, too, the circulation of even the liberal journals, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Progressive. Add them all up together and the total figure won't reach 200,000--not even two-thirds of the circulation of the old Appeal to Reason.
The decline in influence of the Left press is a measure of the decline of the strength of the Left--its isolation from the main currents of American life, its lack of influence, its loss of membership. And this deeply disturbing situation in the United States occurs at precisely the moment in history when a large proportion of the test of the world is moving toward socialism at a rapid rate. Why? Why has socialism become a dirty word in our country at the very time that in other countries it is a beacon of hope?
This is an important question. Some of the answers are known to us now, others still require further research and study. Of greater importance is the question: what shall we do now, how shall we remedy the situation in which we find ourselves?
In seeking an answer to this question, it is fitting, on the occasion of a Debs Memorial meeting, that we begin by reflecting on the legacy left us by that extraordinary man. To all Americans, regardless of their politics, he left a legacy whose elements are unmistakable--genuine nobility of character, absolute honesty and integrity, unflinching courage to do right as he saw it, hatred of injustice, sympathy for suffering. Remember his memorable words at the beginning of his statement to the court before being sentenced to prison: "Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. …