Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health, against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.
Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.
What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:
“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”
As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.