Eugene V. Debs is the socialist icon we need in 2020

We’re just two months away from the first Democratic primaries and caucuses for the 2020 presidential election. One generational trend is setting the stage to make 2020 different: young people love socialism. Two-thirds of Millennials would vote for a socialist, and Generation Z reacts to the word “socialism” just as positively as “capitalism.”

Who should newfound socialists look to as a model in 2020? Bernie Sanders? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Our columnists at the Indiana Daily Student suggest a Hoosier name: Eugene V. Debs.

Eugene V. Debs — from Terre Haute, Indiana — helped found one of the largest labor unions in the US. He ran for president as a Socialist five times in the early twentieth century, back when the word “socialist” was less taboo. He won 6% of the vote in 1912, the year that the Socialist Party held its national convention in Indianapolis with a platform that called for a minimum wage and an end to child labor. In 1920, he ran for president from prison.

In short, Eugene V. Debs is the socialist icon we need in 2020.

— By

Izzy Myszak | IDS

Hoosier educators, students and supporters gather Nov. 19 outside of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. The #redfored movement demands more funding for education.

Teachers are at the helm of a new labor movement

Sixty percent of Americans cannot afford an unexpected expense of $1,000. This gross inequality is reminiscent of the economic inequality of the Gilded Age when industrial tycoons exploited millions of Americans to work in poor conditions for long hours and for low wages.

It was not until those like Indiana native Eugene V. Debs banded together with workers into unions and demanded comprehensive labor reforms that change took place. Although Debs had a prolific career in organized labor, his legacy has been somewhat diminished in Indiana as it has become a right to work state.

The wealthy have benefited off the weakened condition of unions; however, teacher unions are beginning to change that by standing up to unresponsive state governments and magnifying the systemic problems within our education system.

Nationwide union membership has significantly declined with only 10% of workers belonging to a union. However, unions help increase wages and create a stronger middle class. A study from the Economic Policy Institute found that private-sector union decline since the late 1970s has contributed to substantial wage losses among workers who do not belong to a union.

Despite the decline in union membership there were 20 major labor strikes in 2018, the largest amount in over a decade. This resurgent labor movement has not come from beleaguered factory workers but from America’s educators.

The teacher strikes that occurred last year in Oklahoma and West Virginia started a chain reaction that led to teacher strikes in six other states. It is no surprise as to why they are rising up. Public school teachers receive low pay, work for long hours, and have many responsibilities both inside and outside the classroom.

Indiana ranks 51st in the nation regarding teacher pay with starting salaries as low as $30,000. One in five public school teachers have to work a second job just to make ends meet. Yet, teachers often have to pay hundreds of dollars for their own classroom school supplies.

U.S. school teachers work on average 12-16 hours a day for nine months, the other three months are spent planning curriculum. In addition to teaching, teachers sponsor extracurricular activities and many act as de facto counselors on the front lines of a growing mental health crisis in America’s youth.

Whether it be the Pullman car workers of the 1890s or the public-school teachers of today, unions are the best way to ensure workers receive the respect and dignity they deserve. For example, last month, Chicago public school teachers went on an 11-day strike after reporting issues of low pay to asbestos in classrooms. The strike ended in $1.5 billion concessions that will go toward pay raises and to reduce overcrowding in schools.

On Nov. 19, over 16,000 teachers rallied at the Indiana Statehouse, canceling lessons in 147 school districts. The Indiana teacher’s union is asking the state to allocate part of the state’s more than $2 billion surplus to schools and pass a hold-harmless provision to protect teachers and schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019 ILEARN test scores.

Basically, Hoosier teachers want a fair and livable wage, and steady funding to address student needs that is not at the mercy of standardized test scores.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Greenfield, said “We get it. We get that you’re frustrated. We get that you are concerned.” He added that teacher pay would probably have to wait until the next budget writing session, in 2021. Bosma’s words are not a sufficient substitute for educators’ demands.They have been asking for this much needed change since January, which led to a rally of 1,000 teachers at the Statehouse in March 2019.

This is just another attempt by the Republican dominated legislature to stall education reforms. The Republican Party, both nationally and in Indiana, has continually sided with business interests over public schools.


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos consistently pushes to expand federal vouchers and cut education spending. She unveiled a voucher bill in March 2019 that would invest $50 billion in private school vouchers for over 10 years. She also supports President Trump’s plan to cut education spending by $8.5 billion in 2020. This would eliminate essential programs that include teacher development and after school activities.

Over the next two years in Indiana, the state will increase funding for charter schools by 20% compared to 4% for public schools. Furthermore, during the last legislative session, Gov. Eric Holcomb changed the elected state school superintendent to a governor-appointed position, suppressing teacher input in the formation of education policy and replacing it with whomever the governor appoints.

Charter schools often end up benefiting the rich and powerful like DeVos and Holcomb. They are funded by taxpayer dollars but managed by private companies that prioritize profits over education. These profits can then be funneled into campaign contributions to politicians to continue to cut regulations around charter schools.

Eugene V. Debs helped workers around the nation realize their rights by using a worker’s most powerful weapon–the labor strike. The Red for Ed movement, in a way, has become a revival of Debs’ legacy in a political and economic climate where the rights of the working class have once again been trampled on by the rich and powerful.

Hopefully, the recent demonstrations led by teachers will inspire workers in other industries headed by multi-billionaires like Gates and Bezos to unite and demand better treatment.

Courtesy photo

Debs working in his office.

The inalienable right to work must be protected

“As the rosebud under the influence of sunshine and shower opens, so does my heart receive your benedictions this afternoon.”

Eugene V. Debs, upon receiving the presidential nomination of the Socialist Party in 1908, extended his thanks to the audience that assembled in Girard, Kansas.

Hoosier Socialist Eugene V. Debs recognized in his 1908 acceptance speech that the United States requires bold leadership driven by the interests of the working classes, not the interests of those at the top of the social ladder who climbed the rungs using money, power and well-connected networks. Eugene V. Debs recognized the needs of our nation in 1908. Those needs are still not met.

Wage inequality continues to grow, reaching a point that was prevalent before the Great Depression. Racial discrimination in the workplace continues to advantage the majority White population at the expense of employees belonging to any racial minority. Debs feared these consequences of a failing capitalist economic system. His efforts to highlight the need to alter the course of the economy must not go unnoticed.

“Every man has the inalienable right to work,” Debs proclaims. “Here I stand, just as I was created. I have two hands that represent my labor power. I have some bone and muscle and sinew and some energy. I want to exchange it for food and clothing and shelter. Between my right to apply my labor to the tools with which work is done there stands a man artificially created. He says, ‘No, no!’ Why not? ‘Because you cannot first make a profit for me.”


Instead of supporting a failing capitalist system rooted in economic inequality, Debs supported the inalienable right to work in the U.S. Not to get confused with the “right to work” legislation pursued by anti-union legislatures that hinders the ability of labor unions to collectively bargain, the “inalienable right to work” Debs supported provides individuals with fair access to the economic rewards produced by work and labor. This is the leadership the nation thirsts.

“Now my friends,” Debs declared, “I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself, but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands upon thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life”. Almost 41,000 days have passed since these words were spoken, yet the inequality and struggle that Debs recognized over a century ago continues to plague the U.S. today.

In times of economic insecurity, wealth inequality and workplace discrimination, the inalienable right to work must be defended. Smart public policy centered on labor union protections, mitigating income inequality, eliminating the gender pay gap and ridding the workplace of racial discrimination are essential facets of that inalienable right. The protection of such a principle can usher in an era of equality and economic fairness, just as Eugene V. Debs hoped to see 111 years ago.

Matt Begala | IDS

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, speaks during the Liz Watson campaign rally Oct. 19, 2018 at Dunn Meadow. After the rally, Sanders and Watson marched down Seventh Street to vote.

Bernie Sanders calls back to Eugene Debs’ style of socialism

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has led a long and impressive political career, but of course, he is not the first socialist to capture the American political scene. He has stated in the past that Eugene V. Debs is one of his greatest inspirations, and even has a portrait of the man hanging on the wall in his office.

Debs is perhaps best known for his work fighting for labor unions, opposing corporations and opposing World War I. Many of his endeavors landed him in prison, but he continued to fight and even ran for president 5 times, once from prison.

These are issues that are important to Sanders as well, with his campaign issues ranging from Medicare for all, workplace democracy, taxes on the rich and responsible foreign policy. Their core goal is the same, and that is to fight inequality in all of its forms.

These goals have been fought for by the activist movements of the 20th century, but the most prominent figures, or at least the ones to which the media gave attention, did not always organize in the context of socialism.


The Red Scare brought government officials cracking down hard on any socialist organization and the subsequent Cold War created a strong negative connotation with the word “socialism,” tying it directly to the negative Western view of the Soviet Union. No matter the goal or who was fighting, socialism was a bad and scary word in mainstream American politics. This is not to say there were not socialists at all, because there were many, but they found themselves silenced by the government.

Luckily, Sanders is not afraid of fighting to bring socialism back to the American political stage, and he has a large audience. He is campaigning against establishment Democrats that are backed by billionaires and build their campaigns on neoliberalism, as is par for the course, but this proves a stark and obvious contrast—Sanders, much like Debs, is fighting for the equality of the people instead of for his own self-interest.

It’s difficult to break out of the political box the U.S. has created in which everyone should work only for their self-interest, picking themselves up by their bootstraps and working for individual wealth.

The truth is, it’s not realistic in a country in which so many barriers to equality exist. This is what Debs fought for and what Sanders, and many activists even more radical than him, continue to fight for, because if compassion for other people isn’t at the core of your political beliefs, then what is the point? Debs said, “I am for socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”

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