Once upon a time, the word “socialist” wasn’t considered a dirty word. In fact, in 1912, roughly a million people (6 percent of the popular vote), voted for a socialist for president. He is the subject of filmmaker Yale Strom’s new documentary, “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” in limited release in New York from April 27 through May 3 and in Los Angeles from May 4 through May 10.
A straight chronology using archival photos and footage, Strom’s movie tells the story of the pioneering union leader and founding member of International Workers of the World (IWW). Early in his career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party with a focus on union issues and workers’ rights. He co-founded the American Railway Union (ARU), which galvanized a wildcat strike over pay cuts into a nationwide Pullman Strike that landed him six months in prison. Emerging from incarceration, he was the founding member of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president five times between 1900 and 1920. The first political figure jailed for anti-war speech, Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for urging people to resist the military draft of World War I.
He told the court: “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. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Opening and closing the film are remarks by the prominent Marxian economist, professor Richard D. Wolff, who has taught at Yale University and City College of New York. He is currently visiting professor at The New School and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has written and co-authored numerous books, including “Democracy at Work,” “Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism” and “Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian,” all released in 2012.
Strom and Wolff spoke with Truthdig contributor Jordan Riefe, offering insights on the current resurgence of socialism.
Jordan Riefe: Are we seeing a widespread resurgence of socialist ideas? Or is it mainly contained to millennials?
Richard Wolff: I’m getting more inquiries about socialism than I have ever had before in my life. If you’re talking about people 35 and younger, it’s overwhelming. But I’m noticing older people are beginning to rethink, partly because their children are talking to them.
JR: Many of them are Bernie’s age.
RW: Bernie Sanders, a moderate kind of socialist, has to open it up. It takes a little time to discover that the scary thing isn’t scary, and a nice old man from Vermont helps you do that. He’s been the right guy at the moment. I have been told by people close to him that he is going to run again.
Yale Strom: If Bernie retired tomorrow, the one thing he did is he galvanized people. They know the word “socialism” is not a bad word. I am optimistic, even if the Vichy Republicans don’t have the cajones to say to Trump: “No, no, you’ve gone too far.”
JR: Bernie ignited a lot of fervor, but is it enough?
RW: Having a person like Trump as the president accelerates the process. People are so disgusted, so turned off, that when he says, “I’m the champion of our economic system,” most people go, “Oh my God, I got to find something else ’cause this is not good!” The joke among socialists is that the best recruiter for socialism in America today is Donald Trump.
JR: Is that why this is happening now?
RW: It’s the reality of what you call scorched-earth capitalism. I point to the crash of 2008. That was capitalism falling apart in front of our face. And the politicians who used to say government was the problem begged the government to come save the banks, save General Motors and AIG. A lot of people understood that the system collapsed, and the government saved it.
JR: You think that’s what caught the attention of millennials?
RW: And now, 10 years later, as nobody has really fixed this system, everyone’s discovering, particularly the young people in college, that there’s a disconnect between the debts they’re accumulating to get their degree and the jobs and income that degree will enable them to obtain. They’re saying: “This system doesn’t work for us.”
YS: If all you worry about is money, money, money, then we are in an avaricious system that creates sociopaths. There’s got to be more to the moral fiber of life than just to be a consumer at the highest level.
JR: What do you say to people who point to Stalinism and the gulags when you mention socialism?
RW: If you want to look for gulags, countries with capitalist economic systems have the same skeletons in their closets. Look at our overcrowded prisons. We’ve got nothing to be proud of in how this society is dealing with its problems.
JR: And what of those who say that a culture so grounded in individualism isn’t suited to socialism?
RW: I don’t like leaving it to the individual to decide. I think that’s why we have inheritance tax or estate tax. In a free and democratic society, everybody more or less starts their life with a level playing field. And fine, if some people want to do more work than others and earn more money, an inheritance tax is a way of saying, “Enjoy your money, enjoy the wealth you’ve accumulated. But when you die, we’re going to have everybody starting with an equal chance.” That way, the class differences of one generation don’t become cement-like constraints on future generations.
JR: Won’t you need greater cooperation from the wealthy?
RW: Jeff Bezos sits on $120 billion, the richest person on earth. But that obscenity is also something that led Warren Buffet to say that he shouldn’t be paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. So even at other levels of society, there’s a recognition, not necessarily that socialism is the way to go, but that capitalism has worked its way into a dead end, and something fundamental has to change.
JR: Define “dead end.”
RW: Here’s the craziness of capitalism: The more successful the employers are in lowering the wages or automating jobs, the more problems the public will have in buying the crap they’re producing. They are shooting themselves in the foot. This is an internally contradictory system.
YS: I made this film to make people think: “You know what, here is something different and better.” Is it socialism? Is it something we don’t even know of? But for sure, we are not the most perfect system.
Contributor: Jordan Riefe
After studying Mandarin in post-Mao China, Jordan got into the film business as a camera assistant working with directors like Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks. He has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap, wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.