“We should seek only to register the actual vote of socialism, no more and no less. In our propaganda we should state our principles clearly, speak the truth fearlessly, seeking neither to flatter nor to offend, but only to convince those who should be with us and win them to our cause through an intelligent understanding of its mission.”
Eugene Debs, 1911

THE GROWING popularity of socialism is finding expression in down-ballot election campaigns this year, some led by candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The 28-year-old socialist stunned the Democratic Party establishment by winning the party primary election for a U.S. House seat in the Bronx and Queens, defeating one of the most powerful leaders of the Democrats in Congress.

In a political system dominated by two main parties that are so tied to upholding the virtues of capitalism, it’s rare to hear the word “socialism” used positively in a discussion of midterm elections. Plus, it’s refreshing to see the political establishment scramble to deal with candidates making popular pro-worker demands.

in a 1904 speech in Indianapolis:

In referring to the Democratic Party in this discussion, we may save time by simply saying that since it was born again at the St. Louis convention, it is near enough like its Republican ally to pass for a twin brother. The former party of the “common people” is no longer under the boycott of the plutocracy, since it has adopted the Wall Street label and renounced its middle class heresies.

The radical and progressive elements of the former Democracy have been evicted and must seek other quarters. They were an unmitigated nuisance in the conservative counsels of the old party. They were for the “common people,” and the trusts have no use for such a party.

Where but to the Socialist Party can these progressive people turn? They are no one without a party, and the only genuine Democratic Party in the field is the Socialist Party, and every true Democrat should thank Wall Street for driving him out of a party that is democratic in name only, and into one that is democratic in fact.

During his 1908 campaign — with Debs traveling across the country on a train called the “Red Special” to campaign — he spoke to nearly half a million people.

Some 323 newspapers and periodicals took up the cause of socialism that year. The Appeal to Reason, one of the most widely read socialist papers, reached a circulation of 600,000 papers in 1912. Debs’ campaign translated not only into votes for socialism, but a significant growth in the membership of the party, especially in places where left-wing chapters supported local struggles.

As historian Ira Kipnis points out in The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912, the SP in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, where members participated in union activity and strikes, experienced a 300 percent increase in Socialist votes from 1908.

WITHIN THE Socialist Party — which was a broad tent, including revolutionaries like Debs and more conservative socialists like Victor Berger of the Wisconsin SP — there were divisions about what could accomplished with these election campaign.

While Debs ran on a platform of workers organizing themselves and joining socialist organization, other prominent SP members disagreed with Debs’ revolutionary rhetoric and confined themselves to what they considered reasonable demands — with the idea that this would get them elected more easily, which was their primary goal as socialist candidates.

By 1912, infighting among the different wings with conflicting goals created disarray inside the party. Debs made an appeal at the time for the party to reject opportunism — including candidates tailoring their message to get elected — and affirm its commitment to socialist organization and the idea of workers’ power, with elections serving as only one means to these ends.

Debs made this plea in 1911 in an article titled “Danger Ahead”:

Voting for socialism is not socialism any more than a menu is a meal. Socialism must be organized drilled, equipped and the place to begin is in the industries where the workers are employed…Without such economic organization and the economic power with which it is clothed, and without the industrial co-operative training, discipline and efficiency which are its corollaries, the fruit of any political victories the workers may achieve will turn to ashes on their lips.

Obviously, much has changed since Debs ran for president 100 years ago, but his example can help guide socialists today.

If elections can help socialists convince others to be part of building an independent political alternative and strengthen left-wing organization at the grassroots, we want to participate — but this must include challenging the two capitalist parties that dominate the U.S. political system.