Film Shines Light on the Charismatic, Miltant Eugene Victor Debs, Who Led a Fight to Address Income Inequality 100 Years Ago

Published : Monday, April 30, 2018 | 5:34 AM

Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio in 1918; he was arrested for sedition shortly thereafter

Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio in 1918; he was arrested for sedition shortly thereafter

A new documentary about the life of charismatic and militant labor leader Eugene Victor Debs will open May at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him? Most people in America don’t know that the contemporary political movement to address income inequality began over 100 years ago with Debs,” writes prolific filmmaker and ethnographer Yale Strom, who in this film, “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” turns his attention to an early American political hero.

“The documentary is the culmination of five years of research and production. Its inspiration was the use of the word “socialist” as a political epithet, and Strom wanted to define and contextualize the term.

In doing so, his film traces the history of American populism with the man who inspired progressive ideas – from FDR’s New Deal to Bernie’s presidential campaign. “American Socialist” is an objective but passionate history of the movement as founded and championed by Debs, a movement that continues to have an impact on our lives today.

Debs was a five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, and was jailed by the Woodrow Wilson administration for speaking out against U.S entry into World War 1.

Progressive monthly newspaper and online news site The Inydependent calls him a “fiery, moral force in a corrupted era,” and was “among the greatest orators this nation ever produced.”

John Swinton, the late 19th century New York labor writer who as a young man heard Lincoln speak, likened Debs to Lincoln not just in intellect but in character. And unlike Lincoln, Debs could speak cogently to crowds for hours without notes, says The Indypendent.

Debs was born in 1855 to immigrant parents and was named after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. He was slow to embrace radical politics in his hometown of Terra Haute, where the capitalists were still of the small, local variety and social mobility was not impossible for working people.

Strom’s film shows Debs, a strong railroad worker-unionist, didn’t start out as a socialist. But after the administration of Grover Cleveland broke the American Railway Union strike under the mendacious claim that strikers were sabotaging mail delivery, union president Debs went into prison a militant trade unionist and came out six months later a committed revolutionary, though of a discernible American type.

On July 16, 1918, a year after the passage of the Sedition Act, Debs was in Canton, Ohio to speak before the state’s Socialist Party convention and visit friends who had been jailed for speaking against the war.

He was arrested and put in prison because his remarks “posed a danger to troop recruitment,” just months before the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket in 1920 while in jail, garnering under a million votes. Even on the eve of leaving office, Wilson still refused to pardon him. It was President Harding who granted Debs and 23 others a Christmas commutation.

The film is narrated by actor Amy Madigan.

The Laemmle is at 673 E Colorado Blvd.

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