Debs: Socialism is “merely Christianity in action”


Jill Lepore, in a piece at The New Yorker, argues that Eugene Debs‘s socialism was deeply rooted in values that were both American and Christian.  God and country!

Here is a taste:

But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

Read the entire piece here.

My favorite biography of Debs remains Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  It is worth your time.

13 thoughts on “Debs: Socialism is “merely Christianity in action”

  1. You know you’re just proving my point.

    Which is that nobody actually follows the Bible.

    If you want to keep playing, the Bible is pro- slavery, anti- women’s rights, etc.


  2. Dear JohnShaw

    Maybe I missed it, John, but I don’t think anyone said that Jill LePore’s piece wasn’t interesting, nuanced, well-written, etc. Most of the work which runs in The New Yorker falls within the category of good writing.

    My point was that the editors at that magazine are obsessed with “getting Trump” and promoting a leftward agenda. This bias masquerades as objective journalism. Dr. Le Pore’s article looks fondly on the days when boogeymen like Railroad Baron Pullman were greedily working the little guy over. Yes, we knew who the bad guys were, and Mr. Debs was their Christlike nemesis. The editors at The New Yorker want to carry that narrative into 2019 to suit their political ends. Could it be that they are “exploiting” an honest historian?


  3. I’m dismayed by the comments here. Are any of you reading what John Fea has written about “historical thinking,” as opposed to partisan knee-jerk reactions? I think JIll Lepore wrote an excellent article, with all sorts of nuance, historical specificity, empathy and criticism of a colorful and controversial figure in U.S. history. As Professor Fea reminds us, “History done well helps people to be empathetic with people from the past, an attempt to step into their shoes and try to look at the world as they did. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, “Getting into other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perceptions of the world and where they fit within it.” If I could time-travel back to 1912, I would have voted for Debs over Taft, Wilson or Roosevelt.


  4. That’s really weak, but it we want to play that game:
    * If 10% is good enough for Jehovah, then I think it ought to be good enough for the federal government. We need to reduce the top tax bracket to 10%
    * The temple tax in Exodus 30 was a “flat tax” – the rich and the poor paid the same rate. Thus, progressive income taxes are unChristian and non-Biblical.
    * There was no religious liberty in Israel. They were to worship the One True God. We therefore need to get rid of this silly idea of religious liberty in America.
    * We need to do away with the 5-day workweek. The Lord says, “Six days shall you labor…”.

    Besides, socialism requires the use of force. The “socialism” among the Christians in Acts 2 was voluntary. It was also temporary and done out of love. There is nothing voluntary about any “socialism” being proposed in current American politics. It won’t be done out of love for one another and it most certainly won’t be temporary. It will be instituted by force and those unwilling or not desirous of participating in it will be given no choice.


  5. Paul,
    Christians are not living under the Mosaic Law.. Besides Jubilee was a law not a public ownership program. As far as the prophets, they were against predatory behavior of all sorts. So should we all be. It doesn’t fit with the fruit of the Spirit.


  6. There’s more Biblical support for socialism than capitalism. The Jubilee year in Leviticus flirts with socialism. God tells people when to produce goods, when to take a vacation, and every 50th year business transactions are annulled. The government is controlling the means of production.

    God through the prophets has some pretty harsh things to say as well about bank credit, which is the foundation of modern economics.

    I’m not arguing for socialism, but it is ironic that people who claim to follow the Bible pay no attention to what the Bible says about most matters.


  7. I apologize if you’ve posted this previously but this piece at Sojourners on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) seems relevant to this post and I know that she’s been discussed in these pages before. It amazes me to no end that some people will pledge blind allegiance to Donald Trump as God’s anointed ruler and in the same breath, but more excitedly – perhaps in panic, declare AOC to be in league with Satan a la Hitler and Stalin. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, AOC has not tried to create and milk the myth that she’s Jesus’ messenger, so the comparison with Debs doesn’t seem to hold up in that sense.


  8. The biography by Salvatore sounds like another good book to put on the reading list.

    This New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore, however, shows how unhinged the magazine is becoming. Eugene Debs might have been a fascinating historical figure, but he was hardly a spokesman for Christianity. I wonder if the New Yorker is attempting to soften its readership up for all of the socialists who are emerging within the Democrat party? Could this be an indirect result of Trump Derangement Syndrome? Will Manhattan psychiatrists see a doubling of revenues? Let’s stay tuned; things are moving quickly among these establishment liberals.

    Debs said that Christianity “…recognizes the equality in men.” Well, yes and no. It’s not all that simple, Eugene. (And come to think of it, why are you using the generic term “men” like the rest of the sexists? Ha ha)


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