No one was more important in spreading the socialist gospel or linking it to ideals of equality, self-government, and freedom than Eugene V. Debs, the railroad union leader who, as noted in the previous chapter, had been jailed during the Pullman Strike of 1894. For two decades, Debs criss-crossed the country preaching that control of the economy by a democratic government held out the hope of uniting “political equality and economic freedom.” As a champion of the downtrodden, Debs managed to bridge the cultural divide among New York’s Jewish immigrants, prairie socialists of the West, and native-born intellectuals attracted to the socialist ideal. “While there is a lower class,” proclaimed Debs, “I am in it,... while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

One Big Union, the emblem of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Throughout the Atlantic world of the early twentieth century, socialism was a rising presence. Debs would receive more than 900,000 votes for president (6 percent of the total) in 1912. In that year, the socialist Appeal to Reason, published in Girard, Kansas, with a circulation of 700,000, was the largest weekly newspaper in the country, and socialist Max Hayes polled one-third of the vote when he challenged Samuel Gompers for the presidency of the AFL. In western Europe, socialism experienced even more pronounced growth. In the last elections before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, socialists in France, Germany, and Scandinavia won between one-sixth and one-third of the vote. “Socialism is coming,” declared the Appeal to Reason. “It is coming like a prairie fire and nothing can stop it.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!