Eugene V. Debs

The socialists are coming!

That’s according to National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre, who did his best Paul Revere impression in his warning to last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference about the new “Someone Is Coming for Your Guns” threat.

The NRA’s prophet of doom, citing the recent growth of the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapters on college campuses, said: “If they seize power, if these so-called European socialists take over the House, and the Senate . . . and God forbid they get the White House again, our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever.”

Wait, if the socialists get the White House again? Hate to break it to you Wayne—but Obama wasn’t exactly Karl Marx. And the last true socialist to come within spitting distance of the presidency was a Chicagoan who came nearly 100 years before Barack. That would be Eugene V. Debs.

Debs is the subject of a new documentary, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday through Thursday, and director Yale Strom is scheduled to appear at the Saturday showing for an audience discussion.

American Socialist chronicles the extraordinary life of Debs, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana, starting with his early years as a railroad worker and an organizer and agitator of the American Railway Union. Debs emerged as a national figure due to his role in the violent 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago that temporarily paralyzed the nation’s railroads and, as a result, earned him federal charges and jail time. Depending on who you asked, Debs was either a working-class hero or, as New York Times editorial in 1894 described him, “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.”

Those six months behind bars in a jail in Woodstock, Illinois, further radicalized Debs. Friends sent him Marx’s Das Capital and other leftist literature to read, and there he converted to socialism, writing in How I Became a Socialist: “I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which working men, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke.”

Once out of jail, Debs became American socialism’s standard-bearer and helped create the Socialist Party of America and later the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). By 1904 he was running for president under the Socialist Party banner. His most significant showing was in 1912, when he earned 6 percent of the popular vote. In 1920—the last of his five campaigns for president—he somehow received almost a million votes even though he was serving a ten-year jail sentence for sedition for urging people to resist the military draft of World War I.

Some political observers invoked the ghost of Debs during Bernie Sanders’s surprising presidential run in 2016—a campaign that helped change “socialism” from a dirty word confined to the margins into the mainstream of 21st-century America political discourse. That’s especially among millennials, with recent polls showing that more young people hold positive rather than negative views of socialism.

But as American Socialist shows, socialists had their biggest impact a century ago, when Debs and the labor movement helped push through the New Deal, labor laws, even the creation of Labor Day itself. In 1919, Debs’s Socialist Party claimed more than 100,000 dues-paying members, much more than the the DSA’s 33,000 or so by the end of the 2017. But hey, with LaPierre’s red-baiting speech reportedly tripling the DSA’s average daily sign-ups—that could be changing.

American Socialist. Showtimes here. 164 N. State St.,