1979 Bernie Sanders wrote and produced a documentary video, "Eugene Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary" (see the Youtube below). Sanders himself gave voice to Debs' dialogue.
It is easy to see why Bernie Sanders admires Debs. Debs was the Socialist Party of America candidate for President in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. His total of 913,693 votes in the 1920 campaign remains the all-time high for a Socialist Party candidate. More than that, Debs was visionary who saw that there was a better future for workers. Debs lived in a time in which employees had few rights and even less hope. Child labor was commonplace. Workplace accidents were frequent and uncompensated. There was no minimum wage.
The similar views and rhetorical styles of Debs and Sanders
Like Sanders, Debs railed against income inequality and denounced who he deemed to be greedy capitalists. Like Sanders, Debs was a charismatic speaker who employed the oratorical style of evangelism, even though he was generally disdainful of organized religion. One audience member described the thrill of seeing Debs on the stump in 1900 at the Chicago Coliseum, "shouting at the top of his lungs, red-faced and perspiring."
Debs was ahead of his time. He advocated for employment rights we take for granted today.
In 2015, the historian Dr. Lawrence Wittner, wrote Almost a Century Ago, Another Democratic Socialist Ran for President of the United States.
Dr. Wittner concluded his article with these observations and comparisons:
Although, superficially, Debs was unsuccessful as a labor leader and democratic socialist politician, he and his comrades had a major impact upon American life. During his lifetime, or in the decades thereafter, American workers—inspired in part by Debs and other democratic socialists—did organize industrial unions; they did roll back the absolute power of the corporations; they did fight for and win a host of major economic reforms: minimum wages, maximum hours, unemployment insurance, the abolition of child labor, collective bargaining rights, health and safety regulations, worker's compensation, and publicly funded services that ranged from education, to health care, to adequate food, to job retraining, to day care.
Of course, Debs proved incorrect in his assumption that the Socialist Party would serve as the primary instrument through which a better society would be fashioned. Instead, many a democratic socialist idea, having attained some measure of popularity, became incorporated into the program of the Democratic Party and, later, enacted into law. Not surprisingly, what remained of the Socialist Party constituency ultimately moved into that party's reform wing.
Will the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, a political activist who has long revered Debs, be able to extend Debs's legacy by securing national healthcare, tuition-free college education, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and sick leave for all workers, a break-up of the giant banks, a ban on big money in politics, a more peaceful foreign policy, and other reforms? If he and his enthusiastic followers manage to rouse the American public to demand these kinds of programs, we might just see some--or maybe all--of them implemented at some time in the future. Debs's political career illustrates both the difficulties and the possibilities.