By Ken Williams
Local filmmaker’s film about America’s first socialist debuts in Jewish Film Festival
Long before Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont, electrified millions of voters during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, labor-union leader and reformer Eugene Victor Debs was the pioneer of liberal populism who railed against income inequality because a small number owned the bulk of the wealth in the United States. Debs ran for president in five elections, between 1900 and 1920, as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America.
“American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” a documentary by Mission Hills resident Yale Strom, will be shown Feb. 11 and Feb. 13 at the 28th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival.
Oscar-nominated actress Amy Madigan narrates the documentary, which Strom produced and directed. Strom’s wife, Elizabeth Schwartz, is the executive producer and his co-writer. Editor and co-producer is Luke Jungers, who was born in La Mesa and lives in the San Diego area.
Strom could easily be the subject of his own docudrama. The artist in residence in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Diego State University is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker for “The Last Klezmer” and “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin!” He is considered one of the world’s leading ethnographer-artists of klezmer and Romani music and history. Strom has made 15 recordings with his ensemble, Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi, known for traditional klezmer and “new” Jewish jazz. Author of 12 books, Strom has also composed for film, television, theater, radio and symphony orchestras.
Here are five questions with Strom, regarding his documentary on Debs:
(Downtown News | DTN) What inspired you to do a documentary on Debs, and how challenging was it collecting all the historical photos and documents?
(Yale Strom | YS) When then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for the presidency in 2007, many people who came to his political campaign rallies who opposed him would hold up signs saying, “You socialist, go back to Russia,” etc., and I said to my wife: “Obama’s political policies are not even close to socialism.”
So I decided to delve into the history of the man who co-founded the Socialist Party of America and also rehabilitate the word “socialist” so it is not considered an epithet (and an empty dog-whistle epithet at that).
Finding all the archival photos took a lot of sleuthing, patience and luck. Some I found online, but the photos that have rarely if ever been seen by the public came from various libraries of all sizes, from small towns like Girard, Kansas, to the Walter Reuther archives at Wayne State University in Detroit.
(DTN) What parallels do you see between today’s political and economic landscapes and those that existed during the time when Debs was trying to foster change in America?
(YS) It was because of these parallels that I felt it was finally time to make this film. When Debs was energizing the working-class people of America, 1896-1926, the United States was in the midst of massive industrial output from cars, to steel and construction materials. More Americans were working, but their salaries were not keeping up with the daily cost of living and they were not sharing in this economic boom. America had a new tier, a group small in numbers but powerful in its control of wealth. In 1912, 2 percent of the nation’s population owned 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. When [financier and banker] J. Pierpont Morgan Sr. was asked if corporate directors were at all responsible for the workers at his companies, he replied “Not at all, I should say.”
We have the same income disparity today with the top 1 percent of households owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Yes, there are more workers employed today, but more and more are barely — if at all — making a living wage. Debs was then convinced that the “trickle down” economic theory did not work. And since then, it still hasn’t worked.
(DTN) One of the challenges facing Debs, the political candidate, was being able to separate American democratic socialism from the communist brand fostered by Karl Marx, and yet he was able to win over legions of voters in conservative places like Oklahoma and Texas. Do you see a revival of democratic socialism in American politics, especially among millennials?
(YS) I do see a revival today among millennials. For them the word “socialism” isn’t some dirty word. The root of the word “socialism” is “social” — it comes from the Latin “socius” “comrade, friend, ally” (adjectival form: socialis) and is used to describe a bond or interaction between parties that are friendly, or at least civil; it has given rise to the word “society.” Our present economic system of unbridled capitalism, where greed is considered a virtue, is not working. We should be open to new ways of creating a better economic system for all and not just for some.
(DTN) To nearly 1 million voters for president, Debs was a hero of ordinary Americans. Yet, he was ridiculed by the status quo and eventually imprisoned for his beliefs. President Woodrow Wilson called him a traitor and refused to pardon the political prisoner. What are the enduring legacies of Debs?
(YS) First, Debs did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk. He was willing to go to prison (sentenced to 10 years) for his beliefs that the United States should not have entered World War I. It was a war where thousands of young men died, and industrialists around the world just got richer. He showed that democratic socialism is an alternative economic philosophy that was fairer for all. He was able to connect with races, ethnicities and religions.
In fact, much of Debs’ support came from the poor, white Evangelical Christians living in areas we today consider red states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. Debs said, “Socialism empowers the farmer and gives him a purpose and a vision far richer and far more to be respected than the competitive lonely search for personal wealth that now is the cornerstone of our capitalistic culture.”
Debs was deeply religious, and his worldview was based on Christian morality. It’s not these tenets, but the priorities of many Evangelical Christians, that seem to have changed.
(DTN) One of the interesting points in the film was that in 1908 Debs drew 15,000 people to a rally in San Diego, which was a backwater town with a population of around 38,000. What does that say about his populism, and do you have any other stories about his visit to San Diego?
(YS) Debs brought his “Red Special” 1908 presidential campaign to San Diego. This was during the free speech era of 1907-16, when there were 1,000 registered socialists in San Diego. Some of them were members of the newly formed International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), which had thousands of members and sympathizers in the Northwest and West Coast among men and women who worked especially as longshoremen, lumbermen and farm workers.
The likes of union organizer songster Joe Hill, union activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Debs and many others visited San Diego from 1908 to 1912. They would place the platform setup at E Street just below Broadway, where these socialists made passionate stump speeches to thousands in English and Spanish. Often the police, backed by fire hoses and vigilantes, came to break up the free speech demonstrations with hundreds of activists being beaten up, jailed or run out of town. Finally, in March 1912, the City Council banned street meetings in the Downtown area that served as the stage for political soap-boxers.
Activism is alive and well in San Diego — just look at the number of people who marched last year and this year in the Women’s March. I hope anyone who feels we can be a more just and humane society sees this film before November’s elections. The San Diego Jewish Film Festival described it as essentially a course in Resistance 101, and I think that’s pretty apt. First Run Features is working on getting more screenings in San Diego.
To learn more about the 28th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival and see the full lineup, visit sdcjc.org/sdjff.
— Ken Williams is the former editor of Uptown News. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego.