American Socialistsby Brie Stimson January 29, 2018
Yale Strom, an artist-in-residence at San Diego State University, is a man of many talents. He is a violinist, composer, writer, photographer, and playwright and has a klezmer band called Hot Pstromi. His latest documentary, “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” was a labor of love that took six years to make. The interview has been edited for space.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Can you tell me a bit about “American Socialist”?
Yale Strom: The film is about Eugene Victor Debs … He was famous in many ways. One was that the created the American Railway Union … He was a union man, he was a labor organizer and then eventually he co-founded, with Jewish immigrant Victor Berger (who was then in the U.S. House of Representatives), the Socialist Party of America … He [ran] for president five times, every time getting more and more votes until one time he even got six percent of the vote cast in the United States.
And he championed causes for the working men and women. From 1900 until he passed away (1926) in the progressive era. And then the ideals that he championed and lectured and ran on over those two and a half decades were programs that became law in the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal years. So he sort of already planted those ideas: eight-hour days, child labor laws, health care, safety on the job, championing women’s rights for voting – and eventually they did get to vote and they voted for him. He wanted to see a more equitable society so the one percent don’t own 90 percent of all the wealth and the rest just get the crumbs, so to speak. And so it’s a film about him and that era, but also it connects us to today and how we as Americans are grappling with some of the same issues and problems.
Nearly 16 million people voted for Bernie Sanders. There is a movement in the United States that [believes] this progressive politics is not some terrible thing leaking in from the Soviet Union. It’s looking at it in a more holistic, fairer way and so I’m hoping this at least creates and starts a discussion …
As my wife put so well, she said Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – who inspired Senator Bernie Sanders? And in fact, it was Debs. When he was a mayor when he was in Burlington, Vermont, he had a poster of Debs in his office … So it’s history, but it also touches our lives today. Of course, if you don’t know history you’re doomed to repeat it, but also if you don’t know history we can’t
learn from the positive things in the past and apply it to ourselves today.
SDJJ: What was the inspiration to make the film?
YS: When I was a kid about 14 or 15, my father had a biography of Debs and he used to quote Debs quite a bit … so I read a little bit about him and I put it back and said “okay, it’s kind of interesting but not so interesting. Whatever,” but I was aware of him, and then over the years, reading and studying and teaching history courses and discussing it with my father and other progressives. So I was always aware of him.
But really what made me decide to make a film was in 2007, Elizabeth Schwartz, the executive producer and cowriter, my wife, we’re sitting down and we’re watching the news like many people and then-Senator Obama is running for president against … Senator John McCain, and at many of [McCain’s] rallies the opposition were yelling things [like] “oh, you’re a socialist” they had signs that said “go back to Russia,” “communist,” “socialist,” and I’m looking at it and thinking “you’re an idiot because he’s not a communist, and he’s not a socialist. He’s a liberal – I won’t even use the word progressive, who had good ideas, does have good ideas, but his economics were not at all coming from a socialist point of view … So that was kind of the impetus.
I said I’m going to make a film about someone who really was a socialist who stood up for the working man … really gave his jacket off to workers. He would go to rallies, [and if] there was a miner that didn’t have a coat or something, many times he gave his suit jacket or coat. [I thought, this is an important figure in] American history and there needs to be a film about this man who’s not just a footnote … Union people who are organizers, they know [him]. Of course there are a lot of union members in the United States who don’t know who he is. But that was the impetus, to show these people who are yelling these epithets that you guys don’t really know what you’re talking about. Senator Obama was not even close to being a socialist and this is what socialist principles are.
SDJJ: That’s a loaded word – socialist. Why did you decide to use it in the title?
YS: We decided to call it that title because it is loaded … because we wanted to [use] the word …There’s nothing wrong with the word social and we want to be social. When we’re little our parents take us to preschool at two, three years old, the first thing we should be learning is how to be social with other children.
It’s about being fairer so the workers … [so they] can earn a decent living … They also should not have to work 50, 60 hours a week and not be there for their kids because they can’t make ends meet while the owner of these huge corporations makes a $5 million, $10 million, $15 million salary … Greed is rampant. To be greedy is something we should not be proud of, and so the answer is about making it a more equitable society …
The other thing that was interesting, too, is he was a rather religious man … In fact, some of the strongest supporters among Christians were Evangelical Christians, protestants, Pentecostals. And so in Oklahoma, in Kansas, in Nebraska, in Texas, in places that we consider deep red states still, because these were tenant farmers, poor farmers, day laborers, and [Debs] said “yes, I want to preach the true gospel of Jesus and the prophets” and all the people that the Bible said wanted to be more fair and equitable, you know, throw out the people who are cheating and taking everything for themselves and just giving you a few crumbs and that’s why there’s a sect called Christian Socialism. So this is a loaded title on purpose.
The Soviet Union was not a communist state. It was fascist. I mean, yes, you could say they controlled the means of production … but so did Nazi Germany. In a true Socialist society you allow opposition, there is opposition … You allow demonstration.
SDJJ: Could he have won today?
YS: That is a good question. That is a great question, and you know what, I’m going to say possibly. Listen, no one would have thought that Bernie Sanders would have gotten as far as he did. [Debs] was a great speaker and he never talked down to people. He could talk to the homeless and to the kings and queens. He could relate to the working man … I definitely believe he could win a senate seat, maybe a governor seat and maybe even run for president and maybe win. Things have changed. And the word socialism – they did a survey in 2015-2016 – and it said something like millennials, and it was over 50 percent, they said, “yeah, we’d be interested in a socialist candidate.”
SDJJ: What would Debs have thought about what’s going on politically now?
YS: He would have been disheartened, he would have railed against it, he would have just said it’s the same old same old. They’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes, … but he would not give up.
SDJJ: What can we learn from him?
YS: We have to learn not to give up [and] there’s strength in working together … We start locally. We start in our local communities. I live in San Diego County, and we kick out Darrel Issa. I won’t be able to vote [in that election], but I certainly can help the person who will win the primary [his primary challenger]. I can hold rallies, I can hold fundraising … One by one you start getting people in there who care about others, who see society in a more holistic way who want to be fairer. America’s going to stay a capitalist system, but there are graduations of capitalism where you can create a safety net and be more humane and don’t let greed run everything.
SDJJ: Is there anything else you’d like
YS: Many of the rallies, the strikes that he would go to, particularly in the Midwest and the East Coast, Boston and New Jersey and New York and Detroit and Baltimore Philadelphia, many of them were predominately Jewish: the cigar union, the textile union, where the membership was largely Jewish and so there’s strong historical connection between progressivism and Judaism … Jews are involved in progressive politics, in unions and are trying to make things better not just for themselves, but trying to make things better for all humans … It’s the right thing to do . It’s the Torah thing to do.