Yale Strom is an accomplished writer, violinist, composer, writer, and more. He is also the director of five award winning documentaries. His newest documentary, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, is now playing at select theaters across the country.
Strom’s documentary subject, Eugene V, Debs, was instrumental in organizing the first labor unions in the U.S., fought vigilantly for worker’s rights, and was a vocal critic of World War I – which landed him in jail. Debs was also a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. We had the chance to ask Strom about his reasons for making the documentary, what he appreciated about Debs, and much more in an interview we conducted via email. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity)
The Underemployed Life: What motivated you to make a documentary on Eugene V. Debs? Why him?
Yale Strom: When I was about 13-14yrs, I saw my dad had a biography on Debs in his library in our home. The photo of Debs and the orange background caught my attention. At that time, I loved to read biographies. I began to read it and found some of it quite fascinating.
TUL: What surprised you most about Debs? What do you most admire about his life?
YS: I was surprised to see Debs always “walk the walk,” where so many labor organizers, politicians just “talk the talk.” He was willing to go to prison two times for his political beliefs and values – always standing up for the worker – those who built the nation’s industries for the 1% super wealthy and greedy. Going to prison the second time when he was in his late 60s, and when he was not in good health meant he was taking a chance on his life for a principle.
What I admire most about Debs is he was able, in his folksy manner, to describe simply and directly what and why socialism was a better economic system to live under than capitalism. He reached farmers, immigrants (many who spoke little to no English), tenant workers, factory workers, as well as well educated professionals and clergy – all in his sincere direct folksy manner – never talking down to his constituents.
TUL: In researching Debs’ life, did you discover anything about our country’s history you were unaware of?
YS: I was not aware to the extent the Palmer Raids really disrupted and even ruined people’s lives and how many immigrants were deported back to Europe. It was also interesting to find out that J. Edgar Hoover got his start in 1924 while working under Attorney General J. Mitchell Palmer.
TUL: How did most Americans react to a Socialist candidate in the 1900s?
YS: Well Debs never won the presidency but he did get 6% of the vote – a million votes, and when he supported LaFollete in his run for President in 1925, the Progressive and Socialist Parties together got 17% of the vote – so there was national interest in Debsian socialism. Also, from 1900-through the 1903s, there were many socialist candidates who held office, from city council, mayor, state assembly, to the House of Representatives, like Victor Berger from Wisconsin.
TUL: We currently have socialist policies in place like Medicare and Social Security, yet the word ‘Socialism’ is routinely derided and misunderstood. Why do you think the country has such a problem with the word, Socialism?
YS: The red baiters. Beginning with the Palmer Raids, right after WWI ended, through the McCarthy Era and the Cold War era of the 1960s to early 80s – these right-wing politicians acquainted socialism with the dictatorship in the USSR – and many, if not most Americans who did not read, did not understand the differences of what Debs and other socialists were preaching, so the right-wing activists just lumped socialism with Soviet communism.
TUL: Debs was aggressively pro union and worker’s rights. What do you think he would make of the way Unions have lost power?
YS: He would be surprised and dismayed to see how Unions have lost so much power in America. He would also see that many workers in America, because they do not read, are not well informed or are misled easily by right-wing talk radio, often vote against their own interests. Debs saw this clearly in his times. But he would see that certain unions are beginning to gain more and more strength particularly in the SEIU (Service Employees International Union).
TUL: Do you see Debs’ influence on the American labor force at work today? Do you think a renaissance of his philosophies and political views are possible in this country?
YS: Most definitely. I see much of what Debs spoke about resonating with the American public today. This is one of the reasons why I made this film. Sen.(Bernie) Sanders did not garner millions of votes and many delegates during his 2016 run for the presidency because of a fluke. The left is no longer willing to just let the middle of the road Democrats run things or let them say we have to compromise with the other side.
After the recession of 2007-09, people are angry at what Wall Street and the banks did to the American public. They are realizing that run away greed among corporate CEO’s is plainly despicable and just not right. The health care issue is one of these issues. More and more Americans realize that big “Pharma” is running this show, along with many greedy insurance companies. If we are the greatest nation on earthy (hardly), then why do we not have the best medical care and greatest longevity in the world?
TUL: What do you think Debs would make of today’s political landscape in the U.S.?
YS: He would say – what is so special about the number 2? Why only two major political parties? There needs to be more, so all the people are represented. The founding fathers had more than two political parties up through the early part of the 19th century.
Really, the party running the country the last 50 years has been the Corporate Capitalist Party. The 1% is doing extremely well and the rest of us (middle class and working poor) squabble among ourselves for the crumbs. Debs would say cooperation, not competition, is a much more social way of living on this incredibly small planet. And in his folksy manner, speaking to the farmers, he said this: “Cain was the author of the competitive theory while Jesus stands as its eternal denial.”
TUL: Where can people see the documentary?
YS: People can see the next public screening at the Boston International Film Festival April 14 at 6pm and April 17 at 11:30am. Both times at the Broadway Picture Entertainment (theatre) in Boston, located at 9A Hamilton Place
For more information on Yale Strom or his documentary, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, visit these links http://www.yalestrom.com/ http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/
You can also read a current review of the film, here.