American Socialist : Throughline It's been over a century since a self-described socialist was a viable candidate for President of the United States. And that first socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, didn't just capture significant votes, he created a new and enduring populist politics deep in the American grain. This week, the story of Eugene V. Debs and the creation of American socialism.
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American Socialist

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American Socialist

American Socialist

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(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BERNIE SANDERS: Let the wealth of the nation belong to all the people and not just the millionaires.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: The ruling class has always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourself slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: We need, in this country and throughout the world, an economic system in which we produce goods and services for the use of all and not for the profit of the few.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK TODD: The president spent a lot of time using the S-word.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They're trying to say...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They're trying to scare people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...To scare people...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's communism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Venezuela, Trump says - we're going to be living in Venezuela.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Attitudes are changing towards socialism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You've heard the phrase a lot lately - democratic socialist - it's suddenly very common on the left. Bernie Sanders has called himself a democratic socialist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Every other industrialized nation has a strong socialist movement. Why not in America?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode - American socialism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: As you probably guessed, that voice at the top was Bernie Sanders. But it's not a clip from one of his presidential rallies or stump speeches or even from his time in the Senate or as mayor in Vermont. In fact, they aren't even his words. He was reciting a speech by Eugene V. Debs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: ...Political heroes - he was not a politician - but Martin Luther King Jr. was an extraordinary leader. So I have an enormous respect for Dr. King, also, you know, for Eugene Debs, who was the great Socialist Party leader in the early part of the 20th century.

ABDELFATAH: And you can hear it in his voice, his admiration for this guy, Eugene Debs. Most of these recordings are from a documentary Sanders made in 1979 about Debs. That used to be his job. He ran a company that made educational documentaries and sold them to schools.

ARABLOUEI: As far as documentaries go, it's all right.

ABDELFATAH: A little dry, maybe. But what interests us more is why Sanders was so into Eugene Debs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Well, he founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901 and ran for president of the United States five times in the early 20th century. Until 2016, Debs was the most prominent and somewhat successful socialist candidate for president - and that was a hundred years ago.

ABDELFATAH: Today socialism is often seen as a foreign concept. It's kind of a dirty word in our politics - almost a synonym for un-American. But the story of Debs shows how socialism played a role in the U.S. way before the Red Scare or the Cold War and left a lasting imprint on American politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: So in this episode, we're going to look back at the early tradition of American socialism through the eyes of its founding father, Eugene Debs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MUNLEGO LUKIAGRI: Hi. This is Munlego Lukiagri (ph) from Mexico City, Mexico, and you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part 1 - The Gilded Cage.

ABDELFATAH: In 1894, when he was 38 years old, Eugene Debs went toe-to-toe with a massive company, risking everything.

ALLISON DUERK: This is the event that transformed Debs into a symbol of national discontent.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCOMOTIVE MOVING, BELLS RINGING)

ABDELFATAH: At the time, the whole country was feeling an economic depression, including the most dominant industry of the day...

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCOMOTIVE MOVING, BELLS RINGING)

ABDELFATAH: ...Railroads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: One manufacturer of railroad cars, the Pullman Palace Car Company, was really feeling the burn. The company was known for introducing a new kind of train car.

DUERK: These very luxurious train cars that transform rail travel.

ABDELFATAH: Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The seats were covered in plush upholstery. The walls, painted with intricate designs. And at night, the cars transformed into a two-story hotel on wheels.

DUERK: And all of these cars were built in Pullman, Ill., - a very original name for a company town - on Chicago's South Side.

ABDELFATAH: Pullman was a company town through and through.

DUERK: Basically, factory workers who built the cars had to rent their homes from the company, buy their groceries from company stores, send their kids to company schools. There was even a company church. And George Pullman, the guy, had justified the community as an experiment in benevolent capitalism. Like, look at the brick homes, the paved streets, the trash collection, the indoor plumbing. What a clean, orderly way to live; it'll result in happier and more productive workers.

ABDELFATAH: And the living standards were better than average.

DUERK: But it was also described as a sort of gilded cage - because workers feared speaking out about their working conditions because you could just get fired - you know, there's no protections for you at this point.

ARABLOUEI: During the economic downturn, things went from bad to worse for these workers. In order to keep turning a profit...

DUERK: And not cut executive salaries or shareholder payouts...

ARABLOUEI: ...Pullman slashed worker wages.

DUERK: In some cases by up to half...

ARABLOUEI: ...Without cutting rents, grocery costs or utility costs. So workers just couldn't make ends meet, and they were getting desperate.

DUERK: Workers had been fainting on the job, having not eaten in days after feeding their kids. That's how awful the situation was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: There's a famous political cartoon of George Pullman pushing the crank that is squeezing a worker between these two massive stones, and it's his low wages and his high housing costs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: My name is Allison Duerk. I'm the director at the Eugene V. Debs Museum in Terre Haute.

ARABLOUEI: As the Pullman workers grew more and more frustrated, many decided to join the American Railway Union - the ARU, a powerful industrial union with as many as 250,000 members in 27 states that was founded and run by Eugene Debs.

ERNEST FREEBERG: And that's what led him into, really, the most important labor conflict of the 19th century in the United States.

ARABLOUEI: This is Ernest Freeberg. He's a history professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

FREEBERG: And I'm the author of "Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene Debs, The Great War, And The Right To Dissent."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In May 1894, 3,000 Pullman workers...

DUERK: After months of being fed up...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

DUERK: ...Laid down their tools, walked out of the shops - say, Pullman, we can't go back to our jobs until you reinstate our wages and cut our rents so we can afford to live and feed our children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: Pullman wouldn't budge, insisting that there was "nothing to arbitrate." That's the quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: After this refusal to negotiate...

ABDELFATAH: The workers, with Debs' support, called for a massive strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) Every railroad employee of the country should take his stand against the corporations in this fight, for if it should be lost, corporations will have despotic sway and all employees will be reduced to a condition scarcely removed above chattel slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The New York Times reported, the labor powers have spoken, and the most tremendous strike known to history will be inaugurated tomorrow when the evening whistles blow and 100,000 men abandon their work not to return, it is said, until the Pullman boycott is settled.

DUERK: This is huge. This is huge. Debs is in practically every major paper at this point, lambasting him as dictator Debs but also as the anarchist. And it's like, pick one - you can't be an anarchist and a dictator.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The next day, the strike began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: And that effectively is a shutdown of the railroads...

FREEBERG: From Chicago west, for some days and really paralyzed the American economy.

DUERK: If this happened today or if something like it happened today, it would look like unions shutting down half the airports and interstates in this country - because that's the level of activity happening on the railroads by then. So it's just wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) I am perfectly confident of success. We cannot fail.

ABDELFATAH: Debs urged the strikers to remain calm and united.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As President Grover Cleveland) I, Grover Cleveland, president of the United States...

FREEBERG: Grover Cleveland announced that he was not going to let this happen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As President Grover Cleveland) ...Do hereby command all persons engaged in or in any way connected with such unlawful obstructions, combinations and assemblages to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes on or before 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 10th day of July instant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But the workers didn't back down. So then, the federal courts issued an injunction.

DUERK: Saying that the ARU is not allowed to strike like that.

FREEBERG: Ordered Debs to essentially stop the strike, which he refused to do.

DUERK: The next day, Grover Cleveland, for whom Debs campaigned as a pro-labor Democratic president...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEBERG: He sent in troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: They are going to try to make the trains move by using force to get the strikers away from the trains and the rails so that scab workers can operate the engines and make the trains move, basically.

(CROSSTALK)

DUERK: And...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING, WHISTLES, YELLING)

DUERK: ...It's nuts, honestly.

ARABLOUEI: Approximately 30 workers were killed.

DUERK: About half of those workers are thought to have been killed in Chicago.

ARABLOUEI: Hundreds more were arrested in skirmishes erupting across the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLES, YELLING)

ARABLOUEI: The strike had failed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: It's estimated that nearly 250,000 workers took part in the strike. And afterwards, many of them were left jobless.

DUERK: Essentially, thousands of these workers were blacklisted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: The Pullman Company continued on - business as usual. And some say the strike pushed Grover Cleveland to create a holiday in honor of workers called Labor Day. As for Debs' union...

DUERK: This was a - well, the gutting defeat for the American Railway Union. It never recovered. The whole leadership of the ARU was jailed on contempt of court. Debs got six months.

FREEBERG: And it was really there, while he was sitting in prison for that six months, that he started to think about what had just happened to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: How did Debs get to this moment - sitting in jail, workers dead and so many others out of work because of a strike he encouraged?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEBERG: He grew up in Terre Haute, Ind.

DUERK: Terre Haute was a frontier community of about five, 7,000 - made up in large part of immigrants - European immigrants. His family put a really high emphasis on education. Actually, his father has studied literature back in France and raised his children on writers like Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

RENAUD TAHON: (As Victor Hugo) There is a point at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word...

DUERK: Debs' favorite book from his childhood was a short one.

TAHON: (As Victor Hugo) ...Les miserables.

DUERK: "Les Miserables."

ABDELFATAH: "Les Miserables" is one of the longest novels in history. At a whopping 1,900 pages, it's a tragic tale of love and loss set during the French Revolution.

DUERK: The story of Jean Valjean - right? - who stole the loaf of bread and goes to prison for 19 years and that's just the beginning. So the novel's themes of poverty and inequality and injustice had a huge role in shaping Debs' sense of social responsibility as he's growing up. You could say an early education in the haves and the have-nots.

ABDELFATAH: He also read Walt Whitman, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson...

FREEBERG: That sort the democratic tradition.

ABDELFATAH: And he drew a lot of inspiration from the abolitionist generation.

FREEBERG: He came to think of the antislavery movement as a crucial revolutionary turning point in America. And when he looked at what was going on in his own time - what we called the Gilded Age or the early progressive era - he saw a new kind of slavery...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEBERG: ...Wage slavery.

ARABLOUEI: Rapid industrialization was transforming cities across the U.S. And as businesses were getting bigger and bigger...

DUERK: Your relationship with your employer is getting a lot smaller.

FREEBERG: People were being tied to their jobs. They were denied a democratic voice in the way they made a living.

DUERK: Working, like, 14-, 16-hour days 6, 7 days a week.

ARABLOUEI: He watched as his dad got caught in the system, struggling to keep up with his demanding job.

DUERK: And the work broke his health, as it would for so many workers. And that's actually why the Debses go into the grocery business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: By the time he was 14...

ARABLOUEI: Debs was losing interest in his family's grocery store. He just wasn't cut out for running a business, which even his dad couldn't deny. Debs missed important details, weighing things to give the customer a little extra and letting people buy on credit. Plus, his mind seemed focused on something else - the growing world of railroads. He saw that as a ticket out, a way for him to help feed his family and make his own way in the world.

DUERK: And against his parents' wishes, because Gene was a really good student, he dropped out of high school at age 14 to start working for the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Then, Debs lost his job in an economic panic and decided to leave Terre Haute in search of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: He got a job working on a railroad in East St. Louis and was shocked by what he found there.

DUERK: He witnessed, like, real poverty that he hadn't quite experienced or been witness to in in Terre Haute. He wrote to his parents that it made his heart ache to go along with some of the main streets in the city and see men, women and children begging for something to eat. And he confided to his sisters and brother that they should appreciate their comfortable home and understanding parents. I did not, he confessed, until I came over here.

ABDELFATAH: All the books from his youth couldn't prepare him for seeing the economic disparity up close - in person. And despite his parents' insistence that he come home, he stayed in East St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: One day, while he was working, something terrible happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN, PERSON YELLING)

DUERK: Debs watched in horror as a backing locomotive crushed a friend to death.

ABDELFATAH: This wasn't a freak accident. On-the-job injuries happened a lot.

DUERK: This is a time when there are no safety standards to speak of. Employers are skimping on cheap equipment to save money - even as railroads are expanding so rapidly - causing boiler explosions and derailments and collisions, making hazards like this not uncommon at all. This was considered part of the occupation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: And according to Debs, this death plus his mother's continuing concern for his safety prompted him to quit the railroad.

ARABLOUEI: Back in Terre Haute, Debs became determined to improve working conditions for rail workers and decided the way to do that was to get involved in government.

DUERK: So he runs for city clerk of Terre Haute and wins pretty handily. And while he was working as city clerk, kind of got a reputation for refusing to assess fines against sex workers because he didn't think it was fair that they would be punished while the people who bought their services were not. So he serves, actually, two terms as city clerk and then gets elected as a state rep in the Indiana General Assembly.

ARABLOUEI: And the story here goes, Debs went to the State House and introduced legislation...

DUERK: To hold railroads liable for deaths and injuries of their employees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: The House passes the one particular bill. The State Senate takes the teeth out through amendments so the bill could not be enforced even if it was passed. And Eugene was absolutely humiliated - lost his faith in the political process because he thought the whole State House was effectively bought out by the railroads. And this is where he decided to step back from politics to focus on labor organizing.

ABDELFATAH: Debs had been involved in his local union since his youth and had managed to climb the ranks pretty quickly. He had a knack for drawing people to his cause.

DUERK: You know, he's congenial and generous - that's his personality - and was able to get along with workers of different types. He knew how to show up in the bars and the taverns where railroad workers would get together - seedier places that other labor organizers might try to avoid.

ABDELFATAH: He also wrote articles for different publications - a lot of articles.

DUERK: I mean, there's literally thousands of articles that he wrote over the course of his life.

ABDELFATAH: It's important to keep in mind that Debs still believed that labor and capitalism could coexist - that it was just a matter of fixing the system, not overhauling it.

DUERK: He's, at this point, you know, not radical in any sense - really thinks that working within these existing systems might stand a chance at improving workers' lives.

NICK SALVATORE: And he was very, very traditional. He was not a socialist. He was a small-D democrat.

ABDELFATAH: Smoldy?

SALVATORE: Small D.

ABDELFATAH: Small-D democrat - got it (laughter).

SALVATORE: Sorry, my fault. This is my Brooklyn accent.

ARABLOUEI: I love it. Don't apologize.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) No, it's great. It's great. That was my - I should understand it...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, you're from Jersey.

ABDELFATAH: ...I mean, I'm from Jersey. That's totally on me.

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: I am sincerely sorry (laughter).

ARABLOUEI: This is Nick Salvatore.

SALVATORE: And I wrote a book entitled "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen And Socialist."

ARABLOUEI: While Debs started out with pretty traditional democratic views, as he got more involved in labor organizing, he started to become disillusioned. There were half a dozen different organizations which often competed rather than collaborated with one another. The largest, the American Federation of Labor, was run by famed union leader Samuel Gompers, and he was picky about who he let in. Workers were admitted based on specific skills, and women and people of color were mostly excluded. Debs thought this was a losing strategy - that there was more strength in unity and inclusivity.

FREEBERG: So that's when he moved toward getting involved in founding the American Railway Union, which was an attempt to organize workers across, you know, lots of different positions working together and cooperating together. Suddenly, you have a tool that it's much harder for the railroad owners to ignore.

ARABLOUEI: Debs also tried to get the rail workers' union to include people of color. He brought it to a vote at one of their first conventions. And the proposal nearly passed, losing by just two votes.

DUERK: So effectively one, two votes - I don't want to exaggerate here - but could have changed the course of history.

Debs would later reflect that if the ARU had been willing to organize the Pullman porters - right? - the waitstaff on the train cars, maybe they could have shut down Pullman car operations without halting the railroads the way the ARU ended up doing, which - I mean, it's hindsight; it's hard to say. If the black workers had gone on strike, they probably would have been met with more violence than the white ones were, to be honest with you. But it does underscore this idea that, when we allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, we gut our own chances of success.

ABDELFATAH: And that brings us back to where we left Debs after the Pullman strike failed - in prison for six months, reflecting on the dark series of events that had landed him there.

SALVATORE: He wasn't in prison in the sense of he wasn't in chains or anything of that nature.

ARABLOUEI: So it's not jail in the way we want to imagine it today, like, 23-hour lockdown.

DUERK: No, no, no, no. Oh, gosh - no. Oh, it was the sheriff's house. I mean...

ARABLOUEI: Oh, wow. Yeah.

DUERK: ...It was so cushy. It was so, so cushy. Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Debs could play football. He made friends in the community. He had study hour. And he had plenty of visitors.

SALVATORE: He had Protestant ministers coming in. He had English socialists coming in. He had all sorts of folks coming in - people who he didn't know and they didn't know him. But they were drawn by this dramatic resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: And they go to try to recruit him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: This is, let's say, where Debs had the chance to re-evaluate some of his worldview.

ARABLOUEI: Debs had always viewed the socialists with skepticism.

DUERK: Called class struggle, you know, that core idea for socialists - calls it an invention of diseased minds.

ARABLOUEI: But by the time he was getting ready to leave prison, he'd concluded...

DUERK: The Republicans are the big capitalists, and the Democrats are the small capitalists. But at the end of the day, they are both the pro-capitalist parties.

FREEBERG: And what was really needed was a party that represented the workers.

ARABLOUEI: And although he'd continue to resist socialism for a few more years, this is the moment when it starts to become a possibility in his mind.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) I wish to be baptized in socialism, in the roar of conflict. And I thank the gods for reserving to this fitful occasion the fiat, let there be light - the light that streams in steady radiance upon the broadway to the socialist republic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, Debs launches a socialist movement and makes a bid for the presidency - five times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JULIA: OK, fourth time's a charm. (Unintelligible) Finding a quiet spot in New York is impossible. This is Julia (ph) calling from Astoria, New York, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part 2 - The Band Plays On.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: After serving six months in Woodstock Prison in Chicago, Eugene Debs was released.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

ARABLOUEI: And he was welcomed back to freedom by a crowd of 100,000 people at an event put together by organized labor.

DUERK: Yeah, I can't even conceptualize a hundred thousand people in one place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "LIBERTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) The theme tonight is personal liberty, or, giving to its full height and depth, American liberty - something that Americans have been accustomed to eulogize since the foundation of the Republic.

DUERK: And Debs gave a really good speech called "Liberty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "LIBERTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) From such reflections, I turn to the practical lessons taught by this Liberation Day demonstration. It means that American lovers of liberty are setting in operation forces to rescue their constitutional liberties from the grasp of monopoly and its mercenary hirelings.

(APPLAUSE)

ARABLOUEI: There was a sea of people before him wearing white ribbons representing the striking workers of America. And Eugene Debs understood the power of that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "LIBERTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) The fires of liberty and noble aspirations are not yet extinguished. I greet you tonight as lovers of liberty and as despisers of despotism.

FREEBERG: And he had, apparently, an ability to engage people that was very personal, even though he was speaking sometimes to thousands.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eugene V. Debs) Speaking for myself personally, I am not certain whether this is an occasion for rejoicing or lamentation.

FREEBERG: Sort of irreverent. He could be very funny and barbed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eugene V. Debs) I confess to a serious doubt as to whether this day marks my deliverance from bondage to freedom or my doom from freedom to bondage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: What is more American to Debs than standing up against oppression and standing up against injustice? This is the American tradition. That's what we're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Eugene V. Debs) The people are aroused in view of impending perils and that agitation, organization and unification are to be the future battle cries of men who will not part with their birthrights and, like Patrick Henry, will have the courage to exclaim give me liberty or give me death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: He's a star.

ABDELFATAH: Eugene Debs' role in the Pullman Strike and the liberty speech in Chicago made many see him as the champion of the working person in America. He was a fiery populist who was unafraid to challenge big business, and this fame gave him a path into national politics, a path he initially didn't want to take.

DUERK: He is courted by some different political groups, including the Populists, who wanted Debs to run for president in '96.

ABDELFATAH: Quick side note - the Populist Party - officially, the People's Party - was established in 1892 to represent the economic interests of farmers and urban workers. They began running candidates for president that same year. Eugene Debs was a supporter of the party. But as he started flirting with socialism, his feelings towards the Populists started to change. He felt that their proposals didn't go far enough for workers. So when they wanted to nominate him in 1896...

DUERK: He rejected the Populist Party's nomination. They end up endorsing William Jennings Bryan.

ARABLOUEI: Eugene Debs campaigned for Bryan. But when he lost the election...

DUERK: This is the last straw.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: By 1897, just a couple months after Bryan's defeat in the election, Debs said the issue is socialism versus capitalism. I am for socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the rain of gold long enough. Money no longer constitutes a proper basis for civilization. We are on the eve of universal change. This is Debs' first endorsement of socialism.

FREEBERG: So he basically argued America has this long revolutionary tradition, this long radical tradition, which has been the force of progress that has expanded democracy, and socialism is simply the next step.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEBERG: The emerging industrial corporate system is robbing people of their democratic birthright, and this is the next big obstacle. And socialism is going to speak to that, not as a radical idea from Europe but rather this is the homegrown, natural next step for the evolution of American democracy.

ARABLOUEI: Debs begins going around the country holding rallies in front of large crowds.

FREEBERG: This gave him a great opportunity to spread the gospel of socialism.

ARABLOUEI: There were a bunch of different factions of socialists in America.

FREEBERG: The Socialist Party was a coalition of very different kinds of people who had come to socialism in very different ways.

DUERK: All these different factions and dissidents in between.

FREEBERG: The Greenwich Village bohemian radicals. You know, the painters and artists in San Francisco. People like Jack London and Upton Sinclair. But it was also the farmers of Oklahoma who had been part of the Populist movement and felt like, you know, the real problem in America was that capital was getting in the way of their business. And also, German immigrants who had come from a socialist tradition in Europe. Jewish garment workers on the East Side of New York also had a socialist radical tradition.

DUERK: And Debs was the unifying figure around which different wings and sections of the party could actually rally.

FREEBERG: Debs had the ability to speak to all of them. They themselves could not necessarily speak the same language to each other, but somehow Debs managed to engage and speak to all of them. What made him especially potent was the fact that he transcribed that socialist tradition into an American grain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: In 1900, Debs ran as a socialist for president. And in 1901, he founded a political party, the Socialist Party of America, uniting all the socialist groups under one banner.

DUERK: He joked around a lot about how, like, if we ever stood a chance of electing a president, don't run me; I would make a bad president. More critical for Debs was raising class consciousness. He wants workers to see themselves as workers - not middle class, not as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, but as workers with more in common than we have different.

ARABLOUEI: He considered himself a preacher, not an administrator. But the Socialist Party was part of a larger movement, and Debs knew that. He was driven by the ideas and policy proposals they were putting forward.

FREEBERG: Things like more support for early childhood education.

ARABLOUEI: The 40-hour workweek.

FREEBERG: Old age pensions.

ARABLOUEI: Welfare programs for the poor.

FREEBERG: Or worker safety protections. These are things that were radical third-party innovations when they were first proposed by the socialists.

ARABLOUEI: He understood that he could use his celebrity to be a presidential nominee that would raise the profile of all of these ideas.

DUERK: That's ultimately what propels him into the nomination, is the sense of responsibility to this movement and to the party, recognizing that he would probably be the most effective figure to do that task.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: So in 1904, he began running for president as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America. He also worked as a columnist, where his voice was amplified even more.

DUERK: And you can't talk about Debs in the 19-aughts (ph) without the Appeal to Reason, which at its peak was the most popular political newspaper in the nation, with half a million subscriptions. It was a socialist weekly, explicitly socialist, published out of little Girard, Kan., the hotbed of radical coal mining country.

FREEBERG: Certainly, socialists were emerging. They were an important force, an important voice, but they were still a minority and still demonized right from the start.

DUERK: They're just considered too radical. They're not part of the American discourse, if that makes sense.

FREEBERG: Socialism was quite dangerous, and Debs would have considered himself to be a dangerous man because he was looking to radically change the system, and that involved public ownership of the means of production, that it wasn't simply a matter of regulating business, but that a lot of business was drawing on what they consider to be public resources - the land and the forests and the minerals - and that these things ought to be collectively owned and more democratically controlled. Debs and others who were pushing this idea were actually far more radical than anything that now passes for socialism, at least under the - our current conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: You know, there's hostility. But I think Debs was also really adept at taking socialist concepts and putting them in terms that people in Middle America could understand and relate to. He's this cornfed Hoosier, right? So he's able to kind of make these ideas a little bit more palatable to not just, like, people in cities but people in rural America, too.

ABDELFATAH: His ideas began to take hold. The socialists won more votes in 1908 when Debs ran again. And they even had success at the local level. They won mayoral races and city council seats across the country. Their ideas were slowly being adopted by mainstream politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

ABDELFATAH: Another reason for the increasing success of the socialists could have been the fact that they just knew how to throw a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUERK: So the Red Special was - or the Socialist Presidential Special was the campaign train from 1908. It travels coast to coast as an opportunity for Debs to spread the word, gain notoriety.

ABDELFATAH: The train traveled with a 15-piece band that gave performances at all their stops. Every event became like a fair, a big show, and it drew in big crowds.

(CROSSTALK)

DUERK: Debs put on a show in the sense that he really spoke emphatically with his hands, with these facial expressions. He had this kind of piercing gaze. He's got this fiery oration. He's able to really rally up a crowd.

ARABLOUEI: But all of the travelling and barnstorming and talking to people starts to impact. Eugene Debs' health.

FREEBERG: It did wear on his health. He would periodically collapse doing this. He had a tendency to get on the train, and by the time he got off the train, he had given away his coat or any amount of money he had in his pocket from one station to the next. He'd often run into an old railroad worker who had, you know, suffered during the Pullman Strike, and he would listen to their story and unload his wallet on them.

ARABLOUEI: But despite all the difficulties, in 1912, Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party ran their biggest breakthrough campaign for presidency. They gained enough support to catch the attention of candidates like Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt declared that Debs was one of the most undesirable citizens in America.

DUERK: There is this famous political cartoon of Gene Debs in this, like, swimming or this pond, and Teddy Roosevelt is running away with his clothes because the - (laughter) basically, the progressives and these other parties are stealing little aspects, bits and pieces of the Socialist Party platform.

FREEBERG: In fact, Teddy Roosevelt, for example, very explicitly said, we need to adopt some of those ideas and get rid of the bad ideas because otherwise socialism is going to seem, you know, too powerful to resist. We need to head this off.

ABDELFATAH: The Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won the 1912 election, but Eugene Debs won 6% of the popular vote, a staggering number at that time. And even though he saw himself as a revolutionary, not an incrementalist, his campaign had a real impact.

FREEBERG: Third parties in America do this; they move the conversation in different directions. And while they may not succeed electorally, they move the conversation and they get more of their agenda under consideration.

ARABLOUEI: In that moment in 1912, looking out into the future, Eugene Debs must have felt some hope. It may have even looked like the socialist worker's revolution was going to happen eventually. But the reality is dark times were coming for the United States and the world. And he would be forced to make difficult choices that would forever change the future for him and his political party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRASHANT SHARMA: Hi. This is Prashant Sharma (ph) from Baltimore, Md., and you are listening to the THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part Three - A Free Soul.

ABDELFATAH: By 1914, Eugene Debs was taking some time to recover mentally and physically from four consecutive presidential runs. His reputation among socialists at this point was mixed - many loved him, but some were growing frustrated with him.

SALVATORE: They thought that Debs was simply making a mess of it.

ABDELFATAH: Running again and again, refusing to compromise, rejecting any sort of incremental approach to reform.

SALVATORE: He could be petulant in his debates and disagreements within the Socialist Party. You could almost see him shaking his shoulders, saying - do you know who I am?

ABDELFATAH: So he was - he had a little bit of, like, an ego?

SALVATORE: Oh, very much so. Yeah. Oh, very much so.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, World War I was beginning in Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, ARTILLERY FIRING)

ARABLOUEI: And as troops headed to the front lines, the vibe in the U.S. was very different.

FREEBERG: Most Americans are saying, this is something we want nothing to do with. You know, this is an era when one-third of Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

ARABLOUEI: And different groups had different loyalties.

FREEBERG: The Irish in America were not interested in going to war to defend the English. Many Jews in America were not interested in an alliance that included Russia. They had to escape persecution from Russia. And one of the largest immigrant groups in America was the German Americans. And of course, they were conflicted about going to war against their ancestral homeland as well.

ARABLOUEI: And people like Debs, who were born and raised in the American heartland, also had their reservations.

FREEBERG: There's a sort of long isolationist tradition.

ARABLOUEI: ...Going all the way back to the very beginning.

FREEBERG: George Washington's argument was, we should have no foreign entangling alliances - right? - and that the Atlantic Ocean was there to keep us out of European disagreements. So the idea of getting involved in what people quickly began to realize was this terrible total war, people wanted nothing to do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Woodrow Wilson) Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality.

FREEBERG: Woodrow Wilson himself calls on Americans to be neutral.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Woodrow Wilson) The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls.

FREEBERG: You know, he even tells them, when you go to the movies and you see a newsreel about the war, don't cheer for either side. You know, let's stay out of this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Woodrow Wilson) The United States must be neutral.

(As Woodrow Wilson) The United States must be neutral.

(As Wilson) The United States must be neutral.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOTS MARCHING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Woodrow Wilson) There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war - into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In 1917, after several German attacks on American ships, the U.S. decided it had to get involved in the war.

FREEBERG: And we have to be sympathetic to the situation that the Wilson administration is in at this point. Everybody recognized that the war in Europe is at a tipping point. The United States has to rally an enormous war effort very, very quickly, which it really had never had to do before.

ABDELFATAH: Nearly 3 million men were drafted.

FREEBERG: Then people have to make a decision about whether they're going to support the war effort or continue to be dissenters.

ABDELFATAH: The loudest remaining dissenters were the socialists.

FREEBERG: The socialists draft a declaration which basically says this is a rich man's war and a poor man's fight, and the Socialist Party will be united in fighting against the war, resisting the war by legal means and also resisting the draft.

DUERK: Some socialists, like Upton Sinclair, buck the party position. They endorse the war. They're the war socialists.

FREEBERG: They say this is a big mistake. We are going to be branded as unpatriotic if we do this. And we should trust that - you know, Wilson had this idea which was actually something that appealed to the socialists - this idea that after the war, there would be this congress of nations, the League of Nations idea, that diplomacy would be more open and there would be collective security.

ABDELFATAH: Still, most socialists remained opposed to the war. The radical socialist press was filled with anti-war articles, and a fleet of speakers traveled the country making anti-war speeches, including their secret weapon.

FREEBERG: Eugene Debs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SALVATORE: And that begins a - kind of a revival for Gene Debs. He's not well, but he simply says, I can't let this go by.

ARABLOUEI: On April 6, 1917, the U.S. entered the Great War. And keep in mind, up to this point, many Americans still favored neutrality. They wanted no part in this foreign conflict. The Wilson administration knew that in order for the war effort to succeed, they had to change the narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Johnny, get your gun - get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run - on the run, on the run...

ARABLOUEI: So they launched a massive campaign, unlike anything the country had seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) ...Every son of liberty...

FREEBERG: Hiring the best artists filmmakers and historians and scholars and movie stars...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLDIER BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Soldier boy, you fought the war and...

FREEBERG: ...To go out and pitch the idea that the Germans are demonic villains and that the allies are not just another set of imperial powers out for their own gain but are actually our noble friends, and we need to support them.

ARABLOUEI: The campaign was a success. The country became consumed by the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COME BACK TO YOU WHEN IT'S ALL OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) See that lonesome lassie kiss her soldier boy goodbye.

FREEBERG: The war stirred up an enormous war frenzy with a lot of vigilante violence against people like socialist anti-war speakers and religious pacifists and so forth, and a lot of it was stimulated by this propaganda campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COME BACK TO YOU WHEN IT'S ALL OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) There is a duty that every man should do. My life defends it, but my heart belongs to you.

FREEBERG: The other side of that - Congress passes the Espionage Act of 1917.

DUERK: Which made it a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to criticize the war or the government, things socialists were already doing by this point.

ABDELFATAH: Thousands of socialists were tracked and arrested. Their newspapers were ransacked and shut down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent as to what I say and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.

DUERK: If you know the first thing about Gene Debs, he is not about to cave on his principles.

FREEBERG: He knew at that time that federal agents were following him. When he gave speeches, there were federal agents in the audience.

DUERK: And went on to give his most famous speech 101 years ago last June in Canton, Ohio, 1918.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) The working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.

SALVATORE: Debs argues that the war itself is a war of competing capitalist organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Debs) Everywhere they are moving toward democracy and the dawn, marching toward the sunrise, their faces all aglow with the light of the coming day. These are the socialists, the most zealous and enthusiastic crusaders the world has ever known.

DUERK: So the general theme of this very long speech is democracy.

SALVATORE: He never migrates away from American values. He criticizes the fancy capitalists, all of that sort of stuff. But, you know, he is not embarrassed about talking about American traditions, about American democracy. He sees it as a valued asset that is under serious attack.

FREEBERG: It's interesting that what Debs said during the speech was not reprinted because many newspapers were worried that if they reprinted, they themselves might be punished by the government for allowing these sentiments into their pages. So nobody actually knew just what Debs had said at that point.

ABDELFATAH: Two weeks later, Debs was arrested.

DUERK: We have to talk about Debs and his sentencing hearing at Cleveland 'cause it's some of the most profound stuff he ever said. He's already been convicted of violating the sedition law. He knows he's going to go to prison; he just doesn't know how long for.

SALVATORE: The trial is one of the oddest things in the world in the sense that I think half the courtroom - court officials, I should say - actually liked Gene Debs. They didn't agree with him at all, but they liked him (laughter). It didn't stop the process.

FREEBERG: Debs himself refuses to apologize.

DUERK: And he got the chance to address the judge and the jury.

SALVATORE: His whole final speech to the judge is just a wonderful framing of his life's work.

DUERK: He said, Your Honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings and made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on Earth. I said then and I say now that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

FREEBERG: You know, this is one of those great moments in America where the person on trial manages to put the law itself on trial. And he basically argues, you know, I have every right to speak on the most important issue of the day and that's what I was doing.

SALVATORE: His last comment to the judge - he says, let the people everywhere take heart and hope for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing...

DUERK: Dawn is on its way; relief and rest are close at hand.

SALVATORE: And then he thanked the judge and the court for their kindness and said...

DUERK: Your Honor...

SALVATORE: ...I'm prepared for your sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SALVATORE: He realized that the people he was arguing against and indeed fighting against were also Americans. He recognized that. He didn't like them; he didn't agree with them. He would fight them till his last breath, but he didn't dehumanize them.

ABDELFATAH: Debs was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEBERG: The trial was widely covered. And it was, you know, considered to be one of the important test cases of the Espionage Act. Some are saying, look - we should acknowledge that we really overreached in this case. The Espionage Act was wrong, and now is the time to say so.

This goes to the Supreme Court. And Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who we recognize and remember as a great advocate for free speech, was actually the person who wrote for the unanimous opinion sending Debs to prison. Basically, they're arguing that Congress has a right to put public safety over free speech in times of national crisis. This is where this idea of clear and present danger enters into our vocabulary - that, essentially, free speech means one thing in times of peace and another thing in times of war and that's just too bad.

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, the perception of socialism in the U.S. was changing. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a class-based uprising that ushered in a global wave of socialist thinking, socialism was reframed as something foreign and dangerous.

DUERK: So this is our first major Red Scare.

FREEBERG: Red Scare, the demonization of socialism that occurs.

DUERK: And if you think about the cultural and political impact that McCarthyism had in the '50s, this is that but in the 19-teens and in the earliest '20s, too.

FREEBERG: Both of those things that very effectively convinced many Americans that socialism is an alien force rather than something that has this long, rich indigenous history.

DUERK: This is the end of the Socialist Party as Debs knew it at its peak, and it would just never recover.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: By 1920, Debs watched from prison as free speech became the issue of the day. An amnesty movement was beginning to take shape. The roots of the ACLU were forming. And for many, Eugene Debs was the symbol of democracy under threat. That's why, even as he sat in a prison cell in poor health, the Socialist Party chose Debs to run for president again.

FREEBERG: They are convinced that if they can run Debs for president from prison that what they will do is essentially make his imprisonment a national issue that will potentially put it on the ballot. This is a referendum on the First Amendment, and they were inviting Americans to cast a protest vote. They play it up as much as possible.

DUERK: The campaign button for the Socialist Party in 1920 didn't have his name on it. It just said, for president...

FREEBERG: ...Vote for Convict 9653.

DUERK: With a picture of Debs in his prison uniform in front of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Those are in our gift shop if anybody wants one (laughter). But in any case...

FREEBERG: You know, the warden allows Debs to come out of prison and stand on the front steps of the prison to receive the nomination. So there he is in his prison denim. Normally, he's dressed in a sort of conservative three-piece suit - really looks more like a banker than what we think of as a working-class radical. But there he is in his prison denims, receiving the nomination from what's left of the Socialist Party at that point.

ARABLOUEI: Although there were only about 20,000 registered Socialists left, Debs got nearly 1 million votes in the election.

ABDELFATAH: His supporters outside the prison sent him letters and boxes of fruit, candy and tobacco. They also wrote petitions to the government.

ARABLOUEI: And after serving two years and eight months in prison, he was released.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SALVATORE: When he comes out of the prison, the director of the prison had opened the cell doors - which is a no-no in most jails - to say goodbye. And indeed, he's walking down this curved pathway out to where the car is, and he turns and tips his hat.

(APPLAUSE)

DUERK: Gene came back to Terre Haute. And The New York Times reported that 50,000 of Debs' supporters greeted him at the train station a few blocks from the house and escorted him them back to his home on 8th Street.

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

DUERK: I mean, wow is the right word there because that's almost Terre Haute's population then and today and should give you an idea of the scope and scale of how loved Debs was. It's not an exaggeration to say that he was considered a martyr for his cause by his supporters and never recovered from the toll that prison took on his health.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SALVATORE: When I think of Gene Debs' legacy, I think of people. I think of Dorothy Day, the Catholic worker. I think of Norman Thomas, the Socialist presidential candidate in the late '20s and early '30s. I think of Michael Harrington, social activist and writer and et cetera in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

FREEBERG: I think many people who are sympathetic to the left ever since then look back on that as a golden moment, where a growing number of people could conceive that America could be socialist.

Socialism, you know, as a third party succeeded in accomplishing many of the things that we now take for granted as just part of the liberal state. You know, the social safety network, the government oversight of health and welfare, some controls over the financial system - those were all part of the socialist program that were adopted first by the progressives in the early 20th century and then, many of them, by the New Deal and some of them, ultimately, by the Great Society programs in the '60s.

So there is this long legacy of socialist ideas at a very important moment when America was facing the beginnings of this ongoing industrial revolution.

DUERK: If you boil down his legacy and what it means to us now, it's these two concepts of optimism and solidarity. And I hope that's not cliche because Debs, as an optimist, wasn't this Pollyanna, like - oh, it's going to be OK, everything's going to work out in the end type of thing. He understood that it was a struggle and that people would have to actually put effort into making this change happen. But he did believe that regular people are capable of enacting huge changes that change the course of history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

AUSTIN HORN, BYLINE: Austin Horn.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

LU OLKOWSKI, BYLINE: Lu Olkowski.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ABDELFATAH: Special thanks to Will Jarvis...

ARABLOUEI: Peter Breslow...

ABDELFATAH: ...Ned Wharton...

ARABLOUEI: ...And Renaud Tahon for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: If you have an idea or like something on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or find us on Twitter @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening. And stay safe, everyone.

ABDELFATAH: Please.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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