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Bernie Sanders made a documentary on Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, and it’s the most Bernie Sanders thing ever

If Bernie Sanders looks and sounds like a man who once produced amateur socialist agitprop out of his home, it may be because he did just that.

Yes, in 1977, after a failed run for Vermont’s governorship, Sanders and his neighbor Nancy Barnett launched the American People’s Historical Society, an educational video endeavor billed in a promotional pamphlet as “a newly formed nonprofit organization producing audio-visual from an alternative point of view.”

Over 40 years later, thanks in part to Sanders, that point of view is becoming less and less alternative. But one film produced by the Society — a 30-minute documentary on socialist leader Eugene V. Debs from 1979 — reveals that Sanders’ movement had a clear predecessor that shaped not just Bernie’s worldview but his rhetoric.

The Society’s films were actually “filmstrips,” a series of slides to be played along to audio. A beep recorded from Sanders’ son’s walkie talkie was used to prompt viewers to click to the next image. Sanders pitched the films to educators, racking up impressive mileage as he went from school to school to sell his wares.

His travels with the films foreshadow Sanders’ indefatigable campaign schedule, but it’s not the only source of consistency from that time in his life. The Debs documentary, which Hyperallergic notes was the Society’s most ambitious project, was more radical than its other fare on Vermont icons like Ethan Allen and Calvin Coolidge, but nonetheless sought a place in the mainstream curriculum.

“If you are the average American who watches television 40 hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm spray deodorants, every hack politician in your state and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees,” the film begins, with a non-Sanders narrator helpless not to imitate the then 38-year-old Sanders’ prematurely fuddy-duddy persona and staccato speech pattern (Sanders wrote the script). “Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the 20th century. Why?”

The reason, given in a clip available on YouTube with the original audio — if not the original slides — is pure Bernie stump speech.

“More than a half century after his death, the handful of people who own and control this country, including the mass media and the educational system still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous, as a threat to their stability and class rule and as someone best forgotten about.”

The film about Debs, a five-time presidential candidate who earned the regular endorsement of the Forverts — and in 1927, shortly after his death, the namesake call sign of our radio station, WEVD — is pugnacious in its approach.

It’s especially in-your-face when Sanders, as Debs, thunders onto the audio track to declaim such things as: “One class now owns the tools while the other class uses them. One class is small and rich and the other large and poor. One wants more profit, and the other more wages. One consists of capitalists and the other of workers.”

Sanders, of course, is completely miscast as the Midwestern Debs, and does that Brooklyn Jew “yelling” thing people on Twitter are always on about. While unintentionally hilarious, his voice-acting contributions are effective on at least one level: It’s difficult to fall asleep while listening to them, and the movie needs all the help it can get on that front.

Like most didactic and ideologically-entrenched works, the film is really boring. You’ll learn about Debs — his late-in-life socialist awakening; his victories and loses with the American Railway Union; his fifth presidential campaign, conducted from a State Penitentiary in Atlanta where he was incarcerated for his outspoken objection to American involvement in World War I — but if you’re not a sympathetic listener, you probably won’t walk away a convert. More likely, you’ll feel the urge to resist the work’s own insistence on its importance.

Sanders’ attempts to air the documentary on local Vermont television were initially rebuffed — either because its quality wasn’t up to even public access standards or because its politics were a bit too radical— but it eventually aired on both a local CBS affiliate and ETV, Vermont’s public TV station. He sold it to schools for $200 or rented it for $35.

The film may not have made a household name of Debs for all Vermonters, but it could have only helped Sanders — a lifelong admirer of the leader — to refine his ideas, More than that, by spending some time reading his speeches, Sanders’ public speaking game could have only improved. Debs’ use of repetition, appeal to class struggle and even his interjection of “As a matter of fact,” clearly left a mark on the 2020 candidate, who, like Debs in 1920, has shored up an impressive base.

Only a couple of years after finishing the film, Sanders ran for office again, this time winning the mayorship of Burlington by, as is his wont, speaking frankly and directly. He left the film business behind (save a cameo as a rabbi in a romantic comedy), but continued on with the same ideals.

“It wasn’t just a way to make money,” Sanders’ friend, Steve Goodkind, told Mother Jones in 2015. “He made filmstrips about people he admired and believed in. He just thought kids should know the truth of how things really were.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].


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