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Eugene V. Debs and the U.S. socialist tradition

July 20, 2007 | Pages 12 and 13

BILL ROBERTS looks at the life of America's greatest socialist, Eugene Debs--whose story is told in a newly republished biography The Bending Cross, from Haymarket Books.

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EVERY CHILD in the U.S. is taught that Abraham Lincoln of Illinois freed the slaves. But few learn that Eugene Victor Debs of Indiana devoted his life to ending wage slavery.

Some of Debs' contemporary admirers compared him to Lincoln. After seeing Debs speak to a capacity crowd in 1894, John Swinton wrote in his weekly paper, "As Lincoln of Illinois became an efficient agent of freedom, so perchance might Debs, of Indiana, become in the impending conflict for the liberation of labor."

This observation followed the great strike against the Pullman Sleeping Car Co. that year, which brought Debs to national attention in the labor movement and set him on the road to socialism.

Born on November 5, 1855, Debs' life began in the period just before the Civil War began. He died October 20, 1926, after the end of the First World War. The period between the two wars was full of immense tumult--and Debs played an important role in helping to shape the class struggle and the politics that emerged.

What else to read

The best biography of Eugene Debs, The Bending Cross, by Ray Ginger, was republished this year by Haymarket Books, with a new introduction by Mike Davis.

For a book on the history of the Socialist Party and Debs' involvement in it, read The American Socialist Movement, by Ira Kipnis. Many Debs' speeches and writings, including the Canton antiwar speech, are collected in Eugene V. Debs Speaks.

SW columnist Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent book on the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S.


He himself was transformed--so that he would acknowledge, "From the crown of my head to the souls of my feet, I am a Bolshevik and proud of it."

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U.S. SOCIETY underwent enormous changes between 1860 and 1900. The working class grew from 1.5 million to 5.5 million people--much of the growth from immigration.

Workers were more and more concentrated in heavy industry, like the massive steel mills in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Railroads expanded rapidly and opened up the country. Boom cities like Chicago emerged.

Meanwhile, massive trusts and combinations of great wealth were created. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie became synonymous with what was known as the Gilded Age.

But the bosses of this Gilded Age didn't extract their fortunes from workers without a fight. For example, in 1877, a strike wave hit the railroads and mines--reaching insurrectionary levels in some places--after the bosses cut wages by 25 percent in some cases.

Debs grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., a town that served the corn-growing and hog-raising farmers of the area, and was tied by railroads to the Midwest industrial centers.

His father, influenced by the French Revolution, read French and German classics to his children. Debs was named Eugene Victor after the French writers Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. Debs' favorite book was Hugo's Les Miserables, which he read over and over throughout his life. The brutalization of poverty was something he never forgot.

Working-class organization in the last quarter of the 19th century was dominated by craft unions. They were conservative, white and male. The railroads epitomized this kind of organization. There were 20 different brotherhoods, each separately representing engineers, firemen, brakemen and so on. There were no unions for unskilled laborers.

In such circumstances, struggles were largely sectional, and there was little continuity between them. Other conditions hampered workers' struggles, too. For example, racism and the many languages of the new immigrants divided workers.

This was the environment that shaped Debs' thinking as head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), a small organization that did little more than provide cheap life insurance to its members.

When the railroad workers revolted against wage cuts in 1877, the BLF stood on the sidelines, even though many firemen joined the strike. As the strike spread, state militias and eventually federal troops were called out. When it was over, more than 100 workers had been killed.

Debs was shocked by the events. In a speech to the BLF convention, he expressed the following conclusion: "A strike at the present time signifies anarchy and revolution...Does the Brotherhood encourage strikers? To this question, we must emphatically answer, 'No, brothers.'"

But Debs learned another lesson, even as he led his Brotherhood away from confrontation--more coordination between the brotherhoods was necessary, so that the bosses would face a united workforce.

In 1893, Debs was among 50 railroad workers from various crafts who met in Chicago to establish the American Railroad Union (ARU). The union was open to all "white railroad workers" (Debs opposed this clause--he later recalled how it helped defeat a strike). Managers were excluded.

The ARU was wildly successful, signing up 150,000 workers in its first year--twice as big as the membership of all the craft unions combined. The ARU even won a strike against the Great Northern Railroad in its first year. Although it was modeled on the service aspects of the craft unions, its cross-jurisdictional, industry-wide organization gave the ARU strength that the craft model didn't have.

Debs now saw two sides with different goals in the confrontation between workers and the bosses, but even after the successful Great Northern strike, he didn't see militant confrontation as the way forward for the ARU. Nevertheless, the ARU confronted its biggest test less than a year after it came into being.

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LOCATED JUST south of Chicago, Pullman--the headquarters of the Pullman Sleeping Car Co.--was every inch a company town. As the depression of 1893 took hold, George Pullman began to cut wages. He eventually drove workers to the point where they had to fight back or starve.

Though not officially members of the ARU, the Pullman workers sought solidarity from the union--all ARU locals endorsed the strike and boycotted trains with Pullman cars.

One lesson that Debs absorbed into his bones was how the workers' successes in the initial phases of the struggle were met by a united bosses' response. The press, the courts, the police and the Army all conspired with the bosses to crush the strike. Before it was over, police killed 13 workers.

In the end, "Debs' Rebellion," as the press called the strike, was defeated. But it had demonstrated that class struggle had reached a new level, both of determination and consciousness.

Above all, it showed the value of industrial unionism. While the resulting blacklist for thousands of workers and the jailing of Debs for six months killed the ARU, its short existence opened a new chapter for American working class organization.

Debs' time in jail, meanwhile, prepared him for his next fight. He had many visitors, including Victor Berger, who published a German socialist newspaper in Milwaukee, and the British trade unionist and socialist Keir Hardie.

Each visitor provided an opportunity to discuss the lessons of the strike--and, more importantly, its wider implications. While in jail, Debs was introduced to Karl Marx and other socialist writers. While never much attracted to theory, Debs found explanations in these writings and discussions that informed his experiences.

He began to draw new conclusions. For example, President Grover Cleveland's use of the Army on the company's side proved to him that the government wasn't impartial. "I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict," Debs later wrote. "In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed...This was my first practical struggle in socialism."

In 1897, Debs produced his own manifesto in the ARU's newspaper Railway Times. "The issue is socialism versus capitalism," he wrote. "I am for socialism because I am for humanity."

Once Debs committed himself to socialism, he never wavered, and he became the best-known orator and representative of the American socialist movement of his time or any other. Debs was tireless, often speaking 20 or more times a day as he traveled around the country, especially for campaigns for the Socialist Party (SP), which he helped found in 1901.

Debs looked at the working class struggle not as a theoretician, but as one who was directly involved. "I look into your faces," he told a gathering in Philadelphia. "I catch your spirit. I am simply the tongue of the working class, making this appeal from the working class."

It was this perspective that guided Debs in the SP. He believed the party should embrace all elements of the class, and that his job was to seek to unify these elements. But this meant the SP would include some whose loyalties to the working class were at best ambivalent--small proprietors, dentists, farmers, etc. As a result, the party would remain uneven throughout its existence.

Nevertheless, the founding of the Socialist Party was, by any measure, an advance. Between 1901 and 1912, when Debs received nearly 1 million votes for president as the party's candidate, the SP demonstrated that socialism wasn't an "alien" idea for the U.S. working class.

In the 1912 campaign, Debs toured the country on a leased train dubbed the "Red Special," speaking to more than half a million people. Subscriptions to the largest socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, grew by 50,000. More important, the campaign outlined a challenge to the two capitalist parties that was hard to ignore.

Unfortunately, this was the high point of the Socialist Party.

From the beginning, there was a right and left wing in the party, operating more or less independently. The right wing was more interested in electoral activity and saw workplace struggle as a diversion. The left wing of the SP saw economic struggles as the way forward. It was out of this wing that the syndicalists who founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) came in 1905.

The establishment of the IWW was a big step forward for class struggle. The IWW had within its ranks some of the best class fighters of the day--Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Sarah Parsons and Debs.

The IWW's reputation for leading struggles made it a target in the period of reaction following World War One. Hundreds of militants were jailed and foreign-born activists, whether members of the IWW or not, were subject to deportation. By 1920, the IWW was effectively broken. Many of its best militants went on to help found the Communist Party.

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IN HIS lifetime, Debs opposed two imperialist wars--the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the First World War. He saw these wars as bosses' wars and found nothing in them for the working classes of the belligerent countries but suffering and false consciousness.

As the buildup to the First World War intensified, Debs appealed to the SP to launch an assault "against war and all that makes war."

Debs was not a pacifist. In 1914, during a particularly vicious battle between one of the Rockefeller properties and the Western Federation of Miners, the Colorado state militia machine-gunned without warning picketers' tents at a camp in Ludlow, killing women and children.

Debs, while in full stride in opposing the First World War, didn't hesitate to speak out for the rights of miners' to defend themselves by any means necessary. In an article in the International Socialist Review magazine, he urged the miners to raise a "Gunmen Defense Fund" "sufficient to provide each member with the latest high-power rifle, the same used by corporation gunmen, and 500 rounds of cartridges."

Debs was clear the war he was prepared to fight in. "I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist," he said. "I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and this the worldwide war of the social revolution."

In spite of international splits and divisions on the American left, the antiwar movement was vigorous. In 1917, Cleveland saw its biggest-ever May Day parade with banners that denounced the war and the capitalist class.

But the event that agitated pro-war forces the most was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ended Russia's participation in the First World War.

Debs hailed the revolution and urged workers everywhere to follow the example of the most successful antiwar movement ever. He defended Russia's Bolsheviks, even while on trial for antiwar agitation. He told a reporter that the SP antiwar platform didn't go far enough and the "success of the Bolshevik movement in Russia was something on which to model and base the ideas for this country."

Of the thousands of speeches Debs made in his life, perhaps the most memorable is the one he made in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. It landed him in federal prison.

Debs' Canton speech was delivered in a small park across from a jail where three SP antiwar activists were imprisoned. Among the crowd were 1,200 people attending the SP state convention. So were government stenographers--Debs' words were used to put him on trial.

Debs denounced the war profiteers and reaffirmed his solidarity with the Russian workers' state and its recently concluded peace with Germany.

Near the beginning of the speech, Debs characterizes the politicians in Congress as proud to rise from the ranks into positions of "eminence and distinction." "I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks," Debs said. "When I rise, it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks."

"The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement," he continued. "It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller's bloodstained dollars."

Besides the clear antiwar message and class politics, the Canton speech also reflects Debs' optimistic vision. "The heart of the International Socialist never beats a retreat," he said, insisting as always that the future would bring a new society that would reward all workers.

At the age of 63, Debs was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in jail. He spent three years in the Atlanta federal prison before his sentence was commuted by Republican President Warren Harding to time served. While in prison, Debs ran once more for president, as Prisoner No. 9653. He again received nearly 1 million votes.

The moral compass of Eugene V. Debs is best revealed in his remarks to the judge before he was sentenced in 1919. "Your honor," he said, "years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest of the earth...that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

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