How Debs became a socialist

February 18, 2011

In 1920, Eugene V. Debs, ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket and received a million votes--even though he was serving a prison term for speaking out against the First World War.

In his day, Debs was well known as a great labor leader and socialist agitator. His name, and the movements that he was a part of, held a level of national attention that is difficult to imagine today. Paul D’Amato looks at the events and experiences that lead Debs to become a socialist.

BORN IN Terre Haute, Ind., in 1855, Eugene Debs' life paralleled the massive expansion of industrial capitalism in the U.S.

As a young boy, he watched with awe the arrival of the railroads--the first truly national mass industry in the U.S. At age 15, he took his first job cleaning grease from the trucks of freight engines.

Debs' parents had been brought up in Europe in the tradition of the great French Revolution, steeped in idealism. While certainly no radical, the boy had already found pleasure in reading from his father's library books, like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, discovering at an early age a sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed.

It remained for the grueling pace and cruel conditions of railroad work to complete his radical education. Debs graduated to fireman, and for four years, worked in the day and studied at night by candlelight. He quit in 1874 after a friend was crushed under a locomotive, and Debs took a job in Terre Haute as a billing clerk at a grocery store.

At 19, Debs joined--while still a billing clerk--the Vigo Lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF). The craft union was small and decaying fast, but Debs put in his best effort as secretary of the lodge, handling the locals' huge volume of paperwork.

Eugene Debs in 1897
Eugene Debs

In reality, the BLF was hardly a union. While railroad workers were concerned with wages and working conditions, the BLF focused purely on workers' insurance. Yet workers could little afford the premiums for the insurance.

The narrow, conservative and craft mentality of the brotherhoods--there were different brotherhoods for every type of railroad worker: switchmen, brakemen, engineers, etc.--rendered these organizations utterly useless in the developing struggle against the railroad bosses.

The ineffectiveness of the BLF is best demonstrated by the fact that it played no role whatsoever in the great railroad rebellion of 1877, which drew hundreds of thousands of railroad workers into pitched battles with employers and local authorities.

Debs accepted the craft mentality wholeheartedly. He wrote an article for the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine shortly after the rebellion condemning not only the violence of the strike, but the very tactic of the strike itself! In 1879, the BLF adopted a policy of "ignoring strikes."

Politically, Debs became a Democrat. In 1879, he was elected city clerk in Terre Haute, and in 1884, he was elected to the Indiana state legislature. Had he remained moderate in his views, there is no doubt Debs' effective speaking style, down-to-earth personality and dogged persistence would have earned him a prominent place in the Democratic Party.

But a chain of events in the mid-1880s transformed Debs into a militant advocate of industrial unionism and later, socialism.

THE CLASS struggle itself was Debs' teacher. As Debs' biographer Ray Ginger put it: "In his entire life, he never made an important decision on the basis of theoretical study. The facts of his own life kicked him at every step; often he required more than one kick."

The first kick came from the ranks of the BLF. At their 1885 convention, BLF delegates, disgusted with their conditions, revoked the anti-strike clause in the constitution, voted a $15,000 strike fund, and repudiated a letter that Grand Master Frank Arnold had written to the president of the railroad pledging cooperation between labor and capital.

Debs was ordered to attend the convention of the engineers and proposed joint action against the railroad bosses. When the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers P.M. Arthur openly refused to have anything to do with the proposal, Debs, who by now was editor of the BLF magazine, wrote a stinging response called "The Aristocracy of Labor," condemning Arthur's exclusionary policy.

From here on, Debs became a staunch advocate of federation among the different brotherhoods as the only way to defeat the railroad bosses. Debs view of unionism was transformed: he began to advocate the need for written contracts backed up by the power of striking workers. By 1889, he could write, "The strike is a weapon of the oppressed."

The Haymarket incident in Chicago and the trial and execution of the Haymarket martyrs in 1886 also had a profound impact on Debs. Shocked by the victimization of labor militants who were nowhere near the scene of the explosion, Debs argued that their execution would mean that "free speech is as dead in America as it is in Russia." [Then still under Tsarist rule.]

In the late 1880s, Debs was successful in federating most of the brotherhoods under a single council. Experience had proved in a number of localities that joint action could achieve results.

Then suddenly the whole project collapsed under the weight of a dispute between the trainmen and switchmen. A series of jurisdictional squabbles between the two brotherhoods came to a head in 1891 when trainmen on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad willingly scabbed on striking switchmen.

The trainmen were expelled from the federation and two other unions refused to join the federation based on the decision.

The final straw came for Debs when officers of the different brotherhoods refused to support striking switchmen in Buffalo, allowing the strike to be defeated. Debs resigned from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In a statement he issued just after resigning, he outlined his opposition to craft unionism and his commitment to industrial unionism. Debs argued that the railroad workers could not be unified "along the present lines":

Now the men are enrolled in classes [crafts] for distinct departments. Class enrollment fosters class prejudices and class selfishness, and instead of affiliating with each other, there is a tendency to hold aloof from each other...

It has been my life's desire to unify railroad employees and to eliminate the aristocracy of labor, which unfortunately exists, and organize them so all will be on an equality. To this I am going to turn my attention.

Taking his cue from the recent formation of the industrial-based Western Federation of Miners, Debs and 49 other disgruntled railroaders met in Chicago in June 1893 and formed the American Railway Union (ARU).

For the first time, railroad workers were being invited to build a class-based union that united all regardless of craft or skill. All, that is, except Black workers. The one glaring weakness of the ARU constitution was that it declared itself open only to white workers.

In this respect, it was a step backward from the declining Knights of Labor, which recognized the need to organize workers regardless of race or sex into a single organization. Not yet a socialist, Debs did not oppose the ARU's racism.

The ARU's formation proved to be well timed. In a matter of months, thousands of railroad workers were flooding into the union--skilled workers, but especially the downtrodden and unorganized unskilled workers. Within the first 20 days of its existence, 34 lodges were formed around the country, and within the first two months, 87. Debs and other leaders were touring the country, speaking and agitating, signing up 200 to 400 workers per day.

An early victory in the spring of 1894 against James Hill's Great Northern Railroad gave confidence to the new, inexperienced union and proved the effectiveness, even in the midst of hard times, of united and disciplined action. But it also alarmed the railroad bosses, who viewed the new unions as a massive threat to their sovereignty.

THE SHOWDOWN came barely a year after the ARU's founding: the Pullman boycott, or as it was known in the press, "The Debs Rebellion." The struggle brought the name Eugene V. Debs national recognition as a courageous labor leader (or, for the bosses, a maniacal dictator), and it also made Eugene Debs a socialist.

The town of Pullman--a suburb of Chicago--was a company town that housed the workers who made the famous Pullman sleeping car. Conditions there were notoriously bad. Wages were very low, Pullman rents were high. Workers were watched by a battery of Pullman spies, and daily pay deductions for rule infractions were common.

The Pullman workers, fed up and backs against the wall, went on strike in May 1894. The June convention of the ARU voted to call a boycott of all Pullman cars in support. Debs actually argued against taking immediate action, fearing that the ARU was not yet strong enough for a big showdown with the employers. Having lost the vote, he promptly threw himself into the struggle.

Despite massive opposition from the press and the craft unions, the boycott was impressively successful. The plan to remain peaceful, to refuse to handle trains with Pullman cars, but to avoid stopping the mail trains, was effective.

But conditions were not ideal. Employers were able to hire thousands of strikebreakers to keep the trains moving, and minor outbreaks of violence occurred in several localities, prompting the intervention of local militias.

In some cases, the employers deliberately provoked violence in order to demand state intervention to stop the boycott. The mainstream press howled about the "lawless acts of Dictator Debs" and complained that "the mob is in control." Despite the extreme pressure, the strike was surprisingly effective. Wrote Debs, "The struggle with the Pullman Company has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of the country."

Finally, federal intervention was used to break the strike. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney got an injunction against the strike for "obstructing federal highways" and used the army to break it. The ARU ignored the injunction.

Thousands of federal troops were marched into Chicago and other localities. Their presences was used to deliberately inflame workers and provoke disturbances--which were then used to justify the presence of troops in the first place.

The tactic proved effective. After Debs and other leaders were arrested for ignoring the injunction, workers were prodded back to work after being told that workers in other localities were returning. With the union's central communications cut, this tactic brought about the collapse of the strike.

The strike taught Debs many lessons: that both major parties were firmly in the hands of the corporations; that the press had an hysterical bias toward the owning class; that the federal government was a tool in the hands of the employers; and that narrow craft union leaders were a hindrance to the labor movement.

In a speech about how he became a socialist, Debs wrote of the Pullman strike:

In the gleam of every bayonet and flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in socialism, though wholly unaware that it was called by that name.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in July 1989.

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