Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Eugene V. Debs
Rise to prominence
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana (where he lived most of his life), to middle-class immigrant parents. At the age of fourteen, he left home to work on the railroads, becoming a fireman. He returned home in 1874 to work as a grocery clerk, and the next year was a founding member of a new lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He rose quickly in the Brotherhood, becoming first an assistant editor for their magazine and then the editor and Grand Secretary (in 1880). At the same time, he became a prominent figure in the community, even being elected to the Indiana state legislature (as a Democrat). The railroad brotherhoods were comparatively conservative unions, more focused on providing fellowship and services than in collective bargaining. Debs gradually became convinced of the need for a more unified (and confrontational) approach. After stepping down as Grand Secretary, he organized, in 1893, the first industrial union in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894.
Trouble with the law
He was jailed later that year for his part in the Pullman Strike, which grew out of a strike by the workers who made Pullman's cars and who appealed to the ARU at its convention in Chicago for support. Debs tried to persuade the ARU members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the ARU, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them.
The federal government did, in fact, intervene, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the railways by refusing to show up for work, then sending in the United States Army on the grounds that the strike was hindering the delivery of the mail. That provoked a violent reaction from strikers in what had otherwise been a relatively peaceful strike. The strike was broken and the ARU destroyed.
The experience radicalized Debs still further. He was a candidate for President of the United States in 1900 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. He was later the Socialist Party of America candidate for President in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the final time from prison.
Debs was, however, largely dismissive of the electoral process: he distrusted the political bargains that Victor Berger and other "sewer socialists " had made in winning local offices and put much more value on the organization of workers, particularly on industrial lines. Yet Debs was equally uncomfortable with the apolitical syndicalism of Bill Haywood and others within the Industrial Workers of the World. While he was an early supporter of the IWW, he was later appalled by what he considered the IWW's irresponsible advocacy of direct action and armed conflict with the state.
Although Debs criticized the apolitical "pure and simple unionism" of the railroad brotherhoods and the craft unions within the American Federation of Labor, he practiced a form of pure and simple socialism that underestimated the lasting power of racism, which he viewed as an aspect of capitalist exploitation. As Debs wrote in 1903, the party had "nothing specific to offer the negro, and we cannot make special appeals to all the races. The Socialist party is the party of the working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world". Yet Debs was more advanced on this issue than many others in the Socialist Party: he denounced racism throughout his years as a socialist, refusing to address segregated audiences in the South and condemning D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation".
Debs was a charismatic speaker who called on the vocabulary of Christianity and much of the oratorical style of evangelism—even though he was generally disdainful of organized religion. As Heywood Broun noted in his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow Socialist: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."
Debs himself was not wholly comfortable with his prowess as a speaker. As he told an audience in Utah in 1910:
- I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. YOU MUST USE YOUR HEADS AS WELL AS YOUR HANDS, and get yourself out of your present condition.
Return to Prison
On June 16, 1918 Debs made an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I, and was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison and disenfranchised for life, losing his citizenship.
Debs made his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:
- Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I 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, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
While in prison in Atlanta, he ran for President. He received 913,664 votes (3.4%), the most ever for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. and slightly more than he had won in 1912, when he obtained six percent of the vote.
On December 25, 1921 President Warren G. Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served. Debs never recovered his health from that time in prison. In 1976 Debs's citizenship was restored posthumously.
- Pullman Strike
- U.S. presidential election, 1900
- U.S. presidential election, 1904
- U.S. presidential election, 1908
- U.S. presidential election, 1912
- U.S. presidential election, 1920
- Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, by Marguerite Young. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: 1999. ISBN 0-679-42757-0
- The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs, by Ray Ginger. Rutgers University Press: 1949. (Reprinted by Thomas Jefferson University Press: 1992. The reprint edition has numerous historic photographs and an introduction by J. Robert Constantine.)
- Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore . Reprinted by University of Illinois Press, 1984. ISBN 0252011481
- Debs Tendency of the Socialist Party USA
- Eugene V. Debs Foundation
- Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
- Eugene Debs Page from the Antiauthoritarian Encyclopedia
- Open Directory Project: Eugene V. Debs
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