Eugene Debs

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, Eugene Debs was throughout his lifetime the nation’s most widely known and eloquent exponent of a socialist alternative to American capitalism. Unlike many other American and European socialist leaders, Debs sought to avoid complex and often divisive ideological debates over the pace and purity of a theoretical socialist revolution and sought instead to connect the idea of socialized control over the industrial economy to indigenous American traditions of political democracy, utopian individualism, and radical reform.
Eugene Debs

Originally a locomotive fireman by trade, Debs quit this highly dangerous work at the behest of his mother and turned instead to union work and local politics. He began his union career in the 1870s with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, rising quickly to the head of the union and invigorating a previously weak and ineffective organization. Running as a Democrat, he was twice elected city clerk of Terre Haute beginning in 1879 and in 1885 spent one term as as Indiana state legislator. Debs’ was disillusioned with his experience as a legislator, disturbed by the lack of interest shown in his ideas for railroad reform and by what he considered the callous process of political compromise. He funneled his energy and enthusiasm back into his work with the union. At this point in his career Debs was not a socialist but a conventional trade unionist, optimistic about the possibility of class harmony through the organization of workers and the persuasion of everyone else.

Through his work with the Firemen’s Brotherhood, Debs came to believe that unions organized exclusively around craft inhibited the ability of workers to join together in defense of common interests and allowed management to neutralize or crush union strength through divide-and-conquer strategies. He resigned from the Brotherhood in 1892 to form the American Railroad Union, which sought to organize all railroad workers into a single union regardless of craft or skill. When workers at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company went on strike in 1894 to protest wage cuts in the middle of a severe depression, Debs led an ARU sympathy strike to support Pullman workers and to publicize the idea of a single unified railroad union. ARU unionists refused to handle trains carrying Pullman sleeping cars; national railroad traffic ground to a halt. President Cleveland, on the advice of Attorney General (and former railroad attorney) Richard Olney, called in federal troops to break the strike; dozens died in the ensuing violence. For his role in the strike, Debs was prosecuted for obstructing the mails and contempt of court. He was convicted on the second charge and spent six months in jail.

He emerged from jail a national figure, a hero of the American Left, and a Socialist, though he initially resisted associating himself with that label. He supported the Populists in 1896 and campaigned for William Jennings Bryan, but Bryan’s defeat was for Debs the last straw; In January of 1897 he officially declared himself a Socialist. In 1900 he ran for President on the ticket of the American Socialist Party; he would do the same in every Presidential election but one between 1900 and 1920. Debs also played a role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, the most radical American union of the early twentieth century. The IWW was committed to the idea of a single union for all workers regardless of skill, craft, or occupation; this was an explicit rejection of the conservative unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, which accepted only skilled workers organized by trade. Debs later soured on the Wobblies’ policies of direct action and rejection of political solutions to the problems of workers.

Debs Speaking

Debs Pointing

Debs was never particularly interested in the complex economic and political theories that occupied – and often as not divided – the minds of most Socialists. Ironically, this may have been his greatest asset as a Socialist politician. For Debs, Socialism was as much about the dignity and humanity of the individual worker as it was about abstract questions of the proper organization of the American means of production or the distribution of wealth. This placed much of Debs’ rhetoric firmly within an American as well as a European political context; Debs spoke in the optimistic, evangelical cadences of a home-grown American radical tradition, drawing on Emerson, Robert Owen, or John Brown as much as on Marx or Engels. This often made Debs as many enemies as friends within the Socialist Party itself, and for most of his career Debs sought to remain aloof from the fierce factional infighting of the American Left. But it also gave Debs a broader popular appeal than any other American Socialist could muster, and his personal charisma and persuasiveness before an audience were second to no other American politician of any stripe. Debs was also personally admired by many who detested his politics. "[W]hile the overwhelming majority of the people here are opposed to the social and economic theories of Mr. Debs," wrote the mayor of Terre Haute, Debs’ hometown, in 1907, "…there is not perhaps a single man in this city who enjoys to a greater degree than Mr. Debs the affection, love, and profound respect of the entire community."


Marc Horger was the author of this text.