Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
5 November 1855
Eugene V Debs, born on 5 November 1855, was one of America's most popular socialist figures. In his lifetime he led one of the first industrial unions, was twice imprisoned and helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the Wobblies). He also opposed US entry into the First World War (for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison) and supported the Russian Revolution of 1917. He stood as presidential candidate for the American Socialist Party on five occasions and in 1920 received nearly one million votes--while serving a prison sentence.
By the end of the 19th century the US was overtaking Britain as the world's major industrial power. The price of this for American workers was grim. They faced appalling conditions and starvation wages. If they protested, the bosses employed private armies to brutally repress them. Yet the end of the century saw massive strikes across many major US cities.
It was during one of these, the Pullman strike of 1894, that Debs came to prominence. He realised that while the rail industry divided workers into four separate unions the bosses would always have the upper hand, playing one union off against the others. So Debs founded the American Railway Union to represent all rail workers, which rapidly built a membership of 150,000 in 465 locals (branches). The Pullman strike was its first test.
The rail bosses employed their usual methods, but failed to break the strike. Debs went on the offensive and sought to widen the dispute by calling a general strike across Chicago. This was sabotaged by the established unions of the American Federation of Labour--which organised along craft rather than industrial lines, and had a leadership who constantly sold out the workers.
The federal government intervened on behalf of the bosses by using Pullman trains to carry the mail. Stopping the mail was a federal offence, so the federal government used US army troops to move the mail. The strike was eventually lost. In the process the American Railway Union was smashed and Debs was given six months in prison.
In jail Debs studied socialism. He was already an inspiring speaker, and emerged from prison determined to be a leading member of the American Socialist Party. On his release he was met by a 100,000-strong crowd at a Chicago rail station.
Debs had learnt that industrial unions were necessary to defend US workers' interests. He also argued for a socialist party that, when elected, could pass legislation on behalf of workers. But he made the mistake of seeing politics as separate from economics, so while he was committed to the founding of the IWW in 1905, he steered the Socialist Party away from intervention around strikes.
This was the 'progressive era' in the US. The brutality of US industrialisation meant that the call for reforms was supported in many areas of US society. Even that architect of modern US imperialism Theodore Roosevelt thought the bosses had gone too far, provoking 'a very unhealthy condition of excitement and irritation in the popular mind, which shows itself in the great increase in socialist propaganda'.
The Socialist Party grew in popularity. In the 1912 election Debs received 6 percent of the vote. The party had 79 mayors, a subs-paying membership of 120,000 and 5,000 branches. Its weekly publication, Appeal to Reason, had a circulation of 761,000.
Yet the fate of the Socialist Party would be determined, not by the votes it piled up, but by its politics. The party wanted popular appeal, which led to the avoidance of issues that divided workers. It had within its ranks a right wing and a left wing. The right was racist, insisting that even heaven would be segregated! In an Oklahoma election where the Socialist Party was accused by the Democrat candidate Charlie Guthrie (Woody's father) of being in favour of 'free love' and against the family, the party response was to raise the issue of the sexual habits of Thomas Jefferson.
Although his party ultimately failed, Debs himself retained huge popularity. He proved, alongside the IWW, that US workers were open to socialist ideas. The raw material for revolution existed. It was the political leadership that was missing.
On US entry into the First World War in 1917, the Socialist Party split between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. At a special conference Debs maintained a principled internationalist position in opposition to the slaughter, and was arrested and put on trial for treason in Canton, Ohio.
He left us the remarkable speech he made there, which serves not only as an epitaph for Debs himself, but as an inspiration for future generations of socialists. His speech finishes with these words: 'The sun of capitalism is setting. The sun of socialism is rising... In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant--the greatest in history--will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind.'