Socialism from Below
Eugene Debs: Rising with the Ranks

by Paul le Blanc
New Socialist Magazine, September - October 1999

Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) was a popular leader of the U.S. labor and socialist movements. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana of Alsatian immigrant parents, Debs was named after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. His father and mother ran a small grocery store.

The second oldest of six children, Debs left school to work in a railroad shop at fourteen. In 1872 he became a locomotive fireman, and soon helped found the Terre Haute local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. By 1880 he was editor-in-chief of the union's magazine, as well as grand secretary and treasurer of the national Brotherhood.

Debs was drawn into Democratic Party politics--elected as city clerk and then to the Indiana state legislature in1885. Yet this path offered little for the improvement of railroad workers' lives and, as he later commented, "When I rise it will be with the ranks, not from the ranks."

He turned away from a conventional political career and from the limited craft organization of the Brotherhood-helping to found the American Railway Union in 1893. As president of the ARU, Debs became a leading spokesman for a new form of industrial unionism that quickly proved its ability to challenge the immense power of the railroad corporations with massive strikes. With the 1894 Pullman strike, however, the pro-business government used quickly deputized U.S. marshals, troops, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to smash the ARU and jail its leaders, including Debs.

This posed new questions, and Debs spent much of his fortieth year reading the Communist Manifesto, Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward, and other probing critiques of capitalism. "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," he commented after his six-month prison sentence.

He emerged with a deeper commitment than ever to create a political, social and economic "rule by the people." In 1901, Debs helped form the Socialist Party of America, whose importance in the labor movement is reflected in the number of votes Debs received when he ran for president: 96,000 in 1900; 402,400 in 1904; 420,973 in 1908; 901,062 in 1912 (six percent of the total vote); and 919,799 in 1920.

Many local SP candidates were elected to office in those years, and about one-third of American Federation of Labor unions chose open Socialists as leaders. Prominent intellectuals and writers, women's rights activists, fighters for African-American rights, clergymen, young people, and both immigrant and native-born workers joined the Socialist movement in large numbers.

In this context, Debs labored tirelessly, making speeches across the country. Intensely involved in supporting practical trade union struggles, he felt strongly that the narrow craft orientation and the exclusionary policies of the AFL were detrimental to the interests of the working class. He thus supported the 1905 formation of the Industrial Workers of the World. Although he eventually pulled back from the organization because of its tendency toward sectarianism, he remained sympathetic to many IWW activists, and struggles.

Debs generally held aloof from internal disputes in the Socialist Party, but identified with its left wing that rejected reformist compromises. He favored world-wide working-class solidarity and condemned the imperialist expansionism that culminated in World War I. He was also hopeful that the 1917 Russian Revolution would lead to similar insurgencies elsewhere (although he would later express sharp criticisms of the dictatorial trends in Soviet Russia.) Debs' anti-war position resulted in his prosecution under the Espionage Act in 1918 and he was imprisoned again. At the same time, government repression severely damaged the Socialist and militant labor movements. Pardoned in 1921 but in poor health, Debs could no longer play the role he once did in the workers' movement. Still, he did what he could to advance united left-wing and labor efforts and to spread socialist ideas in the more conservative atmosphere of the 1920s.

"The story of Debs becomes the story of a whole generation of wage earners and dirt farmers," commented his biographer Ray Ginger. "While the people learned something from the Socialist leader, he learned even more from them."