Organized Labor

37e. Eugene V. Debs and American Socialism

Socialist Party poster
The Socialist Party aimed to become a major party; in the years prior to World War I it elected two members of Congress, over 70 mayors, innumerable state legislators and city councilors.

Despite the success of the American Federation of Labor, American radicalism was not dead. The number of those who felt the American capitalist system was fundamentally flawed was in fact growing fast.

American socialists based their beliefs on the writings of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Many asked why so many working Americans should have so little while a few owners grew incredibly wealthy. No wealth could exist without the sweat and blood of its workforce. They suggested that the government should own all industries and divide the profits among those who actually created the products. While the current management class would stand to lose, many more people would gain. These radicals grew in number as industries spread. But their enemies were legion.

The Father of American Socialism

Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855 to a family of French Alsatian immigrants. Making his way in the railroad industry, Debs formed the American Railway Union in 1892.

Two years later he found himself leading one of the largest strikes in American history — the great Pullman strike. When its workers refused to accept a pay cut, The Pullman Car Company fired 5000 employees. To show support, Debs called for the members of the American Railway Union to refrain from operating any trains that used Pullman cars. When the strike was declared illegal by a court injunction, chaos erupted. President Cleveland ordered federal troops to quell the strikers and Debs was arrested. Soon order was restored and the strike failed.

Debs was not originally a socialist, but his experience with the Pullman Strike and his subsequent six-month jail term led him to believe that drastic action was necessary. Debs chose to confine his activity to the political arena. In 1900 he ran for President as a socialist and garnered some 87,000 votes.

Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that 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.

– Eugene V. Debs, Statement to the Court, while being convicted of violating the Sedition Act (Sept. 18, 1918)

The following year, leading sympathizers joined with him to form the Socialist Party. At its height, the party numbered over 100,000 active members. Debs ran for President four more times. In the election of 1912 he received over 900,000 votes. After being arrested for antiwar activities during World War I, he ran for President from his jail cell and polled 919,000 votes. Debs died in 1926 having never won an election, but over one thousand Socialist Party members were elected to state and city governments.

The Wobblies

Even more radical than the Socialists were the members of the Industrial Workers of the World. This union believed that compromise with owners was no solution. Founded in 1905 and led by William "Big Bill" Haywood, the "Wobblies," as they were called, encouraged their members to fight for justice directly against their employers. Although small in number, they led hundreds of strikes across America, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system. The I.W.W. won few battles, but their efforts sent a strong message across America that workers were being mistreated.

When the United States entered World War I, the "Wobblies" launched an active antiwar movement. Many were arrested or beaten. One unlucky member in Oregon was tied to the front end of an automobile with his knees touching the ground and driven until his flesh was torn to the bone. Membership declined after the war, but for two decades the I.W.W. was the anchor of radical American activism.

On the Web
Emma Goldman Meets Eugene V. Debs
Anarchist Emma Goldman recorded her meeting with Eugene Debs in her autobiography. This webpage from the Socialist Party of Orlando offers an excerpt of that personal recollection.
Documents by Eugene V. Debs
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) offers this collection of speeches and essays by Eugene Debs.
Gene Debs and the American Railway Union
This brief look at Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union he founded was prepared by the Illinois Labor History Society.
Pluralism and Unity
Excerpts of a speech by Debs on his vision of socialism is presented here in text form and on RealAudio.
Eugene V. Deb's Canton Speech, 1918
"It is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world."
-Eugene Debs, June 16, 1918
Goldman on Debs
"Debs was so genial and charming as a human being that one did not mind the lack of political clarity which made him reach out at one and the same time for opposite poles. "
-Emma Goldman

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