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Eugene Debs ~ Extremist With a Heart

Updated on May 13, 2014

Labor leader, American Socialist

Hearing Tea Partiers call our very centrist president a socialist, I sometimes wonder if any have heard of the real Socialist candidate: Eugene Debs. No, he's not running in 2016, but Debs did run for president of the United States four times, and in 1912 he received almost a million votes, or 6% of ballots cast. Can you imagine that happening today? Yes, America actually tolerated -- briefly, at least -- truly diverse political ideas a century ago.

(public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

An American labor leader is born

Eugene Victor Debs was born to Alsatian immigrant parents in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father was from a well-to-do family & chose his son's middle name for a favorite author, Victor Hugo. Hearing his father read Hugo's Les Miserables aloud helped shape young Gene Debs's ideas about the lives of those with little material wealth.

These ideas only intensified after Debs dropped out of high school to work as a locomotive paint-scraper (and later, locomotive fireman) and saw firsthand the harsh, dangerous conditions many railway workers had been enduring while railroad magnates like Cornelius Vanderbilt accumulated tremendous wealth.

Intensely concerned with the disadvantaged, Debs was generous almost to a fault -- reportedly giving his watch away to a man who couldn't get a train conductor job without one.

In 1875 he got involved with organized labor, joining the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. By 1893 he had organized a huge consolidated union of all railway workers, the American Railway Union. As a labor leader he won a major victory in 1894, at the helm of a successful strike against the Great Northern Railway for better working conditions.

Those who work hardest, and at

the most difficult and most menial tasks,

have the least.

The Pullman strike

Sadly, Debs & colleagues were not as successful in their subsequent strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company. Railroad car manufacturer George Pullman -- perhaps best known for sleeper cars -- had his workers living in Pullman-owned housing in a Pullman-owned village, shopping at Pullman-owned stores. Faced with a railroad-related economic depression in the USA, the Panic of 1893, Pullman cut workers' wages by 28% -- without lowering the cost of their housing and provisions. Debs actually argued against a strike, considering it too risky, but the ARU membership voted in favor.

The federal government responded aggressively, issuing an injunction against strikers for obstructing U.S. mail, which was carried on Pullman cars. Federal troops were sent to break the strike -- and succeeded. In the process, lives were lost, millions of dollars' worth of property was damaged, and Eugene Debs was arrested for violating the federal injunction. Represented by renowned attorney Clarence Darrow, Debs was nonetheless sentenced to 6 months in prison.

I have no country to fight for. My country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world.

Becoming a socialist

A Democrat, not a Socialist, when he entered prison, Debs was inundated there with letters, books, and pamphlets from Socialists across the country. His experiences with the railroad strikes took on a deeper meaning, and he began connecting them with class struggle and other Socialist tenets. He would come to believe that the means of production should be owned by the state, not private businesspeople, for the good of all.

Once out of prison, he devoted the rest of his life to the Socialist cause. He helped found the Social Democratic Party of the United States and Industrial Workers of the World organizations. A tall, striking presence and impressive orator, Debs became the Socialist Party of America candidate for U.S. president in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 -- the last time, from prison.

The master class has always declared

the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.

Back in jail

Eugene Debs found himself back in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Enacted shortly after the United States entered World War I, it prohibited Americans from hindering the war effort, even by simply speaking out against US involvement in the war. Debs made no secret of his opposition to the war, and President Woodrow Wilson hated him for it.

In 1918 Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, that included critical remarks on the military draft. He was arrested on 10 counts of sedition and sentenced to a decade in prison. In 1920 the U.S. attorney general proposed clemency, but Wilson refused, calling Debs "a traitor to his country" and vowing never to pardon him.

Debs never was officially pardoned, but President Warren Harding commuted his sentence to time served as of Christmas Day, 1921. On his way home, he was greeted cordially at the White House by Harding. A crowd of 50,000 welcomed him back to Terre Haute, where his home still stands as a National Historic Landmark on the campus of Indiana State University.

Eugene V. Debs died of heart failure in October 1926 but would forever live on as an inspirational figure to left-leaning Americans.

Yes, I am my brother's keeper.

~~ poll! ~~

Can someone speak out against America's involvement in a war, as Debs did, and still be a patriot?

See results
A People's History of the United States
A People's History of the United States

Eugene Debs is one of the working-class heroes featured in Howard Zinn's renowned book, which looks at American history through the lens of common people rather than political elites.


What are your thoughts on Eugene Debs? Could someone like Debs run for president today? Could the USA benefit from a modern-day Debs?


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