Eugene V. Debs: Pullman Strike Leader and Socialist
By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University
Eugene Victor Debs was America’s most popular twentieth-century socialist and one of the great strike leaders and working-class heroes in the country’s history. Born in the Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, his Alsatian parents named him after two great French social realist novelists, Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. At the time, Terre Haute was a booming coal and railroad town, and at age 15 the young Debs started working on the railroads. Five years later, he was respected enough to be elected secretary of the local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.
During his youth, Debs imbibed the small town values of upwardly mobile skilled workers in the railroad brotherhoods. He was a strong believer in the Protestant work ethic of industry, frugality, sobriety, and benevolence. These virtues enabled skilled workmen to earn sufficient income to support their wives at home, achieve dignity and respect within their communities, and sustain their own autonomy or “manliness.” To Debs and his fellow workmen, the independence and community standing that resulted from these manly values secured citizenship to the common man and kept the American republic from degenerating into various forms of tyranny. Much of Debs’s subsequent life could be comprehended as an elaboration and transformation of this seminal set of commitments.
The engine that drove that transformation was Debs’s experience as a union man confronting the new labor policies of the railroad corporations. In the early phases of railroad development, the railroad corporations paid skilled workers premium wages, acquiesced in their work rules, and accepted collective bargaining. But by the mid-1880s, railroad managers responded to labor scarcity and cutthroat competition by reclassifying occupations, adopting individualized pay schemes, and cutting wages. These policy shifts resulted in three great strikes during the late 1880s: the Reading Railroad strike of 1887, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Strike of 1888, and the New York Central strike of 1890. Each strike resulted in union defeat, and each defeat could be attributed to mutual scabbing by the railroad brotherhoods and the railroad workers organized by the Knights of Labor. The conclusions that Debs drew from these defeats permanently modified his earlier conceptions.
First, Debs came to believe that individualism could not be achieved in isolation from his fellows; accepting a condition of mutual dependence was not a negation of manliness but a higher form of it—brotherhood. Debs new belief in working-class solidarity manifested itself in his indefatigable efforts to create unity among the railroad brotherhoods. During the late 1880s and early 1890s he led his fellow skilled railroad workers in experimenting with various forms of federation of the existing craft brotherhoods. But, none were successful.
Debs also modified his earlier belief in class harmony, which had led him as a young man to oppose the strikers during the 1877 railroad strike and to view local railroad entrepreneur William Riley McKeen as his role model. He now began to view the trusts and corporations as enemies of workingmen’s manliness and as new forms of tyranny threatening the American Republic. For these reasons he began to use republican language to endorse working-class resistance to corporate despotism.
In 1893, Debs’s guiding principle had become that of the Knights of Labor: “an injury to one is the concern of all.” He decided to form the American Railway Union (ARU), which included unskilled and skilled workers in a single organization. It was the first large national industrial union, a forerunner of the great industrial organizations that formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The ARU’s support for the Pullman workers’ strike in 1894 was an extension of the Knights’ principle and the most spectacular example of the sympathy strike in American history. A national organization, which by then boasted 150,000 members, struck not to secure any demands of its own, but rather to help several thousand Pullman workers win their strike.
For Debs the Pullman defeat was a bitter one. He greatly resented American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers’ refusal to ask his member unions to go out on general strike on behalf of Pullman workers—even though by the time he asked for aid, the strike was doomed. But, far more, Debs resented the collusion between the federal government, especially the judiciary, and the large corporations. From that point forward, Debs believed that the only way to redeem American liberty and the American republic from corruption was through political action to destroy the overweening power of the large corporations.
For violating an injunction against the strike, Debs served six months in Illinois’ Woodstock prison. While incarcerated, Socialist Victor Berger brought him Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to read, and Debs began to consider the possibilities of socialism as a an alternative to capitalism. When released from prison, Debs was not yet—contrary to legend—a Marxian socialist, but he had become a working-class martyr. He arrived in Chicago from Woodstock by train, and was met by 100,000 people who had gathered despite the pouring rain. There, Debs delivered his famous “Liberty” speech in which he connected the cause of labor to that of the American revolutionaries of 1776 and declared his imprisonment a flagrant violation of constitutional principles. He had become more than a hero to late nineteenth century workers; he had become a prophet.
By 1895, Debs was a national symbol and determined to translate his fame and spellbinding oratory into progress toward a “cooperative commonwealth.” In 1897 he convinced the remnants of the ARU to form a cooperative colony, a model utopian community in Tennessee, which would employ unemployed railroad workers. But in 1898 with the depression over, Debs followed Berger into electoral politics; he threw his considerable talents into formation of the Social Democracy of America. In 1901, the Social Democracy merged with other factions to form the Socialist Party of America (SPA).
The SPA was the first working-class socialist party not dominated by immigrants and with a majority of its members speakers of English. It brought together a heterogenous group of socialists: Berger’s Milwaukee German trade unionists, Morris Hillquit’s New York City Jewish socialists based in the garment industry, ex-Populists from the American Southwest; Midwest small town socialists; and syndicalist “wobblies” (members of the Industrial Workers of the World). It also served as home for a diverse and distinguished group of Americans: Bill Haywood, William English Walling, Kate Richards O’Hare, Rose Pastor Stokes, Florence, Kelley, Sidney Hillman, Margaret Sanger, A. Philip Randolph, Abraham Cahan, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Walter Lippmann; and, later in the century, Norman Thomas, Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, and Michael Harrington. For these factions and individuals Debs served as a unifying symbol and rallying figure. Debs ran five times as the party’s standard bearer for President of the United States, receiving almost 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912. In 1920 he ran for President from prison, where he was serving a sentence for opposing America’s involvement in World War I, and received a million votes.
- Stephen Burwood. “Debsian Socialism Through a Transnational Lens.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 2003): 253-82.
- J. Robert Constantine ed.. Letters of Eugene V. Debs. 3 volumes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
- Eugene V. Debs. Eugene. Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2002.
- “Papers of Eugene V. Debs.” Indiana State University. Library Special Collections. (also available on microfilm)
- Jacob H. Dorn, “In Spiritual Communion: Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Christians.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 2003): 303-325.
- Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949.
- “Lincoln Steffens’ interview of Eugene V. Debs.” in Ronald Radosh. Debs. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.
- Nick Salvatore. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982.