Trade Unionist Extraordinary – Eugene Debs

Eugene V. Debs was born 130 years ago, on 5th November 1855. Although a member of the reformist socialist Party of America, in his speeches and articles he came nearer to the socialist position of the SPGB than any other prominent political orator in America, as the few extracts we give from his most famous utterances clearly show.

Debs’ story is a classic case of the dictum of Marx that trade unions are a school of communism (socialism). Starting work as a rail-shop boy at fourteen, by sixteen he was loco-fireman stoking the dangerous, unreliable prairie engines with the typical reckless disregard for workers’ safety which has always characterised American capitalism. In 1878, at only twenty-three years of age, he became Secretary of the newly formed local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Two years later, he was Secretary of the entire union, and editor of the Firemen’s Magazine. He was an indefatigable organiser – riding the engines, trampling through railway sheds in sleet, snow and rain, fighting with train-cops and rail detectives. He soon realised, however, that a separate Firemen’s Union was not good enough. He started organising all railmen, and for this reason resigned as Secretary of the Firemen’s Union. The resignation was unanimously rejected. He then organised the American Railway Union – and its first successful strike.

Then, in 1894, came the Pullman strike, ruthlessly crushed by Federal troops. Debs was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for “contempt of court”, ninety-one years before the Thatcher government used the same device against striking miners. Debs, brooding in his Woodstock gaol, tried to make sense out of the debacle. The more he thought, the clearer it all became: “In the gleam of every bayonet, and the flash of every rifle, the Class Struggle was revealed”. In gaol he read avidly. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Karl Kautsky, Robert Blatchford – but, most importantly, he was visited by Victor Berger, who presented him with a copy of Marx’s Capital. According to professor Schleswingen (to whom we are indebted for the biographical details): “A tough pragmatic trade unionist had entered Woodstock jail, a radical well on the way to socialism, departed six months later”. One hundred thousand workers jammed the streets of Chicago on his release.

In 1897 he achieved the remarkable feat of transforming an industrial union into a political party: the American Railmen’s Union became the “Social-Democratic Party of the USA”. Although helping to form the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), and condemning the Socialist Labour Party of Daniel De Leon, Debs kept scrupulously to his conviction that only political action for socialism could emancipate the working class.

In 1918, “Debs was no pacifist but he objected to capitalist wars”. He was charged with “uttering words intended to cause insubordination and disloyalty within the military forces of the United States”. In April 1919 he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. In 1920 the Socialist Party of America nominated Eugene Debs, convict no.9653 at Atlanta gaol, for President of the United States – the only case, as far as known, of a serving prisoner so proposed. He polled 900,000 votes, in spite of the intransigence of the “liberal scholar” Woodrow Wilson, who declared: “he was a traitor to his country. He will never be pardoned during my administration.”

Warren G. Harding, who succeeded Wilson, released Debs in 1921. The old man, now broken in health but not in spirit, though welcoming the Russian Revolution as first, soon became one of the Bolsheviks’ most forthright critics. He would not accept the interference and attempted domination of the Communist International they had set up: “When they proceed to dictate to the Socialist Parties of other countries as to how they should conduct themselves, it seems to me to be the time to back up.” As for the American Communist Party, he commented that “any underground radical movement in the United States is not only foolish, but suicidal”. According to Professor Schleswinger, “Debs held firmly to democratic traditions of change through debate and consent. He avoided the syndicalist terrorism of the IWW and the conspiratorial disloyalties of the Communist Party.”

Debs died on 20th October, 1926. One of the most popular orators of the entire American continent, his simple, direct style inspired thousands of American workers. His speeches endeared him to socialists everywhere and are still quoted today with telling effect.


• “The workers must organise for their emancipation. They can do this, and only they can do it. I cannot do this for you and I want to be frank enough to say I would not, if I could. For, if I could do it for you somebody else could undo it for you. But, when you do it yourselves, it will be done for ever -and until you do it, you have got to pay the penalty of your ignorance, indifference and neglect.”

• “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come – he never will come. I would not lead you out if l could, for if you could be led out – you could be led back again. Make up your minds, there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.”

• “You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist one second without you. You would begin to live without him. You DO everything. Some of you imagine that if it was not for the capitalist you would have no work. Really he does not employ you at all. You employ him to take from you what you produce, and he sticks faithfully to his job. If you can stand it – he can – and if you don’t change it – he won’t.”

• “I would be ashamed to admit I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be WITH the ranks.”

• “I believe in rotation of office. I confess to a prejudice against officialdom and bureaucracy. I believe in the rank and file and rule from the bottom UP , instead of the top down.”

• “I can have no respect for capitalist property laws, nor the least scruple about breaking them. I hold all such laws to have been enacted through chicanery, fraud and corruption, with the sole end in view, of dispossessing, robbing and enslaving the working class. But this does not imply that I propose making an individual lawbreaker of myself and butting my head against the stone wall of existing property laws. I am law-abiding under protest – not from scruple – and bide my time . . . for the same reason I am opposed to ‘Direct Action’. I have no use for the ‘propaganda of the deed’. These are the tactics of anarchist individualists. They are reactionary not revolutionary. If I believed in the ‘doctrine of violence and destruction’ I would join the anarchists.”

• “You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, indifferent, apathetic, unorganised and content you will remain exactly as you are. You will be exploited, defrauded, and have to beg for a job. You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and be looked down on with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labour.”

• “At bottom, all anti-political actionists are to all intents anarchists; and anarchists and socialists have never yet pulled together.”
• “I am opposed to any party alliances or affiliations with reactionary trade unions and to compromising tactics of every kind . . . Political power is essential to the workers in their struggle, and they can never emancipate themselves without developing and exercising that power in the interests of their own class.”

• “As a socialist I have long since learned how to stand alone. I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything rather than be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, especially the intellectual variety.”

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