TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Eugene Victor Debs, whose home is an infrequently visited museum on the campus of Indiana State University, was arguably the most important political figure of the 20th century. He built the socialist movement in America and was eventually crucified by the capitalist class when he and hundreds of thousands of followers became a potent political threat.
Debs burst onto the national stage when he organized a railroad strike in 1894 after the Pullman Co. cut wages by up to one-third but did not lower rents in company housing or reduce dividend payments to its stockholders. Over a hundred thousand workers staged what became the biggest strike in U.S. history on trains carrying Pullman cars.
The response was swift and brutal.
“Mobilizing all the powers of capital, the owners, representing twenty-four railroads with combined capital of $818,000,00, fought back with the courts and the armed forces of the Federal government behind them,” Barbara W. Tuchman writes in “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.” “Three thousand police in the Chicago area were mobilized against the strikers, five thousand professional strikebreakers were sworn in as Federal deputy marshals and given firearms; ultimately six thousand Federal and State troops were brought in, less for the protection of property and the public than to break the strike and crush the union.”
Attorney General Richard Olney, who as Tuchman writes “had been a lawyer for railroads before entering the Cabinet and was still a director of several lines involved in the strike,” issued an injunction rendering the strike illegal. The conflict, as Debs would write, was a battle between “the producing classes and the money power of the country.”
Debs and the union leaders defied the injunction. They were arrested, denied bail and sent to jail for six months. The strike was broken. Thirty workers had been killed. Sixty had been injured. Over 700 had been arrested. The Pullman Co. hired new workers under “yellow dog contracts,” agreements that forbade them to unionize.
When he was in jail, Debs read the works of socialist writers Edward Bellamy and Karl Kautsky as well as Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.” The books, especially Marx’s three volumes, set the “wires humming in my system.”
“I was to be baptized in Socialism in the roar of the conflict. … [I]n the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed,” he writes. “This was my first practical lesson in Socialism.”
Debs came to the conclusion that no strike or labor movement could ultimately be successful as long as the government was controlled by the capitalist class. Any advances made by an organized working class would be reversed once the capitalists regained absolute power, often by temporarily mollifying workers with a few reforms. Working men and women had to achieve political power, a goal of Britain’s Labour Party for workers at the time, or they would forever be at the mercy of the bosses.
Debs feared the rise of the monolithic corporate state. He foresaw that corporations, unchecked, would expand to “continental proportions and swallow up the national resources and the means of production and distribution.” If that happened, he warned, the long “night of capitalism will be dark.”
This was a period in U.S. history when many American Christians were socialists. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Christian theologian, Baptist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement, thundered against capitalism. He defined the six pillars of the “kingdom of evil” as “religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (being ‘the social group gone mad’) and mob action, militarism[,] and class contempt.”
Debs turned to the Bible as often to Marx, arguing “Cain was the author of the competitive theory” and the “cross of Jesus stands as its eternal denial.” Debs’ fiery speeches, replete with words like “sin” and “redemption,” were often thinly disguised sermons. He equated the crucified Christ with the abolitionist John Brown. He insisted that Jesus came “to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth.” “What is Socialism?” he once asked. “Merely Christianity in action.” He was fond of quoting the poet James Russell Lowell, who writes:
He’s true to God who’s true to man;
Whenever wrong is done.
To the humblest and the weakest,
’neath the all-beholding sun.
That wrong is also done to us,
And they are slaves most base,
Whose love of right is for themselves
And not for all the race.
It was also a period beset with violence, including anarchist bombings and assassinations. An anarchist killed President William McKinley in 1901, unleashing a wave of state repression against social and radical movements. Striking workers engaged in periodic gun battles, especially in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, with heavily armed company goons, National Guard units, paramilitary groups such as the Coal and Iron Police, and the U.S. Army.
Debs, although a sworn enemy of the capitalist elites, was adamantly opposed to violence and sabotage, arguing that these actions allowed the state to demonize the socialist movement and enabled the destructive efforts of agents provocateurs. The conflict with the capitalist class, Debs argued, was at its core about competing values. In an interview conducted while he was in jail after the Pullman strike, he stressed the importance of “education, industry, frugality, integrity, veracity, fidelity, sobriety and charity.”
A life of moral probity was vital as an example in the face of capitalist exploitation, but that was not enough to defeat the “kingdom of evil.” The owners and managers of corporations, driven by greed and a lust for power, would never play fair. They would always seek to use the law as an instrument of oppression and increase profits through machines, a reduction in wages, a denial of benefits and union busting. They would sacrifice anyone and anything—including democracy and the natural world—to achieve their goals.
Debs, if he could hear today’s proponents of the “free market,” self-help gurus, positive psychologists, talk show hosts and the political class as they exhort Americans to work harder, get an education, follow their dreams, remain positive and believe in themselves and American exceptionalism, would have scoffed in derision. He knew that corporate power is countered only through organized and collective resistance by workers forced to fight a bitter class war.
Debs turned to politics when he was released from jail in 1895. He was one of the founders of the Socialist Party of America and, in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies.” He was the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. presidency five times in the period 1900 through 1920—once when he was in prison—and he ran for Congress in 1916.
Debs was a powerful orator and drew huge crowds across the country. Fifteen thousand people once paid 15 cents to a dollar each to hear him in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In his speeches and writings he demanded an end to child labor and denounced Jim Crow and lynching. He called for the vote for women, a graduated income tax, unemployment compensation, the direct election of senators, employer liability laws, national departments of education and health, guaranteed pensions for the elderly, nationalization of the banking and transport systems, and replacing “wage slavery” with cooperative industries.
As a presidential campaigner he traveled from New York to California on a train, called the Red Special, speaking to tens of thousands. He helped elect socialist mayors in some 70 cities, including Milwaukee, as well as numerous legislators and city council members. He propelled two socialists into Congress. In the elections of 1912 he received nearly a million votes, 6 percent of the electorate. Eighteen thousand people went to see him in Philadelphia and 22,000 in New York City.
He terrified the ruling elites, who began to institute tepid reforms to attempt to stanch the growing support for the socialists. Debs after the 1912 election was a marked man.
On June 18, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, he denounced, as he had often done in the past, the unholy alliance between capitalism and war, the use of the working class by the capitalists as cannon fodder in World War I and the Wilson administration’s persecution of anti-war activists, unionists, anarchists, socialists and communists. President Woodrow Wilson, who had a deep animus toward Debs, had him arrested under the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States” or to “willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of anything “necessary or essential to the prosecution of [a U.S. war, in this case against Germany and its allies].”
Debs did not contest the charges. At his trial, he declared: “Washington, Paine, Adams—these were the rebels of their day. At first they were opposed by the people and denounced by the press. … And if the Revolution had failed, the revolutionary fathers would have been executed as felons. But it did not fail. Revolutions have a habit of succeeding when the time comes for them.”
On Sept. 18, 1918, minutes before he was sentenced to a 10-year prison term and stripped of his citizenship, the 62-year-old Debs rose and told the court:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions. …
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means. …
Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison. …I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity. …
I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all. …
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.
There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists, loyal, devoted adherents to this cause, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color, or sex. They are all making common cause. They are spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order. They are waiting, watching, and working hopefully through all the hours of the day and the night. They are still in a minority. But they have learned how to be patient and to bide their time. The feel—they know, indeed—that the time is coming, in spite of all opposition, all persecution, when this emancipating gospel will spread among all the peoples, and when this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greatest social and economic change in history.
In that day we shall have the universal commonwealth—the harmonious cooperation of every nation with every other nation on earth. …
Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.
I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
Three years later, Debs’ sentence was commuted by President Warren Harding to time served, and, in broken health, he was released from prison in December of 1921. His citizenship was not restored until five decades after his 1926 death. The labor movement and socialist party he had struggled to build had been ruthlessly crushed, often through violent attacks orchestrated by the state and corporations and mass arrests and deportations carried out during the Palmer Raids in November 1919 and January 1920. The government had shut down socialist publications, such as Appeal to Reason and The Masses. The “Red Scare” was used as an ideological weapon by the state, and especially the FBI after it was established in 1908, to discredit, persecute and silence dissent.
The breakdown of capitalism saw a short-lived revival of organized labor during the 1930s, often led by the Communist Party, and during a short period after World War II, and this resurgence triggered yet another prolonged assault by the capitalist class.
We have returned to an oligarchic purgatory. Wall Street and the global corporations, including the fossil fuel industry and the war industry, have iron control over the government. The social, political and civil rights won by workers in long and bloody struggles have been stripped away. Government regulations have been rolled back to permit capitalists to engage in abuse and fraud. The political elites, along with their courtiers in the media and academia, are hapless corporate stooges. Social and economic inequality replicates the worst excesses of the robber barons. And the great civic, labor and political organizations that fought for working men and women are moribund or dead.
We have to begin all over again. And we must do so understanding, as Debs did, that any accommodation with members of the capitalist class is futile and self-defeating. They are the enemy. They will degrade and destroy everything, including the ecosystem, to get richer. They are not capable of reform.
I walked through the Debs home in Terre Haute with its curator, Allison Duerk. It has about 700 visitors a year. Rarely do these visits include school groups. The valiant struggle by radical socialists and workers, hundreds of whom were murdered in labor struggles, has been consciously erased from our history and replaced with the vacuity of celebrity culture and the cult of the self.
“Teaching this kind of people’s history puts a lot of power in working-class people’s hands,” Duerk said. “We all know what that threatens.”
The walls of the two-story frame house, built by Debs and his wife in 1890, are covered with photos and posters, including pictures of Debs’ funeral on the porch and 5,000 mourners in the front yard. There is the key to the cell in which he was held when he was jailed the first time. There is a photo of Convict No. 9653 holding a bouquet at the entrance to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta as he accepts the nomination from leaders of the Socialist Party to be their 1920 presidential candidate. There are gifts including an intricately inlaid wooden table and an ornately carved cane that prisoners sent to Debs, a tireless advocate for prisoner rights.
I opened the glass panel of a cherry wood bookshelf and pulled out one of Debs’ books, running my fingers lightly over his signature on the front inside flap. I read a passage from a speech he gave in 1905 in Chicago:
The capitalist who does no useful work has the economic power to take from a thousand or ten thousand workingmen all they produce, over and above what is required to keep them in working and producing order, and he becomes a millionaire, perhaps a multi-millionaire. He lives in a palace in which there is music and singing and dancing and the luxuries of all climes. He sails the high seas in his private yacht. He is the reputed “captain of industry” who privately owns a social utility, has great economic power, and commands the political power of the nation to protect his economic interests. He is the gentleman who furnishes the “political boss” and his swarm of mercenaries with the funds with which the politics of the nation are corrupted and debauched. He is the economic master and the political ruler and you workingmen are almost as completely at his mercy as if you were his property under the law.
I leafed through copies of Appeal to Reason, the Socialist party newspaper Debs edited, which once had almost 800,000 readers and the fourth highest circulation in the country.
Debs, like many of his generation, was literate. He read and reread “Les Misérables” in French. It was his father’s bible. It became his own. His parents, émigrés from Alsace, named him after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. His father read Sue, Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas and other authors to his six children. Debs found in Hugo’s majestic novel the pathos of the struggle by the wretched of the earth for dignity and freedom. He was well aware, like Hugo, that the good were usually relentlessly persecuted, that they were not rewarded for virtue and that those who held fast to truth and justice often found their way to their own cross. But there was no other choice for him: The kingdom of evil had to be fought. It was a moral imperative. It was what made us human.
“Intellectual and moral growth is no less indispensable than material improvement,” Hugo writes in an appendix to “Les Misérables.” “Knowledge is a viaticum; thought is a prime necessity; truth is nourishment, like wheat. A reasoning faculty, deprived of knowledge and wisdom, pines away. We should feel the same pity for minds that do not eat as for stomachs. If there be anything sadder than a body perishing for want of bread, it is a mind dying of hunger for lack of light.”