Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926), a leading American union organizer and, after 1896, a prominent Socialist, ran five times as the Socialist party nominee for president.

Eugene V. Debs was born on Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind., where his French immigrant parents, after considerable hardship, had settled. Debs began work in the town's railroad shops at the age of 15, soon becoming a locomotive fireman. Thrown out of work by the depression of the 1870s, he left Terre Haute briefly to find a railroad job but soon returned to work as a clerk in a wholesale grocery company. Even though he was no longer a fireman, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1874 and rose rapidly in the union. In 1878 he became an associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine. Two years later he was appointed editor of the magazine and secretary-treasurer of the brotherhood.

Debs also pursued a political career in the early 1880s. A popular and earnest young man, he was elected city clerk of Terre Haute as a Democrat in 1879 and reelected in 1881. Soon after his second term ended in January 1884, he was elected to the Indiana Legislature, serving one term.

Changing Concept of Unionism

During the 1880s Debs remained a craft unionist, devoted to "orthodox" ideals of work, thrift, and respectable unionism. With the Firemen's Brotherhood as his base, he sought to develop cooperation among the various railroad brotherhoods. A weak federation was achieved in 1889, but it soon collapsed due to internal rivalries. Tired and discouraged, Debs resigned his positions in the Firemen's Brotherhood in 1892, only to be reelected over his protest.

Debs's new project was an industrial union, one which would unite all railroad men, whatever their specific craft, in one union. By mid-1893, the American Railway Union (ARU) was established, with Debs as its first president. Labor discontent and the severe national depression beginning in 1893 swelled the union's ranks. The ARU won a major strike against the Great Northern Railroad early in the spring of 1894. Nevertheless, when the Pullman Company works near Chicago were struck in May, Debs was reluctant to endorse a sympathetic strike of all railroad men. His union took a militant stance, however, refusing to move Pullman railroad cars nationally. By July, Debs felt the boycott was succeeding, but a sweeping legal injunction against the union leadership and the use of Federal troops broke the strike. Debs was sentenced to 6 months in jail for contempt of court, and his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conversion to Socialism

Having moved from craft to industrial unionism, Debs now converted to socialism. Convinced that capitalism and competition inevitably led to class strife, Debs argued that the profit system should be replaced by a cooperative commonwealth. Although he advocated radical change, he rejected revolutionary violence and chose to bring his case to the public through political means. He participated in the establishment of the Social Democratic party in 1898 and its successor, the Socialist Party of America, in 1901.

Debs was the Socialist candidate for president five times. His role was that of a spokesman for radical reform rather than that of a party theorist. A unifying agent, he tried to remain aloof from the persistent factional struggle between the evolutionary Socialists and the party's more revolutionary western wing. As the party's presidential candidate in 1900 and 1904, he led the Socialists to a fourfold increase in national voting strength, from about 97,000 to more than 400,000 votes. While the party's vote did not increase significantly in 1908, Debs drew attention to the Socialist case by a dramatic national tour in the "Red Special," a campaign train. The year 1912 proved to be the high point for Debs and his party. He won 897,011 votes, 6 percent of the total.

Imprisonment for Sedition

When World War I began in 1914, the party met with hard times. The Socialists were the only party to oppose economic assistance to the Allies and the preparedness movement. Debs, while refusing the Socialist nomination for president in 1916, endorsed the party view that President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policies would lead to war. In 1917 America's entrance into war resulted in widespread antagonism toward the Socialists. When Debs spoke out in 1918 against the war and Federal harassment of Socialists, he was arrested and convicted of sedition under the wartime Espionage Act. He ran for the last time as the Socialist presidential candidate while in prison, receiving nearly a million votes, more actual votes (but a smaller percentage of the total) than in 1912.

On Christmas Day 1921, President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs, but Debs could do little to restore life to the Socialist party, battered by the war years and split over the Russian Revolution. Debs had welcomed the Revolution; yet he became very critical of the dictatorial aspects of the Soviet regime, refusing to ally himself with the American Communist party. Debs died on Oct. 20, 1926, having won wide respect as a resourceful evangelist for a more humane, cooperative society.

Further Reading on Eugene Victor Debs

The most recent edition of Debs's writings is Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, with an introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1948). There are two excellent studies of Debs's career: Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949), and H. Wayne Morgan, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1962). McAlister Coleman, Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid (1930), is the best of the older biographies. Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (1952), and David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955), are invaluable sources on the Socialist party.