Historian Jill Lepore Reflects On The Role Of Eugene V Debs In Enlivening The Labor Movement In The United States

September 4, 2023
Half man, half myth, Debs turned a radical creed into a deeply American one.

Eugene Victor Debs left school at the age of fourteen, to scrape paint and grease off the cars of the Vandalia Railroad, in Indiana, for fifty cents a day. He got a raise when he was promoted to fireman, which meant working in the locomotive next to the engineer, shovelling coal into a firebox—as much as two tons an hour, sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Firemen, caked in coal dust, blinded by wind and smoke, had to make sure that the engine didn’t explode, an eventuality they weren’t always able to forestall. If they were lucky, and lived long enough, firemen usually became engineers, which was safer than being a switchman or a brakeman, jobs that involved working on the tracks next to a moving train, or racing across its top, in any weather, at the risk of toppling off and getting run over. All these men reported to the conductors, who had the top job, and, on trains owned by George Mortimer Pullman, one of the richest men in the United States, all of them—the engineers, the firemen, the brakemen, the switchmen, and even the scrapers—outranked the porters. Pullman porters were almost always black men, and ex-slaves, and, at the start, were paid nothing except the tips they could earn by bowing before the fancy passengers who could afford the sleeping car, and who liked very much to be served with a shuffle and a grin, Dixie style.

Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison.

Debs, who wrote a lot about manliness, always said that the best kind of man was a sand man. “ ‘Sand’ means grit,” he wrote in 1882, in Firemen’s Magazine. “It means the power to hold on.” When a train stalled from the steepness of the incline or the weight of the freight, railroad men poured sand on the tracks, to improve the grip of the wheels. Men need sand, too, Debs said: “Men who have plenty of ‘sand’ in their boxes never slip on the path of duty.” Debs had plenty of sand in his box. He had, though, something of a morbid fear of ashes. Maybe that’s a fireman’s phobia, a tending-the-engine man’s idea of doom. In prison—having been sentenced, brutally, to ten years of hard time at the age of sixty-three—he had a nightmare. “I was walking by the house where I was born,” he wrote. “The house was gone and nothing left but ashes . . . only ashes—ashes!” The question today for socialism in the United States, which appears to be stoking its engines, is whether it’s got enough sand. Or whether it’ll soon be ashes, only ashes, all over again.

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, seven years after Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” His parents were Alsatian immigrants who ran a small grocery store. Debs worked for the railroads a little more than four years. In the wake of the Panic of 1873, he lost his job at Vandalia and tramped to East St. Louis looking for work; then, homesick, he tramped back to Terre Haute, where, in 1875, he took a job as a labor organizer, and, later, as a magazine editor, for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He hung his old scraper on the wall, part relic, part badge, part talisman, of his life as a manual laborer.

Debs was a tall man, lanky and rubbery, like a noodle. He had deep-set blue eyes and lost his hair early, and he talked with his hands. When he gave speeches, he leaned toward the crowd, and the veins of his temples bulged. He was clean-shaven and favored bow ties and sometimes looked lost in crumpled, baggy suits. He had a way of hunching his shoulders that you often see, and admire, in tall men who don’t like to tower over other people. In a new book, “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography” (Verso), drawn by Noah Van Sciver and written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, Debs looks like an R. Crumb character, though not so bedraggled and neurotic.

People could listen to him talk for hours. “Debs! Debs! Debs!” they’d cry, when his train pulled into a station. Crowds massed to hear him by the tens of thousands. But even though Debs lived until 1926, well into the age of archival sound, no one has ever found a recording of his voice. When Nick Salvatore wrote, in his comprehensive biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” in 1982, “His voice ran a gamut of tones: mock whisper to normal conversation to full stentorian power,” you wonder how he knew. Debs could speak French and German and was raised in the Midwest, so maybe he talked like the Ohio-born Clarence Darrow, with a rasp and a drawl. Some of Debs’s early essays and speeches have just been published in the first of six volumes of “The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs” (Haymarket), edited by Tim Davenport and David Walters. Really, he wasn’t much of a writer. The most delightful way to hear Debs is to listen to a recording made in 1979 by Bernie Sanders, in an audio documentary that he wrote and produced when he was thirty-seven years old and was the director of the American People’s Historical Society, in Burlington, Vermont, two years before he became that city’s mayor. In the documentary—available on YouTube and Spotify—Sanders, the Brooklyn-born son of a Polish Jew, performs parts of Debs’s most famous speeches, sounding, more or less, like Larry David. It is not to be missed.

Debs began his political career as a Democrat. In 1879, when he was only twenty-three, he was elected city clerk of Terre Haute, as a Democrat; the city’s Democratic newspaper called him “one of the rising young men of Terre Haute,” and the Republican paper agreed, dubbing him “the blue-eyed boy of destiny.” Debs looked back on these days less fondly. “There was a time in my life, before I became a Socialist, when I permitted myself as a member of the Democratic party to be elected to a state legislature,” he later said. “I have been trying to live it down. I am as much ashamed of that as I am proud of having gone to jail.” Throughout his life, he believed in individual striving, and he believed in the power of machines. “A railroad is the architect of progress,” he said in a speech at the Grand Lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1877, the year the President of the United States sent federal troops to crush a railroad workers’ strike. The firemen’s brotherhood was less a labor union than a benevolent society. “The first object of the association is to provide for the widows and orphans who are daily left penniless and at the mercy of public charity by the death of a brother,” Debs explained. At the time, he was opposed to strikes. “Does the brotherhood encourage strikers?” he asked. “No—brotherhood.”

For a long time, Debs disavowed socialism. He placed his faith in democracy, the franchise, and the two-party system. “The conflict is not between capital and labor,” he insisted. “It is between the man who holds the office and the man who holds the ballot.” But in the eighteen-eighties, when railroad workers struck time and time again, and as many as two thousand railroad men a year were killed on the job, while another twenty thousand were injured, Debs began to wonder whether the power of benevolence and fraternity was adequate protection from the avarice and ruthlessness of corporations backed up by armed men. “The strike is the weapon of the oppressed,” Debs wrote in 1888. Even then he didn’t talk about socialism. For Debs, this was Americanism, a tradition that had begun with the American Revolution. “The Nation had for its cornerstone a strike,” he said. He also spent some time with a pencil, doing sums. Imagine, he wrote in an editorial, that a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt started out with two million dollars—a million from his grandfather and another million from his father. “If a locomotive fireman could work 4,444 years, 300 days each year, at $1.50 per day,” Debs went on, “he would be in a position to bet Mr. Vanderbilt $2.50 that all men are born equal.”

In 1889, Debs argued for an industrial union, a federation of all the brotherhoods of railroad workers, from brakemen to conductors, as equals. Samuel Gompers wanted those men to join his far less radical trade union, the American Federation of Labor, which he’d founded three years earlier, but in 1893 Debs pulled them into the American Railway Union. Soon it had nearly a hundred and fifty thousand members, with Debs, at its head, as their Moses. That’s what got him into a battle with George Pullman, in 1894, and landed him, for the first time, in prison, where he read “Das Kapital.”

Debs once said that George Pullman was “as greedy as a horse leech,” but that was unfair to leeches. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, Pullman slashed his workers’ wages by as much as fifty per cent and, even though they lived in housing he provided, he didn’t cut rents or the price of the food he sold them. Three thousand workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company, many of them American Railway Union members, had already begun a wildcat strike in May of 1894, a month before the A.R.U.’s first annual meeting, in Chicago. As Jack Kelly recounts, in “The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America” (St. Martin’s), Debs hadn’t wanted the A.R.U. to get involved, but the members of his union found the Pullman workers’ plight impossible to ignore, especially after nineteen-year-old Jennie Curtis, who’d worked in the Pullman sewing department for five years, upholstering and making curtains, addressed the convention. Curtis explained that she was often paid nine or ten dollars for two weeks’ work, out of which she paid Pullman seven dollars for her board and two or three more for rent. “We ask you to come along with us,” she told Debs’s men, because working for Pullman was little better than slavery. After hearing from her, the A.R.U. voted for a boycott, refusing “to handle Pullman cars and equipment.”

That Curtis had a voice at all that day was thanks in part to Debs, who had supported the admission of women to the A.R.U. He also argued for the admission of African-Americans. “I am not here to advocate association with the negro, but I am ready to stand side by side with him,” he told the convention. But, by a vote of 112 to 110, the assembled members decided that the union would be for whites only. If two votes had gone the other way, the history of the labor movement in the United States might have turned out very differently.

Black men, closed out of the A.R.U., formed the Anti-Strikers Railroad Union, to fill positions opened by striking whites. If working on a Pullman car was degrading, it was also, for decades, one of the best jobs available to African-American men. Its perks included safe travel at a time when it was difficult for black people to make their way between any two American cities without threat or harm. George Pullman’s company was the nation’s single largest employer of African-American men. Thurgood Marshall’s father was a Pullman porter. The A.R.U. vote in 1894 set back the cause of labor for decades. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters achieved recognition from the Pullman Company only in 1937, after years of organizing by A. Philip Randolph.

The Pullman strike of 1894, one of the single biggest labor actions in American history, stalled trains in twenty-seven states. Debs’s American Railway Union all but halted transportation by rail west of Detroit for more than a month—either by refusing to touch Pullman cars or by actively unhitching them from the trains. Whatever Debs’s initial misgivings about the boycott, once his union voted for it he dedicated himself to the confrontation between “the producing classes and the money power.” In the end, after a great deal of violence, George Pullman, aided by President Grover Cleveland, defeated the strikers. Pursued by a U.S. Attorney General who had long served as a lawyer for the railroads, Debs and other A.R.U. leaders were indicted and convicted of violating a federal injunction to stop “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the uprising. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Debs’s conviction. He and seven other organizers were sentenced to time behind bars—Debs to six months, the others to three—and served that time in Woodstock, Illinois, in a county jail that was less a prison than a suite of rooms in the back of the elegant two-story Victorian home of the county sheriff, who had his inmates over for supper every night.

“The Socialist Conversion” is the title of the half-page panel depicting these six months in “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography.” It shows Debs in a prisoner’s uniform, seated at a desk in a bare room, with a beady-eyed, billy-club-wielding prison guard looking on from the doorway, while a cheerful man in a suit, carrying “The Communist Manifesto,” approaches Debs, his speech bubble reading “This is a present from the Socialists of Milwaukee to you.”

Very little of this is true. Debs’s time in jail in Woodstock was remarkably comfortable. He ran the union office out of his cell. He was allowed to leave jail on his honor. “The other night I had to lock myself in,” he told the New York World reporter Nellie Bly, when she went to interview him. “There was no sign of the prisoner about Mr. Debs’ clothes,” Bly reported. “He wore a well-made suit of grey tweed, the coat being a cutaway, and a white starched shirt with a standing collar and a small black and white scarf tied in a bow-knot.” The Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger did bring Debs a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” And Debs and his fellow labor organizers dedicated most of their daily schedule to reading. “I had heard but little of Socialism” before the Pullman strike, Debs later claimed, insisting that the reading he did in jail brought about his conversion. But it’s not clear what effect that reading really had on him. “No sir; I do not call myself a socialist,” he told a strike commission that year. While in jail, he turned away overtures from socialists. And when he got out, in 1895, and addressed a crowd of more than a hundred thousand people who met him at the train station in Chicago, he talked about “the spirit of ’76” and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not Marx and Engels.

The next year, Debs endorsed the Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, running on both the Democratic and the People’s Party tickets. Only after Bryan’s loss to William McKinley, whose campaign was funded by businessmen, did Debs abandon his devotion to the two-party system. The people elected Bryan, it was said, but money elected McKinley. On January 1, 1897, writing in the Railway Times, Debs proclaimed himself a socialist. “The result of the November election has convinced every intelligent wageworker that in politics, per se, there is no hope of emancipation from the degrading curse of wage-slavery,” he wrote. “I am for socialism because I am for humanity. . . . Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization.”

That June, at the annual meeting of the American Railway Union, Debs founded the Social Democracy of America party. When it splintered, within the year, Victor Berger and Debs joined what became the Social Democratic Party, and then, in 1901, the Socialist Party of America. For Debs, socialism meant public ownership of the means of production. “Arouse from your slavery, join the Social Democratic Party and vote with us to take possession of the mines of the country and operate them in the interest of the people,” he urged miners in Illinois and Kansas in 1899. But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

“This is our year,” Debs said in 1912, and it was, in the sense that nearly a million Americans voted for him for President. But 1912 was also socialism’s year in the sense that both the Democratic and the Republican parties embraced progressive reforms long advocated by socialists (and, for that matter, populists): women’s suffrage, trust-busting, economic reform, maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and the direct election of U.S. senators. As Debs could likely perceive a couple of years later, when the Great War broke out in Europe, 1912 was to be socialism’s high-water mark in the United States. “You may hasten Socialism,” he said, “you may retard it, but you cannot stop it.” Except that socialism had already done most of what it would do in the United States in those decades: it had reformed the two major parties.

Debs was too sick to run in 1916. The United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917; the Bolshevik Revolution swept Russia that November. Debs spoke out against the war as soon as it began. “I am opposed to every war but one,” he said. “I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.” Bernie Sanders recorded this speech for his 1979 documentary. And, as a member of the Senate, Sanders said it again. “There is a war going on in this country,” he declared on the floor of the Senate in 2010, in a speech of protest that lasted more than eight hours. “I am not referring to the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country.”

After Debs, socialism endured in the six-time Presidential candidacy of his successor, Norman Thomas. But it endured far more significantly in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In the decades since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, many of those reforms have been undone, monopolies have risen again, and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’s lifetime. Socialism has been carried into the twenty-first century by way of Sanders, a Debs disciple, and by way of the utter failure of the two-party system. Last summer, a Gallup poll found that more Democrats view socialism favorably than view capitalism favorably. This brand of socialism has its own obsession with manliness, with its “Bernie bros” and allegations by women who worked on Sanders’s 2016 Presidential campaign of widespread sexual harassment and violence. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, recently addressed some of these charges: “Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes.” Hence the movement’s new face, and new voice: the former Sanders campaign worker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Debs wrote its manifesto, but there’s a certain timidity to the new socialism. It lacks sand. In 1894, one Pullman worker stated the nature of the problem: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” We live in Amazon houses and eat Amazon groceries and read Amazon newspapers and when we die we shall go to an Amazon Hell. In the meantime, you can buy your Bernie 2020 hats and A.O.C. T-shirts on . . . Amazon.

Debs was arrested in Cleveland in 1918, under the terms of the 1917 Espionage Act, for a speech protesting the war that he had given two weeks earlier, on June 16th, in Canton, Ohio. “Debs Invites Arrest,” the Washington Post announced. Most of the nation’s newspapers described him as a dictator or a traitor, or both. And, because what he had said was deemed seditious, newspapers couldn’t print it, and readers assumed the worst. But the speech was vintage Debs, from its vague blandishments and programmatic promises—“We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions”—to its astute observations and forceful repetitions: “The working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war.”

Debs was one of thousands of socialists jailed during the First World War and the Red Scare that followed, when the Justice Department effectively tried to outlaw socialism. His defense attorney compared him to Christ—“You shall know him by his works”—and called no one to the stand but Debs, who, during a two-hour oration, talked less about socialism than about the First Amendment. “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs told the court. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”

The socialist Max Eastman, watching him speak that day, described Debs’s growing fervor. “His utterance became more clear and piercing, and it made the simplicity of his faith seem almost like a portent,” Eastman wrote. But it’s the speech Debs gave during his sentencing that would be his best-remembered address, his American creed: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

After being sentenced to ten years, he was taken, by train, from Cleveland to a prison in West Virginia, where he was held for two months before being transferred to the much harsher Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. On the wall of a cell that he shared with five other men, he hung a picture of Jesus, wearing his crown of thorns. Refusing to ask for or accept special treatment, he was confined to his cell for fourteen hours a day and was allotted twenty minutes a day in the prison yard. He wore a rough denim uniform. He ate food barely fit to eat. He grew gaunt and weak.

Debs came to think about the men he met in prison the way he’d once thought about men he’d worked with on the railroad. “A prison is a cross section of society in which every human strain is clearly revealed,” he wrote in a memoir called “Walls and Bars.” But, if the railroad was a model of hierarchy, prison was a model of equality: “We were all on a dead level there.”

He became an American folk hero, a champion of free speech. In his “from the jail house to the White House” campaign, in 1920, he earned nearly a million votes running for President as Convict No. 9653. But a vote for Debs in 1920 was not a vote for socialism; it was a vote for free speech.

Convict No. 9653 refused to ask for a pardon, even as he grew sicker, and leaner, and weaker. His reputation as a twentieth-century Christ grew. (Kurt Vonnegut’s much beset narrator in “Hocus Pocus” says, “I am so powerless and despised now that the man I am named after, Eugene Debs, if he were still alive, might at last be somewhat fond of me.”) His supporters began holding Free Debs rallies. President Woodrow Wilson refused to answer calls for amnesty. Warren Harding finally released him, on Christmas Day, 1921. Debs never recovered. He lived much of what remained of his life in a sanatorium. In 1925, he said that the Socialist Party was “as near a corpse as a thing can be.” He died the next year.

Debs understood capitalism best on a train, socialism best in prison. One of the last letters he wrote was to the judge who had sentenced him in 1918, asking whether his conviction had left him disenfranchised or whether he still had the right to vote.

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