Debs for His Time and Ours

Against the Current, No. 180, January/February 2016

Allen Ruff

Eugene V. Debs Reader
Socialism and the Class Struggle
Edited by William A. Pelz with a new introduction by Mark Lause, and an original introduction by Howard Zinn,
London: Merlin Press, 2014, 256 pages, $25 paperback.

THIS NEW RELEASE of selected writings and speeches by Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) could not be more timely. It’s especially salient for those on the socialist left engaged in discussions and debates regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid to win the Democratic Party nomination for president.

The most well known figure of early 20th century American socialism, Debs conveyed his class-conscious anti-capitalist message, most famously through his celebrated oratory, to countless hundreds of thousands during his years as labor militant and five-time Socialist candidate for president. Viewing those campaigns primarily as educational vehicles, he forwarded a critique and positions on numerous social and political questions, many of which remain with us a hundred years later.

Taking as a given that today’s political culture and social terrain are in many ways vastly different than what they were back then, Debs’ outlook on a range of fundamental issues, arrayed chronologically in this collection, remain surprisingly alive.

His internationalist class perspective, his critique of the two major “capitalist parties,” and his stance regarding independent political action still speak volumes. His strategic commitment to building a working-class movement, firmly based upon the two pillars of militant, inclusive unionism and electoral work, remains vitally important.

In addition, Debs’ principled class-based anti-racism, opposition to immigration restriction, his demands for gender equality, as well as his unswerving opposition to imperialist war still stand as exemplary guides.

As summarized in the book’s introduction and preface, Debs’ socialist understandings of the nature of the capitalist beast grew out of his lived experience as an American heartland son of the working class.

His thinking continually evolved. Shaped by harsh U.S. realties as well as a deep awareness of the country’s radical traditions, it was imbued with democratic and egalitarian values, and a sharp awareness of the glaring contradictions between that democratic promise and the chasm of social and economic disparities during the “Age of the Robber Barons” and the “Progressive Era.”

“The Man from Terre Haute”

Debs was born in November, 1855, the son of French Alsatian immigrants. His father, as historian Mark Lause tells us in his introductory portrait, had crossed the Atlantic after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. Debs’ parents named him Eugene Victor after the French anti-clerical writer Eugene Sue and the popular novelist Victor Hugo.

Coming of age in the western Indiana town of Terre Haute, an increasingly industrial railroad terminal on Wabash River, he went to work on the railroad at 14. A coal shoveler on a locomotive at 16, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a fraternal mutual aid society in that pre-union era.

Largely self-educated, Debs rose through the BLF’s ranks while dabbling in local Terre Haute politics, even doing a one-term stint as a Democrat in the Indiana legislature.

Mainstream politics and conservative railroad mutual aid could not hold him, however. Those decades when he matured as a labor militant were years of recurrent economic crisis, resultant class violence — often bitter railroad strikes and vicious lockouts waged by those industrial titans determined to keep the railroads, then the vital circulatory system of industrial capitalism, free of unions.

In 1893, just as the country entered what became the deepest capitalist crisis and depression up to that time, Debs helped organize the American Railway Union (ARU), an industrial union attempt to bring the various railroad brotherhoods and trades and workers regardless of skill under one national organization. He quickly became the union’s articulate voice.

The young ARU was soon called upon to assist the besieged workers at Pullman, Illinois, victims of a 28% wage cuts who were still expected to pay exorbitant rents in that company-built town, home of the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Debs called for the union’s members to refrain from operating any trains containing the Pullman sleeping cars. With uncoupled or sidelined trains halted and backed up all along the vital industrial arteries of the Midwest and beyond, boss George Pullman and his industrial magnate cronies immediately called upon President Grover Cleveland for help.

Cleveland’s Attorney General, the former railroad lawyer and future Secretary of State Richard Olney, proceeded to break the ARU strike by serving up several injunctions, enforced by federal troops and deputized thugs who fired on crowds at Chicago and elsewhere, killing 13 and wounding hundreds.

Becoming a Socialist

That capacity of the “captains of industry” to enlist the power of the state to break the strike left an indelible impression on Debs and hammered home the need for class-based political action. As he later put it, the state’s response also provided him, though he didn’t fully understand it at the time, with his first “practical lesson in Socialism” as “the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle [revealed] the class struggle…” (“How I Became a Socialist,” 1902).

For his role as an ARU leader and his defiance of the federal injunctions, he wound up behind bars at Woodstock, Illinois. It was in jail during the latter half of 1895 that Debs, reading voraciously, deepened his understandings.

While plumbing not only the works of radical populists and utopian socialists, he also took a deep plunge into writings by the Second International’s German theoretician, Karl Kautsky.

The story, often repeated since, was that he spent part of his time in Woodstock jail reading a volume of Marx’s Capital, brought to him by Milwaukee’s Social Democratic Party leader Victor Berger.

Leaving Woodstock, he soon went on to declare himself a socialist and participated in organizing a succession of socialist party formations. He played a central role in forging the coalition that became the Socialist Party of America in 1901.

Already a nationally known labor militant by the beginning of the century, Debs ran as a Socialist Party presidential candidate on five occasions between 1900 and 1920. Present at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, he would soon go on to disavow the IWW’s singular syndicalist focus on “direct action” and rejection of electoral strategies.

By that time, as well, he had already developed a detailed critique of the exclusionary “pure and simple” skilled craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the class collaboration of its leader Samuel Gompers. He remained unwavering in his support for industrial unionism, the organizing of all workers in an industry regardless of skill, not only as the best form of workers’ defense but as a means of building “revolutionary class unionism.”

Black Lives Mattered

Never static, Debs’ socialist consciousness evolved over time. Nowhere was that more evident than in his take on what was then referred to as “the Negro question.”

Reprinted in this collection, his “The Negro In The Class Struggle” appeared in the Chicago-based International Socialist Review (ISR) appeared in 1903, shortly after W.E.B. DuBois published his famed The Souls of Black Folk boldly asserting that the “problem of the 20th century” was the “problem of the color-line.”

Commissioned by the ISR, the piece was intended as a response to the platform of the Socialist Party of Louisiana that called for the “separation of the black and white races into separate communities, each race to have charge of its own affairs.”

Debs also took the opportunity in the column and subsequent exchanges to critique what he considered as the backward section on “The Negro Question” of the SP’s 1901 program.

Debs began the piece by criticizing socialists who “either share directly in the race hostility against the Negro, or avoid the issue, or apologize for the social obliteration of the color line in the class struggle.”

While taking up a position critical of those within the movement who held racist positions, the piece still maintained a kind of economist or class determinist position that subsumed or collapsed the issues of race into those of class.

While saying that “properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question — the working-class struggle,” he clarified his point by noting that, “capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other…”

Debs argued that when Marx said “Workingmen of all countries unite,” he meant, “regardless of race, sex, creed or any other condition whatsoever.” He called upon the Socialist Party to “receive the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms.”

“We are the party of the working class, the whole working class,” he proclaimed, “and we will not suffer ourselves to be divided by any specious appeal to race prejudice…” He concluded by arguing that “Socialists should with pride proclaim their sympathy with and fealty to the black race, and if any there be who hesitate to avow themselves in the face of ignorant and unreasoning prejudice, they lack the true spirit of the slavery-destroying revolutionary movement…”

The collection also contains an additional important read on race, class and socialism that Debs, interestingly, gave before a diverse New York audience at Harlem’s Commonwealth Casino in October 1923, 20 years after the “Negro In The Class Struggle.”

Speaking directly to his Black listeners in a Harlem which at the time was the center of post-World War I African-American radicalism, he urged those present to break with the “equally corrupt” Republican and Democratic parties and roundly endorsed A. Philip Randolph’s partner, Lucille Randolph, then running as a Socialist Party candidate for the New York state legislature.

Debs’ lengthy speech called attention to the prison system of the era as “the poor man’s institution” and speaking of his time in the Atlanta Federal pen for his opposition to the World War, noted how a third of the prisoners were people of color.

Railing against the mainstream press, he endorsed The Messenger, the Harlem paper inaugurated years earlier by the Black socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen as a “champion of colored workers” (sic). He seemed to reference the then popular currents of Black self-reliance, self determination and agency, suggesting “You have got to build your own press; you have to develop your own [industrial and political] power; you will never count until you do….”

He called upon those in attendance to sever ties with either Democratic or Republican politicians who sought Black votes with false praise and promises during elections but who made themselves scarce otherwise.

Debs praised the young Soviet Union before that Harlem crowd. Though he remained in the Socialist Party and did not enter the communist movement as so many of his comrades did in 1919, he still made it a point to raise the “great beginning” of the Soviet Union, which by then had “stood for five years against the combined capitalisms of the world…”

[For a nuanced discussion of Debs’ perspectives on race and class and subsequent misreadings of his actual positions, see: Will P. Jones, “Something to Offer,”]

“No” to Immigration Restriction

The Socialist Party certainly contained elements infected with white supremacist ideologies. Similarly, there were those in the Party who tailed after or were affiliated with exclusionist AFL unions that stood opposed to immigrant “cheap labor,” not only but especially Asians on the Pacific Coast.

From the SP’s inception there were those who looked to pass convention resolutions calling for immigrant exclusion on various grounds. That debate on the “immigrant question” flared during the 1910 Party Congress, during which three different motions, supporting some form of restriction, came up for consideration.

Responding, Debs bitterly denounced all the proposals in a widely circulated letter, published in the ISR that July. Arguing against what amounted to the opportunism of those party leaders concerned with alienating any support within the AFL craft unions, he criticized the proposals as reactionary and antithetical to socialist principles:

“If Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly, and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare….”

The present collection displays but a representative sampling of Debs’ class perspective on a diverse array of additional social and political issues. Included is “Woman — Comrade Equal” that appeared in the November, 1909 issue of a socialist-feminist magazine, Progressive Woman.

The book also contains essays on John Brown as revolutionary, and the remarkable “Gunman and the Miners,” a call for miners’ armed self defense in the aftermath of the horrific “Ludlow Massacre” of 1914, the murder of striking miners’ families, women and children by state militia at Rockefeller-owned Ludlow, Colorado.

No to Imperialist War!

The anthology contains an abridged version of Debs’ June, 1918 anti-war speech at Canton, Ohio; the address for which, at age 63, he was indicted and sentenced to 10 years in Federal prison under the war-induced Espionage Act that criminalized opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I.

The book also includes his summation to the jury delivered at his subsequent trial and the words he spoke upon sentencing. Read together, the three still stand as a classic socialist indictment of militarism and war under capitalism.

In the Canton speech, he assailed not only the class nature of the war as one benefitting the ruling classes at the expense of those sent to fight and die, but also indicted the servile mainstream press and the pro-war churches: “…When Wall Street says war the press says war and the pulpit promptly follows with its Amen.”

Berating the Democratic and Republican parties as the “gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class,” he urged his listeners “to join a minority party that has an ideal, that stands for a principle, and fights for a cause …” Saluting those in and outside the SP already behind bars for their antiwar work, he castigated the “Wall Street Junkers” and others whom he saw as responsible for the war.

It was in his statement to the court prior to sentencing that Debs made his best remembered lines, words that should preface any discussion of today’s “prison industrial complex.” Perhaps reflecting back on the time, decades before when he sat it out in Woodstock jail for his earlier defiance of a Federal edict, he told the court:

“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.”

The book’s new introduction, while certainly informative, could have used a better editing job and some of the included pieces could have benefited from some introductory context. But those are minor flaws, since so many of the questions and concerns Debs addressed regarding the nature of capitalism and how to best struggle against it are still with us.

January-February 2016, ATC 180