November 15, 2007


Debs with attorney and socialist William A. Cunnea. Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to Eugene Debs Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Debs was on his way to a successful career by the 1880s. He served as city clerk of Terra Haute and was elected to the Indiana legislature, where he sponsored several progressive bills that never saw the light of day. In 1885, he married Kate Metzel. She was devoted to Debs, although the marriage would prove to be something of a mismatch.

He was an officer and editor in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a generally conservative and respectable labor organization.

As time went on, however, Debs came to see the limitations of this kind of organization. In the railroads, for example, each trade had its own brotherhood with pretty limited loyalty. There were brotherhoods for conductors, engineers, brakemen, etc. Unskilled workers had no representation at all. This led to situations where division equalled defeat and even where one brotherhood would scab on another.

He came to see the need for a union organized along industrial rather than craft lines and laid the foundation for the short lived American Railway Union. The ARU was launched in 1893 and won some early and promising victories. Workers flocked to join almost faster than they could be signed up.

And then it happened: against his better judgment, the ARU was drawn into a strike against the Pullman Car Works Company, which was owned by robber baron George Pullman and which made the famous sleeping cars. The ARU refused to handle Pullman cars or the trains attached to them, which brought down the wrath of the nation's employers and the federal government and military. The strike was crushed and Debs began his first stint in jail as a result.

The experience was revelatory for Debs and the beginning of the birth of a socialist. He came to believe in the economic organization of the working class through unions and the political organization of the working class through a party devoted solely to its interests through peaceful and democratic means. He believed that nothing could be more senseless than for a working person to vote for the same candidate a robber baron.

He later said,

I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict. In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed...This was my first practical struggle in socialism.

He laid out is vision of a cooperative and democratic society many times, but here are some samples:

The issue is Socialism vs. Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society—we are on the eve of a universal change.


The earth is for all the people. That is the demand.

The machinery of production and distribution for all the people. That is the demand.

The collective ownership and control of industry and its democratic management in the interest of all the people. That is the demand.

The elimination of rent, interest, profit and the production of wealth to satisfy the wants of all the people. That is the demand.

Cooperative industry in which all shall work together in harmony as the basis of a new social order, a higher civilization, a real republic. That is the demand.
The end of class struggles and class rule, of master and slave, or ignorance and vice, of poverty and shame, of cruelty and crime -- the birth of freedom, the dawn of Brotherhood, the beginning of MAN.

That is the demand.

Debs was one of the founders of the American Socialist Party and was its candidate for president in 2900, 1904, 1908, 1912 (his peak year) and 1920. The last one deserves special mention since he "ran" for office as an inmate of a federal prison. He got nearly a million votes that year.

Debs also remained devoted to the labor movement, serving at various times as a special organizer for the United Mine Workers of America and helping to found the Industrial Workers of the Word (the Wobblies) in 1905. He later became disillusioned with the IWW because of its direct action tactics.

He had such an appealing personality that many people who thought his political ideas were crazy loved him personally and his oratorical ability was such that it could move people to tears who didn't understand a word of English.

"ALL WE WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A GOOD ECONOMY." This op-ed by Marie Cocco is worth reading for the title alone. The rest is pretty good too.

CHANGE HAPPENS. Here's a good resource pile from Wired Science about dealing with skeptics of climate change and evolution.

DISTURBING NEWS. In 2005, veterans committed suicide at the rate of 120 per week, twice that of other Americans. According to CBS (by way of Wired Science),

Veterans aged 20-24, who are those most likely to have served during the War on Terror, are killing themselves when they return home at rates estimated to be between 2.5 and almost 4 times higher than non-vets in the same age group. (22.9 to 31.9 per 100,000 people as compared to just 8.3 per 100,000 for non-vets).

ARCHIVEGATE. This is a local tempest, but the recent firing without notice and generally unsportsmanlike dismissal of a dedicated state archivist by the Manchin administration, along with possible plans to change the archives library, has led groups to plan a protest. El Cabrero remembers from his library days that you don't want to mess with genealogists.


1 comment:

Donutbuzz said...

Let's hope the genealogists, the press, and, of course, the bloggers continue to press Governor Manchin about Fred Armstrong's firing.

We, the people, do have a voice, after all, if we simply use it.