Gene Debs Looks Toward Socialism

Book Review: The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, Volume II: The Rise and Fall of the American Railway Union, 1892-1896.  Edited by Tim Davenport and David Walters (Haymarket Books).

Could a nearly seven-hundred-page collection of the writings of Eugene Debs on a pivotal moment of labor and socialist history be less than ….monumental? Impossible! 

As they did in Volume I of the series, Tim Davenport and David Walters have given us a real treasure, and a restoration. The left-wing rush toward Leninism after 1920 seemed to have left behind most of the Left’s understanding of Debs except as an orator and strike leader. Had he been “deeper,” as the sentiment suggested, he would have leaped from the socialist movement to the Communists! I am not so sure that most of the later, more sympathetic historians of the socialist movement have given Debs credit for his depth. In truth, looking at these pages, we are reminded that he was a lucid thinker, a fine writer, astute and discerning. 

How far he had gotten on his road to socialism is among the most fascinating issues of this volume, but by no means the only one. The essays and commentaries here begin with the violent  Homestead strike of 1892, and this is a fine choice, because Debs is bringing his future into sight already. Written for the proud craft union readers of the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, the pivotal essay must have opened the eyes of those who had long believed that they, as artisans, would be protected from the degradation and miseries of the unskilled workforce. It was not to be. Debs’s parting note offers the hope that the bloody thuggery of the Pinkerton Agency will become outlawed. He could not have imagined the worse things still ahead.

Debs dropped the subject of immediate crisis after three more essays on Homestead, but it is unlikely that the lessons ever left him. Violent resistance against the cruelty of capitalism had failed, another method had to be sought and would be sought in the only possible way: wider solidarity.

Over the next several years, organizing the all-encompassing American Railway Union, Debs speculates frequently on the unfairness of advancing industrial capitalism. The notion that capital and labor would play fair belonged always to a misty past, perhaps. But the crafts had managed, generally, to hold onto their dignity.   

Now, Debs explains in characteristically biblical phrases, “Pharaoh rules with no mercy. The Deity responded to the Israelites’ suffering with plagues of every imaginable kind, and “the children of Israel marched for forty years and finally entered the promised land.” 

These essays go far beyond socialistic moments. Debs holds forth on a hundred different themes, from the waste of military spending to the splendor of the  and a dozen other topics. 

Debs, who had disapproved of the rioting of the 1877 railroad strikes and to the anarchist presence in Chicago at the time of the Haymarket incident, wrote again and again that the ARU would never resort to violence in any circumstance and, if necessary, would even protect the property of the railroad against vandalism.

The “contest between the producing classes  and the money power of the country” had begun, in any case, and in appealing to the sentiment of the country, including President Grover Cleveland, Debs felt sure that he could be successful. Sad reality: for the first time (but not the last), the U.S. Army was mobilized against peaceful strikers.

By January 1895, Debs is writing from behind bars.  Imprisoned, Debs continued to believe in a kind of cosmic order in which “industrial slavery is to be abolished and economic freedom established” suitable to the “starry banner” of the flag. It had to happen. He could admit there were “dangers ahead” for the Republic, but if Americans stopped voting against their own interests, the future was assured.

By 1895, he could see where this logic led, for he had already given up on his former party, the Democrats (“beyond resurrection,”) and the Republicans, long since the party of the rich.

A further disillusionment lay ahead, of course. But as Debs more than reconciled himself with the  (Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned those still alive), he entered into conversations with socialist editors, even while asking all concerned that his name not be considered for the presidential race of 1896.

Debs, as a popular writer, was never to be confined entirely to didacticism. He could write fluently and with sympathetic tones on the rise of the bicycle craze and the “new woman” in her bloomers. Similarly, he loved to quote a wide range of authors, probably from books on or around his desk, Longfellow to Milton, not to mention obscure poets whose writings he must have picked up from newspapers and magazines.

The volume closes with three essays boosting William Jennings Bryan. Anticipating the rhythms of Vachel Lindsay’s “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” Debs sees wealth versus humanity, the American aristocrats against the common people. 

Writing in a more religious age than our own, Debs makes the inevitable analogies to Jesus as the friend of the poor, and it’s a hell of a book to make such a point without sounding corny to today’s audience.