On This Day A Century Ago: Gene Debs Leaves Prison

One hundred years ago this Christmas, the men inside the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, crowded around the prisons front wall. Their cheers shook the building as they watched a beloved fellow inmate, Eugene Debs, set off for his home in Terre Haute. The aging socialist turned back to face them, doffed his cap, and bade them farewell. 

Debs, a labor leader, socialist organizer and five-time presidential candidate, didnt start his public life as a radical. The force behind his journey from moderate labor leader to far-left political prisoner was his confrontation with the reality of U.S. capitalism.

Debs began his labor career in 1875 with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, one of several conservative railway Brotherhoods that maintained no-strike policies. Through the 1880s, struggles only intensified between workers and employers, as well as among the Brotherhoods. Faced with the Brotherhoodssquabbling and the urgency created by the Panic of 1893, Debs led the formation of the American Railway Union (ARU), which represented workers of all railroad trades, in 1894.

In its first year, the ARU led the Pullman Strike, which involved a quarter of a million workers. Railways in 27 states ground to a halt, and President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. Army to quell the strike. Debs was arrested for violating a court injunction against the strike and spent six months in jail. The Pullman strike pitted the workers against capitaland the stateon a scale that Debs had not before encountered. In his retrospective essay How I Became a Socialist,he identified the strike as the final shockin which the class struggle was revealed.” 

To his comradeschagrin, Debs never prioritized theory. Although he was influenced by the many socialist writings he read while in jail for the strike, these served primarily to help him articulate and analyze his firsthand experience. As a railroad union leader and later as a presidential candidate, Debss greatest strength was his deep solidarity with essentially everyone he met. He would give away money and even clothes off his back to strangers in need. He would run into workers he had met years prior and greet them as old friends. He once delayed his famous campaign train, the Red Special, until a local school let out, so its students could come and speak with him.

Debs ran for president first in 1900, and again in 1904, this time under the banner of the new Socialist Party. From its inception, the Socialist Party attacked the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for refusing to admit Black and unskilled workers. Though he failed to fully grasp the nature of American racism and viewed poor Black and white workers as being essentially in the same situation, Debs believed in racial equality on both moral and strategic grounds. He blamed the ARUs failure against Pullman on the unions refusal to admit Black workers.

Seeing the urgency and necessity of organizing all workers, Debs and other radical labor leaders formed the Industrial Workers of the World, one big unionfor all workers, in June of 1905. The IWWs founders included anarchists, trade unionists, and socialists, but all agreed on the need to unify the whole working class, rather than only skilledwhite workers.

Through the presidential elections of 1908 and 1912, Debs campaigned tirelessly for his Socialist ticket and organized for the IWW. In the 1912 race he received nearly 900,000 votes, or 6% of the popular vote, to this day the high water mark for a socialist in a national election.

In 1917, the United States entered the First World War, which Debs, like many (not most) socialists in Europe, denounced as a conflict between imperialist governments serving their own ruling classes. Debs delivered a speech to this effect in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, the essence of which is captured in its most famous line: The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.He was arrested two weeks later and charged with 10 counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts.

The trial itself is remembered for Debss statement to the court, and its opening lines: Your Honor, 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.

He was convicted on three counts and sentenced to 10 years. In federal prison, he lived up to his proclamation in the courtroom; he built relationships with prisoners of all stripes, freely handing out his tobacco rations and listening to their problems. When one guard punished Debs with solitary confinement, the prisons warden objected, Dont you know that if the men heard that Debs was in the hole they would tear down the walls of this prison, brick by brick, to get him out?

Debs made a final run for the presidency from prison but failed to match his 1912 success. A year later, President Warren Harding commuted his sentence. As Debs waved goodbye to his fellow inmates that Christmas afternoon, tears streamed down his cheeks.

A bloody and busy century has passed since this moment, but Debss example offers guidance to socialists today. He carried himself with a gentleness and a regard for humanity that only strengthened his radical convictions. His own politics, including his anti-war internationalism that landed him in prison, grew out of his firsthand experience with the class struggle, always rooted in the daily experiences of the working class. That the only way forward is through genuine solidarity was, for Debs, not just a nice slogan or a pithy theoretical observation; it was the driving principle of his life. As he said in Canton, I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.