Eugene v. Debs Essay

This essay has a total of 2058 words and 8 pages.

eugene v. Debs

Eugene V. Debs Citizen and Socialist

Nick Salvatore's book Eugene V. Debs Citizen and Socialist provides a very detailed
account of the life and times and Eugene Debs. Debs was born in Terre Haute Indiana and
Salvatore emphasizes the important role that this played in Debs upbringing. Terre Haute
was ripe with religious fundamentalism from its founding. Religion permeated everyday life
throughout Terre Haute. Salvatore writes that, "In newspaper editorials, political
speeches, civic dedications and Sunday sermons they assured the kingdom of God had already
arrived and that their town was destined to become the center of the Kingdoms Midwest
development." It is striking how the ideals of the Terre Haute community based in
religious fundamentalism and a strong industrial economy provided a seemingly Marxist
critique of a capitalist system in the 1860's well before Marxist ideas had widely spread
to America. Terre Haute's social construct was unique in that there was the undeniable
American value of individual achievement stressed but here the role of community was
necessary to achieve this. In Terre Haute it was believed that for individual prosperity
the progress of the community as a whole was necessary. Salvatore explains this best
himself writing, "The individual was firmly wedded to his community by both the bonds of
daily life and by the expectations of future success. The ideas of individualism,
self-interest and community appeared to meld." This seemingly socialist ideology that man
relies on himself and his brethren for progress and success was critical to Debs'
formation of his values and ideologies. Even the Superintendent of Terre Haute schools
offered this, "If we shall limit the education of the masses and trust the education of
the few for directive power and skill we must expect to be ruled by monopolies, demagogues
and partisans" Throughout his life Debs constantly fell back on his Terre Hautian
upbringing to reinforce his political values which separated him from the Milwaukee and
northeastern socialists

It is important to understand that Debs' always had a passionate involvement with railroad
workers and would always use his experience with them as a model and inspiration for
advancing his later socialist ideals. Debs began his involvement with the labor movement
when he took a job as a railroad firemen in Missouri in 1870. He moved back to Terre Haute
at the urging of his family and quickly joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen or
BLF, which was the railroad firemen's' union in 1875. He would be associated with this
union for the next 18 years. By 1875 he had built a reputation as an outstanding citizen
and was named the secretary of the Vigo County BLF, this would be his entry into the field
of labor organization. During this time he was closely associated with the railroad
workers and saw their consistent oppression by their capitalist employers. Despite this he
was dedicated to maintaining a union comprised of sober outstanding laborers who could
best serve their employers. By 1879 he was elected grand secretary of the BLF and editor
of the magazine. In this role he gained crucial experience in labor organizing on a larger
scale and elevated his status as a effective leader in the labor movement. During this
time he saw consistent wage cuts forced on these upstanding citizens and workers which
began to galvanize the idea within him that the corporations were not interested in the
quality of labor of their employees. Instead they were interested in only creating a
profit for themselves at any cost and reducing the value of a man to his work.

Debs had not yet believed in or subscribed to socialist values at this time and as a
rising figure in Terre Haute he was elected as city clerk in 1879 on the democratic ticket
for two consecutive terms. He liked being closely associated with local politics and his
community in this position. In 1884 he was elected as a state representative again on the
democratic ticket. Debs quickly formed a distaste for politics on this level as
progressive action was radically quelled by red tape and "politicking".

He was still active as grand secretary of the BLF at this time and engaged in the national
debate regarding the need for a larger all encompassing railway union in place of smaller
ones to advance the needs of railway workers. He believed a larger national union would be
much more effective in this role. Salvatore argues that at this time Debs' even began to
form the idea of a all encompassing union for all laborers nationwide at this time. He
retired from his role in the BLF in 1891 and organized the first national industrial union
in the United States in 1893, the American Railway union or ARU. He rose to the national
spotlight as the leader of the ARU when they struck on the great northern railway in 1894
and had all of their demands unconditionally granted after 18 days. This was the first
large scale union victory in American history and emphasized Debs' ability as a Labor
leader.

In 1894 Debs was confronted with his most daunting situation to date. He presided over the
infamous Pullman strike in Chicago in 1895. This proved to be the most important event in
Debs' life regarding the formation of his ideologies. This was the first strike in America
which was not authorized by the laborers local unions. The employees being both members of
their local unions and Debs' ARU showed their allegiance to the ARU and struck with Debs'
approval. The workers refused to operate any trains with Pullman cars on them except for
those containing federal mail cars, fearing federal intervention. In spite of this federal
troops were sent to intervene and break up the strike with a coercive show of force which
resulted in 34 deaths. To Debs' this act was a clear example of the alliance of the
government with the oppressive capitalists. Debs was later jailed for interrupting federal
mail service and was released in 1895. To this point Debs held lofty ideals regarding the
U.S. government. He firmly believed in ideals set forth in the declaration of independence
and Constitution and the role of the government in protecting the freedom and well being
of Americans. The Pullman strike shattered this lofty vision he held for America. He
entered prison a progressive labor leader and during his term he read Marx's works and
left as he states himself a, "radicalized citizen and hardened socialist"

It is after this time that Debs began his association with the Socialist party. He was
already a national figure due to his involvement with the national labor movement and
quickly became very popular in the Socialist Party. He became so popular due to his idea
that Christianity was intrinsically linked to Socialist values. He believed capitalism
encouraged villainous and morally bereft men to prosper and only a true socialist society
Continues for 4 more pages >>




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