The life of Eugene Victor Debs is so intertwined with the history of American socialism that to associate him with the rural preoccupations of Populism might seem incongruous. For Debs, however, Populism was one of the first political movements that he encountered and one that arguably shaped his understanding of the socialist program he ultimately promoted. Frequently forgotten is that in the climactic presidential campaign of 1912, Debs secured his best result in Oklahoma, a state hardly renowned for its industrial workforce. Socialism as expounded by Debs was an intensely American creed that rejected much of the harsh language of class struggle evident in its European counterpart in favor of appeals to a common humanity that transcended divisions between middle-class and working-class Americans and was more characteristic of the language employed by Populists during the 1890s.
Born into the rapidly industrializing community of Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs's sense of community was heightened by participation in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, where the virtues of benevolence, sobriety, and hard work were celebrated and industrial action was viewed with considerable reserve. In his first foray into politics in 1879, he secured election as city clerk on a Democratic ticket, with support from the business community and the backing of both affluent and working-class wards. Elected to the state legislature in 1884, Debs endeavored to articulate the idea of the state as a neutral meeting ground for the resolution of the differences of competing sectional interests in favor of the common good, and he continued to stand aloof from union organizations like the Knights of Labor, who were actively engaged in politics.
Despite his lack of denominational affiliation, religious rhetoric permeated much of Debs's discourse, and he frequently echoed the Populist lament on the declining availability of free land. Also like the Populists, he initially expressed little concern about the plight of racial and ethnic minorities and could, on occasion, even sound a reactionary note.
Debs's epiphany came with the 1888 strike on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, when he endorsed the right to strike and for the first time saw the importance of labor solidarity, arguing that corporate power threatened the stability of the nineteenth-century United States. He articulated a new vision of citizenship, though one still contained within the American tradition, and he continued to express a belief in craft unionism, rejecting the notion that the worker was either a simple commodity to be purchased or a mere political animal. Toward Populism as a political movement, however, he remained guarded, unconvinced of its solidarity with the working class.
Several events projected Debs to the forefront of the union movement. Debs became a leading figure of the newly organized American Railway Union (ARU) in 1893, which conducted a series of successful strikes thereafter on the Great Northern Railroad. These actions won the support of Ignatius Donnelly and the People's Party of Minnesota. Debs still hoped that this would presage a greater degree of cooperation between management and unions, but when the battle spread to the Pullman Car Works in Chicago in 1894 matters proved very different. The ultimate failure of that strike led Debs to break with Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, particularly after Gompers described the ARU-inspired strike as “impulsive” and condemned sympathy strikes by members of other AFL unions. While Gompers continued to focus on industrial stability and the needs of a relatively small cadre of skilled workers, Debs emerged from the struggle committed to a broader undertaking.
For Debs, the model of future society was always at least as much the cooperative commonwealth as industrial socialism, and he persisted in drawing parallels between socialism and the American revolutionary tradition, as revealed in the writings of Jefferson and Lincoln. He declined to be drafted as the People's Party presidential nominee in 1896, despite the backing of delegates from 16 states, not least because of his admiration for the Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan (he was the only significant union leader to give Bryan an endorsement), but he undertook a nationwide speaking tour that won him wide acclaim. With the eclipse of Populism, however, Debs was ready to make the transition, accepting election to the executive committee of the Social Democratic Party in 1898 (renamed the Socialist Party of America in 1901). For the next 20 years he would be the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president (Salvatore 1982 ).
Despite his conversion, Debs's early relations with more conventional socialists such as Victor Berger were frequently tense. He was an early advocate of the formation in a sparsely populated western state of socialist “colonies” that could in time attain power through the ballot box and then build a cooperative utopia that would provide the model for wider society. Dismissed as utopian by practical socialists, it reflected Deb's continued fascination with the building of an ideal community. He continued to be critical of those who emphasized class consciousness at the expense of the American moral tradition and the importance of individual freedom of action. He was, moreover, suspicious of how much even labor unions could accomplish.
Debs's political career from 1900 to 1919 marked the maturation of a man who had begun his career steeped in the ideals of Populism. A recurrent socialist presidential candidate, he brought the language of the cooperative commonwealth to a national audience while reminding his listeners that the forbears of this practice included such American literary giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His message had particular resonance in the Southwest where many former Populists took their cue from the Girard, Kansas-based Appeal to Reason, published by Julius Wayland, which emphasized the compatibility of socialist ideas with American individualism and Christian beliefs.
See also: Cooperative Commonwealth ; Gompers, Samuel (1850–1924) ; Knights of Labor ; Progressivism ; Pullman Strike (1894) ; Railroads ; Socialism, Christian
Graham, John, ed. “Yours for the Revolution”: The Appeal to Reason, 1895–1922. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Green, James R. Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Weinstein, James. The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.