“The People Shall Rule:” Debs’ Campaign for Socialism

Transcript of Debs’ Campaign for Socialism

Beckley: The countryside surrounding the Wea train station, just west of Lafayette, was dark and quiet on the evening of September 28, 1898. In the distance, a train whistle sounded and soon the light from the engine drew nearer. It was a freight train, owned by the Wabash Railroad Company and as it passed it bellowed black smoke into the night sky. On board, Edward Ragan, the train’s fireman, shoveled coal into the burning hot boiler in front of him while the engineer, Oscar Johnson, maintained their speed at about 25 miles per hour.

Suddenly, the world turned upside down.

[Crashing Sounds]

Beckley: The sound was deafening and neither man could see a thing but falling debris as the car overturned. The two men were buried beneath tons of coal, wood, and steel. The boiler had exploded, ripping the engine to shreds. Some time later, Edward Ragan awoke with injuries to his spine, head, and internal organs – but he was the lucky one. Oscar Johnson didn’t make it out at all. In the months after the accident, Ragan found that he would not be able to return to work for years, if ever at all.

After living 9 months without a salary, Ragan filed suit in Fort Wayne. He alleged that the accident was avoidable and the fault lay with the Wabash Railroad company, which he accused of neglecting the routine maintenance of the engine. He wanted $30,000 – the equivalent of about 45 years of his income at the time of the crash. He settled for $4,000 – less than 5 years of wages. Not much when you consider he likely never worked again but it was all he would get in a time before social safety nets and worker’s compensation.

Just 3 years later, a political party would be formed on the foundation of providing insurance against accidents, pensions for the injured, and bettering the conditions of all workers in the United States – the Socialist Party of America advocated for all of these changes. Today, we’ll discuss one of the men behind this political movement and examine the high water mark of the party.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Support of socialism in America has fluctuated wildly over the years. Today, it’s used as a sort of political buzzword. Sometimes it’s a stand-in for communism and sometimes for countries with comprehensive welfare systems. Some people hear socialism and think of Soviet Russia, Red China, and Cuba. Others think of nationalized healthcare, free college tuition, and an extensive social safety net. Today, I ask you to set any preconceived notions you may have to one side. Not so that we can promote socialism or even pass judgment on it, but rather so we can attempt to gain a historical understanding of the movement and how it became a viable option for many Americans.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone like Edward Regan whose life was blown apart in an instant. Or like the millions of men and women just like him who toiled in factories and mines without paid time off, safe working condition, or even clean air to breath. Once you begin to understand the plight of workers at the time, you may start to understand what drew so many people to socialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regardless of your political persuasion.

One of those people drawn to socialism – and, indeed, drawing people to socialism – was Eugene V. Debs. Debs grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of French Immigrants. He left school at the age of 14 and took a job with a local Railroad Company. At 20, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and soon became a national figure within that organization. He devoted the rest of his life to labor activism and the advancement of the working classes.

Debs’ political views and tactics changed as he learned from setbacks and failures throughout his career. He started his political career as a Democrat – campaigning for multiple democratic candidates for president and even being elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat in 1884. He started his labor activist career with very conservative views of the role of Unions and disdain for striking, once even writing:

Voice actor reading from Debs: A strike at the present time signifies anarchy and revolution, and the one of but a few days ago will never be blotted from the records of memory. The question has often been asked, Does the Brotherhood encourage strikers? To this question we most emphatically answer No, Brothers. To disregard the laws which govern our land? To destroy the last vestige of order? To stain our hands with the crimson blood of our fellow beings? We again say, No, a thousand times No.

Beckley: Seventeen years after writing those words, Debs burst onto the national stage at the forefront of one of the largest railroad strikes in American history – the Pullman strike. By this time, in 1894, Debs had left the Democratic Party for the populists and formed his own union, the American Railway Union. The ARU was one of the first union to admit all railroad workers, regardless of their specialty or skill level – and about 35 percent of Pullman’s workforce were members.

In the year leading up to the strike, wages had been slashed by an average of 33 percent at the Chicago factory. This, along with increasingly difficult working conditions, led the workers to call a strike. At first, the ARU was reluctant to officially back the strike but after leaders heard testimonials from workers, an official, nationwide boycott of the Pullman Company was ordered by the union. Beginning on June 25, 1894, ARU workers refused to handle Pullman cars. If management refused to detach Pullmans from trains – and most did – the workers refused to work at all.  Over 100,000 workers went on strike, effectively bringing all rail travel west of Detroit to a standstill.

For nearly 2 weeks, the strike remained peaceful. The strikers received a great deal of support in Chicago and it seemed that the strike may be a success. Then, the federal government passed an injunction ordering an end to the strike, ostensibly because it was affecting the transportation of mail, but realistically, the government was caving to the pressure of the Railroad conglomerates. President Grover Cleveland sent thousands of troops to Chicago to enforce the injunction.

The presence of these troops agitated the strikers and violence broke out on July 4. The riots that followed resulted in millions of dollars in damage, the deaths of 30 people, and, eventually, the failure of the strike. Debs was heavily criticized by the press – a New York Times editorial called him “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.” He was arrested and charged with contempt of court for violating the injunction. He was found guilty and spent the next 6 months in jail.

At this point in the story is where most general biographies of Debs says something along the lines of – Debs entered that Woodstock, Illinois jail a populist and emerged a Socialist. And he did read a lot about Socialism during his imprisonment. He also began questioning how much could be accomplished in a capitalist economy. But to say that he left that prison a Socialist is an oversimplification. In fact, in 1894, he stated,

Voice actor reading from Debs: I do not call myself a socialist.

Beckley: That seems pretty definitive to me. But, nevertheless, his imprisonment at Woodstock Jail remains the central part of Debs’ conversion myth. And, in reality, it didn’t take long for him to stop resisting the title. On January 1, 1897, he wrote:

Voice actor reading from Debs: Speaking for myself, I am a socialist… The issue is, Socialism vs. Capitalism. I am for socialism because I am for humanity.

Beckley: Considering Debs was already such a recognizable public figure in addition to being an accomplished political and labor organizer, it’s unsurprising that he skyrocketed to the forefront of the movement. In 1900, he was the presidential nominee for the newly formed Social Democratic Party of America. Then, when that organization merged with other factions to form the Socialist Party of America, he received the nomination in 4 of the next 5 presidential elections – 1904, 1908, 1912, and finally 1920.

To really understand Debs’ ideology, it’s important to separate Socialism as an economic system and Socialism as a political system, or a replacement for democracy. Debs supported Democracy whole-heartedly. In fact, he believed that the only way to realize the full potential of democracy for all was through socialism. The 1904 socialist party platform stated:

Voice actor reading from 1904 platform: We, the Socialist party…make our appeal to the American people as the defender and preserver of the idea of liberty and self-government, in which the nation was born. To this idea of liberty the Republican and Democratic parties are utterly false… They alike struggle for power to maintain and profit by an industrial system which can be preserved only by the complete overthrow of such liberties as we already have, and by the still further enslavement and degradation of labor.

That same year’s platform concluded with a list of objectives which would, in their opinion, be in the immediate interest of the working class. They pledged themselves completely to these objectives:

Voice actor reading from Debs: For shortened days of labor and increase of wages; for the insurance of the workers against accident, sickness, and lack of employment; for pensions for aged and exhausted workers; for the public ownership of the means of transportation, communication, and exchange; for the graduated taxation of incomes, inheritances, and of franchise and land values, the proceeds to be applied to public employment and bettering the condition of the workers; for the equal suffrage of men and women; for the prevention of the use of the military against labor in the settlement of strikes; for the free administration of justice; for popular government, including initiative, referendum, proportional representation, and the recall of officers by their constituents; and for every gain or advantage for the workers that may be wrested from the capitalist system, and that may relieve the suffering and strengthen the hands of labor.

Beckley: Overall, these objectives don’t seem wildly radical from a modern standpoint, but when compared to the major party platforms from the same year, it’s clear that what they were suggesting was quite extreme. But by the time we get to the 1912 presidential election, something interesting happens.

There were 4 main parties in this election. Theodore Roosevelt had formed the progressive party, often called the Bull Moose Party, after failing to receive the Republican nomination. Then, of course, there were the Democrats and Republicans. And, rounding out the field, was the Socialist Party of America. But more interesting still was that all 4 parties were touting some form of progressivism, each with their own flavor.

If we extend the metaphor, we might say that three of the parties were at least in the same flavor profile. The Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives shared a lot of characteristics, at least on economic issues. They promoted tariff reform, federal regulations on monopolies, and anti-trust laws. Generally, they supported the reform of the existing structure in order to address the problems facing the nation – poor working conditions, government corruption, and other problems arising from the rapid economic growth of the American Gilded Age.

But the Socialists were different. Just like in 1904, the Socialist platform was radical in comparison to the other parties in the race, despite each party campaigning on progressivism. Where the other parties were advocating regulations on big business and monopolies, the socialists were calling for…

Voice actor reading from Debs: “The abolition of the monopoly ownership of patents and the substitution of collective ownership, with direct rewards to inventors by premiums or royalties.”

Beckley: While the other parties were promising anti-trust laws, the Socialists declared…

Voice actor reading from Debs: “Anti-trust laws…have proved to be utterly futile and ridiculous.”

Beckley: And where other parties were concerning themselves with arguing over the merits of protective tariffs, the socialist platform didn’t even contain the word tariff.

They weren’t without their own talking points, though. Many echoed those which you just heard from the 1904 campaign but there were some new, more radical points. For example, collectivization of property, although it was mentioned briefly in the previous platforms, made a strong appearance in 1912. Basically, they called for the collective ownership of transportation, communications, agricultural processing industries, all natural resources, and the banking system. More revolutionary still were demands such as:

Voice actor reading from 1912 party platform: The abolition of the Senate and of the veto power of the President…Abolition of all federal districts courts and the United States circuit court of appeals…Abolition of the present restrictions upon the amendment of the Constitution, so that instrument may be made amendable by a majority of the voters in a majority of the States.

Beckley: Of course, we’re doing a bit of cherry picking there. The overwhelming majority of the platform would hardly raise an eyebrow today. Objectives like government provided unemployment assistance, shorter workdays, child labor laws, equal suffrage, and a minimum wage made up the bulk of the platform. But even so, much of those policy points would have been fairly radical had they been enacted. The thing is, many people wanted something radical. They were living and working in nearly unimaginable conditions and nothing that either major political party had done up to that point had changed that. In fact, the same year it was competing against 3 other parties all promising progress, 1912, is widely considered the high water mark of Socialism in America.

Debs presented the choice a stark light – this election was him vs. all others. Socialism vs. capitalism. In a brief article for the Pittsburg Press, Debs wrote:

Voice actor reading from Debs: The supreme issue in this campaign is Capitalism versus Socialism. The Republican hosts under Taft, the Democratic cohorts under Wilson and the Progressive minions under Roosevelt are but battalions of the army of capitalism.

Opposed to them are the ever augmenting phalanxes of the world’s workers, organizing in the ranks of the Socialist party, to do battle for the cause of Socialism and industrial emancipation.

No longer can the political harlots of capitalism betray the workers with issues manufactured for that purpose. The beating of tariff tom-toms, the cry for control of corporations, the punishment of “malefactors of great wealth,” the wolf cry of civic righteousness under capitalism, will not avail the politicians in this campaign.

They have bunched all the so-called issues of all the capitalist parties, along with wage slavery, poverty, ignorance, prostitution, child slavery, industrial murder, political rottenness and judicial tyranny, and they have labeled it “Capitalism.” They are bent upon the overthrow of this monstrous system and upon establishing in its place an industrial and social democracy in which the workers shall be in control of industry and the people shall rule.

The Socialist party offers the only remedy, which is Socialism.

It does not promise Socialism in a day, a month, or a year, but it has a definite program with Socialism as its ultimate end.

The hour has struck! The die is cast and Socialism challenges the institution of Capitalism.

Beckley: The hour for Socialism had indeed struck, though not loudly enough. When the votes were tallied, Debs had earned over nine hundred thousand votes or nearly 6 percent of the popular vote – more than double his 1908 total but still far short of a winning percentage.

The split in the Republican Party had paved the way for a Woodrow Wilson Presidency in 1912. And it was Wilson who went on to play a large role in the downfall of the Socialist Movement in America by signing the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I. This was done partly in response to the party organizing anti-war and anti-draft rallies around the nation and declaring the war “a crime against the people of the United States.”

The Espionage and Sedition acts sparked the first Red Scare which resulted in more than 2,000 people being tried for speaking out against the war. One of those people tried and convicted was Eugene Debs himself who delivered a speech on June 16, 1918 in Canton, Ohio which led to his arrest and conviction. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison and he ran for the presidency for the last time in 1920 from his jail cell. He earned only a small percentage of the popular vote, a reflection of the unsteady state of the party.

In the years after that loss, the Socialist Party of America continued to weaken and fracture until, in 1972, it was dissolved completely. But in its wake, socialist ideas have continued to influence the party system.

In fact, that’s one of the lasting legacies of the Socialist movement in America. In the years between 1904 and 1912, key tenets of the Socialist Party platform began showing up in the Democratic and Republican platforms alike. After the progressive era, the Democratic Party in particular adopted many policies that were once solely in the realm of socialists – things like Social Security, the minimum wage, and federal disability.

This is often the effect political movements –weather they be left of right of center. They cause a shift in the political base, resulting in a shift in the political platforms of the major parties to which they pose a threat. Weather it’s the socialist movement driving the Democratic Party towards the adoption of social welfare in the 20th century, the Tea Party movement encouraging the Republican party to take a hard line on immigration in the 2010s or the Democratic Socialists of America moving the present Democratic party towards single payer healthcare, political movements have always had a fundamental impact on the major political party platforms in America.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau which is a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration. Visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook as Indiana Historical Bureau. And please take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Debs’ Campaign for Socialism

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