Eugene Debs

One of the greatest revolutionary socialists America has so far produced was Eugene V. Debs who stood as a candidate of the Socialist Party for US President five times. The last time was in 1920, while he was serving a 10 year jail sentence imposed on him, when he was 63, because he had opposed the First World War.

In 1920 Debs received nearly one million votes — the highest vote ever for any sort of socialism in the USA. And there was nothing vapid about Debs' socialism. He stood for the most militant class struggle of the working class, industrial and political, and stood openly under the banner of the socialist revolution.

Debs was born on 5 November 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. At the age of fourteen he dropped out of high school and went to work In a railway paint shop.

In 1875 he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen at its organising meeting. He was straight away made secretary of the Terre Haute branch.

Debs was to remain active in the trade union movement as an officer, organiser, editor and strike leader — officially and unofficially — for some thirty years. In 1905 he helped organise the "Industrial Workers of the World" (IWW).

At this time the trade union movement was tiny and organised only the skilled craft (i.e. permanent) workers in conservative and hidebound unions.

Politically the working class was amalgamated within the populist movement of small farmers and “small people” generally which swept America in the latter part of the 19th century.

Marxism, imported from Europe, had shrivelled into sectarian impotence.

Out of this mixture, two distinct tendencies emerged. One ended in the Democratic Party, which snuffed out any radicalism that wing contained; the other moved towards socialism and formed part of the base on which the Socialist Party was founded.

In 1901 Debs helped to organise the Socialist Party, of which he was to remain a member until his death in 1926.

He fought tirelessly against racism, bans on immigratIon, the war in Mexico and imperialist pillage. Most of all, though, he is to be remembered for those clarion calls of outrage to which he gave vent against the horror and injustice of capitalism.

Debs offered “hope” to the American working class, hope based on self-organisation and struggle.

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