Eugene Debs and Vital Movements

I do not necessarily agree with the author they say Eugene Debs was the most important political figure of the twentieth century, but I do see the rationale for making such relative claims. Eugene Debs inspired and influence quite a few people who themselves went on to inspire many others and make a lot of positive contributions. An example of this includes Ralph Nader, who continues to study Debs carefully and make references to Debs fairly regularly in his talks to audiences. Nader finds it particularly important to paraphrase and quote the remark Debs made to a reporter near the end of his life:

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He has run for president three times. Maybe I confused you with Eugene V. Debs. He ran five times?

RALPH NADER: He ran five times, with the statement: better to vote for someone you believe in and lose than to vote for someone you don’t believe in and win who will certainly betray you. That’s a very, very important thing for voters to consider when they decide what they’re going to –

AMY GOODMAN: He was also disappointed with the American people, in terms of activism.

RALPH NADER: Yeah. Yeah, a remarkable statement. A reporter asked him, “What’s your biggest regret?” at the end of his great career as a labor leader. And Eugene Debs said, “My greatest regret is that, under our Constitution, the American people can have almost anything they want, but it just seems they don’t want much of anything at all.”

Eugene Debs also had a contribution in inspiring movements to push FDR for more progressive programs in the New Deal. For example, people like Norman Thomas and Debs were a major reason Social Security was started during the Great Depression. Social Security has its flaws, but it’s one of the most successful government programs in American history, and that’s of course why it’s always been attacked by much of the right-wing business community. Calling it a Ponzi scheme is illogical when it’s considered that Social Security has been operating about a few decades short of a century — with a lot of detailed information available publicly on how it works.

Social Security also has a $2.8 trillion Trust Fund allocation, which creates another irony in how the irrationally-obsessed Republican deficit hawks still attack it. A few trillion dollars that’s planned to be used for mostly helping people, through the important goal of reducing the suffering in America, is real fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, the exact opposite of fiscal responsibility is driving up trillions of dollars of highly damaging, empire-destroying military costs overseas.

It’s a myth that Social Security is going “bankrupt” too. The massive corporate welfare and war costs are the real direct contributions to the U.S. government running the risk of failing. But past some year in the middle or late 2030s, Social Security as it currently is won’t be able to pay out full benefits to some people, though even so, it could still pay out around 75% of benefits in perpetuity. A main way to avoid this would be to raise the Social Security payroll tax on the rich, which should also be done now instead of in 20 years. Only the first $127,200 of income is subjected to the Social Security tax, meaning an individual with an income of $20 million pays an astonishingly low rate (mere thousands of dollars) despite having an income much, much higher than that. This is an example of a relatively regressive income tax, and as the word regressive suggests, it’s a way to reduce the progress of the general society.

Having higher tax brackets in progressive income taxation isn’t even discussed much anymore, and I’m sure the super-rich oligarchs make an effort to have such a lack of awareness remain the case. During the Eisenhower administration, the top marginal tax rate was 91% on income earned over what is about $1.7 million today. The top marginal tax rate today is 39.6% on income over generally somewhere in the $400,000 range (differences for single and married filing being noted), a stark contrast and an insight into where the U.S. has gone since the presidency of one who said: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

Onto the column about Eugene Debs though. It’s long compared to most other articles, but I found it well worth reading.

Debs burst onto the national stage when he organized a railroad strike in 1894 after the Pullman Co. cut wages by up to one-third but did not lower rents in company housing or reduce dividend payments to its stockholders. Over a hundred thousand workers staged what became the biggest strike in U.S. history on trains carrying Pullman cars.

The response was swift and brutal.

“Mobilizing all the powers of capital, the owners, representing twenty-four railroads with combined capital of $818,000,00, fought back with the courts and the armed forces of the Federal government behind them,” Barbara W. Tuchman writes in “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.” “Three thousand police in the Chicago area were mobilized against the strikers, five thousand professional strikebreakers were sworn in as Federal deputy marshals and given firearms; ultimately six thousand Federal and State troops were brought in, less for the protection of property and the public than to break the strike and crush the union.”


Debs, although a sworn enemy of the capitalist elites, was adamantly opposed to violence and sabotage, arguing that these actions allowed the state to demonize the socialist movement and enabled the destructive efforts of agents provocateurs. The conflict with the capitalist class, Debs argued, was at its core about competing values. In an interview conducted while he was in jail after the Pullman strike, he stressed the importance of “education, industry, frugality, integrity, veracity, fidelity, sobriety and charity.”

A life of moral probity was vital as an example in the face of capitalist exploitation, but that was not enough to defeat the “kingdom of evil.” The owners and managers of corporations, driven by greed and a lust for power, would never play fair. They would always seek to use the law as an instrument of oppression and increase profits through machines, a reduction in wages, a denial of benefits and union busting.


Debs turned to politics when he was released from jail in 1895. He was one of the founders of the Socialist Party of America and, in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies.” He was the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. presidency five times in the period 1900 through 1920–once when he was in prison–and he ran for Congress in 1916.

Debs was a powerful orator and drew huge crowds across the country. Fifteen thousand people once paid 15 cents to a dollar each to hear him in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In his speeches and writings he demanded an end to child labor and denounced Jim Crow and lynching. He called for the vote for women, a graduated income tax, unemployment compensation, the direct election of senators, employer liability laws, national departments of education and health, guaranteed pensions for the elderly, nationalization of the banking and transport systems, and replacing “wage slavery” with cooperative industries.

As a presidential campaigner he traveled from New York to California on a train, called the Red Special, speaking to tens of thousands. He helped elect socialist mayors in some 70 cities, including Milwaukee, as well as numerous legislators and city council members. He propelled two socialists into Congress. In the elections of 1912 he received nearly a million votes, 6 percent of the electorate. Eighteen thousand people went to see him in Philadelphia and 22,000 in New York City.

He terrified the ruling elites, who began to institute tepid reforms to attempt to stanch the growing support for the socialists. Debs after the 1912 election was a marked man.

On June 18, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, he denounced, as he had often done in the past, the unholy alliance between capitalism and war, the use of the working class by the capitalists as cannon fodder in World War I and the Wilson administration’s persecution of anti-war activists, unionists, anarchists, socialists and communists. President Woodrow Wilson, who had a deep animus toward Debs, had him arrested under the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States” or to “willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of anything “necessary or essential to the prosecution of [a U.S. war, in this case against Germany and its allies].”

Debs did not contest the charges. At his trial, he declared: “Washington, Paine, Adams–these were the rebels of their day. At first they were opposed by the people and denounced by the press. … And if the Revolution had failed, the revolutionary fathers would have been executed as felons. But it did not fail. Revolutions have a habit of succeeding when the time comes for them.”