On The 100th Anniversary Of The 1912 Presidential Election- From The Pen Of Early American Socialist Leader Eugene V. Debs-The Federal Government And The Pullman Strike- A Reply To Grover Cleveland (1904)
Click on the headline to link to the Eugene V. Debs Marxist Internet Archive website article listed in the headline..
Markin comment on this From The Pen Of Eugene V. Debs series:
The Political Evolution of Eugene V. Debs
For many reasons, the most important of which for our purposes here are the question of the nature of the revolutionary party and of revolutionary leadership, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was a turning point in the international labor movement. In its aftermath, there was a definitive and I would argue, necessary split, between those leftists (and here I use that term generically to mean socialists, communists, anarchists, syndicalists and the like) who sought to reform the capitalist state from within and those who saw that it needed to be destroyed “root and branch” and new institutions established to create a more just society. This division today continues, in truncated form to be sure, to define the contours of the question. The heroic American pre- World War II socialist labor leader and icon, Eugene V. Debs, contained within his personal political trajectory all the contradictions of that split. As will be described below in more detail we honor Debs for his generosity of socialist spirit while at the same time underscoring that his profile is, in the final analysis, not that of something who could have led a proletarian revolution in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Debs was above all others except, perhaps, “Big Bill” Haywood in the pre-World War I movement. For details of why that was so and a strong biographic sketch it is still necessary to go Ray Ginger’s “The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs”. I will review that effort in this space at a later time. For now though let me give the highlights I found that every serious labor militant or every serious student of socialism needs to think through.
If history has told us anything over the past one hundred and fifty years plus of the organized labor movement it is that mere trade union consciousness under conditions of capitalist domination, while commendable and necessary, is merely the beginning of wisdom. By now several generations of labor militants have passed through the school of trade unionism with varying results; although precious few have gone beyond that to the class consciousness necessary to “turn the world upside down” to use an old expression from the 17th century English Revolution. In the late 19th when American capitalism was consolidating itself and moving onto its industrial phases the landscape was filled with pitched class battles between labor and capital.
One of those key battles in the 1890’s was led by one Eugene V. Debs and his American Railway Union against the mammoth rail giant, The Pullman Company. At that time the rails were the key mode of transportation in the bustling new industrial capitalist commerce. At that time, by his own reckoning, Debs saw the struggle from a merely trade unionist point of view, that is a specific localized economic struggle for better wages and conditions rather than taking on the capitalist system and its state. That strike was defeated and as a result Debs and others became “guests” of that state in a local jail in Illinois for six months or so. The key conclusion drawn from this ‘lesson’, for our purposes, was that Debs personally finally realized that the close connection between the capitalists and THEIR state (troops, media, jails, courts) was organic and needed to be addressed.
Development of working class political class consciousness comes in many ways; I know that from my own personal experiences running up against the capitalist state. For Debs this “up close and personal” confrontation with the capitalist drove him, reluctantly at first and with some reservations, to see the need for socialist solutions to the plight of the workingman (and women). In Debs’ case this involved an early infatuation with the ideas of cooperative commonwealths then popular among radicals as a way to basically provide a parallel alternative society away from capitalism. Well again, having gone thorough that same kind of process of conversion myself (in my case 'autonomous' urban communes, you know, the “hippie” experience of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s); Debs fairly quickly came to realize that an organized political response was necessary and he linked up his efforts with the emerging American Socialist Party.
Before World War I the major political model for politically organizing the working class was provided by the Marxist-dominated German Social Democratic Party. At that time, and in this period of pre-imperialist capitalist development, this was unquestionably the model to be followed. By way of explanation the key organizing principle of that organization, besides providing party discipline for united action, was to create a “big tent” party for the social transformation of society. Under that rubric the notion was to organize anyone and everyone, from socialist-feminists, socialist vegetarians, pacifists, municipal reformers, incipient trade union bureaucrats, hard core reformists, evolutionary socialists and- revolutionaries like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who we honor to this day. The American Social Party that Debs joined exhibited all those tendencies (and some even more outlandish) of the German model. And as long as no great events acted to disrupt the “unity” of this amorphous formation the various tensions within the organization concerning reform or revolution were subdued for a time. Not forever though.
Various revolutionary tendencies within the workers’ movement have historically had opposing positions concerning parliamentary politics: what to do politically while waiting for the opportune moment to take political power. The controversy centered (and today centers around) whether to run for elective executive and/or legislative offices. Since World War I a very strong argument has developed that revolutionaries should not run for executive offices of the capitalist state on the principle that we do not want to be responsible for the running of the capitalist state. On the other hand running for legislative office under the principle of acting as “tribunes of the people” continues to have validity. The case of the German revolutionary social democrat Karl Liebknecht using his legislative office to denounce the German war effort DURING the war is a very high-level expression of that position. This question, arguably, was a little less clears in the pre-war period.
If Eugene V. Debs is remembered politically today it is probably for his five famous runs for the American presidency (one, in 1920, run from jail) from 1900 to 1920 (except 1916). Of those the most famous is the 1912 four- way fight (Teddy Roosevelt and his “Bull Moose” Party providing the fourth) in which he got almost a million votes and something like 5 percent of the vote- this is the high water mark of socialist electoral politics then and now. I would only mention that a strong argument could be made here for support of the idea of a revolutionary (and, at least until the early 1920’s Debs considered himself, subjectively, a revolutionary) running for executive office- the presidency- without violating political principle (of course, with the always present proviso that if elected he would refuse to serve). Certainly the issues to be fought around- the emerging American imperial presence in the world, the fierce wage struggles, the capitalist trustification and cartelization of industry, the complicity of the courts, the struggle for women’s right to vote, the struggle against the emerging anti- black Jim Crow regime in the South would make such a platform a useful propaganda tool. Especially since Debs was one of the premier socialist orators of the day, if perhaps too flowery and long-winded for today’s eye or ear.
As the American Socialist Party developed in the early 20th century, and grew by leaps and bounds in this period, a somewhat parallel development was occurring somewhat outside this basically parliamentary movement. In 1905, led by the revolutionary militant “Big Bill” Haywood and with an enthusiastic (then) Debs present probably the most famous mass militant labor organization in American history was formed, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies). As it name denotes this organization stood as, in effect, the nucleus of the industrial unionism that would win the day among the unorganized in the 1930’s with the efforts of the CIO. But it also was, as James P. Cannon an early IWW organizer noted in one of his books, the nucleus of a revolutionary political party. One of the reasons, among others, for its demise was that it never was able to resolve that contradiction between party and union. But that is an analysis for another day.
What is important to note here is that organization form fit in, very nicely indeed, with Debs’ notions of organizing the unorganized, the need for industrial unionization (as opposed to the prevailing narrow craft orientation of the Samuel Gompers-led AFL). Nevertheless Debs, to his credit, was no “dual unionist”, that is, committed to ignoring or going around the AFL and establishing “revolutionary” unions. This question of “boring from within” organized labor or “dual unions” continues to this day, and historically has been a very thorny question among militants faced with the bureaucratic inertia of the trade union bureaucracy. Debs came down on the side of the angels on this one (even if he later took unfavorable positions on IWW actions).
Although Debs is probably best known for his presidential runs (including that one from Atlanta prison in 1920 that I always enjoy seeing pictures of the one where he converses with his campaign staff in his cell) he really should be, if he is remembered for only one thing, remembered for his principled opposition to American war preparedness and eventual entry into World War I in 1917. Although it is unclear in my mind how much of Debs’ position stemmed from personal pacifism, how much from Hoosier isolationism (after all he was the quintessential Midwestern labor politician, having been raised in and lived all his life in Indiana) and how much was an anti-imperialist statement he nevertheless, of all major socialist spokesmen to speak nothing of major politicians in general , was virtually alone in his opposition when Woodrow Wilson pulled the hammer down and entered American forces into the European conflict.
That, my friends, should command respect from almost everyone, political friend or foe alike. Needless to say for his opposition he was eventually tried and convicted of, of all things, the catch-all charge of sedition and conspiracy. Some things never change. Moreover, that prison term is why Debs had to run from prison in 1920.
I started out this exposition of Debs’ political trajectory under the sign of the Russian Revolution and here I come full circle. I have, I believe, highlighted the points that we honor Debs for and now to balance the wheel we need to discuss his shortcomings (which are also a reflection of the shortcomings of the internationalist socialist movement then, and now). The almost universal betrayal of its anti- war positions of the pre-war international social democracy, as organized in the Second International and led by the German Party, by its subordination to the war aims of its respective individual capitalist governments exposed a deep crevice in the theory and practice of the movement.
As the experiences of the Russian revolution pointed out it was no longer possible for reformists and revolutionaries to coexist in the same party. Literally, on more than one occasion, these formally connected tendencies were on opposite sides of the barricades when the social tensions of society exploded. It was not a pretty sight and called for a splitting and realignment of the revolutionary forces internationally. The organizational expression of this was the formation, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, of the Communist International in 1919. Part of that process, in America, included a left-wing split (or purge depending on the source read) and the creation, at first, of two communist organizations. As the most authoritative left-wing socialist of the day one would have thought that Debs would have inclined to the communists. That was not to be the case as he stayed with the remnant of the American Socialist Party until his death in the late 1920’s.
No one would argue that the early communist movement in America was not filled with more than its share of political mistakes, wild boys and just plain weirdness but that is where the revolutionaries were in the 1920’s. And this brings us really to Debs’ ultimate problem as a socialist leader and why I made that statement above that he could not lead a proletarian revolution in America, assuming that he was his desire. Debs had a life-long aversion to political faction and in-fighting. I would agree, as any rational radical politician would, that faction and in-fighting are not virtuous in and of themselves and are a net drain on the tasks of propaganda, recruitment and united front actions that should drive left-wing political work. However, as critical turning points in the international socialist movement have shown, sometimes the tensions between the political appetites of supposed like-minded individuals cannot be contained in one organization. This question is most dramatically posed, of course, in a revolutionary period when the tensions are whittled down to choices for or against the revolution. One side of the barricade or the other.
That said, Debs’ personality, demeanor and ultimately his political program of trying to keep “big tent” socialist together tarnished his image as a socialist leader. Debs’ positions on convicts, women, and blacks, education, religion and government. Debs was no theorist, socialist or otherwise, and many of his positions would not pass muster among radicals today. I note his economic determinist argument that the black question is subsumed in the class question. I have discussed this question elsewhere and will not address it here. I would only note, for a socialist, his position is just flat out wrong. I also note that, outside his support for women’s suffrage and working women’s rights to equal pay his attitude toward women was strictly Victorian. As was his wishy-washy attitude toward religion. Eugene V. Debs, warts and all, nevertheless deserves a fair nod from history as the premier American socialist of the pre-World War I period.