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“as Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
For Debs to obey the injunction would be for him to lose the strike by default and probably destroy his union. To disregard it might send him and other leaders to jail. He felt he had no choice but to disregard it. Olney, by a process of maneuvering and misinformation, persuaded President Cleveland that the safety of the mails was endangered by the chaos in Chicago. The President, believing the situation critical, dispatched infantry, cavalry, and artillery. In spite of Debs’s warning against violence, turbulent crowds had begun to hold up trains and detach the Pullman cars. With the arrival of the troops at Chicago—aided by over three thousand floaters hastily sworn in as deputy federal marshals—violence exploded. Mobs smashed switches, halted trains, and burned hundreds of railroad cars. A mob finally attacked the troops. They in turn opened fire, and seven men lay dead in the street. The soldiers now took over the city. Two days later Debs and three colleagues were arrested, then tried and sentenced for contempt and for obstructing the mails. The strike was broken, and Debs was on his way to jail.
The Pullman strike became known as Debs’s strike. On his release from jail six months later he was the most famous labor leader in the United States. While in jail he had been visited by Victor Berger and other Socialist leaders, who hoped to enlist him in their cause. Yet for all his increased radicalism Debs remained unconvinced. Populism attracted him more than socialism. In 1896 the Populists even considered running him as their Presidential candidate, and a third of the delegates to their convention were pledged to him. He urged them instead to support the silver-tongued, silver-minded William Jennings Bryan. Bryan became the nominee of both the Populists and the Democrats. McKinley’s defeat of Bryan was the weight thrown in the balance that finally convinced Debs that the old system of capitalism was not enough, that it must be superseded by a system of public ownership and public use. On New Year’s, 1897, in a lead article in the Railway Times , the journal of his now faltering American Railway Union, he announced that he was a Socialist.
Debs was a Socialist more of the heart than of the head, a Utopian rather than a dialectical materialist. Though he later kept a framed picture of Karl Marx in his office, it is doubtful that he ever read Das Kapital . While in the Atlanta penitentiary he tacked on the wall of his cell a picture of Jesus Christ, whom he liked to consider the first socialist. To the small Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1877 and appealing mostly to the eastern foreign-born, he brought a western nativism as homespun as that of his friend James Whitcomb Riley. Debs Americanized the Socialist Party. In turn it became his final vision. “Promising indeed is the outlook for Socialism in the United States,” he wrote at the beginning of the new century. “The very contemplation of the prospect is a well-spring of inspiration.”
In 1900 the Socialists looked to Debs as their logical and their most inspiring Presidential candidate. At first he refused. But at the party convention the leaders finally persuaded him to put aside his personal reluctance for the sake of the cause. “With your united voices ringing in my ears, with your impassioned appeals burning and glowing in my breast,” he told the delegates in his Sunday-best rhetoric, “I am brought to realize that in your voice is a supreme command of duty.”
Renaming themselves the Social Democratic Party, the Socialists put forward a socialist-reformist platform that they hoped would appeal to the Populists and draw many of the disaffected from Bryan. Debs proved himself a spectacular campaigner. An actor by instinct, he found that he loved the applause of crowds, the open platform, the tense moment of anticipation as men waited for his words. Yet for all his zeal and enthusiasm he polled fewer than a hundred thousand votes, while McKinley was re-elected comfortably with 7,218,491 votes to 6,356,734 for Bryan. Swallowing his chagrin, Debs bravely predicted that “the next four years will witness the development of socialism to continental power and proportions.”
During those four years Debs became a permanent propagandist for the Socialist cause, lecturing, speaking, organizing, exhausting his none too robust body on journeys up and down the land. Rarely did he get enough sleep; rarely did he eat properly. Though only in his mid-forties he looked much older: bald, gaunt, hollow-eyed. His evenings of speeches and discussions were often followed by drinking bouts that exhausted him still further. But Socialism as a force was taking hold. He could see that in the crowds he met, in the tumultuous welcome he got from western logging camps and mining towns. The Socialist press was growing too. The party had high hopes in 1904 when the Social Democratic Convention chose him by acclamation as its Presidential candidate. “I shall be heard in the coming campaign,” he told the delegates, “as often, and as decidedly, and as emphatically, as revolutionarily, as uncompromisingly as my ability, my strength and my fidelity to the movement will allow.”