EUGENE DEBS was born in the US Midwest, and began work at an early age on the railways, where he helped found a union aimed at enlisting all who worked on the railways.
Before then the unions had been restricted largely to skilled white workers. The bosses used divide and rule tactics against unskilled, immigrant and black workers to hold wages down while profits rose.
Debs insisted, “The forces of labour must unite. The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible.”
In 1894 a strike involving 260,000 rail workers at the Pullman company in Chicago began. The employers moved to break the union.
The Democrat president, Cleveland, sent the US army to Chicago to break the strike. This taught Debs that the state was not neutral but rather was an instrument of the ruling class.
In the ensuing battle dozens were shot. The strike was defeated and Debs was jailed for conspiracy.
He wrote of the strike, “In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in socialism.”
In jail he read Karl Marx’s Capital, which he said set the “wires humming in my system”.
Until then Debs had supported the Democratic Party, but his experience at Pullman showed that the Democrats didn’t back the workers.
Debs understood that working people needed their own political voice. In 1901 he was involved in creating a united Socialist Party.
Working people also needed one big union which united all regardless of skill, race or gender. In 1905 he helped found the militant Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies.
While campaigning for president in the US South, where racial segregation was enforced by the police and the Ku Klux Klan, he refused to address a meeting unless black and white sat together.
But Debs’ message was never just “Vote for me”. “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage,” Debs warned a New York rally in 1905. “He has not come—he never will come. I would not lead you out of it if I could—for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.’
In 1911 he told Socialist Party members, “Voting for socialism is not socialism any more than a menu is a meal. Socialism must be organised, drilled, equipped, and the place to begin is in the industries where the workers are employed.”