How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist

How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist

Before Eugene Debs became the most popular socialist in American history, he was an innovative and courageous labor leader. As leader of the American Railway Union (ARU),  founded in 1893, he attempted to gather all the crafts in what was then the nation’s most essential industry into a single organization that could force employers to raise the wages and improve the working conditions of millions of wage-earners. The ARU’s claim to class unity was crippled, however, when its members voted, against Debs’s advice, to bar African Americans from joining. In the 1930s, the CIO took up the task of organizing workers by industry, instead of by individual trades. And this time, radical activists helped convince “labor’s new millions” to exclude nobody. 

As this excerpt from Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography (illustrated by Noah Van Sciver, written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max with Dave Nance, and published by Verso this March) reminds us, the federal government essentially destroyed the ARU in 1894. Debs’s union had voted to support a strike by the poorly paid workers who built the plush Pullman sleeping cars coupled onto most interstate trains. President Grover Cleveland seized on the opportunity to douse the fires of labor militancy; he dispatched federal troops to break up the strike and clap the top officials of the ARU in jail. 

Debs served a six-month sentence for his “crime” and emerged from his cell a democratic socialist. One hundred and twenty-five years later, the hopes for a resurgent left depend again on the growth of a large and powerful labor movement.

—Michael Kazin