TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Eugene Victor Debs, whose home is an infrequently visited museum on the campus of Indiana State University, was the most important political figure of the 20th century. He built the socialist movement in America and was eventually crucified by the capitalist class when he and hundreds of thousands of followers became a potent political threat.
Debs burst on 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 24 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."
Attorney General Richard Olney, who as Tuchman writes "had been a lawyer for railroads before entering the Cabinet and was still a director of several lines involved in the strike," issued an injunction rendering the strike illegal. The conflict, as Debs would write, was a battle between "the producing classes and the money power of the country."
Debs and the union leaders defied the injunction. They were arrested, denied bail and sent to jail for six months. The strike was broken. Thirty workers had been killed. Sixty had been injured. Over 700 had been arrested. The Pullman Co. hired new workers under "yellow dog contracts," agreements that forbade them to unionize.
When he was in jail, Debs read the works of socialist writers Edward Bellamy and Karl Kautsky as well as Karl Marx's "Das Kapital." The books, especially Marx's three volumes, set the "wires humming in my system."
"I was to be baptized in Socialism in the roar of the conflict. ... [I]n the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed," he writes. "This was my first practical lesson in Socialism."
Debs came to the conclusion that no strike or labor movement could ultimately be successful as long as the government was controlled by the capitalist class. Any advances made by an organized working class would be reversed once the capitalists regained absolute power, often by temporarily mollifying workers with a few reforms. Working men and women had to achieve political power, as the Labour Party was attempting to do at the time in Britain, or they would forever be at the mercy of the bosses.
Debs feared the rise of the monolithic corporate state. He foresaw that corporations, unchecked, would expand to "continental proportions and swallow up the national resources and the means of production and distribution." If that happened, he warned, the long "night of capitalism will be dark."
This was a period in American history when many American Christians were socialists. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Christian theologian, Baptist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement, thundered against capitalism. He defined the six pillars of the "kingdom of evil" as "religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (being 'the social group gone mad') and mob action, militarism and [lastly] class contempt."
Debs turned to the Bible as often to Marx, arguing, "Cain was the author of the competitive theory" and the "cross of Jesus stands as its eternal denial." Debs' fiery speeches, replete with words like "sin" and "redemption," were often thinly disguised sermons. He equated the crucified Christ with the abolitionist John Brown. He insisted that Jesus came "to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth. What is Socialism?" he once asked. "Merely Christianity in action." He was fond of quoting the poet James Russell Lowell, who writes:
"He's true to God who's true to man;
Whenever wrong is done.
To the humblest and the weakest,
'neath the all-beholding sun.
That wrong is also done to us,
And they are slaves most base,
Whose love of right is for themselves
And not for all the race."
It was also a period beset with violence, including anarchist bombings and assassinations. An anarchist killed President William McKinley in 1901, unleashing a wave of state repression against social and radical movements. Striking workers engaged in periodic gun battles, especially in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, with heavily armed company goons, National Guard units, paramilitary groups such as the Coal and Iron Police, and the U.S. Army.