Sunday, July 23, 2017

Eugene Debs and the Kingdom of Evil

Published on Portside (

Eugene Debs and the Kingdom of Evil

July 18, 2017

Chris Hedges

Sunday, July 16, 2017

  TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Eugene Victor Debs, whose home is an infrequently visited museum on the campus of Indiana State University, was arguably 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 onto 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 twenty-four 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 [1]: 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 [2] and Karl Kautsky [3] 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, a goal of Britain’s Labour Party for workers at the time, 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 U.S. history when many American Christians were socialists. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Christian theologian, Baptist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement [4], 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 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 [5]. 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 [6], 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 [7], and the U.S. Army.

   Debs, although a sworn enemy of the capitalist elites, was adamantly opposed to violence and sabotage, arguing that these actions allowed the state to demonize the socialist movement and enabled the destructive efforts of agents provocateurs. The conflict with the capitalist class, Debs argued, was at its core about competing values. In an interview conducted while he was in jail after the Pullman strike, he stressed the importance of “education, industry, frugality, integrity, veracity, fidelity, sobriety and charity.”

   A life of moral probity was vital as an example in the face of capitalist exploitation, but that was not enough to defeat the “kingdom of evil.” The owners and managers of corporations, driven by greed and a lust for power, would never play fair. They would always seek to use the law as an instrument of oppression and increase profits through machines, a reduction in wages, a denial of benefits and union busting. They would sacrifice anyone and anything—including democracy and the natural world—to achieve their goals.

     Debs, if he could hear today’s proponents of the “free market,” self-help gurus, positive psychologists [8], talk show hosts and the political class as they exhort Americans to work harder, get an education, follow their dreams, remain positive and believe in themselves and American exceptionalism [9], would have scoffed in derision. He knew that corporate power is countered only through organized and collective resistance by workers forced to fight a bitter class war.

    Debs turned to politics when he was released from jail in 1895. He was one of the founders of the Socialist Party of America and, in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World [10] (IWW), or “Wobblies.” He was the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. presidency five times in the period 1900 through 1920—once when he was in prison—and he ran for Congress in 1916.

   Debs was a powerful orator and drew huge crowds across the country. Fifteen thousand people once paid 15 cents to a dollar each to hear him in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In his speeches and writings he demanded an end to child labor and denounced Jim Crow [11] and lynching. He called for the vote for women, a graduated income tax, unemployment compensation, the direct election of senators, employer liability laws, national departments of education and health, guaranteed pensions for the elderly, nationalization of the banking and transport systems, and replacing “wage slavery” with cooperative industries [12].

   As a presidential campaigner he traveled from New York to California on a train, called the Red Special, speaking to tens of thousands. He helped elect socialist mayors in some 70 cities, including Milwaukee, as well as numerous legislators and city council members. He propelled two socialists into Congress. In the elections of 1912 he received nearly a million votes, 6 percent of the electorate. Eighteen thousand people went to see him in Philadelphia and 22,000 in New York City.

   He terrified the ruling elites, who began to institute tepid reforms to attempt to stanch the growing support for the socialists. Debs after the 1912 election was a marked man.

   On June 18, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, he denounced, as he had often done in the past, the unholy alliance between capitalism and war, the use of the working class by the capitalists as cannon fodder in World War I and the Wilson administration’s persecution of anti-war activists, unionists, anarchists, socialists and communists. 
President Woodrow Wilson, who had a deep animus toward Debs, had him arrested under the Sedition Act [13], which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States” or to “willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of anything “necessary or essential to the prosecution of [a U.S. war, in this case against Germany and its allies].”

   Debs did not contest the charges. At his trial, he declared: “Washington, Paine, Adams—these were the rebels of their day. At first they were opposed by the people and denounced by the press. … And if the Revolution had failed, the revolutionary fathers would have been executed as felons. But it did not fail. Revolutions have a habit of succeeding when the time comes for them.”

To continue the article go to Eugene Debs [14]


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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