Sheep magazine Archive 2: issues 10-17


Lefty online magazine: issue 10, May 2016 to issue 17, November 2016


In 1893 he founded the American

Railway Union that was soon involved

in the great Pullman strike against the

company that operated most of the

country’s railroads. It soon became the

biggest strike in US history at the time.

The bosses used hired gunmen to

intimidate strikers (13 were shot dead)

and the government won an injunction

to halt the strike. Debs was convicted of

defying the injunction and jailed for six

months. While inside he avidly consumed

socialist literature, including Karl Marx’s

Capital. Debs said Capital “set the wires

humming in my system”.

He emerged from prison at the age of

40 as a revolutionary, and had broken

forever from the Democrats. He helped to

bring together groups of socialists and in

1900 ran for president, gaining less than

1 percent of the vote.

He didn’t believe that elections would

bring socialism, and later denounced

the “sewer socialists” who compromised

to win local office and bring in minor

reforms. He was also suspicious of

leaders, saying, “I do not want you to

follow me or anyone else. If you are

looking for a Moses to lead you out of

this capitalist wilderness, you will stay

right where you are.

“I would not lead you into the promised

land if I could, because if I led you in,

someone else would lead you out.”

His vision was that, “When I rise it will be

with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

Debs spent most of his time organising

and supporting struggle. He was one of

the instigators of the militant Industrial

Workers of the World (IWW) union.

But he did think elections, and political

struggle more generally, could boost the

battles in workplaces and localities.

Against those who wanted to just build

unions, Debs argued, “Some say politics

means destruction to labour organisation

but the reverse is the fact.”

Debs refused to make concessions to

racism in order to win votes. He said,

“The man who seeks to arouse prejudice

among workingmen is not their friend.

He who advises the white wage worker to

look down upon the black wage-worker

is the enemy of both.” He would not

speak to segregated audiences.


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