Eugene V. Debs

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Eugene V. Debs Citizen and Socialist

Nick Salvatore's book Eugene V. Debs Citizen and Socialist provides a very detailed account of the life and times and Eugene Debs. Debs was born in Terre Haute Indiana and Salvatore emphasizes the important role that this played in Debs upbringing. Terre Haute was ripe with religious fundamentalism from its founding. Religion permeated everyday life throughout Terre Haute. Salvatore writes that, "In newspaper editorials, political speeches, civic dedications and Sunday sermons they assured the kingdom of God had already arrived and that their town was destined to become the center of the Kingdoms Midwest development." It is striking how the ideals of the Terre Haute community based in religious fundamentalism and a strong industrial economy provided a seemingly Marxist critique of a capitalist system in the 1860's well before Marxist ideas had widely spread to America. Terre Haute's social construct was unique in that there was the undeniable American value of individual achievement stressed but here the role of community was necessary to achieve this. In Terre Haute it was believed that for individual prosperity the progress of the community as a whole was necessary. Salvatore explains this best himself writing, "The individual was firmly wedded to his community by both the bonds of daily life and by the expectations of future success. The ideas of individualism, self-interest and community appeared to meld." This seemingly socialist ideology that man relies on himself and his brethren for progress and success was critical to Debs' formation of his values and ideologies. Even the Superintendent of Terre Haute schools offered this, "If we shall limit the education of the masses and trust the education of the few for directive power and skill we must expect to be ruled by monopolies, demagogues and partisans" Throughout his life Debs constantly fell back on his Terre Hautian upbringing to reinforce his political values which separated him from the Milwaukee and northeastern socialists

It is important to understand that Debs' always had a passionate involvement with railroad workers and would always use his experience with them as a model and inspiration for advancing his later socialist ideals. Debs began his involvement with the labor movement when he took a job as a railroad firemen in Missouri in 1870. He moved back to Terre Haute at the urging of his family and quickly joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen or BLF, which was the railroad firemen's' union in 1875. He would be associated with this union for the next 18 years. By 1875 he had built a reputation as an outstanding citizen and was named the secretary of the Vigo County BLF, this would be his entry into the field of labor organization. During this time he was closely associated with the railroad workers and saw their consistent oppression by their capitalist employers. Despite this he was dedicated to maintaining a union comprised of sober outstanding laborers who could best serve their employers. By 1879 he was elected grand secretary of the BLF and editor of the magazine. In this role he gained crucial experience in labor organizing on a larger scale and elevated his status as a effective leader in the labor movement. During this time he saw consistent wage cuts forced on these upstanding citizens and workers which began to galvanize the idea within him that the corporations were not interested in the quality of labor of their employees. Instead they were interested in only creating a profit for themselves at any cost and reducing the value of a man to his work.

Debs had not yet believed in or subscribed to socialist values at this time and as a rising figure in Terre Haute he was elected as city clerk in 1879 on the democratic ticket for two consecutive terms. He liked being closely associated with local politics and his community in this position. In 1884 he was elected as a state representative again on...
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