posted Feb. 10, 2018
The activities of Eugene V. Debs in 1897 are particularly fascinating to me. Debs publicly declared himself a socialist during the very last days of 1896, and news that the controversial labor leader was leaving the People’s Party (the so-called “Populists”) to make his way as a “straight socialist” swept the wires over the first two weeks of January, with the news making print in scores of newspapers around the country. Debs had only fairly recently left the Democratic Party for the Populists and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen for the American Railway Union, you will recall, so rumblings began to be heard that Debs was a fickle flounderer racing from movement to movement in an unsatisfying search for basic principles.
The trend of jumping from organization to organization would only continue through the next decade — a period of time which would see him closely align with the Western Federation of Miners and the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, lead his American Railway Union into merger with the BCC to form a new colonization group called the Social Democracy of America, join a split of the SDA to help establish a new political party called the Social Democratic Party of America, squabble over unity efforts before becoming a founder of the Socialist Party of America, help publicize the American Labor Union, move with the ALU into the Industrial Workers of the World, and leave the IWW to become an independent commentator on the labor movement.
The years of his early- and middle-40s were a period of seeking, searching, thinking, and building for Gene Debs. His biographer Nick Salvator has a rather more harsh interpretation, more along the lines of “clueless and floundering.”
• • • • •
Home at last from his relentless touring in support of Democratic-Populist fusion Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Gene Debs found he had a surprise visitor for Christmas 1896 — Edward Boyce (1862-1941), President of the Western Federation of Miners. We are accustomed to think of the WF of M as a union; it was not, but rather an umbrella organization of affiliated local miners’ unions, just as the American Federation of Labor is an umbrella organization of affiliated craft unions.
Boyce had a favor to ask of the ARU chief: there was an expensive and increasingly violent strike in need of resolution in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado — a place where Boyce had himself labored in the mines for four years previously. As the Panic of 1893 hit a double dip recession in 1896; unemployment remained at double-digit levels, business closings swept the land, and commodity prices such as that for silver had fallen precipitously. Mining was distinctly less profitable than it had been and some local operators used the bad economy and weak bottom line as an excuse to slash wages, one after another reducing the basic daily rate for a Leadville miner from $3 a day to $2.50. Those who had not moved the scale were threatening it.
Feeling themselves unable to live on $2.50 a day in the comparatively costly community of Leadville (then the second largest town in Colorado after Denver, believe it or not) miners sought a restoration of the $3 daily rate, or at least make such a case to an impartial board of arbitration. The mine operators would neither budge on the wage rate or the matter of arbitration — and suspicions were rife that this intransigence was a mere pretext for the real object: busting the union. The result was a massive strike that lasted for months.
Boyce decided to reach out to Debs in the hope that he would pay the town visit, make a speech or two, and see if he could help bring the strike to a more or less successful conclusion.
Debs came, Debs saw, Debs spoke.
Debs ended up spending two months on the road with Boyce throughout the West in an effort to publicize the miners’ plight. It was all for naught. The miners didn’t heed the advice of either Debs or the Governor of the state by agreeing to a compromise wage scale based on the market price of silver. The costly work stoppage (every member of the WF of M was paying $1 a month for strike relief) festered for another several months, by which time the offer was off the table and the union came away with nothing.
The Western Federation of Miners would end up being radicalized by the affair, eventually emerging as the American Labor Union — one of the chief movers for establishment of the Industrial Workers of the World. So the story of this somewhat forgotten Colorado mining strike popping up at the beginning of Volume 3 does eventually come around full circle by the end of the book.
• • • • •
Here’s a Debs anecdote that I had never previously heard. On January 27, 1897, Gene and Ed Boyce were sharing a horse-drawn buggy, riding down Gold Hill in Leadville. Suddenly, something spooked the horses and they bolted down the rugged trail, the cart wildly bouncing behind. Both Debs and Boyce were knocked from the buggy, fortuitously, it would seem, as the panicked horses soon smashed the small cart to pieces racing over jagged rocks beside the road. Neither Gene nor Ed was hurt, but they both could just as easily have been seriously injured or killed.
Being dead in a buggy wreck would have been quite the career ender for EVD.
• • • • •
While Debs was getting involved in the Western hard rock miners’ movement, his mind was wandering in a vaguely parallel direction. He started moving towards Utopian Socialism — the idea that like-minded individuals could band together in a cloistered, non-exploitative community, and through their joint, cooperative efforts, raise manna from dirt clods while living in log cabins. Actually, their vision was more pretty than that, but the reality of the situation is as I have drawn it up — agricultural pioneering is an arduous, tedious task performed with dismal physical accommodations. Not exactly an optimum situation for middle class intellectuals, no matter how pure their motives…
Still, Debs became obsessed with the notion. A few successful colonies would inspire mass emulation, and together the colonists could exert political weight at the state level, taking over state government and using tax policy to put wealthy exploiters out of business, to make way for a return to honest, small-scale economy.
Returning to Terre Haute from a trip as a guest of the Western Federation of Miners to its 5th Annual Convention in Salt Lake City late in May, Debs met with Norman Lermond (1861-1944), National Secretary and leading spirit of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (BCC) in Terre Haute to discuss possible joint action in establishing socialist colonies. The BCC had favored a location in Tennessee or Arkansas, sufficiently rural that land prices were not exorbitant; Debs had in mind the newly minted state of Washington, which had only come into the union in 1889 and which not only had cheap land but which was relatively unpopulated and thus ripe for political takeover if thousands of unemployed workers could be persuaded to move across the country to join the socialist colony movement.
A special convention of the now moribund American Railway Union had already been scheduled June 15 in Chicago; Lermond agreed to postpone any further search for land in the Southeast pending the outcome of the Chicago conclave……….
[to be continued…]
The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 24 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “The Individual vs. Socialism” — Jan. 6, 1897 — 378 words
- “‘I Am With the Miners in Their Present Trouble’ : Speech in Leadville, Colorado” [excerpt] — Jan. 13, 1897 — 2,393 words
- “Questions and Answers: Speech to Striking Miners in Leadville, Colorado” — Jan. 14, 1897 — 2,487 words
- “‘The World is Not Right’ : Speech in Butte Montana” — Feb. 8, 1897 — 3,760 words
- “Special Convention Forthcoming: From ARU Circular Letter No. 3 (1897)” [excerpt] — April 1, 1897 — 133 words
- “Strike Lessons: A Dispassionate Review of the Great Leadville Struggle” — April 5, 1897 — 1,505 words
- “The New Commonwealth: Letter to the New York Journal” — April 16, 1897 — 970 words
- “‘The Constitution Says People May Bear Arms’ : Statement to the Press in Salt Lake City” — May 11, 1897 — 512 words
- “The Coming Republic: Letter to the New York Journal” — May 30, 1897 — 2,260 words
- “Lesson of the Great Leadville Strike” — May 31, 1897 — 1,088 words
- “A Bright, Happy Spot in Civilization: Interview with the Chicago Chronicle” — June 14, 1897 — 1,023 words
- “Opening Address at the Special Convention of the American Railway Union in Chicago” — June 15, 1897 — 4,131 words
- “‘All That Will Be Done is To Perhaps Change the Name’ : Statement to the Chicago Inter Ocean” — June 16, 1897 — 343 words
- “‘The First Colony Will Be Composed of Picked Men’ : Interview with the New York World — June 16, 1897 — 466 words
- “‘Farmers Will Form the Vanguard’ : Statement to the Chicago Chronicle” — June 18, 1897 — 357 words
- “Interview with James Creelman of the New York Journal” — June 18, 1897 — 4,471 words
- “Open Letter to John D. Rockefeller” — June 19, 1897 — 497 words
- “Closing Speech at the Founding Convention of the Social Democracy of America in Chicago” [excerpt] — June 21, 1897 — 413 words
- “Letter to the Editor of the Chicago Tribune” — June 21, 1897 — 316 words
- “‘The Hour Has Struck to Call a Halt’ : Call for the St. Louis Convention of Coal Miners — Aug. 23, 1897 — 656 words
- “‘We Cannot Hope to Succeed by Violence’ : Speech to Branch 1, Social Democracy of America” — Sept. 19, 1897 — 931 words
Words this week: 29,092 * * * * * * * * * * Total words to date: 29,092
I also located and made a 1,200 word addition to a piece from Volume 2 and tagged and typed up a 1,550 word Chicago Record news story for background.
★ I usually hate hate, hatey hate, hate hate hate to add books to my shelves that have formerly been in public libraries. They are damaged beyond collectibility and sometimes even beyond use with stickers and stamps and cemented borrowers’ cards and marked pages and underlining and damaged bindings and what have you. But I tell you, this particular addition to the book hoard is especially cool precisely because it has ex-library markings showing!
The title is The Socialist Party: Eugene V. Debs and the Radical Politics of the American Working Class, by Carolyn M. Skahill, a self-described “freelance writer.” Published in 2006 and barely moving the scales as a 32 page pamphlet, at a glance you just KNOW that this is unacademic fluff. Ah, gloriously so, gloriously so — for you see, this turns out to be a children’s book with about 16-point type and a vocabulary seemingly targeted to precocious third graders. As such it is a fascinating thing to behold.
As to content: hey, a couple little mistakes here and there but an altogether passable job of telling the big story of the rise and fall of the Debsian Socialist Party. I mean, jeez, the author name-checks the Conference for Progressive Political Action and the Non-Partisan League, for goodness sakes, and this in a book that also tells us to pronounce those big words “KAHM-yuh-nist” and “SOH-shu-list PAR-tee.” That’s absolutely fantastic, is it not? I’ll betcha twenty bucks that the author used my www.marxisthistory.org website very heavily in producing this little book (freelance writers dropping in on a topic aren’t otherwise apt to pick up that the CPPA and the NPL were even things, after all), but alas, no printed credit for me — which makes an otherwise jolly Santa slightly sad. That truly would have been the bleached-and-food-colored cherry on top of the ice cream sundae…
“Leftists are people who generally oppose war, push for political change to broaden freedoms, and want to improve the status of the common man.” (pp. 18-19). Bingo.
So, yeah, the ex-library damage is in its own way glorious. This copy hails from an actual elementary school library in Bothell, Washington… (Bonus points: I used to live in Bothell, a suburb of Seattle, for a year.) Of course, it would be better if it was still part of that elementary school library instead of being deaccessioned, but it just goes to prove what I’d be happy to tell you about librarians…
★ Speaking of cool Debs-related ephemera, I managed to score a Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen “traveling card” from eBay this past week. It is dated June 1893, so I just missed having the Debs facsimile signature by a few months (he refused re-election as Secretary-Treasurer in September 1892, which is when this card blank would have been printed), but still a very slick item from the time when EVD was still editing the brotherhood’s monthly magazine.
Traveling cards, as I understand them, were issued to members who were on the road a great deal so that they could attend the otherwise closed meetings of local lodges in other towns as the occasion presented itself. They were issued annually and according to the printed conditions on the back they were supposed to be returned to the issuing lodge for destruction at the end of that time. This probably helps explain why there are so few of them around. For the record, this ran me about $20. A card with a Debs signature instead of Frank Arnold’s could easily have punched through the $100 barrier.
Labor ephemera collector Vince Kueter says I got a good deal.