Eugene Debs and American Socialism: A View from the Mountain

“Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. . . There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him, than in the plains where men inhabit.” -Henry David Thoreau

The above quote comes from Thoreau’s journey to the summit of mount Ktaadn, an existentially significant experience for the man. When he reached the top he was unable to gain any advantage of vision because of the heavy cloud cover. I find his language in the quote and the circumstances of it very significant. I think it says a great deal about perspective and how it is incumbent on circumstance. It is important to keep this general theme in mind, and I will come back to the concept at length.

There is no better day than Labor Day to explore the origins of socialist theory and its aims in nineteenth century America. I have read a fair amount from socialists both old and more contemporary and I find myself unable to be swept up into the fervor, for it is very much a movement based on constant revolutionary action; the American father Eugene Debs makes it very clear in much of his writing. I do not find the aims of socialism distasteful, since the cause cited is usually provision for every human and egalitarian respect and ownership of all property and the means of production. It is a noble goal, but nobility does not necessitate feasibility. If that were the case, then the Utopian Socialists would have been a world-sweeping movement and the oceans would have turned into lemonade as Charles Fourier Claimed. In order to get a complete view of socialism, I think it is important to first investigate the influences for the philosophy.

Enlightenment Origins

         Socialism via Marx and others can be traced back to the enlightenment philosophers. One of the major culprits is Jean Jacques Rousseau and his social compact theory. The later ecstatic language of Eugene Debs and others calling for the transformation of human society tie directly back to the transcendent humanism of European philosophy espoused the 18th century. It makes sense, of course, since there was much turmoil in Europe. Financial crises and poverty were already setting in motion the events and public perception which ultimately led to the French Revolution. There was great focus on inequality because of a wide perception that the system was not working. Indeed, in many ways it was not. France was reeling from the economic results of the Seven Years War, and sentiment held that the machinations of European leaders against one-another were leading to the same losers every time: the common people.

These circumstances certainly gave traction to Rousseau’s concepts for a society based on the universal equality of all people. In The Social Contract, he writes the following:

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one — the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

This seems all well and good, and it certainly makes sense as the dream inspired from years of being downtrodden at the hands of European monarchs. Despite this context, however, there is no reason to believe that it is ultimately possible to achieve. Universal equality seems nice, but how are we to expect everyone to give up self-interest? William Foster Lloyd pointed out later in a pamphlet in 1833, The Tragedy of the Commons, that, when there is no ownership, it only takes one person overstepping their bounds to throw everything off balance. We are also afforded the advantage of history in seeing that the implementation of socialism tends to gravitate to widespread bureaucracy or centralized control. There has never been an effective mechanism for maintaining that perfect balance.

One of the other big influences of early socialism was Immanuel Kant. Kant also dealt with ideas of transcendent freedom in society, words echoed by American socialists later on. He believed that society could eventually reach a point of moral and political transcendence based on moral law and acquired through reason. Stephen Palmquist of Hong Kong Baptist University in an objective overview of Kant’s system of perspective writes:

When the ideal goal of realizing the ‘universal religion of reason’ [e.g., Kt8:122(113)] is finally fulfilled, religion and politics will actually merge, though both will at that point be thoroughly transformed: they will both be legislated entirely from within, through the agency of the moral law (regarded as the voice of God) speaking to each individual, and uniting all human beings in a whole which no human political system could ever sustain. That Kant had such a merger in mind can be seen at various points in Kt8, not the least of which is in his use of the paradoxical term ‘ethical commonwealth’ as a description of the true church. Thus it should come as no surprise when he ends the first Division of Book Three with a clear allusion to the political implications of what he earlier called ‘the Coming of the Kingdom of God’:

Such, therefore, is the activity of the good principle, unnoted by human eyes but ever continuing-erecting for itself in the human race, regarded as a commonwealth under laws of virtue, a power and a kingdom which sustains the victory over evil and, under its own dominion, assures the world of eternal peace. [Kt8:124(114)]

Once again we can look to the Seven Years War for some historical context to this philosophy. After extended conflict and economic ruination, many of the continental thinkers wanted to explore social concepts that took power out of the hands of the wealthy aristocracy which had put the common people through the grinder time and time again.

One cannot fault these philosophers for being attracted to this sort of view. Years and years of war and poverty had lead to nothing but destruction and poverty, thus the attractiveness of revolution. In a way the French revolution was inevitable, especially when the academic climate spurred on the desire of the common man to take hold of his destiny and equalize the power structures, level the summits of wealth and control. This is where Eugene Debs took his inspiration, so now a bit about the man Himself

Eugene V Debs I


Deb’s was one of the most vocal advocates of worker’s rights in turn of the century America. He founded the American Socialist Party after heading up the creation of the American Railway Union. His writings reveal an adherence to the ethics of Karl Marx with strong emphasis on class warfare and evening out power and wealth in the United States. To give an example of his rhetoric, he wrote the following in a letter titled Agitation and Agitators:

The peacefully disposed, the quiet, inert, lethargic souls, those who glory in stagnation, have never had their way. Nature prefers agitation, hence the hurricane, the tornado, the cyclone, the lighting, and the thunderbolt; hence the volcano and the earthquake. Call them evils, it matters not, they are a ceaseless protest against stagnation.


The scepter is falling from the hands of labor autocrats. From the untold millions of wealth which labor creates the time is coming when a just distribution will be ordered. There is to be more agitation, more education, a profounder recognition of great truths relating to the brotherhood of man, a more intense desire to lift up the lowly and the weak; but the trend is in that direction — watch and agitate, fight and go forward.

So I am going to point out the obvious here and say the Deb’s ethic is based nearly entire on the revolutionary act. That he goes as far as claiming that stability is the friend of the exploiter is rather interesting and seemingly impractical. Honestly it is. In all I’ve read of Deb’s letters there is no solution offered aside from the old dream of Rousseau and Kant, that nebulous future-world of total equality in which the individual gives up all self-interest in favor of the group. To go back to something fellow Wardog Bellwether mentioned in his article Bare Breasts or Social Services: Freud aptly pointed out that the desires of the individual will always be at odds with the good of collective society. I honestly believe that this is a fact of life. The issue is not addressed in the socialist’s call for a change in the status quo and there is no practical solution aside from putting the means of production in the hands of the laborers.

There is also a stunning lack of understanding of basic economic history in many of Deb’s claims. In his letter Unions and Socialists he writes:

When machinery was applied to industry, and mill and factory took the place of the country blacksmith shop; when the workers were divorced from their tools and recruited in the mills; when they were obliged to compete against each other for employment; when they found themselves in the labor market with but a low bid or none at all upon their labor power; when they began to realize that as toolless workingmen they were at the mercy of the tool-owning masters, the necessity for union among them took root, and as industry developed, the trade union movement followed in its wake and became a factor in the struggle of the workers against the aggressions of their employers.

Implied in this narrative is the common socialist assumption that the capitalist destroyed the idyllic guild-based economy by actively subverting it like some sort of all-consuming monster determined to exploit everyone because it pays and it’s fun too. This is absolutely ludicrous, in fact, most of the early developments of the industrial revolution occurred to protect the refinement of domestic resources from cheaper products coming in from the trading companies in the east. History is more complicated than this convenient simplification.

The Occult History of Manufacturing

        Strangely in many circles the Socialist account of the industrial revolution prevails. It’s easy to see why, since it led to the worker’s rights movements and eventual riots fighting for the end of the exploitation of workers. This is all true, and legislation to protect workers is very important. I would not claim otherwise. The narrative which focuses on this element of the industrial revolution as the most important, however, is fundamentally flawed.

The earliest origins of the industrial revolution came in England during the eighteenth century. Domestic textile producers were being threatened by the arrival of cheap and high quality calico from India. This threatened the livelihood of the English weavers who traditionally spun and weaved in their own households. Families who weaved for a living were often under contracts with merchants who would pay them individually and then sell the cloth in bulk to other countries. People had to get more inventive in order to stay in business. Technological improvements helped: the fly shuttle and eventually the spinning jenny. Demand for cotton around the world increased, so further inventions made the process easier and less expensive. Eventually this model continued until the family business could no longer compete against the inventors and entrepreneurs who could work much more efficiently, so then family weavers became machine operators in the later developed textile factories. It was a fluid process, and consisted of people reacting to the changing climate, simply trying to make a living.

So let us look at this progression. Is the entrepreneur who developed the new means of manufacturing textiles the true devil? Did he see the happy weaving families making cloth and picture mountains of coin and slavish conditions and just get off on that? Not really. In fact, without many of those developments the domestic British textile trade would have ceased to exist. The need to change the means of production came from increased trade and colonization. Access to more goods made more cheaply in other countries transformed domestic British production. The socialist blaming the inventor/entrepreneur has not taken enough steps back into history. The true devil is global trade and colonization. But that is also not enough steps back into history, because colonization would not have existed without nationalism and centralized government, which we can be sure are the real devils. We can ride that train all the way back to the Roman Empire which is the true origin of manufacturing. They set the stage, invented roads and large-scale production, they were nationalistic and colonized. So the true devil is in fact Rome.

I make this point of drawing line back to Rome not to claim that Rome actually is the cause of all evils but to illustrate the point that historical causation is not inherently objective. Of course we want to assign blame to a singular oligarch, demagogue or empire, but it is never that clean. Rome is not the cause of modern problems. This points to a misunderstanding of cause and effect in the mind of not only socialists but also many social movements.

Eugene V Debs II


         Returning to Debs, I will endeavor to bring this issue of cause and effect full circle. In his letter entitled, well, Cause and Effect, he gives some insight into the way of thinking while quoting a correspondent to The Chicago Times:

Because a Vanderbilt wedding occurs at one end of a street and a mother dies of starvation at the other, it is argued that there is a direct connection between these events. Because the cost of a single one of 295 diamonds in a gift to the Vanderbilt bride would have saved the life of a starving woman, therefore the many who are poor must rise against the few who are rich and overthrow the law which protects all.

Deb’s comments on the need for action by saying of the piece:

The conflagration, or, if it does not occur, it must be because the working millions of America will that it shall not occur — because by their fiat, vox populi, vox Dei, the wealth at one end of the street shall be distributed that there shall be plenty, happiness, and contentment at the other end of the street, because the people in their sovereign majesty shall introduce new causes to produce more salutary effects.

This is the Socialist’s view of cause and effect. The wealth of the wedding down the street is the direct cause of the starvation of the old woman. Debs is claiming that there is a direct wealth disparity correlation that connects every act of excess and every moment of need and poverty. Thus the universal equality of Rousseau and Kant become an achievable goal because all elements of inequality can be placed on the same continuum of cause and effect. Once we eliminate excess in all forms, then the result will most certainly be the elimination of poverty.

This view of wealth and society comes as a result of two economic fallacies. The first can be summarized as the “zero sum game view”, which contends that the amount of labor, wealth and production available at any given time is static. Economies expand and contract. There is no direct evidence to support that increased wealth in one sector of the economy will per se result in a reduction of wealth in another. The second fallacious reasoning is the expectation of perfect information. The wealthy patrons of the wedding at one end of the street cannot be completely aware of every starving citizen at the other end. The implication made by Debs is that, even without knowledge of the starving old woman, the wealthy family can still be held culpable, despite the fact that we cannot predict their behavior if they had knowledge of her plight. He assigns an inherent guilt to ownership, and as a result of this ethic the only way to be absolved is to own in perfect equality with everyone on the street. This is an attractive notion, but once more: nobility does not evince feasibility.

Atop the Mountain

         At this point I will return the discussion to Henry David Thoreau. Both parts of his Ktaadn quotation can apply quite well to the perceptions held by Eugene V Debs and the American Socialists. “Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends.” This is a fitting analog for the position of the Socialist revolutionary at the turn of the century. They have ascended to their view of society upon the wave of capitalism. They have seen the wealth and comfort and luxury that it can provide, they have seen the new middle class of inventors and entrepreneurs, and they want that for all people. The issue is, however, that what they want for everyone came about because of capitalism, yet they somehow expect the circumstances to stick around after they remove the system of underpinnings which created those circumstances. Debs seemed to believe that the state of wealth in America dwelt in a vacuum, and that even after the glorious revolution, the means of production would remain absolutely unchanged but in new hands. He seems phobic of the factory machine, but how will the world be clothed if the machines are shut down? How will socialism allocate resources after taking over the means of production? Worker’s trade unions? Alright, well, can we expect that form of equal wealth to look anything like the success of the mid-level industrialist? We cannot know. In ascending to that ideal point of revolutionary fervor, an element of perspective is lost, the same element that calls the capitalist entrepreneur the devil-exploiter when a long chain of history led to him becoming a reality. They stand on the mountaintop, yet they are blind to the long perspective.

Thoreau goes on to say: “There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him, than in the plains where men inhabit.” This is very important in the application to not only the revolutionary socialists, but also their inspirations of Rousseau and Kant. The latter two wrote at the hind end of the Seven Years War, something which strongly influenced their philosophical desire to create a paradigm in which freedom and universal equality were very much attainable, a format where the powerless could escape the overbearing power structures. In the same way Debs cried for revolution and endless agitation because all he could see was the exploitation. He could see no further into the past than the industrialist nor into or the circumstances of the present than agitation. There are times of wan and times of plenty, and the recent past will inform the frenzied need of the present. He had no sight beyond the need for immediate conflict, and no long-term or practical plan for cultivating “the plains where men inhabit.”


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