Eugene Debs: “What Can We Do for Working People?” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, two competing visions of America were propagated. One, put forth by people such as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, emphasized the beneficial role of the wealthy in society. The other, which was held by union and Socialist Party leader Eugene Victor Debs, was more focused on working-class Americans whose well-being was often at the mercy of factory owners’ desire for more wealth. In his essay “What Can We Do for Working People?,” Debs presents the case that organizing into unions will allow working people to control their destiny and throw off the ideals of the wealthy, whose goal is to ensure that workers are employed for as little money as possible. By utilizing the power of the ballot box during elections and incorporating collective action in the workplace, working people will be better able to determine the course of their lives.

Summary Overview

During the so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, two competing visions of America were propagated. One, put forth by people such as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, emphasized the beneficial role of the wealthy in society. The other, which was held by union and Socialist Party leader Eugene Victor Debs, was more focused on working-class Americans whose well-being was often at the mercy of factory owners’ desire for more wealth. In his essay “What Can We Do for Working People?,” Debs presents the case that organizing into unions will allow working people to control their destiny and throw off the ideals of the wealthy, whose goal is to ensure that workers are employed for as little money as possible. By utilizing the power of the ballot box during elections and incorporating collective action in the workplace, working people will be better able to determine the course of their lives.

Defining Moment

Debs wrote his essay at a very difficult time for America’s nascent labor movement. The prosperity of Gilded Age America was concentrated in the hands of those who owned the means of production. Men such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Pierpont Morgan controlled entire industries and spent as little as possible on their workers’ wages and safety. The working class saw little, if any, benefit from the booming economy of the Industrial Revolution, and they exercised little power over the terms of their employment.

Though trade unions had worked to organize skilled workers for over a century, common laborers had no such protection until the rise of the Knights of Labor, which sought to bring together common workers and collectively negotiate to improve their lot. However, because of the violence that occurred during a labor rally at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886, many US citizens associated unions with foreign radicalism and the ideologies of anarchism and socialism.

Debs would not be deterred, however, and he continued to argue in favor of unions as the only way for working people to achieve higher wages, safe working conditions, and an eight-hour day. But the labor movement did not come together to create a united front: as trade unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized to improve the conditions of specially skilled workers, the Knights of Labor, which represented the interests of common workers, declined in influence as they became associated with radicalism. The AFL sought to distance itself from partisan politics, whereas Debs encouraged workers to take action both in the workplace and at the polling place in order to elect pro-labor candidates who would institute the long-term goals of the labor movement. Whereas AFL leader Samuel Gompers preferred an issues-based alliance with politicians from the major parties, Debs encouraged workers to become active participants in the political organizations dedicated to the working peoples’ agenda, such as the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party).

Debs’s perspective was much more in line with the view espoused two years earlier by utopian novelist Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward (1888). A thorough critique of Gilded Age capitalism, Bellamy’s view appealed to working people, with whom his ideal society, free of social divisions and conflict, resonated. But the only way to achieve a utopia such as Bellamy espoused was through voting and through organizing industrial workers to take control of their own fate.

Author Biography

Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. Like many young men at that time, he left school and entered the workplace at the age of fourteen. Around 1870, he became active in the railways employees union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, and started a career as an advocate for working people. During the 1880s, Debs, still a member of the Democratic Party, won a seat in the Indiana state legislature. However, his true calling was with the railroad workers, and he became national secretary of the Brotherhood in 1880. It was during this period that his essay, “What Can We Do for Working People?” appeared in the union’s periodical, the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine.

During the 1890s, Debs would expand his role nationally and found and lead the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1893. The ARU, which would soon become the largest organized union in the nation, accepted any white railway worker below the position of foreman, and Debs became instrumental in some of the union’s most important labor actions before becoming a national political figure and running for president of the United States as a Socialist in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912.

Document Analysis

Having been involved in the trade union movement for over a decade, Debs was adjusting his beliefs as the labor movement began to transform. Rather than concern himself with the betterment of working conditions of a particular industry, Debs’s essay reflects a growing awareness of the commonality of all industrial workers, skilled and unskilled. Debs was one of a growing number of reformers, often from the upper classes of American society, who were considering ways to appease American workers who were voicing and demonstrating their dissatisfaction with their pay, working conditions, or terms of employment.

Debs begins the essay by noting that reformers in his time sought to ensure that industrial workers were pacified enough to continue to provide the cheapest possible labor for the benefit of America’s factory owners and industrialists (much as slaveholders had before them). Each group of reformers is addressed by Debs, who analyzes their proposals and notes that each refuses to consider paying “fair, honest wages,” which, Debs claims, is “disgusting and degrading to the last degree.” Debs asks, “What can workingmen do for themselves?,” and then answers that they can organize into unions to collectively bargain for what is in their best interests and can utilize their voting power to choose candidates who will best represent them in state and federal government.

Essential Themes

After “What Can We Do for Working People?” was published, Debs became increasingly outspoken. His speeches became dominated by the ideals of socialism and argued that the model of industrial capitalism was fundamentally flawed. Many in the middle and upper classes condemned the labor movement for promoting what they considered to be radical ideologies, but Debs and the ideas he expressed persisted.

Debs led the American Railway Union through tumultuous times, including the April 1894 strike against robber baron Jay Gould’s Great Northern Railroad and the massive Pullman Strike the following month. Debs was imprisoned for six months for his role in the Pullman Strike, and when he was released he announced he was a socialist and helped to form the Social Democratic Party, which then became the Socialist Party. Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate for US president for four consecutive elections between 1900 and 1912.

In 1905, Debs helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which best represented his ideas about American industrial workers and socialism. The IWW’s goal was to create “one big union” of industrial workers across the nation. Debs’s ideas, however, were again considered too radical, and the IWW lacked the support of the American middle and upper classes.

Though Debs and AFL leader Samuel Gompers disagreed on some aspects of unionism, they saw each other as allies, and the AFL eventually became more inclusive of workers from across the broad spectrum of American industry, though it still organized on a per-industry basis. After losing the 1912 presidential election, Debs won an Indiana congressional seat in the 1916 election, running on a pacifist platform and in opposition to America’s involvement in World War I. He continued to voice his opposition when the United States entered the war in 1918, which resulted in his arrest and incarceration for sedition and violation of the Espionage Act. Nominated for the presidency by the Socialist Party in 1920, Debs ran his campaign from prison and received six percent of the popular vote. He was released upon the order of President Warren Harding on Christmas Day 1921. Debs died in 1926.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. Chicago: Haymarket, 2007 Print.
  • Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks. It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. 2nd ed. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2007. Print.
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