Debs, Eugene Victor

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.

Debs, Eugene Victor,

1855–1926, American Socialist leader, b. Terre Haute, Ind. Leaving high school to work in the railroad shops in Terre Haute, he became a railroad fireman (1871) and organized (1875) a local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1880 he became national secretary and treasurer of the brotherhood, and in 1884 he was elected to the Indiana legislature. He resigned (1892) from the brotherhood and launched (1893), instead of a trade union, an industrial union to include all railroad workers, the American Railway Union, of which he became president. After a successful strike against the Great Northern RR, the American Railway Union participated (1894) in the Pullman strikePullman strike,
in U.S. history, an important labor dispute. On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.
..... Click the link for more information.
 by refusing to service Pullman cars. An injunction, however, was served against the strikers and federal troops, sent to Illinois by President ClevelandCleveland, Grover
(Stephen Grover Cleveland), 1837–1908, 22d (1885–89) and 24th (1893–97) President of the United States, b. Caldwell, N.J.; son of a Presbyterian clergyman.
..... Click the link for more information.
 over the protest of Illinois governor John P. AltgeldAltgeld, John Peter
, 1847–1902, American politician, governor of Illinois (1892–96), b. Germany. He was taken by his immigrant parents to Ohio, where he grew up with little formal schooling.
..... Click the link for more information.
, broke the strike. Debs and others were convicted of violating the injunction and sentenced to a six-month jail term.

While in prison, Debs read widely, including socialist works, and he later became a Socialist. In 1898, he helped form the Social Democratic party (renamed the Socialist party in 1901; again renamed Social Democratic in 1972) and was its presidential candidate in 1900, with 96,000 votes nationally, and in 1904, with 402,000 votes. He became editor of the Socialist weekly Appeal to Reason and lectured widely. After 1900, he grew more bitter in his attacks on trade unionism and more vehement in advocating the organization of labor by industries. He helped to found (1905) the Industrial Workers of the WorldIndustrial Workers of the World
(IWW), revolutionary industrial union organized in Chicago in 1905 by delegates from the Western Federation of Mines, which formed the nucleus of the IWW, and 42 other labor organizations.
..... Click the link for more information.
, but soon withdrew from the movement. Debs was again the Socialist candidate for president in 1908 and 1912.

During World War I, the Socialist party refused to take part in the government war effort and in 1918 Debs, a leading pacifist, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for publicly denouncing the government's prosecution of persons charged with sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917. Although still in a federal penitentiary, he was Socialist candidate for President in 1920 and gathered nearly 920,000 votes. He was released (1921) by order of President Harding. But his health was broken, and he accomplished little in his last years, although he was widely revered as a martyr for his principles.


See selected works ed. by T. Davenport and D. Walters (2 vol., 2019–); studies by H. W. Morgan (1962, repr. 1973), H. W. Currie (1976), N. Salvatore (1982), A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. (1989), M. Young (ed. by C. Ruas, 1999), and E. Freeberg (2008); N. Van Sciver et al., Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography (2019).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Debs, Eugene Victor


Born Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind.; died Oct. 20, 1926, in Elmhurst, Ill. A figure in the workers’ movement of the United States.

When Debs was 14, he began working for a railroad. In 1893 he headed the American Railway Union. The following year Debs was sentenced to prison for his leadership of the Pullman strike of 1894. In 1897-98, he helped create the Social Democratic Party of the United States, which became known as the Socialist Party in 1900-01. Debs was one of the leaders of the left wing of the Socialist Party and opposed the policy of class collaboration pursued by the leaders of the American Federation of Labor. In 1905 he helped found the trade union the Industrial Workers of the World. He was the most popular leader among the working masses and was called “the American Bebel” by V. I. Lenin (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 32, p. 100). He was nominated for president by the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. During World War I (1914-18), Debs maintained an internationalist position. He hailed the Great October Socialist revolution in Russia and opposed anti-Soviet intervention. In 1918, Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for his active struggle against the war. He was granted amnesty in 1921. In his last years, he vacillated on the question of creating a revolutionary workers’ party of the new type in the United States and on many other questions, but he later became aware of his errors.


The Heritage of Gene Debs. Selections with a critical introduction by A. Trachtenberg. New York, 1955.


Zubok, L. I. Ocherki istorii rabochego dvizheniia v SShA, 1865-1918. Moscow, 1962.
Ginger, R. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Debs. New Brunswick, 1949.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.