Eugene V. Debs: How I Became a Rebel

“How I Became a Rebel, A Symposium, Part 1,” The Labor Herald, June 1922, p. 23.

By Eugene V. Debs

THERE was never a time in my life when I was not with the weak and poor and against the rich and strong who oppressed them. At fourteen I was a wage-worker in a railroad shop. My pay was fifty cents for a ten hour day. I had my lesson in wage-slavery early in life and never forgot it. In later years many offers came to desert the ranks and climb to the “top” but they were all refused. It suited me better to remain a slave than to become a master. Upon that point I never had a doubt. At sixteen I was firing an engine and at nineteen, in 1875, I joined the Brotherhod of Locomotive Firemen as a charter member of the Lodge instituted at Terre Haute. In 1892 I resigned the office I held in the Brotherhood to organize the American Railway Union. The craft no longer satisfied me. The great body of railway employes were not organized at all and the American Railway Union, based upon the industrial principle, embraced them all. The railway managers recognized the menace of the new industrial power of their united employes in the Pullman strike in 1894 and combined to destroy it. The federal government, subservient to the railroads, gave willing support. The strike had been won clean and the victory was complete. Not a wheel moved. The roads were paralyzed and the managers helpless.

What followed? Injunctions, arrests, and federal troops with shotted guns and orders to kill. Next? The brotherhood officials in alliance with the railway officials and orders issued to the craft unions to fill the places of the strikers. Next? The office of the American Railway Union raided without warrant of law by government thugs, the clerks driven out, the records carted away, and the officials thrown into jail in accordance with the law and order program of the railway corporations. My blood boiled as I sat with my associates in the foul, rat-infested jail at Chicago. A six-months’ sentence followed, jury trial having been denied. In jail there was time for sober reflection. Revolutionary literature came through the bars. My blood cooled and my head cleared. The class struggle came into bold relief and I saw clear as the noonday sun how and why the government came to do the bidding of the railroads abjectly as a trained monkey obeys his master.

In the darkness of a prison cell I saw the light, and when I walked forth I was a socialist and from that day to this I have been the relentless and uncompromising foe of capitalism and wage-slavery.

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