Hellraisers Journal: From the Appeal to Reason, Speech by Eugene V. Debs to Steel Workers of Chicago

I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.
We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.
-Eugene V. Debs

Sunday December 17, 1905
From the Appeal to Reason: Comrade Debs Speaks to Chicago Steel Workers

In this weeks edition of the Appeal to Reason, we find the text of a speech given by Eugene Debs, on November 24th, to a large audience in Chicago. The Appeal states that Comrade Debs was speaking to Steel Workers of that city. In the speech Debs compares the old out-dated system of craft organization with the revolutionary system of class-conscious industrial unionism as proposed by the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World.

Eugene Debs Talks to Steel Workers, text, Appeal to Reason, Dec 16, 1905.png

(The following address was delivered by Eugene V. Debs at South Chicago, on November 24th, to an immense audience.)

Eugene Debs, Wilshire's Magazine, Nov 1905.png

THE year now drawing to a close will be memorable in the annals of labor because of the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World. For thirty years I have been connected with the labor movement. All of the years of my young manhood were devoted to the work of organizing my fellow-workingmen, that by the power of united effort they might do something to improve their condition as workers, promote their interests as citizens and advance their general welfare as men. There was a time when I believed that the trade union was in itself sufficient for this work. I have been compelled to revise my opinion and to conclude that something larger, more thorough and comprehensive in the way of organization is required to meet the demands of modern times.

The trade union, itself the product of industrial evolution, is subject to the laws of change, and the union that may have served some purpose a quarter of a century ago is now as completely out of date as the tools of industry that were then in use.

Now, I assume that most of you are more or less familiar with the history of the industrial development of the land; that you know in a general way that in the beginning of industrial society in the United States, when the tool with which work was done was a simple hand tool, made and used by an individual, the average workingman could look forward to the time when he would become a small employer instead of being merely an employe; that he had simply to learn his trade, and having mastered this, he could seize the simple tool of his trade with which work was done and he could virtually employ himself. He was the master of what he produced and he could enjoy the fruit of his labor.

At that time one man worked for another, not in the capacity of a wage-worker as we understand that term today, but simply to learn his trade, and having become the master of this, he was in a position to command most, if not all, his labor produced. It was when the simple tool of the hand laborer was supplanted by the machine and the workingman lost control of the tool with which he worked, that the modern industrial revolution had its beginning. The small employer became the capitalist and the employe became the wage worker; and there began the division of society into two distinct economic classes, and we have these classes before us today, in capitalist society, fully developed.

These two classes, consisting of relatively few capitalists who own tools in the form of great machines that they did not make and that they cannot use, and of a vast army of wage workers who did make these machines and who do use them, but who do not own them; these two classes, consisting of tool-owners and tool-users; that is to say, capitalists and wage-workers, masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited-to put it into perfectly plain terms, robbers and robbed-these two economic forces whose interests clash, are pitted against each other in economic warfare. And it is because in this conflict of economic interests between these two economic classes into which society has been divided in the evolution of the system in which we live, that we have the strike, the boycott, the lockout; that we have the injunction, the scab, and the workingman out of work, and a thousand other ills that need not be enumerated here, all of which spring from this contradiction that inheres in capitalist society; that is, the individual ownership of the social tool of production, and the individual appropriation by the capitalist of the social product of the working class.

Because of this, the capitalist who does no useful work, has the economic power to take from a thousand or ten thousand workingmen all they produce, over and above what is required to keep them in working and producing order, and he becomes a millionaire and a multi-millionaire. He lives in a palace in which there is music and singing and dancing, and the luxuries of all climes. He sails the high seas in his private yacht. He is the man who privately owns a great public utility, has great economic power, and uses his political power to protect his economic interests. He is the man who furnishes the funds with which the politics of the nation are corrupted and debauched. He is the economic master. He is the political ruler. And you. workingmen are almost as completely at his mercy as if you were his property under the law. It is true that he has no title to your bodies. It is also true that he is the master of your jobs. It is true that he controls the employment upon which your lives depend. It is true that he has it in his power to decide whether you shall work or not; that is to say, whether you shall live or not. And the man who has the power of life and death over you, though he may not wear a crown or be known as a king, is as completely your master and your ruler as if you were subject to his commands under the laws of the state.

What is your status as a workingman today?

You are not in the position of your grandfather, who could work with tools of his own, and who, when he produced something, was the master of it. Work is no longer done with that kind of tool. It is done with a mass of marvelous machinery, such as you have in this great steel plant here in South Chicago. That is the twentieth century tool of production. Work is done with that great social instrument, made by you workingmen, used by you workingmen. Nobody but workingmen could make it; nobody but workingmen could use it. You have made it and you use it-and your very lives and your well-being depend absolutely upon your having access to it. But this great tool, which is made by labor and upon which labor depends, is not owned by labor, under the capitalist system, but belong to a capitalist or group of capitalists who live in New York or some other remote point; and when he issues an order that his tool-house is to be shut up and you excluded, locked out, you are not consulted.

You have not a word to say. It is useless for you to leave here and look for work elsewhere, for, when this mill closes down, so do others. You are out of employment and you begin to suffer, and most of you don’t know what the trouble is. You only know that you are no longer wanted at the mill, that workers are a drug on the market. Because with this wonderful tool with which you now work, every few years your masters find that you have produced so much that all of the markets at home and abroad are glutted, and the capitalists cannot sell what you have produced in such abundance, and so they close down industry and you are locked out, and you are idle and you are helpless. And these conditions will continue and become worse, no matter how well you are organized in your several trade unions. This will continue just so long as you workingmen allow the idle capitalists to own and control the tool you made, the tool that you use, the tool that you have got to have access to, and without which you are in a state of helplessness.

Has it ever occurred to you workingmen that if you can make that tool, if you can use that tool, that you can also make yourselves the masters of that tool, that you may use that tool-not to produce multi-millionaires, but to make plenty of wealth for yourselves.

The old trade union is organized on the basis of the identity of interests of capitalists and wage workers. The old trade unionism spends its time and devotes its energies to harmonizing the economic interests of these two classes; and it is a vain and hopeless task. When these interests can be temporarily harmonized it is always in the interest of the capitalist class, always at the expense of the working class. Has it ever occurred to you that most capitalists are in favor of the old form of trade unionism, and encourage and support this unionism, for the very reason that this form of unionism does not truly represent, does not truly express, the economic interests of the working class as a whole.

The truth is that the industrial conditions have undergone such a complete change that now the trade union, instead of uniting the workers, divides them, incites craft jealousy, Craft dissension, craft strife-the very things that the capitalists desires. For, so long as the working class is divided, the capitalists will be secure, the capitalist will rule, the working class will remain in subjection.

Now, let me see if I can make myself perfectly clear upon this important point. In the railroad service there are various organizations of employes. Some of the departments in the railroad service are pretty thoroughly organized. The engineers, the firemen, conductors and the brakemen, to some extent the switchmen, are organized in their several craft unions. They have repeatedly tried to federate these organizations, so as to bring them into harmonious co-operation with each other; but every attempt to so federate them has sooner or later failed. We find that the spirit of craft autonomy, that is, that jealousy of each particular craft to organize itself and look out for itself, that spirit has made it impossible to federate these various organizations. Every now and then the members of these organizations have grievances and try to have them adjusted in the old way. The railroad corporations are always sure to make arrangements with two or three or four departments, so that in case of emergency they can always control these departments while they are making reductions or oppressing in other ways the men in other departments who are not organized.

It has not been la great while that the operators on the Missouri, Kansas & Texas appointed their committees and called on the officials to concede to them what had been conceded by a great many other systems. The M., K. & T. had an agreement with their engineers and firemen, conductors and brakemen, and absolutely refused to make these concessions to the telegraphers, and the telegraphers, about 1,300 of them, went out on strike—quit the service of the company to enforce their demands. What was the result? This great body of workingmen, who thus went out on strike to enforce a righteous demand, all lost their jobs, every one of them. It was only a short time after they went out that I went over that system. I met the men at various points, and they told me the story of their defeat. I understood it before they told me. When they went out the others remained at their posts did their usual work.The engineer took his orders from scab operator, the conductor the same. They readily secured other men to do the work, and with the help that was given them by other so-called union men that belonged to the craft union, it was not a great while before thy had the telegraphers fully defeated.

We have another example on the Santa Fe system only a short time ago, when the machinists went out from one end of the system to the other. But the others, the engineers and firemen, the conductors and brakemen, having union cards, remained at their work until a new set of machinists had been employed and broken in, and now everything is working just as smoothly as before.

We had another case on the Great Northern and Northern Pacific systems, where the telegraph operators, after having failed in securing an adjustment of their grievances, went out on strike in a body. What happened there? Just what had happened on the M., K. & T. The engineers, firemen, conductors and brakemen continued at their posts, discharged their duties and suffered their fellow unionists, the operators, to be completely defeated and their union disrupted.

It is this that is taking place before our eyes every day. Here in Chicago you have witnessed the defeat of one section after another of the army of organized labor. Indeed, during the last two or three years all the great strikes have absolutely failed. There has not been a single exception to relieve the rule, not one.

Now, when you see such things as these, when you see workingmen in great bodies go out on strike and be defeated uniformly, doesn't it occur to you that there is something wrong with that form of unionism? Doesn't it occur to you that that kind of unionism can he improved upon? Doesn’t it occur to you that instead of fighting the capitalist enemy, who are always united, who always act together, that that the thing to do, instead of fighting them by regiments, by battalions, is to fight them as they fight us, in one solid body?

In this respect, if no other, we may well profit by the example set by the enemy. They unite, because they are conscious of their interests as a class.

When the teamsters struck in this city only a short time ago, the bankers subscribed $50,000 to defeat them. Now, the teamsters were not striking against the bankers; the teamsters were striking against the capitalist class; and the bankers came to the rescue of their class. And this brings a very important point to our attention, and that is that the struggle in which we are engaged today is a class struggle, and organizations, to be of any value to the working class, must be formed, not along craft lines, but along class lines.

We must have a working class organization, so all-inclusive, so comprehensive, that it will embrace every man and woman who works for a livelihood. And then we must organize within certain departments in which their particular craft or trade identity may be preserved within the organization. Joining these organizations you take your place in your proper department. That department in which you are organized, it has control of its craft affairs, so that, so far as craft identity is concerned, it is preserved within the organization.

Suppose you join the Industrial Workers as a switchman. You have a grievance, and the switchmen have charge of that grievance. The switchmen, organized in their respective department, having supervision of their grievance, seek to adjust that grievance. If they fail, then, instead of having to rely upon the switchmen alone in the adjustment of that grievance, they can call to their aid not only all the switchmen, but the firemen and the conductors, the brakemen and engineers. They can call to their aid the teamsters and the boilermakers and the machinists and the shopmen and yardmen and office men, and, if it becomes necessary, they can command the combined support of all the organized workers of that entire system.

This is the kind of unionism that is required to deal effectively with the industrial situation of today.

* * * * * *

The time has come for you to think about these things for yourselves. In closing, I appeal to you tonight as workingmen, to think for yourselves and to cut loose from those who have betrayed you; I appeal to you to close up the ranks, to organize your class. I appeal to you to ally yourselves with the revolutionary organization of your class, and stand beneath its banner; I appeal to you to join the movement that is committed in unequivocal terms to your class, that is true to your class, that is organized to fight for your class and to serve your class. I appeal to you to withdraw from the unions that divide you and betray you, and join the union that unites you, the union in which you can stand shoulder to shoulder regardless of your occupation, the union in which you will move forward step by step, marching to the inspiring music of the coming emancipation. I appeal to you to join this union, to declare yourselves. I appeal to you to have the manhood to declare yourselves, and then to say that, by the eternal, you will be responsible for your act. I appeal to you to be for once true enough to yourselves to join the only industrial union that is absolutely true to you.

And if you join this union, if you build op this union, and give this union the power it ought to have, that it will have when you join it, if you rally to the standard of this union-then, as certain as I stand in your presence, you will carry that banner to victory. And in the not distant future the workers will be the sovereign citizens, the real rulers of this earth. Then they can stand forth the sovereigns of creation; than they may build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and enjoy the fruits thereof. The labor question will have been settled; and the working class, emancipated from the fetters of wage-slavery, will begin the glorious march to the divinest civilization ever known.

[Photograph and paragraph breaks added.]


Appeal to Reason
(Girard, Kansas)
-Dec 16, 1905

Eugene Debs, Wilshire's Magazine, Nov 1905
pdf! https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/parties/spusa/1905/1100-debs-winnin...
Eugene Debs Talks to Steel Workers, text, Appeal to Reason, Dec 16, 1905

See also:

Note: This speech was later revised and issued as pamphlet. The links below are to the speech of Nov 24, 1905, as later revised. The speech above is as it appeared in the Appeal of Dec 16, 1905. I don't know who did the revising, but, in my opinion, the revision looses the rhythm and pace which made speeches by Debs so powerful.

Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
Eugene V. Debs: Class Unionism, Nov 24, 1905, Chicago

IWW Web site-
Documents by Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs wrote the following documents and speeches:
Craft Unionism - A Speech Delivered by Eugene V Debs in Chicago on November 23, 1905; resissued October 1909 - (PDF File).
Class Unionism - A Speech Delivered by Eugene V Debs in South Chicago on November 24, 1905; resissued October 1909 -
(PDF File) http://www.iww.org/PDF/history/library/Debs/Debs1.pdf
Revolutionary Unionism - A Speech Delivered by Eugene V Debs in Chicago on November 25, 1905; resissued Sept. 1909 - (PDF File).
Industrial Unionism - A Speech Delivered by Eugene V Debs at Grand Central Palace in New York City on December 10, 1905. - (PDF File).
You Railroad Men - by Eugene V Debs, 1906 - (PDF File).
The Issue - by Eugene V Debs, 1908 - (PDF File).
The Federal Government and the Chicago Strike - by Eugene V Debs, 1910 - (PDF File).
Danger Ahead - by Eugene V Debs, 1911 - (PDF File).

The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilisation. The time has come to regenerate society—we are on the eve of a universal change. -Eugene V. Debs

We Will Sing One Song, lyrics by Joe Hill

We will sing one song of the meek and humble slave,
The horn-handed son of the soil,
He's toiling hard from the cradle to the grave,
But his master reaps the profits from his toil.
Then we'll sing one song of the greedy master class,
They're vagrants in broadcloth, indeed,
They live by robbing the ever-toiling mass,
Human blood they spill to satisfy their greed.

Organize! Oh, toilers, come organize your might;
Then we'll sing one song of the workers' commonwealth,
Full of beauty, full of love and health.

Performed by Six Feet In the Pine

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detroitmechworks's picture

Always seems to be about charging rent on something already created.

One of my biggest complaints about "Libertarian" ideas is the idea that someone MUST innovate/create to make profit. Not true at all, all somebody has to do is stake a claim on something already there, at a low cost, then charge for the privilege of using it. Instant profit, and if someone does create something of value on/from your property, you get to keep THAT too! (Corporate ideals...)

Capitalism is just Feudalism with the illusion of choice.

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

JayRaye's picture

Capitalism is just Feudalism with the illusion of choice.

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Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.-Lucy Parsons