THE history of American radicalism is to most Americans largely a forgotten and obscure history. It becomes a collection of vignettes-- lonely men talking earnestly in small groups, passionate men pleading with curious and indifferent crowds, courageous men defeated by power or by apathy. When radicalism becomes respectable, when it acquires the apparatus which guarantees an ordered legacy for the historian, then it probably ceases to be truly radical. Eugene V. Debs was keenly aware of the corruption of respectability. He took his chance with history rather than with the historian.
His career was a career of dedication to unpopularity. He rejected success in the terms of his age--success as a respectable labor leader or as a complaisant politician: be declared war on his own age in the name, as be conceived it, of the next. Yet be carried on this fight in a spirit so authentically American--so recognizably in the American democratic tradition--that under his leadership the Socialist movement in this country reached its height. The result of this mixture of qualities--the robust Socialism, the indisputable Americanism, the dedication without compromise--has been to give Debs the somewhat shadowy role he now occupies on the periphery of our history. His friends achieved a sentimental hagiography about him which can strike a later generation only as naïve hero worship. His enemies, unable to exclude Debs from American history, took advantage of the broad and heart-warming Hoosier strain in him. They have sought to disarm Debs by turning him into a folksy character out of the American past.
Eugene Victor Debs was born in a plain wooden shack in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. His parents, who had come to the United States from Alsace in 1849, were frugal, hard-working people. Of ten children, six-Eugene, his devoted brother Theodore, and four sisters--reached adult age. The family group was an exceptionally happy one. It not only gave Debs the capacity for simple human tenderness, which played so large a role in his life, but awakened in him a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. Victor Hugo was prominent in the family library: and Les Misérables had a marked impact on Debs' emotions as well as (less fortunately) on his rhetoric.
Schooling stopped for Debs at 14, and be went to work for a