The Debs Cooperative Commonwealth

Ray Stannard Baker

The Outlook/July 3, 1897

On June 17 the American Railway Union, perhaps the most powerful organization of labor ever formed, went quietly out of existence. Its chief claim to public notice rested on the great railroad strike of 1894, in which a million dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, scores of lives were lost, and thousands of men were kept idle for months.

The American Railway Union was dissolved because Eugene V. Debs, who was its vital spark, came to the conclusion that strikes could not succeed.

“Labor unions cannot be maintained,” he declared in a recent speech, “without strikes. Strikes involve a resort to force. Corporate power has learned to meet force with force, and, with the leverage of unlimited means and the ability to invoke the aid of the law, the workmen can never win.”

For this reason Mr. Debs, since the disastrous close of the great strike, with its train of legal processes and imprisonments, has been formulating other plans for industrial regeneration. The result is the “Social Democracy of America”—a co-operative commonwealth.

Mr. Debs laid his plans before the final session of the American Railway Union, and they were adopted almost without opposition, the officers and many of the members of the old organization furnishing the foundation for the new. The Social Democracy starts out, therefore, with a directory closely in sympathy with industrial advancement and thoroughly skilled in the organization of laboring men. Its President is Mr. Debs, its Vice-President is James Hogan, and its Secretary and Treasurer is Sylvester Keliher, all of whom were officers in the American Railway Union.

The Social Democracy is distinctly socialistic. Its objects and purposes are set forth briefly in the following “demands for immediate relief” adopted at an early meeting of the organization:


  1. The public ownership of all industries controlled by monopolies, trusts, and combines.
  2. The public ownership of all railroads, telegraphs, telephones, all means of transportation, communication, water-works, gas, electric plants, and all other utilities.
  3. The public ownership of all gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, and all other mines; also all oil and gas wells.
  4. Reduction of the hours of labor in proportion to the progress of production.
  5. The undertaking of public works and improvements for the employment of the unemployed, |the public credit to be utilized for that purpose.
  6. All useful inventions to be free to all, the inventor to be remunerated by the public.
  7. The establishment of postal savings banks.
  8. The adoption of the initiative and the referendum, the imperative mandate, and proportional representation.


The platform of the commonwealth declares that the “producer is separated from his product,” that the fruits of his labor are “appropriated by the owners of the means of production,” and that this system is “gradually extinguishing the middle class” and leaving only the “great class of workers and the small class of great employers and capitalists.” To this fact the declaration traces the existence of a class “that corrupts the government, alienates public property, public franchises, and public functions, and holds the mightiest of nations in abject dependence.”

“We therefore call upon all citizens,” says the declaration, “to unite under the banner of the Social Democracy of America, so that we may be able to conquer capitalism by making use of our political liberty, and by taking possession of the public power so that we may put an end to the present barbarous struggle by the abolition of capitalism, by the restoration of land, and of all the means of production, transportation, and distribution, to the people of the collective body, and the substitution of the co-operative commonwealth for the present state of planless production, industrial war, and social disorder; a commonwealth which, although it will not make all men equal physically or mentally, will give to every worker the free exercise and full benefit of his faculties, multiplied by all the modern factors of civilization, and ultimately inaugurate the universal brotherhood of man.”

Mr. Debs’s plan for accomplishing these objects is, in brief, to found a co-operative colony in one of the newer states of the Union, and to obtain, as soon as possible, full political control of the government machinery. This accomplished in one state, Mr. Debs is sanguine that the commonwealth idea will rapidly spread. A committee of three members of the organization will soon visit Washington state, Utah, and Texas in the hope of finding a suitable location for the colony. It is understood that the governor of Washington has invited the Commonwealth to make its home in that state. As soon as the means are in hand—and Mr. Debs feels confident of having plenty of money before fall—a small colony of picked men will be sent out to begin the farming operations for the colony, A few carpenters will accompany them to build temporary shelters. With the growth of the colony and the erection of comfortable homes, other artisans will be sent out: shoemakers to provide the colony shoes, tailors to dress the workers, and merchants to keep the colony stores. Whether or not the first colony will march to its new home after the manner of Coxey’s army Mr. Debs has not yet decided, but he rather inclines to this mode of emigration.

“It will weed out all the lazy and worthless ones,” he says.

At present the commonwealth is busy perfecting its organization. Central headquarters will be located in Chicago; and local branches, limited to a membership of 500 men each, will be established throughout the country. These branches will be united in state unions, each of which will be entitled to send delegates to the national body. A board of directors will have power to enact all laws governing the commonwealth, and to provide for their enforcement.

As yet the support of the commonwealth is mostly on paper. Mr. Debs is receiving daily four or five hundred letters expressing sympathy in the work, and offering either to join the colony or to help it financially. Some of these letters contain enclosures of small amounts of money. Outside of these inconsequential subscriptions, Mr. Debs has had no assurances of financial help. He will rely, in any event, on the dues and assessments collected from branch organizations, from which he expects to get at least $25,000 a month. This would seem a gross overestimate if Mr. Debs’s genius as an organizer had not been tested in the past. Indeed, Secretary Keliher announced 249 applications for charters from towns outside of Chicago before the central body was three days old. A paper to be known as the “Social Democrat” will be published monthly, beginning July 1. It will be devoted entirely to the advancement of the commonwealth idea. More than twenty socialistic societies and labor organizations of Chicago already have expressed sympathy with the new commonwealth, and recently sent delegates to its meetings.

Recent assertions have been made that Edward Bellamy, Henry D. Lloyd, the Rev. Myron Reed, of Denver, and other well-known men are personally interested in the scheme, but I was unable to find that they had even given Mr. Debs the benefit of their sympathy. Ex-Governor Waite, of Colorado, is lending his counsel and assistance, and Mr. Debs asserts that other prominent men, whose names he is not yet at liberty to make known, have espoused the cause.

The Social Democracy is Mr. Debs, and Mr. Debs is the Social Democracy. He has launched his commonwealth, and there is no doubt that he could secure from Chicago alone an army of hundreds of men who would willingly follow him three thousand miles across the continent, if he was ready to start to-morrow. This power of leadership is Mr. Debs’s genius, the element in the commonwealth idea that gains for it serious consideration where Coxey and his army found only ridicule. And yet Mr. Debs and Mr. Coxey have much in common, although their plans for ameliorating the condition of the worker are different. They are both men of small training in the foundations of education, although of naturally vigorous and inventive minds. They have both read deeply, albeit one-sidedly, and, having elaborated a system of reform, they both have the genius for setting it in motion.

As a young man Mr. Debs was a fireman. He took a prominent part in the organization of labor unions, and became grand secretary and treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a position which he filled for thirteen years. During his administration his organization went through the prolonged struggle of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy strike. Mr. Debs served one term in the Indiana Legislature and two terms as city clerk of his native town of Terre Haute. On June 20, 1893, the American Railway Union was organized.

Mr. Debs, who has reached the age of forty-one years, is a tall, spare man, with a doming forehead and blue eyes. He wears always an air of gentleness, almost embarrassment, but everything he says is intensely earnest. After speaking to an audience of workingmen he goes away with their complete confidence, a confidence which can be inspired only by a born leader of men. Besides being highly imaginative and enthusiastic, Mr. Debs has the more practical quality of being able to do an enormous amount of hard work. These are some of the things which must be taken into consideration when discussing his plans. The firm and unshakable belief of the members of the new commonwealth that the proposed colony will be a success is only an echo of their absolute confidence in Mr. Debs and in his power as a leader and organizer.


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