During the turn of the 20th Century, the United States of America was a great but turbulent empire: internationally powerful, but domestically destitute. Workers in the United States were often subjected to harsh working conditions and pittances for wages, and were controlled by monopolies and corporate interests. Enter Eugene Victor Debs, a former Democrat-turned-Socialist who advocated on behalf of workers for the entirety of his adult life.
His plethora of works employ a histrionic and unifying voice, coursing with rousing belligerence and an unfettered ferric despondency for the layman’s plight hile zealously maintaining stark logic and intimacy that embellish his socialist and salvationist arguments to grant equality to all workers and leverage with their benefactors. Debs usually begins by using unifying language that brings him and his audience into the same bloc, effectively creating a rhetorical rift between his audience and his enemies.
For example, Debs said, “We must stand avowedly, face front, for labor-for the people who produce, who render needed service, and who are useful and necessary to the world” (“The American Labor Party”), as well as “Look here, my good friend, do you now how absolutely impossible a thing it is getting to be in this overcrowded country for even a willing man to work? ” (“The Tramp”).
In both of these instances, he utilizes language that brings him and his audience together and histrionically ennoble them: he massages his audience’s egos, claiming that they are useful and necessary to the world; he sides with their struggles to find and maintain work. By bringing himself as a representative to the workers of the world, he creates a dichotomy between laborers and industrialists that will help back his arguments for the rest of his respective pieces, making he listeners more apt to agree with him.
For example, he calls upon the “Brothers of the American Railway Union” (“Proclamation to the American Railway Union”), bringing in not only unifying language, but language that invokes the association with family and familial ties, a concept that is universal. This familial language helps create a sense of intimacy between Debs and his audience, which further aligns Debs’ audience with his cause. In contrast to all of this rhetorical bonding, he also dehumanizes and further polarizes his audience from the grasp of his enemies.
During the Proclamation to the American Railway Union, Debs called the industrialists, “.. the sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have ‘drenched the earth with blood,’ chuckling over their victories” (“Proclamation to the American Railway Union”). Debs has effectively satanized the industrialists. He calls them out as evil through his characteristic dramatic and belligerent voice. Furthermore, by maligning the Industrialists, he brought his audience-the workers-ever closer to him by widening the dichotomy from merely rich and poor to sacrosanct and satanic.
Debs keeps dehumanizing the ilified industrialists by displaying them as all-powerful and heartless, such as in The Tramp, when he wrote, “… and one man, by the exercise of the power born of consolidated wealth, remands men, at his will, to idleness and to all the woes which idleness inflicts” (“The Tramp”). By doing this, Debs creates fear of the Industrialists beyond merely a Satanic effigy. In the previous quote, he made the Industrialists seem awful, but only in this comparison in The Tramp does he delegate to them powers-powers which are terrifying for a small, uncontrollable, and elite class to have.
He uses his theatrical and somewhat despondent tone to not only alienate the elite, but also breed contempt for them and their policies. Furthermore, Debs also uses logical and practical situations to highlight the unfairness that favored the wealthy, such as in The Gunmen and the Miners when he outlines the unfair legal precedence moguls get in obliterating their own workers: The Rockefellers have not one particle more lawful right to maintain a private army to murder you union men than you union men would have to maintain a private army to murder the Rockefellers.
And yet the law does ot interfere with the Rockefellers when they set up government by gunmen, and have their private army of mankillers swoop down on a mining camp, turn loose their machine guns, kill without mercy… (“The Gunmen and the Miners”). By using this comparison, Debs lunges at one of the truly unique American values: equality under the law– something so important and fundamental to America that it was outlined in the Constitution.
In regards to this fundamental right, Debs explicitly talks about the unfairness, which implicitly suggests change needs to occur in order for the people of the orld to be more equal and prevent the sale of justice, to help ensure equality among men and the raising of the proletariat class. Debs also heavily uses historical allusions. One such example is in the Eight-Hour Workday, when he wrote about “the emancipation from wage slavery,” making historical reference to debtors prisons in Colonial America–an archaic relic of oppression–and the then-current problem of sharecropping, which was little better than legal and overt slavery.
In doing this, Debs sets a precedent that this struggle was longer and more ervasive than just the work place: he insinuated that Americans workers would fighting for their own revolution-given rights. This idea of social change was especially prominent given the particular time period of the speech-the Progressive era- which would enable Debs to push to change as society already began its upheaval of its norms, such as Prohibition.
He takes it even further, invoking the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii (“The Tramp”) and “Bartholdi’s Goddess of Liberty with her torch enlightening the world [that] has succumbed to the avages of time,” (“Proclamation to American Railway Union”)– the Statue of Liberty. Debs uses these allusions to align his cause with powerful occurrences and events that, in contrast to some previous passages, are seen as nearly sacrosanct; he invokes a spiritual and ethereal ethos that places him and his movement for equality on a higher plane than his corporate contemporaries, giving him not only an ideological but also a mythological superiority.
Debs uses many militaristic metaphors, with a distinct incendiary tone about them. For example, in The Tramp, Debs tates, “[Organization] is the one force that antagonizes the tramp policy of the Generals of Industry–the commanders of workingmen”. In stating this, Debs compares his movement to an army, giving it prestige, importance, and ultimately helps him further his polarization of proletariat and elite. Saying this helps Debs justify his movement.
He even goes as far as to call men to arms, such as when Debs said, “… every district should purchase and equip and man enough Gatling and machine guns to match the equipment of Rockefeller’s private army of assassins” (“The Gunmen and the Miners”). When he says this, he calls the people to action, and assigns the audience a purpose; he creates a specific task for the audience that gives them direct involvement in the Union and democratic-socialist movements.
Debs also compares the American Railway Union’s men to the Spartans (“Proclamation To American Railway Union”). In this particular metaphor, he romances his movement with the Spartans–fighters known for their ferocity, bravery, and who are universally revered, echoing some of Debs’ other sentiments on leaving a great legacy of this liberating social movement and ropelling society forward. As history now shows, Debs indeed did.
He played a paramount role in humanizing workers, giving them basic rights, and shortening the workday. Debs’ incendiary, ferrously bellicose, and smoothly logical voice helped create and proliferate many of the democratic-socialist movements that the United States would follow for the next century to come. His fight for the common working man scythed against the grain that had been so brutally suppressed at a time where his rhetoric was preferred unheard, his policies judged unprofitable, and his compassion deemed naive.