The Glowing Dream: A history of Socialist America

Prologue: Owe My Soul to the Company Store
The Glowing Dream

Part I

In the Gloom of Mighty Cities: The Birth of American Socialism



I dreamed I saw Gene Debs last night, alive as you and me.

Says I, ‘but Gene, you’re ten years dead’. ‘I never died,’ says he.

‘The railway bosses killed you, Gene; they shot you, Gene,’ says I.

‘Takes more than guns to kill a man,’ says Gene, ‘I didn’t die’.”

- ‘Eugene Debs’, by Joe Hill (1907)*

Conceived in Liberty: The Life and Death of the American Republic, 1776 to 1919 by Richard White (Excerpt)
(© 1995, Melbourne University Press)​

George Pullman considered himself a philanthropist. Disturbed by the squalor he saw among the burgeoning industrial classes of the American Republic, the intrepid entrepreneur decided his workers would be a model to the rest, and free from the vice and misery that so afflicted their compatriots.

To this end, Pullman bought acres of land in the south of Chicago, and established here a utopic ‘workers’ city’, in which the men who built his vaunted, luxury ‘Pullman cars’ might dwell, along with their families. As presented to the world, the little settlement was idyllic. It boasted libraries, schools, neat and pleasant housing, recreational centers, and even churches. Clean and orderly, it seemed a bold answer to the ramshackle slums that sprouted up along the edges of America’s great metropoles like so many mushrooms.

Indeed, many came to see Pullman’s little experiment from afar and returned with glowing reports of the company town and its contented, industrious residents.

But to many of the workers who actually dwelt in the place, Pullman city seemed less a patch of heaven on earth than a slave camp, and Pullman himself less a benevolent father than a feudal lord.

For Pullman may have provided his workers with any number of amenities, but he made sure they paid for them. Pullman was a firm believer in the ideals of thrift and self-sufficiency he believed had made the United States great, and demanded his employees live up to them. There would be no mollycoddling on his watch. Workers were expected to pay their (often quite high) rent on time and in exact amount, with little leeway. Company spies infested the town, carrying rumors of discontent or worse, brewing unionization, back to the boss. Indeed, suspicion that one had affiliated to the AFL, or was friendly with those who had, was enough to lose him his home in the town, and his job with the company. Pullman also imposed curfews on his workers, proscribed alcohol and tobacco within town limits, and staunchly refused any ‘hand-outs’ to the workers, in accord with his philosophy of self-help.

The men and women of the Pullman company lived their lives under his auspices—as one worker complained; “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman hell.”

When the great crisis of 1893 hit, and Pullman found his profits tumbling, he wasted little time in slashing wages. Representatives of the workers complained to their boss, who insisted he had had no choice, and that the company was working best as it could to keep on as many workers as possible. He promised there would be no retaliation against those who had organized to present grievances.

However, only days later, several men who had been party to this bargaining committee were fired—Pullman averred their dismissal had nothing to do with their recent activities, but understandably, the workers did not believe him, and days later went out on strike.

The action was immediately brought to the attention of the American Railway Union, a new player on the labor stage, fresh from a well-publicized victory over the Great Northern Railway. The union’s president was forty-nine year old Eugene V. Debs, a grocer’s son and long-time labor organizer.

Strange as it may seem, considering the symbol he was to become, Debs was in fact something of a conservative in the world of labor. Beginning as a member of a railway firemen’s brotherhood, he had been leery about strikes, fearing the violence that often resulted. But by 1894 he was one of the country’s best-known labor leaders, and so it was to him and his union that the Pullman workers appealed.

It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that Eugene Debs was in fact one of the less revolutionary of the many luminaries tied up in the storm of ’94. When the ARU pushed for a boycott of Pullman company cars in response to the petition from the Chicago workers, Debs fought the motion and instead sought an arbitrated settlement, fearing (rightly, as it would turn out) that such large-scale action might spiral into disaster.

Of course, like so many men, Debs soon found that history had gotten away from him, and simply would not wait. Pullman would not negotiate, and the boycott went ahead. So, the strike began, as the first act of the tragedy that would set the course of American history for decades to come.

America ground to a halt. The strike had a knock-on effect, and soon multiplied far beyond Pullman’s factory town, or even the Chicago trainyards. Soon, railway workers, switchmen, firemen, and all the rest, across 27 states were refusing to move Pullman’s cars in solidarity with their Illinois comrades. Meat and produce rotted in the sun as trains sat idle. The country feared what might transpire should this strike continue once the weather turned, and coal was desperately needed.

Pullman stubbornly refused any arbitration or concession. But the greater part of national opprobrium, at least as measured by the vicissitudes of the country’s papers, fell on Debs and his colleagues. He was described as ‘King Debs’ or ‘Dictator Debs’, the man who would deprive and even starve America to satiate the ‘communistic demands’ of a few disgruntled Pullman workers. But to the workers themselves, and indeed, to hundreds of thousands of laborers across the land, he was a hero, a champion who had found the courage to stand up to the great titans of industry in the name of the common man.

The polarization grew ever starker as it became quite clear which side the administration of President Grover Cleveland was on.

Pullman obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court, declaring that the strikers had no right to interfere with the US mail services, regardless of their grievances. It was a wonderful pretext to undermine the cause of the railwaymen as a whole—the strikers attempted to comply with this injunction, allowing mail cars to pass through where others were barred. But the government and the General Managers Association, lined up behind Pullman, eagerly exploited this opening, mixing up mail cars with all the rest, and making it clear that the trains would run in toto or not at all. And if they did not run at all, then the velvet glove would slip off, and out would come the mailed fist.

On 3 July, US Marshal J.W Arnold read out the injunction in the Chicago railyards. Surrounded by hundreds of hooting, cat-calling strikers, Arnold kept his cool and informed them that any further interference with the passage of federal mail would be dealt with ‘severely’.

The response was a shower of bricks and stones from the workers. Arnold was struck in the face and the chest, severely injured, and barely escaped the angry mob with his life. That same day, bandaged and bloodied, he wrote to AG Olney, a long-time friend of the rail lines, and informed him he did not believe that the orders of the court could be enforced by any less than the full force of federal troops.

And so, the next day (4 July), regular soldiers arrived in Chicago from nearby Fort Sheridan.

Their presence merely served to further inflame the sentiments of the strikers, who now felt their own government had clearly come out against them (as, indeed, it had).

The troops camped out on the lakefront, bayonets gleaming menacingly in the summer scene, were regularly hounded by packs of railwaymen, out of work laborers, and young street toughs, who assailed them with jeers and occasionally missiles. It seemed much of the lower quarters of Chicago were now in sympathy with the beleaguered workers, which further unnerved the respectable people of the city, as well as the rail bosses of the GMA and Cleveland himself in his Washington offices. The next several days brought Chicago to a state of near war. Mobs torched train cars, clashed with soldiers, and gathered beneath the windows of those known to sympathize with the ‘bosses’ to chant threats and make demands. By 6 July, thirteen people were dead. The labor movement in Chicago began to speak of a general strike to support the railway workers, now facing down the might of the entire federal government. Such talk spread like wildfire, and soon AFL locals across the country, comprising everyone from timbermen, longshoremen, miners, to stonecutters, pledged their support should the call be put out for such an action.

But now the ARU, and the leaders of organized labor as a whole, began to lose their nerve. Debs himself feared bloodshed, and in private conversation with his brother wondered if this was indeed worth all the tears and sweat.

In an emergency conference held in Chicago’s Briggs House hotel, the AFL’s Samuel Gompers came out forcefully against Debs and against a general strike. After some hours of fierce debate, Debs began to lose ground, and the conclave of some twenty labor leaders drafted a resolution that ““a general strike at this time is inexpedient, unwise, and contrary to the best interests of the working people.” It seemed Gompers would get his way, and (reluctantly, admittedly) hand Pullman the victory.

But then, a frantic telegram burst in on the debating representatives with news—skittish federal troops had, as the delegates debated, again fired on a group of demonstrators near a rail yard just south of the city. This time, it looked as if upwards of twenty were dead. This included, pointedly, several young women and a child of eight years old.

The emotion generated by this new development (which, as it turned out, would have been exaggerated—only six people had died, and the child had survived) was enough to tip the scales in Debs’ favor, and pull the rug out from under Gompers’ feet.

A general strike was called.†
*I got the idea for 'Joe Hill' (or its ATL equivalent) being written instead in honor of a martyred Debs from some old thread I read once, so credit to whoever came up with it back then.
†This is the POD. IOTL, the AFL and ARU came very close to calling for a general strike, but ultimately decided against it (though there is also a slight earlier POD in Marshal Arnold being attacked physically by the strikers; in reality he read out the statement and departed unharmed)
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First Blood
On 9 July, hundreds of thousands of workers all across America downed their tools. This included not only the 300,000 men of the AFL, but scores more sympathizers not officially affiliated with any union.

The specter of revolution stalked America.

Indeed, the New York Times declared, ‘revolution in the air!’, taking leave of its usual sensibility.

Pullman and the General Managers' Association behind which the rail lords of the north were rallied begged President Cleveland to somehow put down this ‘mad insurrection’. Striking was not technically illegal, of course. But this was something new. Never before had the country seen an organized work-stoppage on this scale. Not even during those heady days of ’77.

Panic swept the country, particularly among those men and women of means who feared their heads would be the first on pikes should an American redux of the Paris Commune come to be. "Citizens' Self-Defense Associations" sprang up in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, and of course, Chicago itself. These were militias comprised primarily of middle-class young men, who took up arms and patrolled their neighborhoods and beyond, guarding against what many now called ‘a rising red tide’.

A similar siege mindset soon overtook the workers. Debs himself, watching from his Chicago hotel room window as a mass of workers paraded past, waving fists and American flags and placards denouncing the ‘railway robbers’, was supposed to have sourly quoted Julius Caesar; ‘the die is cast’.

In San Francisco, a militia smashed up a union office and roughly abused its occupants, nearly killing three. In New Orleans a brief shootout between striking longshoremen and police left four workers and one policeman dead. In New York’s lower east side, German, Jewish, and Italian immigrants gathered to hoist red flags and sing ‘the Internationale’ in their myriad tongues, much to the disgust of many old-stock Americans, shaken by the ‘alien agitators’ in their midst. Tensions simmered for a week, but the volcano would not erupt until 21 July.

Again, the nexus of the storm would be Chicago.

Enter John Altgeld, the very peculiar governor of Illinois. A Civil War veteran born to German immigrant farmers, Altgeld was in deep sympathy with the cause of the strikers. Indeed, he had always seen himself and acted as champion of the common man, signing into law restrictions on child labor, struggling to alleviate the deplorable conditions of Chicago's industrial workers, and greatly expanding public education. Only a year before, he had pardoned the men hanged for the Haymarket bombing of 1885, an act that made him simultaneously saint to radicals and devil to conservatives.

The strike so far had left him in a precarious position. He despised Pullman, but feared to officially mobilize any state resources in the strikers' defense, conscious of the contempt in which he was already held by not only the many conservative citizens of his own state, but by the federal government.

But on 21 July, the Attorney General issued another injunction on Cleveland’s express (though of course, unofficial) instruction. This one condemned the ARU and the AFL for ‘conspiracy’, and declared that, while, all men were free to quit their jobs, of course, they had no right to keep replacement workers from taking their places. Any further efforts to do so would be met with force for 'interfering with the natural commercial life of the country'.

Nationally, federal troops were mobilized and called out from their barracks. Soon, the blue coats again marched in the streets of every American metropolis, passing gauntlets of jeers or cheers, depending on the city and the neighborhood.

This was seen as flagrant provocation by the strikers.

In Pittsburgh, a steelworker shot a soldier and was consequently beaten to death by the man’s comrades. In Savannah, a biracial band of dockworkers clashed with a ‘self-defense militia’, leaving seven corpses.

The country descended into a crisis unmatched by any save those terrible months following the election of Abraham Lincoln three decades prior.

Two days later, on 23 July, a mass of Chicago railwaymen, the fathers of the strike, joined by friends, family, as well as hundreds of fellow Chicago workers from every conceivable trade, joined in Haymarket Square to pay tribute to the ‘martyrs’ of ’85.

Altgeld watched the gathering with apprehension. He thought, quite correctly, that this was likely to be used as a pretext by the federal government to reduce Chicago, the ‘wellspring of red rebellion’, once and for all. He considered dispersing the demonstrators by force himself, for their own safety, before the US troops could do it for him.

In the end, and after much painful deliberation, he took a different route, and mobilized state militia to protect the demonstrators. Only hours after these local forces arrived, and after they had fraternized and established friendly relations with the crowd, their federal counterparts marched in from the south of the city and commanded all present to disperse.

The request was politely turned down. A captain of the militia demanded to know on whose authority these citizens of the United States were being denied their constitutional right to free assembly.

Chicagoans unsympathetic to the strike, emboldened by the blue-coated soldiers, gathered up behind the lines, and they and their red flag waving opposite numbers began to trade verbal abuse through the bayonets of their respective protectors.

It is not known, and almost certainly never will be, who fired the first shot, whether an Illinois militiaman, a US soldier, or a private citizen. But it was fired, nonetheless.

What transpired deserves to be called a ‘battle’. It raged for nearly a half hour. There were no lines to speak of. Weapons were fired at random. When the smoke was cleared, at least sixty corpses littered the square. The federal force, which had numbered five hundred, was outnumbered, shaken by the fury of the crowd and forced to retreat. They were harassed all along their march by hurled projectiles and further gunfire. It was not until they left the thick of the city proper and returned to the shore of the lake that they could regather their wits and take stock of the situation.

When he was appraised of what had occurred, Cleveland declared not only Chicago, but the entire state of Illinois (by dint of its governor’s evident sympathies), to be in a state of rebellion.

The people of Chicago, for their part, were both enraged by the slaughter, and fired by their repulsion of an ‘army’. Red flags were run up beneath the stars and stripes on nearly every flagpole in the city.

Samuel Gompers, who feared for his life thanks to the compromising stand he’d taken, fled the city under cover of darkness, along with a number of the more moderate labor leaders.

On the morning of 23 July, a ‘workers’ council’ elected by the bodies of Chicago’s various trade unions gathered in the lobby of the Briggs House hotel, where only weeks before, the motion for a strike had nearly been defeated. Debs chaired the meeting, with the blessing of Governor Altgeld.

The council’s first resolution declared that President Cleveland had ‘flagrantly defiled his noble office, endeavored to strip honest workingmen of their rights and liberties, and compelled American soldiers to fire upon American citizens, in an act of infamy unsurpassed by the worst despots of the far east.’ It was perhaps hyperbolic, but certainly encapsulated the spirit of the moment. The resolution went on to declare that ‘no choice has been left to us but the manful defense of our homes, families, and freedoms, in the great tradition of Washington and Lincoln.’ More crudely, the crowds in the street shouted that the next ‘bluecoat’ to set foot in Chicago would forfeit his life.

The soldiers camped out on the lake’s shore demanded reinforcements and got them. An extra 3,500 federal troops were soon en route to Chicago, under the command of Colonel Sam Young.

Cleveland is supposed to have despaired to Vice President Stevenson; “my God, man! This is revolution!”

All across the country, AFL locals passed resolutions declaring their support for the Chicago 'workers’ council'. Often, their offices were soon after ransacked by unsympathetic mobs, known unionists run out of town or even lynched.

For Eugene Debs’ part, in appearances before the council, or for the regular speeches he was now obliged to give from the balcony of his hotel, he kept up a stalwart manner and declared his confidence in the workers’ struggle.

In private, he was despondent, certain the government would soon crush the ‘rising’, and that the labor movement would be drowned in blood, set back decades, if not utterly destroyed forever.

Indeed, at the moment, Young's 3,500 troops, joined by local volunteers, converged on Chicago by rail line and road, authorized to crush the rebellion by any and all means. The increasingly militant working class of the city threw up barricades in advance, and soon the rail yards and factories were filled with grimy ironworkers and day laborers armed with old sporting pieces, drilling and marching in preparation for a battle they could not win.

Smaller detachments of federal soldiers were dispatched to other ‘centers of insurrection’ around the country, stretching the 40,000-strong US Army to its limits.

New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and parts of New York were considered the hotbeds of ‘anarchic subversion’, and it was these that received the greatest complements of soldiers in turn.

Five companies of US troops arrived on the outskirts of Chicago from the southeast on 27 July, moving to bolster the soldiers driven out of the city in the aftermath of the Haymarket Massacre, which were now crushed against the lake, unable to move thanks to the presence of armed workers’ militias hemming them in on either side.

The federals easily broke through the lines of the workers and rescued their comrades, and the troops, thus united, wheeled west to push into the heart of the city. It was to prove hard going.

Once he'd rallied the 2,000 or so stranded troops to his standard, bringing the total men under his command to some 5,500, Young attempted to force his way into heavily working-class east Chicago. This would prove a bloodier task than anticipated. The soldiers, unaccustomed to urban fighting, were disoriented by the cramped, narrow streets and devastated by the withering gunfire pouring down from every ledge and window along the route. Worse, the rebel workers were joined by several platoons' worth of the Illinois state militia. After the massacre in Haymarket Square, Altgeld had released the militiamen from any oaths of service made, and permitted them to lay down their arms and quit the city if they wished. Most did. But a substantial number, sympathetic to the cause of the strikers, remained. They acted as the backbone to the untrained mass of militant workers, and probably were the critical factor in foiling the advance of the federals' that day. Young was repulsed, with dozens more dead.

This ‘victory’ fired the worker’s council in the Hotel Briggs, which announced that ‘the despot Cleveland’s soldiers are whipped, and the sons of toil victorious’. A giddy motion was passed, which Debs duly, but grimly signed off on, expropriating all property in the city belonging to the Pullman company, and indeed to any firm belonging to the General Manager’s Association. Provisions were made for public schools to be built for all workers’ children and a minimum wage of $7.00 a day was set. How many of the delegates actually believed their council would survive the battle to implement any of these sweeping changes, and how many simply hoped to make a statement that would survive themselves cannot be known. Certainly, Debs remained pessimistic in private, writing out his will and final letters to his wife and children.

Hysteria reigned in the national press. The papers warned of that the country was awash with ‘alien agitators plucked from the sewers and backstreets of Europe’, and that ‘armies of anarchists’ lurked in every major city, waiting for the signal to strike.

The scenes in Chicago did bear a grim resemblance to the violence of 1877, and worse, to the dreaded Paris Commune of 1871.

And it was not just Chicago.
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Long live the revolution! Great update

Thank you! Thanks for reading of course.

sees another socialist America timeline


sees a song mourning Eugene Debs


Every revolution needs its martyrs ; )

I assume this is going to be America's 1905 rather than 1917, there's no way they can win.

More or less--the infobox at the very start gives it away so I suppose I'm not spoiling anything. '94 doesn't end too well for the strikers and their allies.
A North American revolution contemporary to the Russian Revolution is gonna be wild. Frankly I don't see how communism doesn't win by mid-century lol
A North American revolution contemporary to the Russian Revolution is gonna be wild. Frankly I don't see how communism doesn't win by mid-century lol

Well, one of the analogy the characters highlight is the Paris commune. And, well, France is sadly not Red yet. :'(
A North American revolution contemporary to the Russian Revolution is gonna be wild. Frankly I don't see how communism doesn't win by mid-century lol

Ahh, but do the American Communists and Russian Communists end up on the same side? I mean... The Russian Communists and the Chinese Communists couldn't get along for long.

Ahh, but do the American Communists and Russian Communists end up on the same side? I mean... The Russian Communists and the Chinese Communists couldn't get along for long.

I think that problem can be put down to the USSR being the only successful socialist revolution in the post-WW1 era and thus the undisputed leader of the socialist world for a long time. In the case where both Russia and America go socialist at the same time, I think they'd have a far more equal relationship.
I think that problem can be put down to the USSR being the only successful socialist revolution in the post-WW1 era and thus the undisputed leader of the socialist world for a long time. In the case where both Russia and America go socialist at the same time, I think they'd have a far more equal relationship.

In a situation where Russia and the US became socialist at the same time, there would still be differing geopolitical interests, still be ideological differences, and still be an idea that one should be the leader - likely the US because the US is at the time one of the most industrial parts of the world, and thus "ready" for socialism, whereas in the Marxist view Russia is a feudal state still struggling to implement capitalism.

Plus, Marxists have a real talent for getting into deadly serious arguments over what might be considered minor differences.