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Comparison of Orestes Brownson and Eugene Debs Socialistic Ideas Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 11th, 2019


Socialistic ideas have been popular in many parts of the world since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The USA could not be an exception and these ideas acquired strong support in the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Orestes Brownson and Eugene Debs are regarded as some of the major promulgators of socialistic ideas in the USA.

Both thinkers strived for better life of Americans and tried to make people believe that it was possible. However, the two socialists had rather different approaches to the matter.

Thus, Debbs relied on the theory of social contract and acted in terms of this approach, whereas Brownson was against the idea of the social contract as he longed for the society where Christian morals reigned and where no social or political despotism existed. It is necessary to note that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, but Deb’s ideas seem more applicable to the contemporary life.

Similarities between the Two Approaches

To begin with, it is necessary to comment upon the similarities between the ideas of the two philosophers. Admittedly, both thinkers promulgated socialistic ideas as they unveiled vices of the American society of those days. For instance, Debs stressed that the disproportionate distribution of wealth and products is supported by the ruling elite (Dubofsky, 2011).

Likewise, Brownson argued that political elites often violated common moral values and brought some individualistic values to the fore (Herrera, 2001). Both thinkers promulgated ideas of justice and the common good.

It is also important to note that Brownson and Debs were devoted to their ideas and believed the society they longed for could be created. This devotion can be regarded as one of the major similarities between the two thinkers who knew their approaches were applicable. Both thinkers had many followers who shared the same standpoints.

It is also noteworthy that the two philosophers tried to encourage people to unite. For instance, Debs claimed that each person (or rather worker) would become “a larger man” and would begin “to feel like a collective son of toil” (Debs, 2009, p. 405).

Brownson also wanted people to unite and achieve a true equality. In this respect, it is possible to focus on the thinker’s view on the slavery. Brownson (2009, p. 405) stressed that slavery was the “deadliest curse” and “the foulest stain”. Therefore, the two thinkers strived for equality in the democratic society.

Differences between the Two Approaches

Orestes Brownson lived in the times of the great turmoil of the Civil War. He lived in the period when the American society was torn into two camps. The North was highly individualistic while the South was governed by the ideas of authority and strict rule (Moffit, 1978).

Brownson became a devout Catholic and he acknowledged that Christianity could become the necessary ground for the development of a moral society governed by universal laws. The philosopher wished to generate “a “theoretical basis for organic, communal, traditional, and objective reality against the “me first” culture” (McDermott, 2009, p. 261).

Brownson did not divide the American society into classes as he only saw division in the outlooks. The thinker wanted to make all Americans (both Southerners and Northerners) accept the idea of the rule of Christian values and authority of the church.

In contrast to Brownson, Debs saw the American society as the one torn into two major classes, workers and capitalists. Notably, Brownson also touched upon the issues related to the relations between capitalists and workers. However, Debs concentrated on this very issue and stood up to the capitalistic rule in the USA.

He focused on the injustice in the society where workers who produced products had to endure lots of constraints. Debs got his inspiration from Marx’s works and tried to unveil the corrupted nature of relations where workers used tools which belonged to capitalists who took over almost every sphere of workers lives.

Apart from the different vectors of the philosophers’ attention, Brownson and Debs employed different approaches. Obviously, Debs resorted to the theory of social contract when he developed his ways to achieve equality. Debs did not mind fighting for quite individualistic ideas until they ensured equality in the society. He believed capitalists and workers could come to a reasonable agreement (Constantine, 1991).

Brownson, on the contrary, opposed this approach as he did not think different groups could come up with any just social or political contract (Moffit, 1978). Brownson tried to persuade people to resort to the authority of the church. The thinker articulated the ideas of common effort to accept the authority to create a rightful and moral society.

Evaluation of the Two Approaches

As has been mentioned above, the two approaches have certain merits and downsides. Living in the present-day society, people cannot but evaluate any approach from the contemporary perspective, i.e. basing on certain values which exist in the modern world. In this respect, only one of the approaches (with certain revision) can be applicable in the contemporary society, which makes it more up-to-date.

One of the strengths of Brownson’s theory is that he wanted people to cherish Christian values and develop a rightful society with no vices. Admittedly, any society needs to base on strong moral laws. At the same time, one of the most serious demerits of Brownson’s ideas is that they are somewhat theoretical as people can accept the rule of the church only in theory. Brownson claims that people should focus on the idea of the common good.

However, the thinker does not provide a particular strategy to follow. Admittedly, people are still religious and try to follow the moral laws, but people are unlikely to put aside the social and political agreements achieved. It is also rather difficult to bring Brownson’s theories to life as they are quite general.

On the contrary, Debs’s approach is characterized by the focus on the theory of the social contract. The contemporary society is also based on the principles of the contract. Moreover, Debs articulates specific ways to achieve the contract between different groups. It is possible to state that his ideas were too revolutionary for the time he lived in and this is why he was pursued and put in prison several times (Zinn, 1999).

Nowadays, quite many countries have proved that the contract is possible and, what is more, the agreement between different groups can be effective. Debs (2009) noted that the class of workers had to acknowledge the realms of the society and the position of workers within it.

This particular position can be seen as one of the strengths of the approach. Notably, workers in the United States have used this approach and have achieved a lot. Workers understood the role they played and they also managed to use effective strategies to make capitalists come to reasonable agreements.

Nevertheless, Debs’ approach also has certain downsides. Apart from being too worker-oriented, so-to-speak, Debs often lacked flexibility. Thus, he did not expand his ideas to fit larger contexts. Even though socialism is historically more concerned with relations between the capitalists and workers, it embraces other aspects of the human society.

However, Debs concentrated on benefits for workers and tended to ignore laws of economic development. The thinker did not provide particular strategies to develop economy and create a society where equality is a norm. He tended to emphasize inequality between the two classes. Therefore, this approach can hardly be applicable in the contemporary society as it is, but needs certain revision.


On balance, it is necessary to note that Brownson and Debs fought for social equality within the American society. Both thinkers strived for equal distribution of wealth, but they had different approaches. Thus, Brownson promulgated ideas of a Christian society where moral laws reign.

The philosopher believed that people could not rely on a social or political agreement, but had to accept the authority of the church which could guide them. Debs exploited the theory of the social contract and articulated ideas of a social agreement which could be achieved when workers acknowledged their roles and their own power.

The two approaches also have their strengths and weaknesses. Evaluation of the two approaches suggests that Debs’ ideas are more applicable in the contemporary society as they are more specific and can be regarded as certain basis of the present-day values.

Reference List

Brownson, O. (2009). The laboring classes. In K.M. Dolbeare & M.S. Cummings (Eds.), American political thought (pp. 207-214). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Constantine, J. (1991). Eugene V. Debs: An American paradox. Monthly Labor Review, 114(8), 30-33.

Debs, E.V. (2009). Revolutionary unionism. In K.M. Dolbeare & M.S. Cummings (Eds.), American political thought (pp. 399-405). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Dubofsky, M. (2011). Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent. Journal Of American History, 97(4), 1146-1147.

Herrera, R. A. (2001). Orestes Brownson’s vision of America. Modern Age, 43(2), 133-145.

McDermott, S. (2009). Orestes Brownson and the contract of government. Catholic Social Science Review, 14, 245-269.

Moffit, R. (1978). Orestes Brownson and the political culture of American democracy. Modern Age, 22(3), 265-277.

Zinn, H. (1999). Eugene V. Debs and the idea of socialism. Progressive, 63(1), 16.

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