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Eugene Victor Debs was born in in Terre Haute, Indiana, on 5th November, 1855. His parents, Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Bettrich Debs, both immigrated to the United States from Colmar, in the Alsace region of France.
Debs left school at the age of 14 and found work as a painter in a railroad yards. He became a railroad fireman in 1870 and soon afterwards became active in the trade union movement. Debs worked as editor of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine, before being elected national secretary of Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman in 1880. Debs, a member of the Democratic Party, was elected to the Indiana Legislature in 1884.
In 1893 Debs was elected the first president of the American Railway Union (ARU). In 1894 George Pullman, the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, decided to reduced the wages of his workers. When the company refused arbitration, the ARU called a strike. Starting in Chicago it spread to 27 states. John Swinton, a journalist working for the New York Times, argued that as an orator, Debs was comparable to Abraham Lincoln: "It seemed to me that both men were imbued with the same spirit. Both seemed to me as men of judgment, reason, earnestness and power. Both seemed to me as men of free, high, genuine and generous manhood. I took to Lincoln in my early life, as I took to Debs a third of a century later."
The attorney-general, Richard Olney, sought an injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against the Pullman Strike. As a result, of Olney's action, Eugene Debs was arrested and despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, was imprisoned. The case came before the Supreme Court in 1895. David Brewer spoke for the court on 27th May, explaining why he refused the American Railway Union's appeal. This decision was a great set-back for the trade union movement.
While serving his time in Woodstock Prison he read the works of Karl Marx. By the time he left prison in 1895 Debs became a socialist and believed that capitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system. Although he advocated radical reform, Debs was opposed to the revolutionary violence supported by some left-wing political groups.
In 1897 Debs joined with Victor Berger and Ella Reeve Bloor to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Other members included Carl Sandburg, Frederic Heath, Margaret Haile, Job Harriman, Max S. Hayes, Algernon Lee, William Mailly and Seymour Stedman. The following year two members of the party were elected to the Massachusetts legislature.
Debs was the SDP's candidate in 1900 Presidential Election but received only 87,945 votes (0.6) compared to William McKinley (7,228,864) and William Jennings Bryan (6,370,932). The following year the SDP merged with Socialist Labor Party to form Socialist Party of America. Leading figures in this party included Debs, Victor Berger, Ella Reeve Bloor, Emil Seidel, Daniel De Leon, Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, William Z. Foster, Abraham Cahan, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, Walter Reuther, Bill Haywood, Margaret Sanger, Florence Kelley, Rose Pastor Stokes, Mary White Ovington, Helen Keller, Inez Milholland, Floyd Dell, William Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, Upton Sinclair, Agnes Smedley, Victor Berger, Robert Hunter, George Herron, Kate Richards O'Hare, Helen Keller, Claude McKay, Sinclair Lewis, Daniel Hoan, Frank Zeidler, Max Eastman, Bayard Rustin, James Larkin, William Walling and Jack London.
Debs was a regular contributor to Appeal to Reason, a journal edited byJulius Wayland and Fred Warren. Warren was a well-known figure on the left and managed to persuade some of America's leading progressives to contribute to the journal. This included Jack London, Mary 'Mother' Jones, Upton Sinclair, Kate Richards O'Hare, Scott Nearing, Joe Haaglund Hill, Ralph Chaplin, Stephen Crane and Helen Keller and Eugene Debs. By 1902 its circulation reached 150,000, making it the fourth highest of any weekly in the United States.
In the 1904 Presidential Election Eugene Debs was the Socialist Party of America candidate. His running-mate was Benjamin Hanford. Debs finished third to Theodore Roosevelt with 402,810 votes. This was an impressive performance and in the 1908 Presidential Election he managed to increase his vote to 420,793.
During this period Debs led the campaign for the release of William Haywood and Charles Moyer: "There have been twenty years of revolutionary education, agitation, and organization since the Haymarket tragedy, and if an attempt is made to repeat it, there will be a revolution and I will do all in my power to precipitate it. If they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood, and their brothers, a million revolutionists at least will meet them with guns."
Between 1901 and 1912 membership of the Socialist Party of America grew from 13,000 to 118,000 and its journal Appeal to Reason was selling 500,000 copies a week. This provided a great platform for Debs and his running-mate, Emil Seidel, in the 1912 Presidential Election. During the campaign Debs explained why people should vote for him: "You must either vote for or against your own material interests as a wealth producer; there is no political purgatory in this nation of ours, despite the desperate efforts of so-called Progressive capitalists politicians to establish one. Socialism alone represents the material heaven of plenty for those who toil and the Socialist Party alone offers the political means for attaining that heaven of economic plenty which the toil of the workers of the world provides in unceasing and measureless flow. Capitalism represents the material hell of want and pinching poverty of degradation and prostitution for those who toil and in which you now exist, and each and every political party, other than the Socialist Party, stands for the perpetuation of the economic hell of capitalism. For the first time in all history you who toil possess the power to peacefully better your own condition. The little slip of paper which you hold in your hand on election day is more potent than all the armies of all the kings of earth."
Debs and Seidel won 901,551 votes (6.0%). This was the most impressive showing of any socialist candidate in the history of the United States. In some states the vote was much higher: Oklahoma (16.6), Nevada (16.5), Montana (13.6), Washington (12.9), California (12.2) and Idaho (11.5).
Debs had developed a very strong following in America. The journalist, Max Eastman, wrote: "Debs was a poet, and more gifted of poetry in private speech than in public oratory. He was the sweetest strong man I ever saw. There is both fighting and love in American socialism, and Debs knew how to fight. But that was not his genius. His genius was for love, the ancient real love, the miracle love that really identifies itself with the needs and wishes of others. That gave him more power than was possessed by many who were better versed in the subtleties of politics and oratory."
Debs and the Socialist Party were strong opponents of the First World War. He argued that the conflict had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. In an article in September 1915 he wrote: "I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war."
Between 1914 and 1917 Debs made several speeches explaining why he believed the United States should not join the war. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, several party members were arrested for violating the Espionage Act. After making a speech in Canton, Ohio, on 16th June, 1918, criticizing the legislation, Debs was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary.
The journalist, Heywood Broun, later commented: "I imagine that now it would be difficult to find many to defend the jailing of Debs. But at the time of the trial he received little support outside the radical ranks. The problem involved was not simple. I hated the thing they did to Debs even at the time, and I was not then a pacifist... Free speech is about as good a cause as the world has ever known. But, like the poor, it is always with us and gets shoved aside in favor of things which seem at some given moment more vital. They never are more vital. Not when you look back at them from a distance. When the necessity of free speech is most important we shut it off. Everybody favors free speech in the slack moments when no axes are being ground."
Debs was still in prison when he was the Socialist Party candidate in the 1920 Presidential Election. His program included proposals for improved labour conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of people who could vote in elections. With his running-mate, Seymour Stedman, they received 919,799 votes.
Lincoln Steffens was one of his visitors: "Debs was a happy man in prison. He loved everybody there, and everybody loved him - warden, guards, and convicts. Debs wanted to hear all about the Russian Revolution, the outrages of which he had denounced. It was not socialist, he pleaded, just as Emma Goldman declared it was not an anarchist revolution. Like so many reds who rejected Bolshevism, Debs the socialist could not abide the violence, bloodshed and tyranny."
Steffens was one of those people who campaigned for Debs to be released. In 1921 he had a meeting with Warren G. Harding: "After he had been in office awhile I went to him with a similar proposition, and to be sure of my ground, I sounded first a small number of governors to see if they would join in a general act of clemency for war and labor prisoners. Right away I got the reaction familiar to me: the politician governors would pardon their prisoners if the president would pardon his; the better men, the good, business governors, were most unwilling."
President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs in December, 1921. Critical of the dictatorial policies of the Soviet Union, Debs refused to ally himself with the American Communist Party. Scott Molloy has pointed out: "Debs was in his twilight years now and the promise of social victory so alive a generation earlier had given way to despondency and defeat."
Eugene Victor Debs died in Elmhurst on 20th October, 1926. Heywood Broun wrote in the New York World: "Eugene Debs was a beloved figure and a tragic one. All his life he led lost causes. He captured the intense loyalty of a small section of our people, but I think that he affected the general thought of his time to a slight degree. Very few recognized him for what he was. It became the habit to speak of him as a man molded after the manner of Lenin or Trotsky. And that was a grotesque misconception... Though not a Christian by any precise standard, Debs was the Christian-Socialist type. That, I'm afraid, is outmoded. He did feel that wrongs could be righted by touching the compassion of the world. Perhaps they can. It has not happened yet.... The Debs idea will not die. To be sure, it was not his first at all. He carried on an older tradition. It will come to pass. There can be a brotherhood of man."
The machine became more perfect day by day; is lowered the wage of the worker, and in due course of time it became so perfect that it could be operated by unskilled labor of the woman, and she became a factor in industry. The owners of these machines were in competition with each other for trade in the market; it was war; cheaper and cheaper production was demanded, and cheaper labor was demanded.
In the march of time it became necessary to withdraw the children from school, and these machines came to be operated by the deft touch of the fingers of the child. In the first stage, machine was in competition with man; in the next, man in competition with both, and in the next, the child in competition with the whole combination.
Today there is more than three million women engaged in industrial pursuits in the United States, and more than two million children. It is not a question of white labor or black labor, or male labor or female or child labor, in this system; it is solely a question of cheap labor, without reference to the effect upon mankind.
It seemed to me that both men were imbued with the same spirit. I took to Lincoln in my early life, as I took to Debs a third of a century later.
There have been twenty years of revolutionary education, agitation, and organization since the Haymarket tragedy, and if an attempt is made to repeat it, there will be a revolution and I will do all in my power to precipitate it. If they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood, and their brothers, a million revolutionists at least will meet them with guns.
Ferdinand Lassalle, the brilliant social revolutionist, once said that the war against capitalism was not a rose water affair. It is rather of the storm and tempest order. All kinds of attacks must be expected, and all kinds of wounds will be inflicted. You will be assailed within and without, spat upon by the very ones that you are doing your best to serve, and at certain crucial moments find yourself isolated, absolutely alone as if to compel surrender, but in those moments, if you have the nerve, you become supreme.
You must either vote for or against your own material interests as a wealth producer; there is no political purgatory in this nation of ours, despite the desperate efforts of so-called Progressive capitalists politicians to establish one. socialism alone represents the material heaven of plenty for those who toil and the Socialist Party alone offers the political means for attaining that heaven of economic plenty which the toil of the workers of the world provides in unceasing and measureless flow.
Capitalism represents the material hell of want and pinching poverty of degradation and prostitution for those who toil and in which you now exist, and each and every political party, other than the Socialist Party, stands for the perpetuation of the economic hell of capitalism.
For the first time in all history you who toil possess the power to peacefully better your own condition. The little slip of paper which you hold in your hand on election day is more potent than all the armies of all the kings of earth.
I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.
Capitalists wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question there can be no compromise and no misunderstanding as to my position. I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a gang of pot-bellied parasites.
I am opposed to every war but one; I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.
There is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of war.
The other day they sentenced Kate Richards O'Hare to the penitentiary for five years. Think of sentencing a woman to the penitentiary simply for talking. The United States, under plutocratic rule, is the only country that would send a woman to prison for five years for exercising the right of free speech. If this be treason, let them make the most of it.
Let me review a bit of history in connection with this case. I have known Kate Richards O'Hare intimately for twenty years. I am familiar with her public record. Personally I know her as if she were my own sister. All who know Mrs. O'Hare know her to be a woman of unquestioned integrity. And they also know that she is a woman of unimpeachable loyalty to the Socialist movement. When she went out into North Dakota to make her speech, followed by plain-clothes men in the service of the government intent upon effecting her arrest and securing her prosecution and conviction - when she went out there, it was with the full knowledge on her part that sooner or later these detectives would accomplish their purpose. She made her speech, and that speech was deliberately misrepresented for the purpose of securing her conviction. The only testimony against her was that of a hired witness. And when the farmers, the men and women who were in the audience she addressed - when they went to Bismarck where the trial was held to testify in her favor, to swear that she had not used the language she was charged with having used, the judge refused to allow them to go upon the stand. This would seem incredible to me if I had not had some experience of my own with federal courts.
Rose Pastor Stokes! And when I mention her name I take off my hat. Here we have another heroic and inspiring comrade. She had her millions of dollars at command. Did her wealth restrain her an instant? On the contrary her supreme devotion to the cause outweighed all considerations of a financial or social nature. She went out boldly to plead the cause of the working class and they rewarded her high courage with a ten years' sentence to the penitentiary. Think of it! Ten years! What atrocious crime had she committed? What frightful things had she said? Let me answer candidly. She said nothing more than I have said here this afternoon. I want to admit - I want to admit without reservation that if Rose Pastor Stokes is guilty of crime, so am I. If she is guilty for the brave part she has taken in this testing time of human souls I would not be cowardly enough to plead my innocence. And if she ought to be sent to the penitentiary for ten years, so ought I without a doubt.
What did Rose Pastor Stokes say? Why, she said that a government could not at the same time serve both the profiteers and the victims of the profiteers. Is it not true? Certainly it is and no one can successfully dispute it. Roosevelt said a thousand times more in the very same paper, the Kansas City Star. Roosevelt said vauntingly the other day that he would be heard even if he went to jail. He knows very well that he is taking no risk of going to jail. He is shrewdly laying his wires for the Republican nomination in 1920 and he is an adept in making the appeal of the demagogue.
Rose Pastor Stokes never uttered a word she did not have a legal, constitutional right to utter. But her message to the people, the message that stirred their thoughts and opened their eyes - that must be suppressed; her voice must be silenced. And so she was promptly subjected to a mock trial and sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years. Her conviction was a foregone conclusion. The trial of a Socialist in a capitalist court is at best a farcical affair. What ghost of a chance had she in a court with a packed jury and a corporation tool on the bench? Not the least in the world. And so she goes to the penitentiary for ten years if they carry out their brutal and disgraceful graceful program. For my part I do not think they will. In fact I feel sure they will not. If the war were over tomorrow the prison doors would open to our people. They simply mean to silence the voice of protest during the war.
In a visit full of dramatic incidents, Kate Richards O'Hare visited Eugene V. Debs in the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta on 2nd July, to carry to him the love of Socialists everywhere.
Kate O'Hare was ushered into the prison; the two comrades met and embraced; Kate Richards O'Hare recently freed from the Federal prison and Eugene V. Debs in prison garb with nine years of prison life before him, with both his hands still upon her shoulders, said, "How happy I am to see you free, Kate."
"Your coming here is like a new sunlight to me. Tell me about your prison experiences," said Debs. She answered, "Gene, I am not thinking of myself, but of little Mollie Steimer who now occupies my cell at Jefferson City and of her appalling sentence of fifteen years. She is a nineteen-year-old little girl, smaller in stature than my Kathleen, whose sole crime is her love for the oppressed.
Then Kate opened her leather card-case and showed Debs her family group picture which she had carried with her during the fourteen months of prison life. The sight of that picture had afforded her much consolation through the hours of dreaded prison silence and monotony.
Debs was a poet, and more gifted of poetry in private speech than in public oratory. That gave him more power than was possessed by many who were better versed in the subtleties of politics and oratory.
President Wilson received and read on his boat our amnesty memorandum, but he rejected the idea of it sharply, totally. He was in a fighting, acting mood, bitter and executive. And the American people were not ready for anything like peace. It looked better when Harding was president. After he had been in office awhile I went to him with a similar proposition, and to be sure of my ground, I sounded first a small number of governors to see if they would join in a general act of clemency for war and labor prisoners. Right away I got the reaction familiar to me: the politician governors would pardon their prisoners if the president would pardon his; the better men, the good, business governors, were most unwilling. Well, Harding was a politician; rumor had it that he was a sinner.
President Harding heard me out, his handsome face expressing his willingness and his doubt. He nodded, smiled, wagged his head. "Make peace at home," I said. "We've got it abroad. Let all the prisoners go who are in jail for fighting for labor, for peace, for-anything. Let 'em all out, with a proclamation, you and the governors."
"That's all right," he said, "for fellows like you and me, but they won't let me do it." He had the case of Eugene V. Debs, the socialist leader, before him; we all knew that, and I had asked his permission to visit Debs in Atlanta.
"I am going to pardon Debs," he said. "I have put that over, but a general amnesty?" He shook his head; then he perked up. "I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "I'll make you a fair, sporting proposition. You get my cabinet and I'll do it. No. You get Hoover and my secretary of labor, and I'll get the rest myself, and we'll do it." And when I rushed out, quick, and came back, quick, with the most emphatic refusals of Hoover and the secretary of labor, Harding laughed. He did not say what he found so funny, but his laughter was so loud and sardonic that a secretary ran in and ran out.
The president had in his hand a typewritten paper which he pushed at me. "Here, look at this." It was a declaration his attorney general had dictated for Debs to sign when pardoned, a dirt-eating promise. "What would you do about that?" Harding asked, and when I looked up from reading it and said, with some feeling, that I would not pardon any man who would subscribe to such a statement, he nodded.
"I thought so," he muttered, and he crumpled the paper and dropped it. He pardoned Debs without any humiliating conditions.
When I visited Debs at Atlanta and told him what was coming, he was not elated. He was a happy man in prison. Debs wanted to hear "all about the Russian Revolution," the outrages of which he had denounced. Like so many reds who rejected Bolshevism, Debs the socialist could not abide the violence, bloodshed, tyranny. They all had had their mental pictures of the heaven on earth that was coming, and this was not what they expected.
As I told Emma Goldman once, to her indignation, she was a Methodist sent to a Presbyterian heaven, and naturally she thought it was hell. I was asking Debs to wait and hear more about it, even to go to Russia and see it for himself, before judging the Soviet Republic. He described the horrors he had heard of, and he could describe; Debs had eloquence, but when he finished his fiery speech to me on the rude, wild ruthlessness of the Russians, I said very quietly: "True, 'Eugene. That's all true that you say. A revolution is no gentleman."
He sprang to his feet. "Of course," he exclaimed. "I forgot." And he promised me then and there never again to denounce the Russian Revolution on any charge without first hearing my answer to it. He did. When he got out he made a speech denouncing, as the socialist leader, the revolution and all its works, and he did not answer a letter of protest I addressed to him. I offered to go to Indianapolis to see him. I never saw Debs again, but he was never again very well.
Eugene V. Debs is dead and everybody says that he was a good man. He was no better and no worse when he served a sentence at Atlanta.
I imagine that now it would be difficult to find many to defend the jailing of Debs. But at the time of the trial he received little support outside the radical ranks.
The problem involved was not simple. I hated the thing they did to Debs even at the time, and I was not then a pacifist. Yet I realize that almost nobody means precisely what he says when he makes the declaration, "I'm in favor of free speech." I think I mean it, but it is not difficult for me to imagine situations in which I would be gravely tempted to enforce silence on anyone who seemed to be dangerous to the cause I favored.
Free speech is about as good a cause as the world has ever known. Everybody favors free speech in the slack moments when no axes are being ground.
It would have been better for America to have lost the war than to lose free speech. I think so, but I imagine it is a minority opinion. However, a majority right now can be drummed up to support the contention that it was wrong to put Debs in prison. That won't keep the country from sending some other Debs to jail in some other day when panic psychology prevails.
You see, there was another aspect to the Debs case, a point of view which really begs the question. It was foolish to send him to jail. His opposition to the war was not effective. A wise dictator, someone like Shaw's Julius Caesar, for instance, would have given Debs better treatment than he got from our democracy.
Eugene Debs was a beloved figure and a tragic one. And that was a grotesque misconception. People were constantly overlooking the fact that Debs was a Hoosier, a native product in every strand of him. He was a sort of Whitcomb Riley turned politically minded.
It does not seem to me that he was a great man. At least he was not a great intellect. But Woodward has argued persuasively that neither was George Washington. In summing up the Father of His Country, this most recent biographer says in effect that all Washington had was character. By any test such as that Debs was great. Certainly he had character. There was more of goodness in him than bubbled up in any other American of his day. He had some humor, or otherwise a religion might have been built up about him, for he was thoroughly Messianic. And it was a strange quirk which set this gentle, sentimental Middle-Westerner in the leadership of a party often fierce and militant.
Though not a Christian by any precise standard, Debs was the Christian-Socialist type. It has not happened yet. Of cold, logical Marxism, Debs possessed very little. He was never the brains of his party. I never met him, but I read many of his speeches, and most of them seemed to be second-rate utterances. But when his great moment came a miracle occurred. Debs made a speech to the judge and jury at Columbus after his conviction, and to me it seems one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anybody told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it....
Something was in Debs, seemingly, that did not come out unless you saw him. I'm told that even those speeches of his which seemed to any reader indifferent stuff, took on vitality from his presence. A hard-bitten Socialist told me once, "Gene Debs is the only one who can get away with the sentimental flummery that's been tied onto Socialism in this country. Pretty nearly always it gives me a swift pain to go around to meetings and have people call me "comrade." That's a lot of bunk. But the funny part of it is that when Debs says "comrade" it's all right. He means it. That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."
With the death of Debs, American Socialism is almost sure to grow more scientific, more bitter, possibly more effective. The party is not likely to forget that in Russia it was force which won the day, and not persuasion.
I've said that it did not seem to me that Debs was a great man in life, but he will come to greatness by and by. There are in him the seeds of symbolism. He was a sentimental Socialist, and that line has dwindled all over the world. Radicals talk now in terms of men and guns and power, and unless you get in at the beginning of the meeting and orient yourself, this could just as well be Security Leaguers or any other junkers in session.
The Debs idea will not die. There can be a brotherhood of man.
Eugene V. Debs
Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. The need for employment ended his schooling at age 14, when he became a fireman on a local railroad. Later he took night classes at the local business college in his spare time. Giving up his job as railroad fireman in 1874, he took up another job as a billing clerk in the wholesale grocery firm of Hulman & Cox. 1875 was a busy year for Debs. He became the founder of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and continued to work at Hulman & Cox. Debs used part of his salary to help the fledgling local union, and he conducted its work at night. Later in 1875 he became president of Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute, to which he invited such famous personages as Colonel Robert Ingersoll, James Whitcomb Riley, Susan B. Anthony, and many others. Five years later he was elected the union`s national secretary-treasurer. He was also politically active, serving as the town clerk of Terre Haute (1879-83). In 1884, Debs was elected state representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat representing Terre Haute and Vigo County. He also served in 1885. The Convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1892 persuaded Debs to be the editor of their magazine. Demonstrating a change in his organizational philosophy, Debs in 1893 became president of the American Railway Union, the first effective industrial union in the United States. The ARU made its mark in 1894 with a successful strike against the Great Northern Railway, when not a wheel moved on the railway for 18 days, until the company finally granted the union`s demands. On May 11th, 1894 the Pullman boycott and strike in Chicago began, and on July 23rd Debs and the leaders of the ARU were jailed for defying a federal injunction to return to work. In May 1895 Debs and the leaders of the ARU found themselves back in jail, but this time it was for contempt of court in connection with the Pullman strike. While in detention, Debs read widely and was deeply impressed by the writings of Karl Marx. His sentence was finished in November of that year. He emerged from prison convinced that the plight of the worker was most accurately viewed as a class struggle. Debs supported William Jennings Bryan in the Election of 1896, but turned to socialism the following year. He was a founder of the Social Democratic Party, and later the Socialist Party of America. Debs was the Socialist presidential nominee in 1900, when he ran poorly, and 1904, when he had ran a much stronger campaign. In 1905, Eugene Debs helped to establish the International Workers of the World (IWW), but soon found the organization too radical for his tastes. Eugene V. Debs made later presidential runs in 1908, 1912 and 1920, the last of which was his most successful with nearly one million votes. He supported himself during those years with earnings from his writings and lectures. From 1907 to 1912, Debs was the associate editor of Appeal to Reason, which was published in Girard, Kansas. The magazine achieved a circlation of several hundred thousand, due to Debs` powerful writing. Debs also was regarded as one of the most gifted public speakers of his era, rivaling the great preachers and political orators. An example is this excerpt from a speech he gave in Girard, after being nominated for president for the third time:
Eugene V. Debs - History
Eugene V. Debs
The Canton, Ohio, Speech
(June 16, 1918)
Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the Douglass Archives of American Public Address.
Eugene V. Debs, a native Hoosier, was the best-known American socialist of his time. He ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In each election he won between 3% and 6% of the vote. Debs remarks about prudence, and his visit to three fellow Socialists imprisoned for speaking against the government, illustrate the climate of government repression during World War I. The Espionage and Sedition Acts (passed during the war) made it illegal to speak in support of Germany or in opposition to the American war effort. The U.S. government used this speech as evidence to convict Debs of violating the Acts. The government also prosecuted over 2,000 other Americans for the expression of ideas. Many considered Debs' case a miscarriage of justice - - as is clear from the results of the 1920 presidential election. He won over 3% of the vote, despite being a federal prisoner at the time. President Harding pardoned him on Christmas Day, 1920. -smv
N.B. Material marked thus () was in the text of the speech as it was originally reported. My editorial additions are marked thus (<>). Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt and not the original text.
<1>To speak for labor to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privilege [Applause] a duty of love.
<2>I have just returned from a visit over yonder [pointing to the workhouse], where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. [Applause.] They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world. [Applause.]
<3>I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. [Laughter.] I may not be able to say all I think [Laughter and applause] but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. [Applause.] I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. [Applause and shouts.] They may put those boys in jail — and some of the rest of us in jail — but they can not put the Socialist movement in jail. [Applause and shouts.] Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. [Applause and cheers.] They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect, and for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind. [Applause.] . . . .
<4>Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? [Laughter. ] [Shouts from the crowd of "Yes. Yes."] Why, we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born [applause] and we are going to continue to fight it, day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth. [Thunderous applause and cheers.] Between us there is no truce — no compromise.
<5>But, before I proceed along this line, let me recall a little history, in which I think we are all interested.
<6>In 1869 that grand old warrior of the social revolution, the elder Liebknecht, was arrested and sentenced to prison for three months, because of his war, as a Socialist, on the Kaiser and on the Junkers that rule Germany. . . . . Even in that early day, almost fifty years ago, these leaders, these forerunners of the international Socialist movement were fighting the Kaiser and fighting the Junkers of Germany. [Great applause and cheers.] They have continued to fight them from that day to this. [Applause.] Multiplied thousands of Socialists have languished in the jails of Germany because of their heroic warfare upon the despotic ruling class of that country. [Applause.] . . . .
Roosevelt was being entertained royally by the German Kaiser, that same Kaiser was putting the leaders of the Socialist Party in jail for fighting the Kaiser and the Junkers of Germany. [Applause.] Roosevelt was the guest of honor in the white house of the Kaiser, while the Socialists were in the jails of the Kaiser for fighting the Kaiser. [Applause.] Who then was fighting for democracy? Roosevelt? [Shouts of "no."] Roosevelt, who was honored by the Kaiser, or the Socialists who were in jail by order of the Kaiser? [Applause.] . . . .
<8>A little more history along the same line. In 1902 Prince Henry paid a visit to this country. Do you remember him? [Laughter.] I do, exceedingly well. Prince Henry is the brother of Emperor Wilhelm. Prince Henry is another Beast of Berlin, an autocrat, an aristocrat, a Junker of Junkers — very much despised by our American patriots. He came over here in 1902 as the representative of Kaiser Wilhelm he was received by Congress and by several state legislatures. . . . Our plutocracy — women and men alike — vied with each other to lick the boots of Prince Henry, the brother and representative of the "Beast of Berlin." [Applause.] And still our plutocracy, our Junkers, would have us believe that all the Junkers are confined to Germany. It is precisely because we refuse to believe this that they brand us as disloyalists. They want our eyes focused on the Junkers in Berlin so that we will not see those within our own borders.
<9>I hate, I loathe, I despise Junkers and junkerdom. I have no earthly use for the Junkers of Germany, and not one particle more use for the Junkers in the United States. [Thunderous applause and cheers.] . . . .
37e. Eugene V. Debs and American Socialism
The Socialist Party aimed to become a major party in the years prior to World War I it elected two members of Congress, over 70 mayors, innumerable state legislators and city councilors.
Despite the success of the American Federation of Labor, American radicalism was not dead. The number of those who felt the American capitalist system was fundamentally flawed was in fact growing fast.
American socialists based their beliefs on the writings of Karl Marx , the German philosopher. Many asked why so many working Americans should have so little while a few owners grew incredibly wealthy. No wealth could exist without the sweat and blood of its workforce. They suggested that the government should own all industries and divide the profits among those who actually created the products. While the current management class would stand to lose, many more people would gain. These radicals grew in number as industries spread. But their enemies were legion.
The Father of American Socialism
Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855 to a family of French Alsatian immigrants. Making his way in the railroad industry, Debs formed the American Railway Union in 1892.
Two years later he found himself leading one of the largest strikes in American history &mdash the great Pullman strike . When its workers refused to accept a pay cut, The Pullman Car Company fired 5000 employees. To show support, Debs called for the members of the American Railway Union to refrain from operating any trains that used Pullman cars. When the strike was declared illegal by a court injunction, chaos erupted. President Cleveland ordered federal troops to quell the strikers and Debs was arrested. Soon order was restored and the strike failed.
Debs was not originally a socialist, but his experience with the Pullman Strike and his subsequent six-month jail term led him to believe that drastic action was necessary. Debs chose to confine his activity to the political arena. In 1900 he ran for President as a socialist and garnered some 87,000 votes.
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it while there is a criminal element, I am of it while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
&ndash Eugene V. Debs, Statement to the Court, while being convicted of violating the Sedition Act (Sept. 18, 1918)
The following year, leading sympathizers joined with him to form the Socialist Party . At its height, the party numbered over 100,000 active members. Debs ran for President four more times. In the election of 1912 he received over 900,000 votes. After being arrested for antiwar activities during World War I, he ran for President from his jail cell and polled 919,000 votes. Debs died in 1926 having never won an election, but over one thousand Socialist Party members were elected to state and city governments.
Eugene V. Debs
Eugene Victor "Gene" Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.
Early in his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party. He was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly in 1884. After working with several smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation's first industrial unions. After workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894, Debs signed many into the ARU. He called a boycott of the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman Strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states. To keep the mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison.
In prison, Debs read the works of Karl Kautsky, a chief expositor of Karl Marx, and learned about socialism. Upon his release, he launched his career as the nation's most prominent Socialist in the first decades of the 20th century. He ran as the Socialist Party's candidate for the presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the last time from a prison cell.
Debs was noted for his oratory, and his speech denouncing American participation in World War I led to his second arrest in 1918. He was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to a term of 10 years. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921. Debs died in 1926, not long after being admitted to a sanatorium.
César Chávez and "La Causa"
César Chávez was the leader of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) for several decades. His union represented the thousands of migrant laborers who toiled in U.S. agricultural fields. Legal recognition of the union marked an important turning point in the history of the American labor movement.
Chávez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, one of five children in his family. His parents had come to Arizona from Mexico some twenty years earlier and owned a ranch in Yuma. But financial hardships caused by the Great Depression (1929–41) caused many farmers and ranchers to lose their properties when they could not repay bank loans. The Chávez family was one of them. They moved to California to look for jobs as field hands.
The family soon found that being migrant workers, or part of a group of manual laborers who moved from one site to another to pick crops for cash, meant exceptionally difficult work for extremely low wages. Often they earned just a dollar a day and were forced to live in camps or in their cars. Sometimes they would work for weeks, but were cheated out of their pay at the end of the season by dishonest bosses. By the time Chávez quit school around age thirteen, he had attended more than thirty different schools. Like other migrant-worker families, the Chávezes suffered many hardships, including discrimination. Some stores even posted signs that read "Whites Only."
Around the time Chávez left school to work full time in the fields, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began assembling migrant laborers. Chávez's father and uncle joined, although it was dangerous to be associated with organized labor at that time. Some union leaders were harassed and even physically attacked.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1939–45), Chávez returned to the grape vineyards near Fresno, California. In 1951 he joined the staff of the Community Services Organization (CSO), a social-services agency that served the Hispanic American community, and eventually became its director in 1958.
In 1962 he began his own organization, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). In 1965, when grape-pickers from another labor group went on strike, Chávez and his NFWA locals joined in. The strike received heavy media coverage and became known as "La causa" ("The Cause"). The phrase would later be applied to the larger movement that sought to improve the lives of migrant workers.
The grape-growers eventually gave in and agreed to negotiate with the unions. Soon Chávez's NFWA merged with another group to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). One of its first successes was signing labor contracts with two major California wine producers. In the meantime, strikes against other grape growers continued. A table grape boycott was initiated by Chávez, who asked Americans to stop buying supermarket grapes until they could be sure the men and women who picked those grapes worked reasonable hours for a fair wage. The boycott was well-publicized. National sales of table grapes dropped 12 percent.
Chávez's union won this fight, though it took several years. The battle was helped by high-ranking Catholic bishops in California, some of whom had worked with the largely Mexican American, migrant worker population and knew how poor the families were. Chávez was a devout Roman Catholic and attended religious services daily. His faith and commitment to social justice helped him lead the union through many difficulties during the 1970s and 1980s. Chávez called for another boycott in the mid-1980s to draw attention to the use of pesticides (chemicals that are used to kill insects) by grape growers. He died on April 23, 1993, in Arizona. Married since the late 1940s, he was the father of eight children.
library-use fees subtracted from their paychecks. The situation worked well enough in good economic times, but when wages dropped and hours lengthened, while rents remained the same, families suffered tremendous hardships.
When the Pullman workers went on strike, the ARU did not join them, but Debs authorized a boycott strategy. Under the terms of the boycott, ARU members refused to handle Pullman railroad cars anywhere in the nation. Since the Pullman cars were on almost every train, they had to be detached in order for the trains to be kept moving. The boycott meant a massive slowdown of all rail traffic across the nation.
Debs was in Chicago during the intense weeks of the strike. It was a time when tensions ran so high that some people worried that another civil war might break out. This time, they feared, the workers might rise up against the owners. Debs was working long hours to help settle the Pullman strike peacefully, but in early July the U.S. government authorized the use of federal troops to end the strike. The reason given for such a drastic measure was that the U.S. mail was being delayed, and the federal government could legally step in when that was the case. Labor historians, however, note that few mail cars and routes were actually affected by the strike. Violence broke out when the federal troops arrived.
Debs was arrested for violating an injunction, or court order, that required the strikers to return to work. He was held in the Cook County jail. A sympathetic sheriff allowed him to bring in a fox terrier to scare away the rats that lived in the filthy jail cells, but the dog was terrified at the size of the pests and had to be removed, whimpering and shaking. A week later, Debs was out, too, having been released on bail, and began to prepare for his trial. His attorney was Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), and though the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Debs and the other union leaders spent six months in jail.
Eugene V. Debs
On September 14, 1918, Eugene V. Debs began his address to the court with these words:
Debs had just been convicted, under the espionage act, of interfering with the draft during World War I and was facing the court to be sentenced. As in the trial itself, he refused to step back from the indictment he had made of the capitalist system that required war.
In the trial, Debs presented no witnesses, and did not contest the prosecution's case.
He put himself in the same camp as the Bolsheviks, that is, the camp of those who had just led a working class revolution in Russia. It may be that the much-despised Bolsheviks may fail at last, but let me say to you that they have written a chapter of glorious history. It will stand to their eternal credit.
He defended all the people – socialists, anarchists, IWW, trade unionists, pacifists – who had already been put on trial for opposition to World War I, declaring himself proud to share their lot in prison.
And he insisted that he would not change one word in his statements against the war, nor should the Socialist Party. He would continue to say to the people, especially the workers of all countries: Quit going to war. Stop murdering one another for the profit and glory of the ruling classes.
He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison, formally for the speech he made in Canton, Ohio in June 1918, but undoubtedly for throwing his enormous prestige with workers and farmers into a nationwide speaking tour not only denouncing the war, but above all calling on the ordinary laboring people to join the war of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Earlier in 1918, when the press was broadcasting a story that Debs was about to support the war – as a number of other socialists and most of the trade union leaders had done – he issued this statement:
Debs' stance during the trial was in keeping with his whole life. He viewed himself as part of what he referred to as that "lower class" he spoke as one of the working people and over his whole adult life, as he came to understand the issues, he did not back away from the consequences of what he understood: he did not back away from the fight that needed to be made, and when he saw the workers engaged in a fight, he always came down on their side.
Certainly, he didn't spring onto this earth a full-fledged revolutionary socialist. Like workers today, he grew up in a country where there was no organized workers party, no socialist movement to speak of, no real tradition. But from the beginning of his early adult life, he continually searched for what he saw as a better way for working people to organize to defend themselves within a system dominated by wealth. And, what was most important, when he ran up against the limits of a road he had been following, he was able to admit the dead end he was trapped in and to move on to a wider view of the problems, a view based increasingly on an understanding of the power of the working class to destroy the old corrupt capitalist society that had created the problems an understanding of the capacity of the working class to build a new society.
From a Co-operative Insurance Agent to a Founder of the Socialist Party
Having been laid off at age 18 from the railroads, Debs quickly signed on to work for one of the railroad brotherhoods – the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen – whose main activity was the organization of cheap life insurance for the firemen, the reflection of how deadly railroad work was in that period. Debs recorded the payments made by the workers for insurance and processed the claims put in by widows after their husbands were killed on the railroads. At the beginning, he agreed with the conservative policies of the railroad brotherhoods, repeating their position that disputes should be settled by reason and compromise, not by strikes, which Debs denounced as anarchy and revolution.
In that same period, Debs ran and won on the Democratic ticket, twice becoming the city clerk of Terre Haute Indiana, then a member of the Indiana state legislature. He entered the legislature with bills already prepared that would have compensated workers who were injured on the job. His bills never made it to a vote. He sided with the Republicans in the legislature, who presented a bill to abolish all distinction of race and color in the laws of Indiana. It lost. He joined the forces pushing to legalize women's suffrage in Indiana. They lost. He decided not to run again.
Along with others at the time, Debs began to rethink the assumption that the brotherhoods and other craft unions should be essentially only insurance organizations. In fact, they were being deserted by workers starting to join a growing strike wave. With the growing revolt of workers, he began to denounce the companies for being responsible for the violence associated with attacks on the strikes. But he still conserved the illusion that there could be such a thing under capitalism as "an honest day's wages for an honest day's work," that there could be such a thing as a "compromise" between the railroads and the railroad workers that served the interests of both. And he still believed that, if there was "intelligence" and "reason" on both sides, strikes could be avoided.
But that illusion was being shaken. As Debs watched the railroads pushing to keep driving wages lower, he began to join the workers' fights, declaring: The strike is the weapon of the oppressed, of men capable of appreciating justice and having the courage to resist wrong and contend for principle.
When, one after another, strikes by the brotherhoods or other craft unions in the railroads were met with violence and strikebreaking – including by members of the other brotherhoods – Debs threw himself into activity aimed at bringing the different railroad brotherhoods and craft unions into a single federation of railroad workers.
Facing the unwillingness of the craft union leaders to hear such a proposal, at the very time the railroads were defeating the workers with the most vicious methods, he worked, along with others, to try to bring together all the unorganized railroad workers into one big industrial union, the American Railway Union. Debs shared the belief held by many of those workers that a single union of all the workers in the railroad industry would give the workers the ability to completely shut down the railroads, thus convincing the companies that they had no choice but to compromise with their workers.
Events were soon to prove otherwise. Workers in the Chicago area, battered by wage cuts, were forced into a strike at Pullman, a company that made cars for the railroads. Militants of the newly formed American Railway Union, meeting in a founding convention, pushed to organize a boycott of all the railroads that carried Pullman cars, as the way to support the striking Pullman workers and, at the same time, to build the ARU. Debs disagreed with the proposal and argued against it, insisting that the ARU wasn't yet strong enough. But when he couldn't convince the delegates meeting together, he joined the fight. The 1894 Pullman strike and boycott ended up being one of the most combative of that time period. It rapidly extended and shut down a good deal of railroad transport, first of all in the Chicago area, a railroad center, but also in widely different parts of the country.
The federal government, under Democratic President Cleveland, occupied Chicago with troops, placing them at the disposal of the railroads, which used massive violence against the strikers and those who joined the boycott in solidarity. Thirty people were killed, twice as many injured, over 700 arrested. The leaders of most of the craft unions opposed the strike, even denounced it and called on their members to work. Three weeks after the strike began, the government issued Debs and other leaders of the strike an injunction demanding the ARU call off the strike. They refused and ended up imprisoned in Chicago's Cook County jail, where Debs, for the first time, witnessed the depraved conditions imposed on prisoners.
The jailing of all the strike leaders disorganized the workers, and that, combined with the violent attacks and denunciations by leaders of other railroad unions, contributed to making the strike crumble. Workers had to crawl back to Pullman to get their jobs a quarter never went back. And most railroad workers active in the strike found themselves blacklisted from any employment in the railroad industry.
The strike brought Debs up against many of his political assumptions. A life-long Democrat, a campaigner three times for Grover Cleveland, he watched Cleveland use the presidency to send troops and to employ violence and jail to break the strike. Debs declared himself a Populist, saying: I favor wiping out both old parties so they will never come into power again. I have been a Democrat all my life and I am ashamed to admit it. I want every one of you to go to the polls and vote the People's ticket.
By the end of the year, he was back in jail to serve out a six-month sentence for violating the injunction. There has long been a kind of myth about those six months. Supposedly, Debs went in a Democrat and came out a Socialist, and never changed a political hair on his head ever afterwards – as though a few visits from some Socialists to his little cell and his six months of solitude transformed him.
Whatever happened in that cell, the brutality of this capitalist society hit him clearly during the strike. As he had done before, and continued to do later, he chafed to break out of the limits placed on his activity by his own political positions. It is, first of all, a tribute to Debs that he could do that, but it is also a commentary on the sorry state of the working class movement in this country, that it required one slap in the face after another for him to come finally to the positions he took. There was little tradition to speak of that nourished socialist ideas in the American working class. To the extent they existed, socialist ideas often circulated only among recent immigrants from Europe, especially from Germany. And that tradition was walled off into an isolated language ghetto, separated from the life of the rest of the working class.
Debs finally gained acquaintance with the ideas of Marx and Engels, and he began to study them. He did not move in a straight line. In 1895, along with several others coming from the ARU, he signed a statement favoring collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, proposing to establish a political organization of the working class based on that goal. But in 1896, he was pulled back into the train of the Democratic party when William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee, absorbed not only part of the political platform of the populists – particularly "free silver" and the abhorrence of the gold standard – but also many of their militants. But by the next year, 1897, Debs was ready to declare:
His language may have sounded much like that of the tent preachers who toured the country at the end of the 19 th century, but Eugene Debs was beginning to understand that the working class needed to organize itself politically, and that the problem was not to reform capitalism, but to do away with it, to replace it.
With a few militants left from the ARU and some others, Debs helped form the forerunner of the Socialist Party, called the Social Democracy of America, which quickly decided to establish a co-operative commonwealth in one of the Western states, offering workers the prospect of becoming pioneers in an early kind of commune. Few took up the offer.
Many of those militants, Debs among them, then moved to form first the Social Democratic Party, then the Socialist Party. By 1903, in response to a proposal to build an organization composed of single taxers, socialists and anti-socialist trade unionists, Debs could say, I have long since determined to stick to the main issue and stay on the main track, no matter how alluring the byways may appear. For the rest of his life, Debs adhered to that main issue, what he called purely a class question, his decision to look at every problem in terms of the working class against the capitalist class.
Always committed to the idea of industrial organization by the working class, Debs was at the origin of the IWW. Later, he quietly left it, in disagreement with the IWW's insistence that the working class did not need to organize politically. But he always defended it against the blows rained down upon it.
Speaking for Socialism
The Socialist Party, which he had been instrumental in forming, gave Debs his speaking platform. He began systematically to tour the country, presenting the ideas of socialism to workers and farmers in small towns throughout the Middle West and eventually large parts of the country. In that activity, Debs came into his own. He was addressing the people he had grown up with. He knew how to touch them. But he also wanted to educate them, to let them understand what kind of society they could build, a socialist society. He wanted to give them a sense of their own power. His speeches were not quick little whistle-stops, a few minutes here, a couple more minutes there. They were often two hours or longer, during which he developed the concept of a socialist society, for workers hearing about socialism for the first time.
He spoke everywhere – outside in fields, in big tents, at week-long encampments where farmers and small-town people set up their tents in order to hear him. He brought ordinary people, workers and poor farmers, into the Socialist Party in droves. In turn, those people found a political leader who spoke to the laboring classes, and for them, from the perspective of the working class, its place in capitalist society, and its potential for creating a new one.
He traveled to strikes that were bitterly contested, trying to build up the morale of workers under attack. He clearly saw and said that there was a war going on, a war of the workers of the world against the exploiters of the world. In 1914, when a privately organized militia attacked a tent colony of striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine at Ludlow, Colorado, killing 13 people, all women and children, he called on the miners to raise a:
He added that his statement was made advisedly and he was:
He spoke at meetings in defense of strikers who were arrested, or in defense of IWW and political militants who were increasingly the victims of vigilante violence.
When President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. marines into Mexico in 1914, Debs denounced the action as aimed only at protecting the ill-gotten property of the Standard Oil Company…. American citizens who choose to live and invest their money in foreign countries should do so at their own risk, not at the risk of our soldiers' lives.
Among the workers and poor farmers, he became the most well-known political person in the country. It was only normal that the Socialist Party would nominate him to run for president in 1904, 1908 and 1912. As far as Debs was concerned, those election campaigns were little different from his speaking tours in other periods. He was educating the working class about the need for and possibility of socialism.
In 1916, he refused the nomination. Some of the other leaders of the Socialist Party, by then worried about Debs' agitation about the war, were relieved. The war, which had started in Europe in 1914, was becoming a reality in the U.S. by then, as a so-called "preparedness" campaign was developing, preparing the population to accept U.S. entry into the war.
Debs began to turn his attention to the growing pro-war propaganda in this country. He tied that war, as he was always to do, to the class war going on inside the country.
In 1916, he did run for Congress from Terre Haute Indiana. In that campaign, he was asked if he opposed all wars. Debs was not one, like many others in the Socialist Party, to evade the political issue. He declared:
As the U.S. prepared to put its troops into World War I, the war to divide up the world, the Socialist Party began to split over the issue, with many of its most prominent leaders other than Debs dancing around the issue of support for the war. Most unions moved to support a U.S. entry into the war, and the government mounted an intensive campaign of arrests, intimidation and extra-legal violence against unionists who didn't. The IWW came under special attack. Radical newspapers were quickly suppressed, their mailing privileges withdrawn. Editors were put in prison over charges of "inciting sedition," and vigilantes and troops were thrown into a campaign to break strikes. It was an all-out assault.
One after another, well-known radicals were swept up into jail. At first, Debs was untouched, as though the authorities were afraid of the consequences. Debs continued to mount a campaign against the war, tying it to what the working class had to do to defend itself. When he finally was arrested, there was an enormous outcry against that act.
In almost every speech, he challenged the workers who continued to come hear him to take responsibility for themselves and their own class.
In the Canton Ohio speech, for which he was finally arrested, he called on the audience to join the Socialist Party with these words:
They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.
And here let me emphasize the fact – and it cannot be repeated too often – that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Yours not to reason why
Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.
You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.
You need to know that it is your duty to rise above the animal plane of existence. You need to know that it is for you to know something about literature and science and art. You need to know that you are verging on the edge of a great new world. You need to get in touch with your comrades and fellow workers and to become conscious of your interests, your powers and your possibilities as a class. You need to know that you belong to the great majority of mankind.
You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are. You will be exploited you will be degraded, and you will have to beg for a job. You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor….
There is something splendid, something sustaining and inspiring in the prompting of the heart to be true to yourself and to the best you know, especially in a crucial hour of your life. You are in the crucible today, my Socialist comrades! You are going to be tried by fire, to what extent no one knows. If you are weak-fibered and fainthearted you will be lost to the Socialist movement. We will have to bid you goodbye. You are not the stuff of which revolutions are made. We are sorry for you unless you chance to be an "intellectual." The "intellectuals," many of them, are already gone. No loss on our side nor gain on the other….
Get into the Socialist Party and take your place in its ranks help to inspire the weak and strengthen the faltering, and do your share to speed the coming of the brighter and better day for us all.
Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.
Yes, in good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions. The world is daily changing before our eyes. The sun of capitalism is setting the sun of socialism is rising. It is our duty to build the new nation and the free republic. We need industrial and social builders. We Socialists are the builders of the beautiful world that is to be. We are all pledged to do our part. We are inviting – aye challenging you this afternoon in the name of your own manhood and womanhood to join us and do your part.
There was nothing unusual about this speech. It was the two-hour speech that Debs had made for years, touring the country, speaking for socialism. But this time, it was also linked to the question of the war.
He always challenged his audience to view the situation as it really was, but often in a humorous, ironic way. When a heckler during his 1908 campaign yelled that a vote for Debs meant people would throw their vote away, he responded: That's right. Don't vote for freedom – you might not get it. Vote for slavery – you have a cinch on that!
Campaigning for Socialism
Debs ran five times for president of the United States, the last time when he was in jail for giving that speech. Every time he ran, he did so on the basis of what he expressed during the 1908 campaign: The Socialist Party is in the race to educate the workingmen, and it does not want a single vote that was not a vote for socialism.
In 1911, he charged that the Socialist Party contained not a few members who regard votegetting of supreme importance, no matter by what method the votes are secured, and this makes them to hold out inducements and make representations which are not at all compatible with the stern and uncompromising spirit of a revolutionary party. It is a treason to regard the Socialist platform as a bait for votes rather than as a means of education.
Eugene V. Debs
Born in 1855 to French immigrant parents, Eugene Victor Debs was a lifelong resident of Terre Haute. Having dropped out of school at an early age, Debs first worked on the railroad as a fireman. The bonds that he forged with his fellow workers shaped his lifelong philosophy, expressed in one of Debs’ famous court speeches — “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Debs began to organize on behalf of the working class and by 1893, his efforts had resulted in the American Railroad Union, the first industrial union in the U.S. Though the railroad union obtained concessions from the Great Northern Railway after an 18-day strike in April 1894, the Pullman boycott and strike the following month resulted in intervention by the National Guard, the break-up of the fledgling union, and Debs’ imprisonment.
Following his release, Debs pursued his goal of empowering the masses as an early organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World and a five-time presidential candidate on the Social Democratic and Socialist tickets. Anti-war remarks Debs made during a 1918 speech in Ohio violated the Sedition Act and landed Debs in jail again, where he staged his final presidential campaign though he had been stripped of his citizenship.
After assuming office, his opponent Warren G. Harding, commuted Debs’ sentence. The Sedition Act and the Espionage Act were subsequently declared unconstitutional, and repealed. Debs citizenship was finally restored in 1976, fifty years after his death.
Virginia Harris - 8/4/2008
Eugene Debs is featured in The Privilege of Voting.
If you are interested in the many exciting twists and turns that played into women winning the vote, I hope you will check out "The Privilege of Voting."
As I pondered how to create a compelling biography of two leading suffragettes, I realized that without telling the stories of other prominent women and men during the same time period, it would be impossible to convey why men yielded (at long last) to women's demand to vote.
Hence I've written an ensemble biography.
"The Privilege of Voting" is a new and exhaustively researched historical e-mail series that portrays the many twists and turns that played into women winning the vote.
It goes behind the scenes in the lives of eight well-known women from 1912 to 1920, and reveals the sexy, shocking truth of HOW the suffragettes won the right to vote in America and England.
The chronological, sequential series is written in a unique, short-story format called Coffeebreak Readers that makes history exciting, easy and fun.
The women depicted include two of the most beautiful and outspoken suffragettes -- Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, along with Edith Wharton, Isadora Duncan, Alice Roosevelt, and two stunning presidential mistresses.
Eugene Debs, while still in prison, ran for president in the first year that women voted, and won over a million votes.
The sereis details the adminstrations of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding.
There are weddings and funerals, babies in peril, damsels in distress, war, peace, broken hearts and lots of hot affairs.
The best part is it's ALL true!
Each action-packed e-mail episode takes about 10 minutes to read, so they are perfect to enjoy on coffeebreaks, or anytime.
You can subscribe to receive free twice-weekly e-mails at:
I would be interested to hear your opinion on the series should you choose to subscribe.
Michael E. Martin - 8/4/2008
I just finished this fine biography and I savored it from page one. It is, in my opinion, an example of what a biography can be if tended by an even yet passionate hand. I am recommending this to all my progressive book-loving friends.
Holmes moved to a strong defense of First Amendment eight months later
One of the pressing questions in the history of the First Amendment concerns how Holmes moved from Debs in March 1919 to the strong defense of free speech he penned eight months later in his dissent in Abrams v United States (1919).
Holmes&rsquos correspondence at the time reveals that although he never questioned the correctness of his decision, he was unhappy that the federal government had chosen to prosecute Debs and that he had been chosen to write the opinion.
Discussions over the value of free speech and dissent with Judge Learned Hand and political science professor Harold Laski, combined with an influential article by Ernst Freund criticizing the Debs decision in the May issue of The New Republic , may have led Holmes to reevaluate the relationship between political liberty and criticism of the government, as well as his own commitment to free speech.
In 1920, while in prison, Debs again ran for President and received almost 1 million votes. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in 1921.