Lest We Forget: Eugene V. Debs and American Socialism

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 “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

—Mother Jones

Most young people don’t even know who Eugene V. Debs (Socialist Populist, Founder of the IWW) is, much less that he was sent to prison for 10 years for criticising a sitting President (Woodrow Wilson, Progressive) for going to War (WW I):

Nearly a million Americans, in fact, voted for federal prisoner number 9653 in 1920, and many of them were odd comrades like my Republican grandfather: people who didn’t necessarily agree with Debs’ politics but who admired his devotion to the cause of labor and his courage in speaking out against the carnage of the First World War. According to my mother, my grandfather had once heard Debs speak from the caboose of his famous “Red Special,” the train that carried him across the Midwest during the election of 1908, and was appalled that” America’s conscience” had been sentenced to ten years in federal prison for criticizing President Wilson and the war in his famous Canton, Ohio, speech in June 1918. He was particularly angry at Wilson for keeping Debs and hundreds of other Socialists and trade unionists in prison long after Armistice, and for deporting thousands of “subversive aliens” in 1919 without any semblance of due process. Grandpa thought Wilson was drunk on power, intoxicated by his own sanctimonious rhetoric.

-Mike Davis in the Preface from The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs

It was the Depression of 1893 that propelled Eugene Debs into a lifetime of action for unionism and socialism. Debs was from Terre Haute, Indiana, where his father and mother ran a store. He had worked on the railroads for four years until he was nineteen, but left when a friend was killed after falling under a locomotive. He came back to join a Railroad Brotherhood as a billing clerk. At the time of the great strikes of 1877, Debs opposed them and argued there was no “necessary conflict between capital and labor.” But when he read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, it deeply affected him.

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society— we are on the eve of a universal change.” -Eugene Debs

James Green describes these Southwest radicals, in his book Grass-Roots Socialism, as “indebted homesteaders, migratory tenant farmers, coal miners and railroad workers, ‘redbone’ lumberjacks from the piney woods, preachers and schoolteachers from the sunbaked prairies . . . village artisans and atheists . . . the unknown people who created the strongest regional Socialist movement in United States history.” Green continues:

“The Socialist movement . . . was painstakingly organized by scores of former Populists, militant miners, and blacklisted railroad workers, who were assisted by a remarkable cadre of professional agitators and educators and inspired by occasional visits from national figures like Eugene V. Debs and Mother Jones. . . . This core of organizers grew to include indigenous dissenters. . . . a much larger group of amateur agitators who canvassed the region selling newspapers, forming reading groups, organizing locals, and making soapbox speeches.”

-from Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (p. 278). HarperCollins.

With Eugene V. Debs as its spokesman the an American form of Socialism moved out of the small circles of city immigrants— Jewish and German socialists speaking their own languages— and became American. The strongest Socialist state organization was in Oklahoma, which in 1914 had twelve thousand dues-paying members (more than New York State), and elected over a hundred Socialists to local office, including six to the Oklahoma state legislature. There were fifty-five weekly Socialist newspapers in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and summer encampments that drew thousands of people.

Arthur Schlesinger once wrote: “Liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community.” Eugene V. Debs came to the forefront because that was no longer true. Even during the supposed Age of Reform (Hofstadter) or what we now term the Progressive Era in politics (strangely that world is nothing like the progressives of our time!). Most of the reforms had just the opposite effect, they benefited Big Business and pauperized the masses. Even when Workmen’s Compensation laws were enacted, it was to the benefit of the employer, not the worker in the long run. As Zinn attests:

In this period, cities also put through reforms, many of them giving power to city councils instead of mayors, or hiring city managers. The idea was more efficiency, more stability. “The end result of the movements was to place city government firmly in the hands of the business class,” Weinstein says. What reformers saw as more democracy in city government, urban historian Samuel Hays sees as the centralization of power in fewer hands, giving business and professional men more direct control over city government. (353)

We’ve seen that with the privatization of Health Care in Obamacare, which on the surface seems a good thing, but in fact with privatization and regulation now in the hands of the Factory Insurance systems organized under regulatory systems of profit, care will not go up but is not under the control of Big Business. Our supposed reforms once again benefit business, who now has reduced the overcost of insurance it once had to pay, as well as in most of the service sector skating by with minimal or nor compensation through reducing work to part-time and disallowing full-time jobs to save on many of the remaining regulated systems in place. Everywhere you look Big Business has monopolized and unloaded its shifting responsibility on the private sector to the detriment of workers everywhere.

The outcry against the Great War forced Woodrow Wilson to act. Wilson was under the thumb of Big Business to enter the war, and the likes of Debs and other socialists, anarchists, and ant-war protestors were beginning to take a toll and sway the public at large. Congress passed, and Wilson signed, in June of 1917, the Espionage Act. From its title one would suppose it was an act against spying. However, it had a clause that provided penalties up to twenty years in prison for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S. . . .” Unless one had a theory about the nature of governments, it was not clear how the Espionage Act would be used. It even had a clause that said “nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or restrict . . . any discussion, comment, or criticism of the acts or policies of the Government. . . .” But its double-talk concealed a singleness of purpose. The Espionage Act was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote against the war. (Zinn, 365)

Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act. There were draft-age youths in his audience, and his words would “obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service.” His words were intended to do much more than that: 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. . . . In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant . . . will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind. (Thunderous and prolonged applause.) (Zinn, 367)

Debs would remain in jail through the war and not be pardoned till 1921 by President Harding.

  • June 16, 1918 — Debs made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio under the war-time espionage law. He was his own attorney and his appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing, are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison.
  • April 12, 1919 — Debs began serving his sentence in Moundsville, W. Va. State prison and was transferred to Atlanta, Ga. Federal prison two months later. His humility and friendliness and his assistance to all won him the respect and admiration of the most hardened convicts.
  • 1920 — For the fifth and last time, while a prisoner at Atlanta, he was nominated to run for president on the Socialist party ticket. Conducting his campaign from inside the prison, he was given nearly a million votes but was defeated by the Republican, Warren G. Harding. On Christmas Day, 1921 President Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served.
  • Dec. 28, 1921 — Debs arrived home in Terre Haute from prison and was given a tremendous welcome by thousand of Terre Hauteans. Debs spent his remaining days trying to recover his health which was severely undermined by prison confinement. He made several speeches, wrote many articles and finally in 1926 went to Lindlahr sanitarium just outside of Chicago.
  • Oct. 20, 1926 — Eugene V. Debs died in Lindlahr sanitarium. His body was brought back to Terre Haute where it lay in state in the Terre Haute Central Labor Temple. Great men and women from the world came over to Terre Haute for his funeral which was conducted by Norman Thomas from the front porch of the Debs home. ThIrty-eight years later, Thomas returned to Terre Haute to dedicate the Debs home as a memorial to the great humanitarian. Debs was cremated and his ashes were interred in Highland Lawn cemetery, Terre Haute, with only a simple marker. Ten years later his beloved wife, Kate, was buried beside him. Over the years, hundreds have journeyed to his grave to pay tribute to this great man whose many reforms have now become a part of the American way of life. There is hardly any American alive today, rich or poor, whose life has not been touched in some beneficent way by the influence of Eugene Victor Debs.

 

 

 

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