I want to start this week by talking about a man named Eugene Debs. You may remember Debs from your history classes. He occasionally got a brief mention in there. But you may not. But to many of my more regular listeners he’s kind of iconic.
You see, Debs was an American socialist, union activist, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and five times 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.
Debs was sent to prison for denying a federal court order during one of his many activist stints with unions, and while in prison, he read various works of socialist theory and emerged six months later as a committed adherent of the international socialist movement. Debs was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America (1897), the Social Democratic Party of America (1898) and the Socialist Party of America (1901). Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President five times, including 1900 (earning 0.6 percent of the popular vote), 1904 (3.0 percent), 1908 (2.8 percent), 1912 (6.0 percent), and 1920 (3.4 percent), the last time from a prison cell.
Debs was noted for his oratorical skills, and his speech denouncing American participation in World War I led to his second arrest in 1918. He was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 and sentenced to a ten-year term. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921. Debs died in 1926, not long after being admitted to a sanatorium due to cardiovascular problems that developed during his time in prison.
Debs was probably the most famous, and maybe notorious politician dedicated to the plight of the working class in American history. There have certainly been other activists who were equally and even more so invested in the lives of the working class, but few achieved the institutional respect and status of Eugene Debs.
Debs’s most famous speech is probably his Canton, Ohio speech. It’s alternately called his “Anti-War Speech” or his “Emancipation of the Working Class” speech because it covers a lot of ground. It’s really long, so I’m not going to do a close reading of it for you today, but there are a couple of highlights I thought I would hit. I’m not doing a lot of analysis for you today so much as sharing some of Debs’s big ideas and making connections for us, now in 2021.
He gave this anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918, protesting U.S. involvement in World War I. On June 29, he was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern (Cleveland) Division of the Northern District of Ohio for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Debs was convicted by a jury on September 12, 1918, and sentenced to federal prison. He appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court of the United States. On April 12, 1919, the Supreme Court confirmed the court’s verdict and Debs was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. In December 1921, Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served and he was released.
Debs starts this speech by stating exactly his intentions. He says, “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; a duty of love.” He is there to speak on behalf of the working class. He represents those who work – not the owners, not those who make money off of workers or the capitalist class, but those upon whose backs the economy runs.
“I have just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. 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.
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. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think.
“I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. 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. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. 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.”
It was not an easy time to be a socialist. It was not a good time to be a person who stands up for the working class or speaks out against the powerful or the institutionalized. Debs recognizes his limitations, but also seems to invite the powerful to challenge him.
He then goes on to describe the health of the Socialist movement as he has seen it in his travels.
He describes how the mainstream media misrepresents them and their cause:
“They who have been reading the capitalist newspapers realize what a capacity they have for lying. We have been reading them lately. They know all about the Socialist Party—the Socialist movement, except what is true. Only the other day they took an article that I had written—and most of you have read it—most of you members of the party, at least—and they made it appear that I had undergone a marvelous transformation. I had suddenly become changed—had in fact come to my senses; I had ceased to be a wicked Socialist, and had become a respectable Socialist, a patriotic Socialist—as if I had ever been anything else.”
“What was the purpose of this deliberate misrepresentation? It is so self-evident that it suggests itself. The purpose was to sow the seeds of dissension in our ranks; to have it appear that we were divided among ourselves; that we were pitted against each other, to our mutual undoing. But Socialists were not born yesterday. They know how to read capitalist newspapers ; and to believe exactly the opposite of what they read.
Why should a Socialist be discouraged on the eve of the greatest triumph in all the history of the Socialist movement? It is true that these are anxious, trying days for us all—testing days for the women and men who are upholding the banner of labor in the struggle of the working class of all the world against the exploiters of all the world; a time in which the weak and cowardly will falter and fail and desert. They lack the fiber to endure the revolutionary test; they fall away; they disappear as if they had never been. On the other hand, they who are animated by the unconquerable spirit of the social revolution; they who have the moral courage to stand erect and assert their convictions; stand by them; fight for them; go to jail or to hell for them, if need be —they are writing their names, in this crucial hour—they are writing their names in faceless letters in the history of mankind.”
Then he proceeds to give a historical account of the way wealthy Americans have consistently groveled before royal and wealthy foreigners. He describes the misdeeds of owners and defends the actions of workers and activists that had been unfairly treated and even imprisoned.
He observes, “Who appoints our federal judges? The people? In all the history of the country, the working class have never named a federal judge. There are 121 of these judges and every solitary one holds his position, his tenure, through the influence and power of corporate capital. The corporations and trusts dictate their appointment. And when they go to the bench, they go, not to serve, the people, but to serve the interests that place them and keep them where they are.”
He asks of his audience who are the traitors and who are working for the good of the nation?
“Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four—a kind of craps game—come seven, come ‘leven —they declared the child labor law unconstitutional—a law secured after twenty years of education and agitation on the part of all kinds of people. And yet, by a majority of one, the Supreme Court a body of corporation lawyers, with just one exception, wiped that law from the statute books, and this in our so-called democracy, so that we may continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits for the Junkers of Wall Street. And this in a country that boasts of fighting to make the world safe for democracy! The history of this country is being written in the blood of the childhood the industrial lords have murdered.”
The ruling class, he says, is ignorant.
“Cupidity is stone blind. It has no vision. The greedy, profit-seeking exploiter cannot see beyond the end of his nose. He can see a chance for an “opening”; he is cunning enough to know what graft is and where it is, and how it can be secured, but vision he has none—not the slightest. He knows nothing of the great throbbing world that spreads out in all directions. He has no capacity for literature; no appreciation of art; no soul for beauty. That is the penalty the parasites pay for the violation of the laws of life. The Rockefellers are blind. Every move they make in their game of greed but hastens their own doom. Every blow they strike at the Socialist movement reacts upon themselves. Every time they strike at us they hit themselves. It never fails. Every time they strangle a Socialist paper they add a thousand voices proclaiming the truth of the principles of socialism and the ideals of the Socialist movement. They help us in spite of themselves.”
Socialism, he claims, is growing. It is moving throughout the globe.
But then he turns to the subject of the global war in front of the nation and why that is a socialist issue.
“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.”
But Debs says if the world is going to change, it will be those on the margins who will change it.
“It is the minorities who have made the history of this world. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness. It is they, the heroic, self-sacrificing few who have made the history of the race and who have paved the way from barbarism to civilization. The many prefer to remain upon the popular side. They lack the courage and vision to join a despised minority that stands for a principle; they have not the moral fiber that withstands, endures and finally conquers.”
He asks people to think about who their real enemies are in a time of war:
“In passing I suggest that we stop a moment to think about the term “landlord, “he says.
“LANDLORD!” Lord of the Land! The lord of the land is indeed a superpatriot. This lord who practically owns the earth tells you that we are fighting this war to make the world safe for democracy—he who shuts out all humanity from his private domain; he who profiteers at the expense of the people who have been slain and mutilated by multiplied thousands, under pretense of being the great American patriot. It is he, this identical patriot who is in fact the archenemy of the people; it is he that you need to wipe from power. It is he who is a far greater menace to your liberty and your well-being than the Prussian Junkers on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.”
He finishes with a flourishing cry that victory for the workers is inevitable and that soon the owners will topple before the might of those that suffer:
“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.
In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant—the greatest in history—will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind.”
Now, I didn’t just randomly choose Debs for this week. He’s on my mind for a reason.
You’d have to have been hiding under a rock for a few months to not know that the American work force is facing some challenges right now. Some people are calling it a labor shortage. Other people are calling it a reckoning. Because everybody who isn’t hiring knows exactly what’s going on – there’s no labor shortage. There are plenty of workers out there. And there are plenty of people willing to work. But people just aren’t willing to work in absolutely crap conditions anymore. Drastically low wages, no benefits, and unpredictable schedules may mean you are putting in hours, but it doesn’t mean you are surviving. And American workers have reached a breaking point. They aren’t willing to put in 39 hours a week if it means they are still going to be impoverished and can’t afford their basic needs. This is turning out to be a huge problem for employers who have depended on taking advantage of the working class for decades.
October 2021 was dubbed “striketober” because of all of the workers who took to the picket lines to demand better wages and better working conditions for themselves. Literally hundreds of thousands of American workers were striking this month, and in the last month, because they found their working conditions untenable.
The American worker, it seems, is fed up.
In 20-30 years I wonder if economists and economic historians will look back at this period in history and say we were in the middle of one of the biggest labor movements in American history. It may not be centrally organized, but it seems to be moving from the ground up. The workers are telling management “no.”
I wouldn’t say this is an organized socialist effort. But I am reminded of Debs because in the early 1900s there was a similar movement to lift the workers up and re-take power from the owners. The result was the rise of trade unions, and for a time, things were better for American workers.
It’s hard for Gen X-ers and beyond to believe, but there was a period in American history when somebody could depend on getting a good union job, working for a few years, being able to support a family and buy a home, and retiring, without being too concerned about money.
The 80s onward did a fine job of eliminating such opportunities for people my age and younger, as the very people who benefited from that kind of security stripped it out of the cultural fabric of the nation.
And so your average American has no safety net. We’re living paycheck to paycheck, a lot of us even with really good jobs, because wages haven’t kept up with housing and prices, and owners reap all the benefits of any boom in the economy.
So Debs is on my mind, because Debs’s way of thinking is on everybody’s mind. Laborers are working to take back some of the power right now. And it is freaking the owners right out.
Debs’s ideas about the plight of the workers, and the tension between the workers and the owners, could have been written today. His critique of landlords sound like memes that I have seen circulated all over social media.
Debs was working in a different time and place. But things haven’t changed that much. And there is a labor movement afoot that echoes his timely critiques.
I don’t know if any of these current labor efforts will be successful. Ask those economists and economic historians 20-30 years from now. But as I have said on this podcast before, the current situation isn’t sustainable. Something has got to give. In Debs’s age, the unions made all the difference. What will be the deciding factor for us?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.