poses with N. Krishna of Bombay (left) and Frank P. O'Hare (right), 1907. Photograph by Bell, Girard, Kansas. Gift of Ann C. Baxter
"The old form of trade unionism," cried Debs, "no longer meets the demands of the working class ... It is now positively reactionary, and is maintained, not in the interests of the workers who support it, but in the interests of the capitalist class who exploit the workers." So long as the working class was parceled out among thousands of separate unions, united economic and political action would be impossible. The IWW provided new hope.
He was a popular socialist leader who championed the workers cause and in return even those who politically disagreed with him on the left praised him.
My favorite Debs quote which is still relevant today;
"When the working class unites, there will be a lot of jobless labor leaders." Eugene Debs, 1905 speech to the IWW Convention
We could use a Debs today. Especially in the U.S. Presidential Elections. There is a need for a third party and Debs recognized that it should be a party of the working people. The other two of course represent the ruling classes regardless of how inclusive they may be.
"The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles." Eugene V. Debs
Debs was one of the most prominent labor organizers and political activists of his time. He was also nominated as the Socialist Party's candidate for president five times. His voting tallies over his first four campaigns effectively illustrate the remarkable growth of the party during that volatile time period:
What This Country Needs . . .
Sunday, May 6, 2007; Page D02
NEW YORK -- The politician took the stage amid red balloons and American flags and spoke his famous fighting words: "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want and get it."
With this, Eugene V. Debs last week announced his sixth bid for U.S. president
Dead man running.
The real Eugene V. Debs passed away in 1926, after five unsuccessful bids for the presidency from 1900 to 1920. But actor Brian Pickett is staging a modest, mock presidential run in his name, starting with Wednesday night's campaign kickoff in a tiny, crowded bar in Manhattan's East Village.
The actual Debs ran on the Socialist Party ticket -- the fifth time from a prison cell -- after being convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking out against World War I. Though never even close to being elected, he became a national figure who galvanized people with his fervor and idealism. Pickett's theatrical performance, to continue in various forms until the 2008 election, "will resurrect this fiery leader from historical bondage," according to the campaign literature.
The quadrennial season of windbaggery is upon us. Canned speeches, quick retractions, the same old sound bites -- we're in for months and months of it. The more we hear, the more we pine for something authentic. This small-time utopian campaign speaks to that frustration, said Pickett, 28, who teaches drama to New York public school students and has appeared in independent theater productions.
Pickett, like Debs, is tall and wiry. You could even say his gaze echoes Debs biographer Nick Salvatore's description: "piercing yet loving." On Wednesday, Pickett wore a three-piece suit with watch fob and spectacles. As the race develops, he plans to work with campaign manager Sophie Nimmannit, 27, the "Red Genie" -- who wore a short red dress, red feather hat, slash of red lipstick and a scarf printed with the word "Vote" -- in street, bar and theater performances in New York and other cities ( http:/
"I wish you were all socialists," Pickett told his audience of about 35 people. They were artists, activists, at least one Wall Streeter -- and they laughed. Even in Debs's time, many of those who came to hear his impassioned speeches were not socialists. He attracted working- and middle-class people and whipped them into such a frenzy that at one event, according to Salvatore, in the book "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist," one woman asked another, "Is that Debs?" and the first answered, "Oh no, that ain't Debs -- when Debs comes out, you'll think it's Jesus Christ."
Debs, originally from Terre Haute, Ind., married an upper-class woman who became famous for wearing diamonds to visit him in jail, and he grew more radical as he got older. His life spanned that brief window when socialism was not yet a dirty word but rather a new idea from Europe. He tried to Americanize it, claiming Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as precursors, wrote Salvatore. America was becoming the greatest industrial power of the world, and the questions socialism addressed were on everyone's mind. In 1912, Debs drew 6 percent of the national presidential vote.
Things have changed. The socialist demands of Debs's time -- the eight-hour workday, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work -- have become standard, if not always applied. The word "socialist" seldom comes up. And there are new problems.
"Oh where, oh where have my benefits gone, oh where, oh where can they be?" sang a character in Wednesday's show. The finely dressed Capitalist chimed in: "My PDA's beeping, I'm afraid I can't stay. I'm self-employed and I work all day."
"I would vote for him in a New York minute because he speaks his mind," said Andy Shulman, 34, the actor playing the Capitalist, who works a Wall Street day job. He adds that he is not interested in the radical or extreme, but in someone without the slickness and distance of the big campaign.
"Has a dead man ever run for president?" asked Nola Strand, 24, who played accordion for the show. "Dead men have voted."
Pickett's idea came from television's "West Wing," when Jimmy Smits's character, Matthew V. Santos, ran for president, and fans of the show donned "Vote Santos" shirts and bought "Vote Santos" mugs. If a fictional character could gain a constituency, why not a dead one?
But the ardors of a Debs campaign could wear on him.
In 1900, Debs crisscrossed the country and slept upright on long train trips, refusing to take a Pullman berth with a bed because of labor problems at that company. In 1908, he traveled on his own Red Special train. His speeches could run to two hours, and he would often give 10 a day.
Pickett said he's not sure he has the funds to command a 2008 Red Special. He cut Debs's speeches to something like sound bites, which often sound familiar, except for the florid language. (On war: "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.")
Eugene V. Debs
Harper's Weekly, August 15, 1896
"How I Became a Socialist"
Eugene V. Debs
It all seems very strange to me now, taking a backward look, that my vision was so focalized on single objective point that I utterly failed to see what now appears as clear as the noonday sun.... The skirmish lines of the American Railway Union were well advanced. A series of small battles were fought and won without the loss of a man.... Next followed the final shock--the Pullman strike--and the American Railway Union again won, clear and complete. The combined corporations were paralized and helpless. At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes....
An army of detectives, thugs, and murderers were equipped with badge and bludgeon and turned loose; old hulks of cars were fired; the alarm bells tolled; the people were terrified; the most startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered; and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago's white throat was in the clutch of a red mob; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and headquarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the "lawful" authorities of the federal government; and when in company with my loyal comrades I found myself in Cook County jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder ... I had another exceedingly practical and impressive lesson in Socialism.
The Chicago jail sentences were followed by six months at Woodstock and it was here that Socialism gradually laid hold of me in its own irresistible fashion. Books and pamphlets and letters from Socialists came by every mail and I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered...
--From the New York Comrade, April 1902, in Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (New York: International Publisher, 1928)
"Will it succeed?" has been the uppermost question in the minds of thousands of people regarding the effort in co-operation at Ruskin. "Can such an enterprise be made permanent, even if it does attain material success?" and "Will the men and women engaged in it be able to hold together and work together for their common interests?" ... Ruskin HAS SUCCEEDED, and the measure and kind of its success INSURES ITS PERMANENCY and the accomplishing of greater things in the future. We are now in the material stage of development and the close of the first year of co-operation shows a favorable termination to the enterprises started in that time. The year began with the establishment of a co-operative hotel on the old site, it closes with the occupancy of the commodious and substantial structure, herewith illustrated, on the new. THE COMING NATION publishing house is the largest building in this section of Tennessee. It is a frame structure, built entirely of oak, sawed from timber taken from our own land and in our own saw mill. Everything entering into its construction that possibly could be made by Ruskinites is a product of co-operative labor.... --The Coming Nation, July 18, 1896
Not "free silver," not "free trade," not "free gold," not "free high tariff" is what the working class needs. All of these "free" things are like free coffins to be buried in. Our slogan is "Free the Tools of Production."
--The People, New York, in Public Opinion, August 6, 1896
Born in Indiana in 1855, Debs went to work for the railroad at age 14 but soon gave it up at his mother's urging. He became active in the union movement forming the American Railway Union, the nation's largest, in 1893. Arrested during the Pullman Strike of 1894, he served six months behind bars. In jail, Debs converted to socialism. He helped found the Social Democratic Party of America in 1897, the Socialist Party in 1901 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. "I am for socialism because I am for humanity" he declared.
He opposed America's entrance into World War I and denounced the Espionage Act designed to silence all antiwar sentiment. In 1918, he received a 10-year prison sentence for his public opposition to the war. At his trial, Debs admitted he spoke the words the federal government considered traitorous and addressed the jury in his own defense. "I am doing what little I can to do away with the rule of the great body of people by a relatively small class and establish in this country industrial and social democracy." A guilty verdict sent Debs to the federal prison in Atlanta.
In 1920, the Socialist Party again nominated him as their presidential candidate and over 915,000 voted for prisoner #9653. President Wilson vigorously denied a request for Deb's pardon in 1921. Finally, Warren G. Harding released Debs under a general amnesty on Christmas Day 1921. Harding asked the old socialist to stop by the White House. "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally" Harding remarked at their meeting. Debs died in 1926.References: Currie, Harold W., Eugene V. Debs (1976); Morgan, H. Wayne, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1973).
Date of Recording: 1904
|Duration: 6:50 |
Call Number: VVL 077
This speech was originally delivered in 1904 and shortly thereafter recorded at one of Edison's sound recording studios. By this time Debs was a leading figure in the U.S. Socialist party, and in this impassioned speech describes a time when the socialist party will "win the world" from the 'frenzied revelry of capitalism." "What man," Debs asks, "unless his brain be atrophied and has become blinded can fail to perceive the impending crisis of a capitalist modern age?" The central metaphor of this speech is "the machine," which refers to the the proliferation of new labor-saving technologies, inventions that Debs saw as fundamental to the social revolution. Here Debs celebrates technology as a great equalizer and emancipator of the working classes: "The mute message of the machine, could but the worker understand and could he but heed it, child of his brain, the machine has come to free and not to enslave; to save and not destroy the author of its being... The machine compels the grand army of toil to rally to its tender, to recognize its power."
In 1912, four candidates battled to become President of the United States. Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, a moderate governor, represented the two major parties. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, angered over what he felt was a betrayal of his policies by Taft, his hand-picked successor, abandoned the Republican party and founded the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. While all four candidates appealed directly to working-class voters, whose votes would prove decisive, by far the most radical platform in the campaign was that of the Socialist Party nominee, Eugene V. Debs. Running for the fourth time, Debs called for the abolition of capitalism rather than for its reform. In this speech accepting the party’s nomination he proclaimed the Socialist Party “the party of progress, the party of the future.” Debs finished last in the contest, receiving 900,000 votes.
By Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Debs delivering his legendary speech in Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918.
Comrades, friends and fellow-workers, for this very cordial greeting, this very hearty reception, I thank you all with the fullest appreciation of your interest in and your devotion to the cause for which I am to speak to you this afternoon.
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.
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 cannot 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.
If it had not been for the men and women who, in the past, have had the moral courage to go to jail, we would still be in the jungles.
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.
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.
If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.
Statement to the Court
Eugene Debs, September 18, 1918
Eugene Debs delivered his Statement to the Court to the Federal Court of Cleveland, Ohio on September 18, 1918 after being convicted of violating the Sedition Act, a protective law passed by Congress to promote the war by banning anti-war propaganda and rhetoric. Under this new law many socialists were unjustly persecuted and stripped of their freedom of speech. As an active socialist, Debs became concerned and attacked American capitalism in an effort to protect first amendment rights. This speech was a plea in his defense for his and other socialists’ freedom of speech. Introduction by Mary Litton Fowler.
Enacts movement from rupture to constitution through identification with marginalized class
Your Honor,years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Invokes revolutionary tradition
I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions…
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…
Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison…
Mammon: Gospel allusion (oppositional tradition accepted by and borrowed from dominant public)
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
Invokes providence; expresses sense of rupture between land of plenty and suffering of millions; transfers guilt from providence to society
In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…
I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.
There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists, loyal, devoted adherents to this cause, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color, or sex. They are all making common cause. They are spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order. They are waiting, watching, and working hopefully through all the hours of the day and the night. They are still in a minority. But they have learned how to be patient and to bide their time. The feel—they know, indeed—that the time is coming, in spite of all opposition, all persecution, when this emancipating gospel will spread among all the peoples, and when this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greates social and economic change in history.
In that day we shall have the universal commonwealth—the harmonious cooperation of every nation with every other nation on earth…
Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.
I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
I am now prepared to receive your sentence.