The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Eugene V. Debs:
He Spoke to and for the Working Class

Aug 6, 2014

On September 14, 1918, Eugene V. Debs began his address to the court with these words: “...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.... In the struggle, the unceasing struggle between the toilers and producers and their exploiters, I have tried to serve those among whom I was born, with whom I expect to share my lot until the end of my days.... I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood.... I never more clearly comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.”

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. “I have no disposition to deny anything that is true.... I admit being opposed to the present form of government. I admit being opposed to the present social system. I am doing what little I can, and have been for many years, to bring about a change that shall do away with the rule over the great body of people by a relatively small class and establish in this country an industrial and social democracy.”

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: “Years ago, I declared that there was only one war in which I would enlist and that was the war of the workers of the world against the exploiters of the world. I declared moreover that the working class has no interest in the wars declared and waged by the ruling classes of the various countries upon one another for conquest and spoils. That is my position today.”

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: “The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed by 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.”

His language may have sounded much like that of the tent preachers who toured the country at the end of the 19th 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 “Gunmen Defense Fund, sufficient to provide each member with the latest high-powered rifle, the same as used by corporation gunmen, and 500 rounds of cartridges.... You should have no more compunction in killing them [the hired assassins of the company] than if they were so many mad dogs or rattlesnakes that menaced your homes and your community.” He added that his statement was made “advisedly” and he was “responsible for every word in it.... We stand for peace, and we are unalterably opposed to violence and bloodshed if by any possible means, short of absolute degradation and self abasement, these can be prevented.... But when the law fails, and in fact becomes the bulwark of crime and oppression, then an appeal to force is not only morally justified, but becomes a patriotic duty.”

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. “I do not know of any foreign buccaneers that could come nearer skinning American workers to the bone than is now being done by the Rockefellers and their pirate pals. The workers have no country to fight for. It belongs to the capitalists and the plutocrats. Let them worry over its defense, and when they declare wars as they and they alone do, let them also go out and slaughter one another on the battlefield.”

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, “I am not a capitalist solider; I am a proletarian revolutionist.... I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that 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.”

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 vote-getting 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.”

It was his stance up to the end of his life.

Certainly, there were important aspects of the revolutionary tradition that bypassed Eugene Debs—perhaps most important how a revolutionary party could be organized. And for all the fact that he saw the political problems that were developing inside the Socialist Party, he stood aside from them, holding back from throwing his weight into a fight to correct its policies. But he will always hold a special place in the history of the working class movement. He brought socialism, the politics of the working class, to the American working class, including in every election speech he ever made. And, at every key point—every strike, every fight, every attack by the government on militants, the U.S. invasion of Mexico, the push by U.S. imperialism to get into World War I for its share of the spoils—he entered the fight on the side of the working class; he made his decisions based on the interests of the working class.