The Spark

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

Eugene Debs on War

Nov 12, 2018

As World War I approached, Eugene Debs began to denounce 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, running for Congress from Terre Haute, Indiana, he was asked if he opposed all wars. Debs was not one 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.”

In the Canton, Ohio speech on June 16, 1918, for which he was finally arrested, he called on the working class audience to stand up for themselves 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.

“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....”

On September 14, 1918, to the judge who sentenced him to federal prison for giving that speech, Eugene V. Debs declared: “...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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”