first published in Mesh Magazine #6, September/October 2004
Eugene Debs speaking to a crowd in Waterbury, CT, 1908
IN ANOTHER ERA: THE SOCIALIST CIRCLE OF EUGENE DEBS
by Matt Gonzalez
“I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone.” Eugene Debs, speaking to a jury during his trial for violating the Espionage Act, 1918.
ONCE, WHEN A LOCAL JOURNALIST was trying to marginalize and disparage me, he wrote that in another era I would have been in the Socialist circle of Eugene Debs. Not caught up on my Socialist reading, I endeavored to learn about Debs and the ideas he advocated. I wanted to know how exactly I was being insulted.
I was surprised by what I learned. Debs, of course, is best known for having been the Socialist Party’s Presidential nominee on five occasions between 1900 and 1920 (in 1912 he received 6% of the vote, his highest percentage). But I didn’t know that Debs had earlier served a term in the Indiana State Legislature–as a Democrat. Later, in 1893, he formed the American Railroad Union (ARU), the first industrial union in the United States, and led a successful 18-day strike against the Great Northern Railway, winning better working conditions for his members.
American Railway Union 5/8ths inch, blue & gold enamelled, lapel pin, circa 1893.
In 1894, Debs’ union joined the Pullman boycott in Chicago, in effect shutting down the western railroads. In those years the Pullman workers were predominantly ex-slaves. The Pullman Palace Car Company had just slashed their wages by 25% and cut the workforce by 40% to boost profits. Debs’ union joined their struggle. President Grover Cleveland, citing the need for the government to have uninterrupted mail delivery, intervened, and the Federal Court in Chicago ordered Debs’ union members back to work. The US Army was called out and fired on a crowd of thousands of workers in Chicago, wounding many and killing thirteen.
Debs violated the injunction and was jailed. Represented by Clarence Darrow, he was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to six months in jail (which he served in Woodstock, Illinois). During his incarceration, Debs was visited by the editor of the American Socialist newspaper, Victor Berger, and introduced to socialism. Upon his release, Debs was greeted by thousands in Chicago.
My most striking discovery, though, was learning that Debs was later jailed under the Espionage Act, for speaking out against the First World War. Amazingly, although Debs did not advocate for violence of any kind, merely decrying the imperialist nature of the war won him a federal prison sentence. He had given the offending speech in Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, esteemed in legal circles today, delivered the opinion of the Court that upheld Debs’ conviction and, in effect, denied his right to free speech. Justice Holmes found that Debs had “obstructed the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States” because he spoke out against the war.
The 1900 Social Democratic Party ticket: Eugene Debs & Job Harriman.
Specifically, Justice Holmes cited two passages uttered by Debs: “You need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder” and “Don’t worry about the charge of treason to your masters; but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves.” Shockingly, these remarks resulted in Debs being sentenced to 10 years in prison with all nine justices of the US Supreme Court concurring in the judgment – a decision worthy of ridicule today and a stain on the legacy of the liberal Justice Holmes.
The 1904 & 1908 Socialist Party of America ticket: Eugene Debs & Benjamin Hanford.
His time in prison did not stop him. In 1920, Debs ran for President from prison in Atlanta (as prisoner 9653), winning nearly a million votes. (Democratic President Woodrow Wilson ignored the recommendation of his Attorney General that Debs’ sentence be set aside. Eventually, after having served 32 months in jail, Republican President Warren Harding ordered Debs released in 1921.)
As in all of his campaigns for President, Debs argued for women’s suffrage, housing and welfare legislation, and ending child labor practices. He supported the creation of a Federal Department of Education and a Department of Labor.
He advocated for a graduated income tax, the repeal of the electoral college, public works programs for the unemployed, minimum wage laws, proportional representation, universal health care, public unemployment insurance, and a 40-hour work week. He believed in the collective ownership of land where practical and taxation on speculative profits (in accord with the theories of Henry George). Interestingly, Debs never aligned himself with the political program of the Soviet Union. Nowhere could I find a single view held by Debs that is radical or extreme by today’s standards. (In fact, the only position I took issue with is his opposition to the Supreme Courts’ authority to declare a Congressional law unconstitutional, ironically popular in many conservative circles today.)
Nevertheless, Eugene Debs’ name often gets invoked in reference to socialism, and implicit in the reference is how “far out” Debs was, or how utopian his vision was. But Debs’ life speaks to the pace of change. By looking backwards we see a man who advocated for things that today are rather staid. It’s hard to conjure up what was so threatening about him. And it raises questions about the marginalization of the left today by those who argue that progressive ideas are out of the mainstream.
The 1912 Sociaist Party of America ticket: Eugene Debs & Emil Seidel.
Recently at a National Campus Green convention in Davis, independent vicepresidential candidate Peter Camejo noted how James Birney, the abolitionist who ran for President in the 1840s on the Liberty Party ticket, actually received fewer votes (calculated by percentage) than Ralph Nader did in 2000. It is shocking to think that the only party advocating an end to slavery could only attract less than one percent of the national vote. This is a stark reminder that “radical” is a relative term. It makes me hopeful that today’s unpopular and so-called radical ideas could very well receive majority support some day.
The 1920 Socialist Party of America ticket: Eugene Debs & Seymour Stedman at the Atlanta Federal Prison where Debs was incarcerated.
I now appreciate how placing me in the Socialist circle of Eugene Debs is probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. And, by the way, today Debs’ home in Terre Haute, Indiana is a National Historic Landmark.
Eugene Debs leaving the White House after meeting with Republican President Warren Harding, who commuted Debs’ Espionage Act of 1917 sentence to time served, December 26, 1921.
Here is a short excerpt of the speech Eugene Debs gave in Canton, Ohio in 1918:
“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 theworking 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.”
1896 agrarian-populist’s People’s Party ribbon issued by the “Debs Headquarters” on Clark Avenue in Chicago. Made of linen and measuring 2 1/4″ x 5 1/4″, the ribbon declares “No Fusion! No Trimmers! No Traitors!” encouraging the nomination of Debs for President. Ultimately the party selected the Democratic Party’s nominee, William Jennings Bryan, and their own Vice-Presidential nominee Tom Watson.