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Eugene V. Debs

Debs in 1897

Member of the Indiana Senate
from the 8th district
In office
1880–1884

Born November 5, 1855(1855-11-05)
Terre Haute, Indiana, U.S.
Died October 20, 1926 (aged 70)
Elmhurst, Illinois, U.S.
Political party Socialist
Other political
affiliations
Social Democratic
Democratic
Spouse(s) Kate Metzel (m. 1885)
Religion Christian[1]

Eugene Victor Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as candidate for President of the United States as a member of the Social Democratic Party in 1900. Later he was a presidential candidate as a member of the Socialist Party of America in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920.[2] Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs would eventually become one of the best-known socialists in the United States.

In the early part of his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party of the United States. It was during this time that he was elected as a member of the Indiana General Assembly, marking the beginning of his career as a politician. After working with several smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union(ARU), the nation's first industrial union. As a member of the ARU, Debs was involved and later imprisoned for his part in the famed Pullman Strike, when workers struck the Pullman Palace Car Company over a pay cut. The effects of the strike resulted in President Grover Cleveland calling members of the United States Army into Chicago, Illinois, which led to Debs' arrest and imprisonment.

Debs' political views turned to socialism after he read the works of Karl Marx. He grew to be one of the most influential socialists; the reputation helping him to gain five nominations for president. During the latter part of his life, Debs was imprisoned again after being arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 during the First Red Scare for speaking against American involvement in World War I. He was later pardoned by President Warren G. Harding, and died not long after being admitted to a sanitarium.

Contents

Early life

Eugene Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Bettrich Debs, who both immigrated to the United States from Colmar, Alsace, France. His father, who was born to a prosperous family in France, owned a textile mill and meat market. Eugene Victor Debs was named after the French authors Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.[3]

Debs dropped out of high school at age of 14 to work as a painter in railroad yards. In 1870, he became a boilerman. During his time as a boilerman, he attended a local business school during the night.[4] He returned home in 1874 to work as a grocery clerk. The next year he became a founding member and secretary of a new lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.[4] He rose quickly in the Brotherhood, becoming first an assistant editor for their magazine and then the editor and Grand Secretary in 1880. At the same time, he became a prominent figure in the community; in 1884 he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat, serving for one term.[4]

The railroad brotherhoods were comparatively conservative unions, more focused on providing fellowship and services than in collective bargaining. Debs gradually became convinced of the need for a more unified and confrontational approach. After stepping down as Brotherhood Grand Secretary in 1893, he organized one of the first industrial unions in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894, winning most of its demands.

Eugene Debs married Kate Metzel on June 9, 1885. The couple had no children.[4] Their home still stands in Terre Haute, within Indiana State University.

Pullman Strike

Striking American Railway Union members confront Illinois National Guard troops in Chicago, Illinois, during Debs' Rebellion in 1894.

Debs became involved in the Pullman Strike in 1894, which grew out of a compensation dispute by the workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The Pullman Company, due to falling revenue caused by the economic Panic of 1893, had cut the wages of its employees by 28%. The workers, many of whom were already members of the American Railway Union, appealed to the Union at its convention in Chicago, Illinois, for support.[2] Debs tried to persuade the Union members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the Union, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them, including cars containing U.S. Mail.[5] Debs finally decided to take part in the strike, which was endorsed by almost all members of the ARU in the immediate area of Chicago. Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs' eventual leadership, the strike came to be known as "Debs' Rebellion".[3]

The U.S. federal government intervened, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the U.S. Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland sent the United States Army to enforce the injunction. The entrance of the Army was enough to break the strike; 13 strikers were killed, and thousands were blacklisted.[3] An estimated $80-million worth of property was damaged, and Debs was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the injunction and sent to federal prison.[3]

Debs was represented by Clarence Darrow, hitherto a corporate lawyer for the railroad company, who "switched sides" to represent Debs. Darrow, a leading American lawyer and civil libertarian, had resigned his corporate position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial sacrifice in order to do so. A Supreme Court case decision, In re Debs, later upheld the right of the federal government to issue the injunction.

Socialist leader

Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

At the time of his arrest for mail obstruction, Debs was not yet a socialist. While jailed in Woodstock, Illinois, he read the works of Karl Marx, whose ideological stances widely influenced socialism.[6] After Debs' release from prison in 1895, he started his Socialist political career. Already famous for his work as a union leader with the American Railway Union, Debs continued to gain popularity when he helped to found the Social Democracy of America. One year later this group split and Debs went with the majority faction to found the Socialist Democratic Party of the United States, also called the Social Democratic Party. Debs was elected chairman of the Executive Board of the National Council, the board which governed the party. Although the party did not have a sole figure that governed its actions, Debs' position as chairman and his notoriety gave him the status of party figurehead.[7] Debs' popularity with the party led to his nomination as a candidate for president of the United States in 1900 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. Along with his running mate Job Harriman, Debs received 87,945 votes—0.6% of the popular vote—and no electoral votes.[8] He was later the Socialist Party of America candidate for president in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 (the final time from prison). In his showing in the 1904 election, Debs received 402,810 votes, which was 2.98% of the popular vote. Debs received no electoral votes, and, with vice presidential candidate Benjamin Hanford, ultimately finished third overall.[9]

In the 1908 election, Debs again ran on the same ticket as Benjamin Hanford. While receiving a slightly higher number of votes in the popular vote, 420,852, he received 2.83% of the popular vote. Again Debs received no electoral votes.[10] Debs received 5.99% of the popular vote (a total of 901,551 votes) in 1912, while his total of 913,693 votes in the 1920 campaign remains the all-time high for a Socialist Party candidate.[11] Running alongside Emil Seidel, Debs again received no electoral votes.[12]

Although he received some success as a third-party candidate, Debs was largely dismissive of the electoral process; he distrusted the political bargains that Victor Berger and other "Sewer Socialists" had made in winning local offices. He put much more value on organizing workers into unions, favoring unions that brought together all workers in a given industry over those organized by the craft skills workers practiced. Debs saw the working class as the one class to organize, educate, and emancipate itself by itself.[13]

Founding the IWW

After his work with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the American Railway Union, Debs' next major work in organizing a labor union came during the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW). On June 27, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois, Debs and other influential union leaders including Big Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, and Daniel De León, leader of the Socialist Labor Party, held what Haywood called the "Continental Congress of the working class". Haywood stated: "We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class...",[14] and for Debs: "We are here to perform a task so great that it appeals to our best thought, our united energies, and will enlist our most loyal support; a task in the presence of which weak men might falter and despair, but from which it is impossible to shrink without betraying the working class."[15]

Socialists split with the IWW

Although the IWW was built on the basis of uniting workers of industry, a rift began between the union and the Socialist Party. It started when the electoral wing of the Socialist Party, led by Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit, became irritated with speeches by Haywood.[16] In December 1911, Haywood told a Lower East Side audience at New York's Cooper Union that parliamentary Socialists were "step-at-a-time people whose every step is just a little shorter than the preceding step." It was better, Haywood said, to "elect the superintendent of some branch of industry, than to elect some congressman to the United States Congress."[17] In response, Hillquit attacked the IWW as "purely anarchistic..."[18]

The Cooper Union speech was the beginning of a split between Bill Haywood and the Socialist Party, leading to the split between the factions of the IWW, one faction loyal to the Socialist Party, and the other to Haywood.[18] The rift presented a problem for Debs, who was influential in both the IWW and the Socialist Party. The final straw between Haywood and the Socialist Party came during the Lawrence textile strike when, disgusted with the decision of the elected officials in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to send police who subsequently used their clubs on children, Haywood publicly declared that "I will not vote again" until such a circumstance was rectified.[19] Haywood was purged from the National Executive Committee by passage of an amendment that focused on the direct action and sabotage tactics advocated by the IWW.[20] Debs was probably the only person who could have saved Haywood's seat.[21]

In 1906, when Haywood had been on trial for his life in Idaho, Debs had described him as "the Lincoln of Labor" and called for Haywood to run against Theodore Roosevelt for president of the United States.[22], but times had changed and Debs, facing a split in the Party, chose to echo Hillquit's words, accusing the IWW of representing anarchy.[23] Debs thereafter stated that he had opposed the amendment, but that once it was adopted it should be obeyed.[24] Debs remained friendly to Haywood and the IWW after the expulsion, despite their perceived differences over IWW tactics.[23]

Eugene V. Debs with Max Eastman and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1918

Prior to Haywood's dismissal, the Socialist Party membership had reached an all-time high of 135,000. One year later, four months after Haywood was recalled, the membership dropped to 80,000. The reformists in the Socialist Party attributed the decline to the departure of the "Haywood element", and predicted that the party would recover. It did not; in the election of 1912 many of the Socialists who had been elected to public office lost their seats.[24]

Leadership style

Debs was noted by many to be a charismatic speaker who sometimes called on the vocabulary of Christianity and much of the oratorical style of evangelism—even though he was generally disdainful of organized religion.[25] As Heywood Broun noted in his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow Socialist: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."[26]

Although sometimes called "King Debs",[27] Debs himself was not wholly comfortable with his standing as a leader. As he told an audience in Utah in 1910:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.[28]

Later life and death

Debs delivering a speech in Canton in 1918

Debs' speeches against the Wilson administration and the war earned the undying enmity of President Woodrow Wilson, who later called Debs a "traitor to his country."[29] On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, urging resistance to the military draft of World War I. He was arrested on June 30 and charged with 10 counts of sedition. His trial defense called no witnesses, asking instead that Debs be allowed to address the court in his defense. That unusual request was granted, and Debs spoke for 2 hours. He was found guilty on September 12. At his sentencing hearing on September 14, he again addressed the court, and his speech has become a classic. Heywood Broun, a liberal journalist and not a Debs partisan, said it was "one of the most beautiful and moving passage in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anyone told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it."[30]

He said in part:[31]

Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means....

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and 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, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul....

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully 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 of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into 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, and 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 look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

Debs was sentenced on November 18, 1918 to ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life.[2] Debs presented what has been called his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:

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.[32]

Debs appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In its ruling on Debs v. United States, the court examined several statements Debs had made regarding World War I and socialism. While Debs had carefully guarded his speeches in an attempt to comply with the Espionage Act, the Court found he still had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and military recruitment. Among other things, the Court cited Debs' praise for those imprisoned for obstructing the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated in his opinion that little attention was needed since Debs' case was essentially the same as that of Schenck v. United States, in which the Court had upheld a similar conviction.[33]

Clifford Berryman's cartoon depiction of Debs' presidential run

Debs went to prison on April 13, 1919.[4] In protest of his jailing, Charles Ruthenberg led a parade of unionists, socialists, anarchists and communists to march on May 1 (May Day) 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. The event quickly broke into the violent May Day Riots of 1919. Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 write-in votes (3.4%),[34] slightly less than he had won in 1912, when he received 6%, the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S.[4][35] His time in prison also inspired Debs to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and appeared in his only book, Walls and Bars, with several added chapters. It was published posthumously.[2]

Debs leaving the White House, the day after being released from prison in 1921.

In March 1919 President Wilson asked Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer for his opinion on clemency for Debs, but offered his own: "I doubt the wisdom and public effect of such an action." Palmer generally favored releasing people convicted under the wartime security acts, but when he consulted with Debs' prosecutors—even those with records as defenders of civil liberties—assured him that Debs' conviction was correct and his sentence appropriate.[36] The President and his Attorney General both believed that public opinion opposed clemency and that releasing Debs could strengthen Wilson's opponents in the debate over the ratification of the peace treaty. Palmer proposed clemency in August and October 1920 without success.[37]

At one point Wilson wrote: "While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them....This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."[38] In January 1921, Palmer, citing Debs' deteriorating health, proposed to President Wilson that Debs receive a presidential pardon freeing him on February 12, Lincoln's birthday. President Wilson returned the paperwork after writing "Denied" across it.[39]

On December 23, 1921, President Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day. He did not issue a pardon. A White House statement summarized the administration's view of Debs' case: "There is no question of his guilt....He was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did. He is an old man, not strong physically. He is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent."[40] When Debs was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with "a roar of cheers" and a crowd of 50,000 greeted his return to Terre Haute to the accompaniment of band music.[41] En route home, Debs was warmly received at the White House by Harding, who greeted him by saying: "Well, I've heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally."[42]

In 1924, Debs was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Finnish Socialist Karl H. Wiik on the grounds that "Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism."[43]

In the fall of 1926, Debs was admitted to a sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois.[2] He died there on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.[2][41]

Legacy

Eugene Debs helped motivate the American Left as a measure of political opposition to corporations and World War I. American socialists, communists, and anarchists honor his compassion for the labor movement and motivation to have the average working man build socialism without large state involvement.[44] Several books have been written about his life as an inspirational American socialist.[45] On May 22, 1962, Debs' home was purchased by the Eugene V. Debs Foundation for $9,500 and the work of making it into a Debs memorial was begun. In 1965 it was made an official historic site of the state of Indiana, and in 1966 it was made an official National Historic Landmark of the National Parks system of the Department of Interior of the United States. The preservation of the museum is monitored regularly by the National Park Service.[46] Debs is a member of the Labor Hall of Fame.[47]

References

  1. ^ "Eugene V. Debs". Nndb.com. http://www.nndb.com/people/156/000057982/. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Eugene V. Debs". Time (magazine). November 1, 1926. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,722648,00.html. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "As it must to all men, Death came last week to Eugene Victor Debs, Socialist." 
  3. ^ a b c d Bill Roberts. "The Socialist Worker". http://www.socialistworker.org/2007-2/638/638_12_Debs.shtml. Retrieved 2007-07-19. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Eugene Victor Debs 1855-1926". http://www.eugenevdebs.com/pages/history.html. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  5. ^ Latham, Charles. "Eugene V. Debs Papers, 1881–1940". Indiana Historical Society. http://www.indianastoryteller.com/Library/manuscripts/collection_guides/SC0493.html. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  6. ^ Eugene V. Debs and the U.S. socialist tradition SocialistWorker.org. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  7. ^ The Social Democracy of America Party History Marxist History. Retrieved July 29, 2008.
  8. ^ "1900 Presidential General Election Results". http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1900. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  9. ^ 1904 Presidential General Election Results. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  10. ^ 1908 Presidential General Election Results. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  11. ^ Chace, James (2005). 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0743273559. 
  12. ^ 1912 Presidential General Election Results. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  13. ^ Eugene Victor Debs (1855- 1926) Democracy and Socialism. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  14. ^ The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, 1929, by William D. Haywood, pp. 181.
  15. ^ Eugene V. Debs Speech at the Founding of the IWW Documents for the Study of American History. Retrieved July 29, 2008.
  16. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 156.
  17. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 157.
  18. ^ a b Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 159.
  19. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 183.
  20. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 200.
  21. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 199.
  22. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 109.
  23. ^ a b Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, William Dudley Haywood, 1929, page 279.
  24. ^ a b Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 199.
  25. ^ Salvatore, Nick (1982). Eugene V. Debs:Citizen and Socialist. Illini Books. 
  26. ^ Jesus and Eugene Debs Jim McGuiggan. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  27. ^ ""King" Debs". Harper's Weekly. July 14, 1894. http://www.catskillarchive.com/rrextra/sk94debs.Html. Retrieved 2006-04-21. 
  28. ^ Learn About Eugene Debs Texas Labor. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  29. ^ Loewen, James W., Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29
  30. ^ David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 267-9
  31. ^ David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), 269-70
  32. ^ Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act Marxists. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  33. ^ Eugene V. Debs and the Idea of Socialism The Progressive. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  34. ^ "Election of 1920". Travel and History. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h890.html. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  35. ^ "Election of 1912". Travel and History. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h887.html. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  36. ^ Stanley Coben, A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician (NY: Columbia University Press, 1963), 200-3
  37. ^ Coben, 202
  38. ^ Burl Noggle, Into the Twenties: The United States form Armistice to Normalcy (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 113
  39. ^ Ginger, Bending Cross, 405
  40. ^ "Harding Frees Debs and 23 Others Held for War Violations". New York Times. December 24, 1921. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9B0DE2D71539E133A25757C2A9649D946095D6CF. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  41. ^ a b "Eugene V. Debs Dies After Long Illness". New York Times. October 21, 1926. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40812F7345E1B7A93C3AB178BD95F428285F9. Retrieved 2008-05-17. 
  42. ^ John Wesley Dean, Warren G. Harding (NY: Henry Holt, 2004) 128
  43. ^ Nobel Foundation. "The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Peace, 1901-1955". http://nobelprize.org/peace/nomination/nomination.php?action=show&showid=1347. Retrieved 2006-04-21. 
  44. ^ "Eugene V. Debs hero". Thirdworldtraveler.com. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Heroes/EugeneDebsSocialism.html. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 
  45. ^ "Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent (9780674027923): Dr. Ernest Freeberg: Books". Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Democracys-Prisoner-Eugene-Great-Dissent/dp/0674027922. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 
  46. ^ [1]
  47. ^ "U.S. Department of Labor - Labor Hall of Fame - Eugene V. Debs". Dol.gov. http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/laborhall/1990_debs.htm. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 

Further reading

  • Dave Burns, "The Soul of Socialism: Christianity, Civilization, and Citizenship in the Thought of Eugene Debs," Labor 2008 5(2):83-116
  • Debs, Eugene. Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. University Press of the Pacific, 2002. ISBN 1-4102-0154-6
  • Debs, Eugene. Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Edited by J. Robert Constantine. University of Illinois Press, 1995. ISBN 0-252-06324-4.
  • Debs, Eugene. Walls & Bars: Prisons & Prison Life In The "Land Of The Free". Charles H. Kerr Publishers Company, 1983 edition ISBN 0-88286-010-0. 2000 edition ISBN 0-88286-248-0
  • Debs, Eugene V. The Papers of Eugene V. Debs, 1834-1945: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition. Microfilming Corporation of America, 1983. ISBN 0-667-00699-0
  • Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. Rutgers University Press: 1949. Reprinted by Thomas Jefferson University Press: 1992. The reprint edition has numerous historic photographs and an introduction by J. Robert Constantine.
  • Radosh, Ronald (ed). Great Lives Observed: Debs. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. ISBN 0-131-97681-8
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Reprinted by University of Illinois Press, 1984. ISBN 0-252-01148-1
  • Stone, Irving. Adversary in the House. Doubleday: 1947. ISBN 0-385-04003-2
  • Young, Marguerite. Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0-679-42757-0

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Socialist Party of America Presidential candidate
1900 (lost), 1904 (lost), 1908 (lost), 1912 (lost)
Succeeded by
Allan L. Benson
Preceded by
Allan L. Benson
Socialist Party of America Presidential candidate
1920 (lost)
Succeeded by
Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (Progressive Party)
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Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.
I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.

Eugene Victor Debs (5 November 185520 October 1926) was an American labor and political leader and five-time Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States.

Contents

Sourced

I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are.
Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most — that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least.
  • The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with 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 universal change.
    • Open letter to the American Railway Union, Chicago Railway Times (1 January 1897)
  • I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.
    • As quoted in "Life of Eugene V. Debs" by Stephen Marion Reynolds, in Debs : His Life, Writings and Speeches (1908) edited by Bruce Rogers and Stephen Marion Reynolds, p. 71
  • Wherever capitalism appears, in pursuit of its mission of exploitation, there will Socialism, fertilized by misery, watered by tears, and vitalized by agitation be also found, unfurling its class-struggle banner and proclaiming its mission of emancipation.
  • Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thraldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.
    • "An Ideal Labor Press," The Metal Worker (May 1904)
  • Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most — that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least.
    • Walls and Bars (1927)

Outlook for Socialism in the United States (1900)

Published in the International Socialist Review (September 1900)
Socialism is very properly recognized by the capitalist class as the one cloud upon the horizon which portends an end to the system in which they have waxed fat, insolent and despotic through the exploitation of their countless wage-working slaves.
  • Of course, Socialism is violently denounced by the capitalist press and by all the brood of subsidized contributors to magazine literature, but this only confirms the view that the advance of Socialism is very properly recognized by the capitalist class as the one cloud upon the horizon which portends an end to the system in which they have waxed fat, insolent and despotic through the exploitation of their countless wage-working slaves.
  • What the workingmen of the country are profoundly interested in is the private ownership of the means of production and distribution, the enslaving and degrading wage-system in which they toil for a pittance at the pleasure of their masters and are bludgeoned, jailed or shot when they protest — this is the central, controlling, vital issue of the hour, and neither of the old party platforms has a word or even a hint about it.
    As a rule, large capitalists are Republicans and small capitalists are Democrats, but workingmen must remember that they are all capitalists, and that the many small ones, like the fewer large ones, are all politically supporting their class interests, and this is always and everywhere the capitalist class.

What's the matter with Chicago? (1902)

What's the matter with Chicago? in The Chicago Socialist(October 25, 1902)
I do not oppose the insane asylum — but I abhor and condemn the cutthroat system that robs man of his reason, drives him to insanity and makes the lunatic asylum an indispensable adjunct to every civilized community.
  • Chicago is the product of modern capitalism, and, like all other great commercial centers, is unfit for human habitation. The Illinois Central Railroad Company selected the site upon which the city is built and this consisted of a vast miasmatic swamp far better suited to mosquito culture than for human beings. From the day the site was chosen by (and of course in the interest of all) said railway company, everything that entered into the building of the town and the development of the city was determined purely from profit considerations and without the remotest concern for the health and comfort of the human beings who were to live there, especially those who had to do all the labor and produce all the wealth.
    As a rule hogs are only raised where they have good health and grow fat. Any old place will do to raise human beings.
  • I do not oppose the insane asylum — but I abhor and condemn the cutthroat system that robs man of his reason, drives him to insanity and makes the lunatic asylum an indispensable adjunct to every civilized community.

The Negro and His Nemesis (1904)

"The Negro and His Nemesis" in the International Socialist Review (January 1904)
For myself, I want no advantage over my fellow man, and if he is weaker than I, all the more is it my duty to help him.
  • The Elgin writer says that we shall "jeopardize the best interests of the Socialist Party" if we insist upon the political equality of the Negro. I say that the Socialist Party would be false to its historic mission, violate the fundamental principles of Socialism, deny its philosophy and repudiate its own teachings if, on account of race considerations, it sought to exclude any human being from political equality and economic freedom. Then, indeed, would it not only "jeopardize" its best interests, but forfeit its very life, for it would soon be scorned and deserted as a thing unclean, leaving but a stench in the nostrils of honest men.
  • Foolish and vain indeed is the workingman who makes the color of his skin the stepping-stone to his imaginary superiority. The trouble is with his head, and if he can get that right he will find that what ails him is not superiority but inferiority, and that he, as well as the Negro he despises, is the victim of wage-slavery, which robs him of what he produces and keeps both him and the Negro tied down to the dead level of ignorance and degradation.
  • The man who seeks to arouse prejudice among workingmen is not their friend. He who advises the white wage-worker to look down upon the black wage-worker is the enemy of both.
  • The African is here and to stay. How came he to our shores? Ask your grandfathers, Mr. Anonymous, and if they will tell the truth you will or should blush for the crimes.
  • For myself, I want no advantage over my fellow man, and if he is weaker than I, all the more is it my duty to help him.

The Socialist Party and the Working Class (1904)

The Socialist Party and the Working Class", opening speech delivered as Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Indianapolis, Indiana (1 September 1904)
Intellectual darkness is essential to industrial slavery.
The people are as capable of achieving their industrial freedom as they were to secure their political liberty, and both are necessary to a free nation.
The working class must be emancipated by the working class.
  • There has never been a free people, a civilized nation, a real republic on this earth. Human society has always consisted of masters and slaves, and the slaves have always been and are today, the foundation stones of the social fabric.
    Wage-labor is but a name; wage-slavery is the fact.
  • The most barbarous fact in all christendom is the labor market. The mere term sufficiently expresses the animalism of commercial civilization.
    They who buy and they who sell in the labor market are alike dehumanized by the inhuman traffic in the brains and blood and bones of human beings.
  • The very moment a workingman begins to do his own thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield.
  • The political solidarity of the working class means the death of despotism, the birth of freedom, the sunrise of civilization.
  • The capitalist class is represented by the Republican, Democratic, Populist and Prohibition parties, all of which stand for private ownership of the means of production, and the triumph of any one of which will mean continued wage-slavery to the working class.
  • 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.
  • Deny it as may the cunning capitalists who are clear-sighted enough to perceive it, or ignore it as may the torpid workers who are too blind and unthinking to see it, the struggle in which we are engaged today is a class struggle, and as the toiling millions come to see and understand it and rally to the political standard of their class, they will drive all capitalist parties of whatever name into the same party, and the class struggle will then be so clearly revealed that the hosts of labor will find their true place in the conflict and strike the united and decisive blow that will destroy slavery and achieve their full and final emancipation.
  • Ignorance alone stands in the way of socialist success. The capitalist parties understand this and use their resources to prevent the workers from seeing the light.
    Intellectual darkness is essential to industrial slavery.
  • Death to Wage Slavery!
  • The united vote of those who toil and have not will vanquish those who have and toil not, and solve forever the problems of democracy.
  • Civilization has done little for labor except to modify the forms of its exploitation.
  • The Republican and Democratic parties are alike capitalist parties — differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests — they have the same principles under varying colors, are equally corrupt and are one in their subservience to capital and their hostility to labor.
  • First of all, Theodore Roosevelt and Charles W. Fairbanks, candidates for President and Vice-President, respectively, deny the class struggle and this almost infallibly fixes their status as friends of capital and enemies of labor. They insist that they can serve both; but the fact is obvious that only one can be served and that one at the expense of the other. Mr. Roosevelt’s whole political career proves it.
  • The people are as capable of achieving their industrial freedom as they were to secure their political liberty, and both are necessary to a free nation.
  • The hand tools of early times are used no more. Mammoth machines have taken their place. A few thousand capitalists own them and many millions of workingmen use them.
  • Capitalism is dying and its extremities are already decomposing. The blotches upon the surface show that the blood no longer circulates. The time is near when the cadaver will have to be removed and the atmosphere purified.
  • The working class must be emancipated by the working class.
    Woman must be given her true place in society by the working class.
    Child labor must be abolished by the working class.
    Society must be reconstructed by the working class.
    The working class must be employed by the working class.
    The fruits of labor must be enjoyed by the working class.
    War, bloody war, must be ended by the working class.
  • With faith and hope and courage we hold our heads erect and with dauntless spirit marshal the working class for the march from Capitalism to Socialism, from Slavery to Freedom, from Barbarism to Civilization.

The Issue (1908)

"The Issue", Speech delivered at Girard, Kansas (23 May 1908)
When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. We will be comrades, we will be brothers, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known.
  • Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself, but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked: "Am I my brother's keeper?" That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.
    Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe to myself. What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death?
  • People are never quite so strange to each other as when they are forced into artificial, crowded and stifled relationship.
    I would rather be friendless out on the American desert than to be friendless in New York or Chicago.
  • The rights of one are as sacred as the rights of a million.
  • If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.
    Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.
  • Competition was natural enough at one time, but do you think you are competing today? Many of you think you are. Against whom? Against Rockefeller? About as I would if I had a wheelbarrow and competed with the Santa Fe from here to Kansas City.
  • When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. We will be comrades, we will be brothers, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known.

Canton Anti-war Speech (1918)

"Canton Anti-war Speech" in The Call (16 June 1918)
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 be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
The Man of Galilee, the Carpenter, the workingman who became the revolutionary agitator of his day soon found himself to be an undesirable citizen in the eyes of the ruling knaves and they had him crucified.
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.
If ever I become entirely respectable I shall be quite sure that I have outlived myself.
You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.
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.
  • 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.
  • So far as I am concerned, it does not matter what others may say, or think, or do, as long as I am sure that I am right with myself and the cause. There are so many who seek refuge in the popular side of a great question. As a Socialist, I have long since learned how to stand alone.
  • I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
  • There is nothing that helps the Socialist Party so much as receiving an occasional deathblow. The oftener it is killed the more active, the more energetic, the more powerful it becomes.
  • 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.
  • These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.
  • The Man of Galilee, the Carpenter, the workingman who became the revolutionary agitator of his day soon found himself to be an undesirable citizen in the eyes of the ruling knaves and they had him crucified.
  • How stupid and shortsighted the ruling class really is! 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.
  • 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.
  • If ever I become entirely respectable I shall be quite sure that I have outlived myself.
  • 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.
  • They are continually talking about your patriotic duty. It is not their but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.
    And now among other things they are urging you to "cultivate" war gardens, while at the same time a government war report just issued shows that practically 52 percent of the arable, tillable soil is held out of use by the landlords, speculators and profiteers. They themselves do not cultivate the soil. Nor do they allow others to cultivate it. They keep it idle to enrich themselves, to pocket the millions of dollars of unearned increment.
  • And now for all of us to do our duty! The clarion call is ringing in our ears and we cannot falter without being convicted of treason to ourselves and to our great cause.
    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.
  • 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.

Federal Court statement (1918)

Statement to the Federal Court, Cleveland, Ohio, upon being convicted of violating the Sedition Act (18 September 1918)
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.
Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
  • Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

Quotes about Debs

  • Something was in Debs, seemingly, that did not come out unless you saw him. I'm told that even those speeches of his which seem to any reader indifferent stuff, took on vitality from his presence. A hard-bitten socialist told me once, "Gene Debs is the only one who can get away with the sentimental flummery that's been tied onto Socialism in this country. Pretty nearly always it gives me a swift pain to go around to meetings and have people call me 'comrade.' That's a lot of bunk. But the funny part of it is that when Debs says 'comrade' it is all right. He means it. That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."
    • Heywood Broun, quoting an unnamed socialist in It Seems To Me, 1925-1935 (1935), p. 38

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