March Profile: Eugene V. Debs

“I can see them (the working class) dwarfed, diseased, stunted, their little lives broken and their hopes blasted because in the high noon of our 20th century civilization, money is still so much more important than human life.”

–Eugene V. Debs

The spring of 2012 offers the hope of a new Occupy Movement ready to sweep the country. Occupy Wall Street captivated the nation last fall and was the main instrument for turning our national political conversation to the real crisis at hand: The 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. Our country stands on the brink of losing its democratic foundation.  Oligarchy (defined as a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons) seems possible. Consider the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the crack down on the Occupy Movement by

Eugene V. Debs: The grandfather of the Occupy Movement

the local, state and federal government, and voter suppression laws and electronic voting machine fraud that threaten the ability of “We the People” to cast our votes and have them counted properly.

As we await the start of what promises to be a new people’s movement to reclaim our country, we offer you a brief look at the life and words of one of our country’s original “occupiers.”

Eugene Victor Debs, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, is a study in citizen heroism, and his life demonstrates the important role the average person plays in mobilizing a movement. His life paralleled another tumultuous time in our history, when the robber barons of the 19th century industrial revolution created a society of have and have-nots.  Debs’ first job at age 14 (no child labor laws yet to be enacted) was that of railroad worker. He quickly learned the worker’s plight first hand, which led him to become a railroad union organizer. He led a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad in 1894. Two months later, he was jailed for his role in a strike against the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company. In prison he honed his understanding that labor issues were really the issues of society and it is where he began to embrace socialism.

“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,” Debs told a federal court before sentencing after being convicted for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, laws passed by Congress to promote World War I by banning anti-war speech.

Less than 100 years ago, it was possible for the federal government to arrest, put on trial and incarcerate individuals who spoke out against President Woodrow Wilson and the country’s entry into the Great War. Debs, who had long vocalized his support of the working class, took his anti-war message to the people in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918 knowing full well he could be arrested.  It was against this backdrop when the people seemed to be governed more by fear than hope that Debs told a picnic gathering on a hot summer’s afternoon:

“They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at command…And here let me state a fact – and it cannot be repeated too often:  the working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war.”

Journalists who covered that Canton speech were instrumental in leading the charge for Debs’ arrest and prosecution for violation of federal law. At his trail, Debs charged the government was persecuting him not for undermining the draft, but because he dared to challenge the plutocrats who ran the country and were reaping large profits from the war. Debs contended the country was not fighting a noble war to save democracy but rather, the country had joined European nations in a greedy struggle over profits.

In his trial, Debs described the Espionage Act as “a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with the democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions” and later said he believed the law to be unjust but that it was only one small expression of a much greater injustice which lay at the foundation of the entire social system.  He told the judge that 5 percent of Americans owned two thirds of the nation’s wealth, while nearly 65 percent who made up the working class owned only 5 percent.

“I can see them (the working class) dwarfed, diseased, stunted, their little lives broken and their hopes blasted because in the high noon of our 20th century civilization, money is still so much more important than human life.”

Debs ran for president in 1920 while in a federal prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, which prohibited speeches against U.S. involvement in World War I.

Debs was convicted in Ohio; he lost his appeal to the Supreme Court; and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, serving time at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He ran for president of the United States in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket while behind bars.  He garnered over 900,000 votes, but finished well behind the eventual winner Republican Warren G. Harding. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Debs’ health suffered greatly while in prison, yet he took up his speech making where he left off before his arrest. He continued to criticize Wilson and claimed the war had been fought for profit, not democracy. “60,000 American boys had died only to produce 30,000 new millionaires,” he declared.

Debs’ was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1924 on the basis of arguing that the Great War was fought mainly in the interest of capitalism. He died on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.  The Eugene V. Debs Foundation in Terre Haute is dedicated to “keeping alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism epitomized by Debs.” He remains one of the greatest historical voices for the working class and the 99 percent. From a speech nearly 100 years ago, he said:

“Political parties are responsive to the interests of those who finance them. This is the infallible test of their character and applied to the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties, these parties stand forth as the several political expressions of the several divisions of the capitalist class. The funds of all these parties are furnished by the capitalist class for the reason, and only for the reason, that they represent the interests of that class.”


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