American Socialist, January 1956

If Debs could have returned to life for his Centennial, he would have found much progress towards socialism, but a grim battle still ahead, especially in his native land.

If Eugene Debs Returned

A Speech by W.E.B. Du Bois

IN the year 1920 when 919,000 American voters wanted Eugene Debs to be president of the United States, the socialist platform on which he ran demanded in general terms that eventually the ownership of the means of production be transferred from private to public control. The steps toward this end were not altogether agreed upon. But Debs demanded the supreme power of the workers ‘as the one class that can and will bring permanent peace to the world.’ He declared that then ‘we shall transfer the title deeds of the railroads, the telegraph lines, the mines, mills and great industries to the people in their collective capacity; we shall take possession of all these social utilities in the name of the people. We shall then have industrial democracy. We shall be a free nation whose government is of and by and for the people.’

If tonight Mr. Debs should saunter back to celebrate with us this his one-hundredth birthday, he would feel considerable gratification at the progress of his cause in 35 years. Capital is still mainly in private hands but not entirely. Increasing public control of capital is the rule in the United States while over most of the world public ownership is rapidly increasing. In our country public regulation of utilities, including railroads, water power and communications, has increased. We direct private business in numerous instances; we tax wealth in new ways, we defend the right of labor to organize and we pay out $1,500 million a year in social insurance. This is not yet socialism, but it is far from the uncontested rule of wealth.

EUGENE Debs, however, being an astute man and a logical thinker, would not be inclined to spend his birthday in celebrating the triumph of socialism in the United States. He would, on the contrary, see clearly that this nation, despite its advances toward socialism, is spending more money utterly to destroy socialism than it spends on education, health and general social uplift together.

He would realize with distress that advance toward the objects of socialism does not necessarily mean that the socialist state is at hand. Socialism includes planned production and distribution of wealth. But a completely socialistic result depends on who does the planning and for what ends. A state socialism planned by the rich for their own survival is quite possible, but it is far from the state where the rule rests in the hands of those who produce wealth and services and whose aim is the welfare of the mass of the people.

If Mr. Debs, during his absence from this earthly scene, has followed events of which we are too painfully aware, he will know that not all that is called socialism is socialistic in the sense that he used to understand it. He will know of Hitler’s National Socialism, which, indeed, built a magnificent system of roads and excellent public housing, controlled finance and wages, owned railroads, telegraphs and telephones and yet was not socialism as Debs envisioned it. He would note that widespread socialist methods in Britain, France, Holland and Belgium have not prevented these nations from exploiting labor in Europe, Asia, Africa and America and that their own laboring classes have been willing to base their increased wage and higher standard of living on the poverty, ignorance and disease of most of the working people of the world. This again can hardly be called socialism, and Debs would know that socialistic methods in the United States have succeeded in staving off financial collapse and may continue to do this for a considerable time, but that this social effort is for and by Big Business and financial monopoly and not for the farm and the shop. It bribes organized labor with high wages built on war industry and by this very act threatens the welfare of the mass of the people of the world.

The matter which would, I think, bother Eugene Debs most in the present scene would be the failure of democracy to change all this. If he arrived in time to look in on the polling places during our recent election, he would have seen with dismay that most Americans who have the right to vote do not make any effort to use it. It is unusual for a majority of voters to attend elections, not to mention the millions legally disfranchised by color and poverty.

NOW, the socialism of Eugene Debs was founded on the democratic state in which the law of the land was to be determined by the will of the people. If and when this prerequisite of the socialist state failed, I am sure that Mr. Debs, like Charlie Chaplin, would not think of returning to America, even for this celebration.

If then, Mr. Debs is nonplussed by the apathy of voters, he would learn in any barroom, barbershop or prayer-meeting, or even in the subway, that the reason lay in the fact that Americans have had no chance lately to vote on the matters in which they have the greatest interest. We have not had a chance to vote on peace or war, and will not next year, if we must choose between Eisenhower and Stevenson, or Nixon and Harriman. We have never voted on universal military service. We never voted to spend more than half our income on war; we never voted to make war in Korea. We never voted to beg, borrow or steal one hundred military bases all over the world to overthrow communism.

Why then should we vote if we cannot vote on matters which seem of greatest importance to us?

Mr. Debs’ reaction would be: If this be true, then it is our own fault that we have not talked to the people. He would say: Tell them the truth! Publish books and pamphlets; agitate! And then if Eugene Debs, forgetting that he is dead, should attempt to hire a hall, or stage a mass meeting on Union Square, or get time on radio or television, or get a book on the shelves of the Public Library, he would find himself guilty of subversion, proven a Communist quite unnecessarily by Budenz, Bentley and Philbrick, Inc., and since the courts have almost said that all Communists are criminals set to bring on violent revolution, Debs would soon be back in the very jail where imprisonment had already killed him.

BUT naturally, before Debs started on this impossible effort, we his friends and admirers would have coached him on the facts of life as we know them in this our America of today. It is not only true that Johnnie does not learn to read, but even if he could read he would have difficulty in reading the truth; that the vast monopolies which collect news from all over the world omit what they do not want known, distort what they submit and often deliberately lie about the rest.

‘But,’ I imagine Debs saying, waxing a bit hysterical, ‘why do not people insist on knowing the facts?’ Our only answer would be that since we have become a nation of the rich, run by the rich for the rich (a statement which Mr. Stevenson says he did not originate but merely quoted) the voters do not and cannot know that their best interests are not paramount aims of government; that as their education deteriorates during this the most illiterate government we have endured since Jackson, as their news becomes tainted, suppressed and slanted, it is Increasingly difficult for science and good will to usher in the state where the welfare of the mass of the people is the aim of government, where capital is owned by the people, where private profit is never the sole object of industry and where exploitation of labor is always a crime. We are no longer a democracy free to think, hut a frightened people scared of the socialism and communism which we dare not know nor study. We are threatened by mounting crime and facing jails full not only of criminals but increasingly of honest men whose fault is that they believe in the socialism for which Debs gave his life.

In the midst of this losing of our moral and intellectual integrity we are permitting almost unchallenged a concentrated power of industry and commerce and a monopoly of wealth and natural resources which is not only a threat to the United States but so great a threat to the world that the world with increasing unanimity is resenting it and organizing to oppose it. However, we could assure Mr. Debs that at times public opinion bursts the bonds of organized politics and wealth-control, and screams. We would for instance today be in the midst of a third and fatal world war if Nixon and Knowland had not been stopped in their tracks by an extraordinary avalanche of letters which made even the dumbest politicians in Washington realize that the nation wanted peace even if they got no chance to vote for it.

But this, Debs would say correctly, is not enough. It may come after some outrageous occurrence. However, for the long run and the continuing education of the people, Debs must learn that few reputable publishers today will take any book that deviates from respectable lines of thought as laid down by the National Association of Manufacturers; that no reputable book store will carry hooks advocating or not attacking communism; that public libraries will neither buy nor place hooks of which the FBI does not approve, and that none of our leading literary journals would mention a book by Debs himself should it appear today with a Heavenly imprint. Debs would learn with distress that the tendency apparent in his day of the readers of newspapers and magazines refusing to pay for the full cost of what they read has today sunk to the place where they expect to have their news and literature furnished them free and with pictures and gifts by the purveyors of tobacco, neckties and toothpaste.

IF Debs were still able to listen, he would learn that our representatives in Congress and legislature, our scientists, our preachers, teachers and students are afraid to think or talk lest they starve or disgrace their families and friends. Thus our basic culture patterns are vitiated.

To which Debs would reply: Those who believe in truth and know from slavery, poverty and crime what falsehood can do, must if possible save the truth from burial. Such action is not mere alms-giving, it is a great crusade Without unpaid crusaders and unknighted chivalry we plunge back into new Dark Ages, where ‘Guys and Dolls’ regale us with a crap game in a sewer.

And so Eugene Debs, returning with both sorrow and relief to the blessed peace of Heaven or the genial warmth of Hell (this depending on whether one reads the Timer or the Worker) will, I imagine, after a season of rest and reflection, look carefully about and say:

‘What really I fear for America is not merely loss of freedom, degeneration of schools, failure of the free press or failure of democracy. These, reason in time will combat. Rather I fear the threat of insanity; the loss of ability to reason. You’d hardly believe this, he’d say, but intelligent Americans cannot today see the direct connection between war, murder, lying, stealing, and juvenile crime. Their leaders actually propose to gain peace by war, to stop poverty by making the rich richer and to prevent force and violence by preparing force and violence on a scale of which the world never before dreamed anywhere at any time.

‘And furthermore, (this you will never believe, but I swear it’s true)’ says Debs, ‘the man who succeeded me as leader of Socialism in the United States and ran on the Socialist ticket for president five times, is today the most bitter and hysterical enemy of the only governments or earth which approach complete socialism. Brethren, I firmly believe that what my country needs today above all else is more and better insane asylums strategically placed.’

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