Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

George Breitman

Debs’ Great Revolutionary Stature Revealed
in His Speeches, Writings

(31 May 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 22, 31 May 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs
Hermitage Press, 1948, 512 pages, $4

Here is a book to; cheer about! For it gives us the real Debs in his own words – the indomitable working class rebel who devoted his whole life to the struggle for the socialist revolution – and thus annihilates the insidious campaign of the Social Democrats and liberals to transform him into a harmless pacifistic humanitarian and reformist.

This is the true Debs, revealed in speeches, articles and pamphlets written over a 30-year span – the lion-hearted, fighter who stands as an inspiration to the revolutionists of our own day, the incorruptible son of the working class who spurned the opportunity to become a respectable politician and labor bureaucrat, our revolutionary forefather who did so much to Americanize socialism during the period when capitalism was Europeanizing the social and political structure of this country.

Read this book, and you will become acquainted with Debs in all his true grandeur. Read his own words, and you will understand why he was the instinctive foe of everything represented by the Truman-socialists, Eisenhower-socialists, Norman Thomas and Stalinist People’s Fronters. Read what he actually fought for, and you will perceive that behind their claims to; represent and continue the Debs tradition is a calculated effort to bury his real, his revolutionary, significance – similar to the effort that was made tq dilute the doctrines of Marx by the men who betrayed them in the name of Marxism.

“With the Ranks”

Debs began as a “pure and simple” trade union organizer; was shown the meaning of capitalism and politics when he was railroaded to prison for “contempt” of courts and injunctions used to break the great Pullman strike that be led; became a socialist agitator whose aim was to rise “with the ranks, and not from the ranks”; ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket five times, the last time from a prison cell; defied the first imperialist war and refused to ask for mercy when he was thrown into a federal prison for expressing his antiwar convictions; and in his 64th year declared in ringing words: “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”

And the whole story is included in this book – a collection so rich and rewarding that we can call attention to only a part of its contents. First of all, there are the long-out-of print Canton, Ohio, speech (for which he was convicted of violating the Espionage Act); his address to the jury before its verdict was handed down; and his statement to the court before a vindictive 10-year sentence was imposed on him.

Reprinted here are his warm tributes to the militants and martyrs of the labor movement and his stirring appeals for solidarity with the McNamara brothers, Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Ludlow strikers, the IWWI victims of witch hunts and red-baiting, etc. His defense of Moyer, Haywood and Pettibone in the article, Roosevelt’s Labor Letters, constitutes one of the most savage pieces of polemical literature in the history of the labor movement.

Those who conceive of Debs as a turn-the-other-cheek pacifist should read his 1906 article, Arouse, Ye Slaves!, in which he warned: “If they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood and their brothers, a million revolutionists, at least, will meet them with guns ... Let them dare to execute their devilish plot and every state in this Union will resound with the tramp of revolution.”

In the same spirit was his appeal, after the 1914 Ludlow massacre, for the United Mine Workers and the Western Federation of Miners to levy an assessment for a Gunmen Defense Fund, “to provide each member with the latest high power rifle, the same as used by the corporation gunmen, and 500 rounds of cartridges. In addition to this every district should purchase and equip and man enough Gatling and machine guns to match the equipment of Rockefeller’s private army of assassins. This suggestion is made advisedly and I hold myself responsible for every word of it. If the corporations have the right to recruit and maintain private armies of thieves, thugs and ex-convicts to murder striking workingmen, sack their homes, insult their wives, and roast their babes, then labor unions not only have the right but it is their solemn duty to arm themselves to resist these lawless attacks and defend their homes and loved ones.” Can anyone picture Norman Thomas uttering such words?

Debs was not primarily a theoretician, and he made political errors, easily understood in the light of the development of American socialism before the Russian revolution. But his heart was always on the right side, and he unerringly lined up beside the oppressed. This is best illustrated in his two articles on the Negro question, where he made the the common error of failing to recognize the special revolutionary significance of the Negro struggle for equality, but at the same time vigorously advocated admitting Negroes with equal rights into the labor and socialist movement, and the expulsion of all white supremacists. Debs had nothing but contempt and hatred for every variety of prejudice, as he showed in his letter denouncing “socialists” who wanted their party to adopt a reactionary policy barring certain races from immigrating to the U.S., and in his article attacking male chauvinism.

Two selections in this book strike a poignant note. One is from Debs’ only book, Walls and Bars, dealing with the thundering ovation given this beloved fighter for all the oppressed by his 2,300 fellow-prisoners as he walked out of the Atlanta penitentiary in 1921. The other is the article, Serving the Labor Movement, written in 1922 when the delegates of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, to their undying discredit, voted down a motion to invite Debs to address their convention.

Deeply Wounded

This wounded the old fighter so deeply that he wrote a defense of himself, sketchily listing his long years of service and self-sacrifice in building the American union movement. “Had I betrayed the organization instead of serving it, it would be different ... Were I prime favorite with the railroad magnates instead of their uncompromising enemy, the invitation to address the convention would have been extended by acclamation.” But even in this moment of genuine unhappiness, the larger man emerges: “I did not start out expecting gratitude and I have never been disappointed. To be true to my principles and my ideals and to have my place in the ranks with the Comrades who share them has been more than sufficient ...”

One thing mars this book, and mars it badly. That is the introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger. Jr., the liberal historian. Any introduction by this person, would be offensive to those who love Debs, for this servile supporter of Truman and Eisenhower stands for everything that Debs fought against. Especially offensive are his attempt to sum up Debs as a mere “democrat” and his remark that Debs’ “own career disproved his repeated assertion that capitalism would destroy political freedom” (for Schlesinger the jailing of Debs was evidently of little significance).

We regard it as malicious and downright insulting when Schlesinger. quotes with approval a Social Democrat’s statement that Debs’ long years of agitation for socialism were worthwhile because the “education [thus] forced on the people ... saved this country from civil war in the depths of depression, and gave Franklin D. Roosevelt ... the understanding public and trained workers for the immediate job he had on taking over.”

This book was long overdue. Nevertheless, its publication this year is especially timely because 1948 witnesses the first presidential campaign launched by the Socialist Workers Party, whose, members alone consciously and militantly bear aloft the flag of Debs and honor his tradition in the only way he wanted it honored – by fighting for the socialist revolution. Campaign orators and propagandists would do well to read this volume carefully for what they can learn from a great agitator about how to speak and write the language of revolution so that the masses can understand it.

Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 30 January 2022