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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Eugene V. Debs
(Nov. 5, 1855–Oct. 20, 1926)

(4 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 21, 4 April 1939, p. 3. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“I hate; I loathe; I despise Junkerdom. I have no earthly use for the Junkers of Germany, and not one particle more for the Junkers of the United States.”

Gene Debs was speaking. The day was June 16, 1918. The place, Canton, Ohio.

The United States had declared war upon Germany a few weeks earlier. The great majority of leading socialists, even those who had in April approved a Declaration by the Socialist Party convention against the war (the St. Louis Declaration) had turned avid war patriots. Charles Edward Russell, William Walling, and scores of others. The entire “peace” movement, had collapsed in an orgy of jingoism.

The Moral Courage to Stand Erect

Gene Debs rose that day in Canton to pillory the jailers, the bosses, the traitors who were hounding worker militants, and socialist fighters. His tall figure towering from the platform, his arm outstretched, his finger pointed accusingly at boss injustice, Gene Debs affirmed his solidarity with all the persecuted anti-war fighters. Bitterly he denounced the turncoats, and those who howled for working class blood. Passionately, he made his own sympathies known:

“They who are animated with the unconquerable spirit of the socialist revolution, they who have the moral courage to stand erect, to assert their convictions, to stand by them, to go to jail or to hell for them – they are writing their names in this crucial hour, they are writing their names in fadeless letters in the history of mankind.”

The government swooped down on him. The boss press was furious. The Terre Haute Tribune wrote that Debs was suspected of being “in a plan with the Trotsky group to spread Bolshevism in this country.”

Debs was arrested. Debs was tried. Debs was sentenced – to ten years imprisonment for the crime of speaking his mind. Wilson denied him an amnesty. And so Debs entered the jail on April 18, 1919. “I enter the prison doors a flaming revolutionist – my head is erect, my spirit untamed, and my soul unconquerable.” Later, Debs wrote his Prison Creed:

“While there is a lower class I am in it; While there is a criminal element I am of it; While there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

In 1921, the war-time hysteria abating, Hard ing released him, without restoration of his citizenship rights.

A Life Devoted to Socialism

Debs’ loyalty to the socialist cause in the face of war was the crowning act of a life richer in its devotion to the working-class than any other American. When Debs, the leader of American socialism, walked through the gates of the jail, he had behind him years of ceaseless socialist labor.

Born into a family of ten children, Debs had gone to work in his youth on the railroads.

Joining the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, he before long rose to the position of national secretary. Disgusted, however, with the conservative methods of the Brotherhood, realizing the need of new, more militant tactics, Debs quit the Brotherhood, and organized the American Railway Union. In April 1894 the A.R.U. won an important victory from the Great Northern Railway, after an eighteen day strike.

When shortly afterwards the Pullman workers struck, they turned to the A.R.U. for aid. The A.R.U. declared a boycott against the Pullman Company, and Debs lent his services to the leadership of the strike. A sweeping injunction was handed down by the courts against the strike; an injunction more severe in its provisions than any previously issued. President Cleveland sent federal troops to smash the strike. Troops and injunction together did smash the strike. Debs, who had defied injunction, was tried for contempt of court, and sent to jail for six months.

In jail he read; in jail he became a socialist. Debs, leaving the jail, was no longer a mere trade unionist. Debs was a socialist; he understood the need of working class political action. He worked at first with Daniel De Leon, and then in 1904 he helped found the Socialist Party.

Five times, Debs ran as socialist candidate for President. His “Red Special,” in the campaign of 1908, became famous as he toured the country, thundering his denunciations of capitalism. In 1912, he polled 901,062 votes. In 1920, while in jail, he polled 919,799 votes.

Hardly a worker, conscious of his being a worker, failed to go to hear Debs. Debs was the idol of the American worker – in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in New York. Mothers, fathers, children, came to hear Debs not only because he was a great orator; they came also because they loved this relentless fighter in freedom’s cause.

A Citizen of the World

Great events pressed. And Debs did not try to avoid them. From his jail cell, Debs criticized the S.P. for watering its revolutionary aims. From his cell, he defended the Russian revolution from attack despite incidental criticisms he himself made. “Behold,” he had written of the Revolution, “its sublime majesty, catch its holy spirit and join in its thrilling, inspiring appeal to the oppressed of every land to use their might, shake off their fetters and proclaim their freedom to the world.”

In the history of American labor, Debs stands as its greatest figure. He was great because he did not have the feeling of nation; he was a worker, a socialist, and only that. While “socialists” voted war credits in Germany, and others turned to the selling of liberty bonds – for American or German, or French “democracy,” Debs cried out: “I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world.”

Note by ETOL

1. In the printed version Debs’ year of birth is erroneously given as 1885.

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Last updated: 17 January 2016