The Legacy of Eugene Debs

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The year 2010 is the 90th anniversary of the presidential campaign of Federal Prisoner 9653, Eugene Debs, and in anticipation of the ruling class' efforts to distort the historical contributions of Debs, we wanted to take a few moments to set the record straight.

A central element in the ruling class ongoing efforts to prevent the development of a class conscious working class movement is to hide or distort the real history of the working class, a history that has always been characterized by  a struggle to resist oppression and exploitation. Back in the 1970's the arch-conservative labor leader, George Meany tried to rehabilitate Debs by deleting any reference to his revolutionary politics and depicting him as well meaning idealist, reformer, and pacifist who was misguided about World War I and defended an outmoded notion of class struggle. Furthering the distortion of Debs' legacy, last year,  the Eugene Debs Foundation in Terre Haute, Indiana presented its annual award to Ron Gettlefinger, the president of the United Auto Workers , who they claimed "has been reasonable successful, although fighting against overwhelming odds, to protect the wages and benefits of UAW members, active and retired," as if someone who cooperated with the ruling class' restructuring of the auto industry and destruction of thousands of jobs somehow personified the political principles of Eugene Debs.

The staff writers at the AFL-CIO's official web site apparently worked around the clock to concoct an image of Debs as the ideological architect of the New Deal. "Although none of his dreams were realized during his lifetime, Debs inspired millions to believe in ‘the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind,' and he helped spur the rise of industrial unionism and the adoption of progressive social and economic reforms

What we see is the concert effort to transform Debs, a revolutionary internationalist, a militant who lived and breathed the class struggle and transform into a good-natured reformer, a moralists and pacifist and thereby rob the working class of part of its revolutionary legacy.

The underlying premise of Debs' activity was the Marxist understanding the "there is nothing in common between the exploiting and exploited classes; that there is in truth a conflict between them old as the centuries and this conflict must continue with ever-increasing education and organization on the part of the working class until they developed the power, economic, political and otherwise, to abolish the prevailing system and establish the world-wide industrial democracy and commonwealth of comrades (Letter of Acceptance, American Soicialist, April 2, 1916).

In 1977 when AFL-CIO leader George Meany received the Eugene Victor Debs award he declared that the current union movement is a blend of the "social idealism of Debs and the pragmatic trade unionism of Samuel Gompers, the founding leader of the American Federation of Labor, washing away in a single sentence one the bitterest political disputes in the history of the workers movement in the United States. Debs once wrote that

 "Wall Street does not fear Sammy Gompers and the AFof L...Every plutocrat, every profiteering pirate, every food vulture, every exploiter of labor, ever robber and oppressor of the poor, every hog under a silk ties, every vampire in human form, will tell that the AF of L under Gompers is a great and patriotic organization..." IWW Bogey, International Socialist Review, `February 1918).

On an another occasion, Debs wrote in reference to Gompers:

"the trade union under its present leadership and as now used, is more beneficial to the capitalist class than it is to the workers, seeing that it is the means of keeping them disunited and pitted against each other and as an inevitable result, in wage slavery." (Working Class Politics, International Socialist Review, November, 1910.

It comes as no surprise of course that the biggest distortion of Deb's legacy comes in regard to his opposition to World War I. The Debs Foundation web site says only that " in 1918 Debs was convicted under the recently minted Espionage Act for questioning the U.S. entry into World War I."  Debs didn't "question" the war; he opposed it, denounced it, affirmed that the workers had no country to fight for and called for the working class to unleash a revolutionary struggle.

In response to a letter from novelist Upton Sinclair, who like many other adherents of the Second International, betrayed the working class and rallied to the flag of the national bourgeoisies during WW I, Debs wrote:

"Any kind of any army that may be organized...under the present government will be controlled by the ruling class, and its chief function will be to keep the working class in slavery." He also wrote, "The workers have no country to fight for. It belongs to the capitalists and plutocrats. Let them worry over its defense, And when they declare wars as they and they alone do....let them also go out and slaughter each other."

On another occasion, Debs wrote:

 "I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist...I am opposed to every war but one: I am for that war with heart and sould and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in anyway the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades." (Appeal to Reason, September 11, 1915.

In his analysis of World War I, Debs wrote:

 "It should not be overlooked that this frightful upheaval is but a symptom of the internal readjustment which the underlying economic forces are bring about, as well as of the fundamental changes which are being wrought in our industrial and political institutions...Permanent peace, however, peace based upon social justice will never prevail until national industrial despotism has been supplanted by international industrial democracy.  The end of profit and plunder among nations wil also mean the end of war and the dawning of the era of ‘Peace on Earth and Good Will Among Men.'" (Prospect for Peace, American Socialist, February19, 1916.

Debs recognized that WW I marked a crucial turning point in the development of world capitalism and the workers revolution was the order of the day. In the Canton, Ohio speech for which was sentenced to 10 years in prison, he not only attacked the war and praised other revolutionaries who had spoken out against the war, but also expressed solidarity the Russian Revolution, hailing it as the dawn of a new world. In an article written in 1919, after the uprising  by the German proletariat, Debs wrote:

"The reign of capitalism and militarism has made of all peoples inflammable material. They are ripe and ready for the change, the great change which means the rise and triumph of the workers, the end of exploitation, of war and plunder and the emancipation of the [human] race.

"In Russia and Germany our valiant comrades are leading the proletarian revolution; which knows no race, no color; no sex and no boundary lines. They are setting the heroic example for world-wide emulation. Let us like the, scorn and repudiate the cowardly compromisers within our own ranks, challenge and deny the robber -class power and fight on that line to victory or death.

"From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik and proud of it." The Day of the People, Class Struggle, Feburary 1919.)

Debs was far from perfect. Some of his political shortcomings were the inevitable result of the period in which he lived. The workers movement itself still had many lessons to learn as capitalism entered its decadent phase.  Debs tended to equate nationalization with socialism, a mistake he shared with many revolutionaries of the period. But other misconceptions reflected his own personal difficulties to recognize the changing class lines that came with capitalist decadence. While he recognized profound historical changes were occurring in the world with the advent of the world imperialist war and supported the Russian Revolution as the first step in  the world revolution, he could not bring himself to break with the Socialist Party or see the need for the formation of a communist party. He did not clearly understand that the era of reform had ended and that unions had crossed to the other side of the class line. Any conception of workers councils is missing from his writings and he was unclear on the relationship between party and class.

But on the  key issue of imperialist war, Debs was true to the principles of proletarian internationalism. He spoke out against workers slaughtering workers for the bourgeoisie. On this issue he took the same stance as Lenin and Luxemburg, and for this he went to prison, under the Espionage and Sedition acts for these words:

"They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. That is too much, even for a joke.... Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.... And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." (The Canton, Ohio Anti-war Speech, June 16, 1918)

Debs was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. During forty years in the workers movement, he spent nearly four years behind bars. An inmate of three county jails, one state prison, and a federal penitentiary, what kept him going was his passionate commitment to and confidence in the working class. Shortly before his death, Debs wrote:

"Often at night in my narrow prison quarters when all about me was quiet, I beheld as in a vision, the majestic march of events in the transformation of the world.

"I saw the working class in which I was born and reared, and to whom I owe my all, engaged in the last great conflict to break the fetters that have bound them ages, and to stand forth, as last, emancipated from every servitude, the sovereighn ruler of the world.

"It was this vision that sustained me in the hour of my imprisonment." (Walls and Bars, 1926).

While imprisoned in federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Debs refused every privilege offered by authorities to him as a prominent political prisoner and spoke out against the mistreatment of his fellow inmates. In 1920, he ran for the fifth time as the Socialist candidate for president, running as Federal Prisoner 9653 and received nearly 1 million votes without ever setting foot outside the prison. His 10 year sentence for speaking out against the war was commuted by President Warren G. Harding at Christmas 1921.  " On the day of his release, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cell-block to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say good-bye to Eugene Debs. As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners. (Howard Zinn, Eugene V. Debs, and the Idea of Socialism, Progressive, Jan 1999).   

 J. Grevin 15/01/10 (based on an earlier article published in Internationalism 13)