It cannot be overstated the contributions Eugene Victor Debs made to the American socialist cause and to the broader mission of spreading class consciousness nor the lessons he left us to learn. Commensurate with this, unsurprisingly, is the complete absence of Debs’ story from the American curricula. It’s a shame really, Debs’ oratory ability stands out even amongst the most gifted in the American canon. Even if you vulgarly separate his politics from his messaging, you're left with a profound display of linguistic command.
One such example is Debs’ statement to a Federal court 102 years ago today. For background, in July of the same year, near the end of WWI, Debs gave an anti-war speech outside in a Canton, Ohio park. In it he famously said —
The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.
They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.
And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Likewise, he also criticized the government’s arrests of antiwar activists. Needless to say, Debs was arrested two weeks later on the grounds that his speech(s) painted the American war effort negatively and thus violated the Sedition Act of 1918. On September 18th, 1918 he would give the following statement before a federal court. In my opinion, it’s one of the most powerful speeches in American political history. One journalist present said it was “one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language.” Below is a recording in which I read Debs’ speech in its entirety in an attempt to recapture some of the residual electricity lingering from that day.
If you’re short on time, Debs’ final remarks will suffice:
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
Two months later on November 18th, 1918, Debs was found guilty of violating the Sedition Act. Debs appealed his case to the Supreme Court asserting that the Sedition Act violated his First Amendment right of speech free from government retaliation. In March 1919, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s conviction of Debs in a unanimous 9–0 decision, subsequently sentencing Debs to ten years in prison.
Debs’ unlawful conviction went on to spark pockets of riots across the nation. He remained steadfast in his political activism, often writing, and even campaigning from his cell in prison. He garnered an impressive 3.4% of the total vote in the 1920 presidential election, almost a million votes, all while imprisoned. In fact, he garnered 6% of the vote eight years prior in the 1912 election and many speculate on the timing of Debs’ arrest and the fact that he may have garnered double-digit percentages of the vote had he ran uninhibited in 1920. Accomplishing this while running on the Socialist Party ticket none the less.
One month after the war ended, in December of 1920, Congress repealed the Sedition Act and a year later, Debs was freed by President Harding. Unfortunately, due to illnesses sustained while imprisoned, Eugene Debs would die five years later on October 20, 1926. He was 70.
A Spiritually Synthesized Socialism
Eugene Victor Debs’ words, writings, and teachings have and will continue to long outlive him. Indeed, Debs’ unwavering solidarity rooted in a recognition of “kinship with all living beings” combined with a humanistic humility, provides us the blueprint on spiritually synthesized socialism. Free from ego and full of collective understanding. Something which rings all the more relevant even a hundred years later betwixt the modern socialist reawakening and the widespread spiritual void wrought by late-stage capitalism.