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More info on Eugene Debs

This site discuses the origin of Labor Day, and Debs' role therein.



Debs and Socialism: The Real American Dream?

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 ;I'm not worthy!' says Daphne as she bows by the marker outside Debs's home in Terre Haute
Readers, a question: have you been to the mall lately? If so, what did you buy? A sweater, perhaps? Or maybe it was a CD? What do you think happened to the money you used to pay for your purchase? Who got it?

Let's say you bought Ricky Martin's latest bon-bon shaker for $13. (Not a fan? Just pretend, OK?) It was assembled in Mexico, shipped back to the US, and stocked at various music stores. A small percentage of your $13 went to Ricky and his posse (managers, producers, etc.) Another part went to the record company and its various executives. Still another portion was given to the store that sold it to you. I'm probably forgetting some other people who also benefited in some way. But the people who I'm sure didn't get any of the money -- not even a penny - were the Mexican workers who assembled your CD and the Tower Records clerk who sold it to you. What they earned was determined by the owners and directors of their company, not by sales. They got paid minimum wage (or less) and had absolutely no control over the product they helped sell. In other words, they were disconnected from the fruits of their labor.

That, my friends, is capitalism!

Capitalism, we hear time and time again, is what makes the world go round. It is the reason the United States is the most powerful country in the world. It is the force that defeated communism. And it is what attracts millions of immigrants to this country -- after all, isn't that why Elian's mother put him in a lifeboat?


Sledding? Did anyone say sledding?

We take for granted that the money we earn is ours to keep; that some people have more than others; and that everyone is responsible for their own destiny. What's more, we applaud those who make it big -- who go on to earn millions of dollars somehow -- and look down on those who have no money. Because, in our capitalist society, money defines us. It is what allows us to buy the new Nikes (the ones all the cool people in school are wearing) or pay for a ski vacation (where all our friends are going).

Although many people have challenged this system, no one has done so more forcefully and effectively in the United States than Eugene V. Debs. To many, his arguments seem outdated and useless. After all, he ran for President five times and never even came close to winning! He talked about the evils of capitalism even as many people reaped its benefits and moved up the economic ladder. And, to top it off, the railway union that he founded ended up collapsing after he was sent to jail.

Daphne and Dr. King discuss Debs
But Debs's idealism and courage are a shining example to all Americans, even Capitalists. At a time when the working class endured long hours, earned barely enough to live on, had no health benefits or workers' compensation, and lived in constant fear of losing their jobs, Debs defended them loudly. According to Professor Charles King of Indiana State University, Debs "advanced the calendar by several decades" by campaigning for social programs and the rights of workers much before American society accepted them as such.

A mural depicting Debs giving a speech
As a Socialist, Debs's higher objective was "to overthrow the capitalist system of private ownership of the tools of labor, abolish wage-slavery and achieve the freedom of the whole working class and, in fact, of all mankind..." He thought that "the capitalist class, like a devilfish, had grasped [the workingmen] with its tentacles and was dragging them down to the fathomless depths of degradation."

Wow. These are powerful -- not to mention big -- words! Perhaps you're thinking to yourself, "Hey, things aren't so bad. What's his problem anyway?" Well, life for the ordinary worker in the late 1800s and early 1900s (when Debs said these things) was not easy. The Robber Barons ruled the economy and, as I mentioned before, millions of workers were being exploited and living in poverty.

Debs was not always a Socialist. At first, he thought he could campaign for health benefits and other reforms under the capitalist system. But, after going to prison in 1894 for participating in a railroad strike against the Pullman Company, he realized that things would never fundamentally change under capitalism. Why? Because by its very nature it needed to exploit the working class so that the elite could become rich.

Dr. King prefers to call Debs a humanist. "He loved people," he told me. He wanted everyone to be equal, in the purest sense of the word. He saw Socialism as the only vehicle for change -- the only way to level the playing field and give everyone a piece of the economic pie. Debs once said, "The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society -- we are on the eve of a universal change."

The trekkers check out the cool murals in Debs's home
Still, he campaigned for reforms. He supported unions as much as he could, often traveling to wherever a strike was in place to make a speech. He was especially interested in making sure that the right for workers to unionize was guaranteed, that women got the right to vote, and that child labor was banned. At the time of his death in 1926, two of these three issues had been resolved. The one that came later was the right to union, granted to workers in 1935.

But he never lost sight of the larger goal. When the United States became involved in World War I, he was one of its most vocal opponents, and used the opportunity to advance the Socialist agenda. In 1918 he declared, "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..." In other words, he thought the US was only fighting the war for the benefit of the Rockefellers and JP Morgans of the world. This argument has been echoed by countless of anti-war protesters since then -- remember the Gulf War? Many claimed the US was fighting for oil and profits, not democracy. But that is another story...

Stairway to Socialism: Daphne visits the second floor
Guess what happened? The US government, defender of free speech, sent him to jail for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which provided penalties of up to 20 years in prison for "whoever, when the US is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the US, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the US." In other words, it was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote against the war. Debs did not deny the charges, but stood his ground. He addressed the judge before being sentenced, proclaiming, "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."

Debs believed in the brotherhood of man and equality for all
Another wow. Debs's eloquence and fiery speeches moved many people. At a time when the working class had no allies or friends, they found Debs. He inspired, touched and connected with the average man. A fellow Socialist once said of Debs: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around, I believe it myself." So did many people. He ran for President five times, in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 under the Socialist Party, each time gathering more and more votes. In 1920, he ran from prison, his slogan being, "For President - Convict No. 9653" (His inmate number from a federal prison in Atlanta).

Thousands lobbied for his pardon from jail -- including Fighting Bob" La Follette -- which came as soon as Warren Harding became President. When he was released in 1921, he was greeted by supporters throughout the country. He was 66 years old.

When Debs died five years later, so did the Socialist movement in the US. Americans found their enemy in the Soviet Union. The words "socialism" and "communism" became synonymous with anti-Americanism, and the pursuit of life, liberty and money-making became the nation's favorite pastime.

Debs spent his entire life helping the working class, such as these miners depicted in a mural in his home's attic
But Debs's spirit lives on. Over the last several decades, capitalism has found ways to become more responsive and caring. Thanks to new generations of social activists, such as Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson (both of whom were recipients of the Eugene V. Debs Awards given by the Foundation of the same name), parts of our society are learning to reconcile the spirit of private ownership and entrepreneurship with social consciousness and responsibility. Banking and food co-operatives across the country allow people who join to earn part of their profit. Socially conscious companies give workers incentives and bonuses depending on performance, thus giving them at least a little control over profits.

We're still a long way from perfect. When I asked Dr. King what Debs might think of our society today, he said, "He'd think nothing has changed. Money still talks and there's still an ownership class and a working class." Yes, he's right. Money still talks -- but the difference is that with our money, we can make a difference. Capitalists with a conscience can now make a point -- we can choose to support companies that stand for the same things we do and boycott the ones that don't. And as our numbers grow, we'll yield more power and have more leverage. Yes, change is slow in coming. But, thanks to Debs, change has happened. And, thanks to his legacy, it will continue for decades to come.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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