Eugene V. Debs
Debs and Socialism: the Real American Dream?
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. This system is called Capitalism.
Although many people have challenged this system, no one has done so more forcefully and effectively in the United States than Eugene V. Debsstrong>. To many, his arguments seem outdated. 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 benefit. To top it off, the railway union that he founded ended up collapsing after he was sent to jail.
Debs' idealism and courage are a shining example to all Americans, even the Capitalists. At a time when the working class endured long hours and earned barely enough to live on, 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.
As a Socialist, Debs's higher objective was to change the system of private ownership that was capitalism. He wanted workers to have more rights and more control. He wanted them to get paid more.
Wow. These are 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 not making enough money to live on.
Debs was not always a Socialist. At first, he thought he could change things for workers within the capitalist system. Then he went to jail for being in a railroad strike. He realized that the whole system needed to change to be fair to workers.
Dr. King prefers to call Debs a humanist. "He loved people," he told me. He wanted everyone to be equal. He saw Socialism as the only way to change things. Debs said once, "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."
Sledding? Did someone say sledding?
Still, he campaigned for reforms. He supported unions as much as he could. He tried to get women the right to vote. He wanted child labor 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. During World War I he came out against the war saying it was bad for working people.
Guess what happened? The US government, defender of free speech, sent him to jail for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Anyone who spoke out against the war could be put in jail. Debs did not deny the charges, but stood his ground. He addressed the judge saying, "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."
Another wow. Debs' 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. Many people admired him. 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."
Thousands lobbied for his pardon from which came as soon as Warren Harding became President. When he was released in 1921 supporters throughout the country greeted him. 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 anti-American, and the pursuit of life, liberty and moneymaking became the nation's favorite pastime.
But Debs' 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), workers have more rights than ever.
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. Change is slow in coming. But, thanks to Debs, change has happened. And, thanks to his legacy, it will continue for decades to come.
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