Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Eugene Debs

Eugene Debs was an important organizer of the workers in the USA in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. He also ran for president in several elections, but he didn´t get many votes. This is part of his interesting story: 

He started working when he was 14 years old in a railway company. He worked as a locomotive fireman and joined the Broterhood of Locomotive Firemen, a mutual benefit society for the railway workers. He also went to a night school to learn more and became an important figure in the Broterhood. But he thought that broterhoods were only focused on their members and he decided to create a union in 1893: the American Railway Union, which was one of the first industrial unions created in the USA. 

In 1894 the workers of the Pullman Company (the one that made the train cars) decided to go on strike, because the company had reduced their salaries by 28%. Debs considered that the union was not strong enough to go on strike yet, but the strike extended and he finally decided to join the strikers. The USA government got a warrant from the Court to oblige the workers to come back to work, because thay had obstructed the distribution of U.S. mail, and sent the army to end with the strike. Debs was arrested and sent to prison for six months. 

The time he spent in prison was crucial for him. He received thousands of letters and he read books about socialism and became aware of the injustice of the capitalist system. When he went out from prison, more than 100,000 people received him in Chicago. 

After his experience in jail, Debs went on with the organization of workers and contributed to the foundation of the Social Democratic Party in the USA and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international union. Although he was a prominent and influencial figure, he rejected to be considered as a leader. He though that workers had to decide by themselves and not to follow others´ ideas. He said: "You must use your heads as well as your hands and get yourself out of your present condition". 

Debs ran for the presidence of the USA in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, but he didn´t get much support of the workers. His best result was in 1912, when he got 6% of the votes (901,551 votes).

In June 1918 he made a speech in Canton, Ohio, against military conscription for World War 1. As many Socialists, he considered that war to be in the interest of capitalists. Here you have part of his speech, read by the actor Marc Ruffalo:

No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.

Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the “patriots,” while the men who have the courage to stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims—they are the disloyalists and traitors. If this be true, I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight.

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. 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.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. 

If war is right, let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.

This speech was considered to be anti-patriotic and Debs was prosecuted by treason and sentenced to 10 years and disenfranchised (deprived of the right to vote) for life. President Wilson refused to pardon him. In 1921 President Harding commuted his sentence, because Debs was ill, and he was released on the 25th December 1921. A crowd of 50,000 people received him at home. 

Eugene Debs died in 1926. His life was an example of fight for the ideas he believed in and consistency with the defense of his principles. 


Alberto Panadero said...

I didn't know nothing about Eugene Debs but I've enjoyed a lot with this post. There isn't many people that think themself so when I meet people like this I feel happier. Was he the firs person that used the phrase in this post? It's wonderful!

Paqui Pérez Fons said...

Thanks. I´ve just corrected the "rrr". As Henry David Thoreau said, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison". The three quotes I´ve included belong to him. I like especially the last one. And the speech Mark Ruffalo read is really beautiful. Everybody knows Woodrow Wilson, but veryy few people know Eugene Debs. History is always written by the winners :(

Thanks for participating.