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"Wars have always been waged for plunder"

October 25, 2002 | Pages 8 and 9

DURING THE First World War, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs gave a powerful antiwar speech on June 16, 1918, in Canton, Ohio. Unlike many leading socialists in Europe and the U.S., who fell in line behind their governments, Debs joined a handful of revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks of Russia, in taking an antiwar stand.

Debs was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking out in Canton. Yet in 1920, he ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket for a fifth time--and got 1 million votes.

Here, we reproduce excerpts from Debs' Canton speech.

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I HAVE just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world…

Read all of Debs' Canton speech online in the International Socialist Review.

[T]he gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, [are] scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United States.

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…

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 that fights all the battles, the working class that makes the supreme sacrifices, the working class that freely sheds its blood and furnishes the corpses, has 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…

You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter…

And now for all of us to do our duty! The clarion call is ringing in our ears and we cannot falter without being convicted of treason to ourselves and to our great cause. Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.

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