The speech that made Debs Convict No. 9653

June 15, 2018

One hundred years ago, Eugene V. Debs spoke out against the First World War in a speech in Canton, Ohio — and was given a 10-year prison sentence for it. Marlene Martin recounts one of the most famous moments in the history of socialism in the U.S.

THE FIRST thing Eugene V. Debs did when he walked to the stage in Canton, Ohio, on the afternoon of June 16, 1918, was to gesture toward the courthouse building where he had just been visiting fellow socialists imprisoned for speaking out against the war.

“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,” he told the crowd of 1,200 who had come to hear the best-known leader of the Socialist Party and its presidential candidate four times before.

To shouts and cheers, Debs said: “I am proud of them; they are there for us, and we are here for them. Their lips, though temporarily mute, are more eloquent than ever before, and their voice, though silent, is heard around the world.”

Those words were prophetic about Debs himself. He was arrested and prosecuted for making that speech in Canton on charges of sedition under the Espionage Act. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison.

Eugene V. Debs gives his antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio
Eugene V. Debs gives his antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio

But Debs, like his comrades in Canton, was “heard around the world” and for generations to come, despite the government’s temporary success in silencing him. One hundred years later, his Canton antiwar speech is a powerful and inspiring statement of the socialist principles of internationalism and opposition to imperialist war.

WORRIED THAT sentiment against the First World War would grow, Congress looked for a way to enforce support for it. So a year before Debs’ speech, it passed the Espionage Act, which made it a criminal offense to publicly oppose the war (by the way, this law is still on the books).

By the time Debs spoke in Canton, many socialists comrades had already been arrested and jailed. He told the crowd that he had to be careful with what he said because there were “certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech.”

Still, he said, “I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.”

What you can do

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation is sponsoring a centennial commemoration of Debs’s speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, at 12 p.m. at the Courthouse Plaza, 209 Tuscarawas Street West. Participants include the Akron Democratic Socialists of America, Industrial Workers of the World, International Socialist Organization, the Labor Education and Arts Project and others.

For more information, go to the Akron DSA website.

Debs was the most popular socialist of his time. He was beloved for his ability to put into words the cause of the working-class movement and the vision of socialism, with so much passion and animation.

In a speech he once gave to a majority Polish-speaking audience, Debs couldn’t understand why the audience was so responsive when they probably understood little of what he said. A Polish socialist explained simply: “Debs talks to us with his hands, out of his heart, and we all understood everything he said.”

James Cannon, who became a main leader of the socialist movement in the years that followed, heard Debs speak several times and described the effect he had on people, including himself:

He was a man of many talents, but he played his greatest role as an agitator, stirring up the people and sowing the seed of socialism far and wide. He was made for that, and he gloried in wake people up, to shake them loose from habits of conformity and resignation, to show them a new road.

Debs had come to socialism via trade unionism. As the head of the American Railway Union, he became the leader of the 1894 strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company — a huge struggle just south of Chicago that pitted thousands of workers against a greedy and paternalistic employer.

The strike lost, and Debs was convicted and sent to jail for six months for defying an injunction against the union. Because he stood firmly with the workers and was willing to go to jail for it, Debs won great respect and admiration.

In his jail cell, Debs received and read books, pamphlets and letters sent to him from socialists everywhere. He read Capital and became a convinced Marxist. Following his release, he joined the socialist movement, running five times for president between 1900 and 1920. In 1920, while he was in jail for the speech in Canton, he won almost a million votes.

DEBS’ CANTON speech expressed the source of his unwavering devotion to the working class:

I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week.

If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction.

I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise, it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.

Debs also emphasized that it was these very ranks that were called upon to fight the wars, and not the “master class” that “always declared the wars,” but never had to fight them: “[T]he subject class has always fought the battles,” Debs said. “The master class has all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.”

This statement of socialism’s principled opposition to imperialist war came as the majority of the socialist movement had collapsed into support for their own governments in the First World War. In Europe, revolutionaries such as the Bolsheviks in Russia were a small minority in opposing the war when it began in 1914.

Because of the U.S.’s late entry into the war, the Socialist Party didn’t face the same challenges, but by the time of Debs’ speech, many prominent socialists had left the party over this question. Upton Sinclair, the well-known socialist author of The Jungle, had urged Debs to support the U.S. war effort, but Debs wasn’t swayed. In a 1915 article, he wrote:

I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist...I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary, even to the barricades. There is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of war.

Less than a year before the Canton speech, the Bolsheviks in Russia had been leaders of the revolution that established the first-ever workers’ state — whose top priority was to end Russia’s participation in the carnage of the First World War.

In Canton, Debs celebrated the fact that revolutionary Russia had called for all sides in the war “to send representatives to a conference to lay down terms of peace that should be just and lasting.”

“Here,” Debs said, “was the supreme opportunity to strike the blow to make the world safe for democracy. Was there any response to that noble appeal...for universal peace? No, not the slightest attention was paid to it by the Christian nations engaged in the terrible slaughter.”

Defending the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky against charges that they made a “traitorous peace with Germany,” Debs declared that “in this alert and inspiring assemblage, our hearts are with the Bolsheviki of Russia.”

AS IN all his speeches, Debs was able to explain the vision of a socialist society.

In Canton, he focused on the example of coal production, where there was an abundance of coal in the ground, yet thousands of coal miners weren’t working. The capitalists manipulated production and created an artificial “coal famine” to keep profits high:

Here is the coal in great deposits all about us; here are the miners and the machinery of production. Why should there be a coal famine upon the one hand and an army of idle and hungry miners on the other hand? Is it not an incredibly stupid situation, an almost idiotic if not criminal state of affairs?

We Socialists say: “Take possession of the mines in the name of the people.” Set the miners at work and give every miner the equivalent of all the coal he produces. Reduce the workday in proportion to the development of productive machinery.

Debs extended the point to highlight the fundamental injustice at the heart of capitalism:

In the present system the miner, a wage slave, gets down into a pit 300 or 400 feet deep. He works hard and produces a ton of coal. But he does not own an ounce of it. That coal belongs to some mine-owning plutocrat who may be in New York or sailing the high seas in his private yacht; or he may be hobnobbing with royalty in the capitals of Europe, and that is where most of them were before the war was declared.

The industrial captain, so- called, who lives in Paris, London, Vienna or some other center of gaiety does not have to work to revel in luxury. He owns the mines and he might as well own the miners...

We Socialists say: “Take possession of the mines; call the miner to work and return to him the equivalent of the value of his product.” He can then build himself a comfortable home; live in it; enjoy it with his family. He can provide himself and his wife and children with clothes — good clothes — not shoddy; wholesome food in abundance, education for the children, and the chance to live the lives of civilized human beings, while at the same time the people will get coal at just what it costs to mine it.

Debs drove home the point of needing to change the whole system: “[A] change is certainly needed, not merely a change of party, but a change of system; a change from slavery to freedom and from despotism to democracy, wide as the world.”

DEBS WAS 63 when he made the Canton speech, and his health had been failing. The prison conditions to come made things worse.

Within two weeks of the speech, Debs — who was already known to the Democratic Wilson administration as “a traitor to his country” — was indicted and charged with sedition. He went on trial in the fall — instead of putting on a defense, Debs asked to address the court, and spoke for more than two hours.

He was convicted, and at his sentencing hearing, Debs again spoke, making one of his most famous statements: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Incarcerated in federal prison on a 10-year sentence, Debs lost weight, suffered from excruciating headaches and had kidney problems. Nonetheless, he put his own condition aside to make himself available to fellow prisoners. He would open his cell to anyone who wanted, reading letters aloud that they couldn’t read themselves, listening to their troubles, writing letters for them and giving encouragement.

Woodrow Wilson is said to have maintained his vindictive attitude toward Debs to the very end, rejecting proposals for clemency even from Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the anti-red witch-hunter of his day. In 1921, the new President Warren Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served.

On the day he left prison, Debs nevertheless felt badly about leaving his fellow prisoners behind. “They trust me and depend on me,” he said to a friend, “and I hate to leave them.”

In his biography of Debs titled The Bending Cross, Ray Ginger writes that the warden suspended the rules on the day Debs was to be released, allowing the prison’s 2,300 convicts to:

crowd against the front wall of the huge prison building. Each chest became a sounding board. The ivied walls trembled with the vibrations from a shouted farewell. Eugene Debs turned and paused for a moment, facing his friends, tears streaming down his cheeks, his hat held immobile, high above his head.

Such was the power of Eugene Debs. After his release, he wrote a book in tribute to those he was incarcerated with, called Walls and Bars, which talks about prisons as warehouses for people who essentially suffer from the “crime” of poverty. His proposal rings true to this day: “Abolish the social system that makes the prison necessary and populates it with the victims of poverty.”

Socialists today stand proudly in the tradition of Debs, and take inspiration from his words from 100 years ago that remain as powerful as they ever were. Toward the end of his speech in Canton, Debs repeated the importance of being part of the socialist movement:

The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve — a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade.

It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born manhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister — and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

Further Reading

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