by Howie Hawkins

102 years ago on this day, June 16, Eugene Debs gave the speech in Canton, Ohio that the US government used to charge him with obstructing the recruitment of soldiers into the Army for World War I.

It was a speech about socialism that said nothing that Debs had not said many times before and only referred to the war once.

Debs was charged under the Espionage Act, which was used little after World War I until the Obama and Trump administrations, which have now used it to prosecute 12 whistleblowers and one journalist and publisher, Julian Assange.

Debs was sentenced to 10 years but only served 2½ years before his sentence was commuted by President Harding, who gave Debs a warm reception at the White House after his release.

Compare that to the time served by today’s whistleblowers:

  • Chelsea Manning, 7 years, for exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,
  • John Kiriakou, 2½ years, for exposing waterboarding torture,
  • Reality Winner, 5 years, for leaking a one-half page NSA intelligence summary of Russian probing of US election systems during the 2016 election, and
  • Terry Albury, 4 years, for exposing FBI racial, religious, and xenophobic biases in its domestic surveillance program.

If anything, the surveillance state we face today is even more dangerous than the repression that Debs and the antiwar movement faced during World War I. The surveillance capacity is much greater, the sentences have harsher, and the presidents have been less inclined to clemency in the form of a pardon or a commutation of sentence.

So in remembrance of Debs’ Canton speech, here are some excerpts that still ring true today.

Referring to socialists in jail for opposing the war, Debs 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. They may put those boys in jail—and some of the rest of us in jail—but they cannot put the Socialist movement in jail. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect, and for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind.

To those who might be wavering in the face of repression, Debs added:

There is but one thing you have to be concerned about, and that is that you keep foursquare with the principles of the international Socialist movement. It is only when you begin to compromise that trouble begins. So far as I am concerned, it does not matter what others may say, or think, or do, as long as I am sure that I am right with myself and the cause. There are so many who seek refuge in the popular side of a great question. As a socialist, I have long since learned how to stand alone.

I would add that in my experience, you may stand alone at first, but I have been in many movements where we started out a small minority—from the anti Vietnam War movement to the movement to ban fracking in New York—and in time won over a majority and won our demands.

Then Debs recounts the crimes of what he calls the plutocrats, crimes that included:

  • jailing socialists for making antiwar speeches,
  • firing Professor Scott Nearing from the University of Pennsylvania for teaching “sound economics,” which is to say socialist economics, and
  • corruption and even murder by the plutocrats’ police and criminal justice system.

And then Debs notes that these “criminals” are in good company:

The Man of Galilee, the Carpenter, the workingman who became the revolutionary agitator of his day soon found himself to be an undesirable citizen in the eyes of the ruling knaves, and they had him crucified.

Debs describes the typical capitalist in terms the sound like an exact description of Donald T. Trump:

How stupid and shortsighted the ruling class really is! Cupidity is stone blind. It has no vision. The greedy, profit-seeking exploiter cannot see beyond the end of his nose. He can see a chance for an “opening”; he is cunning enough to know what graft is and where it is, and how it can be secured, but vision he has none — not the slightest. He knows nothing of the great throbbing world that spreads out in all directions. He has no capacity for literature; no appreciation of art; no soul for beauty.

Referring to the socialist movement, Debs says:

It is the mightiest movement in the history of mankind. What a privilege to serve it! I have regretted a thousand times that I can do so little for the movement that has done so much for me. 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.

When Debs got to his antiwar message, he said:

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.

Debs ends his speech with an appeal for people to join the socialist cause:

Organize industrially and make your organization complete. Then unite in the Socialist Party. Vote as you strike and strike as you vote….

When we unite and act together on the industrial field and when we vote together on election day, we shall develop the supreme power of the one class that can and will bring permanent peace to the world….

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….

We are inviting—aye challenging—you this afternoon in the name of your own manhood and womanhood to join us and do your part.

The whole speech is worth reading. You can find it online.

Debs went on to win nearly 1 million votes for president running from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1920.

In 2020, 100 years later, let’s win over 1 million votes for socialism, demonstrate that the socialist movement is back, and keep on building the movement after the election.

Howie Hawkins 2020

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