Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Eugene V(ictor) Debs
A banner headline over the 20 July 1921 issue of The Appeal to Reason read: PRESIDENT HARDING, FREE DEBS NOW! WHY THIS LONG DELAY? ACT!
Debs had been convicted in 1918 and sentenced to ten years in prison. The charge was that Debs was obstructing military recruiting (at a time when there was no danger of the U.S. lacking troops as they were raised by conscription, rather than by volunteers, in World War I). Debs was simply expressing free speech in encouraging people not to join in a stupid war that was actually a family quarrel among the interrelated crowns of Europe. Hundreds of people were labeled traitors and imprisoned for expressing these opinions. World War I was not mentioned in the speech he made in Canton, Ohio, that was used to condemn him, only words such as
“Wars have been waged for conquest, for plunder,” but neither the lords of ancient times nor the “Wall Street junkers go to war….only their miserable serfs.”
He also said in that speech, “Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? Why, we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born; and we are going to continue to fight it, day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth.”
“To speak for labor; to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil; to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privilege.”
“There are so many who seek refuge on the popular side of a great question. On account of that, I hope, as a Socialist, I have long since learned how to stand alone.”
By 1921, picketing for Debs to be released was widespread, and ex-veteran groups supported him, but President Wilson never relented. “I am not being kept a prisoner here for the speech I made at Canton in June 1918,” he said. “I am being kept here for the speeches I might make should I come out. I know that as well as I know my name. If I should get out of prison today I would continue my work on behalf of the workers, for Socialism, where I left off.” Perhaps someone at The New York Times had read those words as it seemed to echo: “The fact is, the Times wants Debs kept in jail, not for his wartime offenses, but for his socialistic opinions, which would turn the United States into another Russia.”
Invited to visit the U.S. to aid in the campaign for the release of Debs and other political prisoners, “George Bernard Shaw, the leading dramatist, critic and novelist of England who has been a hard-hitting radical all his life, replies: ‘What! Come to America! No, thank you. If they put Eugene V. Debs in prison for ten years for an extraordinarily mild remark, what would they do to me, who never open my mouth in public without saying things that would shock Eugene V. Debs to the bottom of his too tender heart? Electrocute me, perhaps.
“ ‘No, I know when I am safe; and that is out of America. You remember what I made the Kaiser say in my war play: “The statue of Liberty is in its proper place – on Liberty’s tomb.” Was I wrong?
“ ‘What a country! Afraid of Debs and proud of Dempsey! It’s too silly.’ ”
I still think the best translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Witter Bynner, and I was surprised to think how old that translation may be, as I find that Bynner wrote more than one verse, printed in the Appeal, in praise of Debs.
The Appeal printed a boxed article headlined DEBS’ THIRD BIRTHDAY IN PRISON:
“Eugene Victor Debs spent his 66th birthday (November 5) in Atlanta prison…According to Debs’ own estimate, however, he is only 26 years old. His real life – the life that counted – dated from his conversion to Socialism, Debs always said. ‘I became a Socialist in 1895,’ he would say, ‘and I never lived until I became a Socialist. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, I was born in 1895.’
“It was the smashing of the great American Railway Union strike by the political power of the capitalist state in the hands of Grover Cleveland, and the serving of a six months’ sentence in Woodstock jail, Chicago, for alleged violation of an injunction, that led Debs into the Socialist movement. He saw clearly, as a result of these events, that the workers must use their political as well as their economic power if they hope to emancipate themselves….Five times Debs has been the candidate of the Socialist party for President of the United States – in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. His last candidacy occurred while he was in prison … He began his sentence on April 13, 1919, in the state penitentiary at Moundsville, W. Va. Later he was transferred to the federal prison at Atlanta … Deb’s ideals are growing throughout the world. Men’s minds and hearts are turning more eagerly and earnestly toward peace and freedom, not as hypocritical slogans of a master class but as genuine realities of an emancipated race….”
When Thomas Welsh, a soldier in the Irish Republican Army, was released from the federal prison in Atlanta, confined there for carrying a letter to the U.S. “in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act,” he reported on his impressions: “Eugene V. Debs is the towering personality of Atlanta prison….Why this deference to Debs the Socialist? It is because he has refused every privilege offered to him that was denied to other prisoners; because he is the real spiritual counselor of the best and the worst of his prison fellows; because he has had the courage to go to the front on questions involving all of his fellows, and because around him has been built in their minds a tradition of real manhood that has inspired the conversion of what were regarded as incorrigible ‘bad men’ into model prisoners.
“A guard caught Debs one day speaking to another prisoner working in the yard – a violation of the rules. He reported Debs to the then deputy warden, Gregory, who ordered Debs sent to the ‘hole,’ a solitary confinement cell. The report ‘Debs has been sent to the hole’ flew around the penitentiary. Zerbst, the then warden heard it. He called Gregory to him and said: ‘Don’t you know that if that man went to the hole these men would pull this prison down brick by brick? Hereafter all reports about Debs come to me. He is MY prisoner.’ Debs did not go to the hole.
“When delicacies have come for Debs he has refused them because other prisoners could not receive similar kindnesses. But at Christmas time last year he received all that was sent to him because at that season all prisoners receive what is sent to them. Debs took everything and then distributed virtually all of his own gifts among those who received none. The rest he gave away in daily doles for two weeks to the patients in the prison hospital.
“Despite all reports to the contrary, Debs is treated exactly as any other prisoner – gets the same food; obeys the same rules. He gets up at 6:15; eats a breakfast of cereal, dry bread, and black coffee; cleans up his room (the state of his health causes him to live in the hospital, where he has a room, with an iron bed, an iron table and a chair), walks for an hour, returns to this room; eats a supper of beans, or bologna sausage or frankfurters and dry bread and black coffee, and returns to this room for the night. He has felt keenly the prison regulation that denies prisoners a bath except once a week, for he was accustomed to a daily bath.
“He was 66 years old recently and for a week before and a week after that event an average of 150 letters and telegrams from all over the country arrived to wish him well.
“Zerbst, the warden under President Wilson, thought very much of Debs. He believes him to be one of the best influences that ever entered into the prison life. This may be explained by stating the case of Sam Orr [elsewhere called “Sam Moore“], 50 years old, giant black man, who has served 30 years of a life sentence expiating a murder. Sam Orr was the worst of the bad men in the prison. Most of his 30 prison years he has spent in the ‘hole.’ Men were afraid of him. Debs arrived, discussed with him the consequences of his attitude, made Sam his friend, and Sam is now his devoted follower and an exemplar prisoner. … As for Orr, Debs told Welsh: ‘I would rather that man be given another chance in freedom than that I get out of this place myself.’ … Debs is a sick man. But he refuses to be pardoned on the ground of illness. He says he will tear up a pardon of this kind. He asserts he has committed no crime and that no conditions, therefore, shall be imposed upon his release….He doesn’t go to church, and I don’t know if he believes in any church, and I don’t care, for he is the finest Christian I have met in or out of prison. His Christianity makes a lot of professional exhorting look like a mockery. I have never heard him utter an evil or an unkind word of any one, and I have been probably his closest companion since I got to know him after I went to Atlanta.”
WHEN DEBS WAS RELEASED
“The journey of Eugene V. Debs from the Federal prison in Atlanta, Ga., to the national capital in Washington, D.C. [required of him by the attorney general] and then to his home in Terre Haute, Ind., is the most thrilling chapter in American history. From the minute the news of his release was flashed across the country, all the way along his wonderful trip of triumph and acclaim, the fact loomed hourly larger that Debs is the best loved man, the most challenging and significant figure in American today. The spontaneous ovations Debs received all along his way have no parallel in history. Everywhere he was greeted by admiring crowds, surrounded by loving comrades, the center of attraction and of homage. Men and women not of Debs’ belief, by the hundreds, rushed to clasp the hand of the most honest and courageous man in America today. Newspaper reporters and photographers besieged Debs constantly. President Harding [in a meeting the attorney general required of him] told Debs he admired his courage. Senator Borah told Debs that he undoubtedly has the cleanest conscience of any man in America today.…
“The moment the order from the White House for Debs’ release reached Atlanta prison, Warden Dyche personally communicated to Debs.
’Thank you, Mr. Warden, thank you,’ said Debs, who at the moment was in his little room in the prison hospital reading the morning newspaper. ‘I shall get out of your way now just as soon as I pack up my few personal possessions.’
“ ‘Well, you don’t have to be in any hurry, Mr. Debs,’ replied the warden, smiling. ‘You’ve been a good boarder.’ “
After a moment, Debs walked out into the ward, tears streaming down his face.
“ ‘What the hell! They ain’t turned you down again, have they, Mr. Debs?’ asked a prisoner.”
“ ‘No, not this time,’ said Debs, ‘and that’s what is the matter with me. I can find no voice, no words, to tell you, how sorry I am to leave you here. There is no joy in my going out when I know in my soul that many of you have loving wives and little children praying through the long nights that you will be returned to their arms. I am trying to tell you as simply as I can how much I love you, how deeply I regret, after all, to be obliged to leave you men here. I shall think of you all in every waking hour…I shall also try to emulate the spirit of loving kindness that I have seen manifested in this place when every circumstance seemed in conspiracy to defeat and destroy the finer side of men’s natures… Remember, boys, my address is just Eugene Debs, Terre Haute, Indiana, and I’m your friend if you ever need me.’ ”
“At every barred window of the prison stood groups of convicts this Christmas Day -- 2,300 men, and when the tall figure of Debs was seen to get into the warden’s automobile there was a roar from the throats of these men that could be heard for blocks. Debs repeatedly turned around and waved his hat to them as tears rolled down the furrows of his face.”
Debs was mysterious about why he had to go first to Washington, D.C. (having been ordered to report there before he was permitted to return to his home and his sick wife in Terre Haute, Indiana).
About to board the train to Washington, Debs passed the engineer who “was examining his locomotive, oil cup in hand.”
“ ‘My name is Debs,’ said Gene, gripping the big palm of the engineer.
“ ‘No, go on! You’re kidding.’
" ‘Yes, this is I,’ said Debs.
“ ’By Jesus, you’re the greatest man in the country,’ said the engineer. ‘I’ll take care of you, all right.’
“ ’ The second part of my life is just beginning,’ said Debs to friends who were now surrounding him in Washington. ‘You know I have just graduated from a college where I got full tuition, and I’m better equipped now to continue my work than before I was admitted to college.’ ”
Meeting with Attorney General Daugherty, Debs directed Daugherty’s attention to the cases of Sam Moore [AKA “Orr”] and other prisoners. In the hotel where he stayed, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, and others, visited him.. He was asked by reporters if he “had discussed with President Harding the question of his citizenship” -- lost, I suppose, because of his “federal crime.”
“ ‘No,’ said Debs, smiling. ‘although I am not now a citizen of the United States, I am a citizen of the World. A man who is convicted and sentenced to prison for his principles is always a citizen in good standing. He is a citizen of the World by virtue of his God-given, inherent sovereignty. The only man who loses his citizenship is he who renounces his principles, abdicates his manhood and becomes an apostate to his own soul.’
He told the reporters, “I hope that I left Atlanta prison a little more humanized than I found it when I entered it nearly three years ago. I can never begin to tell you, gentlemen, of the thousand kindnesses that have been paid to me by the prisoners themselves.”
The Indiana Socialists had hired the large dining room of the hotel, and Debs spoke to them:
“My Friends and Comrades: I feel more deeply touched than can be expressed in words, however well chosen, by this demonstration of kindness, sympathy and good will. I am beginning to feel at home again in the state of Indiana, where I was born. After a long absence I am going home to those with whom I have shared my lot and with whom I shall journey on, hand in hand, to the end.
“I am somewhat doubtful of the safety of making a speech since the world was made safe for democracy.
“My speeches are not considered with good favor, and the last speech I made in a neighboring state cost me a sentence of 10 years in prison, nearly three of which I have served … It is a sweet privilege to stand here in your presence, to look in your faces. I speak to you, not as a Socialist, not as a member of any party, or a partisan of any creed. I speak to you as a human being. One touch of nature makes us all kin. We may become divided because of our various experiences, sufferings and success in life, but at the roots, we are the same, and at the end of our life’s journey we come to dust.
“But it is through our different experiences and our various contacts with life that we arrive at a higher civilization. To stand before you in this peculiar way touches my heart and fills me with a sense of humility too deep to express in words. I can hear a heart throb in this spontaneous gathering, and I know that all of the hearts here have for this moment at least, been melted into one great heart….There is no touch of bitterness in my heart and no taint of hatred for any human being of earth.
“I hate only hate. I hate the capitalist system. I hate oppression and cruelty. You and I may differ as to ways in reaching a higher and nobler civilization. We may travel different paths, but we can clasp each other by the hand, and thus do justice to our common human nature. … It is necessary that we have free speech, free press and free assemblages. ... ‘By the eternal gods, I defy any human being on earth to close my lips with a threat or to seal my thoughts with a warrant.”
500 people gathered to hear him speak as he was in the Union Station in Washington about to board the train for Indiana when the press “requested him to say something to the public.” After he had spoken for 10 minutes, he said, “I want to say this in closing. I am opposed to war, and I shall continue to oppose human slaughter in any form and for whatever cause. Nothing in this world is more sacred to me than human life. We should so conduct ourselves toward our fellow man that when the time comes for us to lay down our burden we may face that dreamless sleep with a clear conscience and a warm heart. Love is the greatest force in the world, and love at last will save us all, and will write our names in imperishable letters on the scroll of time. “
At this point, two uniformed policemen began pushing the crowd in the rear. Another figure jostled through the crowd until he reached Debs: “Where is your permit to make a radical speech?” asked the man.
“I have merely said that love is the greatest force in the world.”
Settled in his train compartment, Debs said, “Why that was almost like a Socialist meeting. They let me speak until I said love was a great force.”
In the 3 June 1922 issue of the Appeal, I believe it is Debs who sums up the vision:
“The Socialist party is the party of the working class and the common people. It knows no race, no creed, no color, no sex. It is the political expression of the workers and of the growing determination of the people to be free.
”The appeal of the Socialist party is to the workers of all nations to rise in their might, throw off their chains, stand erect in their majesty, and proclaim themselves, the common people, the sovereign rulers of the world.
“The Socialist party proposes to take over the nation’s industries and secure to every man and woman, the inalienable right to work and to the product of their labor, and the right to every child to eat and grow and play and go to school and have the same chance with every other child to succeed in life and find happiness in personal freedom and social service.
“The Socialist party aims to establish a real democracy by socializing the means of life, such as the mines and mills, the railroads and factories, the steamships and docks, in a word, the productive and distributive industrial mechanism of the nation, which has been socially created and developed and is socially used and operated, and should in all human justice and common sense be socially owned and controlled for the common good of all, seeing that the freedom, the safety, the very lives of all are dependent upon it.
“And this is precisely why every profiteering pirate, every Wall Street robber, every gouging landlord, every sweater of child labor, every exploiter and plunderer, every servile retainer in the press and pulpit, and every greasy political hireling of every species is arrayed against it, and this alone is its triumph and vindication.
“Hail to the workers and the common people of America and the world! The Socialist party espouses your cause, holds aloft your banner, and fights your battles until the sun of an emancipated race lights the world.”